By Tony J Fyler
When Aquitaine begins, there’s a distinct sense of early Red Dwarf about it – not in terms of gags, but inasmuch as there’s a robot butler, going through endless cleaning and food preparation routines, even though it appears the crew of the Aquitaine are, if not very very dead, then at least very very missing.
It’s tempting at that point to think you know how the adventure will pan out. Writers Simon Barnard and Paul Morris have news for you – you absolutely don’t.
For once, the Tardis crew (and we’re somewhere between Arc of Infinity and Mawdryn Undead here, so it’s a manageable crew with just Nyssa and Tegan along for the ride) turn up when invited by distress beacon, and find the Aquitaine on the very outskirts of a black hole – or peril point number one, if you prefer. It’s also empty, its crew having vanished as far as Hargreaves, the robot butler/gardener/central computer is concerned. When it becomes clear that the robot’s memory is not all it once was, again there are Dwarfian riffs but given a suspicious twist – why would robots forget things? What could make them do that? When Nyssa gets pricked by the thorn of a plant in a corridor, there’s a certain nonchalance about it, a certain ‘one problem at a time’ attitude that will eventually be the Fifth Doctor’s undoing when he applies the same nonchalance to a patch of raw Spectrox in The Caves of Androzani. It’s a character-note not often highlighted, this breezy irresponsibility of the Fifth Doctor’s, and it’s refreshing to have a reminder of it in Barnard and Morris’ script. Needless to say, there are reasons why this particular plant should not be ignored, and undoubtedly the Doctor would have come to his senses fairly quickly – but then Nyssa vanishes.
There’s an eerie quality to the soundscape of Aquitaine because one particularly creepy strand of invention has the Doctor and Tegan chasing ‘ghosts’ of the crew, but Aquitaine is really a keep-them-guessing thrill-ride as much as it a sci-fi ghost story. Matthew Cottle (Martin from exhaustingly tedious sitcom Game On, and much else besides) could, if the need ever arises, kill it in the role of a SuperVoc, because his Hargreaves here is so pleasant and polite, it keeps you guessing much of the way along as to whether you can actually trust either what he’s saying or the idea of his innocence. Nyssa’s storyline with the plant-thorn and her disappearance seems to be going nowhere and then bam! It turns out she’s in danger from peril points two and three, separated from her friends and having to deal with the dangers of the Aquitaine alone.
In terms of pace, you’ll fly through Aquitaine in a single sitting, because escalation is one of its strongest points – from a beginning that makes you think you understand it, it ratchets up and up, and more than once it wrong-foots you as soon as you think you’ve got a handle on it again. Hargreaves’ unreliable memory and his To-Do List of daily tasks can, if you’re not careful, lead you into confusion, and so can the effects of disappearing people, black holes and ghost echoes, so you’re going to want to pay close attention to the episode endings to make sure you have a lifeline through the story, but in terms of tone it fits absolutely squarely into that period with Nyssa and Tegan alone with the Doctor – a little ‘hold on by your fingertips,’ but an ever-growing adventure, with in this case a solution that’s both a little timey-wimey, and which also riffs off a Series 9 TV episode (you won’t miss it when you hear it).
There’s a beautiful moment in Aquitaine when it pauses for breath and Tegan is asked about her friends. Given that in her on-screen time, she was never especially called upon to examine or explain what she thinks or feels about the aliens with whom she makes her life of time travel, Big Finish has regularly taken time out to deliver moments like this, making Tegan and Nyssa feel more like rounded characters than – as they frequently were in the eighties – simply people to further the plot or get captured. Here, we have an assessment of the Doctor and of Nyssa that will warm the heart of those who think Tegan always came off as rather too spiky. Her view of Nyssa in particular will please fans, as will her deployment of her signature self-definition.
If you want to get over-analytical about it, you could make a solid comparison between Aquitaine and Terror of the Vervoids – there are big ships, black holes, dangerous plant life, unreliable memories and, just possibly, a traitor in both stories. And in terms of its peril points, it’s not the most dazzlingly original story in the world – again, black holes, dangerous plant life, unreliable memories and, just possibly, a traitor. There’s also a sense in which it riffs off stories that are as up to date as Series 9 (not to put you off, but one of those stories is Sleep No More). But Aquitaine certainly delivers on all the counts that matter – it gives us an intriguing situation, then spins that situation right out from under us, getting more and more tense and high-stakes with every convolution of the plot. In essence, it strikes an effective balance between the workaday science-fiction plot elements – black hole, dangerous plant life, ship ghosts yadda yadda yadda – and the storytelling devices of Hargreaves’ memory and some of the black hole’s effects, to give us a story that could easily have become as impenetrable and self-revolving as something like Masquerade (Link to http://www.warpedfactor.com/2015/04/doctor-who-big-finish-masquerade-review.html), but is handled with enough growing threat and punch to keep it safely the right side of exciting.
There are some highly effective performances here, and both by sheer weight of scenes and by diversity of vocal performance and balance of pitch to string the mystery out, the best of them is from Matthew Cottle, never quite letting you be sure whether he’s in the leagues of a SuperVoc or a Handles till right at the end, but either way, carving Hargreaves firmly into the memories of listeners. Janet Fielding notches up another balanced and expansive performance too, proving that she has what it takes to make Tegan more of a real person than she ever got to make her on-screen. The Aquitaine crew are…fine, though despite a couple of standout scenes, they struggle to really carve their mark on the drama because it’s far more plot-driven than character-dependent. Again, to use a Series 9 barometer, Harry Myers as Akunin, Nina Sosanya as Captain Maynard, Gerald Kyd as Savinio, and Danusia Samal as Jennings are nowhere near as forgettable as the anonymous gang of grunts from Sleep No More, but neither do many of them hit the heights of characterisation of the team from Under The Lake and Before The Flood. Of them all, you’ll remember Savinio and Akunin longer, though Sosanya’s Maynard does have some solid resonances to Davison-eighties commanders like Vorshak and Bulic from Warriors of the Deep.
So should you buy Aquitaine? On balance, yes – it’s a solid, pacy space thriller rich with the tone of the time and more contemporary riffs running through it, and with much more going on than you might initially think. Go into Aquitaine expecting eighties-style escalation and a tightly-pitched tension (thank you veteran Big Finish director Ken Bentley once again), and you won’t be disappointed anywhere along the line.