Main Range 30 – Seasons of Fear

This is a bold era-hopping historical that reminds me of City of Death crossed with Masque of Mandragora, and it’s really three entertaining stories in one.

No, it doesn’t have the flirtation between Romana and the Doctor, but it’s very much a Four-era adventure. The Eighth Doctor has finally brought Charley to Singapore, as promised. Unfortunately, Charley barely has time to enjoy her date before they’re off again, trying to save the world from an immortal enemy, Grayle, who stops by to gloat that he’s killed the Doctor in his own past.

Have a trailer.

Part One takes our heroes back to a Roman fort up by Hadrian’s wall, where one of the soldiers is taking the Cult of Mithras a little too seriously. My classics major heart went pit-a-pat at the references to late Roman Empire cults and religious practices, represented almost in caricature, but true to the spirit of the times. Part Two drops shifts to the court of Edward the Confessor and his shrewd wife Edith of Wessex. Part Three takes us to the real Hellfire Club during its fading years around 1800, although it doesn’t figure in the story too much. Instead, there’s a couple of deceptively ordinary characters who turn out to be almost as clever as the Doctor, Charley, and the “unholy Grayle” they’ve been chasing across history.

Grayle is a classic villain: a fanatic, but a different sort of fanatic in every century. Yet he’s not entirely one-dimensional, even if his “masters” are.

“Are you confusing me with someone else? I’m not the one who says, ‘You must obey me,’ I don’t meddle, and I’m not a glamourous woman at the moment.” — The Doctor

The story’s twist is as plain as the nose on Pertwee’s face, yet I totally, utterly missed it until a certain quote in part III. Bless you, Big Finish, for mining classic Who shamelessly.  The audio loses a little steam once the Doctor and Charley stop jaunting across history and buckle down to confront the monsters, but the final part is still enjoyable.

The banter between India Fisher and Paul McGann has settled into the amiable teasing of two good friends. Now and then Paul still falls into the habit of declaiming his lines as if he were on stage. It’s sweet to hear early, innocent Eight, when it’s not always clear whether he’s playing to fool to mask worries or whether he really is a goofball.

One minor knock on this audio: every now and then the Doctor interrupts the action to narrate events. However, there’s a good reason for it which will become clear a few audios from now. All the Eighth Doctor stories in this stretch are self-contained adventures, but they’re also part of an overarching arc which the Doctor is doing his best not to notice. The loose ends start tickling about now.

Seasons of Fear is a wonderful blend of old-fashioned classic Who and Big Finish: historical romps, episodic adventures and high-stakes villain-thwarting on the one hand, and a sympathetic understanding of people’s motivations and lives on the other. I’d rate it a nine, except that it’s not quite epic enough and feels a bit patchwork at times, piecing together different stories and troweling in a few dashes of foreshadowing for later audios. But it’s certainly one of my favourite Eighth Doctor stories so far, partly due to my antiquarian streak. It’s also a precious story for Eighth Doctor fans, since it’s just about the last time Charley and Eight will have a chance to marvel at bats, rub elbows with royalty, buckle their swashes and save the world for quite a while. Little do they know the fun is about to end.

Trivia note: Caroline Symcox is married to Paul Cornell. I wish they’d collaborate more often.

Spoilerific Comments

Whatever radiation pills the Doctor’s using, they seem a lot more effective than human medicine. That part confused me: it seemed like the Doctor handed out the remedy out after Edward and Edith’s troops had fended off Grayle’s radioactive ferrymen. Also, with plutonium’s half-life, it would’ve been quite a job disposing of that much material without the remnants being discovered in the 20th century. But never mind the nitpicking.

I must say that Queen Edith’s past relationship with the Doctor is a lot more plausible than a certain queen’s in Day of the Doctor.

The best part of this story is the stupid, ridiculous, blundering foes. When Grayle said “The great journey of life!” I said, “Oh, no!” with delighted horror. Well trolled, Big Finish! I still can’t believe I didn’t see it coming, with Mithraism and a bull on the CD cover, but the unexpected naked Dalek visitation in Part One made an effective red herring. The Nimons themselves sound too much like Andre the Giant to take them really seriously, but they’re still more menacing than they were on TV.

Zagreus watch: The Doctor recites the Zagreus poem near the beginning of Part Two.

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