The Cinder – Keith Drinkel
Story Narration and other characters voiced by Maureen O’Brien
Main Production Credits
Producer – Sharon Gosling
Script Editor – Alan Barnes
Writer – Marc Platt
Director – Mark J. Thompson
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Lawrence Oakley
Recording – Steve Tsoi at Sound Magic Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery
Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
In the ancient city of Carthage in 1164 BC, Lady Cressida recalls a tale from her past. A past where she called herself Vicki and travelled in time with the Doctor and Steven...
Vicki tells of an adventure when the Time travellers arrived at London in 1814; during the last ever frost fair. While enjoying their visit, they meet Jane Austen, and discover that an alien avian creature, called the Phoenix is waiting to hatch and is draining all the heat out of London. The Phoenix relies and feeds on heat to both grow and survive. However, while it waits to hatch, the creature takes over people it can use as slaves to help assist it to be born.
The Doctor and his companions become friends with Sir Joseph Mallard, and witness his wife, the Lady Georgiana being taken over by the Phoenix. The creature uses Lady Georgiana to use Sir Joseph Mallard in order to gain access to the furnace of the Royal Mint, which Sir Joseph happens to be the deputy warden of. The Phoenix hatches in the Royal Mint’s furnace, but before it can escape and grow to threaten the whole of planet Earth, Jane Austen helps the Doctor to jam the furnace shut. Once the Phoenix drains the heat from the furnace, it dies from starvation.
Between The Time Meddler (TV Serial) and The Suffering (Big Finish audio).
‘“Hmm. Quite the dandy”, observed the Doctor, not entirely approvingly. Although I noticed he hadn’t skimped on the velvet himself.’
I’ve always been curious about Big Finish’s Companion Chronicle range, but have, until now, been rather hesitant in exploring them, in the fear that their format, to have a Doctor Who companion narrate a short story, with an almost non-existent supporting cast; would be too basic for me to fully enjoy. I know this is practically the same for Big Finish’s latest Doctor Who audio range, Short Trips, but they have a nice variety to them, and the short and sweet nature of the stories ensure that never outstay their welcome with the listener. Listening to the Lost Stories release, Farewell Great Macedon, which I greatly enjoyed, has certainly helped as a useful stepping stone in getting used to the fairly one-handed audios of the Companion Chronicles. They still take a good while getting used to, but I hope that I can now appreciate their merits better. Having said that though, I’m very familiar with narrated audio book readings, which I’ve enjoyed since childhood. In regards to Doctor Who, I have many fond memories of listening to audio cassette readings of The Curse of Peladon, Warriors of the Deep, Attack of the Cybermen and Vengeance on Varos, narrated by Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison and Colin Baker respectively. However, these were abridged readings of more complex stories than what would seem to be on offer here.
Happily, Frostfire lays some of my concerns to rest. Marc Platt creates a very imaginative and romantically macabre tale in late Georgian London, frozen over and bitterly cold, including an iced-up River Thames, around which the city’s last famous ‘frost fair’ is taking place. The setting alone is magnificent to imagine, and the rich and evocative description conjures a thousand images, both picturesque and unusual to what we modern users and visitors of London are used to seeing, and the result is some glorious imagery that instantly sets the scene of this wonderful tale. The story of an alien Phoenix-like bird that is waiting to hatch, and lives entirely off heat, is a simple, but intriguing one. The threat that it poses both to London and the Earth, by feeding and draining away the heat from anything that holds it, just to satisfy the creature’s hunger, also lends the story a layer of creepy atmosphere, which mixed with the period detail, gives it the feel of a Victorian ghost story. This wonderful turn for the macabre, also helps to engross the listener into the story as death and danger very quickly surround our characters, and creates a palpable suspense that continuously builds and doesn’t let up till the cliff-hanger of part one. The perpetuating threat of the cold and the cold fire that the alien Phoenix uses to both feed and create human slaves for itself, helps to maintain the creature’s menace while it is still in its egg-form. The tense and sinister atmosphere is also reinforced by some brilliant descriptive narrative passages, particularly in part two as Vicki and Jane Austen hunt down the Phoenix egg in St. Cuthbert’s Church, and come across dead churchgoers, frozen in prayer.
Sadly though, I feel that the main story was still too basic to engross me for the full 67 minutes of the audio’s runtime. I don’t blame Marc Platt though. The format is a difficult one and its clear Big Finish’s writers will need time to get used to it too. The challenge is not to write a story to fill sixty minutes, but to write a short or thirty minute story that manages to keep its interest over the sixty minutes it will take to narrate it. To be fair, Marc Platt does this very well. He takes time out halfway during part one to illustrate to the audience the way society operated at that time in history. It’s just that as an enthusiast of British history myself, I already knew much of these details, and the appropriate Austen-isms that Marc Platt uses; and being someone who actually finds the Georgian period one of the least interesting eras of British history, these scenes didn’t particularly engage me. Again, that’s not Platt’s fault, just personal preference. Marc Platt also, rather ingeniously, tries to fill spare time in the audio’s duration by bookending the beginning and end of the story with scenes set in Vicki’s personal future, where she is relating the story in Ancient Carthage, decades after leaving the Doctor at the end of The Myth Makers. I actually really love these moments because they give brilliant character development to the companion Vicki, who didn’t really receive much of it during the character’s TV episodes, outside her introduction in The Rescue (1965 TV Serial). We hear how she has grown to accept her life amongst ancient Trojans, and settle in with them, including how the Trojans once felt Vicki was cursed after hearing her talk of her time with the Doctor. However, Platt also adds more Carthage flash forward scenes at various points throughout the main storyline. In contrast to the opening and closing Carthage scenes, these segments add nothing to the narrated story and little more character development to Vicki, so therefore amount to little more than padding. What also adds to the feeling of padding is the fact that the Phoenix was really after Sir Joseph, rather than Lady Georgiana, so a lot of the story focusing on her takeover feels partly a waste of time also. So while I enjoy the ideas and storyline that Marc Platt comes up with, I feel it wouldn’t have hurt the script if it was edited closer to 50 minutes rather than 65 in duration.
The characterisation in Frostfire is generally quite good. The writing for Vicki is particularly outstanding, exploring in detail her intimate thoughts and feelings both throughout, and while recalling the adventure from her own personal future. In fact, I think this is probably the best the character of Vicki has been written for since The Time Meddler (although I’ve yet to read Gareth Roberts’ version of Vicki in The Plotters), which is itself an achievement, given how well-written most of the early 1960s Doctor Who companions were. Actually, all the regular characters are brilliantly written by Marc Platt. Steven’s over-protective and confident manner comes across nicely, and there’s even an amusing moment when he is caught out as a terrible dancer, and gives Vicki an annoyed glance, which I can easily imagine. The first Doctor is also very true to character, taking delight in displaying his superior knowledge, as well as taking credit for any deductions, even when they aren’t his! My favourite moments that Marc Platt writes for him though are firstly his introduction to Jane Austen, enthusing about her works excitably with admiration and amusement. I can just picture his loveable high-pitched chuckling after making his joke about Jane Austen having just punched a man to the ground. Furthermore, I also loved the moment when the Doctor makes a sleight jibe at Steven for looking like a dandy, when he was wearing a lot of Velvet himself, in a knowing in-joke about his future third incarnation. Sadly though, the supporting characters do leave a lot to be desired. While I welcome the appearance of Jane Austen in the Doctor Who universe, I can’t help thinking that her presence in Frostfire is something of a gimmick. Her ability and skill in fisticuffs may be an amusing oddity, but otherwise Jane Austen is written and used as merely a friendly ally to the Doctor and his friends, who listens to their views and troubles, and helps them out at convenient moments. Beyond the stereotypical Austen-isms used in the dialogue, there isn’t really anything that I would describe as an individual personality unlike the three regular characters of the Doctor, Steven and Vicki. Maybe this perhaps because outside of her books, we don’t really know anything about Jane Austen as a person, with a distinct lack of any real biographical documents to call upon. Nevertheless, the kind, wily and thoughtful character that Marc Platt does write for Jane Austen makes her easy to like and warm to throughout the audio. The other supporting characters though, are really quite generic and bland stereotypical period characters that are difficult to care about, despite their plight. The only two exceptions are Valzaki and the Cinder. Valzaki though, is just a one-note slimy pantomime villain, and the Cinder, while satisfyingly malevolent, also fails to add anything positive to the story. I suspect that generic supporting characters are another symptom of the shorter and stricter format that the Companion Chronicles use, as the short duration doesn’t seem to really allow for extensive character development.
Fortunately the audio is greatly bolstered, and made all the more enjoyable by Maureen O’Brien’s superlative performance, both as Vicki and as narrator. Her performance of Vicki here is one of the best the actress has ever given. The character and feeling of Vicki are portrayed so vividly and convincingly that for much of the first half of the story, I was completely lost in the audio production, before the slowness of the plot started to have any real effect on me. The narration is also performed with great enthusiasm and dexterity, and draws the listener into the story with ease. However, while O’Brien’s vocal portrayal of the male characters of the story is decent and passable, they are understandably less convincing than her performance of the female characters. Meanwhile, Keith Drinkel gives the Cinder a memorable gravelly and rasping voice that helps give the character its menace. However, as the character isn’t given much to do, or say, other than annoy Vicki, Drinkel doesn’t get the opportunity to do anything more with it.
The post-production is rather minimal, but all the more effective because of it. The sounds of creaking doors, a coal dust explosion in a fireplace, and the tolling of the church bells of St. Cuthbert’s help create and reinforce the eerie atmosphere that brings the audio to life, in ways that many talking audio books fail to do. Lawrence Oakley’s music soundtrack, like his sound design is also very minimalist, and perfectly evokes mid-1960s Doctor Who with simple melodies and solo timpani/drum tracks which practically shout out 1960s stock music to the older listener and knowledgeable Who fans out there. Oakley is clearly someone who has done their homework on early 1960s Doctor Who and has tried their best in recreating the period.
Frostfire is a highly imaginative and enjoyable audio adventure to start off Big Finish’s Doctor Who Companion Chronicle range on. The macabre tone and the period setting that Marc Platt conjures up, prove to be a magnificent combination that hooked me into the story early on. Furthermore, Maureen O’Brien’s great reading and the consummate post-production succeeds brilliantly in making the story come alive. However, the strict simplicity of the new format means it’s very difficult to create a satisfying well-rounded story. While Marc Platt gets round a lot of this with regards to the clever setup in Ancient Carthage, and some detailed character development, there is sadly a bit too much padding, and the generic supporting characters failed to really interest me. By the end of the audio, the story seemed to have been so slow that I was actually glad when it finally ended. Frostfire is a good start to the Companion Chronicles range, but the format’s difficulties leaves me uncertain if I will continue to enjoy them, as this was produced years before the successful compromise landed upon by Big Finish’s Doctor Who Lost Stories range in 2010 (to share the narration and characters between two or more actors). Hornet’s Nest had similar issues, although Paul Magrs seemed to get around them a bit easier.