Paul McGann never really had much of a chance to make an impression playing in Doctor Who on television – not only is the generally disliked feature-length 1996 TV movie his sole appearance in the medium but he doesn’t even make his first appearance until nearly 25 minutes have gone by!
The opening part of the film is in fact given over to providing a pretty decent send off for the outgoing Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh incarnation of the Time Lord. Made 7 years after the original series had ended and aimed primarily at the American market, in retrospect this was a very foolish strategy, focusing as it does on the show’s previous ‘mythology’ (to use the currency of today) which could mean little or nothing to anyone but core fans with long memories. Ratings were unsurprisingly low everywhere but the UK and no more McGann adventures were made on TV, which is a shame since his passionate Victorian gentleman, part HG Wells adventurer and part Lord Byron wannabe (he even gets to snog the companion, a real innovation then but not very impressive in these days of tonsil tennis playing Gallifreyans) is highly engaging and easily the best part about the film, meaning that it absolutely got the most important aspect right with everything else potentially correctable had the series progressed. But it was too deferential to its own past and not able to satisfy international audiences and keep up with the times and failed. When the show would return again in 2005 this was a mistake that the new producers where careful not to make, introducing the new Doctor right away and giving him as much street cred as he needed to have, with his companion available to provide the rest.
McGann however has truly come into his own playing the role in a continuing series of audio adventures produced for the BBC by independent production company Big Finish since 2001. At the time McGann although was the still considered to be the ‘official’ incumbent, the 8th incarnation of the Doctor since 1963, the rights to his TV companion were unavailable so he was given an original creation: Charlotte (Charley) Pollard, a self-styled Edwardian adventuress played with vim by India Fisher (aka the commentator in Masterchef). Charley should have perished in the R101 disaster but was inadvertently saved by the good Doctor, only to create a distortion in the ‘web of time’ that would come to haunt their 7 years of audio adventures, some of which would take place in the ‘divergent’ universe this had created. Theirs would evolve into a delicate, loving friendship but eventually the two parted, although in a unique twist for the series Charley then spent two years as a companion to the sixth incarnation of the Doctor as played by Colin Baker. More recently McGann’s doctor has been partnered with Lucie Miller, a gobby northerner played with her usual irrepressible energy by Sheridan Smith. These have appeared as seasons of hour-long stories usually transmitted in two thirty-minute episodes. Following a disagreement in the previous story, ‘Death in Blackpool’ Lucy has now left feeling that she can no longer trust the Doctor. This is where this story picks up from, technically the fourth ‘season’ of the McGann/Smith adventures.
Why all this preamble about companions? Well, in ‘Situation Vacant’ by Eddie Robson, with Lucie gone (for now at least) the Doctor seemingly decided to advertise for a new ‘assistant’ and goes to a hotel to interview four potential candidates – yes, in high concept terms this really is Doctor Who meets The Apprentice with the two men and two women set a variety of tasks to prove their worth – except not everyone is who they appear to be and even the Doctor, it turns out, is not telling the whole truth. This is a breezy adventure that sets up an ongoing arc in the shape of a slippery villain and does introduce a brand new companion even though the story is structured in such a way as to ensure that we know very little about this new incumbent even by the end of the adventure, leaving plenty of scope for the future.
Production values are usually excellent at Big Finish and this is no different with a fine casts, very creative sound design and fast-moving music score all conspiring to generate a high-spirited adventure full of twists and turns. which provides a light-hearted introduction to the new series. Can’t wait to hear what happens next.