“What if there were a game you didn’t know you were playing? Where you didn’t know the aim and you hadn’t seen the rules?”
Charlotte Pollard arrives in a toyshop, but she doesn’t know where she is – or even who she is. The mysterious owner wants to play games. He’s the Celestial Toymaker, and he has already defeated the Doctor, whose essence is hidden inside a ventriloquist’s doll.
The Doctor is gone. The TARDIS is lost. But the game is only just beginning…
India Fisher is the companion in Solitaire.
X X X X X
India Fisher (Charley Pollard)
David Bailie (The Celestial Toymaker)
Written by: John Dorney
Directed by: Nicholas Briggs
X X X X X
Amnesia and the Eighth Doctor go hand-in-hand. So it’s no surprise when one Charlotte Pollard wakes up not knowing who she is or where she is. The “where” quickly becomes apparent; a toy shop. The owner of the shop is pleasant enough, if a little cryptic, offering her various toys and games that might pique her interest. His interest in her, however, isn’t as a customer, but as a potential player. The toy shop and the storeroom behind is an interdimensional playing field. Charley, in order to survive, must play the game. But in a game where she doesn’t know the rules, and every wrong guess leads her closer to being removed from existence, is there any way for Charley to best her opponent?
Starring a Big Finish companion as well as a memorable television villain, Solitaire is less of a Companion Chronicle and more of a full-fledged Eighth Doctor audio. Taking place between Embrace the Darkness and The Time of the Daleks, Solitaire is a two-hander play, where only a pair of characters interact through its runtime. Penned by Big Finish veteran writer and actor John Dorney (among whose writing credits are The Wrath of the Iceni and The King of Sontar), Solitaire has a simple plot, but a pair of amazing performances that anchor the entire serial.
The Celestial Toymaker is an old Doctor Who villain. And by “old,” I mean that the Toymaker’s initial appearance was against the First Doctor all the way back in 1966! Originally played by Michael Gough, The Celestial Toymaker saw its namesake, an immortal being with godlike powers (if you’re thinking of Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’re not too far off) kidnap the Doctor and his companions. The Toymaker forced the Doctor to complete a 1023-move Tower of Hanoi game while also running his two companions through a series of deadly games. This turned out to be the Toymaker’s only appearance on television. His next appearance would have been in 1985’s The Nightmare Fair with the Sixth Doctor and Peri, but Michael Grade’s forced hiatus of the show nixed those plans. However, his one appearance was so memorable in the minds of young viewers that the Toymaker appeared throughout the years in several novels and comic strips, as well as making a surprise appearance in the Seventh Doctor story The Magic Mousetrap.
The original actor for the Celestial Toymaker was Michael Gough, known for his appearances in several Hammer Horror movies as well as serving as Alfred Pennyworth in the Michael Keaton Batman movies, who sadly passed away in 2011. For Solitaire, the part of the Celestial Toymaker was played by David Bailie. Familiar to older viewers as the villain in the classic Fourth Doctor The Robots of Death and to newer viewers as the mute pirate Cotton from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, as well as an award winning photographer, Bailie dives into the part with the gusto and condescension that the part demands. From the get go, there’s menace in the words of the Toymaker as he gently chides Charlotte with a series of riddles and shows her several games she might wish to buy. The listener knows that’s something up with the Toymaker and the shop from the very moment he opens his mouth, but the switch from “quirky” to “villain” happens over enough time that it’s not drawn out and still feels natural. The Toymaker lords over Charley, taunting her about whether or not he’s telling the truth, whether or not she’s doing the right thing or something worthless, and even about whether or not she’s still playing the game. Even when events begin spiraling out of control, Bailie keeps up the sense that’s HE’s the one in control, still calling the shots as Charley proves him wrong time and time again. In one audio, Bailie makes the Celestial Toymaker a villain to remember, and anyone who’s interested is encouraged to seek out the Big Finish “Lost Story” range production of The Nightmare Fair with Bailie, Nicola Bryant, and Colin Baker.
India Fisher has been with Big Finish since 2001 and the Eighth Doctor Storm Warning and will be staring in an upcoming series of solo adventures taking place after her time with the Doctor. Solitaire is the equivalent of a “Doctor-lite” episode of the television series such as Turn Left, in which the Doctor is “present,” but not a vital part of the story. This story is all about Charley, which does make it a Companion Chronicle, and it goes a long way in showing just how simply awesome Charley is as a companion. Charley, from the very beginning, shows just how clever she is as she deduces where she is. She might not know just what happened to her, but she spends her time with the “game” trying to escape the toy shop, moving boxes, using a makeshift magnet to lift a metal bar, and so on. Her verbal sparring with Bailie is a wonder to listen to as well.
“How many four letter words are there in the English language?”
“I’m thinking of quite a few right now.”
Fisher gets across Charley’s intuitiveness, her sense of determination and stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, and most of all, a general sense of “screw it, let’s see if this works.” The Eighth Doctor’s ability to improvise has definitely rubbed off on her…a shout out goes to Fisher as well, providing the voice of the Eighth Doctor via voicing a creepy-ass puppet, helping put the Doctor in the story without Paul McGann’s presence.
The sound effects help with the setting – a toy store that periodically shrinks over time, complete with splintering wood and cracking plaster, to “encourage” its players, complete with a booming voice extolling “PLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY.” We have crashing boxes, toys breaking and shattering, pieces spilling on the floor, and a breaking window that reveals the “empty void” outside. It all comes together in a very nice package. The only drawback is the key piece of the entire game. If this has been a television episode, the secret could have been figured out the first moment the store shrank. But since it’s audio, it works and helps the listener go along to the “eureka” moment during the play’s climax.
For an hour of your time, Solitaire is a great piece of audio and a wonderful story worth the price. Just listening to India Fisher and David Bailie square off is wonderful, but the rest of the story’s pieces serve to elevate this serial to that of a minor classic.
Synopsis – No Doctor, just Charley and a memorable villain completion against each other serve to make Solitaire a game well worth playing. 5/5.
Next up – Within the dingy corridors of the artificial biosphere, the lone survivor of a devastating crash has expertly wormed his way into the lives of the colony’s personnel. A scientist known as Davros,,,
Colin Baker is the Doctor in…The Juggernauts.