Doctor Who: The Maltese Penguin [Big Finish]

So, last time I wrote I mentioned that I might try to go back to other Big Finish Doctor Who audios that I’ve listened to but not yet blogged about.  And then right after that, I was looking for something to listen to and pulled out the “Bonus Release” story The Maltese Penguin.  As I started listening to it, I thought it sounded very familiar.  I thought maybe I’d listened to a preview track of it before.  But eventually I realized that actually I’ve listened to this entire thing before, but just forgotten it!

So, since I accidentally made good on my initial idea of re-listening to old stories, I thought why not go all the way and write this on up?  (Unless of course, I already have and have forgotten about that as well!  Quick checknope, seems good.)

The Maltese Penguin

The Maltese Penguin stars Colin Baker as the 6th Doctor and Frobisher, and Robert Jezek as Frobisher.  Confused?  Well, it’s simple really:  Frobisher is a shape-shifting alien (a “Whifferdill”) who originated in the comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine, created by Steve Parkhouse and John Ridgway.   He traveled primarily with the Sixth Doctor, and spent most of his time in the form of a penguin.  He proved popular (or at least memorable) enough to appear in other spin-off media, including the novel Mission: Impractical and one of the first Big Finish audios I ever listened to, The Holy Terror.

Here, he’s returned to his original vocation as a private investigator, on some alien planet in the future.  The Doctor appears and tries to convince him to travel with him, but Frobisher refuses, insisting that he needs to step out on his own as a private eye again.  But when a case does come his way and he needs to take on humanoid appearance, he opts to disguise himself as the Doctor, which gives Colin Baker the chance to pull double-duty as an actor (especially since the real Doctor keeps popping in again throughout the story).

The Maltese Penguin is a light-hearted comedy designed entirely to resemble classic film-noir stories.  There’s the stylized voice-over narration, a dark and seedy environment, a case that is really a set-up, a femme fatale for a client, a Sydney Greenstreet-like crime boss with his Peter Lorre-like lackey, and of course Frobisher is the down-on-his-luck private eye who can be bought for a price (“twelve mazumas per day, plus expenses”) but who in the end won’t betray his principles.  At the same time, this is Doctor Who, so there are also aliens, wacky sci-fi, and some horrific deaths.

The results are a mixed bag.  Film-noir is a genre that has seen plenty of parody over the years, so it’s a tricky thing to do without just feeling like you are merely “playing around”.  But the plot they’ve created is clever with a mystery that is genuinely engaging.  And Colin Baker is evidently having so much talking out of the side of his mouth in an ersatz American accent as Frobisher that it’s hard not to be drawn right along.

But on the downside, the resolution of the story is a bit too silly to take seriously.  Jane Goddard’s performance is good but her voice isn’t right for the type of “femme fatale client” that her character is written as.  The incidental music gets repetitive and a bit tiresome.  And at the denouement, the story suddenly jumps into a riff on Casablanca (eg. “problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans,” “maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon…”, “beginning of a beautiful friendship,” etc) that falls flat:  Casablanca is not film noir, and the dialogue is so overused that hearing it again just makes one cringe.

(Now there’s a writing challenge:  include direct homages to Casablanca but make it seem fresh and original and surprising).

But in the end, the story is so slight (and essentially free) that its flaws don’t really matter.  It’s fun and diverting, like a mini-episode of the actual series, and whets the appetite for more meaty fare.

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