Anyone who read my review of last year’s Enemy Aliens will know of my deep and abiding love for the character of Charley Pollard. She was “my” Doctor Who companion with “my” Doctor, and she will always remain so. One of the highlights of the anniversary year was getting to hear her back in action twice, and building off the energy of that return, this year Big Finish finally released the first box set of Charlotte Pollard, her long-awaited spin-off series.
Okay, so it’s got an incredibly dull title (c’mon, obviously it should’ve been From the Memoirs of an Edwardian Adventuress) and that picture of India Fisher on the cover isn’t exactly attention-grabbing (though I like the background image and really like the covers of the individual discs), but how’s the content? The writing duties are split between two relative Big Finish newcomers, Jonathan Barnes and Matt Fitton, both of whom have never written the character before, but were listening, like I was, when Storm Warning came out oh so long ago. The stories here pick up from the status quo established for Charley at the end of Blue Forgotten Planet: she thinks the Doctor died, she travelled with his past self but his mind was wiped of those events, she has nowhere to go but travel with the Viyrans, serving as a go-between on their endless quest to find and destroy all the viruses released by the explosion on Amethyst Station deep in the past history of the universe.
A continuous story runs through these four adventures, beginning with Barnes’s The Lamentation Cipher. A lot of this story is devoted to setting up both the status quo and Charley’s escape from it; we learn what she is doing with the Viyrans, but also get hints that something bigger is coming. She meets a charming young adventurer much like herself back in the day, Robert Buchan, played by the thoroughly likeable James Joyce. In terms of plot, the story is maybe a little thin, but it works well to build a melancholy mood and to establish the stakes of Charley’s attempts to escape.
Barnes writes the follow-up to his own story in The Shadow at the Edge of the World and then Matt Fitton picks up the story with The Fall of the House of Pollard. I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns here too much, but both stories involve Charley back in the 1930s on Earth, and give us some long-awaited first and return appearances. The first is this sort of spooky, tense tale — I loved the sense of quiet desperation, and the all-female cast(!) plays a group of real people, especially Jacqueline King’s Mrs Turnerman. Anneke Wills and Terrence Hardiman are absolutely splendid as Charley’s parents. Wills always has been, of course (she appeared as illusions in Zagreus, The Next Life, and Memory Lane), but this is her first appearance as a genuine character. Hardiman is also excellent as Charley’s Causabon-like father; the scenes between them and India Fisher carry genuine emotion.
In the latter, Fitton pulls together a crowd-pleasing amount of continuity references: Simon Murchford (Storm Warning, The Next Life), Alex Grayle (Seasons of Fear), Edith Thompson (The Chimes of Midnight), Nana Saviltride (Zagreus), Sissy Pollard (Gallifrey), Uncle Jack (The Next Life), the Graingers (Short Trips: The Centenarian), and probably more things I misses were all woven in, building a real tapestry for Charley’s past life. (I liked that even though the TARDIS was modelling its projections on past companions in Zagreus, Charley’s mom really is Anneke “Polly” Wills, and that even though the TARDIS gave her the maiden name Saviltride as a warning — it’s an anagram for “Evil TARDIS” — that turned out to be her real name. But I really did not expect anyone to remember Charley’s uncle who moved to France, mentioned in The Next Life solely as a way to justify why Charley would know French, thus enabling the sound creature created from her merger with the Doctor in Scherzo to speak the language when it returned as Daqar Keep.) I was disappointed, though, that Fitton undermined the ending of The Chimes of Midnight in his references to it.
Finally, Fitton ties it all up but sets us up for more with The Viyran Solution, which gives us some answers, and they mostly satisfy. There are some tricks in the ending I didn’t quite follow, but I suspect a second listen would tie most of them up. Nicholas Briggs’s character of Bert Buchan, Sr., was the story’s one real weak point — not because of his acting, but because the character is a complete over-the-top caricature of a “capitalist” and a total creep to boot, just not believable. Also, he’s basically Cuthbert from the Fourth Doctor Adventures except for not being played by David Warner.
One thing that must be said is that the Viyran mythos is one of Big Finish’s best developments — I liked them in Patient Zero and Blue Forgotten Planet, and this story picks up well on those ideas, hinting at bigger concepts lying behind the ones we do understand. They’re good villains too — well, they’re not quite villains, and that’s what makes them work, as they try to do the right things. You can always see where they’re coming from. (I also appreciated that these stories reiterated the Amethyst Station explosion and the preceding war happened in the distant past, as To the Death mistakenly referred to them as happening in the future.) I hope we hear more from the Viyrans going forward.
My main complaint about the series as a whole is pacing; the stories range from 56 minutes to 70 in length, but all four feel stretched out just a little bit too much, with a couple long and/or redundant conversations. I think each episode would have really benefited from either an extra subplot/complication, or the trimming of about ten minutes of conversation.
Nicholas Briggs’s theme music for Charlotte Pollard is as about as dull and unmemorable as the title and the cover, but it works well as incidental music, reinforcing the mix of melancholy and adventure that this series thrives on.
India Fisher is, as always, a total delight. She was 26 when she recorded Storm Warning (if we believe the birthday she’s given on Wikipedia), and here she is, 13 years later and still playing the same old Charley with a baby on the way! Charley, though in a more melancholy mood than her original adventures, is still recognisably the enthusiastic, brave adventuress she always was, and she gets a number of great moments throughout these stories. The other star is Michael Maloney, playing all of the members of Charley’s group of Viyrans, apparently still patterning their voices after poor old Fratalin. Maloney’s calm, smooth voice is large part of why the Viyrans work so well, and he brings exactly the right amount of variety to the large group of Viyrans assembled here. (One does wonder why the mute Viyrans have tannoys on their spaceships, though.)
It might not have the title I wanted, but this is the story I’ve been waiting for for five years now, and I’m quite pleased that it turned out to be good to boot. It doesn’t matter, though — I’ll be following Charley Pollard through every adventure, as long as Big Finish makes them for her.
Charlotte Pollard Series One (by Jonathan Barnes, Matt Fitton; starring India Fisher) was released by Big Finish Productions in May 2014.