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Audio Drama Review


Doctor Who
Iron Bright


Starring: Colin Baker
Publisher: Big Finish Productions
RRP: £14.99 (CD), £12.99 (download)
ISBN: 978 1 78178 827 1 (CD), 978 1 78178 828 8 (download)
Release Date: 31 July 2018

It’s London, 1828, and the father-and-son team of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel are masterminding a dangerous project: the digging of the Thames Tunnel. There’s just one problem – the Brunels’ tunnel is haunted. Every night, a spectral blue lady walks the excavation. Now, the 22-year-old Isambard, eager to step out of his famous father’s shadow, finds himself dealing with not only the supposed supernatural, but also a second unexpected guest – a colourful trespasser who calls himself ‘the Doctor’. Isambard would like to know a great deal more about this strange man and his mysterious blue box…

This adventure is what old-school Doctor Who fans would call a pseudo-historical: a story set in Earth’s past, but with science-fiction elements thrown in. Fans of the revived series, meanwhile, can consider this a celebrity historical, since it features not just one but two famous Brunels, the engineer Marc Isambard (Christopher Fairbank, unrecognisable with a French accent) and his even more influential son Isambard Kingdom (James MacCallum). However, at this point in his career (early in the construction of a tunnel under the River Thames), young Isambard has yet to step out of his father’s shadow. The name Isambard means ‘glittering iron’, hence the title of the piece.

As in many celebrity historicals, the Doctor (Colin Baker) is excited to make the acquaintance of Isambard, whom he has never met before. This may cause concern for continuity pedants, since the Sixth Doctor had a Brunel business card among the collection he consulted in The Two Doctors. Fear not, though, because writer Chris Chapman makes it clear that the card was that of Marc Brunel, one of whose lectures was attended by a previous incarnation of the Time Lord. And don’t worry that the Eighth Doctor subsequently met an older Isambard in the novel Reckless Engineering, for that was in an alternate timeline created by the Eternines.

As is often the case with dramas set in the past, the events have something to say about the present. Just three years into the digging of the Thames Tunnel (the first tunnel ever to have been constructed successfully underneath a navigable river), the venture is already running behind schedule and over budget. Sound familiar? (Think of present-day engineering projects like Crossrail or HS2.) A more significant plot point is the damaging effects of atmospheric pollution.

Unlike most pseudo-historicals, Iron Bright spends a considerable amount of its running time away from its period Earth setting. Almost all of the third episode (of four) takes place in Luciat, the alien location that is the source of the ‘ghosts’ haunting the tunnel. The speech patterns of the populace of Luciat sound a lot like those of young Earth people today, in particular a cry of “Boring!” from leader Rispa (Imogen Church), so it does seem strange that these are aliens rather than humans from the future – but then that wouldn’t have made sense in terms of the plot.

There’s some effective doubling up by the cast, with a particularly good contrast between Imogen Church’s roles as Rispa and the snooty Lady Raffles earlier on in the story. Meanwhile, Becky Wright couldn’t be more different as the endearing housemaid Flo and the spooky Alayna.

Review imageIron Bright is the first of Big Finish’s monthly range to boast the television show’s new logo, which has necessitated a change of design, including the removal of the sidebar that has been a fixture of the front cover for more than a decade. It’s a shame that this change had to take place in the middle of a trilogy. It is also unfortunate that Lee Johnson’s illustration has been forced into a space that it wasn’t originally designed for. See how much better it fits in the original layout, shown here. By comparison, the new design looks rather empty at the sides, and we can barely see the waters of the Thames, which play a major role in the narrative – especially during the disaster movie opening of the second episode.

Another problem is that the villain isn’t very believable, either in her light-hearted attitude to the situation or in her insistence upon sticking to her original plan, seemingly just for the sake of it.

Those quibbles aside, Iron Bright is a well engineered project.


Richard McGinlay

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