Blurb: Vicki has a tale to tell.
But where does it start and when does it end?
Ancient Carthage. 1164 BC.
Lady Cressida has a secret. She keeps it deep in the cisterns below the Temple of Astarte with only one flame for warmth. And it must never get out.
Regency London, 1814 AD.
The first Doctor, Steven and Vicki go to the fair and meet the fiery Dragon, the novelist Miss Austen and the deadliest weather you ever did see.
But which comes first?
The Future or the Past?
The Phoenix or the Egg?
The Fire or the Frost?
Or will Time freeze over forever?
Review: Back in 2007, Big Finish wanted to expand the range of the Doctor Who stories that they could tell. At the time, they only had access to the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Doctors. They were eager to tell stories for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Doctors, because they knew that fandom was eager for new stories with those characters and in the style of those eras. Also, so many of actors of former Doctor Who companions were willing to work with them, but they hadn’t thought of a way to use them except by giving some of them a new role or by having a story where the Doctor meets them at a later date. Suddenly, someone had an idea. They could tell stories from the point of view of the companions in small productions where the companion interacts with one other actor. From that beginning The Companion Chronicles were born, and Frostfire was the first of these stories.
It isn’t entirely fair to grade a pilot by the same measurement as a story later in the series. It takes a few episodes for any series to find its way, and The Companion Chronicles are no different. Maureen O’Brien acts during the scenes that takes place in Vicki’s future, but when it comes time for Vicki to read the story that she’s written down she treats it as if she were reading a short story written more-or-less by anybody. In later stories the Companion would often “slip into” their story, treating some of the dialog as if they were speaking it at the time. Here Vicki is always reading, which means a lot of “he said”, “she said”, and “I said” which makes the dialog fairly clunky. Also, the conversation that she has with the Cinder is very intrusive. No one seems to have gotten the formula right yet for how much the framing sequence should interact with the story being told, but this feels disruptive rather than enhancing the story. There’s also an over-the-top cartoon whooshing sound that happens every time they alternate between the story and the “present” of Vicki reading the story that makes the whole thing hard to take seriously.
That isn’t to say that O’Brien isn’t great. Many of the faults of this story seem to come from uncertain direction and writing as the production staff determine how best to tell a story in this style. O’Brien is fantastic, giving Vicki a tragic quality as she relates the difficulties in her life and regret that she has that she left the TARDIS so impulsively. When she does try to do voices, she does a fine job with women, but struggles with men. Her Doctor not only doesn’t sound like Hartnell, but doesn’t have any of his mannerisms. Her Jane Austen, on the other hand convinces as a very proper, formal woman who is keen on a little adventure. The sound effects are fantastic as usual for Big Finish. There’s a lot of sounds of freezing, cracking, crowds screaming, flames whooshing, and a lot else that creates a whole world with sound. The music, though, is very uneven. For the most part, the music is understated, and the main theme of chimes giving a haunting, wintry tune is excellent. Yet, in some places the music sounds heavily electronic and over-the-top. There’s something resembling a church organ during the disturbance at the frost fair and it both feels very out of place and way too loud and obnoxious for the story.
The only element that doesn’t work at all is Keith Drinkel as the Cinder. He performs the part like Brent Spiner with a cold. There’s a lot of sulking and petulance, which just makes the thing seem silly instead of great and legendary creature of the story. While some of this can be laid on the script, Drinkel’s performance doesn’t do him any favors. A different actor probably could have done a far better job with that role.
The script is a very atmospheric piece about a winter so cold that the river Thames froze solid and a frost fair was held on top of the ice. Platt is a master at crafting elegant words to summon up all manner of feelings. Here, he creates a pervading sense of the cold as an implacable force, constantly reaching out with icy tendrils to freeze everything and everyone in its path despite any protection that they might try to use. The idea of the frostfire, a flame that burns cold is eerie and made all the more creepy by the unnatural ways it occurs and the settings where it appears. The framing sequence is suitably grim, held in dank, dark tunnels with the ever-present sound of dripping water helping to show how far Vicki’s life has sunk and giving the story an elegiac tone.
On the surface, the plot is fairly simple. An embryonic creature within its egg absorbs heat, and if it absorbs enough will hatch out of its egg and suck the world dry of heat. The Doctor, Vicki, and Steven need to prevent it to save the human race. Yet, Platt isn’t content with something that straightforward. There’s a mystery around the egg’s origins, one that curves the story back in on itself in a way that isn’t surprising from the man who wrote Ghost Light. Yet, this also exposes a problem; the Cinder mentions the hundreds of worlds destroyed by the egg, which can’t have happened if the story is a circle. It’s an unfortunate and sloppy piece of writing that has nothing to do with the newness of The Companion Chronicles format.
One of the real joys of this story is how well Platt understands the characters. The Doctor’s admiration of and subsequent charming of Jane Austen feels so authentically Hartnell as does the Doctor’s propensity for taking others’ ideas and pretending that they’re his own. Steven is the stalwart companion of yore, brave and gallant, but also somewhat comedic as he doesn’t know how to handle all the attention of the ladies at a party. One really nice touch is his concern that they need to handle the situation with the egg or he “won’t have a future to be born into”. It’s an element that a lot of writers miss with future companions, that they’d be incredibly concerned to make sure that their adventures won’t effect their own birth. That was a really excellent touch. Vicki is still the bright, young girl who won’t be told no. There are hints that Vicki might have a crush on Steven, but the overall tone is kept familial rather than romantic as the two act like siblings rather than prospective lovers. Steven and the Doctor won’t let Vicki accompany them into danger, acting protective as ever. Not to be dissuaded, Vicki goes off on a different lead without their knowledge, winding her up in trouble, but also leading Steven and the Doctor on the correct path. The only thing that doesn’t work with Vicki is that she uses to many 60’s colloquialisms. While it’s true that Ian and Barbara may have taught her some of those, she didn’t really use them in the series, so it seems out of character for her to refer to Steven as a “dish”. Otherwise, Platt has recreated the characters and made them as endearing as they were in 1965.
The real standout character, though, is Jane Austen. She seems very formal and proper, but she also displays hidden talents by clocking a man who was about to accost her with an uppercut and knocking him flat on his back. As a nineteenth century woman with a modern sense of adventure, she’s a very fun character. It’s a shame that she wasn’t used far more than she is, because this version of Austen would make a fantastic companion full of wit and with hidden talents.
If there’s one really negative point to this one, it’s that it follows the pattern set by the novels and audios that a companion’s life becomes miserable as soon as they leave the TARDIS. We learn that Vicki’s stuck in a marriage with a man who doesn’t understand her. The Trojan survivors thought she was a witch, and out of loyalty to her, Troilus had to leave them and take Vicki to a new life somewhere else. She’s extremely lonely not being able to talk to anyone who doesn’t understand what she’s talking about, so lonely that she talks to a monster hidden in a dungeon, because it’s the only thing that understands. The progression is well done. In the beginning of the story Vicki talks about how happy she is and the veneer slowly fades away as the story progresses. It’s just becoming a very old trope and makes for some depressing reading, listening, or viewing.
Recommendation: Full of wonderful atmosphere, Frostfire will put a chill in your bones as it spins a tale of eerie, cold flames and a pervasive, ever-spreading frost. The music will haunt you with its melancholy tune, and Maureen O’Brien impresses after returning to the role of Vicki after forty years. The format isn’t perfected yet, there are a lot of poor choices that distract from the story rather than enhance it, and the script probably could have used another pass for polish. Keith Drinkel seems miscast, and if you’re familiar with a lot of the Doctor Who expanded universe, you’re probably sick of seeing a companion miserable. Yet, the story has more hits than misses and it should be given a little leeway for being the pilot for a new format of stories. I recommend giving it a listen.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Mark J Thompson
Produced by Sharon Gosling
Written by Marc Platt
Runtime Approx 60 min.