Having recently listened to The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure and being thoroughly confused about the new companion Constance Clarke, I surprised myself to discover that I had Criss-Cross in my collection. Criss-Cross, from Big Finish‘s Doctor Who Main Range, was released in September 2015 and introduces Constance Clarke. It only seemed right to listen to it now.
The story is set in Bletchley Park in World War II, although this feels a little vague early on in the story with the listener having to guess what’s going on. I wish writers/producers of audio ranges would understand that it’s pretty much impossible to visualise people and their surroundings if they don’t make it clear from the off where they are, and when.
Constance Clarke is Leading WREN, assisting all the boffins in the Manor House. One of those boffins is the curious Dr Smith, who arrived unexpectedly some time ago in surprisingly colourful attire. Constance is at loggerheads with Smith because he’s been over-using one of the WRENs in his work.
Others at Bletchley Park discover that Dr Smith’s credentials don’t stand up to much scrutiny and determine that he must be a German spy that needs to be dealt with.
For his part, the Doctor is stranded. His TARDIS is without power, detecting a very faint low frequency distress signal just as it landed on Earth with its power diminishing. It took the Doctor months just to open the door, apparently.
The Doctor explains to Mrs Clarke that he’s undertaking some highly secretive code-breaking, but it’s not until later that he reveals that this has nothing to do with the Germans. He’s tracked down the frequency to an alien out at sea, but he doesn’t yet have enough power in the TARDIS to get there.
In the meantime, strange golden eggs have been appearing on the shoreline, one of which is in the possession of a double-agent, Agent Spark – real name, Robbie Flint. The Doctor is able to use this to power the TARDIS just long enough to reach the alien craft under the water; only they end up on a German submarine instead.
On the seabed, the Doctor discovers an alien race that exists through waveforms. It’s tried to communicate with humans before, but it’s unable to exist on the surface because of the noise of human radio frequencies, criss-crossing the globe and trapping them. Under the sea, it’s quieter and they’re able to make the transition.
The Doctor realises that they’re trapped in a chain. The human radio waves has trapped the waveform creatures, and the alien waveform existence has trapped the TARDIS. He offers to help free the aliens by neutralising the radio frequencies so that they can free the TARDIS and he can take them to some other world.
They agree to this and it’s only when the Doctor’s plan is enacted that he realises he’s been duped. The waveform aliens intend, upon decrypting all of the radio frequencies, to take them all over and control the Earth. After all, the human brain uses similar electrical frequencies to work.
After the unsatisfactory inclusion of Constance Clark in The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure, Criss-Cross is a welcome introduction for this new companion.
It would be wrong to suggest that Clarke is unlike any other 21st Century female companion because she isn’t. They’re all written exactly the same. None of them can possibly do anything wrong because the writers are terrified that someone might object to or be offended by any hint that the female companion isn’t “equal to” the Doctor. Even in the interviews after the adventure, there’s talk of how they created this companion to be “ballsy”, “feisty”, “capable”, etc – which would be just like every single female companion since Ace! And so we end up with a series of identical, bland, uninteresting sidekicks there to tick the boxes of being do-no-wrong solid, sturdy, reliable, can “handle it”, can “take care of themselves” yadda-yadda-yadda, with none of them being even remotely interesting as characters.
Even Clarke’s joining of the Doctor on his adventures is very much her imposing herself on the Doctor, dictating terms of her travel, and setting rules of how they’re going to be companions, and with the Doctor being very much put in his place. I’m not sure why the Doctor would even contemplate such an annoyingly self-centred and irritatingly arrogant person joining him on his adventures but, then, he doesn’t get a say in the matter. Woe betide him if he tries to.
But, that said, Constance Clark is far from being the worst example of this. In fact, being not too dissimilar to Maggie Stables’ Evelyn Smythe means that she’s probably one of the better and more tolerable examples.
To the story itself, it’s quite a low-key adventure with the usual foibles of an audio Doctor Who adventure in that the aliens are, once again, very difficult to understand. They have yet another of those difficult-to-make-out voices that seem prevalent with these adventures.
The plot serves the adventure, but it does so with a certain conceit. A waveform creature that needs to decrypt/decipher frequencies happens to be trapped/released in World War II where the writer can give us a hand-held tour around the wonderful job the ultra-intelligent women did at Bletchley Park. All very valid and commendable, but wouldn’t it have been more challenging if these creatures had been around many years later in the era of WiFi, 4G, NFC, microwaves, cell towers, etc? But that wouldn’t allow us to see how great the women are and how the boffins of the time would be nothing without them, so the Second World War it is then.
What doesn’t really help is that, once again, we have strong female characters that go out of their way to tell us how highly intelligent and highly educated they are for the duration of the story, only to them voice that they’ve no idea what the Doctor is doing when he’s doing something relatively simple. That really doesn’t serve the characters.
Not only that but the writer gives us a strong sense of how important Leading WREN Constance Clarke is to Bletchley Park in general and her WRENs in particularly, but she thinks nothing of driving off with the Doctor and a WREN – presumably leaving a whopping great gap back at Bletchley Park because of her absence. Won’t everything collapse without her? Then she raises that exponentially by abandoning everyone at the end to join the Doctor in the TARDIS “for her own reasons”, saying that she expects to return when the war is over in a year’s time. So she wasn’t all that important at Bletchley Park after all, then?
This is the trouble when writers “talk the talk” with their female characters, having them tell everyone how wonderful they are, but then can’t “walk the walk” and have them not being all that important after all. Actually putting some thought into the character and their position rather than just surrounding them in meaningless shallow adjectives would have served them better.
Anyway, if you take out the desire of the writer to prioritise agenda over adventure, Criss-Cross does end up as an entertaining enough story. The Doctor being stranded and adopting the name “Dr John Smith” whilst working in an office reminds me of Human Resources, the 8th Doctor story in which a similar thing happened. Requiring the TARDIS to be stranded is a plot device, but it serves its purpose.
Paul Thornley plays the double-agent Robbie Flint as even more of a self-serving spiv than James Beck’s Private Walker from Dad’s Army (although the actor says that he was more inspired by George Cole from St Trinians).
Hugh Fraser, who I most recently heard excellently playing the President in Blakes 7 audios, is Flint’s German handler Dr Schwartzmann, to whom he gives more than one layer.
Alistair Petrie plays the sturdy stalwart, but willing to learn, Major Harris – apparently written to have two strips torn off him later by Constance regarding how unintelligent he is compared to her WRENs, which he rises above for the rest of the adventure.
Colin Baker is on excellent form, except when the Doctor is taken down a peg or two by Constance, and is a delight to listen to. His Doctor scythes through the adventure, handling the aliens, making mistakes that he needs to fix – in fact being the all-round multi-layered intelligent yet flawed character that could (and perhaps should) have been used when creating the character of Mrs Clarke.
In all, an adequate story if not overly remarkable.