The Year of Martha Jones

Posted in Audio by - December 24, 2021
The Year of Martha Jones

Released December 2021

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

As the Doctor continues his journey throughout time and space to right wrongs and injustices, the companions he has chosen to join him aboard the TARDIS have always been a natural extension of his thoughts and abilities. Yet although the Earth and, indeed, the universe have faced destruction on nearly countless occasions, perhaps none has been asked more of a companion than was of Martha Jones who was tasked with traversing a hostile planet alone for a year to instill hope and the Doctor’s name into a ravaged population under the devastating rule of the Master and the Toclafane. Unfortunately, the narrative as presented on screen necessitated this immense task to primarily be carried out off screen, leaving an immense amount of Martha’s journey and development unshown and creating a perfect opportunity for Big Finish to bring Freema Agyeman back to Doctor Who proper in The Year of Martha Jones.

James Goss opens The Year of Martha Jones with ‘The Last Diner’ as Martha arrives on the west coast of the United States. However, as a desperate group gathers to hear Martha’s stories, the limitations of this set quickly become apparent since so much time by necessity must be dedicated to Martha’s stories about the Doctor. In that respect, this story is something akin to a modified entry in The Companion Chronicles, utilizing the diner to briefly touch upon the hardships facing the world’s population at large while also delving into the constant trepidation and paranoia that Martha must endure along her journey. Unable to trust anyone, she even greets the arrival of an old friend as suspicious. This latter aspect actually proves to be a tremendous boon to the script and gives a genuine depth and gravitas to a story that otherwise seems strangely unsure of what to do with its new cast of supporting characters. Even Miranda Sirtis of Star Trek fame who is quite rightly heavily advertised for this release is terribly underutilized, and hearing that Martha’s newest story isn’t quite up to her usual standards is an odd fact to announce within the narrative. Still, the chosen story is certainly one with merits and manages to resonate with certain real-world events as the Doctor as Martha attempt to save a doomed world on which extremism is increasingly unchecked and religion is key, and experiencing the cleverness and fallibility of the Doctor through Martha’s eyes is particularly powerful, especially when she discusses how difficult it can be to travel with the man she needs everyone to have faith in in when he again takes her for granted. This element feeds in quite nicely to the brilliant return of Adjoa Andoh as Martha’s mother who has escaped from the Valiant and quite bluntly reminds Martha that not everyone blindly believes in the Doctor. The relationship between these two has always been somewhat strained, and that is certainly the case here, but Agyeman and Andoh both expertly tap into the emotions of a familial bond tested by two uniquely difficult hardships under the Master’s grueling watch to further bring the delicate fragment of hope that continues to persist in humanity to life so vividly. Thus, while the story as a whole is almost entirely lacking in action and suffers from an abundance of characters who add little to the overall narrative, it nonetheless just about manages to succeed squarely based on the brilliant vocal performance of Agyeman and the emotional entrance of Francine Jones on this storytelling stop.

In Tim Foley’s ‘Silver Medal,’ Martha travels to a forest camp hidden from the Toclafane and finds a resistance group struggling to persist. Unfortunately, this story suffers from many of the same elements that made the preceding tale fall somewhat flat, the running time division between trying to develop the world under the Master’s control and Martha telling her story giving neither the time to properly flourish. To be fair, this settlement and the competitions amongst its members to decide who gets the next ration is appropriately bleak and tense, but there’s little justification in the peoples’ acceptance of Jessie’s rule and the unnecessary risk to life it brings. Passing the competitions off as just being inherent to Americans or a feature of capitalism is hardly satisfying, and it does little to inspire hope in a people that need every bit they can get. Martha, naturally, is appalled by the current state of affairs here, but as she tries to learn of the mysterious plan Jessie has that relies so much on a technologically-advanced species that can only be contacted intermittently, she takes little actual action to affect the change that she is so capable of inspiring. Sadly, even the incredible dramatic potential that exists between Martha and her mother is inexplicably pushed to the background, and though Agyeman and Andoh again do their best with the material offered them, the brief hints at what they could do together end up being far more exciting than what is actually shown. It’s little surprise that the Toclafane and their agents will have a bigger role to play as the finale nears, and so with no mention of this new alien during the televised episodes during which Martha’s journey occurs, the ending is all but an inevitability from the start since anything otherwise would far too substantially rewrite what is known about this time. Martha’s actual story set in Nevada’s past also proves to be far more formulaic and uninteresting than her last, and while the parallels to the current situation are clear, interspersing this narrative with events in the camp only serves to take away from the sense of urgency the camp is obviously experiencing while also bringing into question how effective Martha’s decision to tell parts of her stories to an individual rather than a whole story to a group actually is. Indeed, despite an important part the purpose of this set being to highlight Martha’s stories instilling faith in the Doctor, that point is a significant detractor from the present-day plot as a whole here and only emphasizes how much more effective Martha could be as an agent of hope and change were the entirety of the story dedicated to the present while more casually weaving in her narratives from the past.

Whether an admission that the format of the preceding two stories lacked its intended punch or not, Matt Fitton forgoes Martha’s storytelling to focus wholly on the world presently under the Master’s control in ‘Deceived.’ This is also the first story to feature a pressing threat beyond the hardships of everyday survival as the Master continues his search for the Doctor’s companion, and Miss Beecham and Mr Strand quite adeptly highlight the desperation driving some individuals’ will to survive no matter the cost to anyone else. In fact, aside from Martha, Beecham arguably becomes the most developed character in the set, and her flashback sequences as well as her actions in the present as she utilizes all available knowledge to assume control of the Toclafane and to try to press Martha about the weapon she is creating to take on the Master give a needed boost and sense of immediacy to the ever-present danger while giving Julie Graham plenty of material and layering to explore. Unfortunately, the Toclafane themselves prove to be something of an underwhelming presence here, their exuberance a fitting counterpoint to the grim state of affairs but the overacting and pitch diminishing the effect of any threat they may pose; the brief snippets of Toclafane from afar in previous stories were far more effective vocally than the longer dialogues here, perhaps hinting at a middle ground between these approaches that could more successfully bring this race into any future stories if required. Far more effective, however, is the revelation of just how extensive the search for Martha has been and just how much these forces have infiltrated her life despite her best efforts to remain shrouded throughout her global journey. It’s unquestionably a shame that John Simm could not make a cameo to further amplify Martha’s personal plight, but that countless clones of Martha’s mother have been dispatched across the globe in hopes of finding Martha to bring her to the Master retroactively closes a gaping hole in Francine’s first-episode story while also once more allowing for a tremendous flood of emotions to burst forth between mother and daughter as that truth is realized. As with the preceding stories, the interactions between Agyeman and Andoh are some of the strongest in ‘Deceit,’ and whether the story of the year that never was continues or not, it’s clear that this pairing has the ability to become one of Big Finish’s most dynamic and powerful. Thus, though ‘Deceit’ as a whole is still a fairly straightforward tale that suffers from the absence of the Master as a direct threat even if from afar, it’s easily the best of this trio and far more successfully hints at what Martha can accomplish and experience when the focus is primarily on the situation of the world itself rather than split between that and her previous adventures, no matter those adventures’ importance to her inevitable victory. The Year of Martha Jones is hardly the victory lap for Big Finish that it should have been, but the return of Martha Jones and the infectious energy of Freema Agyeman assuredly is.

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