The Waters of Amsterdam
Tony tries not to think about Tegan snogging.
Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity were an odd pair of stories. Time-Flight ended Peter Davison’s first season in the Tardis on the dampest of squibs, stepping massively down from the season high-point, the Adric-killing Cyberfest that was Earthshock. Oddest of the many odd things about it though is that at the end of Time-Flight, and having finally got Tegan back to Heathrow bloomin’ Airport, where ostensibly she wanted to be, he just takes off and leaves her behind.
Arc of Infinity, which kicked off the following season, brought Tegan straight back again, to battle Omega in Amsterdam, and she picked up her life on the Tardis again as if nothing had happened. It always gave the sense of a Production Team thinking ‘Let’s ditch the mouthy one,’ and then, over the span of a season break, deciding ‘Ach, to hell with it, we can’t think of anyone better, get the mouthy one back.’
The Waters of Amsterdam gives some sense of what was going on in-universe during what turns out to have been a year between the stories. Tegan loses her job for, to use her words, ‘not being nice to idiots.’ She also gets herself a boyfriend, decides she doesn’t love him and breaks off their relationship the night he plans to propose to her.
That’s our Tegan.
This new Big Finish story keeps us in Amsterdam in the immediate aftermath of Arc of Infinity, investigating why Rembrandt drew functional schematics of spaceships.
For a story so firmly set in the 80s chronology of the show, there are plenty of New Who nuances in Jonathan Morris’ script – there are nods to Vampires In Venice here, plus of course, if you’re going to talk Rembrandt, Vincent and the Doctor rather storms to mind. There are water-based monsters, a la The Similarly-Titled Waters of Mars, plus a healthy dose of dashing about back and forth in time, including to potentially redundant 80s timelines when the Doctor and the gang lose what might be said to be the first wave of the battle against the Big Bad here.
Perhaps what’s most New Whoish about the whole thing though has already been mentioned. Did you catch the part where Tegan has a boyfriend?
That, if anything, is the big divide between Classic and New Who – the companions have lives now. Back in the day, notsomuch. Why else do you think Tegan’s constant complaint was that she wanted to get back to Heathrow? The writers and the Production Team gave Janet Fielding precious little else to go on in terms of her character. We knew she was handy, the result of having been involved in a farm in her early life. We knew her Aunt Vanessa believed in knight errants and had a rakish taste in hats. But beyond that, and the fact that she was a newly-qualified Air Stewardess, nada.
Here, it turns out that Tegan has pretty much ambled into a relationship with the wealthy and endlessly accommodating Kyle. Kyle, played by Tim Delap, has the personality of a wet fish, and intentionally so. There’s more to Kyle than meets the eye of course – why wouldn’t there be? – but one of the most weirdly disturbing moments in the story is hearing Janet Fielding deliver the line
I am good at one thing, though
And then make kissing sounds.
Don’t have any explanation for why that feels weird and icky, but it does, even in Big Finish, which let’s not forget has married Nyssa off, made her Magnus Greel’s ‘consort’ (a…ha), given her children, and even, it’s strongly hinted, shown us the encounter where Nyssa lost her virginity (Circular Time. Available in plain cover, tell ‘em Tony sent ya). Somehow, the idea of ‘the mouth on legs’ putting it to use to kiss people with feels altogether odd – probably because while Big Finish has also done much to give Tegan a realistic character, in her on-screen adventures, much of her time was spent vacillating between concern and crossness, so something quite so normal as having a relationship with someone doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ with Tegan.
But enough of that. While the story is distinctly Tegan-centric, and the first episode bowls along more or less on the comedic premise of Tegan and her lovesick puppy of a boyfriend explaining why their relationship didn’t work, there’s so much more going on that Tegan finally getting some. Popping back in time to meet Rembrandt and ask him just what the devil he thinks he’s doing, sketching plans for spaceships brings further complication to the plot – there’s possibly more to the water-monsters here than we at first assume, and there’s some good switchback-riding to be done trying to guess who the real baddie is, as the East India Company take an interest in alien affairs. And while the first episode is fun, in the same fairly knockabout way that Heroes of Sontar or The Auntie Matter were fun – more or less straight-up comedy scenes and dialogue barrelling us along a plot that’s going fairly simply to the first cliffhanger, with water-monsters The Nix going “Grr!” (Sorry, spoilers, I know), the fun really starts when we get to the Golden Age of Dutch commercial imperialism. Robbie Stevens as Polsbroek, Wayne Forester as Glauber and most particularly Richard James as Rembrandt give us three distinct voices of the age of Dutch supremacy, and James as Rembrandt also gives us the kind of grumpy old genius to act as an antidote to Van Gogh’s more tragic frailty. He’s heavily drawn on the side of ‘grumpy grandpa’ and is practically adorable because of it. Elizabeth Morton (Peter Davison’s other half) is surprising in the role of the Countess Mach-Teldak, a character pitched somewhere between Helen McCrory’s Rosanna and Siobhan Redmond’s less grandiose Rani. In this case, anyhow, Morton proves that halfway between Rosanna and the Rani is a very good place to be, giving the story some much-needed bursts of storytelling energy from time to time, particularly in the last two episodes.
Talking of storytelling, what’s this one actually about? Well, Tegan has a freakin’ boyfriend. Sorry, did I mention that? Plus alien shenanigans (possibly gusting up to mischief, planet-burning to follow), Rembrandt designing spaceships, why he would possibly do a thing like that, and the quest for love in a silicon heart. That enough to be going along with, is it?
In terms of its beats, this really does feel like a three-parter, with a first episode of fun and games tacked on to give it its Launchpad, but does it end up being a story that fits absolutely into the timeline where it’s put? Yes it does. Does it deliver a solid, fairly complex bit of toing and froing in Amsterdam? Yes it does. Does it, in point of fact, do that slightly better than Arc of Infinity ever managed to do? Mmmmmaybe. For many people probably – certainly there’s an internal consistency that runs through these episodes, which is not really something that can be claimed with a straight face for Arc of Infinity. For me, Arc still wins it by a nose for having Colin Baker in a plumed helmet, but damned if Morris and the Big Finish team don’t come close to delivering something that’s up there in the Arc of Infinity league, but with heaping doses of New Who into the bargain.
Should you get The Waters of Amsterdam then?
Overall, yes – there’s plenty to like about it, even if sometimes the appearance of the Nix feels a bit like waiting for someone to simply give them their cue-line, the markers of the storyline’s progression overly simplistic and dare we say a tad clunky. On the whole, this is worth getting for a glimpse into Rembrandt’s life, and the performance by Richard James, a stellar moment between James and Sarah Sutton that brings all the chaos and action right down to something diamond-like and solemn, its knockabout first episode, Peter Davison on form and Elizabeth Morton as the engine behind the whole switchback plot.
Pick up The Waters of Amsterdam and hear what feels like a much more natural continuation of Tegan’s story than slamming her straight into the Maratastic Snakedance ever did.