12 January 2016

Audio Review: Doctor Who - The Waters of Amsterdam

+++ spoilers follow +++

Coming just one day short of the momentous thirty-third anniversary of Arc of Infinity is the latest Jonathan Morris-penned release from Big Finish, The Waters of Amsterdam, which picks up exactly where that story left off. Having helped see off Omega, Tegan has decided to rejoin the TARDIS current roster of inhabitants, alongside the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa. But before she gets the chance, her ex-boyfriend Kyle has materialised out of thin air.

What Morris has fashioned here simultaneously has qualities that are entirely reminiscent of 1980s televised Doctor Who and aspects that are far removed from it. Falling into both categories is this release's structure, which initially subverts any expectation a listener might have as the first episode is spent exploring Tegan and Kyle's relationship. As you may have guessed, Janet Fielding's character is afforded greater prominence than usual here which is perhaps only fair given all the stories that have focused on Nyssa over the last few years.

When the group are attacked by a group of the water-based Nix, the Doctor takes them back to 1658 to find out why some of Rembrandt's paintings feature unusual, spaceship-shaped objects. This is of course all tied together and in the style of the Davison era, there's a few trips for the TARDIS between times and places in the story's latter half. Despite it being the main setting of the piece, the story actually spends a surprisingly short amount of time in the Dutch Golden Age, taking into consideration the periods spend in the TARDIS and in modern-day Amsterdam.

There's no denying what a clever story this is, and how it shows its subtext in a number of ways. Yes, this is a very funny tale about Tegan going out with a robot and the implications of that. But it also seems to have a deeper message about how we choose our future. This is made most plain in the fact that the 1983 Amsterdam of episode one does not marry up with that of episode four, after the team have gone back three hundred years and changed things, but is also laced throughout through the story in the dialogue between Kyle and Tegan. I was never fond of the latter in her television stories, but on audio, particularly in the hands of Morris, she really comes alive and it's often the things he doesn't say about her that make me laugh the most.

The characterisation of the Doctor is similarly agreeable. Morris writes extremely well for the wry, world-weary incarnation that Peter Davison seems to favour playing nowadays and he has a number of hilarious one-liners of his own. Nyssa is hardly the central focus of this story but nonetheless receives a decent share which Sarah Sutton seems to enjoy. There's one line that took me out of the action, where Nyssa comments that it must be very worrying to be in financial difficulty, which is a stark reminder of how removed from the audience this character initially was, something that diminished as her time in the TARDIS drew to a close.

The chief guest star is the aforementioned artist Rembrandt, and he is utterly delightful. He's not as amiable as historical figures usually are when they bump into the Doctor, but this makes him much more interesting and enjoyable. There's a great tragedy to his character which Morris weaves throughout the story without it intruding or becoming tiresome. Richard James is excellent and clearly relishes the part. Rembrandt is another who receives some very witty dialogue but this is far from the comedy or pastiche of 1980s Doctor Who that I may be making it sound like. This is a serious story with comedic facets, as well as exhibiting other traits you might expect: monsters, action, an evil villain(ess) and a love interest.

The production of this story is simply excellent. Having penned a main range story released last month, Jamie Anderson makes his Doctor Who directorial debut with The Waters of Amsterdam and proves himself extremely capable. The tone of the finished product matches the script far closer than is usually achieved and the sound design and music from Martin Montague and Jamie Robertson respectively adds credible depth to the performances.

This is a very, very good release. More could have been done with exploring the Nix and how they worked as they seem capable of sustaining a story on their own (perhaps there'll be a sequel) but it would have been at the expense of something else so in the interest of maintaining the excellent balance Morris strikes here, I think the right decision was made. This is an extremely polished production with plenty to enjoy and, to my mind, certainly one to recommend to newcomers to both Doctor Who and audio drama. Not bad for a sideline.

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