Review: Doctor Who the Companion Chronicles – The Flames of Cadiz

dwcc0707_theflamesofcadiz_1417_cover_largeBlurb: The TARDIS materializes in Spain in the late sixteenth century. The country is at war with England – and the travelers find themselves on the wrong side of the battle lines.

When Ian and his new friend Esteban are captured by the Inquisition, the Doctor, Susan and Barbara plan to rescue them.

But these are dark days in human history. And heretics face certain death…

Review: The Flames of Cadiz was the first Companion Chronicle release in Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary year. Most stories in the range consist of two 50-minute episodes, but this particular adventure was a double-length four-parter, a move meant to add to the authenticity of the story. It’s an old-fashioned, straight-forward historical adventure with no science-fiction elements to detract from the atmosphere of the setting. This story also differs from most other Companion Chronicles in that it has three actors. Both Carole Ann Ford and William Russell narrate the story in character as Susan and Ian, respectively, but they are also joined by Nabil Elouahabi to play the role of Morisco, Esteban Arabi. All of this together would set the stage for the most ambitious Companion Chronicle that Big Finish has done to date while also attempting to stay true to the feel of a season one historical adventure.

The first two episodes of this story are just about perfect. The four time travelers are stuck in Spain during an anti-English wave prompted by the execution of the Catholic, Mary, Queen of Scots. Ian sees the persecution of a Morisco, a Muslim who has converted to Catholicism to be allowed to stay in Spain, by the Spanish Inquisition and rushes to his aid. This causes Ian to be arrested, too. Then, the Doctor, Barbara, and Susan must find a way to rescue Ian while hiding their English background from the Spanish. Along the way the Doctor ends up impersonating a cardinal, they encounter some true historical figures, and they learn about some historical facts. It’s clear that writer, Marc Platt, is well-versed in the old historical stories and here he sets up an adventure that feels like an authentic season one adventure, but also makes it unique enough that it doesn’t feel like a retread of anything gone before.

Thankfully, the historical facts don’t feel as “grafted on” as they sometimes did in the TV series. Here, teaching about history is part of the story. The horror of the Spanish Inquisition is juxtaposed with the plight of the moriscos in Spain. Ian learns that history is sometimes viewed with rose-tinted glasses by those who record it through his meeting with Sir Francis Drake. The adventure culminates in the raid on Cadiz harbor, a fairly obscure historical event that connects with the much more well known event of The Spanish Armada sailing for England. There’s a lot that educates, but the listener is never burdened with that fact, because it’s seamlessly worked into the story, which helps to make this a more interesting tale to listen to.

There are also some nice character touches. Susan notes that the Doctor felt that it was his job to look after her, but she thought that was her job with him. It’s a touching moment to showcase the nature of their relationship that’s been ignored in the majority of adventures set in this period of the series history. When contemplating death, Ian worries about mundane things like the fact that his mail will pile up forever at home and that he was not able to grade his students’ homework before he left. It’s a very “real” moment in a science-fiction story that helps to highlight the hopelessness of their situation by contrasting with an element of normality. Even Ian’s discussion about how his perspective has changed from a boy whose world was only a few streets wide to someone who thinks in terms of planets when asked which side he’s on helps to get into the character’s head, which is one best parts of the Companion Chronicles and one that Platt handles well.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t hang together as well as it should and the latter two episodes are beset by problems. It seems almost as if this story was originally conceived as a two-parter and when expanded to four, an additional plotline needed to be tacked on. There’s some interesting material to mine there with Ian having to meet with his boyhood hero, Sir Francis Drake, and with Ian coming to the realization that Drake isn’t the man that he imagined in history class or saw in movies. The issue is that for Ian to get there he has to absurdly go off gallivanting in an adventure in which as far as he knew he was not needed after he was tortured by the Inquisition. That torture included whipping: a process that would have left horrible, bloody lacerations all over Ian’s back. There is no way that he would have been in a fit condition to travel for several days after that. Torture aside, there is never any point in the series where Ian was shown to be so selfish that he’d have exposed his companions to danger just because he wanted an adventure. There’s also no reason for Ian to suspect that Drake would even have the means to return him to his friends once he had met him. While the story tries to justify this by saying that Drake was Ian’s boyhood hero, it just doesn’t seem like a sufficient reason for such inexplicable behavior. Ultimately it feels like a poor excuse just to add another two episodes to the story.

The inexplicable behavior doesn’t end at Ian, though. Barbara is depicted as being so besot with Ian that in her joy over his escape she actually encourages him to go on another foolhardy adventure that would put his life in jeopardy yet again. This seems like an odd position to put Barbara in. While there were definitely hints that Barbara had romantic feelings for Ian she was never so weak of a character that she wouldn’t tell him off for doing something foolhardy. If you contrast this scene with their disagreement about the French Revolution in The Reign of Terror you see just how wrong this scene feels and how “off” it feels for Barbara. Once again, it seems to have been necessary to add the further two episodes, but it seems like a better reason could have been used to cause Ian to need to travel on. Barbara also acts strangely later, chastising the Doctor for being an alien; something that seems both incredibly out of character as well as being a fact that it’s unclear if she and Ian were ever aware of. In any other discussion she’d call him a “callous old man” and, there’s never any indication that they ever thought of him as anything other than a human from another time. The Doctor also puts Susan in danger by including her in his ruse as a cardinal, which seems odd for the Doctor, especially as he doesn’t know that Susan will be necessary until he comes up with his plan of action. The Doctor in the TV series was always fiercely protective of Susan and never wanted to expose her to danger.

There are other failings. No one once mentions going back to the TARDIS, despite the fact that that would be the safest place to be under the circumstances and would be very consistent with the behavior of these characters in the early stories. They even discuss the impending raid on Cadiz in front of characters who have declared that they are loyal to the Spanish Crown even if not to the Catholic Church. The final issue is that thematically, the story doesn’t quite work. At the end the story Ian says that the point is “you always support the home team”. Not only does this seem very out of character for Ian, a man with a highly developed sense of morality, it doesn’t seem right to imply that Ian would “support the home team” regardless of circumstances. Perhaps if both sides were equal it would make some sense, but the story fails to develop that proper equalization between the two sides. Drake is not the hero that Ian thought that he was, but any atrocities that he committed paled when compared to the Spanish Inquisition. In light of that, Ian’s statement seems pretty trite and flippant and seems to undercut both the tragedy and the seriousness of what had happened in the story.

On the performance side William Russell once again amazes. Despite his almost 90-years of age, he is able to create a remarkable range of characters and infuse them each with their own manner of speaking and force of personality. His Ian understandably sounds older, but that can be forgiven as it is supposed to be an older Ian telling the story. His Doctor, though, is a very faithful portrayal of William Hartnell’s iteration of the character, and it makes for very compelling listening. Carole Ann Ford does a fantastic job as Susan, able to recreate her youthful-sounding self and her Barbara is respectable, able to move from tender to forlorn to antagonistic as the story demands. Ford struggles with the other characters in her narration, however. While her Doctor is clearly a performance borne of respect for Hartnell it falls far short of the mark and her other characters sound so comedic and overblown that it can be a tad distracting. Rounding out the cast, Nabil Elouahabi is compelling as Esteban Araby. His enthusiasm for his role is hard to ignore as Elouahabi portrays Esteban as a man of strong passions. He is fed up with the treatment of his fellow Moriscoes, but is also a loyal friend to those who prove themselves trustworthy. Esteban goes through a broad range of anger, despondence, compassion, and elation over the course of the adventure, but Elouahabi is up to the task making Esteban not only a fun character to listen to but making his feelings contagious for the listener.

As an anniversary production, The Flames of Cadiz is not only double-length, but much more lavish in its sound design for the Companion Chronicles range. The story ranges from the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition’s tortures to a public burning to sea battles. In-between there are sounds for a smaller scale: the sounds of a ship at sea, the sounds of travel and the Doctor sitting atop a donkey, and a fight between three men in the grass. As usual Big Finish is able to create a compelling world through audio alone and prove why they’re masters of the craft.

Recommendation: A bit of a mixed bag, The Flames of Cadiz is a Companion Chronicle that gets the format, putting character at the front and center and providing some strong performances and some interesting, introspective character moments that flesh out Ian and Susan. The first two episodes feel like a classic Doctor Who historical and provide a grim window into a dark moment in history. Unfortunately, the plot falls apart after that and the story relies on silly motivations and characters acting out of character to keep it moving along. The performances and terrific sound design give it the slight edge it needs to get higher than a 5, but the overall rating is mostly mediocre. I recommend skipping it unless you’re a fan of the first Doctor’s era or William Russell’s wonderful narration.

6/10

2013

Audio Drama

Big Finish Productions

Directed by Lisa Bowerman

Produced by David Richardson

Written by Marc Platt

Runtime Approx 120 min.

About Nathan

I was born in 1980 and have lived from one end of the country to the other. Currently I reside in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin with my wife and 2 daughters. I can't remember a point in time when I wasn't watching Star Trek or the Star Wars trilogy but my life was changed forever when I was introduced to Doctor Who in 1985 and that remains my primary fandom. In 1993, the Fox X-Men cartoon introduced me to Marvel comics and having three of my letters printed in various Marvel mags left me a permanent Marvel Zombie as well as QNS (Quite 'Nuff Sayer) as well as a TTB (Titanic True Believer). In later years I also became a big fan of Babylon 5 as well as Japanese animation. These days with my scarce free time I try to maintain my hobbies of swimming, reading any sci-fi or fantasy novels I can get, retro gaming, or researching the history and inspiration for any of my fandoms. I can be found semi-regularly on the podcasts "Shauncastic" and "The Revcast" and have made an occasional contribution to Earth Station Who and the Earth Station one podcast.