Sometimes, you have to take the lemons life gives you and make lemonade.
With the recent passing of the lovely Mary Tamm not long after securing her services for an all too brief run of Big Finish audios, there were presumably a number of scripts already written and tailored to her classy, sassy incarnation of Romana(dvoratrelundar).
Where in the past such adventures would likely be buried by time and dust and consigned to oblivion, Big Finish has built a reputation for unearthing (and where necessary, retailoring) Lost Stories, Lost Episodes and suchlike dating back to the dawn of the 1960s.
As such, is it really any surprise that a story very clearly planned as a first time ever pairing of both televised Romanas has managed to make a belated, somewhat Doctored (pun intended) appearance a year on?
The final (?) installment of a trilogy of recent Big Finish Doctor Who adventures* to feature newly minted creation Quadrigger Stoyn (Terry Molloy, better known to Whovians as the Davison through McCoy era Davros), this diverting if somewhat convoluted tale brings what is supposed to be the Mary Tamm Romana and Tom Baker Doctor to ancient Rome.
Taking place near to the conclusion of their search for the Key to Time, this can be viewed as either an intentional brief respite in the proceedings (as is hinted at by the Doctor at one point) or an erroneous search for what turns out to be a fake, duplicate segment (as the script ostensibly hinges upon).
While something of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin in the end, it is this that (apparently) draws the pair into the action, and which is intended as a sort of trap for them by the ever vengeful, but always winding up on the short end of the stick Stoyn.
Juliet Landau, who portrayed a third incarnation of Romana in a pair of Gallifrey audios, makes a more appropriate fit for the role she is thrust into herein than the imperiously intellectual and quite clever Tamm portrayal would ever have been. While Tamm’s Romana could easily be seen as restless and bored by the rather crass play the Doctor spends the first episode plus watching and thus setting off on her own exploration, it is her inherent youthful exuberance and gullibility that allows Stoyn to hijack the Tardis – a quality far better suited to Landau’s more perky and jejune take on the character.
But given her establishment as a future incarnation of Romana, Landau’s essaying the Tamm role (but not the Ward one, or for the most part her own) herein can be a bit misleading for listeners (though naturally there are some nods to the entire affair being a memory of the character in question as a framing device).
While Landau is quite likeable and her portions of the story wholly logical in progression (it’s obvious how we get from point A to point B, if you prefer), where things get a bit dicey is in the future/parallel story involving Lalla Ward’s second Romana.
With Stoyn now abandoned on the moon, he’s apparently seen fit to recreate his prior Roman setting (where he was also abandoned – trading one prison for another and pining for the first!?!) in a faux-“Luna Romana” populated by his mechanized army. With much back and forth nonsense about split personas, travels through the vortex and no less than three effective versions of Stoyn appearing throughout the course of the story, it’s somewhat unclear as to why this entire second storyline was even included – it comes off as quite extraneous to the Roman portions that actually drive and conclude the adventure.
Similarly, while amusing enough, was there any real point to the lengthy play “Luna Romana” (meant in the literal sense of ‘Roman moon’, albeit paralleled in Stoyn’s later lunar recreation as well as a sort of pun on the character this Companion Chronicles installment revolves around) that takes up a fair portion of the running time?
With the play’s happenstance bearing no real metaphorical resonance, much less impact or commentary on the plot it interweaves with, it seems as if author Matt Fitton (of the Wrong Doctors, Lost Story The Dark Planet and Destiny of the Doctor finale the Time Machine) just wanted a platform to grouse a bit about the necessity of compromising one’s art in the name of commerce. In the event, the play’s presence seems wholly extraneous other than as a plot device to keep the Doctor more or less out of the picture while Romana and Stoyn do their thing.
If you prefer, it can also be read as a bit of a commentary on the predictability and stodginess of the much lauded Roman playwrights(and by extension, their Greek progenitors as well), but this is somewhat of an inside dig at academia, and something of an ill fit for such a drawn out portion of a Doctor Who adventure.
Finally, we get a sort of writeoff explanation as to the loss of (the character portrayed by) Mary Tamm, which seems somewhat cursory. Like the rather pointless death of Philip Olivier’s Hex in Gods and Monsters, was there really any call for Romana I to leap into the vortex? And since she’s from the past, so to speak, wouldn’t this have some obvious and immediate ramifications impacting her later incarnations (namely Ward and Landau)?
In terms of impressions of the Doctor in absentia, neither Landau or, surprisingly, Baker ex-wife Ward are able to get a grasp on his notable eccentricities of speech and expression. While trying to nail down a recognizable Tom Baker is akin to asking an actor to lasso a tornado, there’s little of the manic, somewhat nattering and (let’s be honest) often quite obnoxious feel of his Doctor to be found here – the rapid fire sequences punctuated by sudden, unexpected slowing to a throaty baritone drawl, the muttering under the breath, the shocking changes of tone and demeanor within a single breath…nope, not a one.
Lisa Bowerman continues her tripartate domination of Big Finish’s sidelines in once again directing a Companion Chronicles effort. Between her longstanding run as Bernice Summerfield and both directing and costarring in the lively Jago & Litefoot series, she’s certainly proved herself to be one of Big Finish’s busiest ladies, and her deft touch keeps things moving along at a cracking pace regardless.
The bottom line here is that the Landau portions, inclusive of the cheesy titular play, are entertaining enough, with Landau herself proving a worthy successor to the role whom I’d certainly hope to hear more from in the future.
But with the Ward sections (through no fault of the lady herself or her performance herein) proving somewhat muddled if not wholly extraneous, the ongoing use of the doddering librarian-mechanic character of Stoyn (quite possibly the least intimidating Timelord since the Meddling Monk) and quite so many loose or at least paper thin plot threads to reckon with, Luna Romana comes to us as somewhat of a mixed offering.
In sum, Luna Romana fares far better than most historicals (bar the excellent Jack the Ripper reworking of the Colin Baker/Maggie Stables/David Tennant Medicinal Purposes back in 2004 or the Sylvester McCoy/Bonnie Langford visit to Pompeii in 2000’s Fires of Vulcan), but still manages to come up somewhat wanting in other respects.
You could certainly do far worse with an hour or two of your time. But by the same token, there are much better offerings in the Big Finish catalogue to spend your time with. Take this partial recommendation for what it’s worth, and tailor your own actions to personal preference before proceeding yea or nay.