The Paternoster Gang- Heritage 1

Posted in Audio by - June 10, 2019
The Paternoster Gang- Heritage 1

Released June 2019

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Right from their debut in 2011’s ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ in which the Eleventh Doctor recruits an army of allies to find Amy Pond and her child, the characters of Silurian Madame Vastra, human Jenny Flint, and Sontaran nurse Strax demanded an ongoing series dedicated to their exploits. Thrusting the roles of traditional friends and enemies into uncharted territory, this trio dwelling in nineteenth century London would in quick succession be revisited four more times on screen with each appearance further defining the unique dynamics of the camaraderie within that traversed comedy and earnestness in equal measure. While the on-screen status of the Paternoster Gang remains unknown going forward, Big Finish has finally been allowed to explore the potential stories left dangling since the last appearance in 2015’s ‘Deep Breath’ with all three characters reuniting in the audio medium for the aptly-titled The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 1.

Because viewers have seen how this group came to be and followed many of their exploits, albeit mostly through the filter of the Doctor and his companions, writer Jonathan Morris opts to forego any significant exposition in ‘The Cars That Ate London!’ to open this set. Naturally, there are plenty of discussions about the Silurians’ advancements and the Sontarans’ militaristic bluntness integrated into events to develop Vastra and Strax respectively within this Victorian context, but what may prove more difficult for this series going forward is finding ways to have these two interact with the local populace without becoming repetitive with the same types of resulting reactions.. The offhand and succinct comments about reptiles and Sumatrans work well here for an opening story that is also not afraid of drawing direct comparisons to Sherlock Holmes, but it will be interesting to see if these non-human beings are simply accepted as variations on normal going forward or if their appearances draw more than a passing extra look.

Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating one that easily blends modern notions and concerns with this classic and well-known locale. Anchored by Alan Cox’s superbly sanctimonious Fabian Solak whose ideas about electric and driverless cars to curtail the inevitable spread of pollution stemming from the rise of the internal combustion engine are eerily correct but far in advance of his time. Vastra knows that Solak must be from the future, know someone from the future, or be in contact with another alien civilisation, but the link between Solak’s operations and the recent spate of men who have gone missing or been left as mindless husks surprises even this wisest of Silurians. Fittingly, the intelligence of all three leads is quite literally vital to the progression of the plot with Strax’s own version the key to success when paired with the fallibility of humanity, but the genuine and highly visual danger the artificial intelligence poses that features a strong popular culture reference and a climax befitting of the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who adds a brilliant backbone to the story. Thus, while the Paternoster Gang members themselves may not be the recipients of any new characterisation while together or tackling different angles of the danger independently, ‘The Cars That Ate London!’ brilliantly uses the established facets to throw listeners straight into this world that is so familiar and yet so distinct, creating a strong foundation for this fledgling series that already carries with it so many expectations and so much background while also serving as a harrowing indictment for the cost of modernity and progress.

So much of the Victorian era innately lends itself to storytelling opportunities, but the growth of spiritualism and the belief that the spirits of the deceased were inclined to communicate with the living is a natural fit for the Paternoster Gang to explore in Roy Gill’s ‘A Photograph to Remember.’ When claims of the recently-deceased returning to life with different personalities and the exhibits of a popular local spiritualism show lead the investigators to a certain photographer who has enjoyed a recent rise to fame due to his uncanny ability to seemingly unite worlds and planes of existence, the truth is much stranger and more personal than any anticipate. Given that the official synopsis of the story reveals that a rival group comprised of a Silurian, Sontaran, and human is involved, this isn’t necessarily the surprise that the story sets it up to be, and truthfully it does strain credulity at least somewhat that another such group should exist despite the well-worn trope of a mirror group to the heroes being in operation. The second story of a new series is quite early to introduce such a notion, and the mirror effect is taken so far as to suggest that the human male and Sontaran are romantically involved; while this works from a narrative standpoint and adds an immense degree of emotion to the tale of a man simply looking for support in the pursuit of his dreams, it also inadvertently further dilutes the unique menace of the Sontarans as a clone race- granted, a race that each author seems to have an incredibly different take on anyway- given just how distinct the entrepreneur Stonn is both from Sontarans as a whole and Strax as an already atypical member.

More effective is the revelation that Vastra is not the only Silurian awake at this time simply because of the unique opportunities it affords her within a context similar to the Tenth Doctor discovering that the Master was still alive. Unfortunately, it seems as though much of this potential will be left to a future story to explore since all Vastra can do here is comment that it’s an interesting development. Ultimately, that highlights the biggest shortcoming of ‘A Photograph to Remember’ because, just as both audio stories so far have relied on the televised work to serve as the means of characterisation with little new added, this new group relies on the established facts of the Paternoster Gang to itself be developed as a distorted version, meaning that too many questions and empty spaces are left lingering even if the so-called Bloomsbury Bunch is being set up as a recurring presence and despite the engaging performances from Beth Goddard, Arthur Hughes, and Christopher Ryan. Instead, it’s the plot itself that overshadows the group, and while it’s unsurprising that an alien artefact with unpredictable influences on humans is at fault, the rise and forced fall of Tom Foster who saw his work with cardboard cut-outs and double exposures becoming something all the more transiently but dangerously real happily delivers a much more satisfying arc that highlights just what this series in this timeframe can achieve.

Paul Morris closes out this introductory set with ‘The Ghosts of Greenwich’ as phantoms of the living appear while other people age decades overnight, some beyond their natural years. Following a dodgy lead that continues to gain corroborating testimony, the Paternoster Gang finds that all clues point to the Meridian Line and an ancient secret beneath the Royal Observatory. This is a natural setting for this series to explore given the Observatory’s importance to establishing England as the so-called centre of the world, and the look into the higher social circles and the inherent sexism and elitism of those in charge resonates both within a historical and modern context. Of course, Jenny and Vastra have no qualms about standing up to misogynistic views, but the addition of Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Charlotte Mayfly who has been fighting tirelessly for recognition and who now holds the extra impetus coming from her brother’s condition gives more strength and a personal level to the proceedings that complement the Gang’s usual methods wonderfully. Indeed, this is the story that most stays true to its Victorian setting, and the nuances and depth that the different strata and reactions yield as a result create a truly engrossing tale from beginning to end.

The downside to a lead cast of three such dynamic characters and further supporting characters who each need developing is that the overall human face behind these mysteries isn’t altogether too difficult to discern. Still, the visual threat of a mysterious cloaked man stalking the streets under the cover of darkness is a haunting one that conjures images of so many Victorian thrillers before it, and the truth at the heart of the Meridian is an unexpected twist even if its motivations are all too traditional. At its core, though, ‘The Ghosts of Greenwich’ is a tale of humanity’s shortcomings and strengths which can be both overt and hidden, and it succeeds on every level by offering a message of hope and a strong universal theme that again provides a strong launching point for the further adventures of the Paternoster Gang that will assuredly follow.

All three stories in this set feature strong direction and sound design, and it should go without saying that the lead performances of Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart, and Dan Starkey expertly recapture the energy and tones of their famed televised characters to suggest that absolutely no time has passed since their last appearance together. The overt comedy from Strax has wisely been toned down, although the old joke that he will jump to the most violent conclusion whenever presented a question remains almost constantly present throughout, but the interplay between these three as intelligence and a more subtle approach must supersede more aggressive tendencies is uniformly excellent. Heritage 1 does assuredly play it too safely by not exploring new facets of these characters over the course of three hours, but it unquestionably succeeds in setting the groundwork for what could be a truly captivating experience that is capable of so much no other franchise can achieve and that can stand alongside the utter brilliance of Big Finish’s other Victoria mystery saga, Jago & Litefoot.

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