Review: Doctor Who The Companion Chronicles – Ghost in the Machine

Doctor Who The Companion Chronicles - Ghost in the Machine

Blurb: The TARDIS is empty. The Doctor has gone. Jo Grant steps outside into the darkness and finds the frozen body of her friend, and the ship’s log recorder. On it is attached a simple message – ‘Use Me’. As she explores this place, recording her every move, Jo discovers the horror that lies in the shadows. But by then it is too late.

Review: One of the greatest things that the Big Finish audios have given us is a way to experience the amazing vocal talent of Katy Manning who played Jo Grant on Doctor Who. Katy has put in some amazing performances, showing a great deal of range and versatility in creating whole characters by only using the sound of her voice. As our sole window into the Pertwee era aside from Richard Franklin whose commitments do not allow him to participate as often, Katy also provides us with stories set during one of the greatest eras of the television series. It is a real shame that we have lost so many of Jon Pertwee’s contemporaries in the last few years, but it also means that these last two companion chronicles featuring Jo are an event and so it is with great interest that I started listening to the story.

Jonathan Morris never disappoints does he? He showed again why he is one of the great Doctor Who authors of the last 15 years by taking what would have been yet another alien possession story and making it about the sound medium. This story is genuinely scary, especially if you’re listening to it at night and in the dark. Part of that is the claustrophobic atmosphere created by the story as well as the sense of loneliness that Jo has, being the only living person at the research center aside from a comatose Doctor. Having Jo narrate the story to the TARDIS log is a nice twist on the Companion Chronicle format as it allows her to tell us about a story that is actually happening as she records it. I also really like that it evokes that sense of exploration that early Who always seemed to have. When unnatural things start happening it is genuinely spooky and while none of what happens makes sense from a scientific point of view, Morris makes sure to infuse things with an internal logic that just about works if not for a few hiccups. This really is one of Morris strengths, making an absurd story idea work because he believes in it and he writes it with as much truthfulness as he can make. This is very similar to what he’s done with other stories in other media, such as his novel Anacraphobia.

Morris also demonstrates his writing skill by evoking some subtle themes that speak to key areas of our psyche. For instance, he clues into a real source of terror when the tapes say different things when they’re replayed or hearing one’s own voice say different things. We have atavistic terrors to the idea of loss of identity and loss of our own minds. If we aren’t who we think we are or if we can’t trust our own senses then we are lost and the story really flirts with both concepts very neatly. Another interesting idea that the story plays with is the idea of recordings restoring people to life. We talk about things like that metaphorically when we listen to or see a recording of someone who isn’t with us. Making it literal also makes it more poignant and it’s interesting how the characters involved are limited by their status as recordings, giving an interesting twist that feels like a logical extension of the circumstances, but also puts another bar in the way of our heroes saving the day. The other thing that I really like is that the story shows a completely new form of torture. The idea of your existence only being the sum of your words and being undone by having them erased is so creepy. It’s like imagining yourself being physically unraveled and I have to respect any man who writes for Doctor Who that can come up with a fresh way to torture the characters. It’s also refreshing that at the end not everything resolves with a happy ending and there is such a sad moment at that resolution as the story leaves you abruptly with the implications of what you just heard that makes you really think and reflect. It’s a nice device and another example of what a skilled writer can do.

On the sound level this one is superb. I had to check that the other voice wasn’t a third actor. It doesn’t sound like Katy at all. She also has to do her Doctor impression, which we’re used to by now but is still fantastic as it’s always been. Yet she also has to do the Doctor pretending to be Jo. You’d think that would be a hard one to pull off but Katy does it with such ease, giving hints of her Doctor voice while using her normal tones. Strangely I think that her normal voice suffers the most here. She’s still back to gasping out most of what she says if she’s even mildly agitated or goes to a touch to high and squeaky when not. Yet she spends a lot of time here acting her socks off and does an overall stellar performance. Damian Lynch also deserves high praise. He must play Benjamin Chikito, Jo, and The Doctor all at different points of the story. His performance is different than Katy’s but is also really truthful. For someone who hasn’t spent years with these characters like Katy has that is no mean feat and he deserves a great deal of praise as well. The sound effects in this were just through the roof. Strange shrill noises play for no reason. You hear echoes and mumbles in the darkness at the research center. The noise of the tape speeding creates terror as it appears to act on its own or when you know that it’s up to no good. There’s also the sound of people trying to claw their way to the surface when they’ve learned that they’ve been entrapped forever. The sound design is excellent and almost all of it is designed to create an atmosphere that will put your teeth on edge and does a superb job at doing so.

I had a few issues with the plot. Firstly, while they did seem to play fair with Jo’s dialog and her limitation to only speak the words that had been recorded in the first episode, they seem to cheat with Benjamin. I may need to go back and re-listen, but he seems to use a lot of words that weren’t from the first part. Now, it’s entirely possible that we didn’t hear the complete message on the tape but it seems odd based on the message that he was recording that he’d say anything about butterflies or craft. The other voice doesn’t believe Jo when she says that she doesn’t know where the key is yet a few minutes later we’re told that the other voice in Jo’s body has access to all her memories and knowledge. If it had that access why didn’t it know that Jo was being truthful? The idea that the Doctor brought the TARDIS log out at all seems very farfetched and only done so that there could be a story. How is the Doctor’s shadow in the real world and then how does it get onto the tape? I could almost imagine that maybe as he was slipping into a coma he made a sound and the sound became the shadow on the tape but then it shouldn’t have existed in the real world as well. When the Doctor could only write two words why didn’t he write “smash log”? We could have bypassed the entire story as Jo would have smashed the thing, the Doctor could have woken up and they could have left while avoiding the room with the master tape. I’m a little confused about the order of events when the Doctor arrived. So he went into the control room, accidentally got the other voice onto the TARDIS log, and was somehow able to erase the version on the log before slipping into a coma? If the attempt at possession happened in the control room as is the implication then why did he still go into a coma if he moved away from it. Surely it would have been like the end of this story where the other voice wouldn’t have been able to possess him if he were far away. Why do Jo and Benjamin act like there is nothing that they can do on the inside of the tape when in fact the other voice seems able to turn equipment off and on from inside the tape at will? Surely they could learn to do the same somehow. While it looks like I have a lot written up here, most of this is very mild. Overall the story is very well done and makes up in atmosphere what it lacks in plot. It just seems like the story could have been even better with one further pass at the script to tighten up a few of these holes.

Recommendation: A tense little thriller that really uses the fact that it’s an audio drama to sink its teeth into you. You’ll likely be a little on edge when listening to this one but it’s well worth the effort. I highly recommend it.



Audio Drama

Big Finish Productions

Directed by Louise Jameson

Produced by David Richardson

Written by Jonathan Morris

Runtime Approx 60 min.

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