Blurb: The pride of the Z’nai matches that of Leela of the Sevateem. Why would the Doctor imprison one in such an unlikely place, and what terrors will be brought about by letting it loose?
Review: The Companion Chronicles are normally just stories recounted by one of the Doctor’s companions about an adventure that they’d had while traveling with the Time Lord. Sometimes these stories are given a broader context. There’s some reason given for why the companion is narrating the story. Usually this context is just to explain why the story is being told. In a few examples, though, the context actually moves forward the story of the character and the story is just as much about the compaion’s “present” as it is about the time when they traveled with the Doctor. The Catalyst is a story in that latter camp.
The Catalyst is an interesting story, juxtaposing Leela’s situation after the destruction of Gallifrey with a tale from her past when she encountered the after effects of a mistake from the Doctor’s past. That past story gets to a rocky start. There’s some embarrassingly bad dialog between Leela and the Edwardian family that the Doctor has taken her to visit. Although the story is set after The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Fairs insists on treating Leela as an ignorant savage who seems incapable of remembering the things that she’d learned about eating dinner politely from that prior story. Things pick up as Leela begins exploring the house and noting the many secrets it contains, including some major revelations about some events that happened during the Doctor’s third incarnation. The “present” story for Leela, captured and tortured by aliens who will stop at nothing to learn her secrets is even more interesting. While one connection between the two stories is obvious at first, another one becomes apparent at the end and the story forms a nice circle that is both satisfying and melancholy at the same time. There are some plot flaws. There’s no explanation for why the Doctor would put his secret in Edwardian Earth, especially since the potential danger from it is great. It also seems odd that in the “present” that the Z’nai who have analyzed Leela so thoroughly don’t discover her secret. Nor is any explanation given for how Leela becomes the titular “catalyst” of the story.
Yet, this is a story built upon atmosphere more than anything else. There are some worrisome issues with the plot but none of them are contradictory or inexplicable. The writer simply chose not to explain them and left it up to the listener to come up with their own explanations. This is a story about mistakes, regrets, loss, and endings. In fact, Fairs had originally written this with the idea of it being the last story for Leela chronologically. That’s really supported by the elegiac tone of the peace. Fairs pulls out all the stops by not only writing and directing the story but also doing the musical score. It’s such a sorrowful, downbeat piece of music. It enhances the atmosphere without overpowering it and this whole tone really elevates this story into something really special and really touching.
Jameson’s performance in this one is outstanding. Her older Leela gives weight to everything that she says. Her first interchange with the Z’nai where she says that one of them will leave and the other one will be dead is laced with such meaning and it’s a pleasure to listen as the cocky Z’nai sees this as acceptance of her fate rather than the defiance that she means it to be. Her last request for him to surrender and her final request of him at the end is also a brilliant moment acted so well by Louise that shows not only Leela’s waning physical strength but her indomitable strength of character. Her young Leela has all the freshness and enthusiasm that Leela should have and, although some of the dialog in the beginning is bad, she elevates it with her performance. Her voice for Jessica Douglas is a little bit too stereotypically “snooty” but it’s good enough that it can be listened to for most of the story without getting annoying. Oddly, Jameson’s Doctor sounds more like Hartnell than Baker but at this point she hadn’t been working with him again on the Fourth Doctor Adventures. Still, it’s best to remember that Jameson isn’t a voice actress and there’s no reason why Leela would give perfect renditions of everyone that she’d met in the past, so it’s not a big deal and can easily be ignored. Timothy Watson deserves some praise for playing the Z’nai. It’s nice for the story to give a reason why they all sound the same, so that he can voice every character. Watson has such a silky smooth voice that when he plays for sympathy he sounds completely sincere, but when he shows anger and resentment he sounds like a paragon of villainy. Having two such veteran actors on the story really helps to keep the momentum going and makes the listening experience an incredibly satisfying one.
Recommendation: A somber, downbeat tale about mistakes, regrets, loss, and endings. It’s the start of a trilogy of Companion Chronicles and easy jumping on point for anyone new to Big Finish, whether they’re familiar with classic Who or not. While the plot has some apparent omissions these can be explained and it’s best to try and ignore them because that isn’t what the story is about. I definitely recommend listening to it.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Nigel Fairs
Produced by David Richardson
Written by Nigel Fairs
Runtime Approx 60 min.