THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
BIG FINISH AUDIOS
BIG FINISH 8TH DOCTOR
CD#4.02 (ISBN 1-8443
5-476-4) RELEASED IN
TRAVELLER IN TIME
AND SPACE seeks
male or female
sense of humour
in the Fourth and
No time wasters,
no space wasters
Whilst the debut of an audio-exclusive companion is now a far more regular occ-urrence than it once was, it’s still always a cause for tremendous excitement, particularly when the listener doesn’t actually know who the new companion is going to turn out to be. Situation Vacant takes the inspired approach of presenting the listener with four aspirant assistants for the Doctor, each played by an actor or actress of the same sort of calibre as outgoing foil Sheridan Smith, and each vying for the role of “companion with good sense
of humour for adventures in the Fourth and Fifth Dimensions”. No time (or space) wasters please…
I understand that this conceit was the brainchild of Big Finish founder Jason Haigh-Ellery, who drunkenly posited the idea of doing what he called “Companion Idol” – four different companions in four different episodes, with Big Finish subscribers voting to decide which character would stay on for the season. This impractical idea was then developed by script editor Alan Barnes and writer Eddie Robson, culminating in an exceedingly enjoyable yarn that is as much a pastiche of the typical Doctor Who ‘companion introduction’ story as it is The Apprentice and reality television in general.
Before listening to Situation Vacant, I was very excited by the prospect of hearing four great talents creating four potential companions. Being an aficionado of comedy shows such as That Mitchell and Webb Look and Saxondale, I’m a huge fan of James Bachman; I even saw him live a couple of years ago as part of The Two Faces of Mitchell and Webb tour and found him every bit as impressive as the eponymous double act. But the other options were all almost as appealing – Joe Thomas, star of both The Inbetweeners and Big Finish’s own Castle of Fear; Niky Wardley of The Catherine Tate Show fame; and young movie actress Shelley Conn, whose credits include a performance alongside incumbent Doctor Matt Smith in 2007’s Party Animals.
However, within just a few minutes of being introduced to the companion hopefuls, it seemed patently clear that none of them were going to measure up to the Doctor’s standards. Hugh Bainbridge (Bachman), Theo Lawson (Thomas), Juliet Walsh (Wardley) and Asha Qureshi (Conn) were clearly not characters of the same ilk as Charlotte Pollard, Lucie Miller or even C’rizz. They were seemingly four unsympathetic, aggressively ambitious and fundamentally flawed individuals - Apprentice candidates, basically; Robson had just toned down some of their more offensive traits in order to make them a little more realistic.
The cast clearly had enormous fun with Robson’s razor-sharp script. For me, Bachman’s Bainbridge was the standout character – a well-meaning but dense toff of the Harry Biscuit variety. Bachman’s embellishments really set his performance apart from that of the other three, whether it was through incongruously shouting “GET IN!” (instead of the scripted “jolly good”) or quietly empathising with an alien who’d just pulled his back in a scuffle. “King of Geeks” Theo Lawson was harder to like, but almost as compelling. To say that Thomas is playing an outwardly nerdish character, he does so with a lot of spite - I love that it was his character’s selfish hacking that caused the current global recession! “Tough cookie” Juliet Walsh, meanwhile, appeared to be the archetypal Apprentice contestant. It’s a testament to both Robson’s writing and Wardley’s performance that Walsh seemed almost too perfect a caricature; too trite a façade. Of the four candidates, only Asha Qureshi’s resumé stood out as being even remotely companion-worthy. With stock phrases such as “no-nonsense” and “capable” adorning her liner notes précis, the smart money was on this young firebrand to win the dream job of traveller in time and space.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the competitors’ veneers to slowly crack and the Doctor to see each of them for what they truly were. One of the things that I like most about Robson’s Doctor Who work is its zeitgeist, and with Paul McGann’s Doctor demonstrably ‘doing an Alan Sugar’, Situation Vacant is certainly of the moment. Eight may not get to say “you’re fired”, but McGann clearly relishes the chance to play his Doctor with a harder edge; to toy with the applicants’ hopes and dreams as he verbally lambastes one, only to then eliminate another. He’s Doctorish when it matters though, and surprisingly tender at the end, making Situation Vacant one of McGann’s most extraordinary performances in quite a while.
Robson’s plot is inevitably very
comic, but as the Doctor takes
pains to points out, the events
unfolding are real and they are
serious. Indeed, the spate of
deaths in the first episode are
the listener’s first clue that all
isn’t as it seems – even those
willing to entertain the barmy
notion that the Doctor would
“recruit” companions in such
a convoluted way must have
realised that he wouldn’t allow
people to die just so that he could test a few rookies’ mettle. As the narrative progresses,
Robson then raises a number of intriguing questions that I suspect will linger right to the
death: who is the mysterious time traveller who set up these auditions? And did he or she
end up recruiting anyone? And if so, to what end…?
Much to my surprise though, Robson did answer one question that I’d convinced myself he wouldn’t – who the new companion is going to be. I won’t spoil the revelation for those yet
to listen to the production, but suffice it to say that Situation Vacant’s ending is as clever,
as poignant and – most importantly - as promising as one would expect from the writer who brought us the likes of Human Resources and Worldwide Web.
Ultimately, I found the whole Situation Vacant experience thoroughly enjoyable. Big Finish might pretend it isn’t a gimmick – i.e. an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, esp. one designed to attract attention or increase appeal – but it certainly feels like one to me, and that’s nothing to be bashful about. Situation Vacant is a riotous two-part romp, yes, but it’s much more than that too. Situation Vacant is an event, and one that I believe will be long remembered.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The Big Finish website states that this story takes place “some time after the events of Death in Blackpool.” This fits with the Doctor’s comments about his last travelling companion (i.e. Lucie) having “set the bar high” and being off enjoying travels of her own (in Europe), and allows some room for the events of An Earthly Child (which must take place prior to Relative Dimensions).
We have therefore placed Situation Vacant, and the stories that follow it, after An Earthly Child.
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