Eighth Doctor Big Finish Audios Review – Mary Shelley Plays

Following the conclusion of the EDAs, the Eighth Doctor returned to the Main Range in 2011 with a short series of audios set much earlier in his timeline, perhaps even shortly after the events of the 1996 TV Movie. Before he met Charley, the Eighth Doctor travelled with Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. This had been a recurring joke throughout the Charley era that was finally contextualised with Mary’s Story, a short audio included in the collection The Company of Friends, which told the stories of several expanded universe Eighth Doctor companions. Following this, the Eighth Doctor has several adventures with Shelley that each feature prominent Gothic themes.

#123 – The Company of FriendsMary’s Story

This audio is the final story in the four-part audio The Company of Friends, which dedicates one part to four of the Eighth Doctor’s companions, three of which originate from comics and novels, but the fourth explains a recurring joke that has persisted across all of the Eighth Doctor audios up until this point, which is that he is a close friend of Mary Shelley. Mary’s Story explains how the Eighth Doctor and Mary Shelley met, and as such it is set before the Doctor met Charley – in fact, it is one of the earliest audios in the Eighth Doctor’s timeline, chronologically speaking. It is worth mentioning that this story, along with many of the EDAs, use a particularly bizarre variation of the Doctor Who theme that was not very well-received by fans – in fact it sounds like the original Delia Derbyshire theme has been put through a blender. This theme was only briefly attributed to the Eighth Doctor, as most of his other audios use the vastly superior theme arranged by David Arnold that is considered the main theme of the Eighth Doctor. Strangely enough, the other three Mary Shelley plays use a completely unique variation of the theme with a distinct cowboy-theme that is not used anywhere else.

As a standalone story, Mary’s Story does a good enough job of introducing Mary Shelley as a companion – we of course get the iconic setting of that fateful night at Villa Diodati in 1816, and the characters of Polidori, Clairemont, Byron and the Shelleys are realised very well here. However, one cannot help but compare this story to the more recent The Haunting of Villa Diodati from Series 12, which is arguably the better of the two interpretations of this historical event, as it chooses to place a situation before Mary Shelley from which she can draw the inspiration for Frankenstein, instead of presenting all of the ideas to her on a silver platter like this audio does. One of Mary’s Story‘s biggest faults is that, due to its short run-time, it comes across as a whirlwind tour of tried-and-tested Frankenstein tropes, and although Mary’s character is realised well, the other elements of the story come across as cartoonish and hyperinflated.

There is quite an interesting time-travel plot going on here, as a future version of the Doctor (from a time in his future, after he has travelled with Charley and Lucie) arrives in Villa Diodati in a degenerated state, having been infected with vitreous time, and he ends up sending a message to his past self who arrives to provide assistance. This eventually leads to the past version of the Doctor taking Mary as a companion, which then leads to a short series of audios that are famous for their Gothic themes. Overall, this audio is a quick listen and provides the context for the series of audios to follow, but little more than that. However, there are some excellent audios to come, as fortunately the next audio in the series is one of the best Cyberman stories in the entire franchise.

#153 – The Silver Turk

Probably one of the most unconventional Cyberman stories out there, The Silver Turk utilises the horrific elements of the Cybermen exceptionally, which is no small wonder considering it was written by Mark Platt, who also wrote the audio that is considered to be the best Cyberman story – Spare Parts – and like that story, The Silver Turk involves the Mondasian Cybermen. In constrast to other Cyberman stories, however, this audio involves only a small number of Cybermen, and they are considerably weaker as the specimens involved in this story are all damaged refugees. An interesting angle to this story is that Mary feels great sympathy for the damaged and decrepit Cybermen that are present in the story, and there are several parallels to her inspiration for Frankenstein. Unlike Mary’s Story, the inclusion of Frankenstein references are far more subtle, and although The Haunting of Villa Diodati did a much better job of handling the historical figures present in the Villa Diodati, The Silver Turk is definitely a better Cyberman story. We see the Cybermen depicted as pitiful creatures, as they are damaged and stranded far from home. The setting of Vienna in the 1870s makes for a vivid setting that is brought to life with some excellent supporting cast.

Speaking of which, The Silver Turk benefits from a small cast and a concise story that invokes several horror elements – and not just from the Cybermen. There are more than a few nefarious characters at work in Vienna who want to make use of the Cybermen for their own gains, and the Silver Turk itself is arguably a victim more than a villain – it is not hard to pity the creature as Mary does, particularly as it is of the early Mondasian variety and has more of a personality than a standard Cyberman. This is definitely a good audio to listen to around Halloween, as like all of the Mary Shelley plays there are more than a few Gothic elements at play. The thought of a vicious, legless, three-armed Cyberman scuttling around the streets murdering people and stealing their eyes, as well as a mortally wounded Cyberman being used as a performing automaton in the Vienna Exposition, is truly terrifying.

Needless to say, The Silver Turk subverts many tropes of standard Cyberman stories, and is definitely one of the most unique and creative uses of the monster in Doctor Who history. There is a constant sense of foreboding as the presence of the Cybermen, and other malevolent forces, are ever-present. This audio plays on the idea of the philosophy and physiology of Cybermen corrupting the nature of humans and inspiring them to imitate the metal monstrosities, to the extent that there are two threats – the Cybermen, and the humans who want to imitate them. In some ways, this audio is similar to a Seventh Doctor novel that was based on a script for an unmade TV story, called Illegal Alien – both involve critically damaged Cybermen hunting people in the streets, and involve Cybermen displaced out of time. The best thing about The Silver Turk is how it embraces its setting and context, and utilises the Cybermen in a very classical-science-fiction manner that really shows how versatile the Cybermen are when used by the right writer.

#154 – The Witch from the Well

Continuing with the Gothic themes of the series, The Witch from the Well contemplates the possibility of medieval witches being the responsibility of alien influence – again, another plotline that was harvested for the Thirteenth Doctor era for The Witchfinders. Unfortunately, The Witch from the Well continues the less-than-stellar precedent set by Mary’s Story, in that the Doctor just outright tells Mary Shelley that she needs to write Frankenstein, thereby taking all agency away from her and implying that the ideas were not in fact her own. This is without doubt the worst way to handle a historical figure on Doctor Who, and it is a bad start to the audio. The characterisation of the side characters in this story is interesting, as the story discusses themes of not treating people from the past too harshly due to the prevalent views at the time, yet also depicts all of the townspeople as two-dimensional, generic characters who are basically just there to fulfil a purpose and get very little development. There is one character, Beatrix, who becomes a pseudo-companion for part of this story, but she is the only townsperson with any kind of development.

Speaking of which, this story features a murderous witchfinder called John Kincaid, who is very much a villain in this audio, though that is understandable as he represents some of the most loathed figures in history. The main threat in this story primarily comes from extra-terrestrial sources, though there is a constant reminder that the horrendous atrocities of medieval witch-trials were carried out entirely by humans. There are alien villains too, however, who are operating at the same time – the Doctor and Mary are separated, and each one has to work out pieces of both puzzles on their own. There is also a significant development in Mary’s character, as she is given the chance to read up on her own future during a trip to the 21st Century, and uses the TARDIS library to read up on the alien threat and devise a way to counter them, something that is very rarely seen on Doctor Who but makes a nice touch in this story, particularly given Mary Shelley’s connection to literature.

Overall, this audio is a fun listen, though it relies heavily on some hand-waving to explain away the ‘magical’ elements of the plot. The explanation that ‘Odic energy’ causes latent psychic powers among humans is an interesting concept, and the New Series has certainly implied that some humans are capable of seemingly supernatural abilities before with the infamous ‘four knocks’ prophecy. As such, The Witch from the Well is a decent addition to the Mary Shelley plays, and it employs more Gothic elements – including themes reminiscent of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers – to great effect. The satisfying thing about this audio is that everyone gets their comeuppance, and the body count of this story is surprisingly high. The characterisation of Mary Shelley as a companion is strong, though as previously mentioned there are some issues with the idea of simply handing the ideas for Frankenstein to her. Julie Cox does an exceptional job as Mary Shelley, but unfortunately her character direction could have done with some more work.

#155 – Army of Death

The final Mary Shelley story immediately gets the plot going with the city of Stronghaven on the planet Draxine, which is not only going through political turmoil but is also seeing attacks from skeletal bonemen following a war that completely devastated their twin-city of Garrak. Although described as a place of tranquillity and safety by the Doctor, it is clear that all is not as it should be in Stronghaven, and former citizens of Garrak who live in the city are ostracised and hunted down. This makes for a very dynamic setting for an audio, and as these basic plot elements are established quickly, the actual narrative gets going right out of the gate. The President of Stronghaven, Vallan, is initially painted as a villain, though it is clear that there is more at work than the machinations of a politician, and the Gothic themes of this story start to show as Vallan is haunted by the spectre of his recently-deceased predecessor. The Bonemen make for an intimidating threat, and because the Doctor and Mary get separated, the Stormhaven security forces prove to be more of a burden than a help.

As such, this audio is very much a case of the Doctor arriving in a situation and doing his best to save everyone, whilst also figuring out the mysteries surrounding the leadership of Stormhaven, and why the army of the dead is seemingly so intent on attacking the city. Mary begins to show doubts about her travels with the Doctor early in the story, as she admits that she is beginning to have romantic feelings for him that are contrary to her feelings for her husband, Percy. Another tragic romance is present throughout this story, as President Vallan is involved in a love affair with his Vice-President, who also happens to be a former resident of Garrak who moved to Stormhaven as a child. The intrigue that is woven throughout this story is another interesting factor, and there are some great settings brought to life with a great soundtrack, excellent sound design and talented voice artists.

Overall, Mary Shelley’s time with the Eighth Doctor is fun, and these audios are each unique in their own way. The focus on Gothic elements to match the themes of Frankenstein is a great idea, though there are some issues with the implementation of Mary as a companion. As previously mentioned, there are too many instances of Shelley simply being given key ideas or themes for Frankenstein instead of coming up with them herself, and these are too prevalent throughout the series to be given a pass. Considering that this is the shortest era of the Eighth Doctor with only four stories, each story has a role and each one implements Gothic elements with varying degrees of competency – Mary’s Story is mediocre but introduces the new companion well, The Silver Turk works very well as a standalone Cyberman story, The Witch from the Well is a fun listen with some issues but some great Gothic elements, and Army of Death serves as a good finale with some bizarre imagery and great character moments – the goodbye scene between Mary and the Doctor is particularly poignant, and she finally gives the Doctor her journal, thus fulfilling the near-decade long prophecy that was first mentioned as far back as Storm Warning. Ultimately, it is a shame that Mary Shelley’s time as a companion hasn’t been revisited in subsequent Eighth Doctor audios, and it is nearly ten years since we last heard from her. The ambiguous nature of the ending of Army of Death suggests that more stories featuring Shelley could be possible in the future, only time will tell if this eventually transpires.

Next – Eighth Doctor Big Finish Audios Review – Dark Eyes 1

Author: Dalek Rabe

I am a huge fan of Doctor Who, Halo, Star Trek and Star Wars and I enjoy watching classic Doctor Who episodes, customising Dalek figures, replaying games like Knights of the Old Republic and Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy from the early 2000s on the original Xbox.

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