We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Death’s Deal, the tenth entry in the Destiny of the Doctor fiftieth anniversary series. The story features the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble; written by Darren Jones, it is read by Catherine Tate and Duncan Wisbey. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t listened to this audio drama!
The Doctor gets a distress signal from a merchant ship called the Caliban–and then hundreds of others [693, the Doctor will soon point out], from a planet called Death’s Deal. Some of the signals are old, as the Doctor points out. Donna insists on helping anyone they can, and they head for the planet.
On the surface, they are at first isolated; but they are soon joined by a newly-landed ship…full of tourists (some human, some not). The group is led by an amphibian tour guide named Hickery Frimms, in the company of an imperious woman named Mistress Qwelleen. It’s the 49th century, and the planet is called Death’s Deal, as the distress signals said, and it’s reputed to be the most dangerous planet in the universe, where you show up, crash, and no one rescues you. Thrill seekers pay small fortunes to come here. While they talk, a huge creature bursts up through the ground—and swallows the TARDIS! The tourists flee in their ship, leaving a few behind, including Frimms—but the creature attacks and destroys it, before returning underground. Donna and the Doctor are nearly pulled under in its wake, but are pulled back by one of the tourists, an alien that Donna thinks of as a humanoid, walking barnacle, with many tentacles. It gives its name as Krux, a Nimosite from Ceratesh; he is an anthropologist. Qwelleen takes out her anger on Frimms, who can’t get them out of this, and takes charge of the group. It consists of Qwelleen, Frimms, Krux, the Doctor, Donna, a human girl named Lyric, and a human space pirate named Tad Groogan. Qwelleen is almost instantly grabbed by a different creature and eaten while Groogan watches.
Frimms tells them they are stranded because it is illegal to be here. He tells the Doctor that one ship, belonging to a rival company, will arrive, but not close by; but between them and the landing site are any number of dangers. As well, Groogan is looking for a lost ship, the Howling Jupiter, which crashed here years ago, and may be the reason the planet is off limits. He’s tracking a signal that is, oddly, in Morse Code; when Donna translates it, it spells out “Allons-y”. The Doctor realizes at once that the message is for him, and joins Groogan in searching.
The Howling Jupiter is at the edge of a massive coral field, in an arc on which the coral won’t encroach. The group finds it easily enough, and Groogan goes to investigate, Frimms with him, leaving Lyric to watch the others; but the Doctor, Donna, and Lyric also go in, on their own, leaving Krux on guard outside. The morse signal leads them to a video message…from the Eleventh Doctor [he doesn’t number himself, but at this point it should be obvious to the Doctor at least]. The Eleventh Doctor talks about something under the surface, called slaughter crystals. The Wraith Mining Cartel is coming for the crystals, and must be stopped. To that end, the Eleventh Doctor wants the Tenth to locate a man named Professor Merritt Erskine, who has proof of the crystals; the Doctor must save Erskine and transmit proof of the crystals’ existence to the Galactic authorities. The Doctor is familiar with the crystals; he knows they are used for incredibly powerful bombs and weapons, and nearly every planet has banned their extraction. Lyric is confused by how the man can also be the Doctor, but he waves away her questions.
On the way out, they meet Groogan and Frimms. The Doctor intends to go into the coral field, despite the danger; he sends Groogan to get everyone to safety, but Donna and Lyric both insist on staying with the Doctor, prompting everyone else to follow as well. As soon as they go outside, Frimms is killed by another creature. More creatures are approaching, driving them toward the coral field.
Donna and Krux fall into a deep hole, somehow surviving. They find a network of tunnels, and flee into them; the Doctor has no time to get them out, as the creatures are approaching. He gives her a flashlight and the TARDIS key, and sends her to find the TARDIS if she can.
The Doctor, Lyric, and Groogan continue on, dodging traps as much as possible. They encounter a wild man, who surprises them and pushes them into a crevice. The Doctor realizes that it is Professor Erskine; and Lyric, overwhelmed, reveals that she is Erskine’s daughter. He has lost his mind, and imagines himself the master of the entire world; and he doesn’t seem to recognize Lyric. He leads them deeper into the crevice.
Donna and Krux are still navigating the cavern. Krux realizes they are not natural, but excavated; but by the monstrous creatures, not any intelligent species. They stumble upon a half-rotten, partially-eaten body. They hear a creature approaching through the ground, and run down a random tunnel.
Erskine takes his group through a canyon. Lyric reveals that Erskine was a planetary surveyor; as such, he used to fall on the side of ecologists and protesters in battles with mining and other such interests. He disappeared six years prior. Lyric, after much time, found that Wraith was responsible; they tricked him into surveying Death’s Deal, then shot him down—but she never thought he was dead. She admits she used Groogan to get here. They reach a cave, guarded by beasts that Erskine has tamed, and go inside; they find it is the wreck of Erskine’s ship, now serving as his home. There are no records to be found—but the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver agitates Erskine’s tame creatures and coral garden. He concludes that it’s the technology from all the crashed ships—specifically the distress signals—that are making the planet deadly; everything on the planet is agitated by the electronics. Erskine threatens the Doctor with his staff, which is tipped with a slaughter crystal.
Donna and Krux are menaced by a massive, wormlike creature, which is chewing through the rock like a tunneling machine. It traps them at a dead end. Krux, whose species is like a large mollusk, opens his exoskeleton, and takes Donna inside, then hurls himself into the creature. Its simplified digestive system passes them through quickly as Donna holds her breath; and they make it out the other end. But, more worms are coming, and Krux cannot endure another passage. They hurry on, searching for the TARDIS.
Groogan tries to take the valuable crystal from Erskine, but Erskine scratches him with the crystal. Groogan quickly begins to decay as if poisoned, and dies in seconds. The crystals, it seems, possess a kind of radiation that transmits in lethal doses upon contact with bare skin. Erskine forces Lyric and the Doctor outside.
Donna and Krux come upon a deposit of crystals, which is guarded by a maze of deadly coral creatures. The TARDIS is right at the center of the mass. With the worms behind and the coral ahead, they are trapped.
Erskine leads the Doctor and Lyric to a huge crater, which is filled with a gigantic coral creature. He intends to kill them here; bloodstains indicate he has killed many others. Lyric tries to get him to open the locket he wears, which has pictures of herself and her mother, but he will not; and he sends his pets to drive them off the cliff.
Donna and Krux run for the TARDIS. Krux is attacked by the coral, and injured badly. She uses the flashlight to lure the polyps away; the coral’s tentacles accidentally touch the crystal deposit, and begin to die. Donna gets Krux inside the TARDIS, and locks the door. He is amazed by the TARDIS, but assures Donna that he will live if he doesn’t move. Donna tries to signal the Doctor from the control console.
The Doctor receives the signal on his screwdriver, but he drops it as Erskine lunges. Lyric attacks her father, and he drops the staff, but they both go over the edge, landing on a lip of the slope. The Doctor nearly falls, but recovers the screwdriver, and sends a signal back to the TARDIS with it—although using it agitates every creature around them, and causes Erskine’s pets to fall to their deaths. Erskine has a moment of clarity, and looks at his locket; he falls to the coral below, but throws the locket to Lyric before he does. The Doctor latches onto Lyric, but they both begin to slip.
The TARDIS carries Donna and Krux to the lip of the crater. The Doctor sends her to get a long cable from the console room, and uses it to get himself and Lyric back to the top.
Lyric opens the locket. Inside, she finds a microdrive memory device, and gives it to the Doctor. On it are the survey results for the planet’s crystals, which he sends to the galactic authorities as asked—but the TARDIS sensors reveal there are three automated mining ships approaching. As they are unoccupied, he sends a signal to cause the ships to self-destruct. Immediately afterward, the authorities respond, and initiate security procedures for the planet.
The Doctor takes them back to the planet briefly, where things have changed. He reveals that he has stopped all the distress signals, and now the planet is calm. Having patched up Krux, he prepares to leave; and Lyric and Krux stay behind to meet the rescue team that is coming, and explain everything. Krux intends to return later with an expedition to study the planet’s biology. Lyric thinks the Doctor failed in his mission, but the Doctor says that the message said to save Erskine—it didn’t specify WHICH Erskine. He gives back the microdrive, and its data.
One thing that has impressed me about the Destiny of the Doctor series is how each entry has been so well fitted to the era of its Doctor. Some of that is inevitable; you write about these characters, and you have to mold your story to what we know of them. But that’s not all; the stories fit from the audience’s perspective, as well. We don’t learn anything in each one that we would not have known in that era (with the exception of the occasional sentence from the Eleventh Doctor, which are just non sequiturs when taken out of context), and the background and even writing style fits very well. If I may be permitted to ramble a bit, here’s a rundown:
- In Hunters of Earth, we are shown practically nothing that we couldn’t have learned in An Unearthly Child, and the First Doctor is firmly in the camp of “Don’t meddle with time”.
- In Shadow of Death, the Doctor is very mysterious even to his companions, and they are left with only the most minimal understanding at the end (as are we), which was very common in the Second Doctor’s era.
- In Vengeance of the Stones, we’re tied to Earth, and the Third Doctor is both cooperating and at odds with UNIT, and the setting is a mostly-rural area with a lot of otherworldly secrets—all very common Third Doctor-era tropes.
- In Babblesphere, there’s the very familiar pattern of “Land on a planet, immediately get in trouble, companion must rescue the Doctor, the Doctor must risk his own identity to solve the mystery”, plus a generous helping of Fourth Doctor-era nonsense and gibberish.
- In Smoke and Mirrors, there’s a revival of the historical/pseudohistorical format, which was very common in the early Fifth Doctor era; and the Master shows up, as he did every season. Also, though it’s not as obvious, the story doesn’t sit comfortably for three companions, and would probably have been better with just two—another common Fifth Doctor issue.
- In Trouble in Paradise, there’s the very common (for season 22, anyway) trope of Peri being at odds with the Doctor and rushing off into trouble in response. There’s probably less here to tie this story to its seasons than in the other entries, but that’s mainly because the Sixth Doctor’s seasons weren’t very good, and didn’t give us much to work with. It IS, however, more consistent with his other audio appearances.
- In Shockwave, we have the familiar pattern of Ace and the Seventh Doctor showing up in the middle of a calamity that’s already in progress, the Doctor ranting about being unable to save the situation (or do what Ace wants him to), and then proceeding to spend a lot of time sputtering and growling while he does, in fact, save the day.
- In Enemy Aliens, there’s a fast-moving, disjointed story which leaves a lot unexplained at the end—it could only be more typical of the Eighth Doctor if he got amnesia.
- In Night of the Whisper, we have a great mystery in a futuristic setting that employs modern-day (or even past) tropes, like the noir setting and superhero references (compare stories like The Long Game, which give us then-current television tropes in a future setting). It couples all this with a very Ninth Doctor resolution, and a great appearance by the relevant companions.
This entry, Death’s Deal, is no different. Here we have—as we so often did on television—the Tenth Doctor and his companion landing on a far-flung planet with a terrible and deadly secret, and racing the clock to find a solution. We have the Tenth Doctor wanting to save everyone, and grieving over his failure to do so. We have Donna being, well, Donna—wildly opinionated, passionate, but WAY out of her league, and yet rising to the challenge. We have a split in the story that sends Donna off on one thread, while the Doctor follows another—it compares very favorably to, say, The Doctor’s Daughter, where Martha gets separated from the Doctor in the company of a very odd alien. It’s a bizarre and improbable environment, with humans (or one, anyway) who is different in a crucial way. These are all very common occurrences in the Tenth Doctor era, and I’m thrilled to see this story follow suit.
We’re getting close to the end, but still, the story has played out in such a way that it’s impossible to grasp what all of this is leading up to. While the Eleventh Doctor continues to give clues and orders, they don’t seem to relate much to each other, and it will be interesting to see how it works out. The Tenth Doctor’s reaction to the Eleventh is interestingly vague; since he must know at this point that he only has one life left to live, one would think he wouldn’t want any indication of that future, but if that’s the case, he keeps it to himself.
References are thin here, once again. The Tenth Doctor makes a reference to Frobisher, of all people, when he refers to an old friend who was a shape-shifter (The Shape Shifter, The Holy Terror, probably other comics that I am not familiar with). He refers to the Master as well, calling him his arch-enemy and noting that he was a master of disguise (Castrovalva, The King’s Demons, others). The Eleventh Doctor, meanwhile, refers to his desire to be ginger (The End of Time, also The Christmas Invasion).
If I have any complaint about this episode, it has to be the voice acting. I have a lot of respect for Catherine Tate, but in comparison to some of the earlier voice actors in this series, it’s clear that she’s just reading. Her portrayal of Donna, of course, is animated; but she doesn’t do well with the other characters, most notably the Doctor, and relies heavily on the fact that the dialogue is well-written. The secondary actor, Duncan Wisbey, does well as Krux (though of course a bit of voice-changing is involved, as he’s not human), but not so well as the mad Professor Erskine.
It’s worth mentioning that this was the final entry under the auspices of AudioGo, as that company went bankrupt. Therefore the next (and final) release in the series, The Time Machine, was in some jeopardy for awhile, but was ultimately released by Big Finish without AudioGo. That release was made on time (November 1, 2013) in download format, but was released late on CD.
Next time: We’ll finish this series with the Eleventh Doctor’s contribution, The Time Machine! See you there.
All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased at Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.