The Human Frontier is Big Finish’s most recent “original” production, a gritty science-fiction from the pen of Nick Briggs, a man who has made gritty science-fiction his speciality in the Doctor Who universe in stories like Sword of Orion, Embrace the Darkness, Cyberman, Lucie Miller, and Charlotte Pollard Series Two. I often have my complaints about Briggs as a writer, but I think his weaknesses usually stem from when he tries to move away from the basic template at which he is successful: comedy, epic, emotional are all things that don’t play to his strengths. So I was looking forward to this.

Things we think are obvious and clear at the beginning turn out to not be so in the long run

In some ways it is the Nick Briggsest script that ever Nick Briggsed. There’s a lot of jumping back and forward in time (a hallmark of his work, though to its peak in Creatures of Beauty), there’s a lot of doom and gloom, there’s a lot of scenes where people repeat information again and again, there’s a lot of very slow reveals. But the script is put together interestingly and quite cleverly, as we follow two parallel stories: the Earth starship The Human Frontier exploring an alien planet, and the distant world of Triton where humanity has entered into some kind of strange bargain. Things we think are obvious and clear at the beginning turn out to not be so in the long run, and there’s one especial bit of wrongfooting that uses your knowledge of the conventions of audio drama that I really liked.

The characters in this are good. I was never sure if we were supposed to like Genevieve Gaunt’s Commander Daisy Bailey. Characters say she’s a good commander, but I think she’s actually quite a bad one, belittling members of her crew, and taking advantage of her status in the context of personal relationships. If we’re meant to dislike her, I think Gaunt treads the line very well: superficially charismatic but fundamentally short-sighted. If we’re genuinely meant to believe she’s a great character, Briggs’s script missed the mark.

I did really like Pepter Lunkuse’s Exographer Anna Swift, who plays an ordinary but unprepared clever person quite convincingly. Clive Woods’s Brett Triton and Mark Elstob’s Malden Grey were surprisingly good; they seem obvious when you first meet them, but both characters go in directions one doesn’t quite expect. Lucy Briggs-Owen plays The Human Frontier’s AI, Tilly, making a lot of a thankless role. My favourite, though, was Mark Elstob’s secondary role of Robert Harrigan — I was rooting for you, Robert, even if no-one else was! (Whichever woman is doubling up as The Human Frontier’s American ops officer, though… well, no-one will change their opinion of Big Finish’s attempts at American accents based on this release.)

Like I said, the script has some clever bits and some interesting ideas. Its main pitfall, I would say, is that at the end of four hours, you honestly don’t know that much more than you knew at the beginning. The reveals are very slow, and mostly come in the final episode, meaning the story doesn’t actually get to do much with the reveals. There’s apparently going to be a second set, but I think this first one could have packed a bit more punch by exploring its themes rather than just setting them up. The first two episodes probably could have been condensed down some.

Briggs does the music himself — it’s always a treat when he does that, and I wish his job as executive producer left him with more time to do sound design, though Iain Meadows’s work is suitably atmospheric.

I don’t think this will be anyone’s favourite Big Finish Original (mine is ATA Girl, for what it’s worth), but it’s another solid one that shows off what the company can do outside of the straitjacket of its Doctor Who format.

The Human Frontier (by Nicholas Briggs; starring Pepter Lunkuse, Genevieve Gaunt, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Clive Wood, Mark Elstob, Nicholas Briggs) was released by Big Finish Productions in May 2020.