Written By: Mark Ravenhill, Una McCormack, LM Myles, Nev Fountain
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs
Cast: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri), Jemma Churchill (Safira Valtris/Dr Maria Backhouse), Andy Secombe (Laris/Akros/Policeman), Allison McKenzie (Tondra/Dr Joan Dalton), Janet Henfrey (Dr Petherbridge), Jessica Knappett (Dr Ruth Horwitz), Paul Panting (Maylon/Geoff/Llangragen), Anjella Mackintosh (Standing/Olivia), Phil Mulryne (Trobe/Warma), Johnny Gibbon (Michael), Toby Fountain (Young Trobe)
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: Alan Barnes
Executive Producrs: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Released by Big Finish Productions - July 2014
Similar to the studio’s recent Companion Chronicles compilations, Big Finish’s Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories compiles together four bite-sized audio dramas, the narratives of which are united by a single thematic strand but otherwise serve as standalone affairs. Yet whereas June’s The Second Doctor Volume One box-set explored the ongoing personal journey of Jamie McCrimmon from aggressive Highlander to a seasoned, educated time traveller over the course of his tenure aboard the TARDIS, this Sixth Doctor-centric anthology takes a far more abstract approach, examining in detail the concept of perception from, quite aptly, a range of perspectives over the course of its two-hour running time.
As ever, rather than simply offering a sweeping, potentially misrepresentative verdict on the overall compilation from the outset, this reviewer shall examine each of the four contributory instalments making up Breaking Bubbles on a case-by-case basis before delivering a few broader thoughts on whether the box-set warrants a purchase at the piece’s conclusion. Read on, then, to discover whether a collection bold enough to base its title on one of the most popular TV shows in recent memory – though without stealing its inspired drug-addled premise or constructs, unfortunately – manages to reach the same colossal highs or falls woefully short of its loose namesake…
This first instalment’s action commences in an extraterrestrial botanical garden, only for LM Myles to gradually reveal that this rural environment forms but a single section of a prison ship carrying deadly, sentient cargo. Soon enough, the Doctor and Peri find themselves separated as they wrestle with whether the criminal status of Safira Valtris, a former emperor whose deposition from the throne prompted her to lead an illegal coup against her cousin, instantly labels her as foe rather than friend. This, along with the myriad holograms Ms. Valtris deploys to fool the Doctor long enough to halt his progress, in turn kicks the aforementioned uniting theme of perception into gear, albeit with enough subtlety that listeners won’t feel as if they’re being rammed over the head with regular references to the subject matter along the way.
In terms of the performances bolstering this particular outing, Jemma Churchill brilliantly conveys the moral ambiguity of Valtris’ personality, transitioning between her longing for freedom and her willingness to turn violent if necessary effortlessly as and when the script dictates, while Andy Secombe and Allison McKenzie do a perfectly fine job of presenting their police officers as characters whose control of the situation flies out of the window within moments of the narrative starting up, even if their dialogue doesn’t exactly offer them the world to work with aside from one sequence bringing McKenzie’s vengeful Tondra face to face with her prisoner. As for our leading man and lady, although Colin Baker’s Doctor doesn’t serve much of a significant narrative purpose in this instance beyond searching for the now-captive Peri within the ship’s deceptive corridors, Nicola Bryant resultantly gets plenty of time to shine, depicting her oft-dismissed companion as one who’s completely capable of holding her own in the absence of her Time Lord ally, subtly manipulating Valtris so as to ensure both her own survival as well as that of the ship’s other inhabitants.
“Breaking Bubbles” won’t set the world alight and certainly didn’t earn itself many awards for Best Audio Drama back in 2014, but as a morally complex vignette intended to get proceedings underway in psychologically intriguing fashion, as well as a showcase of the enduring performing talents of Bryant along with her memorable one-off co-stars, it’s as fine a storyline as almost any produced by Big Finish to date.
“Of Chaos Time The”:
No, this reviewer hasn’t lost his ability to structure his sentences correctly; in fact, the bizarre syntax of this second instalment’s title factors directly into the piece’s utterly surreal narrative. Right from the off, it’s impossible not to recognise shades of Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow and the sequence involving the Eleventh Doctor regressing through his personal timeline in The Big Bang, as the Sixth Doctor navigates his warped chronology, jumping between his efforts to prevent a potentially catastrophic explosion and his investigation with Peri into an alien hospital for wounded victims of war, all taking place as part of an irksome time loop. One could argue we’ve seen this style of narrative structure before, yet given that he manages to throw Baker’s incarnation into an all manner of stake-laden situations during his efforts to set time back on course, writer Mark Ravenhill certainly can’t be accused of a lack of creative innovation in this instance.
What’s more, whilst too rarely are Baker’s immense talents as an audio performer given due praise, they can’t possibly be overlooked here, since the recent I’m a Celebrity contestant’s latest turn as his Doctor all but holds the tale together, ensuring listeners have a logical through-line to enable their comprehension of the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey events occurring. Just as importantly, though, he displays a level of sympathy towards innocent bystanders that his incarnation only infrequently exhibited on-screen during his 1980s tenure aboard the TARDIS, all but guaranteeing – with the help of Ravenhill’s engaging dialogue, of course – that even those sceptics who couldn’t get on with Peter Davison’s successor and Sylvester McCoy’s predecessor during his televised days will have a riot of a time here regardless.
Anyone looking for a work of science-fiction which realigns their entire perspective on the genre had best look elsewhere, yet anyone who’s often been unsure why the Sixth Doctor’s Big Finish storylines are held in such high esteem compared to their televised counterparts could do far worse than to start with this accomplished sophomore outing.
“An Eye For Murder”:
Based in a women’s college enduring the early days of the Second World War, “An Eye for Murder” tasks the Doctor and Peri with investigating the unexplained deaths of several scientists after a case of mistaken identity leads the principal to confuse Nicola Bryant’s character with a famous contemporary novelist, Miss Sarah Perry, and in doing so hilariously assume the Doctor to be her typewriting, ideally silent companion as opposed to the flamboyant, argumentative charmer fans came to know and – for the most part – adore during his original 1984-1986 tenure at the TARDIS’ helm. This time around, the thematic strand of perception manifests itself via a device capable of rendering objects nigh on invisible, although to reveal much more would be to delve firmly into spoiler territory.
With all of that being said, despite drafting a compelling first half laden with intrigue and poignancy as the war’s commencement in Britain is announced over the radio airwaves, Una McCormack unfortunately botches her standalone plot’s denouement, doing away with much of the impressive subtlety of the opening 15 minutes by introducing an all-manner of clunky sci-fi jargon later on as well as attempting to add substantial stakes to what was otherwise a captivating work of personal drama. Whereas the anthology’s other three stories could easily have formed captivating one-hour spanning audio releases in their own right, that “Eye” wraps itself up in the space of 30 minutes seems like an overwhelmingly merciful move in comparison, which is a crying shame to say the least.
True to form, though, Jemma Churchill shines once again in breathing more life into her character than the flawed script allows, endowing Dr Maria Backhouse with the necessary authority to lead St Ursula’s College through the dark times of this global conflict, with Allison McKenzie, Janet Henfrey and Jessica Knappett providing ample support as doctors Dalton, Petherbridge and Horwitz respectively despite their comparatively minimal airtime. Neither Baker nor Bryant quite receives the same level of accomplished material as what they’re offered elsewhere in the set, but in fairness, their wholly competent turns are – combined with the stellar other performances – more than enough to keep the listening experience feeling relatively immersive, even in spite of the structural flaws at this disappointing third chapter’s very core.
“The Curious Incident of the Doctor in the Night-Time”:
As if it wasn’t already audacious enough to play on the success of Breaking Bad in selecting their latest anthology’s name, Big Finish go one step further here, allowing Nev Fountain to take direct titular inspiration from Mark Haddon’s beloved young adult novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for his contribution. In fact, Fountain evidently has a substantial degree of admiration for Haddon’s work, at least judging by his simultaneous decision to base his narrative around a similarly innocent and inquisitive autistic protagonist whose quest to solve the mystery surrounding his father’s supposed demise – not to mention the appearance of a never-before-seen garden gnome on his family’s front lawn – forms the bulk of proceedings rather than serving as a mere sub-plot to the TARDIS crew’s latest escapades.
Had a complacent thespian taking on this potentially controversial leading role, then “Curious Incident” could easily have come off as downright disrespectful towards members of the real-world autistic community; thank goodness for Johnny Gibbon, then, who offers up by far Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories’ finest performance, perfectly channelling all of the endearing innocence, misunderstood intelligence and emotional fragility that are often associated with the psychological condition with award-worthy accuracy. Working in tandem with Fountain’s layered dialogue – as well as sparring against Baker’s Doctor like there’s no tomorrow – Gibbon goes so far as to offer a profound insight into the mental intricacies of living with autism, yet without ever daring to oversimplify the ramifications such a lifestyle can have for both the individual in question as well as for their loved ones.
Indeed, Fountain isn’t afraid to touch on a wealth of delicate issues such as grief, the feasibility of the conceptual afterlife and human perception of the psychological unknown as his superbly scripted narrative progresses. It’s tough not to resultantly wonder whether “Curious Incident” might have been better suited by a long-form format along the lines of a standard Big Finish title’s one-hour running time or even as a novel akin to Mark Haddon’s equally impactful tome, as opposed to the short story we receive here, yet any work of fiction that leaves the audience gagging for more should equally be applauded more than anything else.
Despite hitting a snag with its ill-structured penultimate instalment, Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories provides two hours of sure-fire entertainment which are bound to satisfy both long-term Sixth Doctor devotees as well as those who want to warm to Baker’s divisive incarnation all these years later. “Curious Incident” ranks without question as the anthology’s finest hour, but it’s testament to both the writing talents of Myles and Ravenhill as well as the stellar turns offered by Baker, Bryant and their wealth of accomplished supporting players that “Breaking Bubbles” and “Of Chaos Time The” alike still impress in almost equal measure, thereby making the collection as a whole more than worth just about any Doctor Who enthusiast’s hard-earned time and cash.