Blurb: The present day: the Orkney Ferry, where Ian Chesterton meets a stranger who he is able to confide in.
Decades earlier: the TARDIS lands on Orkney, and Ian and Barbara are abandoned when the Doctor and his ship vanish in front of their eyes. As the pair head for civilization, something is stirring in the treacherous bog lands.
And only the ancient Wissfornjarl can protect them…
Review: Unlike most of Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles range, The Revenants was never released as a stand-alone CD. It was originally released as a free bonus story to subscribers to Doctor Who Magazine. It was later included as a bonus CD on the Special Edition of Big Finish’s 50th anniversary celebratory story, The Light at the End. As a result, there’s no CD cover image to use. The closest thing is the very basic image that Big Finish put on their website for the download link. That’s what is used for this review.
If there’s one thing that The Revenants has in spades, it’s atmosphere. It’s a story about Ian and Barbara separated from the Doctor and the TARDIS on an unknown island. As night approaches they find that they’ve wandered into a bog. It’s very creepy, since the Companion Chronicles format allows the audience inside Ian’s head. His own fears and the terrors both real and imagined are described in vivid detail. His fear for Barbara’s safety is endearing and also shows how worried he actually is. The sounds and music contribute to the overall effect. There are eerie sounds of squelching. There are the thumps of creatures hurling themselves at walls and windows as well as their eerie screams and howls. It’s all complemented by the music, which seems designed to inspire fear, which compliments the scary atmosphere of the piece.
The story is paced slowly, which isn’t all that bad for a season 2 story. The first few minutes set up the friendship between Ian and Jeannie to explain why he’d tell her the story. The best Companion Chronicles tend to be those that take a few minutes to explain the context under which the tale is being told. Plenty of time is given for Ian to describe the predicament that he and Barbara found themselves in as well as to highlight their mood before the actual story starts towards the end of Episode One. In some ways, the fact that everything is resolved in the following episode helps to keep the story from being bogged down, but if you like the flavor of the early Hartnell stories, it can be a little jarring, since it seems like everything is wrapped up very quickly after it takes so long for the problem to be established.
At its core, The Revenants is about the TARDIS crew coming back together after the loss of Susan. When Ian and Barbara are originally stranded they feel as if the Doctor may have kicked them off the ship, since they were superfluous to requirements at this stage and Susan wasn’t. That uncertainty weaves throughout the tale until they’re reunited with the Doctor and discover the lengths that he took to ensure that they’d be reunited. Even after that, they don’t truly become a new TARDIS team until the resolution when they must pool their talents to achieve a resolution to their predicament.
While the story is steeped in the trappings of Viking lore, author Ian Potter does not make this one of those Doctor Who stories that treats magic as real. Instead, he keeps things grounded in the sixties tradition. The Marsh Wains and everything that Ian and Barbara experience can be explained by science. In fact, Ian even gets to give a science lesson on how marsh gases can ignite and create a will o’ the wisp. That kind of science lesson is one of those things that makes the Hartnell stories so endearing. Even the resolution requires an application of the scientific method as the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Janet examine what they know from local lore and their observations and deduce what to do about their situation. It could all be boring, but Potter keeps the dialog interesting and the sound design keeps the threat from feeling imminent, so that even these talky scenes are filled with tension.
There’s a nice use of continuity in the story as the crew remembers items from previous adventures that have a bearing on what they’re experiencing now. There’s one callback in particular that explains what’s going on and provides the basis for a clue as to how to resolve the situation. One thing that doesn’t work is the idea that the Doctor has been waiting for Ian and Barbara for years, since The Rescue deals with how much the Doctor is missing Susan, and it seems odd that he’d have so strong a reaction if he’d been separated from her for years. Still, that is a minor issue and for the most part the continuity is very good.
The only thing that seems very out of place in the story is that the elder Ian refers to Barbara as his “colleague” rather than as his “wife”. The relationship between Ian and Barbara is one of the highlights of Doctor Who. Anyone who doesn’t believe that they got hitched almost immediately upon arriving back on Earth has a very cynical point of view of the series. Having it stated here seemed very jarring and made it hard to pay attention to the story for a while.
William Russell is in fine form. He’s charismatic and charming when talking with Jeannie in the present. He has a wonderful charisma as he’s narrating the adventure of his past self. His Barbara has the compassionate warmth that Jacqueline Hill brought to the role and which Ian would surely highlight in characterizing her. His Doctor doesn’t sound a thing like Hartnell’s voice, but contains all the inflections and mannerisms so well. It’s always a treat to hear him portray the Doctor. Guest actress Sharon Small brings a pleasant change of pace as Jeannie, with her thick Scottish brogue. The character’s insistence on getting the details of the Orkney Islands right is endearing and her back-and-forth with Ian helps gives him a reason to explain some things that might not be evidence to listeners. Unfortunately, towards the end there are a few sloppy places where Jeannie interjects a few words.. It breaks up Ian’s story and serves no purpose other than to remind people that she’s there. It is an unfortunate choice, but it’s no fault of Smalls. Small also gets to play the part of Janet, the local medicine woman, who assists the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara with her tales about the islands, which helps them to solve the mystery of what is happening. While she’s not as charming as Jeannie, she’s a woman of strong convictions that ends up driving matters to their resolution. She’s an interesting character that helps to round out the cast and Small’s performance as both is fantastic.
Recommendation: The Revenants is an atmospheric and spooky tale woven together by the wonderfully evocative imagery of Ian Potter’s words and highlighted by the sound effects and music provided by Big Finish. Yet, it’s also a tale about the triumph of science as observation and logic win the day, highlighting the real, science-fiction threat and providing the solution. William Russell is at the top of his powers, being a compelling narrator and doing a wonderful job playing The Doctor, Ian, and Barbara. Sharon Small gives her all to the dual roles of Jeannie and Janet, and she’s a pleasure to listen to as both. There’s some nice use of continuity, but there are also a few misses, but overall, this story is an excellent example of how to undercut expectations and present an ultimately satisfying story that makes good use of the characters. The Revenants is a difficult story to find, but it’s worth the effort. I definitely recommend it.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Produced by David Richardson
Written by Ian Potter
Runtime Approx 60 min.