Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Diamonds Are Forever: Review Of Big Finish Audio Episode ‘Grand Theft Cosmos’

By Shannon Lush
Doctor: Eighth (Paul McGann)
Companion(s): Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith)
Writer (s):  Eddie Robson
Director: Barnaby Edwards
Producer: Nicholas Briggs
Duration: 1 episode, 60 minutes.

Following on from the problematic ‘Skull Of Sobek’ which I reviewed in the previous entry, the next release in production order, ‘Grand Theft Cosmos’, is, quite simply, refreshing.  The story is simple;  in 19th  century Sweden, The Doctor and Lucie are traveling on a miracle of the ages, an electric train. While Lucie grumbles over being forbidden to bring her iPod for fear of cultural contamination, The Doctor engages in conversation with an expert in the works of the artist Claudio Tardelli. Turns out Tardelli is more than he seems;  he’s an alien and his work contains dangerous by-products that can and do harm the  fabric of the universe. The Doctor has been attempting to suppress the man’s work across time and space, going so far as to ensure that is continually discredited. But now his work is being snapped up by the King of Sweden. The expert, Simonsson, has been charged by His Majesty to hunt for Tardelli’s little-known and rare work. The Doctor realizes that he is responsible for creating a collector’s market for Tardelli’s work, given the man disappeared in the 17th century.

A unique black diamond in Simonsson’s possession that he is bringing back to the King is suddenly stolen from under everyone’s noses by Karen (Louise Fullerton),  an old friend of Lucie’s that she thought died in a previous encounter with the Cybermen (a reference to  the Big Finish audio episode ‘Human Resources’ in the first ‘season’ of Eighth Doctor Adventures).  Turns out Karen is in league with The Headhunter, a female bounty hunter who had previously been hired to capture Lucie (which turns out to be a story arc that is continued in this episode and resolved much later. I really need to listen to these in order more often!)  The black diamond turns out to be a fake, planted to throw off thieves. But The Headhunter and Karen later break in to the vault in the King’s palace and snag the real thing. This results in the appearance of a giant living statue, The Guardian, that single-mindedly seeks to guard the diamond…as well as the person inside it. The diamond is a ‘bolt hole’, a mini universe created by the alien known as Tardelli to hide in when The Doctor’s urgings of the authorities in France in the 17th century to investigate him required a quick exit.

The Headhunter reveals this is her plan all along, to force Tardelli out of hiding in order to offer him a job; her employer is a bored King on another world who is eager to hire him as an ‘art expert’. The Doctor, however, takes advantage of The Guardian’s programming to preserve the diamond, and the universe of sentient beings living inside it, when Tardelli casually decides to have it destroyed.  The Guardian turns on Tardelli and in the ensuing chaos The Headhunter, Karen, and Tardelli make their escape.  After granting the statue its freedom to pursue an existence in the woods of Sweden, The Doctor assures Lucie that Tardelli’s days of universe-damaging sculptures and art pieces will come to an end; unbeknownst to him, The Headhunter’s employer is not a patron of the arts akin to the King of Sweden…he’s a giant monster with a penchant for devouring court jesters that he bores of quickly.

Barnaby Edwards, the writer of this story, has over 80 and counting Big Finish Audio productions credits, and recently appeared in ‘The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot’ 50th Anniversary special featuring several former Doctor actors (all of whom are Big Finish alumni). Edwards also is the principal Dalek operator in the current TV series; suffice it to say, this man knows his ‘Doctor Who’, and ‘Grand Theft Cosmos’ demonstrates that admirably.  The level of ‘Who-ness’ in this episode is just over the top. It begins as an old timey romp through Sweden that becomes a train robbery that turns into a whodunit then becomes  a monster story then finishes with some great, classic ‘Doctor Who sci-fi’ with a pocket universe and a warp ship escape for the dastardly villains…who themselves are played up as just as charming and personable and mysterious and intriguing as the two leads. All of that in one hour!

One of the best elements at play here is the sense of fun. Every actor is playing it absolutely straight but there’s a distinct twinkle of the eye that the listener can actually detect in their performances.  Once again Paul McGann demonstrates that his Eighth Doctor is one of the best,  an adventure hero with a quicksilver mind and a quicker wit. He’s given plenty to play off of, as this story is brimming with great characters, none of whom are wasted in the least. The kudos go to the writer of course for fashioning such a fast-paced, charming story,  but it is the actors who really bring it to life, and fronted by an engaged and smooth lead like Paul McGann they really follow his lead.

 Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller is just an out-of-the-park homerun when it comes to companion characters. Truly, in the span of the two hours I’ve spent getting to know this character, she’s come alive as ‘the’ definitive Eighth Doctor companion.  That’s how well I’ve responded to this character. Her banter and rapport with The Doctor marks her out as a fine companion written , directed, and performed perfectly.  Lucie Miller is a more interesting and well-rounded companion in the two hours of audio work that I’ve experienced thus far than Amy Pond was in the multiple TV episodes I endured of her. I didn’t have any reaction to Amy’s ‘death’ whatsoever; I was glad to be rid of her, actually. But I know that Lucie’s fate is similar in the audio range, and I honestly believe I will utter a sad David Tennant misquote on that day I hear it ’I don’t want her to go’. Great character, a gem of the audio range.

The Headhunter (Katirina Olsen) and her ‘employee’ Karen (Louis Fullerton) are also fun characters. Though they were introduced in a previous adventure that I’ve yet to hear and are part of an ongoing story arc that I’m coming in at a weird angle on as a listener, fortunately the combination of their witty banter and the preference of writer Edwards not to go ‘too’ self-referential (a lesson Steven Moffat could learn!) means I quickly gained an appreciation for them without feeling left-out or clueless. The Headhunter is a really interesting character that I am glad has more appearances elsewhere in the audio adventures.  She’s capable of great one-liners, she is a physical threat to the heroes, she’s got gadgets to spare, she’s smart and sexy…basically, she’s River Song! I know I’ve asserted that Moffatt kinda stole the whole ‘future female Indy Jones-type adventurer’ from Bernice Summerfield (go ahead and do a tale of the tape on the two characters, he really ‘did’ steal her from Paul Cornell) but honestly, The Headhunter is River Song if River really ‘was’ an amoral thief. She calls herself a ‘bounty hunter’ but at the end of the day, and especially in the context of this story, she acts like a thief. And she’s awesome. So is her ‘sidekick’ or ‘employee’ Karen. The double-act of Karen/Headhunter and The Doctor/Lucie is just a joy to listen to, either separate in pairs or all together in one place. This is a smart, fun, story, populated by smart, fun characters. The Headhunter would make a great addition to the TV series one day, and I for one would champion that.

As for the ‘who-ness’, as previously mentioned, this story is chock full of what ‘Doctor Who’ fans want. First off, nobody is truly ‘evil’ in the traditional sense; even Tardelli has his motivations and justifications that the listener can understand.  So, the story works on the level of appreciating different viewpoints. Second, nobody dies. That may have become a cliché now in a post-‘Doctor Dances’ Whoniverse in which The Doctor literally shouts it from the rooftops, but it’s a rare treat when a story can hold suspense, drama, humour, even a few beats of horror…without killing off anyone in horrible ways. It’s to the writers credit that he was capable of juggling so many thematic balls in the air and bringing it all in for a landing without resorting to shock tactics (the argument can be made Tardelli ‘will’ die horribly soon after he arrives on his new planet, but the scene is also played with an undercurrent of The Doctor ‘could’ be telling Lucie that purely to make her feel better that she accidentally allowed all the villains to escape, that’s up to the listener to decide). In a nutshell: Barnaby Edwards fashioned a classic story that entertains throughout and also paid homage to ‘Doctor Who’ as a family-friendly media product, and that’s admirable.

Finally, in the grand tradition of ‘Doctor Who’, it borrows from itself in a few aspects. Not in a slavish, fan-service way, but in a ‘nods to the past’ way.  Perhaps inevitably I thought of ‘Talons Of Weng-Chiang’  as scenes in a vault described an awakened ancient being called The Guardian; it’s all the more relevant when Tardelli is voiced by an actor well known for ‘Talons’, Christopher Benjamin, who played Jago in the latter (and still does, in a Big Finish audio spinoff series with Jago and Litefoot). The madcap dashing about evoked a sense of Tom Baker’s early episodes, while The Doctor’s respect for life in all forms, his championing of not only the denizens of Tardelli’s constructed pocket universe but of The Guardian itself, is flat out, pure ‘Doctor Who’ at its finest.

This isn’t a technobabble-heavy story, it isn’t a purely historical one, it isn’t a sharp character-defining story full of pathos and big speeches from The Doctor. Instead, according to the writer and actors on the bonus commentary that accompanies the disc, it’s a story meant to be the best of what ‘Doctor Who’ is, rolled into one solid hour, part ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, part ‘Butch Cassidy’, part ‘Frankenstein’ and part ‘Clue’. It is well written, well-acted, well produced, and well liked. At least by this reviewer, anyway!

‘Grand Theft Cosmos’ can be purchased online through Big Finish’s website,, along with other licensed works like ‘Blake’s 7’, the ‘Jago And Litefoot’ spinoffs I mentioned, and  ‘Stargate’.

On the patented Whostorian Scarf Scale, I’m giving this one a perfect score, a 10 out of 10. This is the type of story that makes me proud to be a Whovian. This is what ‘Doctor Who’ should be about. This story is better than most of the Matt Smith era in my opinion. In one hour. On audio. Yep, I said that.

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