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9th July 2009 18:00:00
Posted by James

BF 123: The Company of Friends Review



Written by: Lance Parkin, Stephen Cole, Alan Barnes and Jonathan Morris
Directed by: Nicholas Briggs
TARDIS Team: The Eighth Doctor
Running Time: 129:32
Release Number: 123
Released: July 2009

At first glance, it seems somewhat paradoxical that although he had by far the shortest amount of screen time it is the Eighth Doctor who has had the greatest body of non-canonical works devoted to him, the number of his literary, audio and comic strip appearances eclipsing those starring any of his fellow incumbents in the TARDIS. To date there have been over sixty novels, four volumes of graphic novels and getting close to fifty BF stories chronicling his adventures in time and space, a record that is only remotely challenged by the Seventh Doctor, who still falls short in all three categories. Of course, the reason for this is largely circumstantial - the Eighth Doctor had the longest era purely because there was the longest amount of time between his debut and that of his successor, nearly nine years – but what is particularly noteworthy is that in all that long time the character never grew stale; unlike near the end of the New Adventures, when there were discussions about regenerating the Seventh Doctor into a new, purely literary Eighth, no one ever suggested that perhaps it was time to move the McGann model into pastures new (although famously Doctor Who Magazine did once suggest that they had.) It's an impressive record for a character who was on our screens for roughly an hour, but ironically it was that very fact that has helped sustain the level of interest in his character; the character was, to a certain extent, a blank canvas, onto which could be projected any number of interpretations, story arcs, and new companions. As such, freed from the constraints imposed by the other, far more well-documented Doctors, three very distinct versions of the McGann model emerged: the one in the novels, in which he was joined by companion Fitz Kreiner to battle the time-binding Faction Paradox and, latterly, the Orson Welles lookalike Sabbath and who became, for a time at least, a rather moody, torment-ridden individual; the comic strip, more jolly version who travelled with Izzy, Destrii and others and faced off against the likes of the Celestial Toymaker, the Master and the Daleks; and the interpretation offered by Big Finish, in which he and Edwardian Adventuress Charley Pollard fought to prevent the Web of Time from disintegrating, where his characterisation fell somewhere between those of the literary and comic strip versions. Three distinct versions with three distinct sets of continuities, and while fandom has had great fun down the years trying to reconcile them into one single timeline, up to now any crossover has been exceedingly rare, the Powers That Be preferring to keep the three strands distinct and non-overlapping.

But now comes The Company of Friends, a one-off tribute to these disparate Eighth Doctor adventures. Comprised of four individual stories, three team up Paul McGann’s Doctor for the first time with one of his “alternative” companions, namely Izzy (from the comic strips), Fitz (from the BBC Eighth Doctor novels) and Bernice Summerfield (from Virgin’s New Adventures and BF’s own audios), while the fourth, remembering a line from his very first Big Finish audio Storm Warning in which he mentioned that he knew Mary Shelley, reveals just how intimate he was with Frankenstein's author. It’s a fan-pleasing move, and not unbrave, given that previous stories (or side-steps as they’re sometimes termed) starring non-canonical companions have reportedly sold far more poorly for BF than those with the “right” ones. Indeed, even today Rob Shearman can be heard gnashing his teeth as his pitiful royalty cheques roll in for The Holy Terror, BF’s first masterpiece released back in 2000 which didn’t shift as many copies as the other plays from that period purely because it teamed the Sixth Doctor not with Peri or Mel but Frobisher, the penguin-shaped Whifferdill who travelled with the Doctor in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine's strip. Since 2003’s The Dark Flame, which starred the New Adventures team of the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Benny, BF have shied away from similar side-steps, a real shame as that particular combination worked very well (although, in fairness, the fact that The Dark Flame itself was a load of rubbish might have had something to do with its poor reception.) However, it's been six years since that last title, and judging from reaction on the forums when this title was announced hopefully The Company of Friends won't suffer a similar fate.

It certainly doesn't deserve to. TCoF is BF at its most playful, a tongue-in-cheek series of escapades which manage to perfectly evoke the style and era from which the guest companions come and serve as a light-hearted celebration of the Eighth Doctor's history. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Izzy, Benny and Fitz’s stories are written by three authors who were intimately connected with them the first time around; Izzy and Fitz’s episodes are written by their creators, while Benny’s is written by the veteran Who author Lance Parkin who has written for the character many times before, including her one previous encounter with the Eighth Doctor in Virgin’s last New Adventures novel The Dying Days. For those less familiar with the characters, each episode opens with a monologue in which they explain briefly who they are and how they came to know the Doctor, and although the plethora of in-jokes and references to past adventures mean that there’s an extra dimension for listeners who get them, three out of four of the stories are strong enough to interest even those who have never read a single Who comic strip or opened an Eighth Doctor novel. Inevitably given their relative brevity the episodes offer little more than a snapshot of the relationship the Doctor had with each of the characters, but the aim here is to appeal to a very particular type of nostalgia, and by that criteria they manage admirably.

Perhaps surprisingly, the pairing which works the least well is the Eighth Doctor and Benny in Benny’s Story, the first story in the collection. Although Benny actress Lisa Bowerman has a happy habit of being able to strike up a bantering relationship with whomever she is playing opposite against, it’s fair to say that there isn’t an especially strong chemistry between her and Paul McGann, inadvertently underlined by the fact that when they first meet the Doctor takes a few moments to remember her. (This is a bit of an odd choice, given that the opening monologue has a cute line in which the did-they didn’t-they ambiguity of the end of The Dying Days is alluded to – surely the Doctor would have remembered such an encounter if they had!) The actual story, in which the pair battle a mad old woman with designs on the Doctor’s TARDIS, is a fairly standard runaround, coupled with a mildly awkward timey-wimey subplot that needs plenty of exposition to explain, so that altogether this is the least interesting of the four stories, albeit one with a few good one-liners (especially liked Benny's comparison between the modus operandi of the Seventh and Eighth Doctors.)

Fitz’s Story by Stephen Cole is a far stronger story, as well as being considerably more funny. For my money Fitz Kreiner, who Cole created when he was editor of the Eighth Doctor novels back in the late Nineties, was the most appealing of all the literary companions created in the period between the show’s cancellation and RTD's revival. Over the course of nearly fifty novels he forged a strong, fraternal relationship with the Doctor, one of mutual affection not unlike that between the Second Doctor and Jamie, one which Cole does a good job in replicating here. Disappointingly, however, Matt di Angelo's portrayal, and his interaction with McGann, doesn't really come close to realising that dynamic, the actors not really sounding like the life-long chums they are meant to be - it's hard to believe that these are the two men who have gone through the apocalyptic meltdown of The Ancestor Cell (which, given the story also references Anji, they have done). Cole's script does bring across the protective feelings Fitz has for the Doctor, and the story from a point of view of reflecting their dynamic is well judged, but di Angelo is slightly too laid back and geezerish to be fully convincing in the role. That aside, however, the story, in which the Doctor is unwittingly used as a publicity tool by an alien protection company, is good fun, and thankfully far less dour than many of the EDAs from this period (and the Doctor notably less grumpy than he was at this period in the books.)

The standout of the four episodes is Izzy’s Story by the range’s Script Editor Alan Barnes. Barnes is uniquely well-placed as far as this project is concerned; not only did he create Izzy and oversee her time in the comic strip during his tenure as editor of Doctor Who Magazine but now he is Big Finish’s script editor, so it’s not surprising that his episode is a gloriously silly fusion of the two mediums. From the moment he opens the story with Izzy riffing on the “Choose Life” monologue from Trainspotting he manages to transport the listener back to the late Nineties when she was first travelling with the Doctor, while the story itself feels like one of those spasms DWM occasionally has when, temporarily tired of their usual fare, they allow themselves a one or two issue respite with a bit of refreshing, tongue-in-cheek nonsense, such as the Doctor entering the world of Roy of the Rovers or running through some of the BBC’s most famous shows (as he did during Barnes’s time editing the strip.) Here it’s 2000AD that gets the spoof treatment, in an episode as much an affectionate tribute to the denizens of Mega City One, and by extension the whole British comic scene, as to the Eighth Doctor strip. Despite the fact an audio comic sounds like the worst idea ever Barnes’s script, together with some well-judged sound design for the various voices, carries it off, making this an incredibly easy story to visualise as two-tone panels in an inky magazine, while the perfectly-cast Jemima Roper as Izzy manages to sound exactly as you would expect her too (and, in the process, strikes up a far more natural, lively rapport with McGann's Doctor than di Angelo manages.) The highlight of the collection, it will have you once more reaching for the Eighth Doctor strip collections while hoping that this is not the last time we hear this particular partnership in action.

The final story of the collection, Mary’s Story by Jonathan Morris, is different from the others in that it doesn’t star one of the Doctor’s known companions but rather Mary Shelley, whom the Doctor drops in on that fateful night when she first sat down to write Frankenstein. Not surprisingly the two events are not unconnected, but half way through the adventure, just as you think you know where the story is going, things take a slight twist, so that what starts off as a direct retelling of the famous horror story deviates into something a little less predictable. That said, the story takes every opportunity to have some fun with the Frankenstein legend (albeit more Boris Karloff than Shelley) which, coupled with some good sound effects creating a raging storm and a pairing in McGann and Julie Cox as Mary who sound like they're having great fun together, make this another amusing, worthwhile story. Given the brief running time the one disappointment - that the Doctor's meeting with Byron, to whom his look is often compared, is over in a couple of lines - is understandable, and although I'm not sure that Mary is given a sufficiently interesting or strong enough character to wish to hear more from her time in the TARDIS, this episode certainly earns its place in the collection and ends the two CDs, with a very cheeky last line, on a high.

Overall, then, this is a welcome break from some of BF’s recent, rather heavy fare, a mid-Summer treat in which all involved let their hair down and have some fun. It’s surprisingly evocative to hear McGann referencing characters such as Sam, Trix and Destrii, and the episodes do an exceptionally good job, given their brief running time, in capturing the very different eras and styles to which they are paying homage. I’m reminded a little bit of a superb comic strip from a few years ago in DWM celebrating ten years of the New Adventures, which in eight or nine pages managed to sum up and encapsulate that series of novels perfectly. This release does the same for its subject, and although the portrayal of Fitz is a mite disappointing, and Benny’s Story proves she worked better with the Seventh Doctor than the Eighth, this is still easily BF’s finest release so far this year, and one guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

As ever, the stories are accompanied by some Extras - those on Disc One the usual collection of cast and crew interviews, including Barnes explaining how the release came about, while Disc Two holds episode four of The Three Companions, the twelve-part Companion Chronicle starring the Brigadier, Polly and Thomas Brewster which is appearing as an extra on the main range releases.

The Company of Friends is due for release this month. To order it from Big Finish's website, go here.