There’s something charmingly innocent about the concept of a horde of alien toddlers exploring the deepest recesses of the TARDIS in order to simply learn more of the unknown (not least due to the high-pitched voice of their leader) – and something inherently hilarious about the characteristically melodramatic and agitated reaction offered by Colin Baker’s incarnation of the Doctor – yet as is virtually always the case in narratives taking place within the so-called Whoniverse, the situation turns sour in a matter of moments. Flip is taken hostage by those same individuals who claimed themselves to pose “no danger” whatsoever, while her self-appointed protector is forced to take refuge on a damaged space yacht – and, soon enough, the planet Asphya itself – with an amnesia-prone female humanoid who can’t remember her own name, let alone her dark history or the influence it’ll have on events to come.
In spite of the commendable sense of scale conveyed by these initial eventful set-pieces, Brood’s narrative comes to focus far more on psychological demons than it does physical antagonists, a rare attribute which previously worked to great effect in televised serials such as 42 and Midnight and which certainly doesn’t do the story any harm in terms of building the intrigue surrounding its constructs and the somehow-sentient moon of Erys. Central to writer Andrew Smith’s prolonged investigation of the inner workings of the mind is this notion of an intelligent planetoid and the ramifications its sudden (or gradual) metamorphosis could have for its inhabitants. Of course, as plot elements go, a sentient moon is by no means a completely original addition to the series’ lore (although one might argue that nearly fifty-one years on from November 23rd, 1963, it’s nigh-on impossible for today’s scribes to give birth to wholly unique antagonists) – The Doctor’s Wife’s House comes to mind as a recent example of how such a conceit can be implemented efficiently within the realms of modern science-fiction (and, indeed, modern Who) – so it’s a great relief to see Smith take such a contrasting approach to his predecessors, intertwining the arcs of the aforementioned amnesiac, the Drachee (who offer up an all manner of simultaneously humorous and quasi-philosophical insights into the current predicament facing Erys and the system as a whole) and the spherical landmass which gives this particular audio drama its name to such an extent that one can’t fail to be swept up by the mystery surrounding both of them.
That said, while Smith undoubtedly manages to subvert expectations of the traditional representation of adversaries who attack via the mind rather than through any physical manifestation, Brian Shelley’s voice work as the mental embodiment of Erys isn’t quite so successful in this regard. Sure, there’s genuine enthusiasm and vigour present in Shelley’s portrayal of one of the more abstract (and therefore challenging) forces conceived by the minds of Big Finish in recent years, but when it’s juxtaposed with Michael Sheen’s chilling vocal contribution to Neil Gaiman’s aforementioned 2011 TV story, it’s all but pointless to attempt to argue that the former performance is anywhere near as memorable or layered – instead, it comes off as rather derivative, as if Shelley has dedicated a considerable amount of his spare time to watching psychologically investigative serials like The Brain of Morbius in order to hone his contribution to the ever-expanding world of Doctor Who spin-offs (if such a term can even begin to do justice to the increasingly accomplished and ambitious work of Big Finish and its various writing teams) rather than focusing on putting his own engaging spin on the dialogue afforded to him in the notably generous script (that several scenes rely wholly on his ability to match and / or surpass Lisa Greenwood’s evident enduring passion and conviction doesn’t help matters either).
If Shelley is the play’s weakest link, then Baker and Greenwood are easily the two central components which (in tandem with the near-unparalleled intelligence of Smith’s delicately-structured and thematically subversive storyline) hold it all together. Both of these talented thespians have had more than enough time to develop their portrayals and to tailor them to cater for the preferences of Big Finish’s constantly expanding Doctor Who-orientated fandom and, unsurprisingly, they’ve done so with enviable ease, to the extent that they’re now seemingly able to transform even the most exposition-centric sequences into dramatically engaging exchanges that reward the attentive listener in unexpected ways regardless of whether or not they feed directly into the narrative’s denouement. The sixth Doctor in particular is taken completely and utterly out of his comfort zone as the situation at hand shifts out of his control and unseen forces manipulate proceedings in order to suit their own ends, instantly enabling Baker to flex his performing muscles as his character’s increasingly desperate attempts to rally against his newfound nemeses begin to seem more and more futile.
After months upon months of mediocrity, then, Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio dramas may well have found their footing once again with The Brood of Erys. Andrew Smith – unlike several of his esteemed predecessors - doesn’t rely on the series’ past tropes in order to strengthen the credibility of his tale, nor does he integrate needlessly contrived references to classic or modern serials in a similar vein to those scribes who fear that they’ll lose their listeners’ attention should they neglect to include such call-backs in the mix. There’s still room to improve in future sixth Doctor productions, of course – perhaps it’d be worth Smith becoming more involved with the casting process when it comes to selecting a truly accomplished voice actor to portray his next storyline’s central antagonist, since Brood’s brilliantly subversive script certainly more than warranted such talent – but to paraphrase John Hurt’s already-beloved War Doctor, for now, for this moment, this is the show we’ve come to know and love again.