We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week—and after a very long delay (more on that later)—we’re listening to the forty-third entry in the Main Range of audios, Doctor Who and the Pirates! (This story is also subtitled, in true Gilbert and Sullivan fashion, as or, The Lass That Lost a Sailor.) Written by Jaqueline Rayner, and directed by Barnaby Edwards, this, err, unusual story is the first musical entry into Big Finish’s catalog, and features the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables). The story was released in April 2003. 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.
Evelyn drops in unexpectedly on one of her students, Sally. Over Sally’s repeated and strident objections, she begins telling Sally an unlikely story—one in which Evelyn, accompanied by a bombastic time traveler called the Doctor, landed their time machine, the TARDIS, in the hold of a sailing ship, the Sea Eagle. Unfortunately, that ship was in the middle of being captured by pirates, and its crew—to the horror of their captain—are throwing in their lot with the pirates.
Evelyn is no great storyteller, and her story is a mess of elisions, corrections, and clichés, such that Sally finds it impossible to believe—and Sally says as much. Nevertheless, Evelyn persists, first describing the capture of the ship and the murder of its first mate, then moving on to the theft of the TARDIS by the pirates. At last, Evelyn—in the story, that is—is left in a barrel on the sinking (and now burning!) ship, while the pirate captain turns instruments of torture on the Doctor. Sally believes none of this…until the Doctor himself enters her flat, and takes over the story.
The Doctor makes tea, and Evelyn brings him up to speed on what she has already revealed. They decide to split the storytelling, with Evelyn telling her experiences and the Doctor telling his. Evelyn picks up with story-Evelyn still in a barrel on the burning ship, and the captain, Swan, lashed to the mast above. However, a cabin girl—conveniently named Sally—rescues Evelyn, prompting the real Sally to object. The Doctor gently persuades Evelyn not to insert Sally into the story; the cabin boy’s real name was Jem. Evelyn continues.
Jem frees Evelyn and Swan, and in the absence of any boats or firefighting tools, helps them lash together a raft from deck planks. Meanwhile the pirate captain, Red Jasper, and his first mate Merryweather, prepare to torture the Docor. They want to know where to find a man named One-Eyed Trent, who possesses a treasure map for the Ruby Islands. The Doctor knows nothing, and gets Jasper to explain his history with Trent, in which their former captain hid the treasure. The captain and crew were then arrested and/or killed, but Jasper survived, and Trent’s body was not among the dead. Jasper had assumed Trent betrayed them; he then trailed the man to England before losing him. He now seeks any mention of Trent or the treasure, and refuses to admit defeat. Believing the Sea Eagle crew to know something, he kills one of them, and plans to continue killing them until someone talks.
Evelyn, Jem, and Swan paddle the raft, with some argument from Swan. Jem tells her that his father told him about the Ruby Islands and the treasure hidden on one of them, a donkey-shaped island; he also has his father’s compass, which Evelyn uses to steer them. However, they don’t find the islands, but rather, a ship—probably the pirate ship. Meanwhile, present-day Evelyn doesn’t want to continue the story; she knows the tragedy that is coming. The Doctor takes over, and details his confrontation with Jasper, who insists that the treasure is worth a few lives. The mate, Merryweather, insists that the Doctor doesn’t understand the life of a pirate; the Doctor denies this, and to everyone’s horror, begins to sing: I am the very model of a Gallifreyan buccaneer…
The Doctor tries, in his song, to convince Merryweather that murder is the wrong choice; Merryweather agrees, but insists he will follow his captain’s orders. The Doctor insists he wants to understand Merryweather’s thinking; and so Merryweather and the pirates respond with a song of their own, justifying their obedience. To the Doctor’s surprise, Sally joins this song, acknowledging blood on her own hands. The Doctor joins in as well, singing a counterpoint. Sally, now fully engrossed in the song, admits she is ready to accept blame and give it all up, despite the Doctor’s arguments.
In the present, Evelyn quietly admits that she knows why Sally joined in. Sally was involved in an auto accident that killed her lover, and she blames herself for driving too fast for the road conditions. Though she couches it in metaphor, it appears she intends to kill herself, out of guilt.
The Doctor brings more tea, and the story resumes. Evelyn and Jem plan to board the ship and try to reach safety in the TARDIS; Swan, however, refuses to stow away, considering it an affront to his dignity as captain. Instead, he wants his crew to admit their errors and accept him back as captain. Meanwhile the Doctor and Merryweather continue to debate—in song, at that—and they engage in a contest of piratical skills. The Doctor tricks Merryweather—now quite intoxicated from drinking more rum than the Doctor—into walking the plank. Evelyn, Jem, and Swan hear the mate fall overboard, but can’t reach him; but this distracts the pirates and lets Evelyn and Jem climb aboard. Swan refuses, and stays behind on the raft. Meanwhile Jasper accuses the Doctor of mutiny, and the pirates prepare to kill him. However, the Doctor sees Evelyn and Jem arrive, and bluffs, telling the pirates that he serves “Evil Evelyn”, the most dreaded pirate of all, captain of the Lecturer’s Revenge! She tries to help him, but her warning pistol shot uses up all Jem’s gunpowder, and the bluff fails.
Merryweather, humiliated, climbs back to the deck, and Jasper has him lock up the Doctor. He confronts Evelyn and Jem and threatens to kill them. One of the Sea Eagle sailors, John Johnson, protests; but for his trouble, Jasper cuts out his tongue and makes him eat it. Evelyn tries to calm the pirates with chocolate, but to no avail. She and Jem are dragged away. Hearing this, the Doctor breaks out of the hold, but Jasper makes him walk the plank.
The Doctor falls in, witnessed by Evelyn and Jem from Jasper’s cabin. She breaks the sternlight and directs the Doctor to the raft, where Swan still waits. As the ship starts to leave the raft behind, Evelyn throws the compass to the Doctor and directs him south-southwest. Jasper enters, and confronts Evelyn—who, not knowing about Jasper’s obsession, asks to be let off at the Ruby Islands that Jem had mentioned. Jasper confronts Jem, who admits that his father told him about the islands. His father, it is revealed, was One-Eyed Trent…but Jem knows nothing about any map. Jasper starts to beat him. Present-day Evelyn can’t continue the story at this point, because she blames herself for what happened next; the Doctor sadly confirms that Jasper refused to believe Jem, and beat him to death. Evelyn comments that she has learned there are no happy endings in real life. Sally agrees; she believes real stories only end one way. The Doctor insists that it doesn’t have to be that way; that when one story ends, another begins. He continues the story, relieving Evelyn of the burden—and this time without singing.
The Doctor and Swan reach the Ruby Islands, and search for the one shaped like a donkey. Using one island as a vantage point, the Doctor climbs a tree, and sees two likely islands—but is interrupted by Swan, who claims a dragon is chasing him. As Swan climbs the tree, the Doctor drops the compass. Swan reveals that he has a spyglass, which the Doctor uses to verify that one of the islands is the likely choice—and that the “dragon” was just an iguana. They climb down, and in the fragments of the compass, they find a treasure map.
The Doctor skips ahead in the story, glossing over the hunt for the treasure. He and Swan find the treasure—a cache of rubies—before the pirates arrive; but now they have to recover Evelyn, the TARDIS, and of course Swan’s crew, who are still in league with the pirates. The ship lands, and Jasper uses a boat to lead a party ashore. The Doctor finds that Swan let the raft drift away; and so he uses a few rubies to bribe the boat guards to let them board the ship. As they approach, the Doctor swims to the side of the ship, while Swan announces himself to his sailors. He claims to have the map, and Merryweather takes him on board. Merryweather takes the map, knowing it will fetch a reward from Jasper, and locks Swan up.
When Merryweather departs for the island, the Doctor slips aboard and frees Swan. He locate Evelyn, who is crying over Jem’s body. Meanwhile Swan tries to convince his crew to return to him; he fails, until the Doctor and Evelyn arrive with Jem’s body. The sight shames them, and they agree to switch allegiances back to Swan. They take control of the ship and sail away, leaving Jasper and the pirates to their fate. However, the Doctor explains that Jasper, Merryweather and the pirates followed the directions on the map…only to find a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey waiting, courtesy of the Doctor.
The Doctor and Evelyn opt to leave the rubies with Swan, considering what they have already cost. They leave him practicing his speech for the Queen. Evelyn is shaken by the events, but the Doctor points out that this means she can still be shocked by evil. Nevertheless, she needs a rest, and so the Doctor takes her home…leading to the current events with Sally. At the end of the story, Evelyn is tired again, and the Doctor lets her go home, assuring her he won’t leave without her. After she leaves, the Doctor produces a letter that was waiting for Evelyn at home—one written by Sally, announcing her suicide, which Sally has only just mailed before Evelyn’s arrival! The Doctor explains that he had taken Evelyn back in time by one night, to allow her a chance to talk to Sally and perhaps prevent this tragedy. The story reminds sally that, as the Doctor says, if you make it through the night, it can seem better in the morning. He leaves Sally in the morning light, with the knowledge that Evelyn cares, and some hope for the future.
I fear, up front, that this will be an “unpopular opinion” post, as I know this story is generally well-liked. I struggled with it, however; it took me multiple attempts to get through it, over a period of a few months, and even then I had trouble paying attention to it. I don’t have a solid explanation for why; I don’t think it’s because of the musical nature of the presentation, as the songs are all found in part three, whereas I had trouble with the entire story.
With all that said, I think that it’s a cleverly constructed story. The frame story, in which Evelyn and later the Doctor visit Sally, one of Evelyn’s students, seems irrelevant at first. Later, however, you find that the story Evelyn is telling is not just important to Sally, but vital—life-changing, even. That reveal is a bit sudden, but it’s less “deus ex machina” and more “Wait, did she mean what I think she means?” Yes, yes she did. This also adds some gravity to what would otherwise be just a silly story; I won’t say why that is, but it’s enough to make you reconsider your view of the entire performance.
I’ve been aware for some time that Evelyn’s overall arc is a sad one; I don’t yet know how it ends (and please don’t spoil it!), but I know it’s not going to end well. This story adds another brick to that edifice; there’s a sense of foreboding to Evelyn here. For once, even the Sixth Doctor is somber as we approach the end of the story—partly because of Sally’s issues, but also, I think, because of Evelyn’s. It’s enough to make me dread what lies ahead, though I am certainly looking forward to getting there.
The songs in part three are all homages (or parodies, if you prefer) of musical tunes and sea shanties, mostly from Gilbert and Sullivan shows. This is not a form of media with which I’ve had much experience, and I only recognized one of the source tunes from which the songs were constructed (“I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”, from The Pirates of Penzance, and thank you, Star Trek, for that one! Here it is rendered as “I Am the Very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer”). The tunes are catchy, though. One gets the impression that both the Doctor and Colin Baker have been waiting for a chance to sing for a long time (at least since Terror of the Vervoids, according to Mel…). I won’t list all the songs here; but you can find a complete list on the TARDIS wiki’s page for this story.
Continuity references: Hold on to your three-cornered hat, because there are a lot of these! Most occur in the Doctor’s previously-mentioned “I Am the Very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer” song, rattled off in rapid-fire mode. He mentions the following:
- The Death Zone and the Game of Rassilon (The Five Doctors)
- His Gallifreyan presidencies (The Invasion of Time, The Ancestor Cell, Time In Office, The Five Doctors, and if we play with the timelines, the Sixth Doctor himself in *The Quantum Archangel)
- Tobias Vaughn (The Invasion)
- Mavic Chen (The Daleks’ Master Plan)
- Viking hordes (The Time Meddler)
- Daleks (The Daleks, many MANY others)
- Quarks (The Dominators)
- Cybermen (The Tenth Planet, et al.)
- Autons (Spearhead from Space, et al.)
- Axons (The Claws of Axos)
- Daemons (The Daemons)
- Krotons (The Krotons)
- Monoids (The Ark)
- Vampires (State of Decay, stories in other media)
- Voords [sic; I think it should be “Voord”, but he adds the -s] (The Keys of Marinus)
- Manussa (Snakedance)
- Dulkis (The Dominators)
- Skonnos (The Horns of Nimon)
- Tigella (Meglos)
- He quotes Drax’s line from The Armageddon Factor: “Remember me to Gallifrey!” (here pronounced as “Gallifree”, for the sake of rhyming the previous line of the song.)
- As well, he mentions Hecate from K9 and Company, though the canonicity is doubtful, and he wouldn’t have been there to know that story.
- The Great Fire of London (The Visitation; not mentioned in the song)
Interestingly, all the above are from television episodes; I’ve made connections to a few stories in other media, but none of those are necessary for the references.
Overall: Not a bad performance, but not my cup of tea. While the story has value as part of Evelyn’s arc, it’s been the most difficult part for me to digest so far. Still, if musicals (and pirates!) are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy it much more than I did. For myself, I’m happy to move on.
Next time: After much delay, we rejoin the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa in the experimentally non-linear Creatures of Beauty! 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.