Review: Doctor Who the Companion Chronicles – Here There be Monsters

dwcc0301_heretherebemonsters_1417_cover_largeBlurb: The distant future. The TARDIS, with the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara aboard, is drawn out of the Vortex and lands aboard the Earth Benchmarking Vessel Nevermore, where Captain Rostrum is navigating by punching holes in the very fabric of space. The Doctor is appalled by this act of vandalism, and fearful that it could unleash monsters from the dark dimensions.

As the benchmarking holes begin to fray, the fate of the universe is at stake. And while the Doctor contemplates a terrible sacrifice, Susan befriends the Nevermore’s First Mate – someone she will remember for the rest of her life…

Review: No one can deny that Susan is an important part of the Doctor Who mythos, yet the character was poorly developed on the show. Most of the time she was left waffling between doing weirdly surreal acting and acting like a child much younger than the one that she needed to portray. As a result, when she left there was a lot of unrealized potential in the character. One of the great things about The Companion Chronicles is that Susan and other companions get another chance. A story told from her point of view allows the audience a greater insight into her character. It also allows the story to center around her and ensure that her character is being well realized, rather than just making her adjunct to another character’s storyline.

Good science fiction tends to make a commentary on our modern society and Here There be Monsters is no different. Author, Andy Lane, goes for some high science-fiction concepts. First, the Nevermore is a benchmarking ship, intended to create a navigational grid system throughout the galaxy, by punching holes in space every tenth of a light-year. The Earth Empire believes that this is a public service that will help everyone affected, but in their expediency to create more efficient space travel they have relied on theory rather than rigorous testing. The benchmarking process weakens the fabric of space and creates the possibility that space itself could tear, allowing beings from a universe “beneath” ours to come through. One can be forgiven for thinking this sounds very similar to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Force of Nature. The allegory to the environmental effects caused by burning fossil fuels for travel is fairly obvious. He also highlights the mindset of Earth through Captain Rostrum. He refuses to believe that anything is wrong with the Benchmarking process without proof, but proof would mean that a disaster would have to have already happened. That combined with the myopic attitude that what a culture does with its technology doesn’t impact surrounding cultures highlights a mindset that speaks to our present day and some of the debates and attitudes going on right now regarding the environment and what impact human activities have on it.

Lane doesn’t stop there, however. The Doctor is convinced that the reality “beneath” space is a place of chaos and horrors beyond human imagination. His descriptions summon up images of Lovecraftian terrors in the minds of the listeners. Yet, later on they discover that the beings from “the other side” while different from us physically are not so different in attitude and ethics, the things that fundamentally matter. It’s an admonition not to prejudge those that we’ve only heard about second-hand, and it’s another one of those lessons that resonates so strongly today.

The other really neat idea is that of Captain Rostrum himself. The idea of humanity creating a race of intelligent plants that grow throughout a ship and control all of its functions is a neat and somewhat original one. The idea that plants are the perfect pilots because they don’t suffer boredom, and because they have generations of reaching for the stars built into their DNA is poetic and really interesting. There’s the typical sci-fi reasoning that the human race has become lazy and wants to spend its time thinking rather than doing, and usually the doers in this kind of storyline are robots. It’s nice to see that there’s still some creativity even with an older sci-fi concept and Rostrum was an excellent addition to this story.

Of course, it is a Companion Chronicle and Susan is up front and center. Through the prism of a story about a traumatic incident in Susan’s past, Lane makes this tale into a story about the transition in Susan’s life from being the scared child that traveled with her grandfather to the woman that decides that she wants to put down roots somewhere and stay. Her relationship with The First Mate is a strong part of this. He’s an older man like the Doctor, but not sharing the familial bond he gives Susan some different advice. He tells her that she’s old enough to make her own decisions and urges her to go on her own path. It’s a touching relationship between the two characters, made all the more poignant by how the story ends.

Through it all, Lane gives little pieces that help to flesh out Susan’s character. She feels bad that she’s with her grandfather, because she feels that she’s limited him from being able to explore the universe like he’d like because he’s so busy taking care of her. Echoing the feelings of most fans of the Hartnell era, Susan hopes that Ian and Barbara get involved romantically, but she knows that at least for now they won’t. She gets annoyed that often no one believes her because they believe that she’s a child, but that it’s not right because she’s both no longer a child and because she’s been proven right during similar incidents in the past. All of that helps to flesh out her character and helps the listener identify with her better, so that her actions don’t seem that odd.

The story effectively grips the listener right from the beginning with the horrific sound of a singularity tearing through space. It’s a sound that Susan hears most nights, and it always reminds her of the incident on the Nevermore. From that moment, the listener is hooked and is forced to ask, “What is that sound? Why does Susan hear it most nights? What can’t she talk with her husband about?” It’s a great method to set the scene for the tale to come.

Of course, a great audio drama doesn’t exist merely as a script; a large part of the success of this story comes down to the actors and sound designers working on it. Carole Ann Ford is a delight as Susan. She can still sound like a young child when she needs to, but her current voice is perfect for the older Susan telling the story. Her first Doctor is an impression born of respect and admiration for William Hartnell. She doesn’t sound much like the man, but she remembers all the affectations and mannerisms that he displayed and presents those perfectly. Her Ian is somewhat bland, but her Barbara is very good. So far she’s the best person to have performed Barbara since Jacqueline Hill herself. Where she really steals the show, however, is with her performance as Captain Rostrum. There are no schools to teach you how to act like a giant, ship size, intelligent plant, but Ford pulls it off. While some of the effect is electronic, she gives the character a slowness and weight that gives it the gravitas that you’d expect if a giant, old tree began speaking to you. The best line is still “I am a vegetable” delivered with an imperiousness that makes it both silly and fitting. Stephen Hancock also deserves a mention as The First Mate. Unfortunately, he sounds a bit like William Russell, so if you’ve heard a lot of audios with Russell before listening to this one, you might think that Ian is speaking. That’s not Hancock’s fault, of course. Here he plays a kind, older man who quickly befriends Susan. He’s a little brusque and matter-of-fact, but he’s also compassionate and doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. In many ways he seems much like the Doctor. Hancock injects all of that with a heart that makes the listener really enjoy the interaction between these two characters and creates a strong interest in the mysterious manner of the First Mate.

The sound design is excellent, once again. Here, special notice needs to be made of the benchmarking effect. It’s a loud and disturbing sound, which is quite fitting for something that’s supposed to poke a hole in the fabric of the universe. Rostrum’s already been mentioned, but going along with the performance is an echo effect as well as the rustling of leaves that really help to convey the idea that this is a talking plant. There are missile explosions as well as the sounds of the rupture and the movement of one of the creatures that live there. There are many more and they all help to paint a vivid picture of the story in the listener’s mind, but subtle enough not to distract from the story. The music is similarly subtle, sounding like understated electronic music of 60’s television, but somewhat discordant to convey the idea that reality itself is torn apart. It’s just another example of how Big Finish are masters of this craft, and on the sound front they do not disappoint.

Recommendation: It’s a story about an important event in the life of one the Doctor’s companions. Susan rarely gets listed as anyone’s favorite character, but in the hands of Andy Lane she’s a lot more interesting. He takes what’s been revealed about her in the television series and put the listener inside her head, creating a bond of empathy and explaining how she thinks. It’s all in service of a high science fiction tale with some resonances to modern society, but also to an action-adventure story. It’s not perfect, but it’s the next best thing. I strongly recommend giving this one a try.



Audio Drama

Big Finish Productions

Directed by Lisa Bowerman

Produced by David Richardson

Written by Andy Lane

Runtime Approx 60 min.

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