By Will Barber Taylor
Separated from his companions, the Doctor attempts to find solace in the history of his favourite planet – Earth – but instead discovers new threats lying in wait.
Travelling from twentieth-century East Berlin to sixteenth-century Strasbourg, the Doctor encounters creatures from other realities: monsters beneath the waves, and human beings determined to exploit their fellow man.
But how long can he survive without a friend?
The Doctor does not often travel alone on TV. When they do, these stories tend to stand out – stories like The Deadly Assassin, The Waters of Mars and Listen are partly memorable because we see The Doctor in a situation in which he finds himself without a companion to help him or remind him of the humanity that he needs to keep him on the right track.
In Big Finish audios there is much more room for The Doctor to travel alone as he does in the new Big Finish audio series Time Apart, starring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor. Taking a Doctor as personable as Davison’s and setting him on a course of adventures alone is an intriguing idea and one that is brilliantly conveyed throughout the series of four adventures. Given some of Davison’s best stories like The Visitation, Black Orchid and The Awakening have a historical theme to them it makes sense that this series sees The Doctor journeying through Earth’s complex history.
From its first moment Ghost Station has you hooked. Arriving in 1970s Berlin, The Doctor finds himself in an abandoned underground station with a terrified guard called Peter Meier (Timothy Bore) and a dead body on the platform. Investigating the mystery, The Doctor soon realises that something is very wrong with the situation that he has entered into. Uncovering the truth may be more painful than Peter fully realises.
Steve Lyons’ excellently dark and remorseful story about fear and oppression in Berlin is a perfect opener for this box set. The setting and character Lyons’ conjures up is reminiscent of The Signalman, Dickens’ classic ghost story of a lone railway worker forced to confront his past through a supernatural occurrence.
Lyon’s story works because like The Signalman it plays upon our own innate fears – in the Signalman, the fear is one of great disaster whereas in Ghost Station it is one of abandonment and fear when faced with a life changing opportunity. This is why the story is so engaging, it is because it works not just as a great Doctor Who story but as a tantalising and twisted tale in its own right.
Davison gives a relaxed and engaging performance and he works well as a reassuring counterpoint to Timothy Blore’s excellently anxious Peter Meier. Blore’s performance as the paranoid Peter makes Steve Lyons’ insidious tale all the creepier. The heightened tension that is present in every single syllable of Blore’s performance is perfectly rendered and gives the story energy to it. Blore is particularly convincing when he realises what has happened in the tunnel and the sheer panic that he feels resonates through his performance.
Following his adventure in Berlin, The Doctor arrives in 14th century Rowenfeld to discover that he’s in the midst of a strange custom – one that involves the master builder Clement (Wayne Forester) sacrificing his shadow in order to build a bridge for the village. The Doctor brushes it off as medieval superstition – until he begins to grow weak. Can he uncover the truth behind the bridge master’s curse before it is too late?
Like Lyons’ tale, Jacqueline Rayner’s excellently fairy-tale esque The Bridge Master feels influenced by an outside tale, morphed into a classic Doctor Who audio story. Whilst Ghost Station has tinges of The Signalman, The Bridge Master has shades of The Pied Piper running through it. This allows the story to not only have a surreal quality to it but also a great deal of humour when The Doctor initially acts with credulity to the sacrifice of his shadow. Rayner’s script wonderfully utilized the contrast between the expectation of the sacrifice and its immediate aftermath.
The twist in the tale is therefore all the more enjoyable when it comes – we know that the Bridge Master and the sacrifice of The Doctor’s shadow cannot be all they seem so when we learn what has actually happened it has all the more impact.
The performances throughout are exceptionally good. Kate Harbour particularly stands out as Agatha, a villager who helps The Doctor in unravelling the mystery of Clement’s sacrifices. Harbour makes Agatha come alive and delivers Rayner’s lines with a believable wonder as to the situation she is in. Her character works well with Davison’s portrayal of The Doctor and they have an easy chemistry that makes the story feel more emotionally genuine.
Agatha is a woman afraid for her remaining son’s life and Harbour brings that natural pathos out extremely well. Yet her performance ensures that Agatha is not simply a one dimensional character but a strong and determined woman who you could easily see reappearing in future Doctor Who stories.
Rayner’s story is thus another reason to listen to Time Apart; it’s a funny, atmospheric period piece that has resonances of Kingsley Amish’ Green Man, though it is certainly more family friendly.
Following on from his journey to 14th century England the TARDIS arrives in the Indian Ocean where all the prisoners aboard the Lady Juliana have fallen into a trance… except a single girl. Mary Wade (Laura Aikman) desperately needs a doctor – and only one will help her.
Tommy Donbavand’s What Lurks Down Under is a wonderfully spooky tale that draws on the Mary Celeste and the Odyssey to weave a masterly story of high sea escapades. Like Ghost Station and The Bridge Master, What Lurks Down Under could operate as well as a story in its own right and works its setting well. By placing the action in the middle of the Indian Ocean this heightens the sense of isolation that Mary and the ship’s surgeon Dr Richard Alley (Wayne Forester) feel and increases the pressure The Doctor knows under to solve the mystery before the crew die.
Donbavand nicely plays The Doctor, Mary and Alley off one another in the story allowing there to be natural internal tension alongside the fear of the outside threat that is slowly depleting the convicts and crew.
There is also a nice interweaving of an environmental message in the story which gives it an extra weight and urgency and relevancy to a modern audience. Donbavand’s story is a truly powerful piece of drama and it is a true shame he is not able to see his story released.
Arriving in Strasbourg at the height of the Dancing Plague, the Doctor finds himself thrust into a world of paranoia. Can he bring peace to a city at odds with its own people?
The final story in the collection The Dancing Plague by Kate Thorman is a scintillating end to Time Apart and offers listeners an almost entirely historical story with the villains not some bug eyed monster but rather strained officials trying to blame someone for a problem they cannot solve. By placing The Doctor in a situation in which he is forced to confront a hostile populace with no clue as to how to help them, this presents him with a challenge that he isn’t used to giving the audience, thus, we get a heightened expectation as to how he will resolve the situation.
Thorman plays upon this idea well by giving The Doctor two sceptical characters to bounce off – Erasmus’ assistant Margareta (Kate Harbour) and Gerhardt (Wayne Forester) which plays to the cast’s strengths by allowing each of them an opportunity to shine. Davison’s Doctor is allowed to be both serious and measured; Harbour demonstrates her versatility as Margareta who is frankly annoyed at The Doctor jumping in and taking charge when she was working on solving the problem when he arrived and Forester as Gerhardt brilliantly brings to life the self-satisfied burgermeister, content to endanger The Doctor if it gets him off the hook.
Thurman, like the other writers in this box set has ensured that her story is natural and enjoyable in its own right whilst making it feel like quintessential Doctor Who. This is a tough thing to do but the stories in this collection do it with a sublime subtlety that ensures the listener feels truly transported back in time.
Time Apart is an ingenious series of adventures that pushes The Fifth Doctor to his limits and demonstrates why Doctor Who works even without a companion. Time Apart is a perfect encapsulation of why Doctor Who works – it is a show that can immerse you in another world and give you the trip of a lifetime without moving from your sofa. With a fantastic cast of performers, a series of wonderful scripts and a perfect sound design, Time Apart is a must have adventure for any fan of Doctor Who, new or old.
You can buy Time Apart from Big Finish here.