We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re looking at Main Range #14, The Holy Terror, starring Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, and Robert Jezek as comic-strip companion Frobisher, the shapeshifting penguin private investigator. (Now THERE’s a sentence that could only exist in Doctor Who!) It’s my first encounter with Frobisher, as well as his first appearance in Big Finish. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
The story cold-opens on an imperial drama: God-Emperor Pepin VI (the empire is not named, only its leaders) has died, and his son, Pepin VII, is succeeding to the throne. Of course, there can only be one true god, which means that if Pepin VII is god, his father must have been a false god—making everyone who worshipped him a heretic and worthy of death. Unfortunately, that includes everyone. The fallen emperor’s wife, Empress Berengaria, is arrested and taken to the dungeons. On the way, she meets her second son, the bastard Childeric, who wants to depose and usurp his brother. He’s come to gloat, but there’s just one problem: Berengaria doesn’t care. In fact, she’s bored and disappointed by the whole situation.
The Empire isn’t the only place with problems. Frobisher has been playing with the TARDIS’s dimensional stabilizers, which govern its internal geometry; the Doctor finds him in the bath, and scolds him for it. It’s irrelevant now, though; the TARDIS is acting up anyway. The Doctor and Frobisher can’t figure it out; against all odds, it seems the TARDIS is just…miffed. It may not be able to speak, but it gets its point across: It’s tired of being taken for granted, and now it’s going to take them where IT wants to go.
Pepin VII is met by his high priest, Clovis, and his royal scribe, Tacitus. Tacitus has a unique job: he records the emperor’s deeds and words, producing scriptures—a new bible for a new god. It’s too bad that the new god-to-be is so nervous… After the meeting, Clovis meets Childeric, and agrees to help him depose Pepin—after all, it’s traditional! With the time of the coronation—when Pepin will ascend to godhood—at hand, everyone gathers in the throne room, with crowds watching. Clovis crowns Pepin, who doesn’t feel any different. He performs the accompanying miracles, which are—to any outside observer—just cheap tricks. Pepin can’t handle the charade anymore, and declares he is not actually a god; Childeric steps in to try to take the throne, leaving Pepin at the mercy of the crowd. He is saved, however, when a real miracle happens: the arrival of the TARDIS.
The scanner at first reveals only a white void outside, but then resolves into the throne room scene. Frobisher comes out, with the Doctor following…and they are immediately proclaimed as heavenly messengers. Pepin’s deity is confirmed, against his protests—protests which, I should add, offend his wife, Livilla, whose life is also on the line. The Doctor and Frobisher help Pepin to his rooms to rest. Meanwhile, Clovis meets with Childeric to work on his plans. Pepin and Tacitus are beginning to explain history to the Doctor and Frobisher; but Pepin’s guard captain bursts in and shoots him (with a gun. In a medieval setting. Just go with it.) Pepin is unharmed. He confirms the guard captain’s faith and sends him away…then reveals that the gun was stocked with blanks. After all, why waste live ammunition on a god, anyway? Besides, the assassination is a ritual, like everything else—just tradition, as in the ancient texts. The Doctor decides he’d better see the texts.
It seems that many things are “just tradition”. The Emperor is always god, but always dies and is succeeded, thus proving that he wasn’t really god; his faithful and his wife are always executed. One son is always good, the other—the bastard—is always evil, and always conspires with the high priest to betray him, but they are always defeated and executed. Frobisher is stunned by it all, as is the Doctor. The texts are strange, as well; every god’s bible is full to exactly its last page, with no waste, and all are in the same writing: Tacitus’s handwriting. Meanwhile, Livilla visits Berengaria and tries to side with her to put Childeric on the throne; but Berengaria pushes her away, stating she doesn’t really want to live, and looks down on the whole situation. Furious, Livilla beats her badly.
Clovis takes the Doctor and Tacitus to Childeric, who forces them into the catacombs under the castle. He doesn’t need the Doctor, only Tacitus, but lets him observe anyway. He reveals he has a son, whom he has kept hidden from everyone except a tongueless servant, so that he will be uncorrupted by anyone and will develop into a true god. However, the moment has come years earlier than planned; therefore he will take the throne until his son is old enough to rule. Meanwhile, the crowd has become a mob, destroying statues of Pepin and threatening his life…until he admits he is no god, but claims another god is present. He presents their new god: Frobisher, the “big talking bird”!
Childeric intends to trap Tacitus with his son, so that he can chronicle his life as he has done with other gods (sans tongue, of course), until the child can take the throne. The Doctor, he intends to kill. Meanwhile, Frobisher tries to return to the TARDIS, but it has locked him out. Therefore he accepts the throne—chiefly to save his own life—and orders that Pepin not be executed for heresy. (This, of course, is highly unconventional.) He announces he will make other changes, too. Livilla goes to Childeric and curries his favor by telling him that Frobisher has been proclaimed god and emperor (Emperor penguin? Hmm). Childeric decides that he must release his son on the world ahead of schedule.
As Frobisher unsuccessfully tries to introduce parliamentary democracy, the guard captain comes in for the ritual assassination. Unfortunately, thanks to the previous criticism, he’s using live ammunition this time. Frobisher, however, is unharmed; the bullets pass through him without injury, leaving holes in the throne behind him. Now EVERYONE is confused.
Livilla, Childeric, Tacitus, Clovis, and the Doctor all return to the catacombs, and Childeric releases the child. Tacitus reacts terribly, as—unbelievably—he recognizes the child’s face. The child speaks to them—which it should not be able to do—and reveals it does in fact have godlike power. It transforms Livilla into an infant, then kills her. Its tantrum then nearly destroys the castle, causing Tacitus, Clovis, and the Doctor to flee. Tacitus claims to have killed the child, many times, but it keeps coming back—and suddenly, the Doctor knows what is going on. He returns to speak to the child.
Frobisher learns that the first statue of him is already up; it doesn’t match exactly, but it’s close. Seeing the artist’s terror, he changes his own beak to match the statue—another miracle, they assume. He learns that in previous eras, the artist could be killed for such a failure, and he pardons the artist. He announces that nobody will die for him, and is advised that a prisoner—Berengaria—already awaits execution. He goes to her; Pepin begs Frobisher to heal her injuries—and to Frobisher’s own shock, he does.
The Doctor and Childeric confront the child, which kills the tongueless servant. It just wants to kill everyone except its father, with whom it will rule; and it has no conception of a universe outside the castle. The Doctor now knows that of everyone here, only the child can harm him or Frobisher. Childeric thinks this is madness, and opens his mind to merge with the child—but the child discovers Childeric is not his father. It tears him apart. It asks the Doctor who its father is. The Doctor asks it to lower the pitch of its voice…and when it does, the voice becomes that of Tacitus.
The child is not a god; it is a trap for one man, designed to torture him. The Doctor refuses to share the information, but the child forces itself into the Doctor’s mind. It sees memories of the universe, and is terrorized by them; it believes only the castle really exists. It disappears, and the Doctor rushes to find Frobisher.
Berengaria talks with Pepin, and finally—at long last—begins to heal some of the wounds and misunderstandings in their relationship. They are interrupted by the child, which demands worship from them; Pepin tries to defend Berengaria, and is killed at once. Berengaria refuses to worship the child, and it kills her as well—which is what she wanted anyway. Meanwhile, the Doctor encounters Clovis, who wants to help—but the Doctor knows Clovis will betray him. It’s not his fault; after all, the Doctor now knows that no one here is real, except the child and its father. They were created by an uncreative man, and their personalities are stereotypical, quite against their will. He leaves Clovis behind. The child appears and kills him, and in Clovis’s final moment, he does indeed betray the Doctor—he points the child after him.
Tactitus reaches the throne room, where Frobisher waits, and hides behind the throne, ranting in terror. The child is coming, killing everyone it finds en route. The Doctor joins them there, and reveals that everyone else is dead—or rather, never existed. This place is a place of fiction—a created world, a kind of illusion. It’s dimensionally transcendent, like the TARDIS, which is why the TARDIS came here; it needed a place to recover from the damage Frobisher had done when messing with the dimensional stabilizers. The place is a prison for Tacitus, who once committed a terrible crime: he murdered his own child. The entire cycle is a fantasy in which Tacitus is prisoner, participant, and planner: he relives his son’s reality through the child, which tries to kill him, only for him to kill it. The cycle has repeated for centuries, so long that he doesn’t even remember (until now, anyway); it will go on forever if he doesn’t break the cycle.
The child arrives, and Tacitus confronts it. He admits to madness; he must have been mad, to kill the child he loved—and he did love him, and does. The child loves him too, but is compelled to kill. Tacitus has a knife, and can kill him, as he has done before; but against the Doctor’s urging, rather than drop the knife, he gives it to the child, which kills him instead. The cycle is broken, and the castle disappears.
The Doctor and Frobisher find themselves back in the white void, but with the TARDIS waiting, its damage now fully repaired. It’s a sad ending, but one from which they have learned—or so they hope. They board the TARDIS, and move on.
Everything I have to say can be summed up in one sentence: This is not your usual Big Finish. The company itself has referred to this story as a “side-step into a 2D universe”, by which they mean the reality of the Doctor Who comics. Frobisher had never appeared in the audios prior to this story, but was a semi-regular in the comics, especially the Marvel Doctor Who comics; I admit I only know the basics of those comics, and haven’t read any of them as yet, though I hope to do so. He will appear again in one more audio, The Maltese Penguin, which I hope to review at some point. For those not familiar, he’s a Whifferdill, a shapeshifting race; although they may have a base shape of their own, he doesn’t seem to be bound to it, and can choose to remain in a form at least semi-permanently. His preferred form is that of a large penguin (hence my “emperor penguin” pun). He is a private investigator by trade; his portrayal here is the stereotypical noir take on a PI, complete with faux-gangster accent, but then, that’s perfect given that this story uses stereotypes as a theme. Frobisher is a delightful character, once you accept that this is by no means a serious story.
Or, is it? It comes across as very humorous on the surface, but there’s some drama to be had underneath. It’s quite sad that the majority of the characters turn out not to be real; even though they are played for laughs, and even though they are unabashedly declared to be stereotypes from the beginning, it’s easy to become fond of them very quickly. In a way, they each become little case studies of the type of character they represent—and of course, that has bearing on real life, as we all experience these kinds of feelings at some point. Berengaria is a study in hypocrisy versus genuineness; she’s aware she’s a caricature, and she’s bored with it, and craves authenticity, even if it means dying. Pepin is a study in adequacy, or rather, inadequacy; he has so much to live up to (plus some serious daddy and mommy issues), and knows he can’t, and he’s driving himself crazy trying to escape it. Clovis is a study in temptation; he understands that it’s a part of his character, but he wants to be more and better (and unfortunately, he fails). Childeric is a study in the definition of evil; he knows that he is supposed to be evil, but he questions what that really means, and where the line is between ambition and evil. He revives the old questions of “are villains really evil, or just misunderstood?”
The story took its darkest turn for me with the revelation of the child and the reason for its existence. I am a father of three children, and the thought of a parent murdering their child never ceases to upset me. I can’t imagine what it would be like to sink to that level, and I hope I never know; I’ve had nightmares in the past about harming my child by accident, let alone on purpose. It would have been simple to portray Tacitus as a pure criminal, perhaps deluded; but instead he’s cast as insane. Sometimes that may be a stereotype in itself, but here it comes across as a mercy to him; when finally confronted with his own guilt, he’s horrified too. He’d change it if he could; he’s not a monster, just a horribly broken man. It’s almost too bad that it ended with his death; I’d like to see him have been redeemed.
There’s a significant (and yet unspoken) link between this story and the classic serial The Mind Robber. This environment isn’t declared to be the Land of Fiction from that story—in fact, I’m sure it isn’t the Land of Fiction—but it’s just like it, complete with the white void framing the internal reality. We are never given any indication of how this came about. Who imprisoned Tacitus? How long has he actually been here? Where is this in relation to the real universe? We may never know. There’s some evidence it may be on (or at least originating from) contemporary Earth; there are a number of concepts and references to Earth history, if an abridged version of it. Even the names are of European origin, and in some cases refer directly to historical figures of note.
Other references—beyond the existence of Frobisher, which links to the comics—include the Dimensional Stabilizers, which date to Planet of the Daleks at least. Gumblejacks—the fish that Frobisher is hunting (in projection form) in his first scene—were mentioned in The Two Doctors. We’ve had other references to a bath in the TARDIS, notably in the novel Lungbarrow’s early scenes, and with Leela in The Invasion of Time; if it’s actually the TARDIS pool in question, we’ve had still further references. Frobisher mentions having been an Ogron at one point; Ogrons first appeared in Day of the Daleks.
I really enjoyed this story. I kept an eye open for any dislikes, but it I didn’t find any; ordinarily my dislikes consist of things that are out of character or continuity, or perhaps portrayed badly, but as this entire story is out of character and continuity by definition, I thought it best to be pretty forgiving. Frobisher in particular is highly entertaining, and I wish he had more Big Finish material. It’s almost going to feel like a letdown when we return to more serious material next week.
Next time: On Thursday, we’ll look at Destiny of the Doctor #5, Smoke and Mirrors; also, with the Christmas holiday approaching, I will be offline for most of the weekend, and therefore I hope to post my NuWho rewatch post on Thursday instead of Friday. By the same token, I’ll be late with the next Main Range post; I hope to post on Wednesday instead of Monday next week. After that we should be back on schedule. The next Main Range post will look at #15, The Mutant Phase. See you there!
All selections 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.