A decade on from his third televised season of interplanetary, inter-temporal and inter-dimensional exploits, David Tennant's Tenth Doctor continues to enjoy one hell of an afterlife between his Titan Comics adventures alongside Gabby and Cindy as well as his mandatory Big Finish tenure. While the latter studio hasn't managed to book Tennant in for another appearance in his role since last year's The Tenth Doctor Adventures Series 2, his iconic wise-cracking incarnation lives on in aural form this month thanks to a familiar voice to Doctor Who fans the universe over - one Jacob Dudman.
Just as Nicholas Briggs bore the mighty responsibility of paying homage to Christopher Eccleston in The Ninth Doctor Chronicles, so too is Dudman faced with the unenviable task not only of following in Tennant's footsteps here, but additionally narrating a quartet of hour-long storylines with the help of only a single guest star in each instance. But, as anyone who's remotely aware of this remarkably accomplished voice artist's work mimicking the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors will attest, the task couldn't find itself placed in more capable hands; Dudman positively exudes Tennant's instantaneous, infectious charisma, boundless energy and sizzlingly rapid repartee with just about any human, alien or Cyberman whom he encountered between 2005-2010. Indeed, anyone new to the man's work could easily mistake him for the genuine article, barring those oh-so-fleeting moments when his voice hits a slightly higher pitch than that of his inspiration.
What of the four episodes themselves, though? The play's the thing, after all, so let's dive straight into The Tenth Doctor Chronicles and discover whether Big Finish's latest foray into the voyages of perhaps the TARDIS' most beloved modern captain warrants a victorious "allons-y" cheer, or whether it's best left to the clutches to the Abzorbaloff...
"The Taste of Death":
"Not only is MXQ1 one of the most luxurious alien-made environments, it also houses - wait for it - the best restaurant in the galaxy. There was you saying I never take you anywhere posh..."
If only the latest series of Eighth Doctor Adventures hadn't stolen this epithet already, then 'Ravenous' could've served as an ideal alternative title for Helen Goldwyn's rambunctiously entertaining opener. "The Taste of Death" more than suffices in the meantime, though, the story in question following the Doctor and Rose as their respite on the intergalactic resort of MXQ1 gets swiftly interrupted by a sinister cullianry scheme to overfeed its - hilariously willing - guests for nefarious purposes. It's essentially a frothy blend of "School Reunion" - an inspiration which Goldwyn thankfully sees fit to reference directly at one point rather than courting repetition - with an early Ninth Doctor two-parter, the title of which just might become apparent if you gaze at the boxset's cover art above.
That's right: the Slitheen, everyone's favourite - or least favourite, depending where your "Aliens in London / World War Three" stance lies - gaseous monstrosities, are back for their first proper dust-off with the Tenth Doctor after only garnering the briefest of cameos at the last moment in "The End of Time". At first re-introducing one of Russell T Davies' more divisive contributions to Doctor Who's Hall of Foes might justifiably sound like a recipe for disaster, but the script's rollercoaster pace barely affords them any time to let out so much as a gurgle from their sizable stomachs, let alone any of the full-blown gusts of bodily wind for which they attracted such notoriety on both Who and its CBBC spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. That approach allows the mystery of MXQ1 patrons disappearing by the dozen to take centre-stage - probably a wise move on Goldwyn's part in hindsight, even if our familiarity with the aforementioned Raxacoricofallapatorian family's illicit commercial dealings at this point means that most listeners will ascertain the truth of the matter long before our heroes crack the case.
Joining Dudman for the sumptuous ride - and making his Big Finish debut in the process - is Arinzé Kene, the role of inquisitive chef Orentino affording him no shortage of opportunities to showcase his performing talents as he joins the TARDIS crew in discovering what's become of his abruptly absent brother since the hotel's enigmatic owners recruited him onto their dining team. Holding your own opposite someone with Dudman's seemingly effortless abilitiies, not to mention in an episode as packed with extraterrestrial sci-fi technobable as this one, takes some doing, so it's to Kene's full credit that he pulls off the job with flying colours. He not only endows Oriento with the personal angst that you'd expect amidst a family crisis, but also striking a refreshing note of levity, such as when regailing the Doctor with darkly comedic stories of how rapidly mealtimes at the MXQ1 buffet transform from all-you-can-eat experiences into explosive free-for-alls thanks to their dangerously addictive offerings.
"What is that? Sort of a TARDIS car alarm?"
"Bit like that, yeah, only a billion times worse."
Whether knowingly or otherwise, violent vacations of this ilk form something of a connective narrative strand across the latest Chronicles collection, with the Doctor's next such jaunt coming unexpectedly as he and Martha find the Time Vortex in disarray, largely thanks to a pesky era-hopping tour guide transporting holiday-makers to their chosen historical destinations via some decidedly tempermental temporal technology. If that seems somewhat akin to the Earth-bound scenes in "Voyage of the Damned" as loose premises go, then rest assured that scribe Matthew J Elliot avoids any risks of retreading well-worn ground here, instead almost gifting the Tenth Doctor with his first 'pure' historical outing.
Admittedly "Backtrack" does distance itself from the likes of "An Unearthly Child" or "The Romans" by including a minor sci-fi threat and of course the "Time Meddler"-esque inciting incident which kicks off its action, but much of the entertainment - and indeed dramatic - value here comes from the crews of the TARDIS and its malfunctioning counterpart The Outcome interacting with the time zones that they visit, not least as the stakes are raised monumentally by a last-minute detour to one of the most horrific events in recent human history. This reviewer will steer clear of spoilers for now, but suffice to say that whereas TV Who only tends to dip its feet in atrocities such as Pompeii or the First World War without fully exploring the devastating pain suffered by their victims, Elliot goes one step further come Act 3, raising the harrowing possibility of the Time Lord and his unrequited courter's respective existences reaching their premature denouements in a provocative way that's sure to unsettle even the most apathetic of listeners.
Better yet, portraying the foolhardy entrepeneur responsible for tearing holes in the Web of Time is none other than Jon Culshaw, the Dead Ringers impressionist perhaps best known for his uncanny renditions of both the Third and Fourth Doctors. Fans of Dudman's work will no doubt recall Culshaw's appearance in the former's "The Day of the Doctor" tribute sketch "The Great Curator" last year; clearly the past 12 months have done little to distill their exuberant chemistry either, since Culshaw's unapologetically self-righteous Nathan Hobb's verbal sparring matches with Dudman's soon-to-be self-proclaimed Time Lord Victorious make for the highlights of the hour by far, constantly ensuring that we're never certain as to where their conflicting efforts to preserve or exploit the past, present and future will leave anyone in the vicinity - or indeed the final state of the universe full stop.
"I'm just offering my sensible opinion; I'm used to having that ignored. You should meet my daughter, Donna - she's never listened to me and look how she turned out!"
Most fans would probably assume that Goldwyn's ambition to resurrect the Slitheen while retaining her credibility as a Big Finish veteran would represent the biggest challenge for anyone involved with Chronicles, yet that's far from the case; enter James Goss, taking time out from his doubtless intense stewardship of the studio's Torchwood range to attempt the Herculean feat of giving Jacqueline King's Sylvia Noble an entire hour in the spotlight. It's probably safe to say that few fans would've begged Russell T. Davies or his Season Four peers to centre their next Doctor-lite story around a comic relief character such as Sylvia, especially given the rich esteem in which her father Wilf was instaneously held by fans in comparison. By now, though, it's a truth similarly universally acknowledged that Big Finish can utilise just about any divisive player from the show's past to their advantage - after all, who else could've transformed the Kandyman into the stuff of genuine nightmares earlier this month?
Judging by her revelatory interview with Goss and producer Scott Handcock shortly after the credits roll here, King harbours little doubt as to her character's Marmite personality, so it speaks volumes for her talents that she's able to carry much of proceedings. "Wild Pastures" centres on the Doctor's investigation into a seemingly innocuous care homes where residents aren't going quite so gentle into that good night, leading him to sign Sylvia up for a room while he chases answers behind the scenes. With the Doctor consequently sidelined for much of the hour, Sylvia wastes no time in living up her newfound domestic bliss, gossiping to no end with staff and residents alike while eventually taking on a surprisingly pivotal role in deciphering the secret at the titular rest home's heart. It's hardly difficult to imagine King lapping her character's constantly argumentative dialogue and razor-sharp cynical wit up as she initially read Goss' script, at least based on how much she embraces transporting Sylvia through such delightfully absurd events as these, and indeed that same zestful enthusiasm quickly rubbed off on this reviewer in spite of his qualms when hitting Play on this instalment.
"Pastures" does, however, raise the question of whether each instalment in this boxset fully warranted between 50-60 minutes of airtime. Naturally the Chronicles range aims to ape the Ninth-Eleventh Doctors' 45-minute on-screen escapades, but after Eddie Robson's inspired The Thick of It pastiche Time in Office showcased the benefits of the anthology format for Doctor Who's future flirtations with the sitcom genre, the slow-burn nature of this instalment's first half as Sylvia mainly gets to grip with life in care suggests Goss might've been better served without having to match his peers' word counts. Perhaps it's worth Big Finish dabbling further with lighter fare along these lines in their Short Trips range; indeed, their upcoming Jackie Tyler-centred Trips outings could serve as the perfect testing ground on this front come their eventual TBA release dates.
"It was an ending."
Au contraire, Lady Christina - for you it's just the beginning. As well as wrapping up The Tenth Doctor Chronicles, Guy Adams' quasi-season finale simultaneously acts as a backdoor pilot of sorts for Big Finish's upcoming spin-off saga focused on the feisty jewel thief first glimpsed in "Planet of the Dead", reuniting her with the Tenth Doctor for one final mission before her solo adventures kick off this September. Once again, few would envy Adams' efforts to resurrect the one-off companion from arguably Tennant's most maligned 2008-2010 Special and prove the need for her own dedicated series to boot, but if you're still under the delusion that such fears would daunt any of the studio's writing team in the slightest, then you've not been reading this review anywhere near closely enough. Quite to the contrary, Adams knows all too well how to wrap up an audio boxset of this ilk in style, as demonstrated by his incredible "The Heavenly Paradigm" in The War Master: Only the Good just four months ago, and he remains totally true to Christina's line of work with an action-packed hour that tests her Mission Impossible-style criminal skillset of cliff-scaling, vent-crawling and treasure-stealing to the nth degree across hostile environments galore.
Indeed, Adams zips us from African deserts to snow-swept mountains to alien spaceships with the speed of a rampaging rhino, his whirlwind script gleefully taking advantage of the TARDIS' rich potential as a boundless sci-fi plot device capable of transporting its occupants - and viewers / listeners - anywhere in time and space, all without any of the budgetary constraints imposed on his televised counterparts. One could easily imagine TV Who spending one or more full episodes in any of these fascinating worlds, but the script's reluctance to remain in one place for any longer than the plot - an unashamedly family-friendly caper which would go down a riot on long car journeys - dictates actually works in its favour, perfectly embodying the Tenth Doctor's desire to flee his impending demise by any route available to him and at the same time providing us with promising insight into the wild variety that Christina's solo jaunts across the globe will offer us later in the year.
That would all mean little if Michelle Ryan didn't enough enthusiasm back to her role in order to inspire confidence in what's next for Lady de Souza, of course. Even the most vocal "Planet of the Dead" detractors will struggle to find much to complain about in that area, though - in fact, Ryan and Dudman make for arguably an even better pairing than Culshaw's return did in "Backtrack", recapturing much of the refreshing tension that sprang from the Doctor and Christina heralding from such different professions back in 2009, not to mention the oft-cynical latter's bemused wonder at her unlikely companion's ability to hope against all the odds. Credit also must go to Dudman in particular for narrating Christina's internal thought process with such nuance, his voice at times delicately betraying an increasing vulnerability to her musings on how the Doctor's rejection influenced her post-"Planet" worldview, before reverting back to her amazement at the Time Lords antics, then ultimately demonstrating powerfully her fear at the uncertain prospect of her old friend's ambiguous fate.
Whereas some of Big Finish's boxsets veer dramatically in quality from instalment to instalment, The Tenth Doctor Chronicles without question stands as one of their most consistently engrossing multi-part productions to date. Any fan of Tennant's tenure on Doctor Who who's keen to sink their teeth into the Tenth Doctor's audio adventures can't therefore go wrong with this collection, its incredibly faithful lead performance - and accomplished narration - from Dudman, consistently passionate supporting turns from his co-stars and eclectic array of storylines combining to provide four hours packed with the same thrills, emotional beats and well-timed comedy for which this era of the show is still held in such reverence today. Oh, and the best part? If you ultimately "don't want to go" come the closing credits, then you've only got to wait seven months until another Chronicles boxset arrives this November. Next up: geronimo...