Sunday, 31 March 2013

Doctor Who - The Companion Chronicles: The Scorchies (March 2013) Review

Big Finish March 2013 Release
Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles 7.09
The Scorchies

Cast: Katy Manning (Jo / Scorchies), Melvyn Hayes (Scorchies)

Written by: James Goss
Directed by: Ken Bentley
Songs composed by: Richard Fox and Lauren Yason

Reviewed by Neil Matthews for The Gallifrey Times

This review may contain spoilers.

Plenty of people have made the mistake, down the years, of calling Doctor Who “a children’s TV programme”, when it is for children and adults alike.  This Big Finish audio playfully pitches the third Doctor, Jo Grant and the Brigadier into a battle against a real children’s TV programme – or is it?

The Scorchies have beamed themselves across the stars and into the hearts of British TV viewers, in the guise of a collection of puppets.  In every programme Mr Grizzfizzle, Kool Kat, Professor Baffle, Amble the ugly doll and the Magic Mice get a special guest to tell a story, make a thing and sing a song.  They’ve used the TV signals to hypnotise and then kill a small number of people, but they’ll stop at nothing until the whole planet succumbs.  The Doctor has rumbled them, but gone missing in the process.  In an attempt to find him, Jo (Katy Manning) has been caught by the Scorchies – and that could be fatal.  But first she’s their latest, and maybe their last ever, special guest…

Finding terror in the familiar is a stock in trade of Doctor Who in all its incarnations, whether that means TV, audio, books or cartoons.  Creepy toys, dolls and puppets have appeared before (see, for instance, The Celestial Toymaker, Terror of the Autons or the more recent Night Terrors).  The Scorchies, voiced by Melvyn Hayes with help from Katy Manning, are a worthy addition to the ranks.  As Kool Kat puts it, they are just “too darn cute”.  The diffident Professor Baffle and the Magic Mice do seem to have the shared provenance of a certain classic BBC children’s TV programme from the 1970s. Near the end, in case you haven’t got the hint yet, the Professor becomes ‘just an ordinary soggy stuffed bat, but Jo loved him’.  The Magic Mice even use a strangely familiar musical flashback effect…

Big Finish Companion Chronicles tell Doctor Who stories from the companions’ points of view.  Jo Grant was hugely popular in her three-year stint at the third Doctor’s side, and the character returned more recently in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures.  Katy Manning slips back into character as if she’s never been away.  She even manages to impersonate the late Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtenay in reading the Doctor and the Brigadier’s lines – though her rendition of the Brigadier is perhaps more entertaining than accurate.  My favourite line was Jo’s plea to viewers at home not to succumb to the Scorchies: “You MUST change the channel – even if it’s Space 1999!”  (For those lucky enough to be too young to remember, Space 1999 was a crushingly dull 1970s ITV science-fiction programme.)

However, it’s the Scorchies who steal the show.  I’d only even heard or seen Melvyn Hayes as ‘Gloria’, the effete entertainer from classic 70s sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum.  Well, he ain’t half bad in this, too, giving the Scorchies a winning combination of fun and nastiness.

Together, Manning and Hayes have a whale of a time, as Jo tells a story (of how the Doctor worked out what was happening) and makes a thing (an “imaginary anti-Scorchie gun” using sticky-back plastic – another 1970s children’s TV reference there, for Blue Peter fans).  She doesn’t sing a song, but the Scorchies do: two, in fact, including one as the climax to the first episode.  Judging by how long it stuck in my head, ‘Jo is making a thing’ in particular is annoyingly addictive.  Richard Fox and Lauren Yason, who composed the songs and their lyrics, deserve much credit for adding a very large cherry to the top of this production cake.

The Scorchies manages to be both quintessential early 1970s Doctor Who and unlike any other Who story I’ve seen, heard or read. 

The Gallifrey Times Rating: 9/10
Many thanks to Big Finish Productions for providing the audio for review.
Picture courtesy of Big Finish.