The Plot: A shrieking, killing nightmare erupts from an overgrown well, hidden in the grounds of an old house, Tranchard’s Folly – and Mary Shelley, the Doctor’s latest travelling companion, rescues teenage twins Finicia and Lucern from the clutches of the monster. But a TARDIS trip in search of the origin of the horror goes terribly wrong when the Doctor, Mary and their two new friends find themselves stuck in the middle of a seventeenth century witch scare.
While the Doctor investigates the strange lights at Vetter’s Tor, and the twins go in search of an artefact from the Hecatrix Dimension, Mary confronts the secrets of her past… and her future. The truth will out: Master Kincaid, the terrible Witch-Pricker himself, commands it!
“You’ll have to excuse Mary, she tends to side with the monster”
Author Rick Briggs is here looking to prove that he is not just a flash in the pan after winning the last Big Finish writing competition. His one-act play made its way on to the Demons of Red Lodge anthology and was a solid enough contribution, but this new four-parter is much more satisfying.
“The Doctor’s time vessel is no mere machine – it is more like a favoured mare, docile in her master’s hand yet prone to chivvy and buck should another take the rains” - Mary Shelley
The Doctor arrives in modern-day England just as the lid from an ancient well is removed during the renovation of the wonderfully named Tranchard’s Folly, the ancient home of the Portillon family. When a screaming banshee is released, teenage twins Finicia and Lucern are rescued by Mary Shelley, who is now travelling with the Doctor. Back in the TARDIS he is able to calculate when the well was originally sealed up and matches it with a known siting of a spacecraft sometime in the 17th century. He takes them all back to investigate, arriving at a time when the village is mistaking alien intervention for the work of the devil. As the Doctor is locked up as a sorcerer, the twins whisk Mary off in the TARDIS using the fast return switch, leaving her stuck in the present day with the current descendant of the twin’s father while they accomplish their own mission.
For most of the story the Doctor and Mary are separated by several hundred years though they often inhabit the same space, a structural device that neatly helps emphasise contrasting attitudes to science and superstition across the centuries. The satisfying result combines the real-life persecutions of Witchfinder General with the trademark combination of science and sorcery of Nigel Kneale (especially Quatermass and the Pit) for a story that recalls Arthur C. Clarke’s now oft-quoted maxim:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”
Director Barnaby Edwards once again provides a truly choice cast, headlined by Simon Rouse, everyone’s’ favourite pith-helmeted monomaniac from the classic Doctor Who TV serial Kinda, who as ‘witch-pricker’ John Kincaid makes for a plausible villain and a true believer. The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent with Serena Evans in particular giving a truly standout performance as the healer and seer Agnes, a Cassandra figure who is blessed or cursed (take your pick) with precognition (or as the Doctor puts it, ‘an evolutionary quirk’). Now she stands accused of witchcraft and is set to be burned at the stake – with the Doctor right next behind her. In her apparent acceptance of her fate and in her innate wisdom she makes for a really engrossing figure and it is her story that becomes truly compelling – and on which, it turns out, the whole plot hinges, though to say more would definitely be a spoiler.
While the Doctor’s adventure in the past, which runs along fairly traditional lines for a quasi-historical story (the Doctor has to deal with general levels of disbelief and hostility but also meets one ally who comes to believe that aliens and space travel are in fact possible), Mary’s in the present day is a little bumpier. Indeed, if not everything works quite as it should in this play, then it is because this section often feels a bit contrived at times. It’s a bit too convenient really that the modern-day Portillon is a Byron scholar, even though it does make way for a good payoff in the closing scenes, thanks in large part to a particularly under-stated performance from Andrew Havill. Also, it does seem sometimes that Mary is perhaps just a little bit too quick off the mark in finding her way around the TARDIS.
But these are minor niggles for what ultimately proves to be a complex, well-plotted adventure that offers a couple of really strong, well-realised characters, some good dialogue and an imaginative look at the extremes of religious fundamentalism and persecution. It also repays a second listen as we see quite how carefully Briggs has made sure that the present and past poles of the story intersect in satisfying fashion. This marks the end of my first 12-month subscription to Big Finish and is a great way to, well, finish.