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Monday, 3 March 2014 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton

Gallifrey V
Produced by Big Finish
Written by James Peaty, Una McCormack and David Llewellyn
Directed by Gary Russell
Released: February 2013
Gallifrey V has all the makings of a classic Big Finish drama. Packed to the brim with familiar faces from Doctor Who’s past, this three-episode boxset’s cast ensemble represents a formidable Who’s Who (if you’ll pardon the pun) of talent from the show’s classic and modern incarnations. A well-rounded ensemble, however, is far from a guarantee of a entertainment release’s success (catch last year’s dire sketch comedy Movie 43 and the truth of the matter will become abundantly clear), and in the case of this fifth season of pre-Time War incursions with the Doctor’s race, plenty comes to mind which could (and should) have been altered for the better.

This reviewer can imagine few pre-21st Century fans who would wholeheartedly reject the opportunity of spending further time in the company of Lalla Ward’s Romana or indeed Louise Jameson’s Leela, yet the former companion is cruelly short-changed throughout, her sequences as President of the Time Lords largely boiling down to uninspiring political jargon and the odd ‘rousing’ speech to her High Council cohorts in the midst of their race’s entrance into an alternate dimension. Before any viewer who has recently been thrilled by The Day of the Doctor anticipates an insight into the ongoing conflict of the Keepers of Time whilst trapped in a pocket dimension, they should be reminded that James Peaty, Una McCormack and David Llewellyn wrote their respective episodes of this spin-off long before the 50th Anniversary Special’s broadcast, and as such- barring a few refreshing references to a certain impending war with the Daleks - there’s nothing new to be gained here in that regard.

To her credit, Jameson fares considerably better in her return to the role of everyone’s favourite savage, in no small part thanks to Leela’s contribution to proceedings closely resembling that of The Invasion of Time, whereby the character finds herself separated from the planet’s core society and so subsequently must find her own way to further benefit Gallifrey in some shape or form. Enter The Sarah Jane AdventuresAnji Mohindra, a perfect fit for the mysterious Outsider Maris, whose importance in terms of evolving Leela’s character arc becomes evident as the season’s opening instalment Emancipation and particularly its successor Evolution progress the overarching narrative towards its compelling final act. That a one-off bout on Casualty and appearances in BBC Three’s Some Girls have marked Anji’s only notable TV performances since Elisabeth Sladen’s passing is utterly criminal, yet the actress who gave us Rani Chandra displays promise in multitudes as Maris, making her a potent candidate for future roles in the Big Finish range if nothing else.

Had more performances from the diverse array of guest stars matched Anji’s incredible standard, then perhaps Season Five would have been presented with a greater chance of overall success, but as it is, Sean Carlsen (Narvin), Peter Sheward (Slyne) and Scott Arthur (Lukas) each either lack charisma in their portrayals or are restrained by lacklustre dialogue from the series’ latest scribes, and their Outsider counterparts don’t handle the material with much aplomb either. The other solitary exception, then, is Simon Fisher-Becker. Best known by Doctor Who fans for his recurring role as Dorium in the Steven Moffat years, Simon’s Science Minister Kavil is a breath of fresh, comic air into an oft-soulless run, ever the charmer and cavorter of the party and a superb example of British talent to boot. In much the same vein as Anji, should Simon ever feel the inclination to take up the offer of a further role in Big Finish’s Doctor Who ranges or elsewhere, we regular listeners shan’t discourage him from doing so.

Any reader approaching this review with even a mild interest in pursuing the Gallifrey range has no doubt already learned of the nature of the season’s cliffhanger, but for those still unaware of the narrative’s final development, suffice to say that it is an immensely tense and thus satisfying teaser for the series’ final run. Indeed, if each of the three episodes on offer here presented listeners with a similarly engaging climactic sequence, the box-set as a whole would warrant far greater recommendation than it does in reality. As it is, its narrative is varied such that despite its merits, the final scene itself acts as a jarring tonal juxtaposition to everything that’s come before, therefore highlighting rather than concealing the inherently tedious nature of proceedings this time around. What might- in another dimension- have once acted as a simultaneously captivating and tonally cohesive denouement, then, instead acts only as the instigator of the disconcerting rhetorical dilemma as to quite why the ensuing level of tension and anticipation for future storylines only emerges in Season Five’s closing stages, rather than remaining a constant factor worthy of praise from start to finish.

Quite honestly, that final dilemma was the most prevalent resulting impact of Gallifrey V on this reviewer. Given that the notion of exploring the Doctor’s home planet before its destruction (and indeed its resurrection not too long ago) remains such an exhilarating prospect, and one arguably never truly fulfilled on-screen save for The Deadly Assassin, the writing team’s caution towards stepping beyond the frontiers of political drama here is confusing to say the least, particularly in light of the lukewarm reception to The Trial of a Time Lord’s similar approach. Hope may at least reside- in Louise, Anji and Simon’s performances, as well as Arbitration’s climax- that Big Finish can turn the tide in order to ensure that the Gallifrey range ends on a high, but a misstep so noteworthy at this late stage in the game bodes ill indeed. The Doctor’s “new destination” may well be his revived home planet, yet if the quality of his show’s latest spin-off continues to decline at this rate, then he needn’t bother commencing his search anytime soon.