The Flames of Cadiz (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 18 February 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

The Flames of Cadiz
Big Finish Productions
Written by Marc Platt
Directed by: Lisa Bowerman
Released January 2013
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains spoilers.

From the point of view of early Doctor Who's production history, Spain in the 1580s was what London in 1963 was to the TARDIS travellers in its first two seasons: attempts were made at several points to programme this destination into the schedule, but the TARDIS stubbornly failed to materialise there. Shortly before he left the position of story editor in 1964, David Whitaker had envisaged that he would write a story for the 1964/65 run set in Spain after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, departing the staff with BBC library books on the subject under his arm. He renewed this proposal early in 1966, only to be rebuffed by Gerry Davis. Nothing is known about the storyline, though several years ago Daniel O'Mahony made a commendable reconstruction for the website of the fanzine Circus based on Whitaker's known interests and story structuring, now sadly lost to the internet.

The Flames of Cadiz is haunted by Whitaker's idea, but if anything it is a prequel to it. Whitaker intended to set the Doctor down in a Spain troubled by the failure of the Armada, but Marc Platt places the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan in a Spain preparing for the maritime assault on protestant England. Not only does this mean that a huge fleet is being assembled off Cadiz, but Spain itself is undergoing religious purification as government, church and mob turn on the descendants of Muslim converts to Christianity. The last Islamic state in Spain, the emirate of Granada, was conquered in 1492 by the husband and wife 'Catholic monarchs' Ferdinand and Isabella, whose marriage brought together the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and thus the larger part of the Iberian peninsula. Their conquest of Granada was first accompanied by a promise of religious liberty for Muslims, but this was soon withdrawn and Muslims - and Jews - compelled either to become Roman Catholics or leave. The descendants of those who converted, known as moriscos (meaning 'moorish', pertaining to a North African, especially a Muslim) were frequently suspected of practising Islam in secret and persecuted.

The theme of discrimination and violent oppression against one or more minorities was very much live in the 1960s Britain from which Ian and Barbara and from which this Companion Chronicle samples its Doctor Who. Inevitably with a production made nearly half a century later, the concept has undergone a remix. This isn't to the advantage of The Flames of Cadiz. Platt seems to interpret the persecution of the moriscos as a direct parallel to oppression of the Afro-Caribbean community in Britain or of African-Americans in the United States. Esteban is specifically described as dark-skinned in a manner which contrasts him with the surrounding population of southern Spain. The burning of his home is reminiscent of arson attacks on African-American homes in the southern United States before and during the Civil Rights campaign. It could be taken for a neat parallel, were it not misleading. The moriscos were not immigrants, but had similar ancestry to their Christian neighbours. Just as the king of Spain could justify his invasion of England on the grounds that he was bringing the country back to the true faith - Roman Catholicism - at the request of a persecuted Catholic minority, so he feared that the moriscos would assist an invasion of Spain by the leading power in the Mediterranean, the Ottoman Empire. There is a dramatic irony here missed, unless Ian's farewell to Esteban, “Go home to Morocco,” is intended as an echo of white British calls for the 'repatriation' of their non-white neighbours.

There's some entertainment from spotting the allusions to broadcast Doctor Who historicals. There are plot beats borrowed from The Reign of Terror and The Crusade, and the central conceit expands upon the famous “You can not change history! Not one line!” from The Aztecs, as well as underline the fallibility of the first Doctor. Problematically, though, this never gets beyond feeling like a pastiche, and while this isn't in itself a bad thing, as much of Doctor Who is pastiche, The Flames of Cadiz isn't particularly successful pastiche. If Doctor Who's strengths have included genre pastiche as commentary, then this fails on that account partly for the aforementioned misunderstanding of the historical context of the story. It plays with school history and national mythology, in the latter case to a greater degree than its 1960s inspirations, and its portrayal of Sir Francis Drake is predictably unheroic. The cross-dressing propagandist Don Miguel, who is also an agent buying provisions for the Spanish Armada, is revealed through hints of decreasing subtlety to be perhaps the greatest figure in Spanish literature. The tilting at windmills line is surely calculated to inspire a groan.

It's good to hear William Russell and Carole Ann Ford again, of course, and there are doubtless fans wondering when this reminiscence by Ian and Susan takes place. Is there a metafictional Time Lord researcher compiling interviews with the Doctor's companions, one wonders? The appropriation of aspects of William Russell's background for Ian doesn't convince, however, and it's unclear what the story seeks by its adoption of Ian's “I take things as they come” line from An Unearthly Child as a motif, beyond the confounding of the prejudices of both Ian and the Doctor. Nabil Elhouahabi as the morisco Esteban has little to do with a misconceived role.

Given the track record of those involved, especially Marc Platt whose Spare Parts remains one of the highlights of the Big Finish range, I feel I might have missed something about this story. The Flames of Cadiz fails to engross, but that's as much a flaw of the semi-dramatised format as anything particular to the story itself. There is much to-ing and fro-ing with little development. It's not surprising that Big Finish are retiring the Companion Chronicles format, as this blend of retelling and dramatised extract feels too much like an abridged soundtrack album, and the story is too long for this model.