Continuing to discuss performances by Colin Baker in the Big Finish audio plays, today I’m taking a look at “The Reaping,” written by Joseph Lidster. I originally listened to it three years ago. The main reason why I decided to re-visit it now is the book Chicks Unravel Time, published by Mad Norwegian Press (you can see my December 4th blog entry for more info on that).
One of the excellent essays in Chicks Unravel Time is “The Problem With Peri,” written by Jennifer Pelland. In it, Pelland takes a look at the unfortunately subpar use of the character of Peri Brown, the Doctor’s companion in the mid-1980s who was portrayed by actress Nicola Bryant. Pelland, in examining Peri’s portrayal during Season 22 of Doctor Who, noted that she unfortunately served as a poor role model, especially in comparison to the other strong female characters seen on the screen that year.
As I have said before, the Big Finish audios have given Colin Baker a chance to shine, providing him with a higher quality of scripts to work with. This has allowed him to really demonstrate just what he could have done if he had been given material this good to work with on the actual show. Well, the same, fortunately, applies to Nicola Bryant as Peri.
I very much agree with the sentiments addressed by Pelland in her essay. Peri was often ill-used throughout much of her time on the show. She was constantly whining & complaining. Often her relationship with the Doctor was written to consist of little more than squabbling. All that, and the producer seemed more interested in sticking Bryant in costumes that showed off her cleavage than in giving her well-written dialogue. The writers of the Big Finish audios have done a great deal to rectify these problems with the character of Peri.
It is implied in Peri’s debut story “Planet of Fire” that she has issues with her family. She certainly does not get along with her stepfather in that serial. This is fertile ground for Joseph Lidster to explore in “The Reaping.” His script delves deeply into Peri’s background. We finally meet her family and friends, and find out about her relationships with them, relationships that have been severely strained due to her long absence while she was off traveling with the Doctor.
Having just sat through “The Reaping” again, I was certainly impressed with the depth and nuance of the material. The script certainly gives Nicola Bryant a great deal to work with. I would go so far as to say that Peri received more character development in “The Reaping” than she did during her two years on the television show.
Thousands of years in the future, the Doctor and Peri visit the Gogglebox, an archive of humanity’s history archived in the hollowed-out Moon. A curious Peri decides to check the records concerning her home town of Baltimore, Maryland in the 1980s. Coming across a news report from that time, Peri learns that the father of her good friend Kathy has been brutally murdered. Shocked and upset, Peri has the Doctor take her back to Baltimore in September 1984 for the funeral. At the graveyard, Peri is reunited with her mother Janine. And all is not well.
Peri, as the audience knows, has been traveling all about in time & space with the Doctor for the last two years of her life. But from the point of view of Janine back in 1984, her daughter just up and vanished one day, with a word to no one, and could not be bothered to telephone or even send a letter to let her mother know that she was safe.
Janine is played by Claudia Christian, who appeared on Babylon 5 as Commander Susan Ivanova for four seasons. I really enjoyed Christian’s performance on that series, where she made Ivanova one of my favorite characters. Christian does an equally good job in “The Reaping,” playing an angry & disappointed mother whose dissatisfaction with her daughter turns to amazement as she learns what Peri has really been up to all this time.
Bryant, likewise, does excellent work in her portrayal of Peri, who is grief-stricken at her friend’s loss, and deeply hurt by her mother’s disapproval. The character experiences an emotional gauntlet in “The Reaping,” and Bryant really brings her to life.
The relationship between the Doctor and Peri is also explored. We see that, underneath all of the bickering, the two care deeply for one another. At one point, fearing the Doctor might be dead, Peri admits to Janine and Kathy that the Doctor is her best friend. I wish we had seen the friendship between the two characters explored to this degree on the television show. My compliments to Lidster for delving so deeply and movingly into their relationship.
As a quick glance of the cover to “The Reaping” will show, the Cybermen are the villains of the story. Even though they are actually used rather sparingly, they are nevertheless very effective. Inserting them into the mundane domesticity of 1984 Baltimore makes them appear even more alien and menacing than usual.
Lidster taps into the simultaneously horrific and tragic nature of the Cybermen. The Doctor sadly retells the Cybermen’s origins, how in order to survive on the dying planet Mondas, they slowly but surely began replacing organic flesh with metal, plastic, and computer circuits. Their cybernetics was a means to an end, a desperate gamble for survival. But they ended up replacing too much of themselves, and lost their ability to feel emotion. Survival became an end unto itself, as they marched out across the galaxy, determined to convert all organic life.
That is exactly what the Cybermen are doing in “The Reaping.” Their numbers severely dwindled after multiple defeats, they want the Cyber race to survive. And so they travel back in time to convert all of humanity. They see this as an improvement, believing that the elimination of messy feelings & emotions will end chaos and bring about order. That is the true horror of the Cybermen. They don’t want to conquer the world or destroy it; instead, they wish to transform everyone into logical, emotionless Cybermen. In so many ways, that is a fate worse than death.
In the classic serial “Tomb of the Cybermen,” the Cyber Controller coldly informs a group of captive humans “You belong to us. You shall be like us.” Lidster has the Cybermen in “The Reaping” reiterate that chilling pronouncement.
On the whole, “The Reaping” is a very strong story. But there are a few weaknesses. The Cybermen’s plan seems to rely on a couple of big coincidences. The ending of the story is unnecessarily downbeat, and cuts off potential future storylines. And there is at least one unresolved subplot left dangling.
On that last point, I realize Lidster was setting things up for a semi-sequel, “The Gathering,” which is the next entry in the Big Finish audio series. I still haven’t listened to that one yet. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to pick it up at some point in the future.
In any case, despite a few criticisms, I found “The Reaping” a well written production, with quality acting by Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and Claudia Christian.