17 June 2015

BF: The Secret History

 

Open the champagne! Fire the confetti cannon! Celebrate in any other way you want! No, not just because Big Finish have clocked up two hundred releases in their flagship range – and not just because Eddie Robson’s back – but because this is a truly fantastic story. 

Expectations were high for The Secret History, being the conclusion to the so-called ‘Locum Doctors’ trilogy which has seen characters it would otherwise be impossible to include in the main range starring alongside later incarnations. It’s an interesting idea but based on the evidence of the last two stories, I don’t think it was entirely warranted. If anything, I think the idea might seem stronger if The Secret History had existed without Last of the Cybermen or The Defectors, because the glimpses we get of the last two releases in part four (or ‘The Twists of Fate’) make them sound much more intriguing and exciting than they actually were.

I’ve said before that ‘ancient’ history isn’t my particular favourite, but Big Finish do seem to be going out of their way to convince me otherwise. Both James Goss’ Mask of Tragedy and Eddie Robson’s efforts here go some way to doing so, making the period interesting, colourful and humorous. The supporting cast have a pleasing range and give the society the necessary depth – from the Emperor to the hard done by cart painter. They’re all presented as equally important, through the running time allocated to them, and I think that’s a really clever move from Robson. It won me over, anyway.

Beyond just their histories, appropriately, these characters all have a spirit and life of their own. That’s a comment that’s also true of the lead protagonists and antagonists. Peter Davison sounds much more engaged and excited here than he has in some time, and it really benefits the piece as a whole. The Fifth Doctor is in real trouble this time as he’s erased from history by one of the most infamous temporal tinkerers. Brilliantly, it’s thanks to the supporting character of Sophia, an apparently ‘ordinary’ girl, that the timelines are restored. 

This really is a Season 3 historical with the Fifth Doctor though, set over the course of six days but still feeling tightly-paced. Steven and Vicki are an enjoyable pairing and both prove enjoyable foils for Davison’s incarnation. Like Jamie and Zoe last month, they have a little difficulty accepting this new arrival is their Doctor at first, but soon recognise the spirit (and carelessness) of the man they know to be the Doctor. The trio are, of course, separated for much of the story’s running time, coming together and dissipating again at various points, but are all more than capable of sustaining their own plot threads, which neatly coalesce to a chariot race thanks to some impressive planning by Robson.

It’s infuriating that I can’t talk openly about the villain/s of The Secret History or anything they do because it’s such a great role in their writing and performance, and one that’s definitely best left unspoiled. As soon as you hear that familiar voice in part one (or ‘The Gothic War’) suspicions are aroused but the glorious denouement in part three (or ‘The Catastrophe Cure’) makes it all worthwhile. For what it’s worth I adored the opening to part four and it makes me long for the return of a particular series, written in white here (Unbound) to save spoilerphobes. Though what they’re doing on a review posted on the day of release baffles me slightly.

After Mistfall’s somewhat lacklustre soundtrack, Andy Hardwick seems to have redoubled his efforts for The Secret History. The music and sound design on this story are a world away from his last couple of stories, and make me look forward to the announced title he’s working on much more. The score at the end of the first disc is almost cinematic in scale, but somehow works with the tweeness of the classic Hartnell historical and the grandeur of Robson’s plot. The sound effects no longer appear to be lifted from a stock library and blend seamlessly with the enthusiastic performances of the cast. More please.

Barnaby Edwards has worked wonders. He always seems to coax an engaging and energetic performance out of his cast, almost like the Graeme Harper of Big Finish. The stories he directs are frequently amongst the most memorable and enjoyable of the lot, and he certainly knows how to assemble a strong cast. This is like a distillation of all that’s good about the main range, which is exactly what the two hundredth release ought to be. If the explanation given here is what Alan Barnes’ masterplan was for the trilogy, I’m not entirely convinced it was worth pursuing, but given the strength of The Secret History I’ll let it go. This is something truly special as far as I’m concerned and I really hope it can be maintained. We’re launching into Jonny Morris’ We Are the Daleks next month, so things are looking hopeful.

In a Nutshell: A truly excellent two hundredth release in what’s still Big Finish’s most popular range.


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