Audio Drama Review: Storm Warning

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’ve reached a critical moment in the Main Range of audios: the first appearance of the Eighth Doctor! Although we’ve covered some of the Eighth Doctor Adventures already, this audio, Storm Warning, represents Paul McGann’s first return to the role (in a full-cast presentation, at any rate) since the 1996 television movie. He also acquires a new companion, Charlotte “Charley” Pollard. It’s also, by default, the latest (in terms of the Doctor’s timeline) audio in Big Finish’s lineup as of the time of its release in 2001. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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Traveling alone, the Eighth Doctor is having a difficult time in the Vortex when he tries to save a strange timeship that is stuck in a time-loop. He manages to push the ship out of its loop, but his own TARDIS is damaged, and attacked by Vortex-dwelling saurians called Vortisaurs.

It’s October, 1930, and a massive British airship, the R101, is on its maiden voyage. Its co-designer, Lieutenant Colonel Frayling, goes to the dignitary in charge, Lord Tamworth, with fears about the condition of the ship, but he is shrugged off. There is a mysterious passenger in cabin 43, and unaccounted cargo in the holds…Tamworth sends his valet, Rathbone, to check on the passenger in 43. Meanwhile, a junior steward has been replaced; a girl named Charlotte Pollard has taken his place, seeking adventure. Unfortunately, she’s found out by Tamworth and the head steward, Weeks. At the same time, the Doctor lands, barely escaping the Vortisaurs; but, minutes later, ballast tank three is purged, sending the TARDIS plunging out of the ship.

A storm is coming, and Frayling’s concern increases, but Tamworth insists on proceeding to a rendezvous that is only an hour away. The ship, meanwhile, is struck by something: A vortisaur has followed the TARDIS out of the Vortex! The Doctor passes by cabin 43 and is intrigued by strange sounds from inside; as he eavesdrops, Charley runs into him. She decides to join him in his efforts, escaping Weeks in the process, although she doesn’t accept his odd claims about the past and future. However, she is alarmed when he warns her that the R101 is due to crash in the early hours of the next morning. Inside cabin 43, Rathbone is having a problem with his passenger; but the Vortisaur breaks through the porthole and grabs him.

Weeks, Charley, and the Doctor all burst into the cabin, and the Doctor drives the Vortisaur away; but it has now tasted blood, and will inevitably return. The Doctor is now interested in the passenger, which is–oddly–sealed inside a deep-sea diver’s suit. Rathbone threatens the Doctor with a gun; Charley, meanwhile, calms the passenger. Therefore Rathbone allows her to stay (and soon makes unwelcome sexual advances toward her), and sends the Doctor and Weeks to deal with the Vortisaur. The Doctor is able to draw it back to the airship with his own blood, and knocks it out with a heavy dose of morphine, he locks it in the galley. He meets with Lord Tamworth, who believes him (and, later, Charley) to be a German spy, the Doctor goes with the role, calling himself “Doctor Johann Schmidt” of the Zeppelin company. He offers to see to the passenger in 43; Tamworth agrees, but before leaving with the Doctor, orders Frayling to take the ship up to 5000 feet.

Back at Cabin 43, the Doctor realizes that the oxygen mix necessary for the clearly-extraterrestrial passenger is not safe at this altitude, due to the pressure difference. He removes the helmet, allowing the passenger to breathe…and revealing that it is not human. Rathbone is revolted, but Charley is sympathetic; her kindness earns her the creature’s favor. However, they have reached the rendezvous point. Tamworth escorts them all to the passenger lounge, where he speaks to the assembled VIPs, and tells them that they are now ambassadors for Britain to an otherworldly civilization. They are met, then, by an enormous flying saucer.

Facing the saucer, the alien has recovered. It announces that its people are the Triskele, and its title is Engineer Prime. The Doctor outs Rathbone as a British Intelligence agent, whose job–to keep the alien safe–is now at an end. The saucer admits the R101 to its interior. Charley now sees that the Doctor’s claims were true, and she believes him.

The Engineer Prime allows only three representatives on the Triskele ship; it chooses Tamworth, Frayling, and the Doctor. Tamworth admits to the Doctor that he is worried about what Rathbone may do if left unattended on the R101; and indeed, Rathbone sends the crew to unpack the mysterious cargo crates–which are full of weapons. Tamworth explains the circumstances that led to contact with the aliens, via the Engineer Prime; he also mentions something called “Uncreators”, which the Engineer fears. The Engineer uses a travel platform in the shape of a three-armed symbol, commonly called a triskelion, to get them around the ship; the Doctor has seen such symbols on many worlds, and realizes the Triskele are old indeed. But soon they learn a greater wonder: The Triskele, once unified being, split themselves into three parts after a history of terrible conquest. There are the Engineers, the creative and mostly peaceful aspect; the Uncreators, the destructive and warlike aspect; and the Lawgivers, who control both.

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The three aspects have chosen the three from the R101 as their representatives. Frayling, a builder and designer, represents the Engineers; the Doctor, a neutral party, represents the Lawgivers; and Tamworth, an old soldier, represents the Uncreators. But Tamworth admits that, though he once fought in a war, he has no taste for it; the Uncreator Prime insists the Engineers have cheated the Uncreators. It summons Rathbone instead, as it considers him a true Uncreator.

Only one Lawgiver remains, and it is dying; of the three parts, only the Lawgivers cannot reproduce. Therefore they have summoned the humans (and the Doctor) to reorder their society and provide a new solution. A lawgiver chosen from Engineers or Uncreators would represent only one side, and that is unacceptable. When the Uncreator Prime mentions Rathbone, Tamworth remembers that he must get back; Rathbone had orders to be carried out if Tamworth was gone more than half an hour, and they are not good. But it is already too late. Rathbone is leading the airship’s crew out to take the Triskele vessel by force. Charley and Weeks follow him. Charley tries to warn the others of Rathbone’s actions, but he shoots at her and demands to speak to the leader of the Triskele. Once facing the Lawgiver, Rathbone shoots and kills him…freeing the Uncreators to attack.

Weeks and the crew fire on the Uncreators, but there are far too many of them. However, Tamworth discovers that they can be repelled by roaring at them–this generation has always lived in captivity, and has no concept of predators of any kind. The Uncreators back off, but the Uncreator Prime is not so easily discouraged; and the triskelion symbol it wears is secretly an energy weapon, with which it will kill the Doctor. Tamworth interrupts it by challenging it for the position of Lawgiver; and to everyone’s shock, he beats the Uncreator Prime, using skill to counter instinct. The Uncreator Prime prompts Rathbone to shoot Tamworth, but he breaks free of control, and shoots the Uncreator Prime instead.

Tamworth is now the Lawgiver; but instead of claiming the Triskele for the British Empire, he orders the ship back into space. He will instead help the Triskele regain their individuality and autonomy. He sends the humans back to the ship–but that means they will die in the crash, which the Doctor knows is still impending. He tries to get Charley to stay with Tamworth, but she refuses. He promises to get the airship down safely, but knows it is hopeless.

Rathbone, however, has claimed the Triskele energy weapon. Knowing it can change history, the Doctor takes it back and runs, avoiding the Vortisaur on the way, and enters the heart of the ship. Rathbone corners the Doctor and Charley near the airship’s gasbags, and attacks them, but punctures one of the bags, starting the crash of the ship. Rathbone falls to his death, and the weapon is lost. The Doctor and Charley escape on the back of the Vortisaur…but all others are lost [or so he believes–later stories will reveal a few more survivors].

The Vortisaur is agitated. The Doctor realizes that Charley was meant to die on the R101, and has now cheated it, becoming a temporal anomaly, thus agitating the time-sensitive Vortisaur. Though it pains him to do so, he determines to get her back there in time for the crash, thus restoring her timeline–and the Vortisaur calms down. But he can’t bear to do it now, and takes her with him; the Vortisaur, able to sense the TARDIS, carries them away in search of it.

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This story is a partial historical; although it’s not a topic with which I was familiar, the R101 disaster is an actual historical event. Lord Tamworth, as well, is a fictionalized version of Lord Thomson, the Air Minister at the time, who was responsible for the R101 construction program. The story assumes that in the original timeline, everyone died, although history (and later audios) will verify that there were, in fact, several survivors. In-universe, however, it creates a paradox by means of Charley’s survival, which will not be resolved until Neverland.

It’s a fast-paced story, as with most Eighth Doctor audios; I can’t decide if that’s more a reflection of his character, or of the situations he finds himself in. He’s traveling alone when the story begins, and I am unsure as yet how this fits into the overall (and very self-contradictory) timeline of the Eighth Doctor’s life; I’m not sure what companions he may previously have had, although I expect that Charley Pollard predates Lucie Miller. I understand that Charley has her own audio series as well, which I may check out at some time in the future. Still, it’s an inauspicious beginning for her; she has a date with death, in much the same way as Clara Oswald post-Face the Raven.

This wasn’t my first encounter with Charley (that would be Enemy Aliens, which will be coming up soon in my review of the Destiny of the Doctor series), but it’s a good look at her character. She’s an optimist to the point of annoyance, but that’s not a bad thing as yet; see me again after about five or six appearances, and we’ll see if I still feel that way. She’s resourceful, as well; she had already begun her own adventures prior to meeting the Doctor, although she had been caught in the act. As is not uncommon when dealing with the Eighth Doctor, there are time-travel shenanigans surrounding her; she will at some point also be a companion of the Sixth Doctor, though the Eighth Doctor will not remember this; she met the Fourth Doctor (who also subsequently forgot) in The Light at the End; and the Seventh Doctor was at least aware of her with regard to the R101.

The Vortisaur, which the Doctor names Ramsay, will remain in the TARDIS for some time (Minuet in Hell). The Doctor finds a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with its last page missing, which will be seen again in Terror Firma; more interesting to me, this may presage the Eleventh Doctor’s habit of tearing out the last page of books (The Angels Take Manhattan). He recalls meeting former companion Mary Shelley (Mary’s Story) and being on the Lusitania (The Sirens of Time). He mentions Storm Mine 4 (The Robots of Death) and the Hyperion (Terror of the Vervoids). The Doctor’s alias, Johann Schmidt, comes from Timewyrm: Exodus (which I hope to be reviewing tomorrow!) and will appear in other Nazi-victory stories, such as Colditz; it’s the German equivalent of his standard “John Smith” alias. There are also many references which will be resolved in future stories about Charley, but I’ll leave those to be addressed at that time.

The story is a bit haphazard, even for an Eighth Doctor story. The opening scene with the dying timeship is never referenced again; maybe it was just a red herring for the story, but it’s a pointless one. It exists to set up the Vortisaur incursion, but that could have been done without opening an unresolved plot thread. Tamworth’s defeat of the Uncreator Prime is implausible at best and laughable at worst; it’s made clear that these are creatures to be feared, but he manhandles their leader? Not likely. The Doctor routinely makes mental leaps that are impressive; but, although that’s not out of character for him, it is strange when everyone around him follows along without any confusion. The airship, at high altitudes, maintains internal air pressure despite multiple broken portholes. While this isn’t really a complaint, the Doctor mentions several historical figures and events which (to date at least) he had not been seen to encounter; we usually get a mention of an offscreen adventure or two, but there are a large number of them here.

Overall, not the greatest Eighth Doctor story. It seems to be common for Big Finish (and I suppose this is true for any medium) to start off shaky in a new range–and within the main range, that seems to be true for each new Doctor as well. For comparison, The Sirens of Time was something of a disaster, and the first story for each of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors was fairly weak as well. But, that is a hurdle that has to be crossed; and I expect better things in the future. The Eighth Doctor is nothing if not interesting.

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Next time: In the Destiny of the Doctor range, we’re up to the Seventh Doctor in Shockwave; and in the main range, we’ll continue with the Eighth Doctor in Sword of Orion! As well, on the novel front, we’ll look at Timewyrm: Exodus, and we’ll begin Series Three of the revived television series. See you there!

All stories featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below.  This and other many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Storm Warning

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