By Will Barber Taylor
Today should be much like every other day for Hargreaves, the computer consciousness that co-ordinates daily life aboard the spaceship Aquitaine, stationed on the outer fringes of a black hole. Water the plants, run the diagnostics, cook the Captain’s breakfast; then tidy the plates away, rotate the ship, clean the windows of the observation deck. When at last the day’s work is done, Hargreaves will dim the lights in the sleeping quarters. But no-one will sleep aboard the Aquitaine tonight. Because the Aquitaine’s crew is missing.
But today will be different. Today, a space/time ship called the TARDIS will materialise in the botanical section, bringing the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan aboard the Aquitaine. Together, they’ll seek to discover the truth of what happened to Hargreaves’ crew, if only the ghosts will let them.
Base under siege stories have been a staple of Doctor Who for almost as long as the series has existed. Yet, none has ever been as intriguing and complex as Aquitaine. While most stories of this sci-fi sub-genre are traditional, monotonous and familiar, Aquitaine defies the tropes of the genre and creates a fascinating, Kubrickesq horror story.
Beginning with Hargreaves’ (Matthew Cottle) monologue, Aquitaine starts with a creepy, unnerving atmosphere and sustains it for the rest of the story. Simon Barnard and Paul Morris’ setting of a rusting, creaking spaceship is the expected element in the story; yet it is only one component in the cloying tone that is set. Add to this the brilliant sound design for the episode and Hargreaves echoic, slightly too twee voice and before the plot has unfolded, you have a world that is designed to creep out all those who enter into it.
Barnard and Morris further entreat the listener by constructing a sophisticated and ever moving plot around the scenario of the deserted ship with the constant butler; by shifting the plot around in both space and time anyone listening is constantly on edge as to how The Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan will get out of the shifting maze that is Aquitaine. In some ways Aquitaine bears certain similarities to the recent Peter Capaldi story Under the Lake / Before The Flood. While the latter story made as much advantage as the visual medium as possible to create the creepy atmosphere, Aquitaine uses sound to creep its audience out. The rustling of leaves, the sounds of shifting machines all take on new meaning as the TARDIS team are threatened by the ship’s other “inhabitants”.
The cast all perform excellently. Peter Davison continues to excel at personifying the energetic and inquisitive Fifth Doctor with as much gusto as he did thirty years ago. Davison’s particular strengths are seen when he interacts with Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Hargreaves with his subtle comic edge being used to its hilt; Tegan’s irritability at The Doctor’s languid drinking of tea during a time of crisis and Hargreaves attempts to join the TARDIS crew are two fine moments. Davison also gets to show off his dramatic chops with the cliff-hanger for Part Three; demonstrating what happens when The Doctor is pushed to his very limit which Davison has also played spectacularly.
The other great performance of Aquitaine is Matthew Cottle as Hargreaves. A mixture between Kryton off Red Dwarf and Jeeves, Hargreaves is a rich and delightful character that Cottle embodies totally. His enunciation is perfect and his whole delivery of the lines help create the mental image of the worried and fastidious droid that Barnard and Morris have clearly put so much time into crafting.
Aquitaine is a creepy, Hammer Horror style adventure with a fair amount of eerie ideas yet it never loses its own sense of humour. By maintaining the delicate balance between terror and hilarity Simon Barnard and Paul Morris deliver an enjoyable audio delight to add to your Big Finish collection.
With thanks to Big Finish. You can purchase Aquitaine here.