Doctor Who – “Son of the Dragon”

I am Prince Vlad III – son of Vlad the Great, and sovereign and ruler of Ungro-Walachia and the duchies of Amlas and Fagaras.

But since my father’s murder, I have had another name.

I am Dracula.

Peter Davison is the Doctor in Son of the Dragon.

X X X X X

Cast
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Nicola Bryant (Peri)
Caroline Morris (Erimem)
James Purefoy (Dracula)
Douglas Hodge (Radu)
Barry McCarthy (John Dobrin)
Clare Calbraith (Maria)
Steven Wickham (Soldiers)
Nicola Lloyd (Ayfer)

Written By: Steve Lyons
Directed By: Barnaby Edwards

Trailer – http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/son-of-the-dragon-265

X X X X X

Son of the Dragon is a top notch story: a historical serial that dives into one of the more intriguing eras in history. The focus of the tale is on two royal figures who are portrayed in grand fashion, but the story’s strength comes from its honesty as it lays out history exactly as it was; perhaps not exactly as it happened, but it doesn’t attempt to sanitize the era or make things more “modern.”

It’s 1462, and Peri, Erimem, and the Doctor land in Wallachia (now part of modern-day Romania) in the aftermath of a massacre; a village burned, livestock slaughtered, and villagers impaled at the stake. Wallachia has been invaded by led Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mehmed II. At the Sultan’s side is Radu the Handsome, who takes the trio under his protection. For the village wasn’t burned by the forces of the Sultan, but rather by the Prince of Wallachia who viewed the inhiabitants as sympathizers to the Ottomans. It’s a Prince whose name both the Doctor and Peri know very well – the Doctor recognizes him as Prince Vlad Tepes, while Peri is petrified as the very thought of the man who history will come to call Dracula…

Steve Lyons has penned numerous novels and comic strips for Doctor Who. For Big Finish, he’s written the Eighth Doctor story Time Works as well as two stories with historical settings – the Pompeii based The Fires of Vulcan and Colditz set during the dying days of World War II. Son of the Dragon is a “pure” historical, with no alien or science fiction elements other than the presence of the Doctor and his companions. As a history buff whose parents keep telling him that he should have been a history teacher (they also keep telling me that I should have been a constitutional lawyer), Son of the Dragon is an instant favorite of mine. I’m a sucker for historical stories, with Erimem’s first two stories Eye of the Scorpion and The Church and the Crown among my personal favorites. The era from 1451 through 1481 saw the Ottomans bring about the end of the Byzantine Empire via the conquest of Constantinople and the Empire’s expansion into the Balkans via the conquests of Wallachia, Bosnia, and Albania. Son of the Dragon focuses on the invasion of Wallachia in 1462, where Mehmed invaded in response to Vlad II killing several Ottoman envoys. Lyons lays out the basic history of the conflict in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the listener, focusing on the Wallachian side via Vlad Tepes and the Ottoman invaders through the actions of Radu the Handsome. Even those who know the history of the conflict will be impressed by how easily Lyons’ script outlines the situation without heavy-handed exposition. For such a script to work however, it has to be carried by strong performances to ensure the explanations feel natural, not forced. Fortunately, the actors who play Erimem and Vlad do a wonderful job in this regard.

However, this ends up sidelining the Doctor and Peri for much of Son of the Dragon’s runtime. Both of them are present and get a good amount of “screentime,” but for much of the second and third episodes the duo are barely relevant to the overall plot. From the very beginning of the story, Peri takes the line that Dracula is an evil jerkface, bouncing between her fears regarding the Dracula of legend and Vlad Tepes being JUST a bit of a dick. Nicola Bryant’s performance goes from “quaking in fear” to “bitching about how Erimem could possibly relate to Vlad,” forgetting that both are old-school royalty, with a good bit of complaining about “having to sew to earn my keep.” When the fourth episode comes about, there are glimpses of the Peri we’ve come to know, willing to impulsively charge into the breach and sacrifice anything, including her life, for her friend. But until that point, all Peri does is TALK about rescuing Erimem while not doing about else about it. Like, the Doctor takes a bit of a back seat in this story – almost literally in the third episode, as in true Fifth Doctor form he spends a good bit of the episode’s run time incapacitated due to being stabbed by an unknown assailant (and in one of the story’s fault, we never find out WHO is behind the stabbing). The Doctor insists repeatedly to Peri that history has to take its course, whether or not she (or he) likes it, and that might just mean Erimem is meant to serve as Vlad’s wife, or quite possibly even die. Peter Davison sells the concern about keeping time stable, adding an era of uncertainty to Erimem’s final fate (especially since listeners at the time wouldn’t know where or not this WAS Erimem’s final story, adding a bit of meta-tension), and when the fourth episode begins the Doctor has decided to do what he does best – screw with destiny by ensuring history comes to past. Davison, much like Bryant, is great during the fourth episode, especially when he brushes aside Vlad’s threats after spending three episodes putting up with them. But leading up to that episode, the Doctor is simply stalling for time it seems, not coming up with a plan so much as waiting for a plan to come up with him.

Son of the Dragon is a story where Caroline Morris shines as Erimem. One of the neater concepts about Doctor Who has always been how the Doctor and his companions interact with historical figures and common citizens in a particular time frame. For the most part, historical figures are portrayed as either truly villainous or “enlightened” for their time, which means the values they hold are closed in line with the “modern day” values of the show. So you have someone like Lady Vastra who is comfortable in proclaiming her homosexuality in a time where such a proclamation could very well have her arrested, or the High Priest Autloc from the First Doctor classic The Aztecs who was uncertain on the concept of human sacrifice. Such characters are important to history and can often change it for the better, but they’re still DIFFERENT from the rest of society, aberrations in the grand scheme of things. Erimem has been a fine companion to the Doctor and Peri, establishing a “loving sister/grumbling father” dynamic with them, with her more enlightened views sometimes causing both trouble (The Council of Nicaea) and being of assistance (The Church and the Crown). Here, however, the fact that Erimem is royalty truly hits home as she relates to Vlad’s plight of outsiders and relatives conspiring to steal the throne, but more shockingly is agreeable, albeit it hesitantly, to his harsh methods in dealing with criminals and traitors because Egypt had similar methods. Indeed, Erimem’s two big verbal throwdowns with Vlad aren’t over difference in historical opinions or methods – they’re from Vlad keeping Erimem at arm’s length and then from Vlad refusing to see reality for what it truly was, letting vengeance blind him. Erimem doesn’t argue history, she argues personally, and Morris does it VERY well. Erimem sacrifices for her friends, but she doesn’t let reality get in the way of the truth either. There’s very little if any moral hand wringing or attempts to change Vlad – it’s about getting him to see the truth about what’s in front of him. I’ve talked a lot about Erimem and not Caroline Morris, but Morris is just superb with how she handles the dialogue, Erimem’s royal upbringing tempered just a bit via her travels with the Fifth Doctor and Peri. It’s one of Morris’ best Big Finish performances to date, hands down.

Opposite of Caroline Morris is another fine actor, James Purefoy, as Vlad Tepes. Purefoy is known for playing Mark Antony in the HBO series Rome and Joe Carroll in the Fox series The Following, and I’m intrigued to see him in the upcoming movie High-Rise. The first thing that grabbed me about Purefoy was the voice he uses to portray Vlad – even in his “happier” moments, there’s a low, unnerving pure of menace that threads through every word. Vlad is charming, but one has to wonder just how much of that charm is from the listener’s unconscious fear of offending this man? Purefoy, who says in the liner notes that he took the job because of his love for Troughton and Pertwee as well as his ten year old son saying “The Doctor meets Dracula, how could you say no,” absolutely CRUSHES it in the part. He manages to walk the delicate line between “doing evil to prevent evil” and “a man doing what he thinks is best for his country” without descending into pure ham. There’s no doubt that Vlad is the villain of the piece, a man who has done some truly horrible things, but the listener isn’t smacked upside the head with that fact – they’re allowed to come to that incredibly obvious conclusion on their own, but there’s still that tiny moment of doubt that comes from Purefoy’s amazing turn. It’s simply one of the best performances for an antagonist in Big Finish’s history, hands down.

There is one scene, however…Vlad cuffs Erimem during an argument. It’s not Nekromanteia levels of uncomfortable, but it’s still very shocking and might offend some listeners. Granted, this is where I could make the case of “that’s the way men treated women back then,” especially in light of an earlier scene where Vlad had one of his mistresses taken away for torture because of her jealousy of Erimem and subsequent attack on her. History is often messy and Son of the Dragon isn’t pulling any punches. Still, it’s unnerving and listeners should be warned that it’s coming.

There are two other aspects that help elevate the story. One, the sound work is above and beyond the standard quality output for Big Finish. From the sounds of the Night Attack to men impaled on stakes to the sounds of a 15th century city, mixed in with the sounds of a carriage on cobblestones and a pen scratching across paper, the post-production by Gareth Jenkins (mixed in with an equally impressive classical score by Andy Hardwick) immerse the listener in Wallachia and all its dark intrigue. The second aspect is one that’s very often overlooked – the cliffhangers. All three cliffhangers throughout Son of the Dragon are nailbiters, each one worthy of being on television. I don’t want to spoil anything, but they range from an introduction, the delivery of a jaw dropping piece of information, and the threat of execution mixed in with some truly horrifying screams. Whereas I normally listened to a story over four days, three if I’m enjoying it, I tore through Son of the Dragon in one, because each cliffhanger gripped me to the point that I had to know what happens next. This was to much laughter to some friends of mine who were wondering why I spent ten minutes outside the pub listening to the story’s climax…

To sum up how I feel about this story, I have to compare Vlad’s portrayal in Son of the Dragon to the presence of Oliver Cromwell in The Settling. Both men are considered among the most vicious monsters in history (though both have their share of fanatical supporters), but where Cromwell walked through The Settling without any real consequence, Lyons’ script makes it very clear Vlad’s actions will have repercussions down the line, even if they aren’t show in the story itself. That’s what ties this story together as a historical, that time and history march on BEYOND the ending credits. Steve Lyons and James Purefoy join up to give listeners an absolutely astounding story that’s brutally honest, a bit uncomfortable, and roundly entertaining. Son of the Dragon is a standout story and one that I highly recommend.

Pros
+ James Purefoy as Vlad Tepes
+ Caroline Morris brings her “A-Game” as Erimem
+ Three tense cliffhangers
+ A nice mention of various myths regarding Dracula dropped into conversation
+ Honest history…

Cons
– …but brutally honest history
– A scene were Vlad strikes Erimem might turn off some listeners

Cobi’s Synopsis – A top-notch and honest historical with three great cliffhangers, Son of the Dragon features a strong turn by Caroline Morris as Erimem and James Purefory with an absolutely superb performance as Vlad Tepes.

Next up – Four one-part stories by Jacqueline Rayner, Robert Shearman, Joseph Lidster, and Paul Cornell…

Colin Baker is the Doctor in…100.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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