An archaeologist, a Time Lord, and a space marine walk into a bar. No, wait, scratch that. It’s a muzak-infested hotel, triple-booked by a psychic and her groupies, a time travel experiment looking for commercial backing, and a convention for cross-stitchers. Little do they know all hell is about to break loose.
Have a trailer.
The setting and plot of Shadow of the Scourge are Season 25, but we’ve skipped ahead to Ace and the chessmaster Doctor. He has a machiavellian plan (of course), only it doesn’t entirely work (which is satisfying), and then Ace and Benny and the poor sods they take under their wing have to save his ass. I like this story, even if the villains and their Evil Overlord speeches are tedious.
“I greet the leader of the Great Unity of the Scourge. In the name of Gallifrey, I welcome him to this universe, where he and his minions can feast.” — The Doctor
It’s interesting how the Main Range put Mel and Ace stories back to back, contrasting TV Seven with EU Chessmaster. My habit of not glancing at covers in a playlist meant UNEXPECTED BENNY! I love Benny’s down-to-earth voice of sanity and wry humor, so that was a treat.
This audio is tagged as “Side Step,” meaning it incorporates the Virgin New Adventures EU which had Ace enroll in the same military Spacefleet from which Benny deserted. At first, I wasn’t really sold on the idea of the Doctor using Ace as a special ops soldier and a pawn in his war against monsters. His character changes over time, but that’s a major philosophical shift from the classic Who Doctors I grew up watching. On the other hand, Sophie is fantastically effective as SarahConnor!Ace, so I like it. It’s just… very different, and occasionally jarring, almost as much of a leap as nuWho.
In contrast to the monsters, the regular humans in this story are distinctly ordinary, with little lives and petty flaws. However, that’s the point. We learn just enough about them to care about them (or at least I did), warts and all. The guest actors are fairly solid, although sometimes they have trouble breathing life into platitudes.
Dream sequences, possession, pocket universes, betrayals, bug-eyed monsters — tons of Who tropes, but Cornell keeps all the balls in the air with legerdemain. Like Apocalypse Element, it’s action-packed. I mark Scourge down a bit because there’s too much moralising about the Power of Friendship— very classic Who, but I’m not 12 any more. Tough crowd.
There’s enough plot holes in this to fly an Imperial battlefleet through, but I really don’t mind because it’s a lot of fun. There’s some clever ideas, too, like Ace having them deafen her so she can’t be controlled. As Benny notes, Ace is one of the bravest people in the whole Who franchise, and that moment where Benny reminds her that she’s the humans’ best hope of coming out of this alive is very satisfying.
I’m always up for a surreal plunge into somebody’s mind, and this is Big Finish’s first chance to try. It’s pretty interesting. Benny and the Doctor philosophising about the Doctor’s flaws are good meta. Thank goodness Lisa’s there; not everyone could pull off love and bunny rabbits speeches without the audio becoming nauseatingly saccharine.
The buggy aliens in this are wonderfully horrific. Growing extra limbs would be hard to show with FX, but Big Finish at its best exploits radio’s great strength, to harness the imagination of the listeners. Ironically, that’s how the Scourge operate, too.
The secondary characters with their very human flaws have a lot of dignity and appeal. It’s almost Gaimanesque; people aren’t perfect, and that doesn’t make them undeserving.
Finally, I love this concept for a monster:
“We are human failure. We live in the gap between what you are and what you could be.”
That is a very real-world monster which we all fight, and often lose against.
The Big Finish website’s behind-the-scenes declares that”This story takes place between Virgin Publishing’s New Adventures Doctor Who Novels, All Consuming Fire and Blood Harvest.” The cover art shows Ace dressed in her Spacefleet uniform.
Tardis Wikia puts Spacefleet officer Ace & Benny before Hex, but most other guides put the Lost Stories (Season 27) before Ace and Hex, then Feamonger through Hex (“season 27b”), and then the New Adventures with Ace, Benny, and Spacefleet (in my own notes, I call that “Season 28”).