On the Sphere of Freedom, the Doctor is about to shut down an evil Immersive Games business empire. He’s assisted by a valiant galley chef called Nova. But his plan spectacularly fails…And who exactly is Audrey?
I still remember where I was when I saw that Christopher Eccleston was returning to Doctor Who via Big Finish – I was helping friends decorate their new house, when I glanced at my phone and saw something that looked remarkably like the Christopher Eccleston title sequence on Facebook. Thinking that it was just another series where the role of the Doctor would be played by an impressionist, I almost scrolled past it until suddenly, there in the time vortex…was Christopher Eccleston’s name. You see, I’d given up on the chance of Eccleston ever returning to Doctor Who. His comments about the show, whilst increasingly positive, seemed to suggest that he had no desire to come back and he had turned down the opportunity to reprise the role in 2013 for the anniversary. So, now he’s back. Does the first part of his return live up to expectations?
Well, the short answer is yes. Nicholas Briggs’ script sets us down in the middle, or I suppose more accurately, towards what the Doctor believes is the end of an adventure with a new companion in tow in the shape of Nova. This feels quite similar to the Ninth Doctor’s introduction in Rose, in that the audience’s reintroduction to the Doctor is when he is busy and excited. Briggs gives us a fast-paced pre-credits scene before delving into explaining what has happened, using the Doctor talking to Audrey to give a framing device to the story, explaining how he met Nova and his investigations of the time eddies and the Sphere of Freedom. This is quite a pacey story and the interruptions are kept to a minimum but this element was a little bit irritating, especially as the character who the Doctor is speaking to is so clearly the villain. That being said, it could be seen to be a subversion of the usual trait of villains to spill their plan to the protagonist. The overall premise, that time eddies are being created to feed into an exclusive immersive game called Fugitives marketed towards rich aliens, is an interesting one, even though I did have to go back to double check I fully understood what the big bad idea was. I feel that this story does evoke the Ninth Doctor’s television era well, and this is helped by the music work by Howard Carter, which really feels like it could have been written by Murray Gold.
My favourite idea in this story has to be the Roman Legion falling through a time eddy to 1959 London. It is certainly a striking image for the story and their sudden appearance and massacre of innocents is really effectively conveyed by the sound design, through the combination of the clash of swords, car horns and the screams. Briggs also creates a striking image of the aftermath, with the soldiers having been unable to remove some of the bodies due to the presence of the Romans. The Doctor’s sudden arrival at the military headquarters and the theories of Captain Halloran as to whose behind it – I particularly enjoy the fact that he wants to believe that it was all orchestrated by the Russians – adds some intrigue and humour too.
How do you know all of this?
Because of who I am, where I’ve been, what I’ve seen.Audrey Mohinson and the Ninth Doctor
This story is the first in a mini-arc that takes place over this first release, and so has to set the wheels in motion for what’s to come. To that end, we get a good performance from Jayne McKenna, playing the CEO of the Sphere of Freedom and masquerading to get information from the Doctor – even if this masquerade is a bit pointless considering that the Doctor doesn’t know what Audrey looks like anyway. Nevertheless, she gets to prove her villain chops at the end of the story anyway, sending the Doctor and his TARDIS through a time eddy, taking him to a neutron star which could potentially destroy his ship with its gravity, but is at the same time alive with creatures that want to devour all matter in the universe. All in all, a pretty decent cliffhanger with enough intrigue to think ‘how’s he going to get out of this one?’
The biggest success here is Eccleston; despite over 15 years passing since he left the TARDIS, he has no problem recapturing the Ninth Doctor’s voice. It is perhaps not surprising, Eccleston is one of the best actors around and has been highly sought after for the non-traditional (ie: non-RP) gravitas he can bring to a role, and Briggs’ script allows him to get to grips with playing the part again, allowing the Doctor to be funny, serious and moody when the script allows. Briggs also realises that this Doctor is not solely defined by his guilt at his role in the Time War, which is something which was also shown by his time on television and is for the best all round really – we don’t need a mopey Doctor. Nova, played by Camilla Beeput, mostly appears in flashbacks to her first meeting with the Doctor and their plan to bring the Sphere down, but she does endear herself to the listener in the brief time she has, and I look forward to hearing more of her in this arc. The character reminds me of Rose when we meet her in Series One, in the sense that she is at a loose end, however, the difference between being forced into slavery and being stuck in a unfulfilling job are very different!
Verdict: Sphere of Freedom brings the Ninth Doctor back with a bang, kicking off a small arc which leaves a lot of questions hanging. 9/10
Cast: Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor), Camilla Beeput (Nova), Ben Lee (Farraday), Jayne McKenna (Audrey), Jamie Parker (Halloran) & Dan Starkey (Marcus Aurelius Gallius).
Writer: Nicholas Briggs
Director: Nicholas Briggs
Behind the Scenes
- This story marked the first time Christopher Eccleston reprised the role of the Ninth Doctor for Big Finish. It is, perhaps notably, the first time in audio or television that the Ninth Doctor has set foot on a planet other than Earth.
- The five guest cast members – Beeput, Lee, McKenna, Parker and Starkey – all appear in the other two episodes in this mini-arc.
- Jamie Parker has appeared in a number of previous Big Finish plays, including Leviathan, Shadow of the Daleks 1 and Shadow of the Daleks 2.
- Dan Starkey has played various Sontarans on the television and for Big Finish, most notably Strax. He has also played a number of roles on audio for Big Finish.
When I was young, I was told I was too inexperienced to know anything but now I’m old apparently I’m not worth listening to. How come I missed out the bit in the middle when people think I know what I’m talking about?Audrey Mohinson
Previous Ninth Doctor review: The Parting of the Ways