Doctor Who – “The Haunting of Thomas Brewster”

Thomas Brewster is haunted by the ghost of his drowned mother. But she is not the only apparition to disturb his dreams. Every few years, he is visited by a mysterious blue box…

Helped by his new assistant, the young Scots scientist Robert McIntosh, the Doctor struggles to unravel the twisted knot of temporal implausibilities which bind the TARDIS to Thomas Brewster. Meanwhile, lost in the stews of Victorian London, Nyssa must face a host of spectral creatures gathering in the fog…

Peter Davison is the Doctor in The Haunting of Thomas Brewster

X X X X X

Cast
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Sarah Sutton (Nyssa)
Leslie Ash (Mother)
Christian Coulson (Robert McIntosh)
John Pickard (Thomas Brewster)
Barry McCarthy(Creek)
Sid Mitchell (Pickens)
Trevor Cooper (Shanks)

Written By: Jonathan Morris
Directed By: Barnaby Edwards
Released: April 2008

Trailer – https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-haunting-of-thomas-brewster-273

X X X X X

The Haunting of Thomas Brewster may best be described as “Oliver Twist meets the Bootstrap Paradox…or does it? A story about aliens ensuring their future comes to fruition by messing with the past embraces its audio roots with a wide cast of supporting characters straight out a Victorian Age, some very lovely sound work, a handful of quality performances, and one of the more memorable cliffhangers Big Finish has put together. The story doesn’t quite gel into a perfect mixture. However it gets more right than it gets wrong while introducing another original Big Finish companion whose turn here is a bit thin but holds plenty of future potential.

Thomas Brewster is an orphan. His mother drowned while he was very young. He was raised and educated by the church until “apprenticed” by his harsh schoolmaster to a small time criminal and his crew of street urchins who make a living removing anything valuable from the muck and marsh of the Thames. Life doesn’t appear to hold much for him. However, there are two constants that may yet provide him with a means to leave his life of hardship. One is a blue box that has appeared time and time again throughout his life. The other is his mother, whose ghostly apparition promises that they could be together again. All it would take is a few pieces of scientific equipment, which under her direction could build a device that would bring her back from the beyond. A device that is far too advanced for 19th century London…

Jonathan Morris has written a LOT for Big Finish. Name a range and odds are he’s contributed to it in some manner (most recently a story for the second Survivors Box Set, a haunting story called Cabin Fever about a quarantined Channel ferry). The Haunting of Thomas Brewster is Morris’ third story for the main range, following up Bloodtide and Flip-Flop. Both tales were entertaining and ambitious, although they also suffered from noticeable flaws. The Haunting of Thomas Brewster continues that trend as Morris turns in a story that could have been broadcast as a legitimate BBC radio drama. Via first-person narration, Brewster spends the first two episodes experiencing just how awful Victorian Era life was for the lower class, interacting several stock Dickensian characters along the way (who sadly suffer from thin characterization). The story opens up on a shell-shocked young man trying to come to grips with his mother’s passing while his relatives give various excuses on why they couldn’t possibly take him in. After his uncle forces Brewster to confront his mother’s corpse, they take him to the local church where a stern taskmaster raps his knuckles for getting the slightest lesson wrong. After years of this abuse, Brewster is handed to a riverman as an apprentice – a riverman who’s really a low-level crime boss who uses a group of young boys to poke through the muck and mud of the low-tide Thames for anything that’s fallen off of a trade vessel…or anything that could be picked from the pockets of someone who fell into the river and met an unfortunate end. Throughout this childhood however, Brewster is haunted by a ghostly apparition clad in all black – the ghost of his mother, begging her child for help to be freed from her undead state. It leads to a chilling moment to end the first episode. Brewster’s mother normally appears to Brewster at a distance, calling out for him to help her. He finally gets close to her as he’s paddling across the Thames and has a glimpse of what she looks like…

She had been in the water five days before they found her.

It’s such a simple line that lets the viewer use their own imagination to conjure up this specter’s horrible appearance. It’s one of my favorite cliffhangers Big Finish has pulled off so far, horrifying in its simplicity.

Thomas Brewster is played by John Pickard, best known for his work in the 1990’s BBC sitcom 2Point4 Children as well as numerous appearances on Hollyoaks. Brewster is the archetypical Dickens character and Pickard does a great job playing him as an imperfect being – he’s not ambitious, he’s not too bright, and he has no qualms breaking the law to get what he wants (including pickpocketing the TARDIS key from Nyssa at one point). When Pickard talks about Brewster’s devotion to his mother, it’s not the mother he knew but rather the mother he wants to know, and one does get a sense of just why Brewster is going to all these lengths to bring his mother back. Beyond that however, there’s really not much more to Thomas Brewster that we see during this story. He’s not charming enough to be the Artful Dodger, but not caustic enough to be Adric (which is probably a blessing considering an infamous upcoming story). Brewster makes an impact, but not enough of one that would normally last beyond a singular story…although, the very end of The Haunting of Thomas Brewster makes it clear that Brewster and the Doctor will meet again. Pickard’s turn as Brewster is enough to give me hope that future stories will flesh out this new companion and add a few more pieces of characterization.

On the other side of the coin, the Doctor and Nyssa are caught in a time breach that has drained the TARDIS of power. The presence of a ghostly apparition catches Nyssa’s ear as it sings Apples and Oranges, before its touch instantly sends Nyssa to London, 1867. A young man named Robert McIntosh is there to greet her and brings her to the Doctor, who has spent the better part of a year teaching science at the Royal Society while waiting for her timeline to catch up to his. Posing as a scientist has allowed the Doctor to gather the necessary equipment and materials to repair the TARDIS (although he had to grow a beard as the members of the Society dismissed him as being too young, and his assistant, McIntosh, has been too polite to even mention the blue box sitting in the corner of the Doctor’s office). While waiting for Nyssa, the Doctor has heard of several break-ins to nearby homes and shops. Nothing too valuable or expensive has been stolen, however the list of pilfered items are of a scientific bent. Soon, the Doctor and Nyssa cross paths with Thomas Brewster, who has been stealing these items as the behest of his mother’s ghost. Once activated however, the machine doesn’t bring forth Brewster’s mother. Instead, creatures of fog race through the breach (”A life form based upon suspended gas particles” says Nyssa, ”living pea soupers” cries Brewster) and suffocate anyone they touch.

It’s here that science fiction collides with Charles Dickens, blending together in a respectable and intriguing manner. The fog creatures hail from Earth’s future, but it’s a future that hasn’t yet been set in stone. In fact, the chances of the particular future where the fog creatures control the Earth coming to pass are incredibly small. In order to tilt the odds in their favor, the fog creatures drain the life energy of their future Earth, all the way down to the very rocks, to open up a time corridor to 1867, honing in on the latent physic abilities of Thomas Brewster. With his “mother’s” guidance, Brewster constructs a device to establish a time tunnel between 1867 and 2008. The existence of the fog creatures in Earth’s past will increase their temporal odds of also existing in 2008, helping to bring about their specific future. It’s a very unique mix of the Bootstrap Paradox (as seen in Under the Lake/Before the Flood) and quantum mechanics (all futures are possible, no matter how remote the possibility).

The time travel aspects might be a bit confusing, but not to the Doctor. One thing that stands out in The Haunting of Thomas Brewster is how comfortable the Doctor is with coming up with a solution (or several solutions) to the problem at hand. The Fifth Doctor is a Doctor who always seems to be blindsided by events, but instead of being over his head this time out the Doctor, as fitting for someone who is a TIME LORD, manages to work out, adapt, and change up his methods for fighting the fog creatures. The final method for helping Brewster defeat “his mother” once and for all to send the fog creatures back to a future where they will never exist feels legitimately earned instead of a deus ex machina or chrono ex machina. It helps that Peter Davison (along with Sarah Sutton) both dive into the script and don’t let go. The behind-the-scenes for this story stress how much fun the pair were having. Even with Nyssa’s role sometimes seeing her as the damsel in distress, Sutton gets a chance to play up his character’s scientific side, trying in vain to explain the situation to Brewster and McIntosh (”You had me until ‘Bootstrap’” McIntosh says after she tries to explain a Bootstrap Paradox to him) and having a nice moment where she relates how she coped with her father’s death vs. how Brewster is dealing with his mother’s passing. Davison however REALLY shines. Even when he violates Who canon by landing the TARDIS inside the console room of the TARDIS without any muss or fuss all he can say to Nyssa’s concerns of a time ram is ”Really? I thought it was neat”. There are flashes of anger as the Doctor yells at Brewster for letting the fog creatures back into the world at his mother’s behest and sheer disbelief as Brewster (twice!) steals the TARDIS. But for the most part this is a Time Lord doing what he does best – slowly unravelling the myriad strands of a Gordian Knot of timelines and pulling on the right ones, ensuring the TARDIS shows up where it needs to be in order to solidify the “real” timeline, and feeling a little bit proud of himself along the way.

So, for all the praise, there are a few points where the story falters. The secondary characters, even for Dickens clichés, are thinly outlined and really don’t add anything beyond “oh yeah, this is a Dickens-esque character.” Even Brewster’s partner, who makes allusion to loving Brewster beyond a platonic nature, isn’t given much to work with before he dies at the hands of the fog creatures. The exception is Christian Coulson (a young Tom Riddle from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) as Robert McIntosh, the Doctor’s assistant for the better part of a year who is very put out when he finds out just who the Doctor is that he’s capable of time travel. McIntosh’s reaction is very sincere – anger and disappointment, revealing that once Nyssa is safe he’s done working for or travelling with the Doctor. It’s a nice change of pace from the “everyone forgives the Doctor” cliché that pops up all too often. Brewster’s mother also doesn’t get fleshed out beyond the closing line in the first episode. As the point woman for the fog creatures, it felt like she should have been more involved beyond coercing Brewster and threatening him when she doesn’t get her way quick enough.

The sound work is very well done, setting the stage of Victorian England through lapping water, distant church bells, and the chronic cough of its inhabitants. Where it gets a little weird is the music. There’s a musical motif that moves throughout the story, a decent little ditty that would be fine for use as a scene transition. However, it pops up quite often. Very often. And not in short snippets, but five-to-fifteen second intervals. It threatens to trip up the pacing of the story and risks smacking of padding out its runtime.

Thomas Brewster joins the ranks of Charlotte Pollard as an original Big Finish companion with The Haunting of Thomas Brewster, a fine story that mixes Victorian era motifs and time travel aspects. With some tweaking, it’s a script that would have fit perfectly on the small screen during Peter Davison’s run as the Fifth Doctor. It’s not a perfect audio, with clichéd secondary characters and an antagonist who suffers from being a bit of a blank slate, but the performances and plot more than make up for it. While it may not have been the perfect introduction for Mr. Brewster, it’s one that is intriguing enough for me to look forward to future releases featuring him as a companion.

Well, not ALL his future releases. I’m looking at you, The Boy Who Time Forgot…

Pros
+ Neat mix of the Bootstrap Paradox and quantum mechanics
+ Peter Davidson’s performance highlighting how good a Time Lord is with temporal dilemmas
+ Thomas Brewster has great potential as a character…

Cons
– …that isn’t quite utilized in this story.
– Central villain isn’t much of a threat
– Overuse of the musical motif.

Cobi’s SynopsisThe Haunting of Thomas Brewster introduces a potentially interesting new companion with a story that features Peter Davidson’s strong turn as a Time Lord trying to untangle a Bootstrap Paradox via quantum mechanics.

Next up – Someone has been tampering with time, muddying the waters of history for his own purposes. Time itself is out of joint and the chief culprit is the enigmatic Doctor Knox…

Colin Baker is the Doctor in…Assassin in the Limelight

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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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2 Responses to Doctor Who – “The Haunting of Thomas Brewster”

  1. Tim Bradley says:

    Fantastic review on ‘The Haunting of Thomas Brewster’, one of my favourite Fifth Doctor and Nyssa audio stories! Thanks for writing this! Tim. 🙂

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