Back to Earth is the first boxset in a second run of audio adventures for Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor.
Pushing his Doctor Who audio episode tally beyond that of his Doctor’s appearances onscreen, this is a trio of Earth based adventures; one in the present, one in early 17th century Russia and another which begins at the end of the 1980s.
As before, we find the Ninth Doctor travelling pre-Rose and without a regular companion, which seems to be the actor’s preference.
Station to Station
Robert Valentine’s tale sets out its stall with a terrifying cold open that establishes its villain. Soon after, the passing Doctor identifies a temporal contusion with the isolated Underbridge railway station sitting at its heart.
Caught in the deserted station, with ticket barriers you cannot pass through, this is an in-between place – one that terrifies the Doctor, as his psychic paper inadvertently reveals.
In the central role of Saffron Windrose, or Saff, Indigo Griffiths is terrific. Understandably cautious to begin with, she’s also feisty and displays genuine compassion for her compatriots. They’re a diverse bunch too; from fellow passengers to station staff, all are well-drawn. Ian Bartholomew chills as the villain of the piece, the Grimminy-Grue; the fairy-tale inspired name belies a disturbingly atmospheric, vocally dexterous performance. From children’s rhymes to weeping and wailing, this is a tale not well-suited to headphone listening on a late-night train! In fact, thanks to Iain Meadow’s terrific sound design, it’s proper nightmare fuel!
The script strikes a positive note too, with an upbeat ending – undercut with some sage advice from the Doctor about acceptance. There’s also a trading of names between the Doctor and the villain which includes a few fan-pleasing namechecks. As ever, the Extras are worth a listen; we learned that Ian Bartholomew auditioned for the Doctor before Sylvester McCoy won the role.
The False Dimitry
While the other two stories share certain temporal themes, writer Sarah Grochala gives us a good old-fashioned historical run around. Set in the early 17th century, the story surrounds the succession of the Russian Tsar, beginning with a mysterious death. Luckily, there’s a passing Doctor available to lend a hand.
Shining a light on a (for us at least) obscure piece of history, this is lots of fun. Grochala also throws in a couple of nods to some modern populist soundbites and there’s plenty of the fear of the outsider here, while the alien threat remains deliberately remote.
In the guest cast, Katy Brittain gives a vivid central performance as the Tsar’s former nursemaid Oksana; she’s incredibly mannered as she wails for the fate of her country. For his part, Jack Myers as Sasha is calm and intense, while Alexander Arnold brings suitable gravitas to the role of Dimitry.
Auld Lang Syne
In the Whittaker era, Doctor Who forsook its long-held Christmas day slot in favour New Year specials. Christopher Eccleston never enjoyed either however, save for his festive set story ‘The Unquiet Dead’, until now.
Tim Foley’s story begins on the way to a festive gathering. Mandy Litherland has chosen to bring her family together to bring in the New Year, off the back of a pools win. At Foulds House, she encounters the remarkable Doctor, apparently the house’s caretaker.
Across three generations, Mandy’s family are vividly brought to life, from Wendy Craig’s crotchety Great Aunt Bette to Hayley Tammadon’s scatty Auntie Sue. For her part, Leah Brotherhead brilliantly enlivens Mandy – she’s believably restless, looking for adventure but tied to her family too.
Touching and clever, this is a subtly constructed tale which plays out over successive New Years. Simultaneously heartbreaking and life-affirming, it’s remarkably difficult to review without spoiling. The script does a lot with a little; despite mentions of the various other relatives present, there are only four in the guest cast – the other being the charmingly gormless Frank (Greig Johnson).
Christopher Eccleston’s return as the Doctor continues apace and his enthusiasm for the role is seemingly boundless. With some adroit casting, director Helen Goldwyn give him a range of strong performances to play against; as ever, there are a few characters who would make excellent companions if only he was in the market for one.
As enjoyable as these earthbound exploits are, we’d also love to hear the Ninth Doctor out in the wider universe. He was on screen – and remains – a rather Earth focused incarnation. Fingers crossed for the next set!
Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures – Back to Earth is available on CD, download and Limited-Edition vinyl from Big Finish.