Kicking off a larger than normal tranche of Sylvester McCoy seventh Doctor stories is the main range two-disc release, Una McCormack’s Red Planets. With the Doctor are companions Ace (Sophie Aldred) trapped in 1961 Berlin, and Mel (Bonnie Langford). Mel is with the Doctor in 2017, but something is wrong: welcome to the Kingdom of Mokoshia, a pan-European Russian empire that never was. Or was it?
Red Planets is laced with cold war overtones and in many ways feels like a Nordic noir version of Doctor Who, ideal for the seventh Doctor. It’s an intense listen, stakes are high and while Ace is caught up in the life and death world of a British spy in Berlin, there’s the strange alternate timeline of 2017 Mokoshia to deal with. McCormack takes her time revealing the necessary elements of history, so the listener isn’t pre-guessing the story too far in advance. Unlike other alternate history stories, this doesn’t pivot around a well-known event, rather a period in history with a plausible turning point avoided. As if that weren’t enough, we also have a chilling message from the future and a mission to Mars, the second red planet of the title.
While Ace has a clear role in 1961 (while that timeline remains), the story is less clear-cut for the Doctor and Mel. There’s an angle whereby Mel seems oddly in tune with this new timeline, and some moralising over the difference between interference and destiny, but it does feel a little straightforward. Similarly, the dark feel of the script pushes the performances in a certain direction, giving a very specific feel to the story. The supporting cast are very much of the era the script is aiming for, giving the while a chimeric feel of both a classic spy film and a seventh Doctor story mixed with a sci-fi mission to Mars.
All this makes for a gripping if unrelenting story. It’s well-written and performed but is very much driven by events rather than character, and the ending tidies the story up perhaps too far for some listeners.