Released December 2006
Big Finish’s intermittent Bonus Releases were an incredible marketing strategy that added extra value to their already-robust subscription offerings. Naturally, the unique niche they filled allowed Big Finish to experiment with storytelling style and even authors, and newcomer Elliot Thorpe’s ‘Cryptobiosis’ is certainly anything but by-the-numbers Doctor Who. However, as the audios continued to become more readily available to the mainstream and the Bonus Releases were eventually made available to non-subscribers for purchase, these free offerings continued to take on an added importance and had to stand up by more than uniqueness alone.
As a lengthy one-part story, ‘Cryptobiosis’ has little time to set up its plot, and so the Sixth Doctor and Peri are already aboard the ship Lankester amidst mysterious goings-on. Indeed, the Doctor is cast into suspicion in remarkably short order as the tales of a sick patient and murders aboard the ship come to light. Fortunately, the script takes an intriguing turn as, after Captain Callany arrests the Doctor, he drafts him into the service of the Navy and thus makes the Doctor subject to all of its rules as he becomes the ship’s medic. This misdirection is logical and refreshing, not only adding an exciting layer of depth to the Captain but also giving the Doctor a trusting ally of sorts as the mystery around the ship deepens.
Given the maritime setting and the attention drawn to Amy’s mysterious physical anomalies, it’s unsurprising that the peculiar patient is, in fact, a mermaid. Whether because of time constraints oor not, ‘Cryptobiosis’ does not attempt to provide a pseudo-scientific explanation for the existence of an unknown undersea race, instead simply presenting them as a fact the Doctor is as yet unaware of and lending a more fantasy-based air to proceedings. Impressively, Thorpe does well with presenting the initial issue of Chief Mate De Raquin having captured the mermaid with intent to profit off of her and then quickly escalating the conflict to include an infant mermaid and the revenge of Amy’s people, taking advantage of both the breaking ship and a surprising undersea setting to further intensify already-heightened emotions and flesh out both sides involved. It’s a shame that time does not allow for further exploration of De Raquin’s implied hatred of his job as another motivation as he delves further into insanity driven by greed, but Tony Beck manages to overcome the one-dimensional nature of his scripted character to at least create a suitably intriguing villainous presence.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘Cryptobiosis’ focuses quite heavily on the existence and motivations of the race of mermen and mermaids. Billy Miller’s Nereus becomes the de facto spokesperson for the race and shows a calm but pitiless demeanour that emphasizes his mistrust of the humans above. His decisions are entirely practical even if they shatter the illusion of friendliness and pacifism upon which many stories regarding mermaids are based, but the tenuous deals he strikes with the Doctor and later Peri do at least hint at a kinder interior that likely shines brighter when his people are not under threat. With the Doctor surprisingly less involved than usual despite his importance in the plot-progressing scenes, Nicola Bryant steps into the spotlight superbly as she brazenly lets Peri’s emotions shine through as she becomes the needed protector of and voice of support for Amy and her child.
In the end, though, ‘Cryptobiosis’ simply doesn’t have enough time to truly become what it wants to be, instead feeling like a snippet of a more profound story. Its heart is in the right place and the small cast does great work, but the characters simply aren’t able to fully develop in any meaningful way since the plot is, by necessity, so expeditious. Yet while this shadowy fairy tale may not have quite enough legs to stand up as a release for purchase, it certainly hits more than enough right notes as a free Bonus Release like originally intended.