The Holy Terror (beware, some spoilers ahead, particularly in the final paragraph) is my first ever “normal” Big Finish audio Doctor Who story, featuring just one Doctor his companion(s). In this case it’s Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor and his popular long-term companion, Frobisher the Penguin.
Actually, Frobisher isn’t a penguin. He’s a shape-shifting alien who has taken the form of a penguin, and appeared in the 6th Doctor comic strips that ran back in the 1980’s in Doctor Who Magazine. So, amusingly, my first “regular” Big Finish audio is one of their “Side Step” stories, set in the continuity already established by other Doctor Who spin-off media. He’s played here by Robert Jezek, who breathes fun life into the American-accented easy going former private investigator.
The Holy Terror is the 14th Big Finish “Main Range” of Doctor Who audios, released in November 2000, and the first in my “subscription” of 12 early stories (for quite a low price). Frobisher fits well into the world of the audio quite well – the non-visual format keeps him from looking silly, and the tone of the story is decidedly goofy and satirical, at least at the beginning. The Tardis brings the Doctor and his companion to a castle where the king has just died, to be succeeded by his son. But in this place, the king is not only the monarch – he is the eternal god. His death is therefore shocking, as everyone expected him to live forever…just like they did the eternal god-king before him, and the one before that, and so on. Eugene Tacitus, the scribe charged with writing the detailed account of the previous god-king’s life – the bible, if you will – is sentenced to death for his allegiance to an evidently false god, unless he will renounce his faith and place it in the new king. Tacitus happily agrees to do this, and everyone moves on from that particular formality. More accepting of her fate is the late king’s wife, who must be executed for being a false goddess.
It is with this odd mix of dark humor and religious satire that the story of political intrigue carries on for a good portion of its length. The Doctor gets embroiled in a plan by the king’s illegitimate half-brother to usurp the throne – just as the king’s illegitimate half-brother has done in every generation previously. His is assisted by the king’s disillusioned high priest…just as the high priest has done in every generation previously. Needless to day, the Doctor begins to suspect that something unusual is going on. And why are all the accounts of all the previous king’s lives in every generation all written in the same handwriting? When Frobisher himself is named the people’s new god, (“All hail the big talking bird!”) things of course get even crazier.
The script uses its science fiction canvas to explore questions that parallel ones that come up in religion – especially the question of free-will. The tone gets darker as the story goes along, until the end of the third episode (of four) reveals the true big bad of the story – who is one of the creepiest and most disturbing menaces I have ever run into in Doctor Who. The last episode then becomes a picture of how each of these one-note guest characters faces their inevitable death – which ones transcend their destiny and obtain some measure of free will in their final moments. It’s an extremely witty script that successfully deals with some very serious subject matter and questions of the nature of existence (a little bit like a more gruesome version of Castrovalva).
The weakness of the story is that the nature of the world that they are in is never really explored. It’d be nice to have a sense of why Eugene did what he did, and what exactly is the Castle? It’s a fiction, but it has a physical reality of some sort. Is Eugene thousands of years old, or is he somehow living multiple generations in a short time. There are some hints but it’s all left quite vague. Still, Colin Baker’s performance is strong, and the 6th Doctor – Frobisher dynamic is a good one. It’s too bad it wasn’t revisited more often.