Released May 2003
In what seems like a very repetitive phrase, Big Finish again proves that it is willing to play with format and expectations to deliver a unique experience with its Doctor Who audios. Here, writer Nicholas Briggs brings possibly his most ambitious, philosophical, and frankly ingenious script to life, though one can only imagine that it must have been a tireless exercise in actually writing it.
Although Doctor Who inherently has one of the most malleable formats of any programme, all too often the scripts stick to the familiar formula of the Doctor and/or companion arriving, escaping capture or death, and ultimately stopping an evil plan. It’s a trusted formula that delivers immense satisfaction, to be sure, but Briggs presents his tale in a completely non-linear fashion, neither beginning at the beginning nor ending at the end. Though the premise of an ecological disaster and its effects on the population is nothing too new, the result is an immensely satisfying experience for those willing to listen to it and try to piece the chronology of events together; despite certain events being revealed much earlier than they normally would be in a ‘regular’ adventure, there are still plenty of surprises in store for listeners right up to the final act. Which isn’t the final act.
While the paranoid and angry world of the Veld following the accidental disaster at the hands of the Koteem makes for an intriguing and dangerous setting, it’s the first episode that is probably the most shocking just because of how unexpected and unusual the setup is. Sarah Sutton proves without a doubt that she has the ability to carry a story here as her battered Nyssa is interrogated by the disconcerting psychiatrist Gilbrook. The stakes are raised throughout the tale for Nyssa, and Sutton rises to the situation admirably, undoubtedly giving her best Big Finish performance yet. And although the action jumps between locations quite frequently, the story being told is actually on quite a small scale, and ‘Creatures of Beauty’ is all the stronger for that more directed focus.
David Daker as Gilbrook and Jemma Churchill as Lady Forleon are the standout guest performers here, both quite aggressive and frightening characters and Gilbrrok unafraid to resort to violet torture to achieve his goals. As the script is presented non-linearly, though, it affords both of these characters the opportunity to grow while also showcasing the full spectrum of their emotions from calm to outright evil. Every character included, though, has a reason for being there, and it’s immensely satisfying to eventually discover what the reasons and the underlying motivations for their actions are. Briggs does a masterful job in fleshing out the full cast and making each and every person in the story relevant and, indeed, essential to the events at hand.
The Fifth Doctor seems a little more at ease when paired with Nyssa than with the likes of Tegan or Adric, and Davison is afforded a little more opportunity for general congeniality and even some humour here. Still, he also aptly portrays a more hardened version of the Doctor than is usually present when the scope of events becomes clear. While this expansion of the Fifth Doctor’s mindset is not nearly as radical as the Sixth Doctor’s essential reinvention by Big Finish, it’s still nice to see new facets of old characters explored.
‘Creatures of Beauty,’ then, is a story that will put off some listeners simply because it is anything but a straightforward tale. However, given the opportunity, the story unfolds into a very satisfying experience that slowly reveals many secrets and surprises along the way. Buoyed by very strong performances from everyone involved, this is another definite experimental success for Big Finish to celebrate.