Ghosts of a Forgotten Era
We’re soon to enter the second Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who. His return in November 2023 marks his second attempt at defining the cultural juggernaut that’s dominated British popular culture for almost six decades. Except technically, Davies already had two eras. Though we may often consider series one to four as a single package deal, there are two considerably distinct visions present here. The latter of those visions chronicles the tenth Doctor’s adventures through time and space. The swashbuckling sweetheart with a human heart and an unchecked arrogance. Badwolf bay, team Torchwood, Bannerman Road, Timelord fob watches, Martha Jones, Rose & Ten, the Doctor-Donna and Wilfred Mott.
Prior to Davies’ second era, there was another, one that ended long before it had time to properly define itself. Christopher Eccleston’s time as the ninth Doctor told the story of a soldier learning to reconnect with the universe. After a devastating war, everybody’s favourite Time Lord returned to our screens as a battered, broken soul. Over the course of 13 stories, the Doctor would forge new friendships, battle alongside future Prime Ministers, take down intergalactic news Corporations, participate in killer Dalek-operated gameshows, save a disgraced time agent, and stop flatulent aliens with a thirst for blood.
Eccleston’s fallout with the production team running the show at the time is no secret. Though the details of the reasons behind his departure are still a little muddy, it’s clear from recent revelations that a toxic workplace bubbled from behind the scenes during the first year of Who’s revived tenor. Allegations of sexual assault, harassment and bullying paint the picture of an environment no decent human would want to work in. So much so, that when Eccleston swore never to return to the show that he helped revive after a 15-year hiatus, it was of very little surprise.
What was a surprise, on the other hand, was the announcement that Eccleston would be returning to role of the ninth Doctor. His decision to reprise the role for a series of audio dramas set prior to the events of March 2005’s Rose, was a clear pinch-me moment. No one in their right mind would have predicted such a turn of events. Yet here we are. It’s 2022, and we’ve had four new Doctor Who stories featuring Eccleston (with an additional four weeks away from release).
The Nostalgia Factor
Ravagers has an unfair advantage working in its favour that cannot always be applied to a Doctor Who story, or any story for that matter. That is, regardless of the condition of its script, there is an undoubted joy to all of this that overrides the quality of the content. Eccleston’s return after 16-years makes it a euphoric listening experience in its own right. It’s like giving a cup of tepid water to someone whose just been rescued from the desert. It doesn’t matter how manky it might be, it’s going to go down like paradise from their perspective.
Eccelston slips back into the role of the ninth Doctor as if he’s never been away. The energetic cheekiness, menacing flare and supressed rage that brought this war torn interpretation of the character over a decade prior are all very much present in Chris’s performance. Like a well-maintained TARDIS not prone to roaming, Ravagers successfully whisks its audiences back to another time. Listening to this audio adventure allows you to pretend for a couple of hours that you’re back in simpler times, long before Madame de Pompadour, Fish Fingers and Custard, the Cult of Skaro, the Weeping Angels, River Song, Missy, the Timeless Child, the War Doctor or Torchwood, reshaped our perspective toward this programme.
Even if nostalgia isn’t your jam, there’s something strangely soothing about Ravagers’ ability to whisk you away to simpler times. It’s not so much a case that it allows you to forget everything that succeeded Eccleston’s run. After all, many of the things I’ve mentioned above – excluding the Timeless Child garbage – are magnificent additions to Doctor Who’s ever changing canon. Instead, what it does is allows you to muse over an era that’s largely been drowned out as time as progressed. It’s an invite into a world that no longer exists; an invitation to walk through a fictional world that passed away many moons ago.
All of this is primarily down to Eccelston’s talents and ability to slip into a role he hasn’t played for over 16-years. The fact that’s he’s able to resume the role with such ease is extra remarkable when you consider how traumatising his time working on the show was. It’s fantastic stuff. It’s also a delight to see witness this actor rediscover a way back into the role after all the pain and turmoil he endured in relation to this particular part.
The unique and rare flavour of nostalgia on show here, not to mention the passion assigned to it, mean that there’s an enjoyment to be had in this story that doesn’t come from the actual plot itself. You could have commissioned a script in which the Doctor talked about fax machines for 3-hours, and it would still be a blast because of the fact it was Eccleston delivering the lines.
Just as well, because the script Nicholas Briggs offers up is far from great. Though it would be misleading to call it bad, there is very little to write home about here. Two key issues plague Ravagers that result in it failing to deliver anything considered above average.
Firstly, the scope of the story isn’t suitable for the medium it’s been written for. This is packed with all kind of universe-hopping, timey-wimey shenanigans that are difficult to depict via an audio-only format. It’s certainly possible to make this kind of story work as an audio play. I’m sure the likes of Steven Moffat could smash this one out of the park, had Big Finish hired him to write it. The issue is, it’s extremely difficult to communicate this many twists and turns in a non-visual medium. Unless you’re a natural at these kinds of stories, you’re going to struggle to make it work. Unfortunately, as talent as Briggs may be, making something like this work for radio doesn’t appear to be one of his strong points. Even after re-listening and reading the plot synopsis on TARDIS wiki, it’s still a chore to follow this story.
In an ironic twist of fate, despite its complexity, a remarkably basic story lies at the heart of Ravagers. A universe-ending plague is about to destroy the universe. Meanwhile, a woman with the power to snatch humans from history and immerse them into VR games tries to stop it. That’s pretty much the guts of this story. It’s far too basic for three 40-minute episodes. Which is perhaps why Briggs has tried to stuff it with as many incompatible concepts and non-linear timelines as possible. It’s an attempt to make something less boring by making it as intricate as can be. Problem with doing this, of course, is it just means you end up with a story that’s both dull and hard to follow.
Big Finish certainly have a thorny challenge on their hands when it comes to penning stories for the ninth Doctor. Seeing as the 13-episodes we got during Eccleston’s televised run depict this incarnation at the end of his lifespan, it meant they had very little room when it came to developing the character of the ninth Doctor. The development we got between Rose and Parting of the Ways was pretty consistent, taking the Doctor from a war torn survivor to heroic savour. This means they had two choices; tell a series of stories set between the events of series one, or explore adventures that took place prior to those stories. The former option limited them to write the character as he was presented during Davies’ debut series. The latter allowed them a bit more leeway, albeit from a pre-heroic, pre-developed stage of nine’s life.
Big finish opted to go with choice number two. This is perhaps the most interesting of the options, as it frees up space to explore uncharted territory within this incarnation’s life span. Of course, this route has its limitations too, some of which appear in this story.
One of those problems is the element of denial surrounding recent events in the Doctor’s life. The Time War was a pretty awful affair for the Doctor. One which has filled him with shame, rage and fear. I guess committing double genocide in a bid to stop Davros’ pepperpots from burning reality to the ground will do that to a Timelord. It’s difficult to explore a character when they are going through a phase in their lives when they are supressing their emotions. It’s all fine and dandy when their suppression gradually lifts throughout the duration of a story, but seeing as we know he probably isn’t going to be doing this anytime soon, it makes one wonder how they are going to bleed this stone.
Ravagers very much suffers as a result of this. The Time War is not mentioned in this story. There are some allusions to it from time to time, yet all such intimations are quickly shut down before they go anywhere. This makes for a story where the Doctor is very much on autopilot. As entertaining as it is to hear Eccleston skip around and perform the Doctor again, there’s no denying that the version of the Doctor we are getting here offers us nothing new about the character as we’ve come to understand him.
I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to do something interesting with the ninth Doctor in these audio plays. Where there’s a character, there’s a way, and even though we saw a coherent transformation of this character during the 2005 series, there is a billion potential avenues to explore when it comes to the life of the post-War Doctor. My point is, that this is no easy task, and the version of nine on show in Ravagers very much confirms the difficulty of such a task.
Another problem is the lack of a full-time companion. As we understand it from the events of the 2005 series, Rose Tyler is nine’s first fulltime companion. This is not set in stone, however the inclusion of Rose in the Doctor’s life served as the catalyst that helped him rediscover himself. Giving him a companion preceding Rose undersells them by default; seeing as we know they failed to inspire or return him to the universe he’d become disillusioned toward.
Introducing a pre-Rose companion is a tough gig to sell to listeners, which is perhaps why Ravagers opts to introduce a transient character to fulfil the role. I quite like Nova. She’s gutsy, energetic, and unafraid to stand up to the Doctor. The plot hints that she knows more than she’s letting on, something which quite cleverly turns out to be a subversion from the usual revelations plaguing this particular pop-culture trope. There’s some good, base-line stuff on show here. The main issue is, we aren’t given enough time with her. Beyond the gutsy, energetic, audacious characteristics, she’s fairly generic.
This is through no fault of the character’s, or actor Camilla Beeput, who I think does a good job here. The problem lies with the fact she’s only around for three stories. There’s a chance we’ll see this character again in the future. It’s a shame they didn’t keep her on as a companion for the four audio adventures. Sure, it isn’t an easy task when you’re going up against Rose Tyler, but I’m of the opinion that Big Finish should take a chance here. Throw another fulltime companion at the ninth Doctor, and find new ways to inspire him beyond the character arc we saw play out during the 2005 series.
Ravagers defies expectation. It’s a story that’s padded, overly complex, and fails to rise up to the challenge of finding something new to say about the ninth Doctor. In most other circumstances, this would have been cast aside as a mediocre addition to Big Finish’s library-sized back catalogue. Nevertheless, in defiance of the problems inherent in this story, this is an absolute blast. For all the frustrations of a plot lacking clarity, not to mention characters that aren’t explored or utilised to their fullest potential, having Eccleston back after 16-years is too wonderful not to enjoy. For such a wobbly opener, Big Finish have successfully managed to whisk us back to a time we haven’t visited for nearly 20-years.
Hopefully the quality of these stories will improve as the Ninth Doctor Adventures series progresses. As things stand right now, the mediocrity and heavy-handedness can be forgiven, thanks in part to an actor whose stark professionalism and enduring passion has managed to resurrect a character we haven’t seen since 18th June 2005.