Everyone’s favorite Edwardian adventuress returns after a long hiatus in her own series. And whether you were a fan previously or no, it’s one well worth looking into.
“I’m apparently at the furthest reach of known space, at the edge of the galaxy some people call Brouhaha 995. I’m staring right into the most extraordinary cosmic phenomenon. Over the centuries, it’s been given all sorts of names: some reverential and awe inspiring, some impossible to translate, some, frankly, just rather rude…a kind of cauldron of broiling darkness, roughly the size of dear old planet Jupiter.
Strange light streams out from within…I’m told it’s the source of myths and legends. It’s a place of pilgrimage and scientific investigation, too, though I’m told no probe or vessel that has ventured too near has ever actually returned. It’s a riddle on the edge of the universe – a place of darkness and secrets.”
Longtime fans be warned: this is a far more grim and cynical Charley Pollard than aficionados of her lengthy tenure alongside Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor (and all too brief one with “Old Sixie” Colin Baker) have become accustomed to. Gone is the earnestness and hopeful naivete, replaced by a more self-satisfied, perhaps even (to go by one early exchange we’re about to address) snottily vain take thereof. By any measure, this is a more worldly woman we are dealing with this time around.
“I can’t think why a lady as striking as you is drinking alone…pleased to meet you.”
“Yes, I imagine that you are.”
Now, this is hardly the sort of thing we expect to hear coming out of Charley’s mouth, nor the sort of classic Who companion behavior Whovians have become accustomed to. Admittedly, this sort of exchange is quite of its era, with clueless and talentless types driven to self-promote via an endless string of “selfies” and often quite delusional self-assurance (the “ooh, I’m so hot” mentality, which tends not to be the case in objective reality). So while distasteful, the genesis of this may potentially be attributable to the authors tapping into the current zeitgeist in a misguided bid for contemporary relevance and/or familiarity.
Regardless, it comes off as a somewhat uncomfortable fit with Who, if not downright declasse in that respect. While a minor bit of business soon put behind us as the story proceeds, it’s still a tad awkward, and proves a bit offputting as a kickoff for both episode and series. But as noted, this is a rather minor quibble, and within the first few minutes thereafter we’re left with a reasonably familiar take on a longstanding and much beloved Big Finish character.
Having held rather mixed feelings on the whole “Doctor-companion romance” angle of her McGann run (a baton subsequently taken up and run with by the folks behind televised “New Who”), my own coming around to a true appreciation of Charley hails from comparatively recent vintage: with her final McGann adventure, the Girl Who Never Was.
Perhaps it was finally being rid of the Kamelion-reminiscent alien novitiate C’Rizz, or conversely her profound emotional upheaval in relation to the loss thereof, but something was very different about their relationship in that story (which was further possessed of a cracking good pseudo-historical sci-fi plot). Regardless, the character finally clicked, bearing emotional resonance and making narrative sense to my mind for the first time. Then came The Condemned and her short, quite excellent run alongside Colin Baker…
As listeners to that run would be aware, we left Charley (the “Patient Zero” of one of its linchpin installments) in the hands of the virus chasing Viyrans, more or less voluntarily assisting the aliens in their interstellar mission of mercy (as it were…subsequent stories such as Dark Eyes 2’s The White Room offer a more conflicted take thereof).
And so we rejoin the erstwhile Ms. Pollard, as she discovers the smitten Robert Buchan (James Joyce) has actually been infected by one of the Amethyst viruses known as The Obscurantist, which establishes itself in a host by accessing ostensibly outmoded and antiquarian vocabulary.
As most of the words seemed fairly current and viable (the earliest terms ran to the early twentieth century, with such terms as “Peter Max”, “schadenfreude” and “carpenter” appearing in place of, say, Shakespearean dialect, John Donne poems or the linguistics of Beowulf), this also smacked as somewhat disturbing. If au courant phraseology is delimited to hip hop lingo, text speak and internet chat-derived neologisms, I stand firmly alongside fellow philologist and logophile Colin Baker in firm resistance thereto…
While Buchan is turned over to the Viyrans for cleansing, Charley meets up with a rather unusual and personable Viyran (with, as she puts it, “a poetical soul”). Both events will carry long term repercussions that carry out throughout the season…
“That was your one saving grace through all my time here. I told myself you wanted to save lives.”
When Charley decides to make a break from her robotic companions, she embarks on a series of adventures involving the rather unusual spatial anomaly they orbit (a time-spanning wormhole referred to as the “ever and ever Prolixity”).
As she travels to an apparently alternate 1936 Scotland and pays a visit to her own family, our heroine discovers some surprising things about Buchan and his father (Nick Briggs, putting on a suprisingly convincing rough accent), her mysterious Viyran visitor and the very vortex she travels through.
Her doubts about the Viyran mission will only increase, the more she learns…for the central virus they seek to cleanse is a far more basic and wide ranging one than they’ve let on…
I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Doctorless Charley Pollard, particularly given her long and comparatively spotty run as an often queasily swooning romantic fanfic fantasy foil for the McGann Doctor. As noted, her later appearances left me with a far more positive impression (and in fact, she proved one of the best of the Colin Baker companions, alongside Peri and the irascible Inspector Menzies). But could she carry a line all by her lonesome?
I’m pleased to inform you the answer is a decided yes.
With the plot threads and mysteries set forth in Jonathan Barnes’ The Lamentation Cypher more or less coming to a head in Matt Fitton’s The Viyran Solution, the season is both self-contained and open ended, setting the stage for further adventures while providing a satisfying full circle that stands firmly on its own merits.
To avoid giving away too much of the good stuff, we’ll leave discussion of the opener and closer to a comparative minimum, and chat a bit about the two central installments.
“The world used to seem explicable. But now, it seems made up of madness and horror…confusion.”
Barnes’ The Shadow at the Edge of the World is the season’s standout, pulling matters back into Planet of Evil territory for a welcome dose of sci-fi horror.
Set in an unfamiliarly jungle-bedecked Scotland (“the edge of the world”), Charley falls in with a half-crazed trio of armed females, the sole survivors of a scientific expedition investigating an impossibly ancient temple. Beset on all sides by a hostile force and vacillating between testosterone-induced rage and paranoia and hysterical, nigh-religious mania, they fight a single minded battle that cannot be won…
Who are the bestial Slaverings? What is the secret of the mysterious temple with a well-worn path and why can no one remember anything but the present?
Much akin to the sort of paranoid, gradually unravelling terror of Mark Morris’ excellent House of Blue Flame, Shadow at the Edge of the World operates on pure nightmare logic, with the few strands of reality only revealing themselves at the very conclusion of the tale. Driven by atmosphere and pure limbic response, Paul Arnold’s sound design and Nick Briggs’ music and direction both establish and enhance the mood of the haunted and improbably located jungle and its mad inhabitants.
While all the haute tension does get a bit arch without recourse to even a modicum of surcease, it must be said that Jacqueline King (as the madly impatient and murderously militaristic former cook Mrs Turnerman), the hallucinatorily hysterical Emmeline Leigh (Lucy May Barker), and the comparatively more modulated Charity Savage (Nicola Weeks) and Susan Broadstairs (Abigail McKern) do display suitable panic and loss of emotional (if not mental) control in the face of an inexplicable, uncanny desperate situation. In all, Shadow at the Edge of the World proves hands down the standout of this first series, pulling matters a welcome distance afield of the more hard-SF milieu driving (to one extent or another) each of the other three installments thereof.
Fitton takes over for The Fall of the House of Pollard, which travels somewhat into The Reaping territory, but with a bit less of a grim ending.
While much of the running time is taken up with a sort of grim Upstairs Downstairsish BBC costume drama, Charlotte “Lottie” Pollard manages to make the transition from ghostly observer to physically present due to the efforts of one Michael Dee (David Dobson), who pays a horrible price for his assistance on her behalf…
As she reunites with her family (which includes Polly herself, Anneke Wills) after several years remove, Charley learns of how they fell on hard times after her disappearance. But there are some character traits about her embarrassed and self-effacing father (Richard Hardiman, of Eighth Doctor Adventure the Book of Kells) which she teaches him to be proud of, and while she is forced to return to the Viyrans, she leaves him with a particularly good stock tip pointing to a reversal of fortunes in the future.
One is left to wonder, given the ostensibly upbeat conclusion, whether Charley’s emotional attachments to her relations are somewhat less than close and heartfelt. While she does leave her parents in comparatively better shape than when she first rejoined them, it is at a price – not only the loss of Dee’s sanity, but at the cost of a total mindwipe. To the Pollards’ minds, they’ve only ever had two daughters…not three. And while this is a more hardened and experienced worldly-wise Charley Pollard than the one we’d left after the events of Blue Forgotten Planet, she seems rather dismissive of such casualties of her perhaps ill advised visit home…
“This is my shuttle…it’s even got my lucky mascot!”
“Mascot? It’s a metal thermos with a face drawn on it.”
“ssht! His name’s Walter, and I won’t have you being rude about him!”
“Remind me, back there just now…who was accusing who of being mad?”
In all, like the recent Bernice Summerfield Missing Persons set, Charlotte Pollard Series One wraps up (in many respects) some longstanding plot points, as well as circling around ouroborically to complete itself. Were there never another season, this could well stand on its own merits as a worthy conclusion of sorts to the travels of Charley Pollard…and yet, it leaves things open to what we can only hope becomes a long running ongoing line of adventures with a somewhat flawed, but increasingly interesting former companion.
Bernice Summerfield Mark II? Perhaps not. But a worthy contender and certainly a welcome addition to the Big Finish Who-niverse. Welcome back, Ms. Fisher.