Gemma Langford and Sarah Grochala
Directed by Helen Goldwyn
Stars: Alex Kingston, Louise Jameson, Sophie Aldred,
Lisa Bowerman, Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart,
Dan Starkey, Jemma Redgrave,
Ingrid Oliver, Sylvester McCoy
Big Finish Productions, 2019
In 2019, to mark International Women’s Day, Big Finish launched an anthology – The Eighth of March – that celebrated the diversity of its stable and highlighted the exploits, courage and ingenuity of some of the women the Doctor has travelled with or encountered in his/her long lives. In addition, the four 60-minute-long serials were written, produced and directed by women, some of whom have been long-standing contributors to Big Finish over its 20-plus years.
BF’s decision to do an International Women’s Day release was a curious one, given its track record in the portrayal of women and in promoting opportunities for female actors and directors is pretty rock solid. It has given many former Doctor Who companions who weren’t necessarily served well on TV new leases of life – eg Nicola Bryant, Bonnie Langford, Maureen O’Brien, the late Deborah Watling – and its Bernice Summerfield range is the longest-running audio SF series with a female lead. Add to that other output featuring female leads – such as Torchwood, The Diary of River Song, Gallifrey, Missy, UNIT, Counter-Measures and new series spin-offs for Rose Tyler and Donna Noble – and the opportunities the company has given to many other women to work behind the scenes as well – Bryant, Louise Jameson, Bernice actor Lisa Bowerman and Helen Goldwyn are directors as much as they are actors – it could be argued there is little cause for an anthology release that celebrates the work of its women. Nonetheless, The Eighth of March is a decent primer for showcasing the wonderful work that women are doing across the Doctor Who audio range and in Big Finish’s other output.
The anthology consists of four serials, some of which tie in with other spin-offs in the Doctor Who range. Emancipation pairs the Doctor’s wife River Song (Alex Kingston) with former companion Leela (Jameson), while The Big Blue Book is effectively a Nineties 'New Adventures' reunion of Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Professor Bernice Summerfield (Bowerman). Inside Every Warrior is effectively a pilot episode for The Paternoster Gang audio series, while Narcissus is a modern UNIT story with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and the two Osgoods (Ingrid Oliver) post-The Zygon Invasion/Inversion two-parter.
In Emancipation, River attends a Galactic Heritage convention on a primitive planet under the guise of former Gallifreyan President Romanadvoratrelundar. Enter Leela, who is despatched by the real Romana to expose the impostor, only to find herself (in her own words) “jumping through time to rescue princesses”, as she and River uncover an age-old conspiracy by that world’s royal personage to appease her people’s gods.
Kingston and Jameson make a great team, with the usually feisty Leela being the more level-headed and soothing influence, and River the more emotional, flamboyant tearaway (a reversal of the Fourth Doctor/Leela partnership). There are, of course, moments where Leela’s inner warrior seeps through this more restrained exterior – “Get up – or I will scalp those unnecessary curls from your head!” – but it is River’s recklessness and throwing of caution to the wind (much like her final TV appearance in The Husbands of River Song) that more often than not endangers their mission. This not only occurs over the course of the episode but in the conclusion when River quite unashamedly begins to meddle with time itself, at potentially great cost to many lives (something that the Doctor would rarely, if ever, do).
Pitted against the charismatic Kingston and Jameson is Julie Teal (Luther, Doctors, Waking the Dead) as the villainous and flamboyant Royal Magnificat. Teal almost steals the show from the two leads as the deliciously wicked and calculating evil queen mother. It’s an “arch” performance which Goldwyn admits she encouraged Teal to “revel” in, and it’s no doubt assisted by some great dialogue by scribe Lisa McMullin, whose script also borrows from the Steven Moffat playbook of witty discourse. As McMullin herself admits in the CD extras, it was “hard to pull back from the jokes. Because the characters are so brilliant, you want to make every line a standout line, so you start trying to one-up yourself while you’re writing it”. The episode is indeed very entertaining listening as a result, although it doesn’t surpass another River Song instalment – The Bekdel Test – which had the advantage of pairing River with Michelle Gomez’s maniacal Missy.
The second instalment – The Big Blue Book – is perhaps the most “traditional” of the four serials, given it features popular companions Ace and Bernice (aka Benny), minus Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor. Benny is drawn into an elaborate extra-terrestrial library-cum-dimension ship, and Ace has to rescue her before Benny is lost forever within a matrix of twisted and dying souls. Lizzie Hopley’s script is the most macabre of the four scripts – the manner in which an alien race imprisons and effectively damns its criminals for eternity brings a whole new meaning to the term “body horror”. It would have perfectly suited the style of the New Adventures (NA) that have clearly inspired it.
Ace and Benny are matched against another female antagonist in Vassa, played by Rosemary Ashe, who describes her character as a “kleptomaniac serial killer”, and her emasculated partner in crime Lycurgus (Robert Gill). With Benny sidelined for some of the story, it is the streetwise Ace who steps up to thwart this bizarre, villainous couple and free the trapped souls within the dimension ship. There is an assumption (particularly on the part of the villainous Vassa) that because Ace isn’t academically minded, she is no real threat and therefore not worthy of induction into the ship’s library. Of course, anyone familiar with Ace from the TV series – or her NA persona – will know that she is very smart; she may lack certified qualifications but she is by no means simple-minded (she’s a non-qualified chemist, given her affinity for making Nitro-9 bombs) nor is she completely science-phobic either. Hopley shows in her script how resourceful any informally educated person can be – yet another appreciation of the diversity this set is promoting – and Aldred (as expected) does an outstanding job of recreating her signature role (even down to recapturing Ace’s youthful verve) and its knack for ingenuity.
It is easy to forget that the TARDIS is also ostensibly female and sometimes can be as much of a character in 'her' own right as the cast of whichever era a story is set. 'She' also becomes a worthy plot device and instrumental to the conclusion in the Doctor’s absence.
Inside Every Warrior, the third script by Gemma Langford, takes us back to 8 March, 1894, when the Paternoster Gang – comprising Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife/housemaid Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and their Sontaran butler Strax (Dan Starkey) – are called upon by a conceited, misogynistic Victorian scientist Cornelius Pinch (Nigel Fairs) to investigate werewolf sightings in London. Pinch does little to enamour himself to the Victorian detective trio, while Jenny befriends Pinch’s ill-treated maid Daisy Hodge (Julie Atherton). However, when Strax is kidnapped by a werewolf and interned in an extra-terrestrial menagerie – in which the alien prisoners’ life essences are being drained by London’s upper classes – Vastra and Jenny realise the antagonist is not quite whom they were expecting.
As a primer for The Paternoster Gang series, Inside Every Warrior provides a “taste” of the Victorian-style adventures of the assorted trio. McIntosh and Stewart effortlessly recapture the love, affection and flirtatiousness their duo shared on-screen, while Stewart also gets to display her compassionate side in scenes with her counterpart Hodge. Starkey has less air time as Strax but his larger than life presence is certainly felt when he features, especially in the opening and climactic scenes of the story, underlined by the unmissable 'Sontar-ha' baritone.
The other performers in this play are also very strong. Tom Bell does an outstanding job of portraying two different characters – the downtrodden alien Prog and the foppish upper class 'gentleman' Percy – while BF veteran Louise Faulkner is both equally eccentric and deliciously sinister as Percy’s wife Laeticia. Atherton also shines in her role as she eschews the demoralised, browbeaten maid in the second half of the play. “Whatever we do, we’re always the vessel taking others to fairer lands. For once, don’t you want to be master of your own destiny?” Hodge poetically asks of Jenny, reinforcing the very solid writing that Langford brings to this entry and the sympathy it engenders for the central antagonist.
The final play – Sarah Grochala’s Narcissus – brings us squarely back to the 21st century as the modern day UNIT team encounter an internet dating site that is a cover for extra-terrestrial activity in London. This serial (as the title strongly implies) focuses on the concepts of beauty and self-image in both women and men, particularly in this age of social media, ‘selfies’, online personas and self-gratification.The interesting contrast with these notions is the character(s) of Osgood. Not only do the twin Osgoods not always get along (implying that having a physical duplicate of yourself is not guaranteed to make you faster, more efficient and more productive) but Osgood’s more modest sense of self is equally important in countering the extra-terrestrial threat in the androgynous Jordan (played by both Alix Dunmore and Dan Blaskey).
Ingrid Oliver delivers a fantastic performance as the two Osgoods. The actor admits in the CD extras that trying to convey the different moods and tones of each Osgood in the booth at the same time proved problematic . Therefore, Oliver would perform as one Osgood, with her other dialogue being read to her, and then perform her counterpart’s lines, leaving the editing suite to marry the two performances. The end result is a plausible conflict between two very alike individuals. And when they do get along, they are quite enterprising – one of them goes ‘undercover’ at one point to try to uncover the truth – to the horror of feisty Scots journalist Jacqui Magee (Tracey Wiles). The only downside with the Osgoods is that there is a strong implication in the climax that one of them is indeed human, whereas in The Zygon Invasion/Inversion, Steven Moffat went to great lengths to hide exactly whether the surviving Osgood was the original human or her Zygon copy. The question is whether a Zygon could convincingly outwit and confuse the serial’s antagonist in the almost oblivious, and selfless, manner that Osgood demonstrates.
Jemma Redgrave is also excellent throughout the serial as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, her calming, diplomatic tones providing her with the scope to mediate some very difficult and challenging personalities, whether that be the Osgoods, Jackie or the villainous Jordan. Her calm, matter of fact demeanour also plays a significant role in her being able to resist the villain’s mindwashing techniques and overtures in the serial’s climactic stages.
So did Big Finish really need to do an International Women’s Day release with such a smorgasbord of tales? Probably not, as again the company’s record of hiring women as directors, producers, writers and actors is outstanding. Nonetheless, listeners will still be grateful for what is an excellent anthology set. Each tale is extremely entertaining, exploring the full gamut of emotions – from dark humour right through to self-deprecation – and there are morals from each of the tales that will appeal to both women and men alike.
Should there be another boxset in the future as a companion to this release? Perhaps it will depend on the theme and the types of stories that can be told, eg it may honour women and men of colour, LGBTIQ status or ethnicity. Regardless, you can be assured Big Finish will deliver an outstanding product.