We’re back with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #39, Bang-Bang-a-Boom!. Written by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman, and released in December 2002, this story features the Seventh Doctor and Melanie “Mel” Bush. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free read, scroll down to the next picture.
The aging space station Dark Space 8 is mostly retired from saving the universe, much to the chagrin of its crew; but it is busy today, hosting the 309th Intergalactic Song Contest, which is being broadcast live to the galaxy under the leadership of famed presenter Logan. It includes two worlds with a history of war: Angvia, and the gestalt entity Gholos (whose representative is also called Gholos, as per its hive mind nature). Complicating things is the fact that Dark Space 8 is without a commander, Commander Paul Keele having died of Orion flu against the efforts of medic Eleanor Harcourt. A replacement, Commander John Ballard, is en route by shuttle—but Lieutenant Strindberg can’t contact it, and Professor Ivor Fassbender detects fluctuating chronon energy around it.
The TARDIS materializes aboard the shuttle, a long way from its intended destination of Paris. The Seventh Doctor and Mel find two bodies aboard, and a bomb attached to the shuttle. They try to flee to the TARDIS, but fail to make it in time—but Strindberg teleports them aboard Dark Space 8 just in time, as the shuttle explodes. Eleanor, the officer in charge, assumes they are Ballard and his pilot, and they play along for now. She shows them to “their” quarters, but en route, they encounter the Gholos representative—which looks like candy floss and does not speak English—and its human translator, Loozly. For once, even the Doctor is stymied by a language, and must rely on Loozly. Loozly demands an explanation for the explosion, and claims that its blast pattern indicates it was an Angvian scatter bomb. As Queen Angvia arrives, Loozly, along with another contestant from Cyrene, accuses her of attacking the Commander, and of threatening Gholos. Angvia dismisses this, but complains that her billing in the contest is too far down in the order. The Doctor, in his assumed role as commander, changes the running order to alphabetical, then heads for his quarters with Mel. He explains about the war between Angvia and Gholos, and says that this is a crucial moment; the two combatants are holding a peace conference on the Achilles 4 station. Mel suggests that the Doctor have Fassbender—who is oddly distracted—scan the shuttle wreckage and find the TARDIS. She also warns the Doctor that the real murderer of Commander Ballard may assume he failed, and target the Doctor.
Contestants continue to arrive as Logan provides commentary and Eleanor makes a log entry. Mel checks in on Fassbender while the Doctor is summoned to the command deck to deal with Angvia, who is complaining about being quartered next to Gholos. The contest’s arbiter, the mouselike Geri Pakhar, is also on hand, and helps the Doctor change up the housing arrangements; as they do so, Gholos and Loozly arrive to complain about the arrangements, but leave when they find it is already resolved. Eleanor takes the opportunity to cozy up to the “Commander”. Meanwhile, Fassbender tells Mel he found nothing in the scans; he promises to keep her posted, but she suspects he is hiding something. On her way out, she meets a young man named Nicky Newman, Earth’s representative to the contest. He is delighted to learn she doesn’t know him, as he is used to being universally recognised, and he becomes enchanted with her. Meanwhile, Geri compliments the Doctor, and admits that she is concerned for her sister Teri, who is an observer of the conference on Achilles 4. Suddenly an alarm goes off in the guest quarters. Mel and Nicky respond, and find the Cyrene contestant dead—and it is clearly murder.
Eleanor, the Doctor, Geri, and Fassbender all respond to the alarm, meeting up with Mel and Nicky. Geri asks “the doctor” what has happened; the Doctor nearly answers before realizing it was addressed to Eleanor. Eleanor insists there was no foul play, but the Doctor finds two puncture wounds. Eleanor takes her to sickbay, while the others go to the guest lounge. Gholos, Loozly, and Angvia arrive; Loozly—on Gholos’s behalf—accuses Angvia of the murder and demands the contest be cancelled. The Doctor refuses, knowing this news could also disrupt the peace conference. Loozly and Gholos leave in anger, and Angvia warns the Doctor about the Gholos’s infamous “blue sting” which has allegedly killed many Angvians. Nicky speculates that this is what killed Cyrene, but the Doctor withholds opinion, and the group disperses. Nicky arranges to meet with Mel again later. Fassbender returns to his lab, but remarks on how odd it is for a Pakhar—who are top-level diplomats—to be judging a simple competition. Geri takes offense, calling the appointment prestigious. Meanwhile the Doctor sends Mel to search Cyrene’s quarters, and sends a cover story to Logan so as to conceal the death. Eleanor cannot identify the poison in Cyrene’s system, and the TARDIS is still missing.
In Cyrene’s quarters, Mel is approached by Gholos, who turns red and becomes loud in its native language. Loozly arrives and calls Gholos off, claiming that he too was searching for evidence, but took Mel’s presence as an attack. When she refers to Gholos as a “thing”, Loozly becomes offended, and departs with the still-noisy Gholos. Nicky arrives, and Mel tells him that Gholos tried to kill her. Meanwhile, Fassbender is working on the cause of the shuttle explosion, while Eleanor subtly comes on to the Doctor, ensuring him that she is available to him as she was to the previous commander. Strindberg announces that Achilles 4 is under attack by Angvian separatists, dooming the peace conference. What is there to do, then, but make this contest the best it could be!
Lounging in the station’s pool, Nicky and Mel talk; he begins to rant about his life and its lack of privacy. The constant screaming fans cause him headaches; but on the flight over to Dark Space 8, Loozly was kind enough to give him an aspirin for it. He admits that this career path makes him cripplingly anxious, but he has too much invested to stop now. He is summoned to an interview, and Mel advises him to ignore it, prompting him to snap at her for not understanding. She returns to the guest lounge, where Loozly sits, listening to Logan’s commentary. Logan comments that critics have panned him for commenting on songs when he can’t pronounce the names, but to combat this, he has built his own translation device this year. Loozly says that Gholos is resting, and shows Mel a device for monitoring Gholos’s vitals, as separation from the gestalt can be stressful. He apologizes for his rudeness, but admits that he is uncomfortable with humans, and is only happy on the Gholos world, a planet of gestalt mental energy.
The Doctor goes to his ready room, and learns that the attack on Achilles 4 has been repelled. Mel joins him, but shortly thereafter, they receive a note under the door, which says to “beware the pits of Angvia”—an odd reference, as there are no actual pits on Angvia. Mel decides to search Fassbender’s lab, while the Doctor meets Angvia in the dining hall at her request. To his shock, she declares her romantic intentions toward him, and drags him across the table to kiss him—and to his further shock, he finds himself reciprocating. Meanwhile, Mel meets Nicky coming out of the sickbay, where Eleanor has given him pills for his anxiety and its symptoms. He apologizes for his rudeness, and Mel recruits his help. They break into the lab—but then Logan staggers in, and falls to the floor, dead from a stab wound in the back.
The Doctor is completely taken in by Angvia; but before he can consummate the relationship, Strindberg interrupts and calls him to the command deck. He promises Angvia to return, but he remains affected by her; he shows little interest at the report of Logan’s murder. Eleanor decides she may need to snap him out of it with her own romantic charms…but first there’s an autopsy to complete. Mel also notices the strange behavior, but is busy with Nicky, who is unexpectedly happy at the idea of stopping the contest. However, Loozly no longer wants to stop it; or rather, as he insists, Gholos wants it to go on. Meanwhile Eleanor’s tests on Logan are inconclusive; and the Doctor orders that the contest proceed. Nicky returns to his quarters to relax, as his medicines have not helped. Gholos and Loozly also go to prepare. Mel pulls the Doctor aside and interrogates him; he slowly begins to realize that he is acting bizarrely, especially with regard to Angvia; some things he simply never does, and with her?! He snaps out of it to assess the murder, and quickly deduces the motive—but he keeps it to himself, to Mel’s irritation. Mel leaves to find Fassbender, who is still missing. The Doctor questions Eleanor about Fassbender, and she insists she trusts him. She leaves when Angvia arrives; the queen attempts to resume her seduction of the Doctor, but he reluctantly rejects her. She is shocked at this, and bursts into tears before leaving. The Doctor sets his mind to why he is apparently falling for her.
Strindberg—who has no public speaking experience—fills in (badly) for Logan as commentator. Nicky apologizes with roses for Mel, who then recruits him to find Fassbender. They find him at the back of the main hall. Mel tries to accuse him of killing Logan and falsifying his sensor scans, but he isn’t listening; he is babbling to himself. Mel and Nicky take him to Eleanor in sickbay. While Eleanor prepares to run tests, the Doctor reaches a simpler conclusion: Fassbender is gesturing at his neck, where puncture wounds are found. It seems he has been poisoned—not a murderer, then, but a victim. Before he dies, he admits the truth: for years, he’s been just spouting gibberish and technobabble instead of actual useful information, and in point of fact he’s spent most of their adventures drunk. However, before he can reveal the murderer, he dies.
The Doctor locks down security, but mystifyingly, he allows the contest to proceed. He takes Mel back to the ready room to confer. They conclude that, if Fassbender couldn’t run a proper scan, the TARDIS is probably still out there. He sends Mel to watch the concert hall. Gholos arrives, appearing very distressed, but Loozly arrives to translate, and claims that Gholos is accusing Angvia of murdering Fassbender. The Doctor promises to investigate, and the duo leaves. As they do so, Geri calls the Doctor and says that Angvia has been knocked out in her dressing room. Meanwhile the contest is beginning. Nicky remains ill, and is not helped when Geri rushes past, revealing to Nicky and Mel that Angvia has been attacked. Mel begins to suspect Geri; after all, who would? Thus making her a suspect that no one would, well, suspect. Mel and Nicky follow Geri to an empty corridor, and witness her contacting her home base against the Doctor’s lockdown order. She reassures her superiors that everything is going to plan. This convinces Mel that she is responsible, and Mel tries to restrain her; but in the struggle, Geri hits her head on the floor. Has Mel killed the arbiter?
Eleanor has been unsuccessful at reviving Angvia. In fact, as the Doctor notes, she is generally unsuccessful at everything she attempts. He steps in and uses smelling salts to revive Angvia. In delirium, Angvia talks about trade sanctions and Gholos incursion into Angvian space—information which might be crucial, but is too late in coming; Mel is bringing Geri to Sickbay. Angrily, the Doctor sends Nicky to prepare for his song, and then berates Mel for attacking Geri, whom they need. He explains the presence of Geri, a high-ranking Pakhar diplomat, at a simple competition: it’s no simple competition. The peace conference on Achilles 4 is a decoy, and the real peace conference…is here.
The Doctor explains that Angvia’s ramblings revealed the truth. The Achilles 4 conference was a decoy for the terrorists to attack; instead, Nicky, Angvia, and Gholos carry psychic imprints of the real delegates in their subconscious minds. Using telepathic abilities, the imprinted delegates have been conducting the real peace conference all this time, under the cover of the contest. Geri’s presence is not actually intended to mediate the contest, but rather, the peace conference. The Doctor announces that he knows who the murderer is, and gathers everyone in the guest lounge—including Geri, whom Eleanor has just revived using the Doctor’s smelling salts. Angvia, however, must go onstage first, as her turn has arrived. The Doctor stops to chat privately with Geri before entering the guest lounge. Angvia makes her performance, and then joins them. When the Doctor and Geri arrive last, they are bearing a strange device.
The Doctor explains the truth about the conference. He then exposes the truth about Eleanor, who is not a real doctor after all. She admits it; she came to Dark Space 8 as a stowaway years earlier, and then lied about her qualifications. She was as surprised as anyone when she was taken at face value; and she eventually become chief medical officer. She denies involvement with the murders, however, and the Doctor concurs. He then confronts Nicky, who is still suffering from his fears; he agrees that Nicky is not the murderer, but suggests that Nicky should realise that his fears are trivial.
This still leaves the killer unrevealed, however. The Doctor reveals that the shuttle was destroyed by an Angvian scatter bomb; Angvian poisons killed Cyrene and Fassbender; and Angvia used her race’s impressive pheromone array to seduce the Doctor. That was the purpose of Geri’s note about the “pits of Angvia”; the queen’s pheromone glands are located in her armpits. Of course this makes Angvia the obvious suspect—but perhaps it’s too obvious. Thus, the Doctor activates the device: Logan’s translator. Gholos can now speak without Loozly’s help, albeit in Logan’s voice. The gestalt entity instantly accurse Loozly of the murders. Loozly admits it; he is strongly opposed to peace with Angvia, perhaps more so than Gholos himself. His contacts back in Earth Security had leaked the truth about the conference; and so he arranged to accompany Gholos and began sabotaging the conference. However, his attempts to frame Angvia failed, not through his own incompetence, but through the incompetence of the medical officer and science officer who should have noticed his planted clues. Gholos admits that earlier, he was not attacking Mel, but trying to warn her; unfortunately no one could understand him. Loozly’s alleged health-monitoring device was actually compelling obedience from Gholos. Loozly killed Logan in order to prevent the commentator from using his translator on Gholos. Fassbender, it seems, had somehow managed to work out the truth, and thus was also killed.
Loozly insists his actions were to preserve the Gholos gestalt from corruption. He takes Angvia hostage, and insists that he has the detonator for a bomb that will destroy the station. Gholos steps in and kills him using the “blue sting of Gholos”, thus freeing Angvia and dealing out justice for himself. Angvia offers to consider peace with Gholos. Nicky is still anxious, but is ready to go onstage. Gholos and Geri return to their duties, and the Doctor—unhappily—has Eleanor arrested for impersonating a doctor. It’s time for he and Mel to leave, and the ending theme plays…
…Until Mel stops him. It’s all been too easily concluded, but there’s still one question: Where’s the bomb? Security fails to find it anywhere. Angvia says that an Angvian personal destructor would work perfectly; it consists of a tiny fragment of black star matter inside a pill. When swallowed, it attaches to the digestive tract. When the carrier is agitated enough, the pill dissolves, and the fragment explodes with the force of fifty Angvian scatter bombs. Mel makes the connection at once: en route to the station, Loozly gave Nicky a headache pill. And Nicky is about to go on stage, where his anxiety will skyrocket.
The crowd is singing the Earth anthem, I Will Survive, giving the Doctor and Mel just enough time to catch Nicky. The Doctor sends him with Mel back to his cabin. Nicky, thinking that Mel is coming on to him, begins to get equally excited in a different way; and Mel gives up and knocks him out. Meanwhile, the Doctor goes onstage in Nicky’s place, and plays the spoons to a techno-pop background song—and against all odds, the crowd goes wild. After the performance, the Doctor runs and retrieves Eleanor. Despite her lack of qualifications, he insists that she has enough practical experience that she is the only one who can remove the bomb from Nicky. She manages to do so; and as Nicky’s imprint isn’t available to finish the negotiations, the Doctor steps in and does so. The negotiations are successful, and after centuries, both sides agree to peace.
The contest has entered the voting phase as Mel locates the TARDIS and has it brought aboard. She assures Nicky that he can handle the uproar from his failure to appear. The jig is up, however; Geri receives a message from Earth with an image of the real Commander John Ballard, and the Doctor is clearly not him. He tells the truth, which explains to Angvia why he could resist her; he isn’t human, and she never expected to seduce one of the legendary Time Lords. The contest ends most unexpectedly: the Doctor, or rather, “Commander Ballard”, wins! He takes this opportunity to get Mel into the TARDIS and slip away.
In the aftermath, Eleanor is found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison, but her sentence is mitigated by her efforts in saving Nicky’s life. Upon release, she enrolls as a student in a teaching hospital…and forges a close relationship with her department head.
Credit to Simon Hodges, (DeviantArt’s HiSi79). Used without permission, not for profit.
I won’t have a lot to say about this story, not because of anything bad about it, but for two reasons. First; it’s been a few months since I listened; if you’re reading this on my blog, the plot summary above was written at that time, but this review segment comes from perhaps three months later. The story’s gotten a bit cold for me since then, but I want to be able to move on, and so I’ll go ahead and give you what I can. Second, to quote the TARDIS wiki:
As with the prior Mel story, The One Doctor, it was in many ways a parody — though this time of Star Trek, the Eurovision Song Contest and the classic Gerry Anderson 1970s show Space: 1999. Indeed, the title itself is a pun on “Boom Bang-a-Bang”, the 1969 song by Lulu that gave a rare Eurovision win to the United Kingdom.
Of those three references, I’m only personally familiar with one, that being Star Trek. (If it wasn’t previously clear, I live in the USA, where Eurovision is not exactly a familiar thing; and while Space: 1999 is on my list of shows to watch someday, I haven’t seen it yet.) Therefore, I imagine that much of the humor is lost on me, though I still found the story to be very funny.
And funny, it is! That’s by design, perhaps more than usual; Big Finish went through a period of releasing comedic stories for Christmas, with this story being the second in that unofficial series. The first was 2001’s The One Doctor, which also featured Mel as a companion, though with the Sixth Doctor instead of the seventh. Mel seems to be a good hook on which to hang this type of story; unlike many companions, she’s not inclined to simply take the Doctor’s shenanigans for granted and play along. This, when coupled with a Doctor who isn’t necessarily acting like himself, puts her in the strange-but-effective position of being the straight woman to the Doctor’s comedian. She calls him out on a regular basis; here, it’s most visible in the false ending in Part 4, where we go so far as to have the ending theme begin before she cuts it short and declares that the ending was too easy. (As, in fact, it was!) She tries her best to impose order as the situation descends into increasingly-more-hilarious chaos. Even Mel seems to know this is not normal; she wants the Doctor to step up, take charge, and be authoritative. He’d like to, as well, if he didn’t have problems of his own at the moment.
After the opening’s narrow escape, the Doctor finds himself playing the role of the space station’s new commander—but he may have bitten off more than he can chew, as he finds would-be love interests throwing themselves at him. Captain Kirk may handle such things smoothly (and possibly “NSFW”), but the Doctor is no Kirk, and he’s caught completely off guard. He becomes more alarmed when he finds that this time, there’s a woman he can’t resist! It’s very out of character for the normally asexual Seventh Doctor, but that’s the point; and it becomes a major plot point.
I’d be remiss not to list some of the references to other works. The title comes from 1969’s winning Eurovision song, “Boom-Bang-a-Bang”; as I said, I’m not familiar with it myself, but the wiki tells me that the UK’s wins, like this one, have been rare, making this song an appropriate choice. The commentator for the story’s Intergalactic Song Contest, Logan (played by David Tughan) is a direct spoof of Eurovision’s BBC commentator, Terry Wogan. Dr. Harcourt refers to the contest as “the last, best hope for peace” for the warring systems of Angvia and Golos, which is a quote from Babylon 5’s early-season opening monologue; however (again according to the wiki) the presentation is a subtle reference to Dr. Helena Russell, a Space: 1999 character. Dr. Harcourt is modeled after Dr. Russell in other ways as well, most notably her relationship (which here is a bit lurid) with the base commander. The space station’s name, Dark Space 8, is a likely reference to Star Trek: DS9’s Deep Space Nine station. The story’s cover art is deliberately cast in the same color scheme as the promotional posters for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The frequent crew voiceovers are reminiscent of Star Trek’s log entries, and the musical cues also echo Star Trek. As well, many of the in-universe references to past missions and events echo similar stories in Star Trek’s history, such as a reference to a sweat vampire (the salt vampire from TOS episode The Man Trap). I can’t confirm, but I would assume the same is true for Space: 1999.
Underneath the humor and sci-fi trappings, this story is a “whodunit” murder mystery—actually, given the closed population of Dark Space 8, it’s similar to a locked-room mystery. It’s a great story in that regard; I may be a bit biased, though, because I love a good mystery. It’s only made possible, though, by suspending one of Doctor Who’s usual tropes—the Doctor’s understanding of languages. He is unable to understand or speak the language of Golos, a hive-mind character who participates in the contest. Had he been able to communicate with Golos, who possesses critical information, the story would have been over in minutes; in fact, it is Golos who brings about the resolution, once communication is finally established.
Rare for a Doctor Who story: almost everyone gets a happy ending. There are only a few murder victims, and most of the cast survives and goes on to a good life afterward. It may not be typical of this series, but it’s worth it to see the Doctor sing “I Will Survive”. Some things have to be seen (heard?) to be believed.
There are a few continuity references as well, although the nature of this story lends itself more to the external references I’ve already mentioned. The Doctor refers to the Masterbakers of Barastabon, who were previously referenced in The Church and the Crown (the story immediately before this one, with the Fifth Doctor and Peri) and The One Doctor (the preceding Christmas comedy). The Pakhars appear here, having first appeared in Legacy. The Doctor mentions Mel’s trouble with lifts (Paradise Towers). He previously impersonated a commanding officer for the sake of a peace conference in his third life in The Curse of Peladon. The Breeble race and the anthem of Earth both appear here; they were among the Super Brain trivia questions in The One Doctor. Contestant Nicky Newman, who does not get to compete here, subsequently wins the Intergalactic Song Contest in the Iris Wildthyme audio The Sound of Fear (I ordinarily try to exclude references to future stories here, but as it will be a long time before I get to Iris, I’ll make an exception).
Overall: A good story, managing to mix comedy and storytelling better than its predecessor, The One Doctor, managed to do (although I enjoyed both stories). With so many external references, a generous dose of humor, and a great mystery, there’s something for everyone here. It was good to step away from the intensity of the regular main range stories for a bit, especially after the information-dense The Church and the Crown; here is a story that can simply be enjoyed without much investment. It’s still available on Spotify; check it out!
Credit to Simon Hodges, (DeviantArt’s HiSi79). Used without permission, not for profit.
Next time: I’m continuing the I, Davros spinoff series with part 3, Corruption; and when we return to the Main Range, we’ll look at Jubilee, featuring the Sixth Doctor, Evelyn Smythe, and the Daleks! 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.