"We choose what to remember and what to forget. That's our right." - Seventh Doctor
A quote that works equally well as a tag line for the series as this story, Fiesta of the Damned is going in the remember pile, as the Big Finish production where I got to meet Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor and two companions whose reputations proceed them, Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford) and Ace (Sophie Aldred).
Containing everything I love in a Doctor Who story, plus a lot of things I didn’t know I love, but now want to explore (see: Seventh Doctor, Mel, and Ace), Fiesta of the Damned is the second in a new trilogy of audio dramas featuring the three characters together [Maker of Demons was released this month on Big Finish’s website and A Life of Crime is available general sale]. Treated as a standalone adventure, new listeners should have no problem jumping in and a late reference to spoons was the only thing I followed-up on afterwards.
Getting to see different companions working together has always been a treat. Usually, though, the event nature of the meeting leaves everything a bit rushed or stunt appearance-y. Tennant era episode, “School Reunion,” with the phenomenal Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, is probably one of the strongest examples, but even there you get the initial jealousies and rivalries that also come with the territory of bringing old and new companions together.
Maybe this is one of the benefits of starting with the second part of the trilogy, versus the first, but the dynamic between the Doctor, Mel and Ace is simply terrific. While Mel and Ace are very different people this doesn’t register in the form of fighting or bickering but friendship. Both know and love the iteration of the Doctor they’re dealing with, and both are ready to spring into action, blindly, when needed.
The reason I chose this drama, as my first outing with the seventh Doctor, can be traced to its setting during the Spanish Civil War. I’ve only encountered this time period once before, on the Spanish TV drama, The Time in Between, and my interest was sparked. As Fiesta brings up, and Aldred later reiterates during a closing interview, the results of this conflict left Nationalist leader, Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain until his death in 1975. Yet, until these fictional portrayals, I only knew the conflict by name.
That’s something I need to correct and in this area (and many others), Guy Adams’ script is absolutely fantastic. Anytime I felt like my ignorance was showing, there was a character to provide some historical background. If I had an episode-specific sci-fi question, like why the ***** were suddenly able to talk, the story was prepared with an answer, leaving no loose ends.
Adams also does a great job of bringing in new characters and, because you’re dealing with three series regulars as opposed to two, there were a lot of opportunities to split people up and show what different pairings brought to conversations.
Republican Commander, Juan Romero (Enzo Squillino, Jr.), has been avoiding camping in town. Fearful of marking local civilians as targets, when the Nationalists bomb his men, leaving many wounded, the choice is taken out of his hands. Soon the Tardis arrives on a mistimed holiday, and it looks like the trouble Romero will be bringing to town is more alien, than human, in quality.
Other standouts from this cast are George Newman (Christopher Hatherall), as an English reporter who bonds with kindred “adrenaline junkie,” Ace, and Luis (Tom Alexander), who has an extremely satisfying character arc. Even Mayor Alfredo (Owen Aaronovitch), who arguably makes the smallest impression as a character, gets a moment on his own to talk to a photo of his son, who was killed in the war. A scene that could’ve been cut, as it doesn’t serve the larger story, its inclusion anyway is a nice touch and a better character note.
Everything about director, Ken Bentley’s production is delightful and easy to follow, from the voice acting to the music and sound effects. War is treated seriously in this story but the definitive attitude is positive.
I can’t wait to dive into more full cast Big Finish dramas in the future. First, though, I’d like to add some visuals to this skilled voice acting, with a look back at a Classic Who episode featuring the same trio. Thanks to Sophie Aldred’s interview I know exactly where to start, too: 1987’s Dragonfire.
Fiesta of the Damned is available now on Big Finish’s web-site and general sale September 30th.