Blurb: The pride of the Z'nai matches that of Leela of the Sevateem. Why would the Doctor imprison one in such an unlikely place, and what terrors will be brought about by letting it loose?
Format: Limited-cast audio drama, a Companion Chronicle from the point-of-view of Leela. Published by Big Finish Productions and released January of 2008.
Setting: Earth: England, sometime around 1910. Leela narrates the story from an unknown world and time (Lance Parkin's AHistory gives the date as 7932 but gives little justification for it).
Continuity: This story takes place between The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock. There's no clear indication of when this takes place with respect to other stories that take place within the same gap. Although it was the intention of author Nigel Fairs that this takes place immediately before The Horror of Fang Rock, Leela's behavior and mannerisms on Earth are clearly less acclimated than The Ghosts of Gralstead, which happens in the same gap. It seems far more likely that this story takes place between some of the earlier Fourth Doctor Adventures. Leela mentions her father and the fact that she was thrown out of the Sevateem for blaspheming against Xoannon (see The Face of Evil). Leela mentions that the Doctor is continuing her education in how to be a lady (see The Talons of Weng-Chiang). Leela says that she has been living with the Doctor's people (see The Invasion of Time). The older Leela who narrates the story survived the destruction of Gallifrey (see The Ancestor Cell, Cold Fusion, and the Crystal Bucephalus).
Canonicity Quotient: Leela is here depicted as being unable to learn from experience, which isn't quite the same character that we saw onscreen. Leela was a far quicker learner and Lightfoot did teach her some table manners such as not wiping her hands on the table cloth. There's also the issue of whether her name has any meaning. Here we're told that it's the name of the Seveateem's greatest warrior but we're told in Wrath of the Iceni that it means nothing. While it seems odd to criticize a story for contradicting stories that were made later the issue remains that Big Finish didn't seem to pay much attention to these Companion Chronicles when making the 4DA's and as the weaker work these CC's are the ones that lost their canonicity by default. 0.90
Discussion: The Catalyst is the first story in a trilogy created by Nigel Fairs and featuring the character of Leela. It was part of the second season of the Companion Chronicles, before the line had become a regular, monthly feature of Big Finish. In fact, Fairs conceived of the story as a stand-alone tale and it didn't become a sequel until producer David Richardson asked him to make it such. The story is told from the point-of-view of an older Leela from after the time of the destruction of Gallifrey. Leela recounts a story that at first seems to have nothing to do with her present situation but once it pays off the listener knows exactly what is going on.
I was somewhat worried before going into this. Many of the comments on Fairs' Fourth Doctor Adventure, The Abandoned, made it sound as if his Companion Chronicles were in the same mold. Yet, listening to this I found it to be an entirely different experience. The story was coherent and even though some things seemed unlikely or left even unexplained they fit the mood of the story. I love some of the nice ideas, such as giving the Doctor a new companion that we've never heard of and who apparently traveled with the third Doctor. There's the gap between when Jo leaves and Sarah Jane comes in where the Doctor could have had untold adventures and alluding to further unseen tales only serves to whet my appetite. I also love the elegiac atmosphere which permeates the story. Leela is dying but she has one last story to tell and it's one which resonates with what is going on with her in her final moments. I do love the ending, though, where we finally see the payoff for the story of what happened in the past. It's a really satisfying ending and fits the somber feeling of the piece.
There are things that don't work as well. The Z'Nai don't look like Sontarans but they're a clone race with a similar ideology and with a similar weakness. Leela is written incredibly poorly and is seemingly a caricature of herself. She learned a lot about Victorian life in The Talons of Weng-Chiang but seems to have forgotten it all here. Why does she age at an accelerated rate once she leaves Gallifrey? Surely if the Time Lords were preserving her life and keeping her from aging that if those effects left she would just start aging normally, not at an accelerated rate. Did I miss something or was there some explanation for how Leela got the virus? I understand that it mutated in her system but I'm entirely unclear on how she caught it and why it mutated so quickly. Why didn't it do something similar with Lord Douglas or anyone else who had been exposed to it? Also, why did the Doctor leave something so important on Earth? It would seem like he's just inviting an invasion, which is what eventually happens. Heck, why don't the Time Lords take care of the situation? Especially since this is part of a mission that they sent him on in the first place. It just seems like with a little more polish this script could have been perfect even though it remains very good.
The performances here are top notch. Timothy Watson gives a sort of nobility to the Z'Nai. They're not shouting aliens like so many Doctor Who foes. When H'mbrackle at first is pretending to be nice you can just about believe him and when his true colors show he exhibits a force of personality that makes him a convincing foe. Louise Jameson is as wonderful as ever. Although some of the dialog she is given as the younger Leela doesn't really seem right for the character she does a wonderful job separating her younger voice from the one doing the narration. I especially love the line laced with meaning in the beginning when she tells the Z'Nai torturer that soon one of them will have answers and the other one will be dead. I also love the way that she remains proud throughout the entire proceedings. Her voices for the other characters are not particularly good, but no one ever said that she's a voice actor. Her Fourth Doctor is downright atrocious though and sounds more like she's doing William Hartnell. Thankfully it's only supposed to be Leela relating the story anyway, so there's no reason for Leela to do completely accurate impressions. The music in this one is perfect. That mournful piano music just adds to the whole atmosphere of the peace and really makes you think about endings and missed opportunities even as the Z'Nai get their comeuppance for their refusal to change. Based on just tone and atmosphere alone this story is just about perfect.
Final Rating: 8/10
Recommendation: It's a story that's more about tone and atmosphere than plot. The Catalyst is an elgaic piece about Leela's quiet dignity while dying moreso than about it's main plot. There are some flaws but Louise Jameson really sells the story and she's backed up by another wonderful actor as well as some amazing music. There are some plot issues but as long as you can squint your way past those it is a fantastic story. I definitely recommend it.