One of Big Finish’s strengths has been in embracing all of the vast, and occasionally contradictory, history of Doctor Who and working with it. This is why in my Sirens of Time review I mentioned how satisfying it was to find a story so enthusiastically supportive of Colin Baker’s Doctor. It’s why we get great stories like The Fires of Vulcan, which take the early Seventh Doctor and Mel, and put them in their best possible light, showing us a Seven and Mel that could have been. It’s also why we have stories like Bang-Bang-A-Boom, which unapologetically enjoy how goofy the show actually was during Sylvester McCoy’s first year, and try to return to that odd time.
It’s a brave choice, given how this period in the show is generally thought of. I’ll put my hands in the air and admit now, I don’t really care for it. Some fans of the Seventh Doctor, more familiar with his literary incarnation might be surprised at just how silly he is here, but Big Finish still try to cater to all aspects of the franchise. That’s pretty admirable.
Show how does a story set during this divisive period hold up?
After my last few reviews, I’m going to reign the plot summaries in a little. I do keep forgetting I’m not here just to summarise. With that in mind, what’s Bang-Bang-A-Boom about?
The Seventh Doctor and Mel materialise on a space shuttle, finding the crew dead. They manage to transport themselves away, just before a bomb planted on the shuttle detonates, arriving on the space station the shuttle was heading for. The station, named Dark Station 8, is awaiting their new commanding officer, and the Doctor slips into the role. It turns out the station is to play host to the Intergalactic Song Contest, a sort of interstellar Eurovision being attended by miserable squabbling delegates. While the Doctor tries to recover the TARDIS from the wreckage, someone starts bumping off the delegates, and it seems like everyone on the station has a secret to conceal.
If my plot summary made this story seem tense in anyway, I’m sorry to have misled you. Don’t take that the wrong way, this is a good story, but it’s a comedy through and through. The space station and its staff are all slightly mean spirited parodies of Star Trek officers, and there’s a running subplot about the Doctor falling in love with one of the delegates. This isn’t a story that wants to be cool, or for you to be impressed with how clever the Doctor is, it wants to be silly, odd, and referential. It succeeds, but I was surprised to find how much I was enjoying it by the end.
Doctor Who doesn’t do comedy much. Big Finish have dipped their toe in the water more often than the TV series ever did, but the show has always settled for serious premises with a few low level laughs throughout. This story tried to be a bit more out and out funny. It doesn’t always work. One character is, for example, a parody of Terry Wogan and soon outlives his welcome. Also, while the Eurovision setting in general is quite entertaining, the Star Trek parody isn’t funny. It never gets funny. It feels insecure and out of date, as if Star Trek was nothing more than technobabble, hammy accents, and space lovin’. (I like Trek, sue me.)
However, even with those niggles, the story works. The opening setup of the Doctor stealing an authority figure’s identity is ripped right from Power of the Daleks, and yet it’s done with no scheming or threat. The Doctor barely comes up with the idea himself, and he spends most of the story trying on uniforms and enjoying being in control. This is the distracted Seven of Time and the Rani. He does crack the big mystery at the end, and we see a glimmer of the Doctor as we know him, but for the most part this is a story about melodrama in an enclosed space. As the bodies begin to mount, the Doctor is clearly enjoying being the Poirot of the story. Early Seventh Doctor isn’t my favourite, but he’s written well here and the story works.
I should, of course, mention Mel. I am one of those people who finds Mel insufferable in her brief run on the show. Her voice, the dialogue she’s given, her general uselessness. Mel always felt like a cartoon character. Why she works on audio, I couldn’t say, but I imagine it has something to do with writers staying as far away from her TV characterisation as possible. I have greatly enjoyed Mel in many stories since. (My favourite recommendation is The Juggernauts, in which she is forced to live without the Doctor for a bit. Its a great performance.) Here she’s practicly running the show. We get a sense that the regeneration wasn’t so long ago. She’s frustrating by his mangling of idioms, and she seems surprised that he’s making it all up as he goes a long. She’s a strong character here and while she’s filling a pretty generic companion role, Bonnie Langford does a great job.
By the time the story is over, the threat has grown a bit, but it never gets past its comedy origins, with The Doctor’s denouement a list of false accusations similar to Series 4’s The Unicorn and the Wasp. When the killer is revealed, everyone probably saw it a mile off. We do get the only good Wogan gag in the show though. This Doctor is so much fun when he feels like he’s scored a win, though.
Bang-Bang-A-Boom takes the era of Doctor Who I find least watchable and turns it into something enjoyable and fun. It isn’t too serious, and I can imagine being disappointed if you wanted something with a little more tension, but it worked for me. I like this Doctor and Mel, and though it’s fair to say it isn’t the Doctor at his “coolest”, it does call up a little of that old 2000AD, British comics style plot Andrew Cartmel used to like so much.