I’ve never tried to review an audiobook before. This could be a total unmitigated disaster, but we’ll see. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who today, so I thought we could have a go at something a little bit special.
Doctor Who, as you may remember, was shelved by the BBC at the end of 1989, and apart from a brief revival in the mid-nineties, stayed off the air until 2005. But from 1999 onwards, Big Finish Productions started recording audio adventures. Some are awful, particularly the very early ones, but for a few years from 2001 onwards, the quality was pretty consistently high. Doctor Who and The Pirates was released in 2003, at the height of this period, and is definitely one of their stronger stories.
The story opens with the Doctor’s companion, cuddly grandma and university lecturer Dr. Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables), turning up at the door of one of her students, and, for as-yet-unknown reasons, starting to tell her a tale of the high seas. This framing device continues all the way through the story, and generally works well – you learn more about Evelyn and her student Sally, at the same time as the entirely daft pirate story unfolds.
The general theme is – initially, at least – somewhat comedic, which does sometimes fall a little flat, particularly as some of the actors do ham it up a little. Bill Oddie, though, as the pirate captain Red Jasper, is utterly brilliant. The plot holes identified by Sally are quite fun too, as Evelyn goes a little bit over the top with the story telling.
For much of the story, The Doctor, played here by Colin Baker, doesn’t have a huge amount to do – this is Evelyn’s moment really. He has a role within Evelyn’s story, and eventually he does turn up in Sally’s flat, but this is not fundamentally about him.
Famously, Baker, who originally played The Doctor between 1983 and 1986, was regularly voted the fans’ least (or second least) actor to play The Doctor throughout the 1990s. Whether it was his gaudy costume, bad scripts and production values, his own acting talents, or other reasons, is for the viewer to judge, but it’s certainly fair to say that this era of the series is less popular than many others. But he experienced something of a renaissance with the audio adventures. The scripts were strong; the characters well drawn; the costumes entirely imaginary; and the acting largely spot on.
This story is no exception – Colin Baker has made the part his own, and is largely immune from the overacting that hounds some of the other crew members, such as Captain Emmanuel Swan, played in extremely camp fashion by Nicholas Pegg. “It can’t possibly get any worse,” says Sally towards the end of part one, and then with delicious irony an episode or so later, the first song appears. The story was devised as a musical episode, which is why I’ve picked it as my review here, and the songs, adapted from Gilbert and Sullivan, are a lot of fun.
Where they’re let down somewhat is the backing music, which couldn’t really be any cheesier. The production values were largely high on Big Finish releases by this period, with just occasional lapses, but for the music here they appear to have picked preset sounds from the cheapest possible portable keyboards. Even the 1980s Doctor Who theme sounds a little incongruous among those surroundings.
The story is hiding something of a dark side, which I won’t spoil for you, and it does (if you’ll pardon the expression) change tack as it goes on – the Sally part of the story stops interrupting the flow of the pirate story quite so much. But it doesn’t drag at any point really. Yes, it has a few minor failings, but by and large, Doctor Who and The Pirates really is a lot of fun.