The Penumbra Affair

Posted in Audio by - May 09, 2022
The Penumbra Affair

Released May 2022

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Beyond the Doctor draws to a close with Paul Magrs’s ‘The Penumbra Affair, bringing the BBC Audio universe full circle as Susan Jameson’s Mrs Wibbsey who was so integral to Hornets’ Nest and subsequent audio series that marked Tom Baker’s return to his famed role takes centre stage. A letter has arrived at Nest Cottage warning of danger for all of the Doctor’s former companions, and an unexpected correspondence and meeting with Polly Wright reveals a dangerous plot that Mrs Wibbsey must navigate to keep the Doctor’s secrets safe and herself alive.

Magrs’s four instalments of Beyond the Doctor have been somewhat inconsistent with their willingness to portray the full power of the antagonists looking so hard to force an audience with the Doctor for obviously nefarious purposes, and while there is little doubt of the unique threat they pose and the effectiveness from a narrative standpoint of using his former companions to force his hand, Penumbra has never come across as a truly meaningful threat precisely because of the repeated failures of ill-conceived plots. Shockingly, ‘The Penumbra Affair’ forgoes almost any pretense of Penumbra being a credible threat, picking up the story with an organization that has ostensibly given up its intended goal to use the Doctor and his TARDIS to travel back in time to better their own fortunes in order to build a subjectively better present and future. Indeed, it takes Mrs Wibbsey cautiously writing a letter to and then emailing Polly who seems to work at- or at one timed worked at- Penumbra to set any semblance of a plot into motion, and the half-hearted attempts at deceiving Mrs Wibbsey that don’t even involve bothering to learn about Jamie only solidify how ill-defined and ill-prepared this threat has always been.

In theory, the notion of having an ally of the Doctor sit down and spend a quiet holiday period with an enemy is one rife with potential for plenty of character exploration and development. However, as intriguing as some of the conversations are, the belief that the Doctor can once again bring about youth undermines many of the more poignant scenes that seem to suggest that a new page has been turned by accepting that the Doctor will not appear at Mrs Wibbsey’s request to change fate. Magrs does try to instill a greater sense of danger by a nefarious higher-up with a suspected alien origin coming to Nest Cottage as well, but this figure shows up far too late to add anything meaningful to the plot and is dispatched far too easily to even hint at any sort of menace. The entire sequence that involves simply walking to a clock tower to presumably add a sense of scope for a final showdown is perfunctory and extremely superfluous after a story almost entirely devoid of any threat, again reaffirming the failures of Penumbra as a menacing force throughout and doing nothing to further accentuate or heighten this saga as a whole.

Unfortunately, aside from a brilliant performance from Susan Jameson that expertly highlights just why Mrs Wibbsey is such an engaging and lasting character in whom the Doctor has placed so much trust, there is little here to recommend. It certainly fails to develop a meaningful threat, and any attempts to humanize a central antagonistic character are undone or at least minimized on multiple occasions. This is a story that never really seems like it knows what it wants to be, at times glossing over key moments while using far too much padding in others, and ‘The Penumbra Affair’ never really capitalizes on its position as the finale to Beyond the Doctor nor as a continuation of the Nest Cottage saga that Jameson can obviously effortlessly anchor at any opportunity.

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