On an almost lifeless planet in a remote star system, Earth Colony Phoenix is struggling to survive. The colonists, utterly dependent on transmat technology and unable to leave the security of their Habitat Domes, have developed severe agoraphobia… not to mention an inability to deal with visitors…
The TARDIS crew arrive on an apparently abandoned space station in orbit above the planet and soon discover that they and the remaining colonists are in the gravest danger. To survive, the Doctor, Peri and Erimen must uncover the colony’s darkest secrets before it is too late.
Something inhuman is stalking the Colony… and it’s hungry!
Peter Davison is the Doctor in Three’s a Crowd.
X X X X X
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Nicola Bryant (Peri )
Caroline Morris (Erimem)
Deborah Watling (Auntie)
Lucy Beresford (Bellip)
Sara Carver (Khellian Queen)
Richard Gauntlett (General Makra’Thon)
Daniel Hogarth (Laroq)
Charles Pemberton (Butler)
Richard Unwin (Vidler)
Written By: Colin Brake
Directed By: Gary Russell
X X X X X
One of the unique twists that Big Finish has put on the canon of Doctor Who has been the introduction of new companions to travel alongside the classic Doctors. Listeners have heard Evelyn discovering that the Sixth Doctor can’t save everyone, the maturing of teenage delinquent Ace into Dorothy McShane alongside the Seventh Doctor, and the Eighth Doctor trying to figure out while the Celestial Intervention Agency shoved Lucie “Bleeding” Miller into his TARDIS. The Fifth Doctor, towards the end of his travels, has picked up an Egyptian Princess named Erimem. Together with Peri, the girls give the Doctor all the grief he can handle, like two sisters needling their older brother. Erimem has seen Musketeer-era France, the horrors of a necropolis star system, and the truth about her father on the fringes of Tibet.
Three’s a Crowd sees Erimem considering her time in the TARDIS and if she wants to continuing travelling
with the Doctor and Peri in light of recent events. At least, that’s what the story’s overarching theme is supposed to be. While the story delivers a solid, if all too familiar, story with some unique Orwellian overtones, Erimem’s reflection is given lip service amidst a lot of corridor chasing and villains who barely do anything.
After the nightmarish experiences of The Roof of the World, Erimem wonders if seeing the universe with the Doctor and Peri is truly as worthwhile as it seems. These concerns are put on hold as the TARDIS materializes in an abandoned space station, high above the human colony known as Phoenix. Cut off from humanity due to solar storms and belts of high radiation and with terraforming efforts well behind schedule, the colony struggles to survive. With meager supplies and low power, the colonists are kept inside the Habitat Domes…and inside their rooms. Relying on transmat technology for movement and video screens for communication, the colonists have developed severe agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, and such a sense of isolation that even the presence of another human being can cause severe panic attacks. Their only hope is to keep in shape and eat right so that can be in top physical shape for the rare moments when the solar storms subside and the radiation belts open and they can be transmatted back to civilized space. Such a transmat trip, however, involves a stopover on the space station, where some uninvited guests have set up a nursery…and a larder…
This is Colin Brake’s first Big Finish audio. Along with The Mind’s Eye and Mission of the Viyrans, Brake has written several novels for the franchise, including the Eight Doctor’s Escape Velocity and The Good, the Bad, and the Alien for Eleven. There are some very good ideas contained within Three’s a Crowd. The concept of a colony gripped with learned agoraphobia, where concepts such as “corridors” and “the sky” are absolutely terrifying, is one I haven’t experienced before. Brake does his best to explain how this behavior came about by using a few Orwellian tricks, such as “bonus social hours” where people may visit ONE other colonist, provided there’s spare power. A regimen of strict exercise and diet for a fake “return home” keeps the colonist docile and hoping for a redemption that will never come, all overseen by an authority figure given the familial and reassuring name of “Auntie.”
Sadly, the originality of the setting is barely utilized, aside from giving the secondary characters reasons to panic and huddle in place. Even with the concept of agoraphobia, a space station doubling as the hatchery for a vicious alien race, and a leader selling out her own people to buy time, Three’s a Crowd breaks down to the standard “running up and down corridors” story that classic Doctor Who is famous for. This isn’t necessarily a bad cliché to embrace, but for a story with so much going on in so many different locales, there should be a sense of urgency to the proceedings. Instead, the Doctor and companions spend much of Three’s a Crowd’s runtime staying in place, cajoling Auntie and the colonists, or trying to hide from the Khellians, a reptilian race that has been feeding on the colonists who have been sent “home.” By this point in the main range, Gary Russell had directed damn near EVERY Doctor Who story since Project: Lazarus, and it was really starting to show as the direction for this adventure seemed non-existent. The story and the characters jump around so much, but nothing gets done. This serial doesn’t have a slow pace; it has no pace, but plenty of padding. This story could have been told in an hour, ala the Eighth/Fourth Doctor Adventures, and nothing of value would have been lost with regards to the story.
The characterization, especially of the TARDIS crew, comes off very poorly. In this story, the Doctor is best described as “The Doctor Who Doesn’t Do Anything Until It’s Time To Dash.” He wanders about the space station and the Phoenix colony, prodding at Auntie and then yelling at her once she reveals that she knows about the Khellians (but not their snacking on the colonists), vowing to defeat General Makra’Thon but not having a part in his demise, and departing at the very last moment with everything all tied up. Peter Davison sounds a bit like he’s sleepwalking his way through this story, with little wit in his witticisms and little bite in his anger. Perhaps he was going for quiet and understated, but any attempt is lost by the fact that the Doctor himself has little to no part in this story other to provide exposition and ask the important questions to the supporting cast…even going so far as to stuffing himself into an air vent and musing about why he normally asks his younger and smaller companions to do the ductwork!
Peri Brown has always been abrasive and sarcastic, but underneath that exterior, she’s always had a caring heart. Brake turns the sarcasm to 11 as Peri becomes the stereotypical loud, brash, “I know better than you” archetype that we Americans have proudly honed across the known universe. Her advice to Erimem about her situation is “to go with the flow,” and she constantly berates the frightened colonists to “get a move on” and “get a grip.” It’s borderline abusive, as if Brake saw how Peri and Six came off in their first few television adventures and decided “sure, let’s run with THAT.” Plus, there’s just something off about Nicola Bryant’s voice in this recording. It was louder than usual and very distinct when compared to the other actors, to the point where I would involuntarily brace myself when I knew she had a line of dialogue coming up.
Caroline Morris’ Erimem is the “star” of this story, in terms of being the only member of the TARDIS crew to actually do something. She knocks out Makra’Thon when he has the Doctor at his mercy, decides that the Khellian eggs must be destroyed, and takes discovering a larder full of human bodies with the backbone one would expect from an Egyptian Princess. Taken without the opening and closing scenes, Erimem’s actions in Three’s a Crowd are consistent with the character growing and relying on herself much more than she did when she joined up with the Doctor. Sadly, those scenes mar Morris’ overall performance, which I will get to in a bit.
The poor characterization extends to the supporting cast as well. Auntie is played by Deborah Watling, who played the Second Doctor companion Victoria Waterfield in the late 1960’s. There’s no “wink wink” reference to Waterfield’s time with the Doctor, but Watling plays Auntie almost mechanically, with seemingly little emotional variation from any stage directions in the script. She’s helpful when the character needs to be, ruthless when the character needs to be, penitent when the character needs to be, and for someone who knowingly gave her colonists to the Khellians and didn’t even CHECK to see if the Khellians were keeping their word when she had full transmat access to the space station, she comes off as incredibly dense when she needs to be. When the plan to starve the Khellians of air takes too long (over an hour), Auntie decides “screw it, let’s blow up the colony ship.” On television, a character like this would find redemption in death to save her colonists, but Auntie somehow manages to survive a point-blank detonation with the same explosives used to excavate large works. Its’ bad writing on Brake’s part and not exactly an acclaimed performance from Watling.
The supporting cast consists on one of the biggest lodestones in Who history. Lucy Beresford’s Bellip is utterly, utterly useless. The sight of Peri sends her into a panic attack, the concept of a small lecture hall that could hold twenty people causes her to crawl under a table, and she’s reacts to the concept of open sky just as well as you could imagine. There’s no sense of terror or development on Bellip’s part as Beresford channels every single uselessly written female from the show’s history and takes it over the top. I’m not one for violence against women, but Lord I wish Peri (or Tegan!) would have done something like this…
Richard Unwin’s Vinter, as the loud “revolutionary” who suspects something going on, and long-time veteran Big Finish actor Daniel Hogarth as the milquetoast “can’t find a spine” Laroq play their parts well, though Laroq comes close to getting on a listener’s nerves with his uselessness. Vinter shines as the “revolutionary” who actually tries to get stuff done instead of giving lip service to the concept, being the one who goes to the space station with Erimem to stop the Khellians’ eggs from hatching. Richard Gauntlett, known for playing Urak from Time and the Rani, plays General Makra’Thon as the cold blooded “top of the food chain” lizard, but his presence barely makes a dent in this story. When he shows up, the listener is likely to say “oh, yeah, the Khellians are the bad guys in this story,” or even “oh, yeah, the Khellians are IN this story.” Charles Pemberton has the nicest turn in this story. Also known for playing Gerber from Big Finish’s Gallifrey range, Pemberton plays the servant robot Butler exactly as the name sounds; polite even when threatening harm. However, after years of serving Auntie and reminding her “you did what you must for the good of the colony,” he does a 180 in the final episode by telling her “I don’t have to obey a flawed order” when told to kill the Doctor. I don’t get the robot leap in logic, save for “welp, the story says the Doctor has to live!”
The opening of this story sees Peri voicing her concerns to the Doctor, and then Erimem voicing her concerns to Peri, about the danger they’ve seen and if the wonders are worth the risk, with the killing and the running. At the end of the story, when the Doctor asks Erimem if she would like to stay and use her experience to help run the colony, Erimem jumps at the chance to stay with the Doctor instead. The problem comes from the fact that, aside from these moments, Erimem’s struggle regarding the Doctor’s adventures isn’t mentioned ANYWHERE else in the story. If it is, it’s barely referenced and I missed it, which is even worse. With a title like Three’s a Crowd and the foreshadowing in the opening scenes, Erimem’s internal conflict should have been front and center, or at least the “Left Shark” to the main story. Instead, the Doctor tries to foist Erimem off onto the surviving colonists, but after the events of seeing a human-packed larder, a pack of baby lizards devouring their queen, and a colony ship going up in flames, THIS adventure is what makes Erimem stay?!? It just doesn’t add up and really drags down the overall story.
Add to it an incredibly soft and muted score, and Three’s a Crowd wastes its potential. It’s better than The Roof of the World, but not by much. Maybe this story could have come of better on television, as reusing sets and corridors (as well as the same sound effects over and over again!) would have definitely made full use of the show’s budgetary pound sterling with a decent two-parter, as opposed to the boring four-part story listeners got here.
Although, there is one aspect of the story to note. This is one of those rare Fifth Doctor stories where no one die but the villains…
Synopsis – Slow, glacial, lacking in any sort of tension, and with poor characterization,
Three’s a Crowd wasted an opportunity to showcase Erimem’s internal struggle at travelling with the Doctor and Peri. 2/5
Next up – Why does a medical facility need to be under armed guard? What procedures are the staff carrying out, and to what purpose? What is the price that must be paid for making an agreement with those who run the asylum?
Sylvester McCoy in the Doctor in…Unregenerate!