We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Lions of Trafalgar, the Fifth Doctor’s entry in the Short Trips, Volume IV collection. Written by Jason Arnopp and read by Peter Davison, this story was published in August 2011, and features the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.
The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan arrive in London on 23 October 1843; Tegan is amazed at the primitive state of the city, which is both relaxed and busy at the same time. Visiting Trafalgar Square, they discover a number of stone lions, but quickly discover that the lions are only visible to the three of them. The Doctor concludes there is a perception filter in place, but one that can only affect people of this time.
The Doctor climbs the newly-constructed Nelson’s Column to have a look around. At the top, he finds two men, Samuel Morton Peto and Thomas Grissell, who are the contractors responsible for construction of the column. They are famously having tea at the top of the still-statueless column, along with twelve of the stonemasons. The stonemasons are nowhere to be seen, however. The two contractors have been possessed by a predatory race called the Sevakrill, who have used them—to the Doctor’s disgust—to devour the twelve stonemasons. It is a celebratory dinner, to be sure; but it is the Sevakrill who are celebrating their own impending conquest!
The column, they reveal, holds a missile that is scheduled to destroy the Earth, but not until 2017, when it will serve to distract their enemies, a force called the Charnal Horde; and it will entertain the Sevakrill as well. The Doctor speaks to the two men instead of the Sevakrill, and tries to get them to build a mental barrier against the Sevakrill, using Nelson’s honorable example for strength.
Below, the lions begin chasing Nyssa and Tegan at the command of the Sevakrill, in order to disrupt the Doctor’s efforts. Eight people—seven civilians and a policeman—are killed during the chase. The lions are interrupted as the Sevakrill are forced out of their hosts; and the lions return to their plinth. The hosts are left with their freedom and a stomachache; the Doctor declines to tell them that it comes from their unwitting cannibalism.
The Doctor spends the next two weeks working to remove the missile. He is unable to eliminate it completely, but lowers it into a tunnel below, and puts a floor under it (since the missile is aimed down at the Earth instead of up). He also places a signal that will bring him back if it is every activated. As the lions are still in place—but invisible—he sets the perception filters to switch off in a few decades, and arranges to have the lions covered and then unveiled as if they had been newly placed—thus maintaining known history. He also makes a note to skip ahead thirty-five years and see if anyone has tampered with Cleopatra’s Needle.
The Fifth Doctor’s entries into these early volumes—of which, as a reminder, this is the last—have consistently been some of the most action-packed, but also some of the most ridiculous. This volume, at least, takes a break from the ridiculousness; this is a believable enough adventure as Doctor Who goes. We visit the 23 October 1843 completion of Nelson’s Column, a few weeks before its famous statue is placed; the Doctor is forced to thwart an alien sleeper plot which will eventually—give or take seventeen decades—destroy the Earth. Nyssa and Tegan aren’t much help here, but they do get chased by the titular stone lions, which is really the only reason for the lions to be in the story at all, as historically it would be a few decades before they were built. That sort of splitting of the plot into two parallel tracks is, of course, common in Doctor Who even today, with the Doctor going one way while his companions go a separate-but-related way. Usually the companion’s track is a little more vital to the story, but unfortunately, sometimes—like here—it’s just extraneous.
With all that said, I still enjoyed the story. I do think it would have felt a little more real to someone who is familiar with the area and the history. I know what Nelson’s Column is, and what it memorializes, but I would not have recognized the date of this story (apparently the dinner party atop the column, mentioned with changes here, was a real event). I wouldn’t have known that there were stone lions around the column, or that they were a later addition, and thus an anachronism here. (The wiki claims that this story “is a reference to an old legend that the lions in Trafalgar Square will come to life if Big Ben chimes 13 times”—another reference I wouldn’t have gotten.) Tegan also makes reference to the “Great Stink” of 1858; this one I had to look up. The story does explain a bit, but more in a “hurry and catch up” manner. That’s a risk, I think, in any historical; of course it’s a British series, and deals most of all with British history, while the fanbase is worldwide at this point. Not a complaint, exactly, just noting that some of it may be lost on international fans like me. I do think this is mitigated a bit by the Fifth Doctor; he travels with a group of young people, and it’s almost inevitable that he serves as a teacher to them, and to the audience by default. The balance of “show vs. tell” is maintained, but perhaps with a bit more “tell” than in the case of other Doctors. (I’m a bit biased; I like the Fifth Doctor, and think that the usual issues people raise against his era are overblown. You can feel free to take my opinions with a grain of salt, accordingly.)
Continuity References: Nelson’s Column has been visited previously, as early as The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Perception filters, which here conceal the lions, were first mentioned in Torchwood (Everything Changes) before making their way to the main series (Human Nature episode version, et al.). The Doctor claims—typically, if you ask me—to be a friend of Nelson (World Games). Tegan tries to dissuade the Doctor from climbing the column, noting that climbing ended badly for him last time—a reference to his regeneration after falling from the Pharos Project telescope (Logopolis). As well, given that the Doctor is only accompanied by Tegan and Nyssa, this story must occur between Earthshock and Mawdryn Undead.
Overall: Pretty quick for an action story, but decent enough. If anything, it was over too quickly, but it was fun while it lasted. I understand that later short trips are perhaps double the length of these anthology stories; I think that’s a more workable length for an action story like this. Still, not bad.
Next time: We join the Sixth Doctor and Peri in To Cut a Blade of Grass! 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.