It’s 2017 and Britain is celebrating the centenary of the Russian revolution… hang on, that’s not right is it? In Doctor Who: Red Planets, history has changed: Europe is a communist union. Some might say this would be paradise, but in this story, the Earth is doomed because of it…
While the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) are visiting an alternative present day Russia, his other companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) explores alternate history in East Berlin, Germany, in 1961. The drama follows the two separate timelines, which although decades apart, relate to each other in various intriguing ways – although, saying that, it’s hard to pinpoint down a specific antagonist as such, at least from Mel and the Doctor’s perspective. At first it seems it might be the sinister police officer, but then he works alongside them; or it might be the man from this timeline’s equivalent of the KGB, but the Doctor is willing to work with him too. Ace’s narrative is a lot clearer regarding who – or should I say what – the antagonist is, and it’s time itself. Events are changing, and time is collapsing in on itself, causing displacement all around!
Besides the TARDIS team, there are a few other characters for the listener to engage with, which initially appear great, but are sadly easily forgotten. In 1961, we have Tom (Matt Barber), who Ace saves from death in East Berlin. His character is the most important to the plot, yet has no real-life qualities to him; he just needs to get information to the West. Meanwhile, in future Soviet Britain, we meet Colonel Marsden (Elliot Levey), Anna (Genevieve Gaunt) and Sokolov (Max Bollinger). The Doctor spends most of his time with the Colonel, while Mel is with Anna – who are later revealed to be a couple (because, why not?). These characters are definitely more thought-out than Tom, but despite being more flushed out, they still lack a certain something, and are equally as forgettable.
However, even though the characters may be dull, writer Una McCormack makes up for it with a very interesting topic for her story. Throughout the years, there have been many stories asking “What if the Nazis took over the UK?” but I don’t recall being exposed to a “What if the Soviets took over Europe?” narrative. McCormack has come up with one that deals with the subject in an elegant and respectful manner, and leaves you wanting to explore this new world more. Indeed, the story is solidly engaging throughout, throwing you straight into the action from the moment you press play, and leaving the listener wanting more by the end. It helps that the tale is told in a semi-non-linear fashion, which is at the same time linear too. Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey, if you will.
But it’s not perfect. Unfortunately, at times the Seventh Doctor’s dialogue lacks his unique character, and could have been any of the Doctors (although there were a couple of lovely lines that were absolutely bang-on). The story’s title “Red Planets” seems a bit of a misnomer too, as the majority of the adventure is set on Earth, with Mars only really featuring in Part Four. Perhaps “Red Earth” would have suited it better – or alternatively (and perhaps more interestingly), maybe more of the adventure could have been set on Mars. The conclusion of the story is also a slight let down, with the adventure going from a fast-paced and exciting story, to “it’s all sorted now – Mel, let’s go pick up Ace,” which is a tad disappointing as the story had a lot of promise throughout.
Production-wise, the main cast all portray their characters excellently, bouncing off each other well. The guest cast also perform well, and help to bring the script alive. The sound design by Joe Kraemer is brilliantly done, creating a full and all-encompassing believable soundscape around the dialogue. Kraemer is also the story’s composer; his score works perfectly with the adventure, adding colour and life to the action, although at times the music is distracting and out of place, resulting in pulling the listener out of the drama.
With Big Finish approaching its 20th anniversary of producing Doctor Who, they are pushing for their stories to be bigger and better than ever before, and that is something they have certainly achieved with Red Planets.
Doctor Who: Red Planets is available to buy now exclusively from Big Finish until September 30th 2018, after which date it will also be available from Amazon.co.uk and other leading audiobook retailers.