Storm Warning by Alan Barnes

I don’t know about anybody else, but to begin with I didn’t really take Big Finish all that seriously. They weren’t the first to try making Doctor Who on audio to compensate for the lack of a TV series, and given the debatable employability of some of the 1980s Doctors in mainstream drama, there were always going to be some who would be prepared to do some semi-official stories and take a cheque at the end of the day. Getting Paul McGann changed all that. You have to remember, of course, that apart from the books, Paul McGann’s Doctor seemed very much a one-off circa 2000. Although to all intents and purposes he was still the current Doctor, there was no guarantee that the BBC would ever want to produce Who again- but here was Big Finish, not quite a year and a half into being the little start-up that found itself making actual licensed Doctor Who, when all of a sudden they started making serial adventures starring the current Doctor. And I started to sit up and take notice- but not until 2002, when I discovered the Internet and rediscovered fandom.

If you were going to introduce somebody with a basic understanding of the premise of Doctor Who to the audio releases, ‘Storm Warning’ is, I believe, a perfect starting point and almost certainly as accessible - if not more so- than anything Big Finish had produced up to that point. Paul McGann’s Doctor is, well, Doctorish without being particularly well-defined, a name-dropper with a habit of talking to himself (which helps when you’re the lead in an audio story with a lot of description and establishing narration to set up) and he’s far more at home in the historical setting of the launch of the R101 in 1930 than in San Francisco in 1999. Gareth Thomas’s casting as Lord Tamworth isn’t just a piece of wish-fulfilment; as the story unfolds, there’s more to Tamworth than the bluster, and Thomas is equally good at carrying the sense of a military man whose long but undistinguished career eventually leads to a mission in which he can make a real difference, albeit not the one he was expecting to make. Turning the character of Rathbone into a South African, complete with a host of analogies (probably one or two too many, in fact) drawn from the veldt, is also a good move as it does make the overall sound of the story that bit more interesting- but the other significant (crucial, even) bit of casting is India Fisher as Charley, the Eighth Doctor’s first ongoing companion. The upper-class English girl from a point in the past is such classic companion material that Charley could easily have come across as two-dimensional and unimaginative, but paired with McGann, Fisher’s performance is pitch-perfect, gushing enthusiasm and relish for adventure, while occasionally betraying a slightly more sheltered background and narrower perceptions of what the universe might contain.

The story’s premise is, again, perfect for Doctor Who- take a historical incident, populate it with fictional characters, add aliens and you pretty much have an all-purpose story which would fit into any era. It’s particularly important that this should be the case for Paul McGann’s first audio story and thus emphasise that whatever direction the range took in future, this is real Doctor Who being made with the current Doctor. The idea that the British government of the 1920s and 30s recovered a crashed alien spaceship and was about to use the rescue mission to gain alien technology is new, however, and the idea of a counter-mission behind the R101 disaster gives events a new spin. As for the Triskele- well, their physical appearance is never really dwelt on although they’re presumably humanoid, and while the idea behind their society- separating the scientists and engineers from the warriors, with a lawgiver to balance the two- is clever enough, it does feel slightly contrived and artificial at times, even though it’s balanced by Tamworth as the politician balancing the demands of Rathbone and Frayling (and later the Doctor). But like most of the series’ occasional rebootings, ‘Storm Warning’ prioritises the Doctor, Charley and the atmosphere of this new direction for the audio range, and while it’s not exactly a case of "any threat will do", the Triskele and their internal conflict have just about the right amount of interest without overshadowing the importance of the Eighth Doctor’s return.

So- to cut it short- this is probably the CD I’d be most likely to give anybody who wanted an impression of what Doctor Who on audio could be like- faithful to the series’ roots and traditions and yet adventurous while being immediately identifiable as Doctor Who. I have a soft spot for David Arnold’s theme too, which seems to capture some of the steampunk feel that the series often tries to evoke. If it doesn’t have that many moments of great drama or revelation, it still has an awful lot of charm, a sense of fun and an understanding of what Doctor Who should be. I haven’t quite reached the stage of buying up hundreds of copies and giving them out at random, but it’d be very tempting because it just feels so darn right.