Sometimes I wonder if adaptations work better when you don't know the source material. I've never read The Well-Mannered War or Damaged Goods and I think these audios are fantastic. I have read all the novels Big Finish have previously adapted and found those audios lacked something. The Highest Science in particular was an adaptation I enjoyed but I missed the stuff cut from the Eight-Twelves section because I remembered it so vividly from the book.
So I think these are the best of Big Finish's novel adaptations but I don't know if its because they represent a real improvement or better source material or just plain less nostalgic bias on my part.
The Well-Mannered War
adapted by John Dorney from the novel by Gareth Roberts
directed by Ken Bentley
Of Gareth Roberts' three Fourth Doctor and Romana stories this is undoubtedly the funniest. You know all those stories from the early days of the trenches like the Christmas Truce and the football game and how the royals of the warring nations still sent each other letters because they were related? Well, here Roberts takes that idea and extends it to an entire conflict. There's even a scene where the human second in command tries to fix a photocopier so they can send invitations to the enemy for someone's leaving do or there'll be an “incident”.
The idea is that a human army and a Chelonian army (a race of cybernetic turtles) are in dispute over the ownership of an uninhabited, worthless planetoid. The two sides have dug in, waiting for the order to fight, but have been stuck in a holding pattern waiting for the order for so long that things are completely cordial between the two sides. The two sides try to assassinate each other's commanders at one point following a failed peace conference and its literally just done for the sake of form.
I do like a good pointlessness of war satire and this one hits all the high points, as far as I'm concerned. All of Roberts' Doctor Who work has a touch of comedy but this story is out-and-out farce. The comedy is broader than any of the Roberts novels adapted so far and so it comes across rather better as dialogue.
Another thing that helps the story compared to the previous instalments in the trilogy, is that the Doctor and Romana spend a lot of it apart. The Doctor spends most of his time shuffling from one side to the other in the warzone while Romana and K9 end up on the human colony world where (and I love this subplot) K9 ends up entering the presidential election race as a candidate. Funnier even than the war stuff is how Roberts uses K9's deadpan delivery to lampoon the script every politician uses to get elected.
Also, I don't know but I suspect that Baker and Ward might record their lines separately, which did impact the previous two productions. Keeping them apart in-story, albeit as a result of the source material than any production decision, certainly helps. It also gives Ward a chance to shine on her own as Romana in a way she hasn't had a chance to since... well, probably The Horns Of Nimon in 1979.
adapted by Jonathan Morris from the novel by Russell T Davies
directed by Ken Bentley
Much as I love Gareth Roberts' novels and was definitely looking forward to Big Finish capping off the trilogy, there's no denying Damaged Goods was the main event of the box set. Its Russell T Davies first Doctor Who story, after all, and a story too dark for him to even consider adapting for the TV series (his words, incidentally).
And, my goodness, but it is dark. Spoilers forbid me but there's a very real, very dark tragedy at the centre of the story that was somewhere I would never have expected Davies to go. You can see a lot of the approach he'd later take to the TV series in this story, including some new series references slipped in for fun, but there's no chance this could have been filmed without significant and harmful cuts.
The story takes place in the Quadrant, a council estate in 1987, with the Seventh Doctor, Chris and Roz moving into a flat to investigate a drug called Smile that's being peddled by a local dealer. Obviously the council estate setting echoes the Powell Estate from Davies' first two season on television, a local family who play a big part in the story are even called the Tylers. What surprised me, though it probably shouldn't, is that the whole setting is phrased as a criticism of how Doctor Who usually works. The Doctor worries about investigating in a tower block because he's used to the corridors of power and bluffing his way to authority whilst in the Quadrant each flat is a fortress he might not be able to gain access to when the time comes. Davies makes a big thing of how the “cosmic chessmaster” version of the Doctor is disconnected from the everyday world, which is as good as way as any to describe the very thing he undertook to fix when he brought the series back to television.
Then there's our “new” companions Chris and Roz. Or, rather, Travis Oliver and Yasmin Bannerman who give voice to the roles for the first time in their twenty year history. Hell, for a lot of fans this might be the first time they've ever encountered the characters, the books have been out of print since 1998. Damaged Goods doesn't go into great details about their background except to drop the fact that they're from the future and are basically cops, which is about all we need to know. Chris is the young idealistic one and Roz is the older cynical one, cop formula as old as time.
Oliver plays up the idealistic side of Chris but not in such a way that he seems naïve. There are some fantastic scenes in which a guy flirts with him in coded 1980s ways, baffling Chris no end, a plotline with a killer pay-off (which was about the only thing about the story I knew about in advance). Bannerman as Roz doesn't come off as well, or at least not as fully realised, as Oliver does as Chris. This is mainly because Roz's part in the story is far more functional than Chris'. Chris does a lot of interacting with people in the Quadrant, as does the Doctor, whilst Roz plays more of a back-up style role. Bannerman does well with what she's given but I feel we aren't going to see the full extent of what she can do until Original Sin waaaay in the future, which is sad.
I tried to temper my expectations in the lead-up to this release because, frankly, you can go very wrong expecting someone's long out-of-print early work to match what they did more recently. This goes double when the recent work is something like a massively popular, game-changing TV hit like Davies' Doctor Who. I shouldn't have bothered, frankly, this adaptations holds up fantastically well, not just as a story but as an audio since the kitchen sink setting really lends itself to audio. Even I, Big Finish fanboy that I am, have to admit the company does sometimes tend to bite off more than they can chew when it comes to what can and can't work on the audio medium.
I am very much looking forward to the next set of adaptations.