How does it feel to betray your own planet?
A lot like betraying your own country but a lot more satisfying.
Eighth Doctor and Cosmo Devine
The Doctor and Charley arrive in New York on Hallowe’en 1938 to find a dead detective. The Doctor’s insatiable curiosity takes him on a hunt for a missing scientist, bringing him into the path of Orson Welles, Glory Bee and a mobster with half a nose known as the Phantom, and some truly out of this world technology.
All the while, Welles’ broadcast of The War of the Worlds is being broadcast to an unsuspecting American public…
After the frankly terrible end to the Eighth Doctor’s first series at Big Finish, a return to America wouldn’t have been in many fans’ wish lists as the second series starring Paul McGann and India Fisher was released. Fortunately, however, Mark Gatiss’ second series opener is a marked improvement, and not just on the American accent front. A really well-researched story that certainly subverted my expectations – any story that includes ‘Mars’ in the title certainly brings to mind the Ice Warriors and Pyramids of Mars and I’m pleased to say that despite no references to either, I was quite happy with the end result. This is not to say that there aren’t issues – Charley is rather sidelined by the plot and at times it does feel like that there is just too much going on. It is certainly to Gatiss’ credit that he does manage to tie together the disparate plot elements into a coherent finale.
One of the strongest elements of this story is the production and direction of this story. It certainly feels as though Gatiss has put a real effort into making this sound like a 1930s radio drama, with the incidental music stings between each scene and it certainly evokes the era. This achieves a sense of ambition and scale which is sorely lacking in McGann’s first series, and especially in Minuet in Hell. It is clear that Mark Gatiss did his research into his era, and I understand that some of the discrepancies (like the number of US states and the date of the formation of the CIA) tie into the ongoing arc surrounding Charley and the implications of her rescue from the R101 on the Web of Time. These are carefully seeded and do not detract from the narrative, and I hope they will be rewarding once I know the truth behind Charley. The above being said, Gatiss does try and play with too many plot elements which does make the story a bit of a mess to follow. There are Russians, Nazis, atomic bombs, aliens, mobsters and Orson Welles thrown into the mix and it feels as though one of these elements may have been dropped. The obvious victim of this is Charley, who does get dropped quite early on, being held captive, menaced, drugged and barely featuring in the finale.
The cast is very good here, which is great as a lot of them are playing multiple roles which makes this story feel a lot bigger than the cast. The performances that particularly stand out are those of David Benson, Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg. Without knowing that Pegg or Stevenson were in this story, I’m not sure I would have recognised their voices had I come to Invaders from Mars cold. Stevenson and Benson have particularly tough jobs as they are British actors doing American and Russian accents, but the performances are convincing enough. Benson’s delivery of the War of the Worlds script is really well done and effectively unnerving. Pegg’s 1930s American gangster voice is perfect too, and completely unrecognisable as the star of Shaun of the Dead and Spaced. John Arthur at times threatens to steal the show completely as Cosmo Devine, with all of his lines delivered with great relish. Devine is probably one of the slimiest Doctor Who villains, a homosexual Nazi sympathiser who is utterly ruthless in pursuit of his goals.
Paul McGann takes this opportunity to solidify his take on the Doctor. Gone is the Machiavellian scheme of the McCoy era and here is this ever-curious and sometimes a bit slow on the uptake incarnation – like the scene where it is revealed that Glory Bee is not in fact related to Stephashin at all. His glee at the idea of playing the part of gumshoe detective is contagious, despite Charley’s misgivings about him stepping into a dead man’s shoes. I’ve been quite positive about McGann in the Big Finish stories up to date, but this is a real opportunity for him to take centre stage and shine, and McGann really doesn’t let this opportunity slip through his fingers. The moment where the Doctor loses his temper with Chaney, Glory and the Professor about the alien artefacts is one of the most Doctor-like moments he has had. Ultimately, of course, the Doctor gets a bit carried away towards the conclusion, almost endangering the safety of the planet in the process
Verdict: Possibly one of the best early Eighth Doctor audio stories. Gatiss’ work in all elements of production deliver a great experience and McGann’s Doctor finally feels secure. 8/10
Cast: Paul McGann (The Doctor), India Fisher (Charley Pollard), John Arthur (Cosmo Devine/Hotel Clerk), David Benson (Orson Welles/Professor Stephashin/Halliday), Mark Benton (Ellis), Ian Hallard (Mouse/Winkler), Simon Pegg (Don Chaney/Actor), Paul Putner (Bix Biro/Noriam/Man), Jonathan Rigby (John Houseman/Thug/Streath), Jessica Stevenson (Glory Bee/Carla/Women), Katy Manning (Reception Guest), Mark Gatiss (Radio Announcer) & Alistair Lock (Thug 2/Toastmaster)
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Director: Mark Gatiss
Behind the Scenes
- This story introduces a new variation of David Arnold’s theme. The closing theme has also been revised.
- The Doctor actually met H.G. Wells, the author of The War of the Worlds in Timelash.
- Simon Pegg would go on to appear in The Long Game, Jessica Stevenson in Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Mark Benton and Paul Putner were in Rose.
We suspected that the Professor was planning to extend his trip to the United States a little. It is important that such a mind as his will remain within the Soviet Union.
But you lost him, didn’t you?
Somebody made away with him, yes. We decided to try any means of discovering his whereabouts. Even down to hiring disgusting capitalist private detective. No offense, Mr. Halliday.
None taken. I’m not Halliday, he’s dead.
Glory Bee and the Eighth Doctor