Blurb: "Pray welcome, one and all, to this, a fantasy in two acts, presented, most humbly, for your pleasure. We bring you drama and magic, angels and demons, a tale of mysterious plague... of nightmares made flesh... of a war fought both in this world and those immeasurably distant. A war, in fact, fought through the mists of time itself. It will make you gasp! It will make you weep! It may even make some of you wake-up..."
Format: Limited-cast audio drama, a Companion Chronicle from the point-of-view of Polly Wright. Published by Big Finish Productions and released June of 2017.
Setting: Wild Heath, England, Earth: Late 16th century. The exact date is never specified, but it's sometime after Shakespeare has started writing plays. Polly narrates the story from a point slightly after parts of it have happened.
Continuity: This story takes place between "The Smugglers" and "The Tenth Planet". Polly mentions that they encountered pirates no too long ago (see The Smugglers). The Player says that the first Doctor's timeline has been compromised (see The Bonfires of the Vanities). He also mentions that the Doctor needs to go on to the South Pole to "die" (see The Tenth Planet).
Canonicity Quotient: It's a problematic story, since the Doctor shouldn't know about the Time War, and he shouldn't know that he's going to die at the South Pole. Sadly, it was inevitable with the fanwanky setup that they gave to this set, although thankfully that mostly only intrudes with this story. Of course, the Time War is a convenient plot device to skirt around continuity anyway, but it isn't cute when used this way, especially since it was completely unnecessary. 0.60
Discussion: What a delicious conceit this story has. I'm already a fan of Elizabethan times and Shakespeare in particular, but I don't think that a framing sequence in one of The Companion Chronicles has been this fun since "The Suffering". It's a very meta story, but that's the point. In many ways it reminded me of "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" and for a moment at the beginning I wondered if they weren't performing for the Gods of Ragnarok. But I loved the whole idea that Polly must perform an episode of Doctor Who for a live studio audience. Her confusion was endearing, and the Player was enigmatic and fun.
Substantially, there isn't much to this story. The travelers arrive. The locals have succumbed to an illness that causes them to sleep while their dreams manifest physically. The travelers start to succumb. Some lethal dreams arrive. Polly saves the day. Without the framing sequence this could have easily been in the Short Trips range. The play gives it substance while also speaking to the artifice of what Big Finish audio drams are really trying to do, how they try to wrap us up into a fictional world where we no longer see the divide between the reality and fantasy. That part was really fun and while the main story was a tired, old, predictable cliche they at least made it interesting through the framing sequence.
Characterwise there isn't much going on. Polly's brave and lets the Player mess with her mind without any real understanding or assurances about what's going to happen to her. Ben's not around for much of anything, although the fact that he dreams about pirates is a funny nod to his nautical background. The Doctor's supposed to get some development here with "The Choice" that producer Ian Atkins talks about in all capitols. The problem is that there isn't really a choice. They've already established that the Doctor is at death's door anyway. Either he dies at the South Pole or somewhere else. It's not like he has a good number of years left either way. All the talk about making him more heroic is silly. I always liked the fact that the first Doctor just happened to die. He didn't need a big, dramatic event around it. He'd just come to the end of the line. That combined with the whole need to shoehorn the Time War in just to justify a gap that's no stranger than other gaps that Big Finish has used just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Thankfully, the fun of this story does a lot to ameliorate that, but it is annoying.
The performances this time were fun. Anneke is clearly having a blast playing all the roles. Some of her 16th century village characters were amazingly fun, and some of her cackling and other sounds for the hallucinations were even better. The only issue that I took this time is that her first Doctor seems to waffle between Patrick Troughton and Hartnell. I realize that being a companion on a cusp of two Doctors must be difficult, but it was distracting. Chapman, on the other hand, puts in a tour de force. He gets to play The Player, Ben, the Doctor (once or twice), and many of the local characters. Chapman really gets to show his versatility here, and it was wonderful to hear all the various voices that he can play. I really enjoyed The Player who fits in so well with a Shakespearean performance while at the same time hiding depths to his character.
I don't have much to say about the production this time. The hollow sound that I noticed in "The Bonfires of the Vanities" isn't present here, which once again makes me wonder if the prior story had been recorded somewhere different than normal. The sound effects in this one were good. I loved the stage effects and the robots were as cheezy as a story this crazy should be. Yet, a lot of the effects this time were done with voices, so I don't have a lot to say in this regard. It still sounded professional and fantastic. I actually wish that we'd gotten to hear about the sound design on this one, but it's the only one of this series of Companion Chronicles that doesn't include an interview with the sound designer.
Final Rating: 8/10
Recommendation: A fun, meta story that examines how the act of performing creates a reality for the audience. There are some wonderful performances, some fantastic dialog, and great effects which will keep you from noticing where the story frays around the edges. I definitely recommend listening to this one.