“Your eyes have adjusted better than mine.”
“I drink a lot of carrot juice.”
Having held down a busy stage career for a good four decades – dating in fact well back into her childhood and nearly a quarter century prior to her involvement with Who – Bonnie Langford has had a reasonably light involvement in the Big Finish audio universe.
Since the inception of the line back in 1999, her likeable Melanie Bush has appeared a mere handful of times alongside Sylvester McCoy (the most notable of which being the amusing Bang-Bang-A-Boom more than a decade since) and a similar number alongside Sixth Doctor Colin Baker (with whom she did the chuckle inducing The One Doctor around the same time).
Even at this, Langford already surpassed her quite abbreviated televised run of two serials with Colin and four with Sly. In point of fact, few companions featured in less travels, bar Hartnell era one offs and brevities like Sarah Kingdom, Katarina or Dodo.
But putting the relative sparseness of her participation aside, it is refreshing to see that my wife and I are not alone in finding Mel to be one of the best companions in Big Finish.
That’s right, I just wrote that.
“It’s their ritual…she says, ‘hello, I’m Mel, this is The Doctor, and he ignores everyone.”
“Got you sized up, hasn’t she?”
Now I’m fully aware of the shock value of that statement. Those unfamiliar with the character beyond her few television serials in the late 80’s will doubtless be sitting back and shaking their heads in disbelief at my straightfaced delivery of that last line, perhaps questioning my taste, or going beyond to wonder about relative sanity.
After all, for decades, she’s been known as the loud dressing, overly peppy aerobics fiend with a penchant for carrot juice (cue the ignominious abortive conclusion of the Colin Baker run) and ear piercing shrieks – and particularly notable for the latter.
However, much as with Colin’s Doctor himself (and the unfairly saddled “man who killed Doctor Who” Sylvester McCoy beside him), the mad scientists at Big Finish have managed to provide a complete about face. With the aid of their tender ministrations, Mel’s few performances showed writers simultaneously drawing out the persona beneath the awkward visuals and eliminating the screaming adjunct role that all too many companions were pigeonholed into being, while further fleshing out the true character beneath into something far more believable and multilayered. In effect, the characters are made “real”, by which I mean recognizably human, with all the traits, pecadilloes and failings associated thereto.
With a mix of actor intentions for the role and an eye towards further humanizing both Doctors and companions, Big Finish is notable for nothing if not providing a truly rehabilitative and expansionist makeover on even the longest-derided members of the Who universe, effectively reworking the “least” (in then-popular opinion) into being the best. Reference just about anything I’ve written to date about either the Sixth or Seventh Doctors, and realize it all works backward from roots in the efforts at Big Finish – the teleplays came after and served to flesh out the Doctors I came to know from the audios, not the reverse.
In point of fact, not only have these Doctors become something of the linchpin of the line (and no offense to the Davison and McGann crowds, much less the more recent Tom Baker line implied in that assertion, mind), but Mel herself has become one of the most requested companions for use in audios among the listening audience. Talk about a 180 degree turn of events!
“Our ancestors knew the meaning of tradition…they called it…Customs.”
Thus it is that we come to the present review, of the second of three Sixth Doctor adventures alongside the erstwhile Melanie Bush from earlier this year.
After a bit of a time travel jumble in the previous story, the pair is off at it again. Mel’s grousing about travelling through time and space without “taking in the sights” leads to the Tardis making an unscheduled stop at ‘Spaceport Fear’, a long abandoned airport terminal of sorts run by an unusually long-lived political and religious leader, beset by generations worth of conflict between “Economy” and “Business” and which features a deadly creature roaming its unlighted corridors…
With a classic old dark house setting, complete with lights that only come on intermittently (literally, only with rare new arrivals), doors and walls that open and close at random (hinting at both the sliding panels and secret portals of the ur-template of the style and creating an effective labyrinth for the inhabitants to wend their way through, Theseus-like) and a roving Minotauresque monster, this is traditional mystery-horror done up Who style.
“Do you think that Economy and Business could work together – we might even be able to open the doors to the outside?”
“Business will never work with anyone, child, it has ever been thus.”
“But just because that’s how things have always been, it doesn’t mean they can’t change…”
Much like personal favorites House of Blue Fire, Enemy of the Daleks and (going way back) Land of the Dead, this is tapping into my favorite genre blend. Not content with merely incorporating horror, mystery and sci fi, Spaceport Fear one ups those handily by pulling affairs more into A Thousand Tiny Wings territory, tagging in more than a hint of wry politicosocial commentary as well. What more could a listener ask for?
With the ostensibly well meaning “leader” of Economy actually working for Business and playing the two sides against each other for his own selfish gain, author William Gallagher has scripted a clever and often quite amusing audioplay that effectively sums up the worsening contemporary socioeconomic dynamic, while simultaneously poking fun at the naivete of both sides and playing off a sort of double entendre of air travel jargon. It’s quite cleverly written indeed.
“Decide now if you are truly brave and wish to serve your people…or if you will forever be a passenger.”
“…I choose to serve my community. I have something to declare.”
Neither of the factions has ever been exposed to the world outside, living for generations restricted to the confines of their little four walled-world of darkness and lies (and if you’re missing all the life metaphors there, I don’t know what to say to you).
“(The same man) leads both Economy AND Business…and I do believe he’s done so for some 400 years.
It makes perfect sense – divide and conquer. One man controlling all of the last remaining resources…holding the balance of power, making sure no one tribe gets the upper hand. It’s all worked out very well for him…”
The peaceable Economy tribe speaks in worshipful tones of such ridiculous terminal jargon as “oh my luggage!”, while the violent, militarily oriented and well armed Business tribe (who Economy defectors can electively “upgrade” to) communicates in quite recognizable MBA jargon (itself all but incomprehensible to the outsider and effectively meaningless, unrealistically anti-human corporate Newspeak). Everyone is either “associate” or “rival”, with no in betweens…
That said, in the end, both sides of this little societal war prove to be effectively misguided babbling pawns of their mutual puppet master and his aim to “take the money and run” – which is a quite direct SuperPAC or multinational corporation analogue if there ever was one!
But even beyond all this, there’s still another mystery in place, with the secret of The Wailer, a bait and switch involving human sacrifices and the neverending storm outside…
Hell, if that’s not enough for you, we even get an unusual workaround for communication and data transfer (can you say videogames save the day?), an even deeper, darker secret about Elder Bones, and did The Doctor really just tickle that baddie into locking himself out of the control tower?
“Oh, for Audit’s sake, stop panicking, you’re like a bear market!”
While providing appropriately cavernous suspense themes, an ultimately quite inobtrusive score by Richard Fox and Lauren Yason offers subtle, nuanced accompaniment to the proceedings. In terms of casting, elder statesman Ronald Pickup, who had a small part in the Hartnell era Reign of Terror way back in 1964, makes his second Big Finish appearance, injecting suitable menace to his portrayal of Elder Bones (who sounds quite hardy for a man of four centuries plus!)
“Walls don’t have minds. Just ears.”
“You should be on a stage. There’s one leaving in ten minutes…”
In the end, everything gets wrapped up quite tidily and yet another civilization (albeit perhaps one such in miniature) emerges older and wiser with the promise of a new day dawning. The feline-loving Doctor even gets to leave with a plushie “cuddly cat”!
While there have been greater highlights over the years (check out my overview of the Doctor Who lines here), Spaceport Fear certainly proves entertaining, genre-juggling and even on a certain level insightfully politicosocially relevant.
While the demands of such a busy and often multilayered script leave a bit less room for The Doctor and his companion than I might have preferred, when the script in question is as witty as this (and even comes with a hint of relevancy to boot), it’s still very much worth a listen.
Fans of all background and stripe are invited to partake of yet another recommended offering from Colin Baker, Bonnie Langford and the folks at Big Finish.