Director: Jamie Anderson
Featuring: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Bonnie Langford
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom):
Released August 2018
Running Time: 2 hours
Now let’s make something clear first. I love spy stories. Le Carre, Fleming, Deighton; all three are in my favourite authors and the cold war period of espionage certainly seems like an excellent setting for a Doctor Who story. The first story in this years, Seventh Doctor Trilogy (though in matter of fact the first of a pentalogy), Red Planets continues the pairing of the Doctor, Mel and Ace. Taking it’s ques from Cold War spy thrillers in the vein of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Quiller Memorandum, Red Planets is an evocative, thrill a minute story that packs its punches but keeps its secrets close to its chest until its final moments. Written by Una McCormack, this is an impressive high concept tale that weaves intriguing espionage, with time-bending mishaps-even if the impressive ideas aren’t always given enough room to breathe.
The story opens with the Doctor and Mel in a strange parallel future, in the socialist republic of Mokoshia and Ace in Berlin in 1961. Already even here there are a few problems as why the three are split into two groups is never adequately explained. At first, I thought that it could perhaps be another example of one of the more manipulative and darker Seventh Doctor’s masterplans, though this turns out not to be the case. The only other possibility is that it’s a hangover from a previous adventure, that’s all well and good if so but giving us a little bit more info would have been appreciated. In fact, even the story doesn’t seem to know, with at points it feeling that Ace’s presence in 1961 one is intentional and at others, it’s explicitly stated that it is not. Anyway, whilst the Doctor and Mel become embroiled in the politics of the shady new republic, Ace befriends a British spy. Up in space, the first mission to Mars is about to get a nasty surprise…
If that sounds like there’s a lot going on you’d be damn right. Unfortunately, this means that some of the ideas whilst ingenuous, need just a little bit more room to breathe. The revelation of what is up on Mars in particular. This idea is one of Una’s most captivating but unfortunately, it’s reduced to an exposition-heavy explanation by the Doctor in a story that has one too many of them. The result was I often found myself having to pause and skip back a little just to make sure I was taking everything in.
However, in terms of atmosphere and thrills, the story succeeds massively. The paranoia of a lot of the aforementioned Spy fiction is captured beautifully and Mokoshia really does feel like a threatening place, reminiscent of many of our darker Socialist dictatorships. The fact that the individual who will eventually cause all of this never makes an appearance is also a wonderful decision. This is a story about consequences and the characters who have to suffer because of his actions, not about him.
Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred are all wonderful as usual. Sophie Aldred in particular always works incredibly well alone and the character of Ace works wonderfully well in the world of 1960’s Berlin. Bonnie Langford gets some great moments taking further swipes at the Doctors character and in particular his moral stance on the rewriting of history- no matter how many individuals from the parallel world will be lost. Likewise, Sylvester gives his own in these scenes, giving a sense of a Doctor who is tired of trying to explain, knowing she’ll never understand. The supporting cast are all great, though admittedly I didn’t feel like they were really given much to play with, the emphasis being more on the ideas than supporting characters.
Red Planets is a great Doctor Who story with some great ideas. To really of been a classic it needed perhaps one more rewrite just to sort the pacing out. However, the result is none the less entertaining and comes recommended.