We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #28, Invaders from Mars. Written and directed by Mark Gatiss, this episode features the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard, and begins the second “season” of Eighth Doctor stories in the main range, consisting of six consecutive entries. We’ll be hanging out with the Eighth Doctor for quite some time (as we’re also covering Series Two of the Eighth Doctor Adventures on Thursdays), so let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
In September 1938, a meteor lights up the sky over New York City. One month later, on 30 October, two criminals, Ellis and Mouse, have robbed their boss, Don Chaney, of merchandise to resell. Their buyer turns out to be a private detective named J.C. Halliday, who tries to arrest them. Ellis shoots Halliday with a rather exotic gun. As they flee, the TARDIS materializes, and the Doctor and Charley emerge, with the Doctor cautioning Charley about changing history. They realize they have not landed in 1930 Singapore as expected, but in New York, near a dead body. He finds that Halliday was a private detective, and decides to investigate, as Halliday’s well-fried death doesn’t fit the time period. Meanwhile, Orson Welles and John Houseman are rehearsing for CBS Radio’s upcoming Halloween broadcast, for which Welles is not very excited. As they practice, network chairman Bix Biro makes some additional wiring connections in the broadcast booth…
Ellis rejoins Chaney and his men for dinner, and finds that Mouse is missing. They are accosted by two rival hitmen, who call Chaney by an unwanted nickname—“the Phantom”—based on an old facial injury, and try to kill him. He kills them first, with another of the exotic guns, which leave them burned to a crisp. Elsewhere, at another restaurant, gossip columnist Cosmo Devine chats with the upper crust, and takes donations for a theatre project. He leaves shortly to make an important call.
The Doctor and Charley visit Halliday’s office. They meet a potential customer for Halliday, a woman named Glory Bee, who is searching for her missing uncle, Yuri Stepashin, who disappeared from an alleged—but fake—conference. The Doctor poses as Halliday (against Charley’s wishes), and learns that the missing uncle was an atomic scientist. He suspects a connection with the radiation-related death of Halliday.
As Welles and Houseman leave for the night, they encounter Biro, with whom Welles does not get along. Biro’s nervous attitude is justifiable, though; Welles does not know that Cosmo Devine has kidnapped Biro’s lover, Jimmy Winkler. Devine has ordered Biro to find certain information, and to plant a signal in the Halloween broadcast, and has threatened Winkler’s life if Biro fails.
Elsewhere, Chaney has a strange creature in his custody, which provides him with the radiation weapons. He has also found Mouse and is interrogating him while Ellis watches. Mouse admits to selling the weapons to rivals, and admits to having a partner in the thefts; he mentions Halliday’s death. As a result, he doesn’t know who the real contact for the sale would have been. Chaney decides that Mouse has no more information, and should be killed. Ellis beats Mouse to keep him from talking, and then drops him through a hatch to the creature below; he and Chaney listen as Mouse meets a terrible end…
In the morning, the Doctor tells Charley that Halliday’s investigation involved the Excelsior Hotel, the hotel at which Glory’s uncle was allegedly staying. They are interrupted by the police, who have discovered Halliday’s body, and they are forced to flee down the fire escape. In the process, Charley is kidnapped by a thug. As Glory arrives with more questions, the Doctor is forced to stop searching for Charley and go with Glory to the hotel. Meanwhile, at the studios, Biro learns that the attempt on Chaney’s life was a failure.
As the Doctor and Glory arrive at the hotel, Welles and Houseman are leaving. Ellis is also there, as is Cosmo Devine; Cosmo, it seems—or rather, his agent—was the planned contact for the sale, but found Halliday’s body instead. Ellis explains that they have already kidnapped Charley for questioning; she is at Cosmo’s house in New Jersey. They overhear the Doctor and Glory asking about Stepashin; Cosmo wants to meet the professor, and Ellis happens to know where he is. Glory pretends to faint, distracting the desk clerk and allowing the Doctor to check the guest register. This leads them to room 1504, where they find another of Ellis’s men.
Stepashin is alive, and in Chaney’s custody, where he is analyzing the creature in the tank. Chaney, it seems, intends to sell the creature to the CIA once they meet his price. Irritably, Chaney returns to his office to listen to the radio, just missing the opening of the now-famous “War of the Worlds” Halloween broadcast. Welles, for his part, concedes that even though terrible, the production is well written.
Charley finds herself imprisoned with the missing Jimmy Walker, who has been here for three weeks. Cosmo, it seems, intends for the German army to invade the United States. He knows that the meteor last month was an alien ship, and that the surviving alien has been found by Chaney’s goons, which led to this plot by Devine. Devine wants Biro to discover the whereabouts of the ship and the alien. Cosmo arrives and questions Charley about Stepashin; when she doesn’t produce satisfactory answers, he struggles to administer a drug which will compel her to reveal the truth. Meanwhile, the broadcast continues to play.
The Doctor and Glory are taken by Ellis to Chaney’s hideout, but the Doctor quickly gets them out of their cell. He theorizes that the mobsters have kidnapped Stepashin to sell his knowledge. They locate a lab, which contains part of the alien ship’s stardrive. Stepashin arrives and examines the alien’s tank, which has become murky; Glory hides to observe him. This confuses the Doctor—if she is his niece, why doesn’t she talk to him?—but it becomes clear when the Doctor introduces himself and Glory to Stepashin. Stepashin claims he has no family, at which Glory draws a gun and admits to being a Soviet secret agent, here to take Stepashin back to Russia.
Ellis finds Cosmo questioning Charley with the help of the drug, while Winkler watches. She does indeed tell the truth, but her words about time travel confound them, so Cosmo eventually stops and goes back to the broadcast, waiting for the signal he ordered to be implanted. They hear something overhead, but pay no attention; as it turns out, however, on this particularly famous Halloween night, invaders really have come to a field in New Jersey: Destroyer Streath and Conserver Noriam, two batlike aliens who have come in search of a lost breeding party. They will destroy the world if necessary to get it back…
Stepashin was here to defect to the USA, and his return—along with the captured alien technology—will mean glory for Glory. The technology has already allowed the professor to work on a prototype nuclear weapon. Glory takes Stepashin and the Doctor outside, where they find that the hideout is inside a tower of the Brooklyn Bridge. Chaney intercepts them with one of the alien guns, causing a standoff; the Doctor tries to persuade him to destroy the technology, in order to save the human race from its own ambition. However, Chaney has already closed a deal with the CIA. They are interrupted by a mobster, who has fallen victim to the hysteria caused by the radio broadcast about the Martians in New Jersey. The Doctor realizes the truth, and laughs—not realizing that there really are aliens nearby.
Biro has sent the coded signal, telling Devine that he has the requested information. Devine, therefore, intends to kill Ellis, no longer needing him. However, Charley is now recovering, and attacks Devine long enough for Ellis to knock him out. However, Devine’s gun goes off in the fight and kills Winkler. As Charley and Ellis flee, they encounter the aliens, Streath and Noriam, who question them about Earth’s defenses. Ellis, misunderstanding, claims that all weapons are in the city; the aliens take Charley and Ellis along to the city while they search. Meanwhile, Biro and his assistant, Carla, begin to receive word at the switchboards about the panic the broadcast has caused. As riots begin, Biro orders Houseman to broadcast an apology. He goes to meet a visitor: Cosmo Devine. Biro tells him that Chaney has the alien ship, and gives the location of Chaney’s lair. Cosmo kills Biro, but unknown to him, the conversation was recorded on Carla’s dictation machine.
Back at the Brooklyn Bridge, Streath and Noriam’s ship arrives, breaking the stalemate by distracting Chaney. Glory tries to seize Stepashin, but one of the thugs shoots out part of the bridge, causing her to fall to her death. Noriam, on the ship, detects the weapons fire, and brings the ship in to land. Ellis, now regretting all his decisions, decides to try to make good on the situation; but he misses an argument among the aliens, which belies their less-than-strong position. Meanwhile, Chaney forces the Doctor and the Professor back inside; at the lab, he finds Devine with a squad of German soldiers, here to claim the alien and the technology. They open the alien tank—but find, to their horror, that the alien has reproduced by binary fission, producing thirty hungry offspring…
The alien spawn destroy the German soldiers. Devine, Chaney, and the Doctor flee; Stepashin does as well, but is overtaken and killed. They are intercepted by Noriam and Streath, with Charley and Ellis in tow; while the Doctor and Charley are happy to see one another, Chaney realizes that Ellis sold him out. The Doctor and Devine both claim to speak for Earth; the Doctor realizes that, despite Noriam’s claims, there is no invasion coming, only the two of them. In fact, the aliens are criminals as well, running a protection racket. It seems they release breeding parties—the alien that has now reproduced—on less-advanced worlds, then offer to protect that world at a price. Devine tries to convince Noriam to use advanced technology to conquer the planet; he intends to use this as his own personal meal ticket. The Doctor counters this by telling the aliens that the planet is already being invaded, with Martian war machines approaching New York. Noriam suspects this is a bluff, but they are interrupted by the alien offspring. While Noriam uses a signal to calm the hatchlings, the Doctor escapes with Charley and Chaney; Ellis is still trapped, and Devine chooses to stay and continue to work on an alliance with the aliens. When Ellis objects, Devine kills him.
Welles and Houseman find Biro dead, and find the recording of the confrontation on the dictation machine. As Chaney, the Doctor, and Charley race to the studios to enact the Doctor’s new plan, the aliens begin to pack up the technology in the lab. Chaney’s men bring the TARDIS to the studio, and Chaney gets them inside using his police connections to bypass the mob outside. They find Welles trying to report the murder of Biro to the CIA, but in light of the panic, the CIA is having none of it. The Doctor offers to help, but his remarks—about Shakespeare, and about Welles’ as-yet-unmade films—just confuse the man. The Doctor lays out his plan to get rid of the aliens. The Doctor, Charley, Chaney, Welles, and Houseman are going to re-broadcast The War of the Worlds, with some special changes, for the benefit of the aliens. As they begin, the Doctor connects the TARDIS to the broadcast booth and isolates a certain frequency.
The aliens have imprisoned Devine in their cargo hold, where he hears something in the hatchling tank. Noriam takes him to the bridge and questions him about Earth and its weaknesses; he describes the various nations and the political situation, encouraging an attack so as to secure his own power. He is interrupted by the second broadcast, which—thanks to the Doctor’s ruse—convinces Noriam and Streath that there is a real invasion on. As they are aware that Mars is indeed occupied by a formidable warrior race, they assume Cosmo has been distracting them while his “real” allies arrive and attack. Streath returns Cosmo to the hold, while Noriam takes the ship to orbit.
Charley sees in the TARDIS that the ship is fleeing, and the Doctor congratulates his group…not realizing that they are still broadcasting. Streath and Noriam are furious at being played, and turn the ship around. However, in the hold, Stepashin—badly wounded and dying, but still hanging on—emerges from the empty hatchling tank. He knows he will die, but he decides to save the world in the process; and he sets off his prize creation: the world’s first atomic bomb.
In true human fashion, the authorities dismiss the explosion over the city as another meteor. The CIA is ready with a cover story, and the ship sightings will be attributed to hysteria. Welles will now be infamous, but he will eventually recover; and as he addresses the public, the Doctor and Charley take their leave, dematerializing in front of Chaney’s eyes.
Well, this was…interesting. I’ve long been fascinated with the 1938 Halloween broadcast of The War of the Worlds and the mass panic it caused, which is one of the inciting events of this story (somewhere in storage I have a very old and fascinating book about the event, replete with interviews and photos). The central idea here is that, totally unknown to Orson Welles, there was in fact an alien invasion of sorts happening during the broadcast (a possible nod to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the Fifth Dimension, or to the 1988 television version of War of the Worlds, which terrified me as a child). It’s pretty well done, I have to admit, including some background audio from what I think is the actual broadcast (I couldn’t confirm; it may be a recreation). It’s a cleverly written story, with several parallel plot threads, and it all comes together nicely at the end. I admit that when I saw the title and cover art, I was not expecting much, but it’s actually a decent Eighth Doctor story.
I usually complain when the accents and dialog stray into stereotypes, but here it seems to fit. This audio sounds like an old black-and-white mob movie—I’m thinking pre-Godfather–and I think that that is by design; as such, it needs the stereotypical mobster accents and dialog. I can live with it being overdone when it’s for a good purpose (take notes, writer of Minuet in Hell–this is how you do it!). Not a single character is wasted here; everyone has an important role to play. As well, for once, not everyone dies; Welles and his broadcast partner both survive, as does mob boss Chaney, which admittedly is an impressive survival rate for a Doctor Who story.
Charley is a bit downplayed here; she’s mostly a vehicle for allowing the other characters to play their parts. She is kidnapped early—familiar territory for her; she even comments “Can’t a person walk down the street without being kidnapped these days?!”—but this allows another major plot thread to be established. She does help the Doctor with his final strategy here, and keeps another character, Ellis, going. I’ve already said that no character is wasted, and I include Charley in that; but it is definitely a smaller role for her. I think that is probably due to the size of the cast; we know from past stories that it’s difficult to balance a large number of characters.
Things I would have cut as extraneous: Eighth Doctor stories tend to ricochet all over the place—perhaps a side effect of both the pace of the story and the sheer amount of history there is by the time we get to the Eighth Doctor. Inevitably there are some extraneous parts. Although WWII was in progress in Europe by this point, references to the German army could have been left out, as they aren’t really necessary even to give small-time villain Cosmo Devine a motivation; he could be power-hungry in any context. As well, the Doctor makes indirect mention of the Ice Warriors, which—although they are from Mars—aren’t really needed even for his purposes here.
There are some notable errors in this story (but more in a second about that!). Welles is curiously unaware of Shakespeare. There are too many states in America—49 instead of the historical 48 in 1938—and the CIA should not exist for another nine years. However, future audios Neverland and The Time of the Daleks will explain that these are not in fact errors, but plot points. I haven’t reached either yet, so we’ll return to that subject when we get there.
I have to take a moment and compare this story to another Eight/Charley story, Enemy Aliens, from the Destiny of the Doctor series. Both stories center around an alien invasion, plus a potential German invasion, with radio broadcasts that involve coded messages. Both involve double agents of sorts, and alien creatures that appear to be mostly mindless. I didn’t care for that story; I felt like it existed mostly as a bridge between the classic and new Who eras within its series. I can’t really pinpoint why, but this story is much better, in my opinion; Enemy Aliens felt like a difficult slog, but Invaders from Mars was fun.
Continuity References: It’s a tenuous connection, but a different Wells—H.G. Wells—authored the novel on which The War of the Worlds was based; he appears in Timelash and in the comic story The Time Machination, with a predicted third meeting with the Doctor that has yet to be seen. The current Welles—Orson Welles—will be referenced again by the Celestial Toymaker in another Charley audio drama, Solitaire. The Doctor displays a speed reading ability, seen in City of Death, Rose, and The Time of Angels. There’s a possible (but unconfirmed) reference to the Meddling Monk in the Doctor’s early story about King Canute, but this refers to a story not seen in any medium as yet. One meta-reference by the character of Houseman—the line “George, what are you doing with those keys?”—is a reference to George Couloris, who appeared in the original 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds, and later became a Doctor Who alumnus as Arbitan in The Keys of Marinus. And, one more real-world reference, too good to miss: Chaney is loosely based on actor Lon Chaney, right down to his damaged nose, for which our Chaney is nicknamed “the Phantom” (after Lon Chaney’s portrayal of The Phantom of the Opera).
Overall: This one is alright. I admit that I am not enjoying the Eighth Doctor stories as much as those main range entries for other Doctors, and I was not looking forward to this one; I was anticipating another Enemy Aliens. I was pleasantly surprised, and happy to be wrong. It’s not a perfect story, but it’s perfectly acceptable, and fun to hear. I’m curious where the rest of this “series” will go; this story ends with the Doctor and Charley urgently trying to get to Singapore, so perhaps there’s going to be an ongoing arc. We’ll find out next week!
Next time: On Thursday, we’ll be covering The Skull of Sobek, with the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller; and on Monday, we’re back with a much more famous Eighth Doctor story: The Chimes of Midnight! See you there.
All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from 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.