Prisoners of London

Posted in Audio by - July 12, 2023
Prisoners of London

Released July 2023


Following his incredibly successful first contribution to Big Finish’s The Audio Novels range, ‘Watchers’ featuring the Fourth Doctor and Adric, Matthew Waterhouse now turns to the era of the Fifth Doctor, Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan with ‘Prisoners of London.’ When the TARDIS readings announce that this group has finally arrived in 1982 London to fulfill the Doctor’s promise to Tegan of returning her home, Tegan can hardly help but celebrate upon seeing the familiar sights of Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. Nobody here has heard of Heathrow, however, and the four soon discover that although the TARDIS is very much not wrong, this is very much not the London they were expecting.

The most satisfying component of The Audio Novels is just how deeply it can explore its characters, settings, and themes, and with six parts to flesh out this alien world modeled upon contemporary London by survivors of a space journey piecing together historical records, ‘Prisoners of London’ certainly continues that theme. Realizing over the ensuing millennia that the London theming is also a great means of increasing tourism from nearby planets, the descendents of these survivors under their emperor who always takes the name Geoffrey Chaucer regardless of gender have leaned into tourist attractions even more heavily with not one but four Tower Bridges featuring alongside the likes of the Thames River and the Globe Theatre. However, this society is also one of no tolerance, and 1950s police boxes materialize around the zone looking for any sign of wrongdoing which invariably leads to a prison sentence on the moon.

Unfortunately for Tegan, she is caught in the wrong place speaking her mind, and though separated from her friends, her time imprisoned allows for a comprehensive and startlingly effective exploration of her character who is determined to remain optimistic and true to herself even as her circumstances grow more dire. This prison is deemed inescapable, and yet rumours of one person who managed to flee provides her a tremendous sense of focus that effectively dovetails with the political situation on the planet below. This is a world that has been undergoing a sort of terraforming or rapid evolution to become more amenable to humanity with the inhabitable zone within the natural desert ecosystem having nearly quintupled in size since the first humans arrived so many generations ago. Yet in a governing system whereby the public votes only to remove those in power rather than to instate them so as not to be won over by false campaign promises, London has plenty of secrets behind its governmental power that even the emperor knows nothing about.

With the Doctor soon accused of trying to assassinate the emperor and even the emperor’s insistence to the contrary unable to free him of his much more lavish incarceration in which he can gain the emperor’s confidence, Nyssa and Adric are kidnapped and become part of a ploy to force the emperor to listen and confront the travesties of justice that are so rampant within London; a scheme of monetization and corporatization fueling incarcerations so that the prisons are always at capacity and that no person set free ever returns to London to speak about the mining and other actions upon the moon that are so against the principles of this colony helps to layer a tremendous amount of political intrigue into this brilliant and personal drama that makes the most of its expanded TARDIS roster to develop three distinct yet wholly linked facets of this story. Again, Waterhouse has an incredibly firm grasp on all of these characters, and while vocally his Adric may at times sound more like the Doctor while his Doctor sounds more like Adric, his intonations throughout perfectly capture the spirits of all four and demonstrate a true passion for this era of the programme of which he was so vitally important.

For many authors and stories, this political angle would more than suffice as the foundation for the entire narrative, but Waterhouse continues to expand ‘Prisoners of London’ throughout, revealing that the humans did not just happen to stumble upon a planet in the midst of a terraforming process that was abandoned by aliens for reasons unknown. Instead, the humans arrived at the beginnings of the process that will continue for much longer, taking the now human-friendly environment and continuing to change it for its intended occupants. Unfortunately, as those original aliens arise and come to realize that their intended home has been populated by humans, the Doctor finds himself in the middle of another conflict regarding who has the right to this planet with both sides seemingly able to make valid claims. The brewing conflict and heightened emotions are brilliantly incorporated, and although this element of the plot subjectively is not quite as engaging as the much more personal elements of the inner workings of London in its politics, daily life, and penal system, it nonetheless shows Waterhouse’s supreme imagination and confidence as a writer that culminates in a riveting speech from the Doctor in which he speaks to both sides about hopefully finding a common ground through evolution together given that humans in their current state will not be able to persist on this world as the terraforming process continues.

A brief coda with the Sixth Doctor and Peri visiting this world years later is a nice bonus even if it adds relatively little to the overall plot or its resolution, but ‘Prisoners of London’ continues this new range’s fantastic standard of quality. With strong sound design to distinguish the different settings in a story that never quite veers in the expected direction as its scale and scope continue to far expand from simple incongruencies between the London Tegan and the Doctor know and what stands before them here, Waterhouse and Big Finish have offered another engaging foray into the early Fifth Doctor era that offers wonderfully detailed explorations of its many lead and supporting characters’ thoughts and motivations through the mind of a writer who implicitly knows the nuances of this time of the franchise as well as how to perfectly and evocatively put translate them to both print and audio.

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