Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Shadow of the Scourge

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #13, Shadow of the Scourge, featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and professor Bernice Summerfield. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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August 15, 2000: The Pinehill Crest Hotel in Kent is hosting three different conventions. A New Age spiritualist group is meeting under the guidance of channeler (and fraud) Annie Carpenter. At the other end of the spectrum, a scientific convention is in progress, featuring an experiment in time travel, hosted by Michael Pembroke. And, oddly, a cross-stitch convention fills a third suite. Brian and Mary Hughes, of Hughes Avionics, are in attendance; Brian is attending the science convention, and Mary the séances. Mary invites Brian to join her, seeking a common interest; he does so, but is skeptical, and ends up in a confrontation with Annie. Both Brian and Annie are shocked, however, when a strange presence does possess them—and leaves a pentagram mark on their right hands…

The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Ace, and Benny to the hotel. The Doctor has called the police regarding a body; but he made the call too early, before the body is actually present. It arrives on a lift, and the Doctor avoids the police and checks the trio into the hotel in Benny’s name. He sends Ace to the time experiment and Benny to the séance. At the experiment, Ace speaks with the creator of the experiment, Michael Pembroke, and witnesses Brian Hughes—who represents a sizeable investment—tampering with the machine. Hughes locks it into a program that is creating an accelerating time-space curve. Ace also finds that everyone has been locked into the hotel. The Doctor, also investigating, finds that there are “663 attendees, more or less”—or, obviously, 666. He also finds that a pentagram mark is on the hand of the dead body, who was a homeless man called Old Will. Benny meets Annie Carpenter and Mary Hughes, and learns some of their background; she deduces that Annie is pregnant, and notes the mark on her hand. As the séance begins again, the alien presence comes through, and inhabits Annie—and also Brian and the dead man—and transforms them into insectile aliens: the Scourge. Three scourge are present: the Leader, the Demi-Leader, and the Bridgehead. The Doctor meets the leader in the foyer, and offers documents: a full surrender of the planet Earth.

The Scourge recognizes the Doctor as a Time Lord. They seem to be wary of the Time Lords; for some reason, they need the permission of the Time Lords to invade Earth. As they hammer out details of the treaty, Ace tries to help Pembroke shut off the machine, which has created the gateway that allowed the Scourge to materialize fully; but he cannot shut it off. Benny arrives and compares notes with Ace; Ace says that the Doctor is pretending to side with the Scourge while he works on defeating them. Meanwhile, the Demi-leader has snuck off and begun killing individuals. The Doctor negotiates with the Bridgehead, as his “payment”, he wants an implant which the Scourge generally use for torture of humans, but which will allow the Doctor to travel the multiverse via his mind only. They have met the Doctor before, as he dreamed on the astral plane; they know he often tries to trap his enemies, but are placated when he says that he typically does that to enemies who are much less intelligent than him.

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The Doctor arrives and confers with Benny, Ace, and Michael; he sends them to wait in his room (#666, incidentally) while he gathers the Scourge together. He credits the Scourge with much of Earth’s religious dogma, including demons, and says that their voices resonate at a tone that humans cannot resist obeying. He also says they have taken the hotel outside of 3D space and into a fractional universe. He intends to “overfeed” the Scourge with human fear and panic—which is their source of sustenance—and then destroy them as they materialize. As part of the plot, he has put a canister of pacification gas in the air system, to be released at the moment of full materialization—thus sedating the humans and cutting off the “food supply”—and at the same time he will cut off Michael’s machine, closing the gate and destroying the Scourge.

However, the Scourge have outwitted him in one regard. Instead of general panic, they are using just one person: Mary. They summon her and give her visions of hell, at the same time killing her with radiation. Her terror as she dies is overwhelming, giving them everything they need to bring their army through to this dimension. Further, owing to their distrust of the Doctor, they have preemptively found and defused his traps; the gas canister is empty, and modifications which he made to Pembroke’s machine have been counteracted. Then, his defeat is finalized: As the Scourge army arrives, the mark of the Scourge appears on the Doctor’s hand, and he begins to transform.

The Doctor puts himself into a trance, halting his bodily functions and pausing the transformation. Seeing that they still have a chance, Ace gets Gary—the organizer of the cross-stitch convention, who is trapped with them—to box her ears, rupturing her eardrums and deafening her, with the assurance that the TARDIS’s medical bay can fix her; it’s painful, but works, and keeps her from being controlled by the voices of the Scourge. They go to find and kill the Scourge leaders. They find the Bridgehead searching for the Doctor—having sensed that his transformation was stalled—while the Demi-Leader spreads more panic to force materialization.

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The Doctor is alert inside his mind, having trapped the Scourge soldier that was trying to possess him—but he has trapped himself in the process. He battles the creature inside his mind.

Ace finds that a portion of the pacification gas remains in the canister. She attacks the Bridgehead, which used to be Annie, and overpowers it; the gas allows Annie to reassert herself and regain control. She is horrified at the changes to her body, but works past it to help them. They take her to the Doctor. She proves to be less a fraud than she thought; she does in fact have some psychic ability, which is what made her available to the Scourge in the first place. When she touches the Doctor, he is able to speak through her. He sends Ace to the TARDIS, and draws Benny into his mind to help him; Benny’s body becomes comatose. However the connection breaks before he can give Ace further instructions. Ace and Michael leave for the TARDIS, unaware that the Leader has also detected it—its power is trapping the hotel in this universe—and is headed there too. Gary is left in charge of Annie, with the gas canister.

Gary hides Benny’s physical form. However, he runs out of pacification gas, and loses control of Annie. The Bridgehead reasserts control. It orders Gary to choke himself to death, and leaves him to die; it leaves the Doctor’s body untouched as well, as it believes the Doctor will soon fully transform.

Inside the Doctor’s mind, Benny finds that it’s not just the TARDIS holding them in the fractional universe; it’s the Doctor. When he trapped the Scourge soldier here, he trapped them all, as they are a hive mind of sorts. She witnesses his past selves, and even a possible future self: the Eighth Doctor (with whom Benny is quite taken). She tries to help him, but ends up feeding his despair, which in turn feeds the Scourge. The Doctor gives in, and loses control completely.

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On the roof, Ace and Michael are trapped between the Leader and Demi-Leader. The Leader tries to get Ace to kill herself, but she can’t hear it; she wounds the Leader. It then orders Michael to throw her off the building.

The Doctor, however, isn’t dead. He let go purposely, so that he could join the Scourge group mind—and now he uses that connection to speak through Michael to Ace. He tells Ace to pretend to fight, and in the process gets her closer to the TARDIS—and she gets herself and Michael inside. Inside the console room, Ace’s ears are healed; the Doctor, in a moment of foresight, had redirected the medical bay’s nanites to the console room. The Doctor uses Michael to direct Ace to remove some safeties from the TARDIS; the fractional universe has certain peculiarities that can be exploited by changing its relative dimensions, and the TARDIS will now do that, giving them an advantage.

Benny returns to her own body, and saves Gary from killing himself. They locate the Bridgehead; at the same time, the TARDIS arrives, warping local space and knocking the Bridgehead unconscious. They help Ace bring it aboard; the TARDIS’s systems and nanites free Annie from the Bridgehead’s control again. The Doctor tells them to get everyone to the foyer; with the alterations to the dimension, they are now equal to the Scourge, and can no longer be controlled by voice. He releases Michael. Ace and the others head for the foyer; but Benny takes Annie back to the Doctor, and has Annie put her back in his mind.

The Leader and Demi-Leader have been partially blinded, as they now cannot control time and space. Still, they are determined to physically fight the humans—and they can still inspire despair. In the physical world, Annie inspires the others to hold on; in the Doctor’s mind, Benny does the same for him. The Doctor overcomes the Scourge in his mind, and they return to their bodies. In the foyer, Gary leads the others to confess their sins and weaknesses to each other, thus removing the Scourge’s ability to use those secrets to inspire despair; he himself is guilty of stealing a large sum of money from the convention funds. The Leader and Demi-Leader grow weaker, and Ace attacks them. She is captured, but the Doctor arrives to help. He confronts the Scourge, and shows them humanity’s other side: hope in the face of despair. He reveals Annie’s pregnancy to Michael, who is—unknown to him—the father (having had an affair with Annie); this adds Michael’s hope to everyone else’s. With their power cut off, the Scourge army has already been banished back to its original dimension. The Doctor offers mercy to the Leader and the Demi-Leader; they refuse. The Doctor speaks to the Demi-Leader’s host, Brian, and gives him peace with his words; the Demi-Leader cannot hold on, and is banished. The Leader’s host, the dead homeless man, cannot be reached; but the Doctor dispels the fear of him among the hotel guests, which was what allowed the Leader to hold on, and the Leader is banished as well. The fractional universe breaks up, returning the hotel to Earth…and it is over.

In the aftermath, Brian wrestles with depression regarding the deaths that he feels he caused. The Doctor acknowledges that even he can’t save everyone; he will bear the guilt along with Brian. He assures Brian that, though Mary is dead, Brian will go on, and marry again, and the Doctor will visit him to remind him of this. However, he tells Ace and Benny afterward that he doesn’t really know that; he just has faith. Michael, meanwhile, plans to tell his wife the truth about his affair, and divorce her to move in with Annie—not a happy ending, but an honest one, perhaps. Gary discovers that he has been officially forgiven by the convention’s committee; he will be separated from the financial aspects, and must pay back his theft, but he will keep his job. Hope, it seems, has won the day.

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I’ll admit to struggling with this audio, not because it was bad—it wasn’t—but because it assumes a fair bit of background that I simply don’t have. In a first for the main range, it is placed less within the television or Big Finish continuity and more within that of the Virgin New Adventures (VNA) novel series; in fact, it occurs between the novels All-Consuming Fire and Blood Harvest. I am aware that Bernice Summerfield has an extensive history of her own, both with and without the Doctor; but this is my first encounter with her, as I have read none of the relevant novels, and have heard none of her audios. Consequently, anything I may say regarding that aspect of continuity is drawn directly from the TARDIS wiki, the Doctor Who reference guide, and the Discontinuity guide. Also in regard to that placement, the Doctor and Ace as represented here are a later version than that found in the television series and the preceding audios; it’s not as noticeable with the Doctor, but Ace has clearly been through much. The aforementioned guides make reference to her time in Spacefleet; even her costume on the cover illustration is that of Spacefleet.

References to other stories are thin on the ground, and mostly refer to VNA stories. Bernice makes reference to Love and War, when she first met the Doctor. Ace’s spacefleet career (spanning multiple stories) is referenced within the audio when she uses a Spacefleet tool to open the lift doors. Bernice also mentions that Ace has once been inside the Doctor’s mind; this is a reference to the early VNA novel, Timewyrm: Revelation, by Paul Cornell, who also wrote this audio. Humans with psychic abilities are a minor recurring theme in the main range so far, appearing first in Phantasmagoria and again in Winter for the Adept; it also appears in various episodes, both past and future. The Eighth Doctor’s appearance as a potential future incarnation—and more specifically, Bernice’s murmur of appreciation for him—is a nod to her eventual romantic feelings for him in the VNA The Dying Days.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about this audio—such as it may be considered a complaint—is the use again of an extradimensional force that wants to invade. It’s a trope that is used very commonly throughout Doctor Who, and sometimes in creative ways; but here, it’s a bit much, given that we had a similar situation in Winter for the Adept, just three stories ago, and in a modified form in The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, one story prior to that. I suppose it would be unfair of me to say that there are only so many possible versions of this trope; this is a very creative franchise, after all; but it’s still possible to overuse it. Another negative for me is that this story comes across as sloppy, chiefly because it tries to do to much. The Scourge are at one point implied to be the source of demonic manifestations in human history, but this is mostly abandoned as the story goes on, along with most of the demonic imagery. The time experiment is quite underused; the Doctor abandons the plan to stop the machine, and in fact it’s never really stated what became of the machine (which should still be running, and dangerous even without the Scourge). It’s never really clear whether the Scourge are actually killing people, or whether they are manipulating their bodies for possession.

On the plus side: This story is a decent introduction to Bernice Summerfield. We get a glimpse of her in action, without needing to know her backstory, as the references are subtle. It’s a bit disconcerting for someone unfamiliar with her to just see that she is suddenly there as a companion, with no introduction; but that’s a minor thing, and hardly unheard of even in the television series (Melanie Bush, anyone?) There’s just enough hint of her past with the Doctor to make me want to look further (which is something I intend to do anyway, though I don’t know when). It’s also a good story for Ace, who—despite her additional history—is still the same character we know and love. She’s matured a bit; I think that early Ace would never have been able to willingly injure herself for the sake of winning the fight as she does here. As for the Doctor, he’s a bit wearier, a bit more pessimistic than we have seen him—but still holding on and holding out. I’ve often been of the opinion that the Seventh Doctor grows increasingly more troubled and tired as he ages toward his regeneration; I feel that this is supported by his characterization in Lungbarrow, the penultimate VNA novel, which carries us to almost immediately prior to his regeneration in the television movie. This story seems to reflect that, although he hasn’t fully given up hope—and of course he has more adventures between now and then. As always, he’s a fascinating and complex character, more so than nearly any other incarnation.

Overall, it’s a good story, but one for which I felt unprepared. It will be interesting to see if the main range continues to explore this part of the Seventh Doctor’s life; if so, I may have to brush up on my VNA knowledge. Still worth a listen—I haven’t found many audios that aren’t—and a fan of the VNAs will appreciate this more than I did. Unfortunately, due to my own lack of knowledge, I have to rank it lower than perhaps it deserves, when compared to the preceding main range audios. Perhaps I’ll check it out again later, when I’ve caught up more.

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Next time: On Thursday we’ll look at Babblesphere, the Fourth Doctor’s contribution to Destiny of the Doctor; and then we’ll return to the main range for The Holy Terror, starring the Sixth Doctor and another unexpected (and new to me) companion: Frobisher, the shapeshifter. See you there!

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below.  This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Shadow of the Scourge

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