Big Finish Folly, Part 18a – Aquitaine, by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris
Today should be much like every other day for Hargreaves, the computer consciousness that co-ordinates daily life aboard the spaceship Aquitaine, stationed on the outer fringes of a black hole. Water the plants, run the diagnostics, cook the Captain’s breakfast; then tidy the plates away, rotate the ship, clean the windows of the observation deck. When at last the day’s work is done, Hargreaves will dim the lights in the sleeping quarters. But no-one will sleep aboard the Aquitaine tonight. Because the Aquitaine’s crew is missing.
But today will be different. Today, a space/time ship called the TARDIS will materialise in the botanical section, bringing the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan aboard the Aquitaine. Together, they’ll seek to discover the truth of what happened to Hargreaves’ crew…
… if only the ghosts will let them.
The Elite was fantastic. The Waters of Amsterdam had a kind of fresh furious pace to it that the Main Range stories may have been lacking for a while. Aquitaine takes that pace, kicks it upfield, passes it to the tricky winger, crosses into the box, and volleys past a hapless keeper into the back of the net.
Let’s back up a bit here. Doctor Who is at its best when it is either exploring historical contexts (it’s a time-travel show) or playing high-concept reference games (it’s science fiction, y’all). This isn’t one of the historical episodes. This is Silent Running meets The Black Hole meets Event Horizon, with sly meta references and echoes forward to the likes of Eleven’s sidekick Handles thrown in for good measure. It’s hellishly fast after the first couple of scenes, the explanations are breathlessly patchy so that the listener has to run to keep up (and that’s a good thing because there’s probably one serendipitous coincidence too many hanging around to trip you up if you slow down to examine the plot too carefully), and in Hargreaves Barnard and Morris have created one of the all-time great guest characters.
Perfectly pitched alongside Peter Davison’s English gentleman Doctor, Hargreaves is a star in the mould of HAL, Holly, and GERTY (Moon). He also has some of the characteristics of VINCent (The Black Hole). Part of the joy of this story is listening to the three main leads find ways to utilise him, gain his co-operation, and ultimately work out Aquitaine’s mystery through him. Tegan’s adventures are less successful than Nyssa’s in this regard, but Janet Fielding does add the humour that this play would otherwise lack – Tegan’s bitten-off description of herself as “a mouth on–” is laugh out loud funny. Nyssa is logical enough to sidestep Hargreaves’ security routines. The Doctor, as ever, is studied desperation, barely in control of the situation.
It does all fall together in the last episode, as Aquitaine hurtles across the event horizon, Dr Akunin looming over the proceedings like Maximilian Schell’s cracked Hans Rheinhardt in The Black Hole, but again you shouldn’t look too closely at the cracks and coincidences – just roll with the plot. This is five-star action adventure and problem-solving, proper classic Doctor Who done exactly the way it ought to be.