The Eighth of March

Posted in Audio by - March 16, 2019
The Eighth of March

Released March 2019

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Although there are many examples to the contrary through the lengthy history of Doctor Who, the franchise right from its very start in 1963 has been unafraid of portraying strong and capable women in all walks of life. In recognition of International Women’s Day and the immense female influence that has guided the franchise, The Eighth of March highlights just a few of the many wonderful female characters that have featured and become beloved icons with four stories likewise written and directed by women.

Lisa McMullin opens this special collection with ‘Emancipation’ set within The Diary of River Song series. When River crashes a Galactic Heritage convention while posing as Romana, Gallifrey sends none other than Leela to investigate, providing the perfect foundation for classic and modern eras of Doctor Who to collide. The two quickly find themselves embroiled in a royal kidnapping scheme that River successfully foils, but they just as soon discover that the truth behind this royal family and its culture is far more insidious than anyone could have imagined. With the princess safe from kidnapping but thus destined to be sacrificed in order to appease the gods and maintain peace, River finds herself facing a crisis of conscience and proves that there are no limits- even with time itself- as to how far she will go to put right what she feels she put wrong. Unfortunately for her, even this presumed fact does not reveal the entire truth, and the hidden secrets that continue to come forth and the resulting consequences that continue to accrue consistently challenge her utterly determined resolve.

However, despite the intriguing and ever-deepening story of the princess and her past, the constant onslaught of new details means that few of them truly have time to resonate before the next one follows in quick succession. Thus, intriguing subplots such as the truth never being spoken, monumental consequences such as an entire theology being overthrown, and truly devastating actions such as River setting the fire that razed the village that is so dear to the women she saved are hardly afforded a second glance. Sadly, the lack of character development stemming from this latter incident in particular is something of a common element throughout ‘Emancipation’ because none of the true uniqueness of these two leading ladies is brought out in any meaningful fashion. Simply having River confidently but nonetheless haphazardly bumbling her way through history while telling Leela about Leela’s own history and revealing none of her own does little to highlight just why Alex Kingston and Louise Jameson have become such cornerstones for the franchise, and Leela is surprisingly fairly inconsequential to the story as a whole that all too briefly discusses freedom and the free will that stems from it. ‘Emancipation’ is worth listening to just for the pure pleasure of hearing these two titans alongside each other, but it’s unfortunately not the celebration of character that both deserve.

In ‘The Big Blue Book,’ Lizzie Hopley revisits The New Adventures era with the Seventh Doctor mysteriously absent and Bernice and Ace left to their own devices while staying at a Liverpool university. When Bernice accepts an invitation she should not, however, Ace soon finds herself entwined in a sprawling missing persons mystery that also comes to include her own housemate, Harvey. Although having Bernice fall victim to the alien scheme eventually revealed makes perfect narrative sense, it’s nonetheless odd that the character who truly gave Big Finish an audio foothold should be sidelined for the majority of this story as Ace looks to figure out the truth behind the mysterious library and the strange collector residing within its confines. Fortunately, Sophie Aldred more than capably assumes control of the story, capturing the nuance of a compassionate yet slightly more hardened version of Ace from her early novelized adventures without foregoing that certain charm and streetwise intelligence that has made Ace such an enduring character from the very start.

Featuring a more traditional Doctor Who storyline, ‘The Big Blue Book’ finds its greatest success through the use of immense visuals to bring its often horror-laden ideas to life, the revelation behind the covers of the books being a particular highlight. Ace quickly discovers that this is not a situation that her trusty Nitro-9 can resolve, and the fates of several thousand lives hang in the balance as the power of intelligence is given an all too literal meaning. There is a modicum of sympathy imbued upon Vassa through her backstory, but the story is wise to just as quickly point out that her continuous acts of horror are without merit or any degree of justification from any viewpoint, making her worse than most. Through it all, however, it should come as no surprise that the scenes that Lisa Bowerman and Aldred share together as the resolution approaches are amongst the story’s best, perfectly hinting at the camaraderie and respect their two characters with their very distinct types of intellect share and further elevating a fairly straightforward plotline that already excels with it imagery and atmosphere.

With the Paternoster Gang due to receive its own recurring series beginning in June, Gemma Langford’s ‘Inside Every Warrior’ serves as a pilot episode of sorts to hint at just how the infamous trio’s dynamic will work when the Doctor and his companions are not part of the equation. Neve McIntosh as the Silurian Madame Vastra and Dan Starkey as the Sontaran Strax have both featured independently in Big Finish audios before, but this represents the first audio appearance of Catrin Stewart’s Jenny Flint, and fortunately the wonderful interplay that existed among all three on television quite effortlessly jumps across mediums to already make this group and this version of Victorian London a living and dynamic entity. Though these are certainly not flawless characters and there remains plenty of room for further nuance and characterisation, they share an immense bond and respect for each other that transcend the social norms of the era, and the very unique skill sets and intelligence that each brings right from the start even with Vastra’s reputation earning only herself the immediate plaudits and respect of others already proves just how successful this series could be going forward.

Though some of the comedy that comes with Strax in particular is a bit forced, ‘Inside Every Warrior’ is very much a tale about subverting expectations, and what begins as an investigation into a series of mysterious break-ins that soon finds the trio searching for a werewolf unexpectedly changes direction to something altogether more devastating and horrific. Langford not only has a firm grasp on the lead characters, but she also implicitly knows how to weave in socially relevant themes without seeming overbearing, and feminism and the abuse of power by the privileged become satisfying foundations for this tale that ultimately boils down to the importance of friendship in every walk of life. With just what truly is inside every person becoming all too relevant to the sadistic scheme that sees even the Gang’s members fall victim, the combination of the very personal and very grandiose that pervades the story works very well and continues to escalate the threat in surprising fashion from beginning to end. Obviously The Paternoster Gang has some way to go to reach the lofty heights of the beloved Jago & Litefoot series that was also set in Victorian London, but ‘Inside Every Warrior’ is a fine start and easily offers the most enduring and relevant themes and depth of this set.

In another first for Big Finish, ‘Narcissus’ by Sara Grochala explores the modern incarnation of UNIT within the Twelfth Doctor era. With the human and Zygon versions of Osgood working side by side, they soon find that their sheer brilliance and intelligence frequently put them at odds with one another. When one of UNIT’s own goes missing, however, Kate Stewart and they decide to investigate a new dating app and the series of disappearances that has befallen its users. Including a very relevant moment regarding user privacy in the digital age, this search touches upon inner versus external beauty, self-confidence, and even the desire residing within to be loved and with another, the latter a feeling that Osgood tellingly does not share because of her life’s fullness with work. Masked behind what can easily be taken as another story of an alien usurping current trends for its own nefarious means is a touching discussion about what really matters and how people are perceived both by themselves and by others, and ‘Narcissus’ as a result carries an extra weight that should be relevant to all listeners in a world beset by so many issues and judgments.

Naturally, Ingrid Oliver is the main attraction of ‘Narcissus,’ and her uncanny ability to bring two versions of the same character to life so distinctly is truly impressive, especially since they share so many scenes together. It’s refreshing to see that Big Finish is unafraid of continuing the two-Osgood story introduced on television, and the tease of drama seen here as these two geniuses try to coexist will hopefully yield further developments in the future to again highlight how unique this situation is and how gifted Oliver is as an actress. With Jemma Redgrave giving a commanding performance as always that again highlights Kate’s resolute and steadfast leadership style and with the story featuring some nice callbacks to earlier adventures, ‘Narcissus’ may not quite reach the heights that the UNIT franchise has already attained in audio, but it’s a confident and well-paced adventure that is open to and able to resonate with any and all listeners no matter their familiarity with the franchise.

Interestingly, all four of these stories deal with people being moved and manipulated into positions to further the aims of someone else, an intriguing discussion point stemming from this celebratory set about how women have been used through history. Although this does lead to some overlap with particular story points and themes since all of the villainous figures are likewise female, The Eighth of March provides a fascinating look at just a few of the women who have made and will continue to make the franchise such a lasting and iconic programme while creating a strong- if at times flawed- foundation for further celebrations of the same ilk.

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