Sunday, 20 September 2015

200 - The Secret History

Being a life-long Doctor Who fan, I have come to realise that if there is one thing Who fans love it’s an anniversary celebration! The frenzy over the 50th had only just died down when fans were clamouring for a celebration of ten years of New Who (which didn’t happen) – no, despite our differences we are a celebratory bunch who enjoy celebrating our shows history.
200 is a good number to celebrate, but unlike the celebratory release 100, this one is not so obvious a celebration. Some stories are for the general viewing or listening public, some stories are “for the fans” and The Secret History falls most definitely in to the latter category. But lets take a step back, readers of my reviews of the last two main range releases The Defectors and Last of the Cybermen will know that something very strange is going on. The Seventh Doctor has somehow been reunited with Jo Grant, the Sixth Doctor has joined forces with Jamie and Zoe – someone or something is manipulating the Doctor’s timeline and who that is and why it is being done is revealed in The Secret History.
This one is the last in the “locum Doctor’s” trilogy, the theme of later Doctor’s being teamed up with their previous companions continues, this time The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) is teamed up with First Doctor companions Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) for what, on the surface of it, appears to be a pretty standard Hartnell era historical. They arrive in the city of Ravenna in the year 540 AD – the Roman Empire is falling, Rome itself has fallen, the Emperor Justinian is based in Constantinople and his general Belisarius (Giles Watling) is laying siege to the city to try to reclaim it for the Empire. So far, so Hartnell – Davison even comments on the team not splitting up as this was the cause of all his problems back in his first incarnation; with comedy foreshadowing, they get split up, Steven gets caught up in a riot and taken to Constantinople, The Doctor and Vicki team up with Procopius (Tony Millan) sage and writer to track Steven down. This story has a lot to do, it has to be celebratory, be a great homage to the Hartnell era and it has to finish off the “locum” trilogy satisfactorily. In the words of Meat Loaf “two out of three ain’t bad”.
Firstly as a celebration, it works, past glories of the Big Finish main range and of other ranges are referenced (one particular plot line from a few years ago is central to the plot, no spoilers, but you will know it when you hear it). Secondly it is a fantastic recreation of feeling for the Hartnell era historicals – for the first two and a half episodes at least – it has our heroes getting split up, captured, meeting historical characters and trying desperately NOT to get caught up in Historical events. Thirdly it has to finish off the trilogy, and here for me at least it is only a partial success – the villain of the piece is revealed and they really have been “hidden in plain sight” to use an old phrase, very clever work by Big Finish there – but the resolution, its just too New Who involving redundant timelines, changing the future, altering the past and all those annoying cheats that Moffat is so fond of. A shame as I really was enjoying it up until the reveal of the villain.
Back to positives, the whole cast are universally excellent; Davison is effortless, Maureen O’Brien actually sounds like a younger woman, Purves is suitably heroic and stoic as Steven – and the guest cast really do get in to the spirit of things, no-one camps it up, all the performances are convincing and very “Hartnell Era”. The reasons for the villain’s actions are also very believable, the motive is there, but to have the emotional connection you really do have to have been a very dedicated Big Finish fan.
So, in summing up, some great things, some disappointing moments – on reflection the good outweighs the bad but the denouement just seems a little, I don’t know, maybe “off” is the best description. For the brilliance of the first half (and a bit) of this historical homage, I give release 200, 6/10.