Blurb: When the TARDIS lands in a dilapidated attic, the Doctor, Vicki and Steven discover they are on Earth, in London… in Number 10 Downing Street.
However alien forces are at play here, affecting the very fabric of the building… and adjusting the very essence of history itself.
Review: The final full season of The Companion Chronicles saw a focus on the first Doctor’s era. Every companion except for Sara Kingdom got a new story. Upstairs put together the team of Maureen O’Brien, reprising her role as Vicki, and Peter Purves, once again playing astronaut Steven Taylor. O’Brien hadn’t done much work for Big Finish by that point, but Purves was one of their regulars having done over a half dozen audio dramas this point. Upstairs allowed Purves to take a backseat to O’Brien who gets the lion’s share of the work, narrating the story as Vicki and also doing the voice work for all of the characters other than Steven, whom Purves plays. It allows this story to do something a little different and present listeners with a dynamic that only existed on TV for 3 serials before O’Brien left the series.
Back in the 1960’s, Doctor Who used to spend a lot of time world building. The entire first episode of a serial would be devoted to the TARDIS crew exploring a new environment, trying to discover what they could about where and when they’d arrived. Going for this same aesthetic, Upstairs spends most of its first episode setting up a tense, claustrophobic situation as the Doctor, Steven, and Vicki try to discover where they are while lost in a seemingly never-ending maze of attic rooms. It’s the kind of situation that you might find in an episode of The Twilight Zone as the characters deal with an impossible situation. Even when they go back in the exact same direction as the went before, the rooms are always different. It’s a shame that the back blurb of the CD case reveals that they’re at Number 10 Downing Street, because that takes some of the mystery out of the proceedings. For those who don’t know, Number 10 Downing Street is the headquarters of the British government and is the home of the Prime Minister. At the same time, the travelers realize that they’re not traveling down an infinite number of rooms. Instead they’re going through the same rooms at different times. Meanwhile, they’re beginning to encounter a mysterious growth of fungus in many of the rooms and periods that they visit as the Doctor reflects that many Prime Ministers over the years suffered from mysterious ailments of the mind and body. Could this all be related? That’s what the Doctor wants to find out.
At this point Coward has crafted a really interesting and vaguely unsettling sci-fi yarn. Empty, dilapidated attics full of the junk of the past are already the stuff of nightmares, and the story plays upon that vaguely unsettling fear and adds to it the fear of getting lost. Not forgetting the character side of things, he also uses the narration to describe Vicki’s own fears of abandonment. She’s a young girl who’s already been abandoned once in her life and is terrified of being abandoned again, because the others might feel that she’s a burden. Steven referring to his pilot’s sense of direction is another good nod to the character’s origin. Throughout it all there’s the question of “why”. Like any series of inexplicable events it’s a great hook for the listener as they get caught up in trying to guess what’s happening and how it will play out. It’s really well done and makes for an interesting listen.
Unfortunately, around the end of the first episode the story falls apart, and it’s time to put up a spoiler warning. Normally, these reviews avoid spoilers, but it’s impossible to talk about the train wreck of the episode two without bringing up some important details of the plot. The three travelers discover that the building is infested with a time fungus that expands in both space and time. It’s main body is housed mostly in the attic, and its presence is what’s causing the warp in space/time. The servants at Number 10 Downing Street believe that the fungus is naturally the dominant life form on Earth and intend to make it the Prime Minister by causing it to ingest all the Prime Ministers throughout the ages, so it will incorporate their best attributes within itself. In an attempt to wrench some sort of logic into the proceedings, Steven even asks the Doctor if it’s possible that the fungus is affecting the staff telepathically to cause them to behave in such an insane manner, but no the Doctor assures him, that really is the plot. These people think that they can make a man out of fungus by feeding it people.
This is obviously a political commentary, and a not so subtle one. Unfortunately, not being from the U.K. it already loses some of its impact. The problem is that the tense and unsettling sci-fi drama morphs into political farce almost in the blink of an eye; there’s no time to adjust. It doesn’t help that the story is so full of plot holes in the second half. Normally, Companion Chronicles that try to emulate the sixties format fail because after doing an episode of setup, they have to wrap everything up in a single episode instead of the 3-5 additional episodes that the TV stories would have. Here, additional episodes probably wouldn’t have helped. Even one episode of this mess was tedious as the servants constantly complain about the interference of the travelers, threaten them, and then are easily outwitted. For people who have been carrying out a clandestine coup for generations, they seem remarkably willing to give up their master plan when asked. The servants threaten the Doctor and his friends multiple times and hold them at gunpoint, yet so much of the Doctor’s and Vicki’s plans revolve around convincing them that they are nobility and their training would prevent them from doing harm to a member of the nobility. Yet, that ignores the fact that these people have been murdering prime ministers and other high government officials for generations. Then, once Vicki hits upon a plan to convince them that she and Steven are a Lord and Lady and the Doctor is an Archbishop they instantly believe it despite the fact that their clothes aren’t right for the roles nor had they been behaving the part just before. It’s almost shocking how quickly the story falls apart and turns into random nonsense.
The worst part is the resolution. The Doctor decides to introduce another fungus into the house, which will compete with the time fungus for territory. That may help to keep it out of the future, but the thing spreads in both time and space. The Doctor’s doesn’t address its effects as it extends further into the past or that it might infect other buildings. Yet, he acts as if the whole thing can be wrapped up with that single action. It gives the whole story the feeling of an author that just couldn’t care to write something that made any kind of sense and coming up to a nice word count he just decides to end it with any old explanation.
Thankfully, the two actors are clearly having a ball working together again. Vicki and Steven always had a playful chemistry onscreen with Steven taking on a big brother role to Vicki’s plucky young orphan. The audios have hinted that Vicki might have a little crush on Steven, which is aided by Coward having Vicki describe Steven as the “virile, young space pilot”. For what it’s worth, even though the plot falls apart in the second half of the story, Coward gets the interaction between Vicki and Steven just about right and it’s a joy to listen to them as they bicker and banter. Purves and O’Brien, more so than any of the other first Doctor companions, have also been blessed with voices that haven’t changed much from when they were actually doing the show, so there’s a certain authenticity to their performances as they age themselves down. It really aids in the suspension of disbelief, so that the listener can pretend that they’re listening to further adventures with the same characters from so long ago.
O’Brien gets to do all the other characters in this one as well. Her Irish maids and Scottish manservant are actually really good. It’s hard to believe that there isn’t a third actor doing those voices. Her Doctor, though, seems to have gotten worse. Suddenly, the Doctor sounds like a generic old man without the strength and staccato rhythms that William Russell does so well or the impish glee that Peter Purves does for his Doctor performances. What makes it a real shame is that Coward has a great handle on the first Doctor’s character with his talking to himself, bouts of moral outrage, and insistence on certain points of semantics in speech. What’s odd is that O’Brien’s impressions of the Doctor in Frostfire and The Suffering were actually better than what she did here. This seems like she isn’t even trying, which is a shame because it works against that effect of authenticity that Purves and O’Brien create with their own voices having changed so little.
The soundscape on this one is fairly minimal and there’s no music to speak of. Realizing that this is a tight, claustrophobic tale, the sound design is kept to a minimum. There’s a nice, dull echo when people speak like you might hear in a confined space like an attic. The sound for the time fungus is creepy with a wet, swampy sort of cadence to it, causing the listener to imagine a moist, pulsating mass. Other sounds are fairly mundane such as footsteps and doors opening or closing. Yet, it works pretty well for the story and Big Finish once again succeeds in creating visuals with audio alone.
Recommendation:It’s rare that a story starts so well and then devolves into mindless drivel in the second half, but that’s what happens with Upstairs. There’s some strong characterization and some solid acting, but nothing can get you over a tense, intriguing, claustrophobic tale that becomes a farcical look at UK politics. The rating is as high as it is because that first episode is so strong, and because the performances are so good. I recommend that you skip this one.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Produced by David Richardson
Written by Mat Coward
Runtime Approx 60 min.