Doctor Who and the Pirates [Big Finish]

The Dark Flame was the 43rd entry in Big Finish’s “Main Range” or “Monthly Range” of Doctor Who audios (released back in 2003), featuring Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, with Maggie Stables as Evelyn Smythe.

(Daily Doctor Who #251)

Thanks to Big Finish, we live in a world where we can listen to Colin Baker sing variations of Gilbert & Sullivan songs, whenever we want to.

That is of course the magic of Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio output–there is just so much of it that the company has been able to bring us all sorts of different stories, including Doctor Who and the Pirates. This tale involves the Doctor’s companion Evelyn Smythe (a university professor) paying an unexpected visit to Sally, one of her students, and telling her a story. Sally has other things on her mind but Evelyn doesn’t care, and insists on relating to her a tale of her when her adventures with the Doctor recently brought them into the company of 18th century pirates. The Doctor soon join her and Sally is forced to listen to this chronicle, no matter how subtly or blatantly she tries to get them leave.

The story is tragic, as Evelyn is obviously cut up about the sad fate one of the guest characters suffered. But the telling of the story has got all sorts of comical and jolly elements–Evelyn gets some of the details wrong, she mixes up which character did what and when, and all her pirates sound the same. And we hear all of this played out–most of the pirates, for example, are played by the same actor. And as the story continues it gets weirder, building up to the cliffhanger of the second episode (of four) when Evelyn realizes that the Doctor is going to start singing.

And so he does, all through the third episode. So does everyone, really, breaking out into all sorts of ersatz Gilbert & Sullivan songs, like I am the very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer and An Assassin’s Lot and many others, to the tune of popular numbers from The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. It’s all part of the mysterious reason that Evelyn and the Doctor insist on telling this story to Sally, which becomes as much the story’s driving force as anything that actually happened with the pirates or any treasure.

When the answer comes, it’s pretty satisfying, from an emotional level as well as a story one. It’s the sort of thing that you’d imagine people like the Doctor and his companions would be coming across all the time–sad, personal tragedies that their ability with time travel gives them an opportunity to try to avert. In the end it’s a strong but unusual story with a solid message: if you know that there’s someone out there who really cares about you, then maybe even the hardest things in life are bearable.

In addition to the strong performances from both Colin Baker and Maggie Stables, the audio features Bill Oddie as the main pirate scoundrel Jaspar, and some good singing performances by Helen Goldwyn and Mark Siney.

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