Released February 2005
Big Finish continues its strategy of employing new writers for its main range, and Darin Henry’s ‘The Game’ comes as another surprisingly strong entry despite the rather banal title. This is the first six-part story in the range, though each episode is much snappier and shorter than usual, and Henry clearly borrows some techniques from the programme’s previous earlier years when six-part stories were more commonplace to effectively subvert expectations by story’s end to keep proceedings fresh.
‘The Game’ itself refers to the lethal sport of Naxi in which combatants attempt to take the lives of others not on their side, truthfully a civil war in disguise. The sport and pomp of the game is heightened immensely by real-life football commentator Jonathan Pearce’s casting as the Naxi commentator Garny Diblick as well as by excellent sound design that makes it sound as if events truly are occurring in a massive stadium. The presence of a commentator allows for some excellent and unintrusive exposition and enforces just how brutal existence on Cray is.
Placing the usually softer and more genteel Fifth Doctor in the middle of such carnage is a masterstroke, though it also allows this incarnation to show off his naturally more agile and athletic side as well. As he is thrown into the middle of a Naxi match, he continues to proclaim that he will not be a part of it, trying his best to simply defend and stave off his own death. The importance of the warlike matches to the people despite their sheer brutality and the associated loss of life (and even entire teams) is successfully conveyed throughout, and it’s quite clever that each side handles the marketing of the other side so that they can profit off of their enemies, ensuring a balanced and competitive sport.
It’s not just continual mayhem in the Naxi arena in this story, though, as Coach Destry has summoned Lord Carlisle to Cray as a peace negotiator to try to put an end of Naxi. The fact that Destry’s side is so close to victory prompts the Doctor to wonder what is truly going on, and eventually a long-standing operation of racketeering and fixing matches by the Morian Crime Family is revealed. Morian himself, though rather cliched in his gangster attitudes and mannerisms, proves quite adept at thinking ahead and exerting control over others, instigating the peace negotiations specifically so that he can entrap the Doctor and his TARDIS. Faye’s apparent addiction to the ill-tempered Morian and Destry’s realization of his foolhardiness in acting for money rather than honour help to fill out a supporting cast of intriguing characters.
Undoubtedly the star of this story is the peace negotiator Lord Carlisle, played wonderfully by original Doctor Who companion William Russell. The time travel aspect of the programme is used to great effect here as the Doctor eagerly anticipated meeting his hero Carlisle, only to slowly discover that the he himself has been behind all of Carlisle’s most successful endeavours. Russell makes the character instantly likeable, and the script does well to initially cast suspicion on him as he hints at a greater knowledge of the Doctor and seems to have plan on extending Naxi rather than ending it. He quickly forms a deep bond with Nyssa, although it’s sadly telling of what his ultimate fate will be when Nyssa declares that she wants to stay beside him as an aide going forward and gives meaning to why Carlisle says that the Doctor always had such a sad look on his face when the Doctor visited his younger selves.
‘The Game’ is unafraid to discuss the nuance of time travel directly rather than skirt around the edges or come up with a complicated explanation. The Doctor and Nyssa are both on top form, and Nyssa in particular gets to display her intelligence as she pieces together the fuller background story. Davison is great in portraying both his delight and fury as needed, and the inclusion of William Russell helps to create a surprisingly solid six-part story that avoids the common potential pitfalls with such a format.