STARS: Trevor Baxter, Christopher Benjamin , Louise Jameson, Conrad Asquith, Lisa Bowerman
WITH: Adrian Rawlins, Steven Miller, Lizzie Roper, Philip Pope, Flaminia Cinque, Brian Protheroe, Patrick Drury, Alex Mallinson.
Director: Lisa Bowerman
Sound Design + Music: Howard Carter.
Theme: Jamie Robertson
Cover Art: Tom Webster
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: Justin Richards
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Big Finish Productions
When the previous series of this long-running spin-off drew to a close, there was a massive game-changer that affected Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot. Having been declared as would-be assassins of the Queen, they had to go on the run and undercover.
The extrapolation of The Talons Of Weng Chiang's brilliant 'double act' - and the more stock types of characters they encounter in a manner that engages - is something that consistently manages to hit the mark. To have the vastly experienced Benjamin and Baxter - who utter every recorded line to perfection - is crucial. These leading men also manage to promote an ensemble dynamic with cast and crew, that ensures the stories feel sufficiently engaging.
My own anticipation for Series Seven was that some or all of the stories would involve the leads having to be on the run as part of the actual storylines, and probably having to resort to safety abroad. As it turns out, though, the production team opt for more of the same Victoriana mayhem that was prominent in most prior series. With the duo taking on different names and identities, but holding onto as many aspects of their real selves as possible, they somehow are able to inhabit their new lives somewhat convincingly.
There is good continuity and thematic clarity throughout. The first and third stories both often refer to the fictional detective that helped inspire Talons in the first place. However, they are distinct in style, and one does not rely on the other. The second story certainly could be placed in another season where the heroes are not on the run, but still works very well as a character piece that explores the cumulative pressure they have had to cope with. By contrast, the finale not only is kicked off by their 'arrest' for their 'crimes', but goes onto try and address those loose threads from Series Six.
1 - The Monstrous Menagerie by Jonathan Morris
Jago and Litefoot have obtained sanctuary at Baker Street, with some help from Professor Dark. They soon meet the famous scribe Arthur Conan Doyle, who has become extremely jaded with his trademark creation of Sherlock Holmes. They agree to taking on the 'roles' of Holmes and Watson, so as to help a woman called Laura Lyons who is facing supposed persecution by a certain Mr Baskerville.
Supernatural creatures soon make this whole affair a lot more complex than even the brilliant Conan Doyle could have envisaged..
Morris knows a thing or two about good Doctor Who, and its extended universe. I was impressed with his linking of well-known Conan Doyle stories to the events the author is entangled in. It has a lovely performance from Steven Miller as Conan Doyle. Suitably treacherous and single minded villains also make the story feel urgent and compelling.
2 - The Night of 1000 Stars by James Goss
Leela of the Sevateem has turned up (minus the Doctor) rather unexpectedly. Jago, Litefoot, and Ellie Higson must contain any delight when a dangerous entity forces them all to take shelter in their house on Baker Street. Various tales of the past begin to be told, but paranoia and suspicion also begin to take hold over the group of four.
Whilst the writer is a newcomer to the show this series, he nonetheless comes up with a gripping chiller here. Set in just one room for much of the running time, it is able to use sound effects and have a broader canvass. There is a frequent sense of an act being performed to an indistinct crowd.
Louise Jameson is as good as ever as Leela, but there is a different dynamic to her character which ties in with the story's resolution most satisfyingly. We also get to see the more deplorable aspects of our two title heroes, but this only goes to add depth and believability to them.
3 - Murder at Moorsey Manor by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris
Jago and Litefoot are now desperate to clear their name, and so visit Moorsey Manor. There, they encounter a rather varied group of eccentric people, and any one of those could be behind a gruesome events that ensues. The very finest deductive skill is needed from our two heroes as the body count rises further.
This is quite an enjoyable story, even if the eventual antagonist is portrayed in broad strokes, and a bit less interesting than the 'fake person' they had been beforehand. Also it can be hard to visualise the closing action scenes when they come around, making this feel perhaps somewhat belonging to another medium than audio.
4 - The Wax Princess by Justin Richards
Still seeking an all-important pardon from Queen Victoria, there is just the small matter of catching the fugitive Jack the Ripper for the duo. As one would fear, girls have begun to go missing again, and from Jago's very own New Regency Theatre. A dark plan eventually is unveiled, and one that could have catastrophic consequences for the British Empire, as a deceased heir to the Queen somehow is returning to life.
As with other finales from yesteryear, this is dramatic, fast paced and never loosens its grip. The Ripper is a difficult character to do 'wrong' creatively, and furthermore is brought to life by one of the guest cast. (But I dare not spoil who that is, as it provides a nice twist in the tale).
Documentary on Making The Show
Having been underwhelmed by some Big Finish documentaries, this edition does a lot to mend my belief. Courtesy of a generous running time of about 75 minutes, we hear from the team who have much experience by now of working together, but still are able to reflect and summarise their efforts in a fresh way. I particularly enjoyed the insight into rehearsals and getting to hear Lisa Bowerman's assertive direction.
The Sherlock Holmes themes recurring across 'Menagerie' and 'Moorsey Manor' are revealed to be through thematic coincidence, and not deliberate design. There also is some good explanation on how the leads are so crucial to the whole enterprise working, and how splitting them up too long is not a good idea in general.
Most notably, this extra feature showcases plenty of clips from other Big Finish stories, and they are inserted in a suitably organic manner. The excerpts help greatly in either jogging regulars' memories, or piquing the interest of those less familiar in seeking out those other stories.
This is a confident batch of stories, backed up by a clutch of behind the scenes' gems. Unlike other years' output, I cannot single out a 'weak link' and particularly enjoyed the first and final stories. As such then, this is the most consistently solid box set in the range I have thus far experienced.