Written By: Philip Lawrence
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Producer: Michael Stevens
Script Editor: Michael Stevens
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery & Nicholas Briggs
Cast: Frazer Hines (Narrator)
Released By Big Finish Productions - February 2015
“It resembled a suit of armour perched on top of a small tank; its gauntlets were vicious pinchers that crackled with sparks; the head was shaped like a large, overhanging hood, but underneath, covering the dark recess where you would expect to see a face, was a metal grille. This was an Enforcer, and it wasn’t friendly.”
If you’ve been enjoying how Titan’s Fourth Doctor miniseries has cunningly integrated Ancient Greek mythology into its “Gaze of the Medusa” arc, then the second of Big Finish’s Short Trips outings released in 2015, Little Doctors, is worth a look thanks to its delving straight into the realms of Olympus – albeit a futuristic human colony-turned-homage to the classic city – via the watchful eyes of the iconic deity known as Zeus. As with Dale Smith’s January 2015 title Flywheel Revolution, Philip Lawrence wastes no time in creating an immersive world full of societal depth and compelling characters, detailing the points-based currency system at Olympus’ very core along with the jobs, past-times and fake historical mementos of Zeus’ citizens as if his life depended on this. That said, it’s to his equal credit that he always endeavours to ensure these spouts of background information don’t detract too much attention from the core narrative…when said narrative actually kicks into gear.
Had Lawrence structured his storyline in more of a fast-paced fashion akin to Smith’s approach in the previous release, then listeners would almost certainly have been guaranteed to feel every inch as hooked as this reviewer was with Flywheel. Instead, even by the time of Little Doctors’ halfway point, there’s little sense of precisely where the storyline’s heading – and trust us, that’s a criticism rather than a commendation in this case – beyond the Second Doctor, Zoe and Jamie’s investigation into the causes of the “drab apparel” of the city and its inhabitants, a plotline which produces an interesting message that’s extremely topical in our present terrorism-plagued world, but isn’t developed nearly enough to be especially satisfying as a whole. It’s never a great sign when the writer needlessly pads out a narrative when attempting to fill a mere 30 minutes of airtime compared to the usual 60-80 comprising standard Big Finish releases, and while Lawrence might have simply employed this strategy in order to allow for the necessary world-building at first – which, as we say, thankfully takes a backseat to the central plot once it finally gets moving – there’s a fair deal of patience required here before the relevance of this piece’s title – or even the threat facing our protagonists in the form of the Enforcers as well as a semi-rogue artificial intelligence – becomes clear in absurd fashion.
Whereas Peter Purves’ solitary purpose in Flywheel Revolution was simply to complement Smith’s already superb narrative with a diverse array of robotic and extraterrestrial voices, then, there’s all the more pressure on Frazer Hines to liven up a slow-moving narrative by successfully conveying the humorously logically unhinged set-pieces awaiting the audience in the third act, maintaining his much-acclaimed impression of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor and keeping a straight face when detailing how this cherished incarnation of the Time Lord employs one of his most iconic gadgets from the 1960s to best the army of facsimile versions of himself presently laying siege to the city for reasons too convoluted to outline here. True to form, though, Hines excels in each of these respects, bringing all of the customary energy and underlying wit to proceedings for which he’s become well-known based on his myriad previous contributions to Big Finish’s output under the Doctor Who licence. As with just about any flawed storyline, Hines’ performance isn’t quite enough to render Little Doctors as an unmissable purchase, yet that the 71-year-old Scottish great comes so close in this regard just goes to show how invaluable an asset he must still represent in the eyes of the studio.
In sharp contrast to Flywheel, the same can fortunately be said of the team responsible for orchestrating this disappointingly plotted instalment’s fantastic score, which seamlessly transitions from wonder-filled melodies intended to help portray the sprawling, initially breath-taking nature of Olympus’ scenery to far darker tones when Zoe has to navigate the city’s off-limits recesses in order to barter with the AI responsible for keeping its citizens’ aspirations in check. This reviewer has, in the past, noted that it’s hardly difficult to overlook the work undertaken by the technical experts involved with Big Finish’s audio dramas, but when the musical accompanies to one of their standalone narratives prove as spellbinding as these, it’s all but impossible not for us to take note, especially when the relevant storyline itself fails so greatly to impress – particularly from a structural standpoint – in comparison to this finely honed behind-the-scenes element.
Nevertheless, if asked to decide between wholly endorsing Flywheel or its immediate successor, this reviewer would find it similarly impossible to opt for any choice but the former. Every range must have its peaks and troughs of course, Short Trips undoubtedly included, yet given how sizable an impact Smith’s stunning junkyard-set title made the month before Little Doctors’ release, to witness Lawrence’s follow-up tale take such a notable step backwards in terms of structural and overall storytelling prowess is unpleasantly jarring to say the very least. There’s absolutely reason to take a listen in the form of Hines’ brilliant voice-work as well as the oft-majestic backing soundtrack and no doubt future releases will improve in providing more compelling narratives, but that doesn’t prevent this sophomore outing from representing a missed opportunity to capitalize on its mythological roots with a well-rounded mini-epic rather than the ill-paced vignette we’ve received here instead.
On the bright side, though, the third stop on our journey through 2015’s Short Trips adventures sounds far more entertaining – join us for a trip back to the days of UNIT as the Third Doctor tackles a mystery not dissimilar to that posed in 2009’s Planet of the Dead with the help of playwright Nigel Fairs, Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier and a certain Ms. Grant…