Released June 2012
With Big Finish’s increasing library and confidence, stories directly related to classic era television serials have become increasingly common. Few television stories carry as much weight and general love as ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang,’ though, and there was understandably a sense of concern when ‘The Butcher of Brisbane,’ a prequel focusing on the villainous Magnus Greel, was announced.
Marc Platt has already proven adept at fleshing out the backstory of established villains, his seminal Lungbarrow novel and “Spare Parts’ audio spectacular and important successes. While Magnus Greel may not ultimately be as awe-inspiring as the mighty Time Lords or Cybermen, he nonetheless made an indelible mark on Doctor Who lore with his ambition and unquenchable desire for power. Using every minute detail brought up in ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ including the Filipino army marching on Reykjavik, pioneering research on double nexus particles, the mutative dangers of Zygma radiation, and a fifty-first century Time Agent, Marc Platt is able to vividly bring Greel and a dystopic future Earth to life wonderfully while doing much more than simply retreading the original’s territory.
With a Zygma beam plucking Nyssa and Turlough out of the TARDIS mid-flight and stranding them on this future world so depleted of resources and on the brink of a new ice age, the Doctor and Tegan understandably grow very concerned as they realize just when in history their companions have landed. With one of history’s greatest war criminals leading the way and a doctor using prisoners and dissenters as unwitting subjects in primitive time travel experiments, ‘The Butcher of Brisbane’ quickly becomes a tale of political intrigue with Nyssa taking prominence in some very powerful scenes as Greel’s fiancée in which she serves as both victim and heroine.
Wisely, the Greel presented here is not the same unhinged madman who needs the life energy of young women to survive; instead, he is simply an overly ambitious politician who wants to use time travel to strengthen his ultimate position and power. Angus Wright does superb work in playing this ruthless man without scruples, but he never lets his performance devolve into true madness which would take away from the overall effect. That type of madness is reserved for Rupert Frazer’s Findecker, Greel’s lead scientist who finds himself handicapped and enfeebled by the effects of Zygma radiation. The two together are engaging and incredibly formidable, and the failure of Greel’s plans forces him into his future confrontation with the Fourth Doctor. It would have been easy to keep the characterization of Greel the same as that seen in his future, but showing the pathway that leads to that version of the character is immensely more rewarding and a testament to Platt’s imagination.
With the conclusion of this story already happening in his past, the Fifth Doctor by necessity has several loose ends to tie up, channeling the more manipulative tendencies of his seventh incarnation by contacting his former self to assure events at Reykjavik pan out as required and seeding the story of the Time Agent himself. It’s particularly rewarding to hear Davison impart a hint of sorrow into his performance as his normally straightforward and honest Doctor must act rather furtively and somewhat out of character. Indeed, aside from arguably not finding quite enough for Turlough and Tegan to do, the only slightly off portion of this tale is that the agonizing length of Nyssa and Turlough waiting three years for the Doctor and Tegan to arrive is hardly touched upon beyond some quick throwaway lines. And although the fallout of Nyssa’s rejuvenation still has not been dealt with, that is hardly the fault of this story or its author. ‘The Butcher of Brisbane’ is a fantastic conclusion to this Fifth Doctor Big Finish trilogy, shedding new light on a memorable villain and telling a thrilling and engaging story that looks to both the future and the past with great effect.