Dr Who encounters one of the most notorious characters from the past, as he journeys through time to solve the great Historical Mysteries…
Not surprisingly the Doctor becomes mixed up with Richard the third himself, as he tries to unravel the perplexing problem of who exactly killed the Princes in the Tower.
Peri and Erimem also encounter a suspicious time traveller. Someone from the Doctor’s own past. Someone who shouldn’t really be there at all.
So who did murder the Princes in the Tower? Perhaps it’s best not to ask a question like that.
You might not like the answer…
Peter Davison is the Doctor in The Kingmaker.
X X X X X
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Nicola Bryant (Peri)
Caroline Morris (Erimem)
Arthur Smith (Clarrie)
Michael Fenton-Steven (Mr Seyton)
Stephen Beckett (Richard; Duke of Gloucester)
Marcus Hutton(Henry; Duke of Buckingham)
John Culshaw(Earl Rivers)
Chris Neill (Sir James Tyrell)
Katie Wimpenny (Susan)
Linzi Matthews (Judith)
Written By: Nev Fountain
Directed By: Gary Russell
X X X X X
When you think about evil men throughout history, certain names immediately come to mind. Adolf Hitler. Josef Stalin. Pol Pot. Emperor Caligula. Attila the Hun. Idi Amin.
But one thinks of villains throughout history, one man has a tendency to loom head and shoulders about the rest…no pun intended: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, aka King Richard the Third of England.
Hunchbacked and broad shouldered, Richard established himself during the War of the Roses before seizing the throne after the death of his brother, Henry VI, and declaring the King’s son Edward and his young brother Richard of York bastards. Richard had the two Princes locked in the Tower of London, where they lived under house arrest until shortly before his coronation as King, when they vanished. Rumor had it that Richard had them killed (strangled, poisoned, smothered shot, hung, or starved were the various causes of death bandied about) to strengthen his claim to the throne. A rebellion by Henry Tudor led to Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field and the crowning of Tudor as Henry VII.
Richard’s legacy was established by Sir Thomas More’s The History of King Richard the Thirde and a play that drew upon the biography for its foundation – William Shakespeare’s Richard III, the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays to still be performed on a regular basis even in the modern era. The two works established Richard as a scheming, Machiavellian figure with a hunched back and a withered arm who plotted his way to the throne, marrying those who could help him, killing anyone who got in his way and threatening those who would stand in his way. Numerous movies have been made from this play, including a very well done and well received in 1995 with Sir Ian McKellan as Richard. Backstabbing, murdering, a figure who would murder his relatives solely for the pursuit of power…all these things, along with his (exaggerated, quite possibly) physical deformities add up to Richard III being known as one of history’s classic villains.
Now, what if everything about Richard III and the fate of the Princes in the Tower was true, but not for the reasons everyone believes they are?
I’ll just come right out and say it. Despite its flaws (and it does have some), The Kingmaker is one of the best audios Big Finish has published, immediately cracking my list of “Top Ten” favorite audios once I finished listening to it. Nev Fountain has penned an absolute delight that mixes Shakespeare and Blackadder, with a hint of Douglas Adams. The performances are dynamite, the meta-jokes fly, and perhaps the highlight of the whole thing is a third-act cliffhanger that ranks among the best in Who history.
The Doctor has a few problems. Aside from having a bit of a throw down with William Shakespeare, there’s a robot from the 64th century who informs the Doctor that he’s in breech of his publishing contract. It seems that, during his UNIT days, the Doctor agreed to write a series of ground-breaking books about history called “Doctor Who Discovers,” the printer having forgotten the “The.” And he’s a bit behind in his word count. So, with Peri and Erimem at his side, the Doctor decides high time to solve one of the great historical mysteries – the final fate of the Princes in the Tower. Who did kill the princes? Was it Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III? Was it Sir James Tyrell, acting on the Duke’s orders? Or was is the mysterious adviser to Richard, Mr. Seyton? In any case, as the Doctor attempts to figure out the answers, it turns out the question itself keeps changing…
Nev Fountain is a well-known English writer who has made numerous contributions to Doctor Who in terms of short stories, comic strips, and the Big Finish audios Omega and Peri and the Piscon Paradox. He’s also been a part of the BBC parody show Dead Ringers which has taken its jabs at Who from time to time. Both Omega and Peri and the Piscon Paradox manage to mix drama and humor to a satisfying degree, and Fountain continues to do with with The Kingmaker. It’s obvious from the beginning that this audio is not going to be a typical “historical.” The historical figures are accurate and history unfolds as it’s “supposed to,” but along the way Henry and Richard argue over just who “they” are in the phrase “you know what they say” while Richard takes offense over anything that might slightly refer to his physical condition. From there, it goes into tacky coronation mugs to sell to the tourists, the Princes quite possibly turning out to be robots, a gossip’s press conference serving as a public relations stunt, Peri accidentally discovering what a codpiece is, and one historical character chasing the other down Fleet Street with a sword until it all falls apart (as it’s supposed to) at the very end when it just all goes off the freakin’ rails.
Along the way, the listener is treated to the Doctor, Peri, and Erimem exchanging envelopes in a nice little “some Northern bloke with big ears asked me to give this to you two years ago, and then to open this envelope after you’ve read that envelope” scene as well as the Fourth Doctor himself narrating a little bit of history (in the form of noted impersonator John Culshaw, who impersonates Tom Baker impersonating Tom Baker). And there’s no denying that the third-act cliffhanger is simply one of Big Finish’s best, ranking alongside the big reveal in Dust Breeding and the third act cliffhanger from The Chimes of Midnight.
While The Kingmaker is indeed very silly, the dramatic elements keep it from becoming pure farce, and this is in thanks mainly to a great performance from Stephen Beckett as Richard. Richard himself is a dramatic figure, getting a few humorous lines in but spending the play’s run time as the villain…just not as bad a villain as history had made him out to be. In the hands of any other actor, giving ANY sort of sympathy or humanity to Richard III could have backfired. Beckett, a veteran actor of numerous BBC shows, hits all the right notes when it comes to Richard, making him complex but not very likable. He makes no qualms about being a bad person and willing to be pragmatic to do whatever it takes for the sake of England, but events have forced him to act differently. The listener doesn’t quite feel sorry for Richard because he IS a villain, but at best he should have been a minor one, not one of the greatest in history (based upon the events of this story, of course, which isn’t a factual history…)
(OR IS IT?!?)
The quiet, straight forward way Beckett portrays Richard, who makes no excuses for how he is and just outlines how he feels about time tourists coming for his autograph or trying to make him sign a confession that he killed the Princes in the Tower, adds to the sense that this is a man who just might have killed the Princes…or just might have not. It just comes off so much better than the attempts to humanize Oliver Cromwell in the next story, The Settling, and a large reason for that is in Beckett’s performance. Although, I had to keep looking at the liner notes to remind myself that is was indeed Stephen Beckett performing and not the man he VERY much sounded like, one Christopher Eccleston…
Opposite Richard is the Doctor, and Peter Davison throws everything but the kitchen sink into his performance. It feels like Davison covers every personality trait and tic of his Doctor’s incarnation. There’s his barely restrained frustration as one’s idiocy, his lighthearted barbs at his companions, his cold judgment of Richard’s action, and his dedication to making sure “the story changes, but the ending stays the same.” As opposed to The Council of Nicaea where the Doctor was Time’s Bitch, The Kingmaker sees him as Time’s Champion, dealing with all of the lunacy in making sure history unfolds as it should WHILE making sure Peri and Erimem are safe. And it all came about because the Doctor’s curiosity got the better of him and he just HAD to find out who killed the Princes in the Tower. The Kingmaker is about as Fifth Doctor as a Doctor Who story gets, and Peter Davison is absolutely spot on because of it…or rather, The Kingmaker is spot on because of Peter Davison.
Sadly, it’s Nicola Bryant and Caroline Morris who are the flaws in this story. I have to point out though that it’s NOT because of their performances. As the two get caught up in an absolutely insane trip throughout 1483 and1485, Bryant and Morris play Peri and Erimem as two sisters who might bicker but still stick together when things go sideways. There is a bit of humor when Peri protests being a serving girl just because she has “bumps on the front” and Erimem discovers a hand on the bottom is not how the English greet each other. During the moments where they’re trapped in the Tower, the two characters lay everything out, plot their escape, and justify how it’s not going to work, all done during a tennis match (along with some Doctor/Richard moments) that’s a very well put together scene. The penultimate scene, however, is where Erimem suggests that she and Peri take poison to avoid execution, a tense moment that Erimem, once she realizes how in deep she’s become, plays off as a joke. Along with several other moments, it helps highlight the difference in Peri’s American childhood and Erimem’s royal upbringing.
But, here’s where the problem pops up. It’s a short-term one that leads into a long-term one. The two women believe they’ve been abandoned by the Doctor (a heartbreaking moment where Peri thinks the Doctor has already found new companions) when Erimem suggests suicide. By this point, Peri and Erimem have been separated from the Doctor for two years, and yet have the exact same personalities and relationship with each other as they did the day they were stranded. No change, no character growth, Peri and Erimem remain the same two women. It’s one of those things that stuck with me as I listened to parts three and four, but it also led me to think about something another prominent reviewer has mentioned before.
The Caves of Androzani is universally considered one of the best serials Doctor Who has ever done, where the Fifth Doctor sacrifices his life for Peri, a companion he had only known since the previous story Planet of Fire. The Fifth Doctor’s willingness to lay down his life for someone he barely knows is one of the defining moments of that regeneration. This reviewer has pointed out that while Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant are good together, having multiple adventures robs Caves of that pivotal moment’s drama. Personally, since most Who fans will go right from Planet of Fire to Caves of Androzani without listening to the slew of audios in between, those extra audio adventures are a minor consideration. But, The Kingmaker, where the Doctor spends two years trying to find Peri and Peri spends two years hoping the Doctor will come and find her, definitely adds a LOT of weight to that prominent reviewer’s argument. Of course, this means I’ll just have to go watch The Caves of Androzani to see how much weight it adds. Great. Gee, thanks prominent reviewer.
It’s a wide supporting cast that does a bang up job, from Arthur Smith as drunken bar owner Clarrie (“I had me arm in a sling for a whole two months. The lads all noticed and, wish a flash of wit that they’re famed for, came up with me nickname and there you are…One-armed Clarrie.” “But you have two arms.” “Whoa, don’t confuse the lads!”) to Marcus Hutton from The Curse of Fenric and The Chruch and the Crown as Henry, Duke of Buckingham (“My Lord, the very idea I would make sport of your physical prowess) to Katie Wimpenny and Linzi Matthews as the serving wenches (“Good evening, sir, I’m Susan your serving wench for this evening. That’s Judith. She’s my sister. Would you like to sit in carousing or non-carousing?”) to Chris Neill as Sir James Tyrell (“You’re the torturer? I thought you were the Royal High Concussor!” “His Lordship believes in multi-tasking.”) and Michael Fenton-Stevens as Mr. Seyton (“Thing? THING?!? For your information, sir, this is my travelling machine. My magic cabinet that takes me to places beyond your imagination.”) There is no lull or letdown from any of the actors or actress, who all play their parts in the way history says they should…but not for the reasons one would think.
Gary Russell is on top of his game with this story, as he handles plotlines in different years with ease, intercuts two different (but still related) scenes in an effective manner, and pretty much keeps the complex time travel shenanigans easy to follow. I never felt lost or confused because of anything other than the plot twists thanks to the directing. And as always, from the rowdy Groundlings in the Globe to a tennis match in the Tower to a bar full of drunks singing 43 verses of the Dingle-Dangle-Dido song, Andy Hardwick and Gareth Jenkins show Big Finish is once again on top of its game when it comes to the story’s sound work.
I really can’t praise this story enough. It’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s got its moments of drama, but most importantly, it makes sense. The fourth act is where everything falls apart, but it does so in a way that’s absolutely logical. Everything weird or offsetting that’s been laid out in the first three episodes adds up to bring about the climactic finale in a way that brings the proceedings to a close in a satisfying manner. It’s during the epilogue however that the entire play is summed by. And for a serial that’s as offbeat at The Kingmaker, it’s a hell of a punch. Nev Fountain’s scripts had their moments of humor, but tried to make a serious point about the Doctor, time travel, and his effect on the universe. Sometimes it doesn’t work (Omega) and sometimes it does (Peri and the Piscon Paradox). The final denouement in The Kingmaker falls closer to the Piscon Paradox side, where for all the insanity, lunacy, and metahumor, one character sums up the best and worst aspects of the Doctor in a way that Shakespeare himself might have appreciated.
“You see past, present and future and make sure we all act according to the rules. You’re worse than a god. At least a god allows his subjects to repent.”
Synopsis – Funny, witty, insightful, and most of all memorable, The Kingmaker takes on one of history’s greatest villains and attempts to explain his actions in a way no one, even the Doctor, sees coming. 5/5.
Next up – “If this be refused, you will have no cause to blame me. I expect your answer and rest your servant. O. Cromwell…”
Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in…The Settling.