Released July 2012
Stories only minimally featuring the Doctor became quite commonplace during the Russell T Davies era, each of David Tennant’s three full series featuring one episode in which he was only a fringe presence. While Big Finish has largely avoided that approach, Sylvester McCoy’s obligations to the filming of The Hobbit has afforded the company the opportunity to try something different while beginning to tie up several of the lingering loose ends of the Seventh Doctor’s audio era.
‘Protect and Survive’ itself hearkens back to British government’s campaign during the Cold War in which it gave instructions for surviving a nuclear war to its general populace, and that type of atrocity forms the backbone for Jonathan Morris’s script. The story actually spends a good deal of its opening episode dealing with the atrocities of that setting, Ace and Hex exiting a faulty TARDIS into what appears to be an alternative 1989 in which Soviet leader Chernenko has been replaced by the very militant Khrushgov instead of Gorbachev. While many stories would jump right to the inevitable science fiction hook, though, ‘Protect and Survive’ wisely and quite darkly focuses on the grim reality of the situation at hand as the companions come upon an elderly retired couple making their final preparations as the inevitable approaches.
Once the bomb falls and Hex finds himself blinded and Ian Hogg’s Albert and Elizabeth Bennett’s Peggy both slowly succumb to radiation poisoning, a fantastically bleak post-apocalyptic environment is created, quite possibly the weightiest in any Big Finish release so far. All the while, the radio’s monotone repetition of the governmental instructions continues to play, and it’s with the radio that the truth of the situation slowly reveals itself as Ace uncovers a hidden message from the Doctor. This reality is actually a construct of the Doctor’s used to trap two Elder Gods in order to teach them what it means to be humans. While Hex was incorrectly suspicious of the Doctor abandoning Ace and him at the beginning of the story, he is certainly right to question the Doctor’s morality as events unfold, the Seventh Doctor’s typical pride and machinations coming squarely into question even as he is shown tirelessly trying to avert nuclear disaster.
The direction and sound design are top-notch, as usual, and the overall result is an eerie reflection of what could have been that is carried by the sublime efforts of Aldred, Olivier, Hogg, and Bennett as their characters all undergo extremely emotional and harrowing events. Though the eventual revelation of Moloch as Albert and Peggy’s master and its ramifications understandably cannot live up to the incredible gritty realism that precedes it, they nonetheless kees the intrigue high while setting up much bigger events for the stories to come. Sylvester McCoy’s absence from much of the tale is, of course, evident, but Morris and Big Finish have- at least for one release- found a smooth way of averting this scheduling conflict while telling a totally enthralling story that starts this newest Seventh Doctor trilogy on an incredibly poignant and powerful note, using its companions and supporting cast to maximum effect.