It seems like every other reviewer adores this story, so I had to re-listen and figure out why it didn’t grab me as much as the other early adventures.
First: I suggest you avoid reviews until you listen, because there’s a surprise reveal that is spoilt by many other reviewers. I hate spoilers, so I put my own spoiler-comments in a section clearly labelled after the horizontal bar below.
Have a trailer.
Jamie, Victoria and the Doctor arrive on a spaceship that’s struggling to keep its distance from an unusual black hole. The singularity’s eerie effects are playing merry havoc on the passengers and crew. The Doctor and friends have to convince hard-nosed Commander Flail (Janet Dibley) that they’re here to help. In fact, the Doctor has to be convinced to help, for once. Something, or someone, has him spooked.
This is the most complicated and ambitious of the Second Doctor Early Adventures so far, with multiple layers, twists and surprises. Each episode pits the Doctor against a new obstacle or adversary. Some problems require button-pushing and bafflegab, while others require diplomacy, trickery, or straightforward fisticuffs (giving Jamie a chance to let out his famous battlecry). Behind it all is a memorable opponent, the reason why this audio is so well-liked.
This story repeatedly poses the question: what could cause kind-hearted Two to exhibit a hint of One’s early cowardice and callousness? Victoria acts as his Barbara, seeing through his white lies and sweetly prodding him towards his better angels. She learns some awkward truths about the Doctor that force her to reassess whether he’s really the good man she believes him to be. It’s a nice bit of characterisation for her. Along the way, she undergoes a traumatising ordeal and applies some of her father’s scientific training to solve a mystery. I like stories that let a timid female character contribute without warping her into a badass.
The Doctor: It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? Just this once.
Victoria: But you can’t help yourself, can you? Oh, silly man.
Jamie, meanwhile, is his usual brash and entertaining self, covering up cluelessness with earnestness and bravado. He’s always a joy even when he’s just inviting exposition with his ignorance. There’s a few sweet moments between him and Victoria. Jamie’s role is limited until the action scenes near the end, but one doesn’t notice, because Frazer is so busy performing his superb Patrick Troughton imitation. It’s impressive the way he conveys the easy camaraderie between them when he’s playing both parts.
As an unexpected bonus, someone (not naming names) must’ve sweet-talked consummate pro David Warner into narrating. That frees up the small but stellar cast to throw themselves into their roles. Also, I’ve neglected to mention Rufus Hound (Constable Pavo, whose name means “Peacock”). He’s quite a character, and adds a lot of fun to this audio.
So far, so good.
The atmosphere and setting are richly second Doctor, right down to the rows of computer banks with flashing lights, slow pace of the first episode wherein very little happens, and a regular taking a vacation for part three. But despite the authentic early adventure ambiance, there’s a lot of new Who content in this one: details hashed out later in the Doctor’s history retroactively applied, a twist that new Who itself used a month after this story’s release, and some elaborate timey-wimey. I can buy all that, but I wasn’t so happy when the the Doctor starts using and abusing the “Stattenheim remote control” as much as new Who tends to rely on the Sonic Screwdriver, turning it into an all-purpose magic wand for solving plot complications. I suppose there was always a lot of “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” even before Pertwee, but it jumped out at me here.
I mentioned multiple antagonists in this story. Some are delightfully three dimensional, while others are standard cardboard cutouts. I can’t help thinking there might’ve been a way to tell this story without them.
There’s also some problems with Victoria in this story. Having loved the next one with Deborah Watling, The Story of Extinction, I don’t feel quite so bad about nitpicking here: she sounds exactly the way she does at cons: a delightful, zooty old lady talking about a character dear to her heart. I don’t know whether she sat down with Lisa Bowerman between this story or the next to work out how to pitch up her voice the way Anneke and Wendy do, or if she was just more comfortable in her next outing, but in this one, it’s very hard to hear Victoria, and that takes away somewhat from her scenes. It’s not all her doing; the script has a bad habit of relegating character moments to third person narrative, having Jamie tell that Victoria’s shaken up, instead of letting her act it out.
Finally, despite the fact that I really shouldn’t care that much, it irked me that this story tosses “Season 6b” fanon/EU canon out the window.
Which I can’t explain without spoilers. Don’t read past this point if you don’t want ’em.
First off: Rufus Hound did a ripping job of encapsulating an old familiar adversary in a new form. Absolutely convincing. I wasn’t quite as surprised as I should’ve been by the reveal, since it sounded enough like him that I guessed his identity well in advance, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying his antics. He’s great. I hope he’ll be available for future audio outings.
The one thing that puzzled me is that the Monk seemed to be so determined to wipe out humans, or at least hurt them severely, when we first met him on Earth feeling sorry for King Harold and interfering in various ways to help out unlucky Earthlings. Admittedly, he was trying to head off yet another batch of overbearing humans that he didn’t want to see win, but the Seethe were as ruthless, or worse, and their victims were the sort of “little guys” we’ve seen him sympathise with before.
Also, while it’s fun to pose ethical questions to the Doctor, I found it slightly out of character that the Monk kept going on about humans as inferior, lesser beings, telling the Doctor to let them die and admit that Time Lords are superior. That’s the sort of tack the Master or Flail/Pavo should take, not the Monk who used to delight in Earth history! Then again, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Time Meddler, and he was always shifty (see The Daleks’ Masterplan), so maybe I’m painting his motives too positively.
I liked Victoria having to come to grips with the Doctor’s questionable past, and it’s sweet the way Jamie was prepared to stand up to the Doctor’s “people” on his behalf. But there have been a lot of Big Finishes lately that introduced later material that classic characters shouldn’t know, then resorted to mindwipes or other kludges to set continuity back on track (see also this year’s Master trilogy, not to mention Prisoners of Fate and a few others I’m forgetting). Possibly it’s time to set that trope to rest.
Okay, about “Season 6b,” the widely-held fanon that the Doctor and Jamie went on several missions for the CIA after The War Games and before the Doctor’s regeneration, which (among many other things) explains their appearance in The Two Doctors, when the Second Doctor is using the “Stattenheim remote control” to operate his TARDIS. The theory used to be fanon, but as I understand it, Helicon Prime and several recent novels have taken the theory and made it EU canon.
The Black Hole contradicts their time with the CIA by inserting The Two Doctors into this story instead, sending them off to find Dastari and providing, then eliminating, the “Stattenheim remote control” seen in The Two Doctors. It’s not a huge deal, since it’s hardly the first time that different parts of the EU have flatly contradicted one another, but it seems to me like The Black Hole could’ve been told just as easily without introducing that complication.
All in all, I’ve been waffling between calling it 6 for the parts I disliked with vs. 8 for the parts I liked a lot (Flail, the Monk’s acting, having Jamie and Victoria together), and wound up splitting the difference.
Sounds like the beginning of Season 5; Victoria understands the Doctor pretty well by this time.