“Squirt for your lives”
And so we come to the conclusion of the Sixth Doctor-Evelyn-Brewster trilogy. Following on from the contemporary London of The Crimes of Thomas Brewster and the outer space future of The Feast of Axos, we now find ourselves in the past – mid 19th century Lancashire to be exact. And right from the start we arrive ‘in media res’ in a busy plot that includes luddites, labour agitators, proto-suffragette and interstellar eco warriors, sentient machines and something nasty in the cellar – all elements ably combined in this lightweight but always entertaining audio adventure from Big Finish.
Thomas is now working in a factory and is getting involved in disputes between the nascent unions and management following a spate of accidents. When one man loses several fingers in an accident and then another a whole hand, Thomas leads a strike for better conditions and the Doctor and Evelyn, who have stuck around to see how the lad is settling in, intervene. It soon becomes clear that there are extra terrestrial forces at play, though exactly who or what these are remains a bit vague. If the plot is a bit fuzzy, the dialogue and characters are a delight throughout without straying too far from the well-worn ‘trouble at mill’ playbook but giving these stereotypes – the unfeeling factory foreman, disinterested owner, upper class daughter of local politician who takes the workers’ side etc. – a thorough working over by the intervention of man-eating robots!
This provides the backdrop for the final showdown between the semi-delinquent Brewster and an increasingly frustrated Doctor. While Evelyn rightly points out that the two have quite a lot in common, the Doctor is ultimately angered by Thomas’ inability to see the big picture and to consider the full extent of his actions. Brewster thus doesn’t spend too much time with the Doctor and instead aligns himself with the mysterious Mr Belfrage, the seemingly benign new owner of the Mill who eventually turns out to be a kind of Solomon Glitz rogue – which is perhaps not surprising as the play’s author Eddie Robson has shown a fondness for rascally villains in many of his previous audios as well as for large stomping robots, most recently for the Eighth Doctor in Situation Vacant.
The story also bears some superficial similarities to Mark of the Rani and the recent TV Christmas Special The Next Doctor in its combination of Victorian ambience, the exploitation of the workers and some untrustworthy machines – but the tone of Robson’s script is generally much lighter, even as the relationship between the Doctor and Thomas deteriorates, such as in the scenes in which the Time Lord has to create an impromptu glue gun in the style of McGyver. The play also resembles another of the Eighth Doctor stories featuring sentient robots, The Cannibalists by Jonathan Morris – the latter in fact is the silent writing partner on this release, returning the favour from The Crimes of Thomas Brewster (which incidentally also features self-assembling artificial lifeforms), where Robson contributed material for the re-use of his DI Menzies character. Thus, while play’s setting of industrial strife is fairly new for the audio range, other much more familiar elements ensure that it is well within the Who universe – which marks this as a production that functions extremely well but which can feel a little generic. This is particularly true of the alien nemesis which, despite teases as to whether they are in fact the cybermen, turns out to be some other symbiotic flesh-mechanoid, and one with a rather ill-defined plan that may serve the plot but which doesn’t otherwise really bear much scrutiny.
Rory Kinnear, a star in the ascendant right now, gives fantastic value as the louche semi-villain Belfrage – an intergalactic smuggler who doesn’t actually mean any harm but who just wants to make pots of money and a fast getaway. He gets most of the good lines and is absolutely worth the price of admission alone.
In the end Brewster and this Doctor don’t seem to have made a particularly good fit, which was an unusual dynamic for this trilogy and well worth exploring. But if truth be told, it isn’t one that was seemingly going to really develop much further either, at least not on the evidence provided, neither exploring the pair’s similarities or the sadness of Brewster’s background particularly compellingly. This is particularly noticeable here since this play, acting as it does as a conclusion to the three story arc, is a little underwhelming in terms of the character’s development – though Brewster does get several strong moments where he does seem to behave in a more mature and less selfish fashion. In the end though what is more memorable is the relationship with Belfrage, who is a truly great character that one would love to re-encounter – and it also has to be said, lest this should seem too negative, that the final moments of the play do work really well and help give the whole production a much needed extra shot in the arm right at the end.
Good fun then but definitely the least of the trilogy for this listener.