Ouch. These title puns of mine just get worse, don’t they?
Big Finish Folly, Part 105 – Paper Cuts, by Marc Platt
Charley is gone – a prisoner of the Viyrans. And in her place is Mila, looking and sounding exactly like her. But definitely not her. But the Doctor has no time to ponder the sudden difference in her character – he has been summoned to Draconia, to stand vigil in memory of the Red Emperor. And the Prince, heir-apparent to the throne, is impatient to take the power that is his due. But the shifting currents of Draconia’s Imperial waters run deep, and there is more at stake here than the Doctor knows. Honour, fate, and fifteen undead Emperors demand their own voice in the future of Draconia…
We’ll get to the story itself in a moment. Let’s reflect on the pacing of the Six/Charley/(Mila) arc first though. What Big Finish are doing here is rather brave, if a bit indebted to nu-Who plotting in its execution. Having spent five (and a half, counting Return of the Krotons) stories building up to the grand reveal of Charley’s temporal catastrophe, the team have pulled the rug from under her feet and replaced her with Mila’s version of Charley – a damaged soul who revels in the fact that she is now the Doctor’s companion. A brave thing to do, but it does take the emphasis away from the Doc himself, and it leads to some odd compression of time over the next couple of plays – by way of example, we have to believe that Paper Cuts is just one of many adventures that MilaCharley has with the Doctor before the end of this arc…
And so to Paper Cuts itself. Now, in any standard run of stories, this would be a standout. The subtleties of Imperial Draconia, with the operatic setting of an orbiting graveyard, and fighting gaming pieces made from sheets of paper – the ideas themselves are brilliant, and the Doctor is quickly snared in a mystery. Why did the Red Emperor ask him to this vigil? Why ask the others? After the nu-Whoness of recent stories, this is a refreshingly subplot-free romp with aliens that have been terribly under-used in Doctor Who (I remember them featuring in the Abslom Daak comic strip, but nothing much beyond that). We’re free to focus on the glorious absurdities of gigantic tombs in space, trans-orbital wargames, and paper screens that transcribe the memories of whoever is speaking. This sort of stuff lets the imagination run riot.
With RealCharley out of the picture, MilaCharley is free to do exactly what she has always wanted to do – have an adventure with the Doctor. Tellingly, when she recites her story to the lowborn representative at the vigil, the paper screens show only the roundels of the Tardis console room. And to add to the irony, Draconia isn’t that keen on females speaking their minds, so she keeps being told to shut up… needless to say, she doesn’t. India Fisher plays this version of Charley with a distinct edge, rather than the fourth-wall-aware Edwardian adventuress we’ve become used to, and it’s a refreshing performance.
Perhaps a shame that the Draconians themselves are, on the second listen, more one-note than their surroundings deserve – a forelock-tugging peasant, a rogue captain who still possesses his honour, a petulant prince who craves the throne – but nor do they overshadow the deathless Red Emperor himself, who is more than a match for the Doctor’s wits.
Thoroughly enjoyable, all told, but destined to be overlooked because of the Viyran arc plot hemming it in on both sides.