Ostend, 1913. War is coming. A war in which millions will die. And the guest in suite 139 of the Hotel Palace Thermae knows it. Which is odd, considering he has trotters, a snout and a lovely curly tail.
Toby the Sapient Pig is a swine on the run. Two peculiar strangers have been hunting him across Europe. The first, Miss Alice Bultitude, is an Englishwoman and collector of obscure theatrical ephemera. The second, Inspector Alphonse Chardalot, is a celebrated member of the detective police – the man who brought the trunk murderess of St Germain to justice.
This was supposed to be a reading week for the Doctor and Peri. Now they must do battle with a villain who wants to wipe every last human from the face of the earth – once he’s had just another dish of truffles. And maybe a valedictory glass of fizzy lemonade.
Colin Baker is the Doctor in Year of the Pig.
X X X X X
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Nicola Bryant (Peri)
Adjoa Andoh (Nurse Albertine)
Paul Brooke (Toby the Sapient Pig)
Michael Keating (Inspector Chardalot)
Maureen O’Brien (Miss Alice Bultitude)
Written By: Matthew Sweet
Directed By: Gary Russell
X X X X X
Sometimes, things just get weird.
I’ve seen green sunsets, I’ve tasted roast cobra, I’m stood among one thousand people chanting the lyrics to “Enter Sandman” as a middle-aged man with a beer gut chugged seven beers on his way through the crowd to a wrestling ring…hell, I’ve even seen a grown man satisfy a camel.
But this one is really, really, REALLY out there. In a very good way.
The CD cover to Year of the Pig tells the entire story; the Sixth Doctor meets a well-cultured, sharply dressed sapient pig. It’s definitely not a standard Doctor Who Big Finish story, relying very heavily on dialogue and character interaction to tell its story. But listeners who let it digest for a bit will find that it’s an absolutely incredible piece of audio that’s a true feast for the senses.
Finally, the Sixth Doctor sighs, an incarnation with the time and temperament to sit at the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend and enjoy a little bit of Proust. It’s not quite Peri’s cup of tea, but she’s willing to enjoy the sights and sounds of 1913 Europe on the eve of the Great War. But by the very virtue of their presence, the pair have drawn attention from a variety of visitors. First is Inspector Chardalot, the famous French detective who has brought many a criminal to justice. Then there is Miss Alice Bultitude, world traveler and experienced busybody. And finally, peering through a telescope from a shuttered wing of the Hotel Palace Thermae is a very well dressed, well spoken, and well fed porcine, whose curiosity is tempered by the knowledge that, indeed, one of these visitors is here to kill him.
As I listened to Year of the Pig, the foremost thing in my mind was how this story just might be the audio equivalent of the movie My Dinner With Andre, an amazing movie that’s simply ninety-plus minutes of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory having a conversation about their lives. Year of the Pig carefully rations out any depiction of physical action , instead giving the listener nearly two-and-a-half hours of dialogue and description. But much like The Holy Terror, describing this audio doesn’t do it justice. Year of the Pig is incredibly detailed and rich, with interesting characters and a plot that takes its time getting to the conclusion, but does so by sitting back and relaxing instead of wandering all over the place. There’s simply no rush to this story, and while a few red herrings are dangled in front of the listener they are quickly gobbled up by the advancing story. For such a long story, Year of the Pig is incredibly easy to listen to and digest on the part of the listener. The writer of the piece, one Matthew Sweet (not to be confused with the American musician) holds a doctorate on 19th century sensation fiction from Oxford University and is a regular presenter on the BBC Radio 3 arts and philosophy program Night Waves. Not quite the man one would expect to pen a Doctor Who story, Sweet has also penned the Seventh Doctor audio The Magic Mousetrap and two Jago & Litefoot stories. His background in sensation fiction and philosophy serves Year of the Pig very well, as not only do characters discuss the finer points of life and existence, but also the era of “freak shows” and “cabinets of curiosities.” In some ways, save for some bonkers off-the-wall science that builds throughout the story, Year of the Pig could be considered an historical. There WERE “sapient pigs” who displayed their (and their handlers) “talents” throughout Europe, among the other curiosities mentioned, although none on the level of Toby.
And what about Toby? While all of the characters have their moment, Year of the Pig is all about Paul Brooke’s performance as Toby the Sapient Pig. Brooke is perhaps the quintessential British “That Guy” actor, having appeared in numerous movies and television series through a 40+ year career. It would have been incredibly easy for Brooke to, and this is the only time I will make this joke, ham it up, but while Toby possesses many porcine qualities Brooke imbues him with an incredible amount of class, charm, and wonder. Toby is a pig who might not quite remember his past (his parents were from Essex, and they looked just like everyone else who lived there!) but he bears no shame about his past. He was PROUD to be part of a “freak show” with a promoter who treated his charges with kindness and respect, allowing Toby to make a large amount of money which lets him enjoy a very comfortable retirement that consists of a lot of records, movies, and food…along with some technology that shouldn’t even exist in this time period. Even under duress from the ultimate villain, Toby maintains a calm, cool, proper posture, more concerns about the buffet cart than being carved up and an apple stuffed in his mouth. Much as The Holy Terror made a shape-shifting penguin believable, Paul Brooke’s performance helps to bring the character of Toby the Sapient Pig to life.
On the other side of the table sits Colin Baker, as only the Sixth Doctor could establish a strong rapport with a talking swine. Baker is always a delight, and in Year of the Pig he seems to be relishing every single line he delivers with the utmost sense of personal glee. This just might be the most fun Colin Baker’s had recording a Big Finish audio, digesting every line of a script that mixes the absurd with the just the right of personal drama. This is a Doctor who means to spend a little quiet time on the Belgian seashore, but when he saves a man from drowning, events are set in motion that find the Doctor sitting opposite of Toby, who he sees him only as someone who needs his help. He treats Toby just as he could anyone else he meets, which speaks volumes for the Doctor’s personality how he judges people by their character, not by their appearance. Of course there’s something deeper going on and the Doctor must find out what (as always), but the story never becomes about “and on your right is a talking pig.” Baker’s performance, mixing curiosity and the Doctor’s penchant for doing the right thing, goes a long way towards establishing this story’s bonafides.
With the Doctor and Toby at the forefront, it’s not a surprise that Peri takes a back seat in this story. But Sweet’s script still keeps Nicola Bryant by using her to help keep the various characters seperated. Be it escorting Miss Bultitude for an after dinner stroll, or accompanying the Inspector to a clandestine meetings in the Turkish baths, Peri serves as the sounding board and exposition girl for Year of the Pig, but does so from both directions, answering and asking questions of the secondary characters. Peri also serves as the straight-forward comic relief in this story, including a scene where she demands the Doctor hose her down with a fire extinguisher after being locked inside the Turkish baths and a firm demand that, even though they need to flag down a train, she “won’t wav her panties in the air for anyone.” As an aside, I’ve noticed that Bryant tends to get the more “risque” lines with Big Finish, such as her “bumps in the front” comment from The Kingmaker. Granted, Peri might be the only character who could pull off risque lines…imagine Nyssa making a comment about her underwear. Go on. You can’t, can you?…it’s just a trend I’ve started to pick up as the main range speeds along.
Year of the Pig boasts a fine secondary cast of Doctor Who veterans. Inspector Chardalot is played by Michael Keating, best known for his role as Vila in Blake’s 7 but also as Major Koth in the Eighth Doctor audio The Twilight Kingdom and Goudry in the Fourth Doctor serial The Sun Makers. Chardalot is a larger-than-life Paris detective, or so it seems. Keating, much like Moore, plays his character without going over the top; he brags, but he also backs up what he says and is determined to capture his quarry for his own nefarious ends. His final scene is a highlight, very disturbing and very moving as Chardalot tries to explain just what everything was for. Toby’s companion Nurse Albertine is played by Adjoa Andoh, who is best known as Francine Jones, mother to the Tenth Doctor’s companion Martha Jones. Andoh gives us a great turn as Toby’s long-time nurse, who stays with him even though she wishes she could see more of the world than swanky hotel rooms, and will do whatever it takes to rescue him when he gets kidnapped. There’s a sublime weariness underlying Andoh’s performance, someone who is tired of wandering but wants to protect her charge.
Maureen O’Brien returns to Doctor Who nearly 40 years after playing Vicki, a companion of the First Doctor. Miss Bultitude is a bit scattered brained, but holds a very big respect for Toby, doing whatever it takes to meet him. Take your stereotypical sun-addled British aristocrat, add a reverence for the bizarre, and roll it up with the grace of years of breeding and that’s O’Brien’s performance. Bultitude wants to meet Toby out of respect, not to satisfy some grotesque curiosity. And that really adds to the performance, especially when she goes so far as to apologize to Toby for buying a cheap stuffed statue of an incontinent monkey.
Now, I know that last sentence is a bit odd, but it’s delivered in an honest and forthright manner. Year of the Pig is played completely straight with no “wink wink” by the writer towards the listeners. Sweet’s script isn’t making fun of the “freak shows” of the past in a “look how enlightened we are now” manner. He’s presenting everything exactly as it was, including the ideas and mannerisms of the time (a moment when Nurse Albertine proclaims “and she was coloured” completely threw me for a moment!) with no apologies. It’s all done with the utmost care and respect for the time period, even as the science fiction aspects are slowly poured into the story like layers added to a fine chocolate cake. And this even goes for a scene where a herd of cows explode over the beach like case shot, a true “what the hell” moment that gets explained later in the story.
Add to everything some solid sound work for everything from a seaside resort to a train rumbling through the Belgian countryside, and Year of the Pig establishes itself as a story that demands to be heard. It’s not for everyone, with a slow pace, a long run time, and a major emphasis on talking over action. And of course the concept of “The Sixth Doctor meets a talking pig” might be a turn-off for some people. But for those who belly up to the table and give the story a try, Year of the Pig is an absolute delight, a six-course meal of rich conversation, dense characters, tasty plot lines.
+ A rich story with fantastic dialogue and interesting characters
+ Colin Baker enjoying the hell out of himself
+ Paul Brooke turning in a heartfelt performance as Toby the Sapient Pig
+ A respectful and honest look back at the “freak show” era
– Long run time
– The slow pace may turn off some listeners
– A high concept that might turn off other listeners
Synopsis – Year of the Pig is a true feast for the senses that serves up a rich plot, unique characters, and one of the most memorable protagonists in Big Finish history.
Next up – Four seasons. Four stories. Now close the door behind you, you’re letting the cold in…
Peter Davison is the Doctor in…Circular Time.