In televised Doctor Who episodes, we rarely see the after-effect of the Doctor’s travels on the planets and peoples he visits. There are notable exceptions, of course, including the rise of the Monoids in The Ark (1966); Xoanon, the computer left with a split personality after the Doctor’s previous attempt to repair it in The Face of Evil (1977); the damaging consequences of the Time Lord’s visit to Satellite Five in The Long Game (2005); and in A Good Man Goes to War (2012), Lorna Bucket’s ultimately fatal devotion to the Doctor years after meeting him briefly as a child. But usually, once the Doctor has stepped through the doors of the TARDIS, he leaves any repercussions from his latest adventure behind him.
Not so in Big Finish’s recent Drashani Empire trilogy. Beginning with the Fifth Doctor story, The Burning Prince, continuing with Sixth Doctor adventure The Acheron Pulse, and now concluding with Seventh Doctor story The Shadow Heart, these three audio adventures allow us to witness just how drastic the Doctor’s meddling can be, not just for individuals, but entire civilisations – making the Time Lords’ notorious policy of non-intervention seem rather justified.
The Plot: Written by Jonathan Morris, The Shadow Heart is set some 50 years after the events of The Acheron Pulse, making it 80 years since the Fifth Doctor first blundered aboard a Drashani spaceship bound for the swampy planetoid, Sharnax. Much has happened over the intervening decades, including the destruction of the Drashani Empire itself, at the hands of the alien marauders known as the Wrath. Despite (or more accurately, because of) the Doctor reprogramming them as a force for good at the conclusion of the previous adventure, the Wrath have since spread out across the stars, maintaining their own strict definition of justice and destroying any planet which does not live up to their own exacting standards. Now the Wrath are expanding into new territory, and only the Earth Empire stands in their way.
On the planet Temperance, the TARDIS materialises in the midst of a sleazy bar known as Starbaff’s, much to the displeasure of the publican, who dogmatically maintains (despite evidence to the contrary) that his is ‘a respectable establishment’. Moments later the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) staggers out the TARDIS doors, chest smoking from a laser blast, and collapses at the feet of scrap merchants Talbar (Eve Karpf) and Horval (Alex Mallinson), a pair of loveable rogues reminiscent of Garron and Unstoffe (The Ribos Operation) or Glitz and Dibber (The Trial of a Time Lord). The conniving pair take the injured Time Lord to safety, only to learn firsthand that involving oneself in the Doctor’s affairs is to invite trouble – which in this instance comes in the determined form of bounty hunter Vienna Salavatori (Chase Masterson).
Events quickly escalate. Salavatori has not one but two employers, and is intent on playing them off against each other for her own gain. One of her employers is the Wrath – the other is a shadowy figure from the Wrath’s past whom they also seek revenge upon. The fate of all will be decided within the walls of the Imperial Fortress on the Wrath’s homeworld – the Shadow Heart.
Observations: Just as the first two stories in this trilogy were dramatically dissimilar to each other, The Shadow Heart is different again to its predecessors. Whereas The Burning Prince was a fast-paced action/survival story, and The Acheron Pulse was a somewhat underwhelming space opera, here Jonathan Morris has given us an inventive, playful, and chronologically convoluted story that acknowledges and incorporates the popular perception of the Seventh Doctor as puckish, inquisitive, and manipulative.
Obviously a writer who delights in language, Morris peppers his script with smart continuity references, such as a comment about the marsh-moon of Magros 5 stinking like ‘an Ogron’s armpit’; narratively, this adventure should appeal to viewers who enjoy the timey-wimey structure of Steven Moffat’s television screenplays – the Doctor experiences the events of The Shadow Heart in a very different order to the listener, and is usually, though not always, one step ahead of the other protagonists.
Of the many highlights in Morris’s detailed vision of the Doctor Who universe, his most engaging creation in this story is Talbar and Horval’s unique means of transport – Hercules, a stellar ammonite, or ‘space snail’ in layman’s terms. A giant space-faring gastropod about the size of a lunar shuttle (perhaps inspired by the Great Glass Sea Snail from Hugh Lofting’s 1922 children’s book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle), Hercules has a control cabin implanted in his stomach, entered via a catheter, from which Talbar directs his flight. It’s a wonderfully daft idea but makes perfect sense in a universe that’s already home to star whales, megalomaniacal cacti, and bad-tempered, hermaphroditic Chelonians.
Talbar and Horval themselves are well written characters who quickly transcend the stereotype of slightly dodgy confidence trickers-cum-scroungers thanks to strong writing and excellent casting; Karpf is particular gives a throaty, cynical performance that is especially engaging. In contrast, bounty hunter Vienna Salavatori comes across as unimaginatively written and rather two-dimensional, an impression not aided by Masterson’s underwhelming performance in the role. Clearly, however, Masterson has already impressed the powers-that-be at Big Finish, with a spin-off series for the character already in the works (The Memory Box).
Wilfredo Acosta’s sound design and incidental music are solid (Star Wars fans should enjoy his musical homage to the famous Cantina sequence) and work well to advance and enrich the story, though the voices of the Wrath are frustratingly over-produced, and consequently often difficult to decipher – a flaw which becomes especially frustrating in the later stages of the story when the action shifts to the Wrath homeworld.
The first two episodes of The Shadow Heart advance at a cracking pace, and introduce a range of additional characters, including Captain Webster (John Banks) and Lt Dervish (Jaimi Barbakoff) of the Earth Empire spaceship HMS Trafalgar, as well as shifting the action between multiple locations. Episode three is slightly slower, and suffers a little from the now-traditional third act exposition which often plagues Doctor Who adventures, but still impresses, thanks in part to some striking imagery from Morris and a strongly written balcony scene evoking Romeo and Juliet – which ties in nicely with first impressions of The Burning Prince, the first story in the Drashani Trilogy. The fourth and final episode ends strongly, and surprisingly emotionally, though not without some classic Seventh Doctor deus ex machina, which once again reinforces the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey nature of Morris’s script, and the manipulative personality of this particular regeneration of our favourite Time Lord.
Conclusion: As a stand-along story, The Shadow Heart is engaging, intelligent and generally well-written. It successfully balances a lightness of tone with an expansive vision and engaging characters, and features original world-building and some truly memorable additions to the Whoniverse. But what of the trilogy as a whole?
With each episode so tonally different from the story preceding it, the Drashani trilogy feels somewhat lacking in cohesion, despite the unifying presence of Ken Bentley, who directed all three stories. Story elements designed to carry on through the following adventures feel somewhat tacked on to The Burning Prince, while in The Shadow Heart, there’s a sense that Morris was slightly underwhelmed by the plot threads he was required to incorporate from the first two stories in the series. The Acheron Pulse, as previously noted, just felt cumbersome. Given that each of these stories were scripted by different writers, it’s perhaps not surprising that they don’t cohere as strongly as one might expect – a problem the television series has long been able to fix thanks to the presence of such dedicated script editors as Robert Holmes, Helen Raynor and Terrence Dicks.
What the trilogy does succeed in doing, albeit in broad strokes rather than in fine detail, is an examination of the impact of the Doctor’s involvement upon the planets he visits – an impact which in this instance is positively cataclysmic. In Episode Three of The Shadow Heart we learn that ‘hundreds of worlds boiled in flame’ thanks to the Doctor’s meddling in the war between the Wrath and the Drashani Empire – no wonder the Time Lords once banished the him to Earth for the crime of meddling in other civilisation’s affairs!