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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Airships, A.I. and Alastair Gordon You Know Who (Charley Pollard I)

September 20th, 2012 at 16:01

I’m relistening to the Charley Pollard audio plays from Big Finish! Charley was the first original companion that they created to travel with the Eighth Doctor when Paul McGann agreed to reprise his role from the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie.

Played by the bubbly and plum-voiced India Fisher, Charley is a self-styled Edwardian adventuress, a jolly hockey sticks sort of girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to work passage on a doomed airship heading for Singapore. By saving her life, the Doctor created a paradox that would unravel over several years, and threaten the entire “web of time.”

So, let’s talk about Charley. In many ways, she is the perfect Doctor Who companion. She’s up for adventure, she’s flexible and adapts well to the TARDIS lifestyle (like Jamie McCrimmon she is a historical character who takes every science fictional concept well in stride, usually with some sort of clever metaphor, teleportation being “like the wireless telegraph” and so on), she’s brave and funny and she has no compunction about using sarcasm or mockery to puncture the Doctor’s ego when he gets too big for his boots.

She’s his best friend. They’re always his best friend, of course, the really good companions. But Charley is rather marvellous, and India Fisher’s chemistry with Paul McGann made for some meaty stories over a very long period of time.

Chronologically, as the human flies, Charley is also the first of the Doctor’s companions who fell in love with him, or at least who got to explore the ramifications of falling in love with him in open narrative (i.e. Romana doesn’t count because it was all subtext, ditto for all the other Classic Who ships, yes EVEN the Brigadier, and anyone who mentions Sarah Jane gets a bucket of water chucked over them).

Charlotte Pollard gets to talk to the Doctor about Love, after a long and complex friendship has developed between them, and unlike Martha Jones (who was still not even a glint in the eye of Russell T Davies at this point) she doesn’t tell him she loves him as a parting gesture. She stays, they work through it together despite his avoidance tactics, and she continues to be his companion and fellow adventurer for a long, long time.

She loves the Doctor in a romantic way, but that never defines her as a character.

But never mind all that mushy stuff – it’s not even relevant to the first couple of years of Charley and Eight! Here is the first set of my reviews, upon relistening to their first year together.

“SEASON ONE” [2001]

The seasons are loose groupings of stories recorded in batches but don’t always conform to as obvious a collection as a TV season, especially later on when the stories are alternated with those of other Doctors and companions in what Big Finish refers to as “The Main Range.” The numbers show the story’s place in that main Doctor Who range.

Most plays in this range are approx. 2 hours long, with a full cast and four episodes.

16. Storm Warning
Written by: Alan Barnes
Starring: Paul McGann (the Eighth Doctor), India Fisher (Charley Pollard)
Interesting Guest Star Alert: Gareth Thomas (Lord Tamworth)

For years, this was one of the only Big Finish plays I had ever bought, and I loved it to bits (though the price back then of shipping out CDs to Australia made the habit too expensive for the student that I was). It’s a fun introduction to the Doctor and his plucky new companion, involving airships, derring do and aliens, of course. Shows how good Big Finish were right from the start, though their quality, writing and everything else have come so very far since this one.

And oh, Charley. If you don’t fall in love with her in this episode you might as well skip her all together. Everything you need to know about her is right here, from day one (though there are of course more layers to come).

Plus, Ramsay the Vortisaur. That is, a flying creature that lives in the time vortex. Oh, hell yes. Big ideas, the kind that you couldn’t have thought of putting on TV back in 2001, that’s exactly what Big Finish’s Doctor Who range is all about. Vortisaurs!

17. Sentients of Orion
Written by: Nicholas Briggs
Starring: Paul McGann (the Eighth Doctor), India Fisher (Charley Pollard)

Part of me doesn’t want to spoil the first plot twist of this one despite the story being over a decade old, so let’s just say… it’s an exploration of humanity’s relationship with their own rebellious AI communities (think modern Battlestar Galactica, many years before modern Battlestar Galactica) and this war collides with a classic Doctor Who enemy who is very appropriate for that story. I think you know what I’m saying here, wink wink.

It’s also a really good space opera story with intense characterisation, grit and grubbiness. And spaceships. And banter. All the best things.

18. The Stones of Venice
Written by: Paul Magrs
Starring: Paul McGann (the Eighth Doctor), India Fisher (Charley Pollard)
Interesting Guest Star Alert: Michael Sheard (Count Orsino)

I struggle with this one. It’s an elaborate, batshit weird fantasy and utterly Weird in that inimitable Paul Magrs style, but both on first discovery and on the relisten I struggled with the idea that this is supposed to be a futuristic Venice because, well, it isn’t. It isn’t credible. It’s the kind of bizarre, sprawling Baron Munchauseny future world that someone living in 16th century Venice might possibly have invented, and as such has a great deal of charm and depth, but it’s not a future that appears to have passed through the twentieth century, let alone the twenty first, on its way to a mythical future of amphibian gondoliers, mad Counts, immortal love and gratuitous Shakespeare references.

So, the suspension of disbelief. I’m pretty awesome at doing this usually, especially when it comes to Doctor Who, but this one was a step too far and it REALLY didn’t help that one of the characters is called Eleanor Lavish, the same name as a character from E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View. In the words of Boxcutters, I don’t buy it.

On the other hand, if you look past the futuristic Venice (on the verge of sinking) that makes no sense, and think of it instead as a frothy alien fantasy from another world, it’s a grand melodrama with lots of good bits and some very enthusiastic performances. Though, um. Almost everything that Charley does or says in this, when she is swept up in the role of a long-dead Countess to support the rebel gondoliers as the city sinks… basically makes no sense. So there’s that.

MOVING ON NOW PLEASE.

19. Minuet in Hell
Written by: Alan W. Lear and Gary Russell
Starring: Paul McGann (the Eighth Doctor), India Fisher (Charley Pollard)
Interesting Guest Star Alert: Nicholas Courtney as THE FREAKING BRIGADIER

This is more like it. Not only does this story tick the essential box of having the Eighth Doctor meet his old friend the Brigadier (and in a noticeably different way to the Big Finish meeting between the Sixth Doctor and the Brig which had occurred only a year earlier) but it’s also a complex story that plays up the audio format to the nth degree.

We begin in the middle of the story. The Doctor is in an asylum and can’t remember who he is. Charley wakes up in a different cell, also struggling with her memory, and is hustled off with a bunch of “fallen women” to get into skimpy costumes and entertain the gentlemen of a modern iteration of the Hellfire Club. (sadly she doesn’t run across Emma Frost or Jean Grey there in an unexpected X-Men crossover) The Brigadier is attempts to master email while making secret investigations into a certain club. There’s a possessed preacher, a spunky girl detective, and a whole bunch of alien shenanigans.

And a man who doesn’t sound at all like our Doctor suddenly seems to have all his memories, while the man who DOES sound like our Doctor is about to be given electric shock therapy…

The story plays beautifully with the problem of the Brigadier not being able the the Doctor, and gives Charley a marvellous adventure of her own with a splendid girl chum. I liked it a lot, but even better on the second listen where the fake American accents felt a lot less fake. Familiarity, not always about breeding contempt!

===

On the whole this was a strong season to introduce not only Charley Pollard but also The Big Finish Eighth Doctor for the very first time. In many ways, these two represent the beginning of the modern era of Who, the balance of classic traditions with modern storytelling styles, and Charley is a companion who is actually quite different to anyone we’ve had in the role before or since. Like Rose, she often leads the stories and we get a lot more inside her head than the Doctor’s (as is only right and proper). And it’s so lovely to see the McGann Doctor develop, away from the problematic and messy TV movie that was previously his only stab at the role.

There’s so much more crunchy material to come for this Doctor! Mary Shelley and Lucie Miller, the return of Susan with her son, Romana and Gallifrey and Morbius and the Meddling Monk and oh, so very much. It all started here.

Despite my reservations about the third story (which may not bother other listeners nearly as much as me), I think it’s a good first series and one worth tracking down in its entirety (though for the sake of honesty I would suggest that you wouldn’t miss a LOT of character development by skipping the Venice one). They can be downloaded directly from the Big Finish website for slightly cheaper than arranging for CDs to be posted if that’s an issue for anyone – each story of this era runs to about $14.50 unless there’s a sale on.

I’ll be reviewing “season two” shortly!

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One Response to “Airships, A.I. and Alastair Gordon You Know Who (Charley Pollard I)”

  1. Katharine Says:

    So excited to see this post :) Oh, I adored Lucie Miller’s run – the last few episodes were just so amazing, I couldn’t get enough of the plot.

    What do you think of 8th’s new look?

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