Two planets, both alike in dignity,
In fair Drashani, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
John Dorney’s latest Big Finish adventure – the first of a trilogy featuring the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors – is, at least initially, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet.
Travelling alone, having temporarily left his companions Tegan and Nyssa behind in Amsterdam after the events of Arc of Infinity, the Doctor finds himself on a spaceship in the midst of the Drashani Empire; a galaxy-spanning civilisation caught up in a long and bloody civil war. Two noble houses, Gadarel and Sorsha, are fighting for the imperial throne, vacant for decades since the death of the mad Emperor. The wedding of star-crossed lovers Prince Kylo of Sorsha and the Gadarel Princess Aliona is intended to finally bring peace to the Empire, but behind the scenes, fanatics are plotting a very different outcome.
The Doctor’s arrival coincides with a sudden escalation of hostilities. Aliona’s wedding-barge has crashed on Sharnax, a remote and swampy planetoid and a rescue mission is underway. Unfortunately events aboard the rescue ship, where the TARDIS has landed, quickly degenerate, and the story becomes less Shakespeare, more Drashigs on a Plane – and that’s just the first episode!
Observations: Despite its simple premise, The Burning Prince is a rich and engaging story, featuring a judicious balance of political intrigue, personal drama and thrilling action sequences. A genetically engineered slave race running amok and the wayward use of psychic powers by a key character further enliven the narrative.
Dorney’s script is generally excellent; he quickly and efficiently establishes the tone and setting of the story with help from Martin Montague’s evocative sound design and Toby Hrycek-Robinson's dramatic score. The story’s numerous characters are also effectively introduced, including the non-nonsense Captain Shira (Caroline Langrishe); hot-tempered Prince Kylo (George Rainsford); elderly Tuvold (Clive Mantle), Aliona’s uncle and the Gadarel ambassador; conflicted Commander Corwyn (Dominic Rowan); the bigoted spaceship pilot Riga (Caroline Keiff); and solid, dependable trooper Tyron (Tim Treloar).
Not every character is written quite as effectively; Princess Aliona (Kirsty Besterman) comes across as somewhat two dimensional, an impression not helped by Besterman’s occasional overacting. Another minor script flaw is the introduction of a somewhat grating catchphrase, "Empire be praised!" uttered by most of the characters at one point or another during proceedings. It sounds extremely forced when first heard, though as events progress, the phrase takes on a more ominous, ironic tone.
Another flaw is the introduction of the adventure’s new monster. In episode one, a saboteur aboard the rescue ship releases a caged Igris, described somewhat floridly by Ambassador Tuvold as "an eight foot tall bipedal killing machine; a sabre-toothed emissary of death". The presence of such a beast aboard the rescue ship strains credibility, and even after an explanation for its presence is offered, it still seems a trifle unlikely.
The narrative itself is fast-paced and engaging; a judicious mix of action-adventure tropes, the occasional in-joke, and more than a hint of the pessimistic tone of such Fifth Doctor adventures as Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks. Director Ken Bentley keeps a tight lid on the story, and maintains the pace nicely. The action never flags across the four episodes; events swiftly propel the Doctor from one drama to another towards a particularly bleak climax.