Blurb: The present: Leela is doomed, trapped inside a prison cell of a dead race.
The past: After a disaster aboard the TARDIS, the Doctor and Leela arrive at the capital city of Synchronis, a world renowned for peace and civility. But an attack by a vicious creature leaves the Doctor in a coma, and Leela is persuaded to fight in the forthcoming Empathy Games, where she discovers that nothing on this world is as it seems.
Format: Limited-cast audio drama, a Companion Chronicle from the point-of-view of Leela. Published by Big Finish Productions and released October of 2008.
Setting: The city of Paxis Majoritis on the planet Synchronis, time unknown. 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 Horror of Fang Rock and The Invisible Enemy. The fact that the secondary console room is destroyed implies strongly that this story is set immediately prior to The Invisible Enemy and therefore it would take place after any other stories in the same gap. The Doctor mentions that Time Lords are able to place themselves within a voluntary coma (see Spearhead from Space). The Doctor once saw an entire world destroyed by fire (see Inferno and The Mind of Evil). Leela remembers hunting with her father, Tomas and also mentions Xoanon (see The Face of Evil). The older Leela refers to her imprisonment by the Z'nai (see The Catalyst).
Canonicity Quotient: It seems odd that Leela makes no connection between the giant rats in this story and the ones that she encountered in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. At first I thought that this story might happen before that one until I realized that the secondary console room was destroyed, putting this somewhere after The Horror of Fang Rock. It seems strange that the only "dark impulse" that the Doctor had was a fear of fire and if he was able to keep it from taking more it seems odd that it only took the one that the story had just highlighted. This story gives the Doctor and Leela a full-on telepathic rapport, something that the Doctor never seemed capable of with a non-telepath and shown here with no explanation. 0.90
Discussion: I wasn't sure what to expect when I got into Empathy Games. I had been fairly impressed with the previous Nigel Fairs story, The Catalyst and looking forward to how he would take the story forward from there. At the same time I somewhat dreaded the implications of the title. It sounded like someone was going to do a Hunger Games knockoff. Thankfully, my fears on that score proved completely unfounded. While there might be some incredibly surface similarities between the two stories, they couldn't be more different and this ends up being a more thought provoking tale in the same mold as the first part of the trilogy.
Empathy Games follows the story of the older Leela. After she had unleashed the Z'nai plague in the previous story she is left alive hooked up to their machines. Mention is made of the cheering that followed the wake of the Z'nai extermination but we're never made privy to the details of where everyone is and why no one gives her the release that she seeks. Instead she is kept alive by machines and has nothing to do until she hears the sound of a weeping child whom she consoles with stories of her time with the Doctor. The identity of the child and why it is that Leela tells her stories is the crux of the piece even though you don't realize that until the end of the story. Fairs has set up another nice circle with this story where the story in Leela's present and the one in her past come together at the end and the symmetry is really satisfying.
It's also nice that Fairs keeps this story relatively straightforward. Some of his other work tends to be a little more esoteric and he likes to try and make the listener guess a lot at what he means. This story develops along logical lines and while there are some twists to the plot none of them seem to come out of left field or make me suspect that he doesn't care about the narrative making sense. That helps as this is another story that seems almost to come to the point of Leela's death. As with The Catalyst, Fairs had intended to leave Leela at the point of death. Yet, producer David Richardson asked him not to because they wanted to turn this into a trilogy. It would have been easy to make this seem like a final story for Leela as there is the same elegaic atmosphere as in the Catalyst. Thankfully, Fairs keeps the story from being to confusing, so that it's clear that at the end of the story Leela is not dead yet although she is close.
I also like the idea of the Empathy Games. A society that distills its darker emotions and places them into creatures which are then hunted and killed for sport is such an interesting way for a whole civilization to feel catharsis. It's also nice that the story subtlety shows that such a system could never truly work because the definition of "evil" and "dark" is so subjective. Just within these two episodes we see signs of racism and even murderous intent from those at the highest level of this society. If anything it makes the story more reminiscent of Equilibrium than the Hunger Games and we're left with the same question in both stories. It would be interesting to revisit this world and to see how it coped with getting the entirety of their emotions back.
One of the story's few flaws is that like many Companion Chronicles it seems to have trouble with the two episode format. The first episode takes its time and introduces the world but that means that there's only one other episode left to resolve the story. It feels somewhat rushed. We spend very little time on the Empathy Games themselves and it feels like a lot more mileage could have been had with them. It also hurts a bit that some of the vital action towards the end happens because of things that the Doctor does offscreen. While that seems more like the plot of one of the television stories, it does hurt a bit because everything in this story comes from Leela's point of view, so having the Doctor take care of things feels like a deus ex machina even if it's no different from what the TV story would have done. There's also a weird portion in the story where the Doctor communicates with Leela telepathically, which is a far stronger form of telepathy than we've ever seen him capable of onscreen except with other telepaths. It seemed a bit odd and out of place to find that here.
Jameson continues her top notch acting job here. Once again her old Leela has the weight of years and you can feel her desire for it all to end. The young Leela has all the energy and enthusiasm that we expect from the character. It sounds as if Jameson never left the part Thankfully this time around she's only called on to play one other main role, which is that of her training partner in the games. Her voice is very annoying to listen to, but I think that Jameson may have been going for that as it sounds like a stereotypical British lower-class accent. Her Fourth Doctor this time has improved slightly, but still doesn't seem quite right. Thankfully, she doesn't have to do the voice much this time and her impression has improved considerably since The Catalyst. The real coup here is the addition of David Warner to the cast playing Co-ordinator Angell. Warner is such an accomplished voice actor and it's wonderful that a voice so iconic from my childhood is happy to play on Doctor Who. Warner is one of those character actors who has been blessed with being able to play a dizzying array of parts from heroes to villains to mentors. As a result, it's hard to get a bead on Angell when he first appears and Warner plays him as a very sympathetic, straightforward man who just wants Leela to participate in a local custom. It is only later that we learn the darker side to Angell, which while still somewhat sympathetic shows that he has a lot more going on. Warner is able to add just the right nuance to the character to make such moral ambiguity work and as always his presence grants the story an extra point.
Fairs continues the musical chores as well and he brings back many of the mournful and sombre tunes from The Catalyst as well as adding a few new ones, to give this story the atmosphere that it needs. It's really hard to listen to this trilogy without being touched emotionally and really feeling for Leela either in the past as she wishes to end the suffering being inflicted on innocent creatures or in the present where she just wishes for her own suffering to end. It's a testament to the power of the work and how well the music synchronizes with it.
Final Rating: 9/10
Recommendation: If you liked the Catalyst then you'll like Empathy Games as well. It's a bit more straightforward but it's also a sombre tale that'll tug at your heartstrings as you get pulled into the two stories of Leela. David Warner gives an excellent vocal performance that really ups the game for this story and Jameson is her usual wonderful self. I definitely recommend listening to it.