Released April 2016
‘Nightshade’ was one of the earlier entries in The New Adventures, importantly introducing writer Mark Gatiss to the worlds of Doctor Who but also earning a spot among the very best in the series with its deft handling of the characters and their emotions and how they intertwined with a wonderfully personal plot. As Big Finish continues to delve back into Virgin territory, the Doctor and Ace return once more to the sleepy village of Crook Marsham where Professor Trevithick is forcefully reminded of his days as television’s Professor Nightshade and the citizens are quite literally falling prey to their memories.
It’s not fair to compare the written and audio versions of ‘Nightshade’ since the two mediums are so incredibly distinct, especially with the audio version condensed to a two-hour running time. Compared to the novel, the audio version by necessity is missing a lot of the ambience and internal drama that was such a highlight of the source material. With a rather straightforward menace at its core as an alien entity feeds off memories, this means that a substantial portion of the story is spent with the characters and getting to know who they are and what made them like they are. Indeed, the level of characterization in the novel was superb, and each character felt like a completely developed and living person with understandable emotions and reactions. The audio version is able to do this to some extent, and taken as a totally unique story without comparison succeeds rather well as the characters develop quite naturally, but the condensed running time keeps the heartbreaking developments from truly resonating since the characters’ past and present situations can’t be explored with the same amount of depth.
Nonetheless, it is inherently intriguing to see the past have such a physical effect on the present even as the Doctor slowly uncovers the hidden truth of the region’s cyclical, destructive nature. And while perhaps the trio of Robin, Hawthorne, and Lawrence don’t get quite as much prominence, the focus on the Doctor and Ace is rightfully as prevalent as ever. The Doctor here has grown quite irritable, lashing out at Ace for simply being herself and contemplating whether he has actually done any good or has the right to interfere. He quietly admits to himself that he is the only person he has to run away from now, and the grief and remorse he experiences when his foe uses the image of Susan against him is fittingly poignant, allowing Sylvester McCoy to imbue a genuine sense of emotion and frailty rarely seen in Time’s Champion. At the same time, Ace is written at arguably her most innocent, though there is no denying that she has grown up before the Doctor’s eyes. Her burgeoning romance with Robin is very much a naïve infatuation, but it works very well here and stays true to Ace’s character as written for television. The ending has undergone a dramatic change as Ace’s resolve to stay behind is balanced by a fear of truly staying in one place at one time, and although this doesn’t quite lead into ‘Love and War’ as the original ending did, it allows Sophie Aldred an opportunity to convincingly display her character’s uncertainty and torn thoughts.
With no knowledge of The New Adventures, ‘Nightshade’ in the audio medium is another standout success, the seemingly more docile plot buoyed by good character development and utterly superb outings from McCoy and Aldred. However, with knowledge of just how incredibly deep the character development in the novel was and how drenched in atmosphere the entire story was, a two-hour adaptation could never manage to compare. While the general melancholy and imagery is still present, Big Finish’s ‘Nightshade’ is more different from its source material than the other novel adaptations out of necessity, but it still manages to offer a wonderful experience full of emotion.