The Holy Terror
“All hail the big talking bird!” says Tony Fyler.
In this life, there are three kinds of people. There are people who haven’t heard of Frobisher, there are people who love Frobisher - and then there are the wrong people.
Frobisher, for anyone who doesn’t know him, is a companion of the Sixth Doctor, but not one you will have yet seen on screen (crime against sense though that may be). Frobisher is extraordinary, having made his debut not on screen, not in audio, not even, like Bernice Summerfield, in books, but in the comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine. To date he’s the only companion of the Doctor’s to begin there and transfer to at least one other medium (though not the only character to do so – Big Finish has also now given voice to Beep the Meep). And Frobisher has always inspired a glorious, a wonderful – and more than a little stone barking mad – devotion in fans.
Frobisher absolutely isn’t a penguin. He’s a shape-changing alien called a Whifferdill, who, when the Doctor first met him, was living as a private eye. You’d be amazed how good a private eye you can be when you can change your shape to anything you want.
He…erm…wanted to be a penguin.
Because penguins are cool, why else?
The original Frobisher stories brought a zany quality to the Doctor’s two-dimensional life that had been lacking – he had a whole backstory, a cast of characters from his own life (a wife, Francine, an arch-enemy, Josiah W Dogbolter and so on), and he worked with the character of the Sixth Doctor, to prove what fans all knew – given the right material, the right companion, the Sixth Doctor could be the whole package.
Such was the love that Frobisher in his penguin form inspired in fans that like all the best ideas, he would never entirely die once his time in the comic strip was over (he left during the first Seventh Doctor strip), and after much in the way of joyfully incessant whining from penguin-fans, Big Finish delivered two full Sixth Doctor and Frobisher audios, both written by, among much else, the man who would first bring the Daleks to New Who, Rob Shearman. The second Frobisher story in audio, The Maltese Penguin, is much more in keeping with the tone of the comic strips, and was originally produced as a bonus release for subscribers, but in terms of storytelling, The Holy Terror has it beaten flippers down. The Holy Terror treats Frobisher as though he’s any other companion, which is to say it treats him with as much respect as any of the Doctor’s human or robot dog companions, and delivers him into a story which, while deliciously silly on the surface, actually delves into many of humanity’s darkest impulses.
When the Tardis decides to go on strike unless the Doctor hands her command of their destination, the black and white bird and the multi-coloured man find themselves in a world of what sounds like absurd Shakespearean tragedy – virtuous princes, deformed, plotting bastard brothers determined to take the crown, spiteful childish queens and princesses, high priests whose fundamental role in society it is to conspire against their god-kings with the regulation deformed, plotting evil bastard brothers, and a court scribe who chronicles the lives and deaths of all the characters around him – and isn’t above adding in a good portent when the reality’s a little disappointing. When the new god-king gets a chronic case of agnosticism and steps down at his own coronation-cum-deification, telling everyone just to be nice to one another, he is of course bound to be horribly tortured and murdered, because if there’s one thing people really can’t abide it’s gods who don’t want to be gods - they do interfere with the narrative so. Into this uncomfortable situation drops the Tardis, the Doctor and Frobisher immediately hailed as messengers of the gods (the alternative being summary execution). And so the pair find themselves embroiled in intrigues – former goddesses who want to be tortured to death as an anachronism, wives of current maybe-but-probably-not gods who want instead to conspire with scheming brothers, who at least have the gumption to want the crown, and high priests afraid they won’t get the betrayal of their own god-kings as right as their fathers did.
And then of course, Frobisher himself becomes god.
He’s a talking penguin, did we not mention that?
Shearman uses the comedic elements of his script with a deftness of touch which has always marked him out as a superb writer, and it’s to his credit that he keeps the silliness spinning on the surface of the storyline, and for a few levels beneath, while gradually – and the pace of this is crucial to its success – unfolding the horrifying reality that lies beneath. It would be impressively spoilerific to explain what it is that lies beneath, and rather than have a review do that, you should simply go and download it yourself. Suffice it here to say that if a story were just this silly, it would be enormous fun and nothing more. The Holy Terror uses its silliness to mask impressive considerations on gods and stories, on power and instinct, and on the darkest thoughts in the human mind. When you think about its title, remember that it’s not The Holy Jolliness. There is terror aplenty at the core of this story, but Shearman and what was at the time an above-average Big Finish cast (the company has since made an industry watchword of its capacity to get phenomenal casts together) never let you guess at it until at least the later stages of Episode 3. By the end of the story, while you’ve had a heck of a fun time with the Sixth Doctor and Frobisher – “All hail the big talking bird!” surely has to be up there with “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” in terms of satires on the idea that people will follow and even worship anyone if you tell them to – you haven’t been lightly served or patronized, you haven’t just had a fun time with the Sixth Doctor and his penguin pal. You’ve been given what was at the time and to some extent remains one of Big Finish’s strongest, most unnerving morals of power, responsibility, crime and punishment, guilt and regret into the bargain.
You’ve also been on a quick romp through plenty of history and much of the BBC’s 1970s historical drama output, with all the characters in the story borrowed from actual historical figures appropriate to their station – Prince, and then god-king Pepin, played by Stefan Atkinson, Roberta Taylor magnificently dismissive as the ex-goddess Berengaria, the practically peerless Sam Kelly as Eugene Tacitus the scribe, Peter Guinness as Childeric (for which read Richard III, whom he even quotes line by line in one or two places), Dan Hogarth as Guard Captain Sejanus (a name which anyone who’s seen I, Claudius will recognize – just look for Patrick Stewart with hair) and so on. Again though, Shearman manages to balance the absurdity of all these names plucked from history with a dark, scary, logical reason for their being.
There are plenty of reasons to dig out The Holy Terror from your Big Finish collection, or if you don’t yet own it, for going to download it immediately, and we’ve mentioned some of them here – the script is multi-faceted and beautifully balanced, the cast are well-suited and treat the absurdities of their world with the seriousness needed to sell it as real, and you end up with both a fun romp, a satire on religion and power and storytelling, and a horrifying treatise on crime and punishment, with Kelly, Guinness and Taylor in particular excelling in their roles. But more, much more than this (as someone probably once said, there’s Frobisher and the Sixth Doctor – Colin Baker treating the penguin-shaped mesomorph like any other companion, and Robert Jezek nailing the character and the voice to your imagination with a kind of slightly lightened American gumshoe voice that made the audio Frobisher as beloved by fans of the big talking bird as the comic strip version was – there was never much in the way of grumbling that Jezek ‘wasn’t my Frobisher.’ Pretty much, if you loved the cartoon version, Jezek gives you the Frobisher you’ve been waiting for.
Sadly, not to say madly, only two Frobisher stories have yet been recorded, and are apparently not that popular. The second Frobisher story, The Maltese Penguin, may play a part in that because it is particularly keyed to the original Frobisher character set, and you pretty much have to ‘get’ that sort of humour for it to appeal to you. But more like The Holy Terror would sit proudly even today in any Big Finish collection. Be a Friend of Frobisher, and get The Holy Terror today.