Big Finish Productions
The Settling

Written by Simon Guerrier Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2006
Continuity After Survival.

Starring Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Philip Olivier

Synopsis: Oliver Cromwell's army stands before parliament.


Bloodshed by Joe Ford 5/4/07

I don't think this is a CD I will visit again any time soon but saying that I still think it was a powerful piece of drama and beautifully performed.

The most unique thing about this story is its lack of structure although I think that was deliberate. War is about senseless, violent death and people fighting for their lives and that is pretty much what you get here. With war there is no beginning, middle and end, no cliff-hangers, no surprise twists in all the right places to keep the observer excited... it is all played by ear, unpredictable and lacking in a moral resolution. In this sense this play is extremely accurate, the Irish are fighting the English but don't know when they are going to strike and in these circumstances there can be no winners or losers, just people who die. It all feels so random and it contributes to the sense of uneasiness that the drama exudes. Despite some decent episode endings I feel this is one story that should be heard in one long stretch, just to highlight the impulsive nature of the story.

Doctor Who historicals have long been (as far as I am concerned) the absolute best that the show can offer in terms of drama (it is no co-incidence that The Massacre, The Witch Hunters and Fires of Vulcan are amongst my favourite of all of their respective media) and The Settling's setting provides some much-needed seriousness and cohesion for the team of the seventh Doctor, Ace and Hex. After a shaky start, they are shaping up to quite a promising team with Hex shining some light on previously unexplored aspects of the overused Doctor/Ace partnership. Thrusting the three of them into this world of injustice proves quite a rewarding experience and ultimately they all leave the story with a greater understanding of what they mean to each other.

I never thought I would say this with a clear conscience but Sylvester McCoy gives a strong performance here, mostly because I think Simon Guerrier understands what his strengths are as a performer and thus provides him with appropriate material. Because of his manipulation and control over situations I rarely find myself warming to this cold, calculating Doctor but thrust into the unpredictable situation of having to deliver a baby (oh what a marvellous cliff-hanger that is too, running with the theme that this isn't your standard structured Doctor Who story) you get to see a very touching, almost human side to the seventh Doctor. His panic when he realises he must put the war to one side and focus on delivering the baby is hilarious but it was when he starts telling tales to soothe Mary and co-ercing the English Doctor to help with the delivery of an Irish baby that you see how much he genuinely cares for people. I was almost choking on tears as the baby was delivered and he was so delighted that something so wonderful could be born amidst all the death. Sylvester McCoy treats his humanistic dialogue as though it is precious, he rarely gets to reveal this side to the Doctor's personality and it is extremely endearing. Usually he sucks at anger but his emotional response when Cromwell shoots Mary feels justified and perfectly pitched. Well done.

As good as McCoy is, the honours once again have to go to Phillip Olivier who has shown extraordinary growth in his last few plays, helped along by some powerful writing. Every companion goes through that moment when they realise that travelling in time is not just an entertaining game and this is Hex's learning curve, the horror of time travel beautifully illustrated in all the senseless death he is forced to witness. What I like about Hex is that he is not your typical Scouse lad; he is a bit quiet and contemplative without coming across as a wimp. So when the Doctor tells him not to fight but he is confronted with the Irish being horrifically slaughtered he is forced to disobey his orders and help stop the injustice. His previous profession as a nurse has imbued him with a sense of life preservation and it is fabulous to see these skills being utilised in subsequent stories.

Finally, Hex is given some intelligent, thought-provoking dialogue and the scene where he confronts Cromwell and forces the fact that what he is doing is WRONG is one of the most dramatic in Big Finish's canon. It helps that the story is framed by some lovely scenes between Ace and Hex in the TARDIS after the event where we see just how affected the young man is by all the destruction he has witnessed. He asks all the right questions: Did I do the right thing? What could I have done better? Does it get easier to deal with? Should I leave the TARDIS? These tender moments between the two characters are much needed and only serve to re-inforce how close they are now, Hex's playful dialogue suggesting he is much more "interested" than she is (she thinks of him as brother). Sophie Aldred is giving her best audio work when she is allowed to guide and teach Olivier's naive Hex. It paints her in a mature and recognisable light, a far cry from the emotional teen from The Rapture. Olivier's audio range is impressively displayed in this story, his anger in the last episode when he thinks the Doctor and Ace are dead and is willing to bring down the entire English army is extremely discomforting. The hardest lesson to learn is when your interference made things worse and the discovering that sending all the women and children to safety actually caused the boat to sink with the extreme number is horrifying. Again, very well done, let's hope Hex hangs around for a while, I feel he (and Olivier) have much more to teach us about a show we thought we knew so well.

Gary Russell's direction is very strong indeed and I love how he doesn't shy away from forcing us to witness the full onslaught of the fighting and murder. Hearing people being brutally slaughtered really drives home the horror of the situation and with a script that allows us to get close to characters in a hurry and then violently cutting them down in battle really discomforts. There is a fabulous musical score from David Darlington, which really hammers home that this is a war but also delicately underscores the gentler moments without ever getting sentimental.

The performances on the whole are very strong with Clive Mantle offering an extremely layered Oliver Cromwell. When I first read that the former casualty star would be playing the part I cringed, not having seen him act in anything that has forced him to emote that greatly, but he turns in a beautifully theatrical and yet surprisingly sensitive portrayal of this controversial character and he really seems to relish the emotional volatility of the character. I found Cromwell's anger at Hex's betrayal very convincing but his quiet weeping in front of Ace was also well done. It helps to prove that there are no real bad guys in this story, just people trapped in impossible situations. Clare Cathcart is also worthy of a mention, imbuing Mary with a great deal of strength despite the fact that her family are being killed, she is on the run and having a baby. I could see definite companion potential in that character.

The Settling deserves much praise; it is a very polished Big Finish production, one of the better stories in the past two years. The sheer emotional exhaustion it gave me ensured I would not be putting this on my re-listen list any time soon, but if I ever fancy reminding myself how truly dramatic, experimental and powerful Doctor Who can be when it really tries, I shall certainly go for this. Unstructured it may be, lacking in villains and with massive diversions from the main plot to focus on the human element, these are things that make this story so good.

Not the Luck of the Irish by Jacob Licklider 28/5/21

Well, this one was brutal to listen to, just brutal. Being Hex's first adventure into Earth's history, in his infinite wisdom the Seventh Doctor has taken his Irish companion to the taking of the Irish town of Drogheda in 1649. A siege by Oliver Cromwell that ended in an extreme death toll for the Irish as Cromwell ordered their slaughter after refusal to surrender. Hex is a nurse, someone devoted to saving lives, which he is of course wanting to do even at this tragedy. This makes for an extremely dramatic story as it acts as The Aztecs for Hex, who doesn't want to let anyone die and, once he realizes that Cromwell may be reasoned with, actually thinks that it may work out for the best. Of course, it doesn't, as this shows another exercise in the futility of changing history with the small twist that Hex's actions caused a slightly less deadly siege to occur and the Doctor got the chance to deliver a baby, which is interesting. Now a lot of people really love this story, and I don't think I can be an exception to the trend, as the drama had me extremely intrigued in how exactly this story was going to go and if the actual story would allow history to be changed, as for a moment it really seems like it is going to happen.

There are a few flaws in the story at the least, as the only female character, the pregnant Mary played by Claire Cathcart, is there so the Doctor, Ace and Hex have an excuse to actually stay to get involved in events. Yes, the character gets a laugh as she is almost stereotypically Irish and wanting to fight for the freedom of her country but is pregnant. It's only redeemed that Guerrier doesn't decide to kill her off, as that would be even more cliched for the story. Oliver Cromwell, however, isn't nearly as bad, as he is played by the delightful Clive Mantle. I don't know much about the historical Cromwell and the English Civil War, except that he is the closest thing in Britain to France's Robespierre, but Mantle really makes Cromwell feel alive and three dimensional. He isn't just the cackling villain of the piece, but he actually cares about his man and, unlike Robespierre, actually has tolerance for different beliefs. He debates ideas with Hex, which destroys the first impression of the witch burner, as the unfortunate naming of Hex makes people accuse him of witchcraft.

Let's take a minute to talk about Hex, as this isn't the story of the Doctor or Ace but Hex's manipulation into events. Of course the Doctor knows where he landed them this time and is trying to show just how everything isn't black and white. It's Hex's Ghost Light in a sense, as it places him in a situation to confront his past, even if it isn't his personal past, but his heritage that he has to confront. Philip Olivier is honestly great in the role as Hex here and really is allowed to come into his own as the Doctor forces him through the emotional wringer. He thinks the Doctor and Ace are killed in the siege so has to follow Cromwell around just so that he can actually survive and is almost resigned to his fate as someone stranded.

The story also allows us to get into Hex's head by putting it into a framed story where Hex is recounting his side of events to Ace after the fact. This is where Sophie Aldred as Ace shines, as she has to almost be the older sister to Hex. She is obviously much older than she was in Seasons 25 and 26 and has definitely experienced the events of Set Piece and Head Games and made her peace with the Doctor. She knows that the Doctor was probably exploiting Hex, even if it isn't confirmed, but knows that it could have been a lot worse for him. She is what saves the framing device from being boring and does it extremely well. This does bring up the problem that the Doctor doesn't get much to do, and yes it is a problem. You could make the argument that, like many of the Virgin New Adventures, his presence is felt, but really that doesn't hold up as there are points where you forget that this is Doctor Who and feels like The Adventures of Hex and Ace. Now I don't know how Guerrier could have fixed it, and it doesn't always get in the way, just in the middle before we think the Doctor is dead.

To summarize, The Settling is an emotionally engaging story that knows just how to tug at your heartstrings in the right way to solicit a reaction from its audience while staying in the Hartnell-historical style, playing off the ideas of The Aztecs and The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve, but keeping in the era of the Seventh Doctor with the master manipulator and emulating the main motivation behind Ghost Light. There are some flaws to be seen, with the Doctor not being present for most of the story and some characters not making an impression. 85/100.