The Constance Reader

So, we’re back off hiatus. The break was due to a number of things mounting up – not least of which was the launch of my own epic fantasy novel (available now in paperback and e-formats, I’ll have you know), appearances at conventions around that, and dealing with a few other non-Who issues besides. On a more related note, my stubborn and frankly quixotically stupid desire to run this review blog in as strict a chronological order as possible hit a serious brick wall at the crossover point between the Sixth and Seventh Doctors. The release schedules meant that pressing ahead would have seen reviews jumping back and forth between the Sixth and Seventh Doctors; rather than do that, I decided to wait until all the Sixth Doctor releases featuring new companion Constance Clarke were made available, piling up Seventh Doctor reviews in the meantime. On the plus side, this does mean I have more than a few lined up and ready to go.

Big Finish Folly, Part 106a – Criss Cross, by Matt Fitton

Criss-CrossAnd here we go with the first! And yet another new companion for the Sixth Doctor! It’s 1940s Britain, everybody’s off to war, and in the bleak, cold huts of Bletchley Park, an inhuman intelligence directs operations, desperately trying to decode enemy signals. While MI6 agents close in, Mrs Constance Clarke finds herself roped into the search for Agent Spark. Soon, she’ll be transported onto a German submarine, battle against an alien waveform, and mix with double agents. But it’s the inhuman intelligence at the heart of Bletchley who might be able to help find her missing husband – an inhuman intelligence called… The Doctor.

The Sixth Doctor’s chronology remains defiantly murky. For those of us who have an urge to fix it in place, the appearance of a new companion – with no indication of where/when she fits – makes us very twitchy. As you’ll see in the next episode, there’s reason to place Mrs Constance Clarke sometime after Peri’s return, which also occurs post-Flip. But that also means that the stories in The Last Adventure, which run Constance/Charlotte/Flip/Mel aren’t in strict chronological order either… argh… *twitch* … and the eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted the reshuffle in the chronology that now places a lot of the post-Trial adventures in a new order, which means I’ve listened to them all in the wrong order….

Never mind. Let’s focus on the present. Or, at least, the play at hand. The atmosphere evoked is one of stiff upper lips, bleak and draughty huts and beaches, cynicism and mercenary changing of coats – the sort of thing Foyle’s War excelled in, in other words. All Big Finish needed is Anthony Howell or Honeysuckle Weeks in the cast to top it off.

They couldn’t get either of those, but Miranda Raison is certainly no slouch in her role as Mrs Clarke. Cut-glass and forceful, she’s maybe intended as a sort of younger version of Evelyn Smythe. Miranda has form in Who-land too – she was in Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, as pants as those episodes were. Mrs Clarke is definitely a good foil for Colin Baker’s impetuous, disorganised Doctor. We’ll see if she beds in as a great companion.

The plot meanwhile, drags Mrs Clarke hard on the Doctor’s heels as he tries to solve the problem of a strange signal that has disabled the Tardis and stranded him here in this time period on Earth. The Doctor needs all of Bletchley Park’s fabled skills to decipher the codes and track down the source – which turns out to be aliens who live as radio waveforms. Hmm. Aliens who are sound waves, which only really works on the radio. Is it me, or does this sort of thing happen a lot in these scripts?

The duplicitous humans are a lot more interesting. Hugh Fraser plays the German bad guy with relish; Alistair Petrie and Paul Thornley play English bad guys with equal gusto. They jockey for position between them, manoeuvring for advantage even as the aliens try to take over the world (naturally – what else could aliens possibly want?). Their story arcs match the pessimism of the characters. It’s not giving much away to say that “war is hell”.

There’s enough here to like that Criss-Cross stands out as more than just an interesting experiment. The era feels historically accurate, Constance is very different to a lot of the modern companions, and she appears to have a well thought out through-line built into her character.
****¼

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