|Starring Christopher Eccleston|
|Synopsis: On the Sphere of Freedom, the Doctor is about to shut down an evil Immersive Games business empire. But his plan spectacularly fails... And he has to face the end of the universe.|
An Unexpected Return by Niall Jones 9/9/22
For Doctor Who fans, the last two years have been characterised by surprise. First came the announcement that Chris Chibnall would be stepping down as showrunner, with Jodie Whittaker also handing in her TARDIS key. While neither of these departures was totally unexpected, the return of Russell T Davies to a role he last held more than twelve years ago was, as was the announcement that Sex Education star Ncuti Gatwa would be taking over as the Doctor. Add to this the still-mysterious return of David Tennant and Catherine Tate and with the Centenary Special yet to be aired, it becomes clear that the next few years of Doctor Who will be full of the unexpected.
While these announcements have taken up most of the headline space, they were not the only surprises to confront the world of Doctor Who. In August 2020, it was announced that Christopher Eccleston would be reprising his role as the Ninth Doctor via the medium of audio drama. Despite being highly popular as the Doctor, Ecclestone has largely avoided the world of Doctor Who since leaving the role, making it clear that filming the series was not a happy time for him personally. His return as the Ninth Doctor was therefore a huge deal.
While this return could have been used as an opportunity for engaging in nostalgia, something which may even have been welcomed at a time when the future of the TV series felt uncertain, Ravagers, the first of the boxsets he recorded with Big Finish, avoids this temptation.
In Ravagers, many of the familiar trappings of the Ninth Doctor's era --- Rose, Daleks, twenty-first-century London --- are absent. Instead, the story begins on the Sphere of Freedom, an oppressive human colony dedicated to the production of hyper-realistic virtual reality games. The production of these games involves ripping people out of their own times and stranding them elsewhere in order to harvest their fear. The story also takes place across a wide range of locations, ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to the planet Tarlishia.
In its rapid movement from location to location and use of serialisation, with each part feeling more like chapters in a book than separate stories, Ravagers resembles Flux more than it does Series One. The similarities between the two stories are odd, given that Ravagers was released only five months before the broadcast of the first part of Flux, The Halloween Apocalypse. The recurrence of the term Ravagers is particularly weird, with it referring to two very different sets of antagonists.
These parallels, although initially striking, turn out to be superficial, however. Whereas Flux opens with a bang, but struggles to resolve its various plot threads in a disappointing finale, Ravagers starts with an exciting premise and actually becomes more interesting as it goes on.
The story opens in media res, with the Doctor seemingly on the verge of victory. Unfortunately, things go very wrong and Nova, who effectively serves as the Doctor's companion for the duration of the boxset, gets caught up in a time eddy and taken to an unknown, far-distant location. Crucially, the Doctor can't fathom the reason for his failure and ends up recounting his story to a mysterious woman named Audrey.
As the first part of the boxset comes to an end, the shape of the story seems clear, with Audrey set up as its villain. Although she is responsible for the time eddies, her motives are more complex than the Doctor initially assumes.
A large part of the story's mystery concerns these motivations.
When the Doctor first meets her, she is a cynical old woman who refuses to explain herself. Later in the story, however, he becomes her ghost, watching her, but failing to understand her. This haunting takes place in a non-linear way, thanks to a piece of Gallifreyan technology, so that we see Audrey as the young, idealistic scientist she began her adult life as, determined to save her home planet, Tarlishia, from the Ravagers, insatiable creatures who, collectively, look like a neutron star.
As has perhaps already become clear, Ravagers' plot is complicated. Although it does take a while to get your head around, it is ultimately rewarding. Moreover, the boxset is filled with enjoyable details and entertaining characters, such as Marcus Aurelius Gallius, a Roman centurion leader stranded in 1950s London. In his comic bellicosity, Gallius somewhat resembles a Sontaran, making it apt that he is played by none other than Dan Starkey, aka Strax the Sontaran.
Ultimately, what makes Ravagers an interesting listen is its emphasis on failure: the Doctor's failure to save Nova from the time eddy, his failure to understand Audrey, and her failure to defeat the Ravagers. Thematically, this suits a Doctor recently emerged from the Time War. It also highlights complexity, which is reflected in the boxset's non-linear structure. If the story has a message, it is that complex problems rarely have neat, simple solutions.
Throughout the boxset, Eccleston puts in a strong performance, which immediately takes the listener back to 2005. Vocally, he hasn't changed much, while several of his old catchphrases --- the exclamation 'fantastic' and habit of answering questions with 'sort of, yeah' --- make an appearance. That said, this Doctor isn't exactly the same as the one Eccleston played in Series One. He is slightly softer; although he doesn't suffer fools lightly, he comes across as less spiky on audio and quickly takes to Nova.
One final thing to say about Ravagers is that it is well worth listening to the behind-the-scenes disc. Normally, I don't find these very interesting, but Ecclestone's contributions make it a compulsive listen. He not only makes it clear how much he enjoyed recording the boxset, but also provides some intriguing reflections on his initial appearance as the Doctor.