Released May 2006
Following last month’s pseudo-historical ‘The Kingmaker,’ Big Finish has released a strict historical in with ‘The Settling.’ With no science fiction elements to fall back on, it is up to the characters and situations themselves to carry the story; unfortunately, the script does not do a sufficient job in humanizing the characters and the attempts to humanize and sympathize Oliver Cromwell, one of history’s most divisive figures, falls flat.
The TARDIS lands in Drogheda, Ireland in 1649, the site of the famous massacre of some 3,000-plus Irish confederates and English loyalists at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers. Quite quickly, the traveling trio is separated, the Doctor being paired with a pregnant civilian, Ace joining the Drogheda defenders, and Hex meeting Cromwell himself. Knowing that history must run its course, Hex nonetheless takes it upon himself to try to sway Cromwell from committing his famous atrocity.
Cromwell and his legacy elicit very strong and very polarizing opinions, and as such he is the perfect character to feature in an audio given everything that has occurred to bring him to this point. Unfortunately, the tension of events is undermined both by the fact that such a famed historical event will not be undone despite Hex’s best protests and that Hex and Ace are telling the story through a conversation interlaced with flashbacks. Accordingly, listeners know that everyone survives no matter how good the cliffhangers, taking away the one enormous advantage has with its audio-exclusive companions and their unknown fates.
As it should be, one of the biggest highlights of the story is Sylvester McCoy himself as the Seventh Doctor. Although the narrative takes him away from the main storyline for a substantial time, he does everything in his power to keep everyone safe around him, primarily focusing on the pregnant Mary at the beginning and even having to play midwife partway through events. When he finally does confront Cromwell, the seething and controlled rage is palpable, but McCoy wisely plays things more reserved and simply states that he is disappointed in Comwell’s choices and actions. The Doctor is also afforded a very nice moment where he stops to tend to some of Cromwell’s wounded soldiers despite knowing what they will do later, a nice highlighting of the internal ethical debate he must face at all times.
Ace and Hex are given plenty to do in their own portions of the story, but unfortunately some of the writing seems quite out of character for them despite the strong performances from both Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier. Ace, who has seen battle up close and knows its true horror by now, seems much too enthusiastic about joining another, knowing exactly what is going to happen. Likewise, Hex, who early in the story stands up to a soldier by refusing to fight- earning Cromwell’s respect in the process- is later seen to be bravely fighting with the best of them. Little is done to explain these questionable actions. Clive Mantle is absolutely superb as Oliver Cromwell, keeping him very grounded and real as he goes from pious determination and rage to hope and regret. Even though the script portrays Cromwell as much more of a monster than human, there still are some nicely touching human moments for him to have as well.
The biggest issue, though, is that there are few consequences to the plot threads brought up and the events unfolding. Mary saying that the people of Drogheda believing her baby is cursed and the reason for Cromwell’s attack is given no further exploration Hex having to deal with the ramifications of killing is only lightly touched upon as he wants to leave the TARDIS with Ace, giving ‘The Settling’ a sense that nothing is truly accomplished or relevant in the grand scheme of things. It’s a balance between strong core performances and events that offer little lasting value outside of the story itself, between serviceable supporting roles and characters and great atmosphere and sound design. In the end, ‘The Settling’ is an apt title as it settles to be an enjoyable and character-driven tale that just doesn’t quite manage to take that next step to lasting greatness.