Following on from my list of favourite Seventh Doctor Who audios, the fiendish Puzzledoctor pointed out that I had not included A Death in The Family, one of the most recent of Big Finish audios featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Time Lord. The main reason for that was that I had not in fact heard it yet – the avalanche of good reviews had suggested that this was such a worthy release that I should in fact save it for a very rainy day. But in fact the sun is out, life is good and to celebrate I decided to treat myself to a fine bit of drama … Were all the other bloggers and reviewers right – is this one of the finest Big Finish audio productions? Well, yes, and no …
The Plot: 21st century London: Nobody No One, the extra-dimensional Word Lord, is again running amok. Only this time, he’s unbeatable – and a terrible tragedy is about to unfold.
“The future folds into the past. The homeless hero has fallen. Now begins the time of three tales: The Tale of the Herald. The Tale of the Hidden Woman. The Tale of the Final Speaker. When the last tale is told, all the lights shall fail. The world will end.”
This play by Steven Hall continues on directly from Project: Destiny, a story that sought to tie up the many loose ends relating to the Doctor’s companion ‘Hex’ and in particular his relationship with the sinister organisation known as ‘The Forge’, as explored in the two previous ‘Project’ releases, also by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright. They had also made a fleeting appearance in one of the quartet of thirty-minute plays stories that made up the Forty-Five audio release, though the big hit of that collection was undoubtedly ‘The Word Lord’, Steven Hall’s story of a malevolent creature of pure language known as ‘Nobody No One’, who here makes a spectacular return in a smashing, larger-than-life performance by Ian Riddington. Luckily, this is counterbalanced by not just one but two fine performances from McCoy as divergent incarnations of the Doctor.
At the end of the previous adventure Hex, disheartened by the Doctor’s decision not to tell him of his mother’s fate years earlier, left Ace and the TARDIS to make his own way. And ominously Hex is not featured on the CD cover, so could the title apply to him? While Hex is left to his own devices, Ace accompanies the Doctor into the bowels of what had been the Forge’s base of operations to find a sarcophagus containing the body of a Time Lord – but whose will it be?
This is a play that delights in piling on twists and springing narrative surprises while at the same time not only providing vast amounts of fan-friendly detail but also expanding the horizons of its seasoned cast of characters, who here rise to the challange beautifully. Through a complex yet subtle design, Hall provides Hex, Ace and the Doctor with the opportunity to re-evaluate their lives together, and apart, while at the same time truly facing up to the last enemy of all – the death in the title proving to be a true and devastating event and not a time wimey fudge. On top of this, the expressive Maggie Stables returns as Evelyn to finally bring Hex’s story full circle.
This is a release that is aimed so squarely at Big Finish fans first and foremost and more general Who fans second that one might worry that it could very well prove too exclusive for the general listener – thankfully all the cleverly and artfully crafted bits of fan-bait are subordinated to a complex story that sees the Doctor at his most calculating and Machiavellian, Ace at her bravest and Hex at his most vulnerable as they consider the road not taken – all of which topped by Stables’ effortlessly warm performance as the indomitable Evelyn.
It simply wouldn’t be right to give any more of the plot away but it is worth emphasising that this is a story that will repay much re-listening as one admires the depth of the performances and the cunning with which Hall provides symmetrical mirrors for all his character’s actions as they are taken through life and death to confront that which they hold most dear – and to cap it all, darn it if there aren’t a wagonload of references to the best American detective TV show ever produced, proving that ‘The Word Lord’ may be a pityless villain but as a fan of Columbo is also a monster of considerable critical acumen.
The critics were right and so was the Puzzledoctor – this is a genuine classic and you should go out and buy it right away if you are in the least bit interested in Doctor Who, especially as it seems that Steven Moffat’s magnicent new take on the series is also set to open with a game-changing gambit that will also see one of the regulars bite the dust – if you can’t wait until April 23 2011, then get this CD to keep you company until then – it’s really worth it.