19 March 2016

Audio Review: Doctor Who - Aquitaine

Aquitaine is a pleasingly unconventional release. It sees Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor, with Nyssa and Tegan in tow, arrive on what appears to be a haunted space ship lying in the shadow of a black hole when attempting to answer a distress call. Writers Simon Barnard and Paul Morris manage to make this as intriguing as they do disconcerting and as time goes on and the full picture is revealed, none of the good work is undone. This is an entirely satisfying release.

Perhaps the star of the story is Matthew Cottle as Hargreaves, the personality fronting the Aquitaine's robots. Hargreaves can inhabit every service droid except, strangely, one named Butterworth. He's very amiable, much more so than the one in Jonathan Morris' preceding story The Waters of Amsterdam, and I don't doubt the Doctor half hoped to keep him on come the end of Part Four. It makes a refreshing change to have a robot feature so prominently in the story - by its nature he is in nearly every scene - and be on the side of good rather than abstaining or working against the Doctor.

Nina Sosanya and Harry Myers feature as members of the Aquitaine's crew, though how they come to be involved is not as straight forward as you may expect. The way the TARDIS team are split this time seems intrinsic to how the story is told and is a very neat idea. There are possibly similarities to be noted between this and The Waters of Amsterdam but the stories are so different that would be unjust. Although it's set over a large spatial and temporal area, Aquitaine still manages to maintain a claustrophobic edge as several antagonistic characters are gradually introduced. The dramatic peak is the third episode, which has perhaps the most attention-grabbing cliffhanger in some time.

The Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa are very well served here, with each getting a great slice of the action and some great dialogue. The strongest exchange of the piece has to go to the Doctor and Hargreaves though - when referring to a graph, the former asks, "Which of these lines is Tegan's?" Hargreaves replies, "The spiky one," to which the Doctor comments "That would be right..." The story is peppered with these moments of charm that allow it fit into Season 20 like a glove. To say any more on the plot would spoil the story, which is best enjoyed as an unfolding mystery.

Andy Hardwick and Ken Bentley do a great job of bringing this story to life - Hardwick's music is particularly skilful. Haunting in places and arresting in others, it's a great score. But beyond that, he makes the story itself extremely easy to listen to and follow, which is key when it isn't necessarily being told in order. Each iteration of Hargreaves sounds minutely different, particularly when two meet for a conversation in the last quarter, whilst still being easily recognisable. Beyond just making for good listening in this context, that's perhaps a nice, realistic touch: while Hardwick could drag and drop an effect onto each clip, in reality no two speakers would sound exactly alike.

The guest stars all suit the material perfectly. Nina Sosanya might have a little too much despair in her tone compared to the script, but it's nonetheless a sound performance. Harry Myers adopts a Russian accent that makes him completely unrecognisable as Adrian from the Bernice Summerfield audios and Gerald Kyd and Danusia Samal, both playing lieutenants, fit seamlessly with the rest of the production. It's a credit to Ken Bentley that he can work on so many productions and still assemble a strong cast that isn't formed solely of the 'Big Finish rep', and it pays dividends in stories like this.

In summary, this is a quality instalment. It might not blow your socks off like other releases, but it's unquestionably in the top tier of Big Finish's output. Strong turns from all involved come together to aid one of the most innovative scripts in recent memory. This is turning out to be Peter Davison's finest trilogy in years, and The Peterloo Massacre certainly looks like it will keep up the momentum. Recommended.

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