Doctor Who – “The Condemned”

“Dr John Smith – you’re under arrest. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court…”

Manchester, 2008. The TARDIS lands inside a run-down tower block, beside a dead body – which leads to some awkward questions when the Doctor is found there by the police. Made the prime suspect, how can the Doctor prove to the no-nonsense DI Patricia Menzies that this is not the open-and-shut case it seems, and that she’s actually investigating the death of an alien?

Higher up in Ackley House, a girl named Maxine watches the Doctor being taken away in a squad car. Someone wants her to find out what happened in that room, and isn’t going to be happy if she doesn’t come up with the goods. But she’s got hold of someone who knows – someone very important to the Doctor.

A deadly conspiracy is at work – one whose effects will be felt far beyond the walls of Ackley House…

Colin Baker is the Doctor in The Condemned.

X X X X X

Cast
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
India Fisher (Charlotte Pollard)
Anna Hope (D.I. Patricia Menzies)
Will Ash (Sam)
Sara De Freitas (Maxine)
Lennox Greaves (Dr Joseph Aldrich)
James George (Slater)
Diana Morrison (Antonia Bailey/Jane)
Stephen Aintree (D.C.I. Turnbull/Goon/Police Officer/Guy in Gym)
Steve Hansell (P.C. Blackstock/Police Officer/Guy in Gym)

Written by: Eddie Robson
Directed by: Nicholas Briggs
Released: February 2008

Trailer – https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-condemned-271

X X X X X

The Condemned could have been the moment Big Finish jumped the shark. By taking an established character with strong ties to one Doctor and pairing her up with another Doctor, the company was taking a huge risk that the new partnership wouldn’t work and long-time listeners would tune out of their stories. However, the team-up provided a breath of fresh air to both characters. Their first adventure would see the Sixth Doctor and Charlotte Pollard slowly feel each other out as they find themselves caught up in a mystery involving a dead body, a salty DI, aliens hiding out on Earth, and a crumbling tower block that seems more alive than the desperate individuals living inside.
Although her efforts to stop the Cybermen had led her to be marooned on a dead planet in the distant future, Charlotte Pollard never lost hope that someone, anyone, would come rescue her. And when the familiar blue police box materialized in front of her, her hope was rewarded. Until she met the Doctor. A curly-haired man in a blue coat, this Doctor was immediately suspicious of the stranger who seemed to be hiding something. That mystery is soon swept to the side by another one – the discovery of a dead body in a locked apartment inside a decaying apartment building. The Doctor soon finds himself as the number one suspect in the eyes of DI Patricia Menzies, while Charlotte finds herself held captive by one of the tower’s residents. There are a few people who want to talk to Charley – one who wants to know what happened to the murder victim, and one who wants nothing more than for Charley to help him escape the high rise’s dark, lightless basement…

2007 was a time of transition for Big Finish. The year began with Blood of the Daleks as Paul McGann began his stand-alone range of one-hour adventures patterned on the revival series of Doctor Who, and it ended with long-time companion and Big Finish original Erimem leaving the Fifth Doctor in The Bride of Peladon. Both Doctors would go on to find new companions in due course (Eight meeting up with Lucie Miller and Five meeting Amy during the Key 2 Time story arc as well as one Thomas Brewster further down the line). It could have been easy for Big Finish to play it safe and continue their standard output, mixing classic Doctor/companion teams as well as newcomers to the TARDIS. The company chose however to try something unique – to take an existing Doctor and pair them with an existing companion of ANOTHER Doctor. Companions meeting other Doctor isn’t a new concept to Doctor Who, but normally the companion has experienced the regeneration of the Doctor first-hand or has the Doctor on hand to explain how he can have two faces in two place at once.

The Condemned would see the idea of a companion meeting a different Doctor take a different path. At the conclusion of The Girl Who Never Was, Charlotte Pollard believed the Doctor was dead at the hands of the Cybermen, while the Doctor believed that Charlotte had left him in Singapore and was moving on with her life. When the TARDIS appears in response to her distress signal, Charley rushes inside expecting to find her dashing, romantic Byronic Doctor. Instead, she’s taken aback by a control room she doesn’t recognize and a Doctor she’s only seen in pictures. It’s a great opening twist from veteran Big Finish writer Eddie Robson that’s taken to the next level by both Colin Baker and India Fisher. On one hand, there’s the Sixth Doctor, who had just seen Evelyn Smythe leave the TARDIS (after the events of the forthcoming Industrial Evolution) and finds himself sliding into the old habits of being a little prickly, a little smug, and a little paranoid. On the other hand, there’s Charley who knows that the Eighth Doctor never mentioned meeting her in a previous incarnation, and understands the dangers of revealing information about someone’s future to them. What listeners get is a great opening scene that serves to confirm that this. Instead of the over-his-head adventurer and his willing partner in crime, this pairing consists of a companion with a secret and a Doctor who doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

Charley, a veteran time traveler, has to act like she’s brand new to the idea, “amazed” that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, whereas the Doctor is bewildered at how casually Charley reacted to the presence of a blue police box appearing in front of her. From the very beginning, the chemistry between Charley and the Sixth Doctor is radically different from that between Charley and the Eighth Doctor, and make no mistake the chemistry is there. It continues throughout The Condemned’s runtime as Charley (Charley Smith, or Charlotte Smith as she mixes up the two) keeps changing her story, making the Doctor more and more suspicious of her, which causes him to confront her at the end of the story. Once again, Charlotte thinks quickly and blurts out why her story is so strange and she can’t remember her own name – amnesia.

(As an Eighth Doctor fan, I had to pause the serial because I busted out in laughter for a good thirty seconds)

But the central mystery of The Condemned takes precedence over the Strange Case of Charlotte Pollard. After arriving in a locked apartment with a dead body, the Doctor can’t possibly understand why the local police would arrest him and consider him the primary suspect rather than let him assist them in the investigation! This is a post-Evelyn Sixth Doctor, so Colin Baker allows a little bit of his more cynical and acerbic nature shine through. He doesn’t see Charley as a possible threat so much as she is a riddle to be solved, but he still pokes and prods at her story during their scenes together (which are actually few and between in his story). The bigger problem however is the murder victim and how it ties into an unknowing spouse, a mysterious doctor, and a potential alien invasion. Baker plays up the Doctor’s inquisitive and deductive side in The Condemned, allowing the police to fill in the blanks he provides while he focuses on the much larger picture. In the end, it comes down to nothing more than simple monetary gain. Hearing Baker stress the word “greed” is a noteworthy moment in and of itself.

India Fisher has played Charlotte Pollard for years by this point and her performance is just as solid as a long time Big Finish listener would expect. Whereas she’s cagey and a bit flustered while trying to both reveal and keep information from the Sixth Doctor, her bold and brave personality, honed from her travels with the Eighth Doctor, is front and center during this story. Normally, new companions tend to find themselves in distress. It takes a bit of time for them to acclimate to the hazards of travelling with the Doctor and usually they find themselves needing to be rescued. In Charley’s case, she picks up right where The Girl Who Never Was ended in terms of characterization, that of an “Edwardian Adventuress” vs “Damsel in Distress.” She actually spends a good bit of The Condemned’s runtime as a prisoner, being held against her will on behalf of a third party who also wants to know what exactly happened to the murder victim. Instead of sitting around however, Charley does everything she can to escape, trying to convince her captor to let her go as well as physically trying to pick the lock on the apartment door. But there’s also her altruistic side as she spends a good bit of time on the phone talking to a young man who finds himself trapped in the basement, alone in the dark, and desperate for someone, anyone, to come and rescue him. It’s a very tense scene as Charley manages to make it to the basement, only to find out that the darkness is absolute, almost as if all light is being eaten, and instead of pushing on she turns and flees. It’s a moment that humanizes Charley, showing that she still has fears even after travelling with the Doctor after all this time. I also like the fact that Charley doesn’t bringing any emotional baggage with her from her time with the Eighth Doctor, a man who she had fallen deeply in love with in a platonic sense and parted with on not-so-great terms. As a time-traveler, she seems willing to let the past be the past and instead focus on the future. It also doesn’t bog down listeners who have not heard any Eighth Doctor serials, keeping the focus simple instead of swamping them with continuity.

As for the story itself, The Condemned holds up very well for the first three episodes. A man has been murdered, but there’s much more to him that meets the eye, including a wife who had no idea why he was in that tower block and a doctor for whom the victim is one of just many exotic patients. This portion of the plot is standard science fiction fare – aliens walk the streets of Manchester, either as refugees hiding out or as businessmen looking to make their fortunes on this backwater planet. The alien portion adds a bit of interest to the proceedings, with one alien looking to conquer the Earth through…evil architecture. Indeed, the alien in question possesses a weapon that can break a sentient being’s physical structure and merge them with a building, giving them complete control over everything inside; they can lock doors, cut off phone lines, flood a room with natural gas, and so forth. On one hand, it’s a neat idea. On the other hand…evil architecture is a very hard sell for a villain to make, and the final act turns into a series of threats, double-crossed, and resolutions where the main villain get their comeuppance, but his accomplices and other savory types get relatively happy endings, including the character who kept Charley hostage as well as the murder’s accomplice.

Even though the concept of an invasion of sentient buildings to conquer the Earth is a bit far-fetched, the scenes set inside the possessed tower block itself are handled incredibly well. One could make the case that the title The Condemned could apply to both the old and decrepit apartment building as well as its inhabitants, common people who have hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to turn. There’s a sense of desperation in the air from the moment the Doctor and Charley step out of the TARDIS, thanks to Robson’s dialogue and the sound work from David Darlington. The inhabitants of the block are desperate enough to jump at any chance to make a buck even if means keeping an innocent woman locked up. Darlington works with both sound and lack of sound to create the atmosphere of the crumbling building, with slight echoes and a lack of ambient music creating a sense that these rooms and corridors are empty or filled with the barest of furnishings. When sound is utilized, it serves to enhance the scene. A creaking door adds a sense of tension to an escape attempt, while a ringing cell phone causes a moment of surprise. Outside the tower block, the sounds of a car chase through the streets of Manchester and the towel-snapping sounds of a male locker room also stand out.

The supporting cast does their job and does their job well, but none of the secondary characters really break out beyond their characterization as “angry building” and “police chief that plays by the rules.” There is one exception however and it’s a pretty big one. The role of Detective Inspector Patricia Menzies is played by Anna Hope, best known as the cat-nurse Hame from New Earth and Gridlock. Cynical, salty, and with an answer to every single one of the Doctor’s disarming comments, Manzies is a rarity in Doctor Who – a competent female authority figure who knows her job and is willing to let the Doctor do his, but is also willing to tell the Doctor to stand aside and let her do HER job. While she can’t quite wrap her head around aliens and time travelers, Manzies knows a crime has been committed, someone has to be held accountable to it, and it’s her responsibility to bring that someone to justice. Hope does a great job bringing the weary Manchester detective to life, with Manzies proving memorable enough to appear in two future audios where she once again encounters the Doctor.

I approached The Condemned with some hesitancy. As a huge fan of the Eight/Charley dynamic (C’rizz? Who’s that?), I was concerned that this new pairing would fail due to a lack of chemistry, or even worse retread the same ground in terms of stories and characterization. Shame on me for not having faith in Big Finish, further shame on me for not having faith in India Fisher, and the most horrible and soul rending shame for not having faith in Colin Baker. The Condemned isn’t a perfect story, however it’s a pretty damn good one thanks to its atmosphere and the presence of DI Manzies. Most importantly, it serves as a great jumping off point for Charley and the Sixth Doctor as each one brings something to the dynamic – Charley’s experience with time travel vs. the Doctor wondering what she’s hiding and letting his curiosity get the better of him by allowing her to travel with him. If you’re looking to jump into Big Finish, The Condemned is a great place to begin. All you need to know is this. Charley’s met the Doctor before, just not THIS Doctor…

Pros
+ The Six/Charley (Baker/Fisher) dynamic
+ Great atmosphere through use of sound
+ Detective Inspector Menzies

Cons
– A weak plan to take over the Earth from the central villain
– Some of the antagonists get undeserved “happy” endings.

Cobi’s SynopsisThe Condemned creates a desperate atmosphere that helps to overcome the standard plot and off-putting “take over the world” scheme, but it’s the initial meeting of Charlotte Pollard and the Sixth Doctor that rightfully takes center stage.

Next up – If anyone knows any just cause or impediment… speak now. The lives of billions depend on it…

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in…The Dark Husband

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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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