Blurb: A close encounter with a stray missile leads the Doctor to materialize his TARDIS on a planet that hangs in the dark at the edge of the known universe. A planet so dark that it exists in near-permanent night. A planet that enjoys just a single day’s light once every thousand years…
Exactly what happens on the planet in its rare daylight hours – that’s what a geographical survey headed by Senior Tutor Bengel is stationed here to establish. They, the Doctor and Leela are about to discover that when daylight comes, the White Ghosts rise…
So don’t be afraid of the dark. The cover of night is a mercy.
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson published by Big Finish Productions and released February 2014.
Setting: A planetoid at the edge of the universe in the far future (just about any time after the year 30,000 would work).
Continuity: This story takes place between The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock and after the audio story The King of Sontar. References are made to Leela's decision to destroy Strang's clones (see The King of Sontar). The Doctor mentions the TARDIS swimming pool (see The Invasion of Time). The Doctor refers to the Time Lords' hatred of vampires (see State of Decay).
Canonicity Quotient: The Doctor gets fairly positive proof of the existence of vampires in this one but doesn't say anything about it when he encounters them again in State of Decay. You might be able to handwave it because they never refer to themselves as vampires, but it feels fairly false. 0.99
Discussion: Coming on hot from the ending to The King of Sontar, I couldn't wait to get into White Ghosts. I remember that Alan Barnes had written some really good audios back when I subscribed to Big Finish's main range. Although I wasn't so enamored with his Trail of the White Worm, I thought that The Oseidon Adventure had been fantastic. I hoped that with a little more time and with such a great lead-in that he'd be able to give A-grade material as well. As a result, I walked into this one expecting a lot.
I feel bad honestly because this story really had me interested until the ending. It feels like another one that could have kept its pacing at the two episode format. After a wonderful introduction in part one the revelations start flying just about every minute in part two until the very deus ex machina style of ending. There also seemed to be some fairly basic issues with the plot. I was also disappointed that they completely dropped any kind of development from The King of Sontar. There's a wonderful moment where Tom has the Doctor come to the realization that he may have been a bad teacher and that's really touching and thought provoking moment for his Doctor who is usually so confident. Yet from there its just dropped and all is forgiven. I'm still hopeful that some ramifications from that choice will pop up later in the season and we'll get an explanation for why the Doctor and Leela seem to have a less friendly relationship in season 15, but we'll have to see if we get that.
There were still a number of wonderful ideas in this story. The scene where the Doctor finds Leela reading in the library is so wonderful. Of course she's reading children's books because her reading skill isn't high but it's neat that she thinks that because they visit Earth so much that she should learn about the monsters that live there. So we find that she thinks that all the fantasy and fairy tales that she's read are real and you have a fantastic moment where you realize that if you traveled with the Doctor and hadn't been to Earth before there's no reason why you wouldn't think that the monsters in children's books are real. Every time he goes to Earth he encounters some implausible monster or other, so why not more? I also like that once again there's Time Lord interference setting the story in motion. I wonder if this means that this story and the King of Sontar are connected somehow. Certainly, the revelation that the researchers are vampires would explain their involvement but I'd love for this to dovetail into a greater storyline that sets the Doctor in motion to shake up Gallifrey in The Invasion of Time.
I really like the darkness of this story. In pure Hinchcliffe/Holmes fashion there's a lot of horror mixed into the story. We have plants out of A Little Shop of Horrors mixed in with the horseman of death ad infinitum and culminating with vampires. The story is dark and that's not just because they're on a planet that sees so little night. There's a dark mystery that the Doctor needs to get to the bottom of and I love the way that the story peels back layer by layer. On the surface the idea that the research team have adapted themselves to the darkness of the world makes complete sense, but when it's revealed that those modifications came from the DNA of creatures akin to a bat and that they're actually unknowing experimental subjects makes a lot about the research team make sense as well as why anyone would fire a giant flair at them and why the Time Lords would want the Doctor involved.
Then there are the plants. It seems odd that carnivorous plants would develop on a world with no fauna. But then you find out that the white ghosts aren't even from that planet and that they drift through the stars and settle on planets where they take root. That makes a lot of what's strange about them make sense. I also liked the misplaced scientific zeal for finding a means of utilizing the white ghosts to feed the people back on the research teams' homeworld. It would of course have disastrous consequences but it's just the type of thing that the misguided scientists of Doctor Who are always dreaming up, so it felt very much in place.
I also really loved the ending. It calls back a little to Leela's choice in the previous story, but here we see the Doctor angry and terrified at beings that would willfully turn themselves into vampires the creatures that haunt the nightmares of Time Lords. The Doctor won't kill if he doesn't have to though so he forces them to live as slaves to the reapers. Even Leela realizes that part of this is meant to make a point to her and I love this subtle counter-point to her actions. Let them live even if it's to a horrible fate. To the Doctor living some kind of life is better than not living and I love how that leaves the story on such a sombre note.
There are some major plot flaws in this one though. Why would the homeworld of the research team send a flare for the white ghosts to kill them when they know that the white ghosts will start sending their spores into space a move that could come back bite them if the spores took root in their homeworld? If this world only sees light once every thousand years why are the reapers coming back when an artificial missile causes light? Surely they'd wouldn't return until the normal point in time when the planet sees light. How can a device that's meant to use light to accelerate the growth of a plant be used to teleport someone at the speed of light? I imagine a chamber with a giant bulb. There's nothing to technological about that. Also, this isn't really a mistake but it's a problem with the story. How does the Doctor negotiate with the incredibly angry reapers for them to take the research team on as slaves? They act like they want to kill anyone and anything that has been near their harvest grounds and it really feels false that the Doctor could not only set all this up and then jump back in time to save everyone but also that it happens offscreen so that we don't even see how he does it.
Productionwise this one is great. We have another fantastic Simpsonesque score, which always makes me smile. The sound effects are great. When a giant plant sprouts from the ground behind the Doctor and Leela it sounds exactly like how I'd want that to sound. I could imagine it so vividly. The sounds of the reapers' steeds screaming is one of the creepier things that Big Finish has ever come up with as well. Tom and Leela give this one their all. I've already mentioned the beautiful scene in the beginning and how Leela's naivety and the Doctor's introspection are juggled so well. I also like how the Doctor talks about head tutors and star pupils. It's the sort of irreverent way that he always acted. Then there's that final scene where the Doctor has to confront the vampires and Leela is pleading for him to have mercy while he's angry at the little blood drinkers but also trying to show Leela that killing isn't the answer. It's really great stuff. The other wonderful touch is the fight sequence with Leela. Normally something like that would be accomplished with a lot of shouting and hacking sounds. Instead here we got a stream-of-conciousness inner monologue from Leela's mind as she makes her various decisions. The only thing about that scene that doesn't work for me is the slowed down sound of someone yelling commentary at Leela. I realize that's supposed to convey that her mind is working so much more rapidly then what's going on outside but it makes it all seem kind of silly. I'd have just preferred the other character's words coming in at normal speed. The other characters are all find for what they are, but at least to me no one puts in anything better than a standard performance.
Final Rating: 7/10
Recommendation: Another great example of wonderful set up let down by four episode pacing in a two-episode story. White Ghosts has all the makings of a success and feels like the kind of dark story that we'd want with the Doctor/Leela team. Episode one beautifully sets up the situation but episode two wraps things up way to quickly with a deus ex machina and some things going on offscreen. It's a sad way to finish the serial and really causes it to lose some points. Yet, Big Finish's production values are as good as ever and with period appropriate music, some wonderful sound effects, and a dramatic closing scene I think that this one is better than it isn't. I recommend listening to it.