Review – Big Finish Doctor Who #29: “The Chimes of Midnight”

This is the next in line of my Big Finish Productions Doctor Who retro-reviews.

#29 – “The Chimes of Midnight”

From Big Finish’s site:

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature was stirring…

But something must be stirring. Something hidden in the shadows. Something which kills the servants of an old Edwardian mansion in the most brutal and macabre manner possible. Exactly on the chiming of the hour, every hour, as the grandfather clock ticks on towards midnight.

Trapped and afraid, the Doctor and Charley are forced to play detective to murders with no motive, where even the victims don’t stay dead. Time is running out.

And time itself might well be the killer…

Written By: Robert Shearman

Directed By: Barnaby Edwards


Paul McGann (The Doctor); India Fisher (Charley Pollard); Louise Rolfe (Edith); Lennox Greaves (Mr. Shaughnessy); Sue Wallace (Mrs. Baddeley); Robert Curbishley (Frederick); Juliet Warner (Mary)

***minor spoilers ahead***

I’ve been eagerly waiting for this one, and the time has finally come.

I mentioned previously on our podcast that it was Big Finish that made me a Doctor Who fanboy, and in particular, the 8th Doctor adventures.  I love what Big Finish does with the other Doctors, but the McGann-Fisher dynamic holds a high place for me.  If you read last week’s review, you’re probably wondering why I say that.  The answers is simple.  It’s this episode.  This one made me a fan.  Before this, I merely enjoyed Doctor Who and dabbled at it.  After hearing this one, I was hooked.  Years later, I come back to this story time and again because it holds up as one of the best pieces of science fiction I’ve ever experienced in any medium, and some of the best character work I’ve been exposed to.  Being a fan of radio, this one makes me all the more proud to be able to hold it up against nearly anything that anyone else can name.   Much like with “The Holy Terror,” this one starts with the absurd and ventures into the creepy and profound, but the pacing and pattern are completely different.  I would daresay the pattern to this episode is completely different from anything else I’ve ever found.  As much as I love the big over-the-top epic stories, this one supports the claims of my friend and colleague Carl intimate adventures such as this with a small cast and claustrophic setting, like you’d experience in a stage production or low budget sci-fi series, can hold their own against anything with a big splashy box office presence.  When you have a setup like this, the characters are the only thing in the spotlight, which means they make or break the entire story.  But isn’t that the case in an epic as well?  If you don’t care about the characters, why would you care what the writer puts them through?  In this case, this is one of those stories where the characters fit together really well in spite of the absurdity they bring to the table, and everything else just falls into place in such a way that the overall production exceeds the sum of its parts.  This adventure spoiled me, and it’s the reason I’m so incredibly unforgiving when it comes to the sloppy stuff we’re given on TV, be it Doctor Who or anything else.  I can’t hype it enough.  And the really weird part is the story just isn’t that big… and yet it is at the same time.

What’s the best way to describe it?  Think of it as a send up of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunits, inflicted with a dose of Groundhog’s Day, and twisted a la Rod Serling.  This audio calls upon one of the greatest hallmarks of the classic Doctor Who style in that the deeper you go into the story, the more and more you find yourself wondering where in blazes they’re taking this story, but it draws you in as surely as it’s drawing our hero in.  It seems all over the map, and yet tightly focused at the same time.  It’s this agility of storytelling that separates Doctor Who from the other franchises out there, and it’s probably one of the only tools left in use on the current series.  The best stories for the Doctor reflect the mindsets and attitudes of the incarnation they use.  McGann’s Doctor is that perfect bridge between the scientific and rational-minded Doctors that come before and the pseudo-scientific and nucking-futs Doctors that come after.  This story mirrors the psyche of the 8th Doctor perfectly, and his opponent pretty much spends the entire storyline poking him with a proverbial stick.  The depths of his psyche will play prominently in many of the 8th Doctor adventures, and this audio serves that transition as well as we progress towards the Zagreus story arc.  Where McGann’s adventures are concerned, the truly zany stuff is more or less behind us for a while, and the richer, though I shudder to use the term) darker stuff is now ahead.

For the supporting cast, I think this is one of those stories that benefits from the radio format, as active listening brings these characters to life in the imagination in such a way that you feel like you know them even though the vast majority of them are Edwardian stereotypes.  That’s the entire point, too: stereotypes reveal so much when utilized by a gifted writer who can peel those layers back for the audience to expose the humanity within.  More than that, it’s the stereotypes that are the key to the mystery, revealing so much to the Doctor.  The characters outright tell the Doctor they “are nothing and nobody,” for it’s only in service that they have meaning.  But what’s the meaning?  That’s the stick that prods the Doctor through this mystery.  And we all know how he hates being prodded, especially through a setup that’s just so very wrong on every possible level. 

Forgive me for a few moments while I pull out my soapbox and step into some controversy.  Classic science fiction, and really any genre at its best, demonstrates that the best stories are all about exploring the meaning of our own humanity, regardless of the context.  In that regard, this whole story revolves around Charley, though we don’t know it right away.  It’s a milestone for Doctor Who companions in that it gives her a level of specialness that ties her directly to the Doctor, which is something that virtually never happened in the classic series.  There were some really strong companions in the series (Sarah Jane Smith, for example), but none of them after Susan had a direct connection to the Doctor or wielded some uber-cosmic responsibility that all of space-time revolved around, even by accident.  Even Romana, who was a fellow Time Lord and closest of all the companions to being his equal (some might say superior), couldn’t make a claim like that.  Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of thing that’s become all too commonplace in the current TV series for all the wrong reasons and probably should never be again because of the lack of originality it exposes.  It’s a lot like trying to conquer the world; every tin-plated would-be dictator comes across as a spoiled child with Alexander envy in need of a good butt-kicking (ask the Doctor - he’s said the same thing in multiple incarnations).  Likewise, every “special” companion on the current Doctor Who desperately seems to want to be Charley.  They have tried to get what she’s gotten, but despite their presentation as strong, smart, independent young women, they’re somehow limited in actually proving it to the audience.  I hesitate to use the term “Mary Sue” characters, but in a lot of ways… yeah, they kind of are.  They come across as the lackluster shell of a knock-off they really are.  I not-so-humbly offer this story as the first piece of evidence (the first of many) to all of the fans out there, especially those supporters of Rose and Amy and those future supporters of Oswin.  Cute and sassy does not a fully defined three-dimensional character make, even if it is a good template to work from.  The closest the current TV series got was River Song, and her story was only a minor upgrade from the others and unraveled into an unfathomable mess.  She served more as a placeholder for all the swooning fangirls out there that think the Doctor would somehow make a good boyfriend.  Again, a Mary Sue character if ever there was one.  It’s embarrassing and insulting in that context, isn’t it?  I know it angers me, because I can SEE the potential there, and it’s just not being utilized properly.  It’s the same issue I have with Twilight and Bella.  It sells because it’s a mask for the reader, and it misses the “something more” that defines a good story.  It’s illusion… smoke and mirrors… devoid of substance.  Painting an empty room doesn’t gift it with the fullness of life and memory.  It’s “storytelling” of this low caliber that makes the reader / viewer believe that if they take off the mask, they are “nothing and nobody.”  That’s exactly the message of this story that I want to get across, and this is what separates Charley from her parade of empty clones. 

Still with me, or just getting angry now?  I don’t blame the fans for loving what they’ve been brought up to love.  My ire instead has always been pointed straight at the source: the showrunners and “creative” teams that laugh all the way to the bank.  What I’m trying to say is it can be better, and Charley’s story is proof positive.

This audio is where Charley’s story takes a gigantic leap forward from her introduction in “Storm Warning.”  We’ve gotten to know her personality – cute and sassy as a modern companion should be - but now it’s time to discover what makes her tick.  Charley as the companion is special in context of the Whoniverse, not because of who she is, but because of what she is due to the Doctor’s interference: a temporal anomaly.  Sad, but true, for how can any mere human be as special as the vaunted Time Lord?  Voice actress India Fisher responds to that question with her performance, raising Charley’s depth of character to a level equal to that of the Doctor (just as other companions have done), but in the end, she’s still the companion, no matter how well the chemistry works with McGann.  You know that’s got to be infuriating on some level, for both actress and character.  The female Doctor Who companions have the same problem Bond girls do in the 007 movies.  The next one in line is always going to be “so much more than the ones before,” and yet they all pretty much serve in the same capacity.  In the case of Doctor Who, their function is to generally to ask, “What is it, Doctor?” so the audience can get him to dumb down an explanation… if he chooses to give one.  Charley serves this function, so she’s pretty much like all the companions that come before in that regard.  However, she is the crux of the larger story arc around which everything revolves as a result of the events of “Storm Warning.”  She’s not the hero of the story.  She’s not even a full partner.  As she stands right now, she’s just the plot device.  Furthermore, she’ll become fully aware of this point and will make a number of attempts to challenge it, which is the very thing that makes her a cut above the others… special, if you will.  It’s similar to when Mickey has his “I’m the tin dog” realization in “School Reunion,” only she didn’t have any specific examples to point to.  You see, the other companions – before and since - have never fought for a better standing in the pecking order.  In the classic series, they simply did their jobs and gave the Doctor someone to talk to.  If they figured out they could lead a life on their own terms, they left the TARDIS.  If they didn’t and the Doctor knew they should, he left them behind.  In the current series, they delude themselves into thinking they are something more, and then they’re left behind in the cold knowledge that they were sadly mistaken in the estimate of their value to the one man whose opinion of them mattered.  Does he care?  Sure he does, but never enough to go back for them.  Oh sure, you could make the case he cares too much, and maybe he does.  He has invested a lot of time and energy into them, after all.  Blame his own insecurities all you want, but the fact is humans live and die in a flash compared to the lifespan of a regenerating Time Lord.  Humans are like puppies to him.  Every Time Lord should have one or a dozen.  No matter how much a part of the family they are, no matter how loved and trusted they turn out to be… he’ll get another when that one’s gone.  Honestly, how many times can you make that point and have a resolution that will satisfy an audience at anything more than the angsty teenage level?  And yet, every companion adds something special to the Doctor, just as a puppy can enrich our own lives.  Fine and well, for that helps him to grow and evolve as a character.  On some level, he gets it, but he constantly says things that confirm the puppy theory as well.  Puppies not only accept their place in our lives, they’re grateful to be there.  When Charley wants to keep her date in Singapore for New Year’s Eve, which is where she was headed when the Doctor rescued her from the R101, he’s incredulous about it, saying that he never understands why his companions are never grateful for the chance to see all time and space.  For Charley, that’s not enough.  It’s everything to be there with him because she’s enjoying herself and adores the Doctor, to say nothing of simply being alive to tell the tale, but it’s not enough because humans are more complex than even we sometimes give ourselves credit for being.  Her interactions in this story with the skullery maid Edith will bear dark echoes as Charley fights throughout the course of her travels in her quest to mean something more in the grand scheme of things.  After all, who wants to simply be the sidekick?  Worse yet, who wants to be nothing and nobody, having no lasting effect whatsoever, not even to another person?  It took a lot of years and multiple listenings to many of these audios to piece it together on the grand and interperson scales, but as I keep saying, the end result is that which ruins the current series for me.  She goes through the same angsty teenage realization the other modern companions do, but then she has to go even further than she or the listener ever thought possible.  She can’t do it without the Doctor’s respect, love, and support, but she also has to go about it in spite of him too.  She’s out to prove she’s not nothing, not nobody… a message that every one of us are encouraged to apply to ourselves.  Charley’s the character – the person - Moffat and Davies have tried to recreate, but they’ve fallen way short of the mark every time because they only present television audiences with her empty template, never truly understanding her as well as they might.  Her entire story arc, in my eyes if no one else’s, is nothing short of literary genius.  She’s one whose journey will haunt you long after her time in the TARDIS finally comes to a close. 

Please understand, I don’t put this out there to continually bag on the new series, even if it certainly comes across like that.  Instead, my objective is to show what can be done, and how Doctor Who could be great again in the hands of somebody who truly gets it.  I want Doctor Who to be great again.  Not merely good, not ok if you turn off your brain, and certainly not angsty.  I want mature entertainment that speaks to its audience on a number of levels as intelligent human beings.  Doctor Who used to be capable of that.  Science Fiction used to be capable of that.  In rare instances, we still see that once in a blue mooon.  Audios like this point the way.  End of soapbox.

So why do the murders happen like clockwork on the hour, every hour, but time itself seems to be in a state of flux?  What’s the connection to Charley’s existence as a temporal anomaly?  What kind of opponent is the Doctor dealing with?  Who – or what – keeps killing the house servants as a series of red herrings?

Well, I think it might be me.  You see… I have shifty eyes. 

That’ll be funnier after you listen.