Tartarus

Posted in Audio by - September 20, 2019
Tartarus

Released September 2019

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Crossovers between Big Finish’s increasingly diverse audio ranges have been a rare find, the audio adaptation of ‘The All-Consuming Fire’ that brought together Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes unquestionably being the most prominent example that deftly showed how easily an established world and its characterisation could intersect with the Doctor’s unpredictable lifestyle. With ‘Tartarus,’ writer David Llewellyn brings the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan into the world of Big Finish’s Cicero as they arrive at the coastal town of Cumae in 63BC where the famed orator and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero has retired with his wife away from the threats of Rome.

The Fifth Doctor is generally one of the Doctor’s most pragmatic incarnations, and given his own aversion to interacting with fans from LINDA in ‘Time Crash,’ it’s strangely refreshing to hear the Doctor so cloyingly obsess over Cicero and his many achievements already accomplished and yet to come alike. He has no qualms about discussing matters far in advance of anything that people from Cicero’s time should know, and Peter Davison plays this more energetic and garrulous version of his more reserved character perfectly before a series of earthquakes and strange green lights in the sky quickly skew the more grounded affairs of Cicero’s time into the Doctor’s wheelhouse. It’s rare that the Doctor is not fully in charge of making decisions, but as a twisting and distorted tour through mythology presents itself, Cicero proves equally headstrong and authoritative both when needed and not, and Samuel Barnett easily complements the established chemistry of the lead trio with a charismatic and powerful performance that gives credence to Cicero’s lofty reputation.

Much like in “Harry Houdini’s War” that was also released this month, ‘Tartarus’ is a tale that relies on an interjected series of set pieces, but their insertion here is perfectly logical and even necessary within the context of this plot that focuses so intensely on character and the slightly distorted reality being presented. It’s actually Tegan who inadvertently offers a crucial observation that makes the conveniences and solutions all the more understandable, and Llewellyn adeptly manages to give each of the main players in this expanded core a surprising amount of weighty and meaningful activity to enjoy. In particular, the darker depths of the Doctor who failed to save Adric and of Cicero who summarily ordered the execution of five conspirators without trial are explored to great effect to offer a stark comparison of the similarities between the two, and the Doctor’s discussion that all people choose poorly and often miserably at times is a firm reminder of just how compassionate this ageless figure who has such perspective of both the big picture and on a very intimate level can be. Still, as the quest and its puzzles lead to a surprising conclusion as a most unexpected figure proves to be the prize being sought for so very long, each characters’ strengths, weaknesses, and motivations are proudly on display throughout, and the direction and sound design help to create a vivid world filled with the immense visuals that rank amongst the series’s best.

If there is one downside to ‘Tartarus,’ it’s the explicit use of deus ex machina that goes so far as to call its use out by name. There’s always something of an unsatisfying feeling of unearned convenience when a protagonist’s survival is assured by something wholly unexpected, and the temporary change in tone that accompanies it following a fascinating discussion about how long orders should stand and when free thought and free will should intercede is far too glaring. However, these events do lead to a truly intriguing coda that suggests that more heartbreak is in store for the Doctor in the forthcoming releases of this trilogy, and this expansive journey that successfully balances history, mythology, imagery, and characterisation is instantly memorable and another great example of how well different series can intersect when placed in the proper hands.

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