Ten years ago, Big Finish had the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) engage in a second search for the Key to Time. As part of this, writer Simon Guerrier created two new companions: Amy (now renamed as Abby) played by Ciara Janson and Zara played by Laura Doddington. Created is the word; Abby and Zara were made by the Grace (who made the Key to Time) with many powers, including the ability to track segments of the key. They later became independent and have great powers, but only when together.
Now they are ‘graceless’ and have appeared in several Big Finish releases and are back one final (?) time in Wicked Sisters. To add to the mix, Louise Jameson also appears as Leela. Simon Guerrier wrote these three new stories, as he has all the Graceless boxsets.
The first story, The Garden of Storms has to bring the Doctor, Leela, Abby and Zara on stage and tell a story. It also brings the shape of the boxset into focus: Leela wants to Doctor to destroy Abby and Zara to protect Gallifrey (and everything else), the Doctor is unconvinced and there’s a specific monster for the set, in the form of smoke-like entities. There’s also a story about a community needed to protect its idyllic lifestyle at great sacrifice; in essence it’s a recut of the central idea of Logan’s Run and if you know that, The Garden of Storms loses impact. We’ve also moved on from Leela the warrior to Leela the older person with perspective, in some contrast to the young-seeming Doctor.
Tea on the Moon
The second story splits the characters apart in classic Doctor Who style. The Doctor and Zara go one way, Leela and Abby the other. It’s the Doctor who has the most intriguing and challenging time, dealing with Sontarans on the Moon. One thing we’ve criticised recently (e.g. Paternoster Gang Heritage 4) is the reduction of Strax (Dan Starkey) to a caricature. In The Moonrakers, Simon Guerrier find an interesting spin on the title of a classic 1958 film about the English Civil War (or perhaps a Roger Moore James Bond movie), and finds a far more nuanced way of making Sontarans (and Dan Starkey is back) both drily funny and threatening at the same time. Most of the time is spent on setting up a somewhat contrived plot, with actually very little spent on the meat of the story, and to some extent Leela and Abby are spectators.
Where The Moonrakers is most interesting is in demonstrated how the sisters can influence without direct use of their powers; instead using the most powerful thing of all — knowledge. On some level this story undermines a typical Doctor Who trope of it being OK to change the future from the POV of we the viewers/ listeners but not our past. Our future is, of course, someone else’s past.
In the third part of the set, The People Made of Smoke gives us a future where accidental intervention has made things better. It’s an interesting ethical quandary — fix the timeline but make people worse off. It’s also a chance for the cast to play the same characters in a different version of history. It’s also here a key feature of this set becomes apparent — this isn’t Graceless 5. Abby and Zara aren’t the centre of this set, it’s a fifth Doctor and Leela adventure. Abby and Zara are important but secondary. There’s a lot of focus on the smoke creatures, and here they’ve become somewhat vanilla we want to absorb you so we can live monsters caused by overuse of powers. We get some interesting would-be and actual sacrifices before a typically tidy Doctor Who ending where the Doctor and Leela survive as we know they do. As to the rest? Well, Big Finish has shown us time and again it can find ways out of any locked room mystery, but for now this does feel very much like farewell for Abby and Zara.
Wicked Sisters may be an unexpected release, given the finality of Graceless 4, but on the whole a welcome one. Producer Mark Wright has steered this set of stories into a satisfying whole and should be commended. The themes here might have been explored more thoroughly in a non-Doctor Who setting, but there’s enough here to provoke thought. It may appeal most to fans familiar with previous Graceless stories, but in actuality for the most part it’s an intelligently written piece of Doctor Who worthy of a wider audience.
Doctor Who: Wicked Sisters is available now from the Big Finish website on CD or download. The release includes the usual behind the scenes material for each of the three stories.