Featuring the blustering, bombastic Sixth Doctor, as portrayed by Colin Baker, The Acheron Pulse is the second in a trilogy of recently released Big Finish audio adventures set in the Drashani Empire – a galaxy-spanning civilisation akin to a futuristic Rome, and like the Roman Empire, beset both by internal turmoil and external invaders.
In the first part of the trilogy, The Burning Prince, the Fifth Doctor found himself caught up in an interplanetary rescue mission to the swampy planetoid Sharnax, populated by marauding alien beasts known as the Igris – later revealed to be a rebellious, genetically engineered slave race.
Despite the Doctor’s involvement, the mission – intended to unite the Empire by ensuring a wedding between two warring noble houses – was not a success.
The Plot: Following the deaths of Princess Aliona of House Gadarel and her fiancée Prince Kylo of House Sorsha, in the skies over Sharnax, Aliona's infant cousin, Cheni Gadarel (Kirsty Besterman) was crowned Empress of the Drashani. Thirty years later, the Doctor – once again travelling alone – returns to the Empire, though a little later than he’d intended, in order to visit Empress Cheni and fulfil a promise made to a dying man. Landing on the relatively primitive planet of Cawdor, he is quickly caught up in a drama involving bloodthirsty native tribesmen, arrogant aliens who think themselves better than the local populace, and a monomaniacal, vengeance-obsessed foe.
For many years, under Cheni's rule, peace reigned. Now that peace is threatened by the Wrath – a mysterious race led by the sepulchral Lord Deliverer, Tenebris (James Wilby).
Wielding a dreadful weapon capable of laying waste to worlds – the Acheron Pulse – the Wrath seem intent on destroying the Empire completely, and only the Doctor stands in their way – as long as he can get away from the barbarian warriors who have taken him prisoner on Cawdor…
Observations: Compared to its predecessor, a tightly scripted and fast-paced adventure, The Acheron Pulse feels cumbersome and clumsy. Plot strands feel forced and predictable, and despite a technically proficient production overseen by director Ken Bentley, the story fails to generate tension and drama.
The script, by Rick Briggs, features characters so two dimensional that they’re virtually cartoonish, the most exaggerated of which is the barbarian warlord Athrid (Chook Sibtain), into whose hands the Doctor first falls when he lands on Cawdor. Reminiscent of King Yrcanos from The Trial of a Time Lord parts Five to Eight (aka Mindwarp) Athrid is quickly established as a violent buffoon; bloodthirsty and stupid but essentially decent, and certainly a potential ally for the Doctor – an impression which is jarringly contradicted by his sexual assault upon an incognito Empress Cheni in episode one.
Additional characters, including a minor Drashani envoy, Duhkin Stubbs (Joseph Kloska) and Cawdorian technician Teesha (Jane Slavin), as well as Tenebris himself, also lack definition and detail, though Jane Slavin does an excellent and engaging job as Teesha, Athrid’s strong-willed wife and battle-partner.
Uncomfortable sexual politics and thinly-written characters aside, the unlikely idea that an Empress would travel incognito to witness diplomatic negotiations between Cawdor and her Empire, when her Empire is under attack from a mysterious warlord, makes suspension of belief difficult, while at least one of the major plot threads – the defence of Cawdor by Teesha and Athrid’s barbarian horde – feels like filler. Even the main plot, involving the Doctor, Cheni and Tenebris (whose identity, when it is revealed, fails to surprise) elicits little in the way of suspense or narrative tension, while the lack of a regular companion means the listener needs to become emotionally invested in the lives and actions of the supporting cast – a challenge when the characters they play are so thinly drawn.
An additional subplot involving an alternate dimension, the Undervoid, and further revelations concerning the origins of the Wrath and the Igris, also fails to sustain interest, although it does provide Colin Baker with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the Sixth Doctor’s intelligence and arrogance, via a decision that will no doubt have devastating results come the final part of the trilogy.