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Doctor Who - All-Consuming Fire
Adapted by Guy Adams,
from the original novel by Andy Lane
Directed by Scott Handcock
Produced by Cavan Scott
Big Finish Productions, 2015

Stars: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Lisa Bowerman (Bernice Summerfield), Nicholas Briggs (Sherlock Holmes), Richard Earl (Doctor John Watson),
Hugh Fraser (Sherringford Holmes), Anthony May (Baron Maupertuis), Aaron Neil (Tir Ram), Samantha Béart (Mrs Prendersly/Azazoth), Michael Griffiths (Ambrose), Guy Adams (K'Tcar'ch)

Holmes and Watson were brain and heart, one cold and logical, the other warm and emotional. Between them, they made a whole human being!

Bernice Summerfield

Last November, during the Australian leg of the Doctor Who Festival, a fan asked (the now departing) executive producer Steven Moffat if we might ever see a crossover between modern Doctor Who, with Peter Capaldi’s rendition of the Time Lord, and Sherlock, Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s modern day interpretation of Sherlock Holmes starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Moffat was unequivocal in his answer – “Definitely no” – and did not elaborate, much to the disappointment of the adoring masses.

A few weeks later, Gatiss emphatically told Entertainment Weekly that a Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover would happen “over his dead body”. Gatiss revealed more behind his reasoning but given this is the same man who once vowed never to do an episode of Sherlock set in the Victorian era – at least until The Abominable Bride – the likelihood is the fans of both franchises will continue to live in hope that Gatiss changes his mind.

Whatever the truth of the matter, with Moffat about to embark on his final series of Doctor Who and the fourth series of Sherlock as well, it is more likely than not that the prospect of a crossover (if indeed there ever was one) has well and truly receded. Moffat and Gatiss will be too busy on both to give the idea a second thought.

Fans of both franchises (almost one and the same thing, as it’s likely many fans of Sherlock were also Doctor Who fans to start with!) will therefore have to accept the recent Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventure All-Consuming Fire as a consolation prize. This is an audio adaptation of the 1994 Virgin Publishing New Adventures novel by Andy Lane which paired the Time Lord’s seventh incarnation (as played on TV by Sylvester McCoy) with the consulting detective from 221B Baker Street. In the original novel, the Seventh Doctor, along with companions Bernice Summerfield and Ace, joined forces with Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson to repel an extra-terrestrial and extra-dimensional threat from the dawn of time (which back in the mid-nineties was a recurring, and unfortunately tedious, feature of the NA novel line after the success of the 1989 Doctor Who TV serial The Curse of Fenric).

For this audio adaptation, Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred reprise their signature roles as the Seventh Doctor and Ace from the TV series while long-time BF afficionado Lisa Bowerman again portrays wise-cracking archaeologist Professor Bernice Summerfield. They’re joined by prolific BF alumni Nicholas Briggs and Richard Earl who reprise their parts as Holmes and Watson from Big Finish’s corresponding range of Sherlock Holmes audio serials.

Just as the novel sought to capture the first person prose of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legacy stories by installing Watson as narrator, ably assisted by Professor Summerfield’s diary entries, so Guy Adams’ audio adaptation has Earl’s Watson, with support from Bowerman’s amusing Bernice and Briggs’ laconic Sherlock at various stages, recount the plot in the first person. This means the serial is an eccentric mesh of spoken word narration and cast dramatisation (not unlike BF’s Doctor Who Companion Chronicles serials) but this does not in any way detract from the story’s tempo or mystery.

Guy Adams delivers a faithful adaptation of Andy Lane’s original book, with only a few noticeable omissions (at least for eagle-eyed fans who have read the novel). For example, the opening chapters chronicling the meeting between Holmes, Watson and Pope Leo XIII are discarded for the sake of pace (the meeting is prefaced in the audio serial’s pre-titles sequence but occurs “off-screen”), the cameo of Holmes’s nemesis Professor James Moriarty is omitted altogether and the conclusion of the story is less confronting and violent than the original (for the sake of spoilers, it is best not to divulge why). For some reason, from my one and only reading of the original novel more than two decades ago, I recalled this tale being more complex than it actually is (certainly the Virgin New Adventures used to pride themselves on being “too deep and too broad for the small screen”!). However, Adams has managed to distill All-Consuming Fire for audio almost effortlessly and considering the story was supposed to eschew the traditional Doctor Who four-part format in its hey-day, this audio adaptation fits that structure quite tidily.

Once again, the combination of BF’s high production values and its performers do not let listeners down. Although the Seventh Doctor’s prominence in the literary and audio versions of All-Consuming Fire is limited by the reliance on Watson and Bernice’s first person accounts, the character is a darker, manipulative and more brooding presence in the novel than Sylvester McCoy’s more humorous, mischievous portrayal in the audio (you can tell from McCoy’s humorous snort in the scene before the pre-titles sequence that he has a whale of a time with the script – especially when the Doctor informs the chief librarian Ambrose in the Library of St John the Beheaded that he filed a dead mouse under “M” on the rationale it was supposed to be there!). McCoy’s performance is more reminiscent of his turn as the Doctor in Season 24 (albeit more restrained) but it does distinguish the Time Lord from the earnest, no-nonsense Holmes.

Nicholas Briggs – who continues the superhuman feat of managing a family life with overwhelming professional commitments that include voicing Daleks for Doctor Who on audio and TV, acting on stage and television, all whilst being engaged extensively in a range of other behind the scenes roles across BF’s audio output – effortlessly steps back into the shoes of the iconic detective. While he delivers a less abrasive, less agitated characterisation than Maestro Cumberbatch on TV, Briggs’ Sherlock is nevertheless sharp-minded, quick-witted, impatient and supremely confident. He’s also not without his own moments of humour. When Watson in one scene queries who would frequent a drinking establishment at ten in the morning, Sherlock responds: “Burglars mainly. They keep anti-social hours.” He also has a great exchange with Ace in the last quarter of the serial when he takes offence at being nicknamed “Sherley!”

Fans hoping for much anticipated fireworks between the Doctor and Holmes (especially in the vein of a Capaldi/Cumberbatch match-up) will be disappointed. This is not the fault of McCoy and Briggs. Thanks to the structuring of the original novel, the Doctor and Holmes have very little “screentime” together and while there is competitiveness between the two (especially in their initial meeting when Holmes is flummoxed by extraterrestrial soil on the Doctor’s gaiter), there is actually a fanboyish adoration of Holmes on the Doctor’s part that Holmes simply finds irritating. “You are quite, quite brilliant!” the Doctor tells Holmes in the dying moments of the play. “I know!” is Holmes’ rather cheeky riposte as he turns his back on the Time Lord!

Earl and Bowerman also deliver great performances as the Doctor and Sherlock’s associates. Earl’s Watson is the quintessential upper class Victorian gentleman, truer to the authorial voice of Conan Doyle’s legacy stories than to the more modern interpretations by Martin Freeman and Jude Law in Moffat/Gatiss’s and Guy Ritchie’s interpretations of Holmes. Lane in the original novel and Adams in this adaptation, however, send up his Victorian sensibilities by pairing him with modern women like Bernice and Ace, eg when Bernice asks Watson out to dinner –  “You ’re terribly forward!” “Letting you buy me dinner isn’t being forward! I’ll get to the forward bit depending on how nice the dinner is!” – and when he is confronted with Ace’s one-piece bodysuit which he admits to finding more “pleasing” and practical than obscene.

With McCoy and Aldred’s roles in the story rather limited, and with her own role consigned to the second half of the tale, Bowerman literally steals the show as Bernice – herself the female equivalent of Watson with her upper class English disposition. Although much of Bernice’s character works because of strong writing and characterisation, Bowerman still manages to infuse Bernice with plenty of humour and mischief, eg “Before [the Doctor] crouched, but still brushing the ceiling, was a terrifying looking creature – and I say that as a woman who’s woken up next to a few!”Just as Watson has to contend with phenomena over the course of the serial that defies scientific explanation – spontaneous human combustion, fire-breathing manservants, winged extraterrestrial creatures – so Bernice is also confronted with sights in 19th century India that are in many respects more “alien” than the worlds she has visited over the course of her career. “Have you got any idea how they treat women in this period?” she berates the Doctor upon first meeting him in India.

The other performers in the serial are also impressive, in spite of their characters being one-dimensional and underused. Hugh Fraser, who greatly impressed as the villainous Federation President in BF’s Blake’s 7 audio series, appears as Sherlock’s elder brother Sherringford Holmes and oozes charm and authority, while Aaron Neil and Anthony May play antagonists Tir Ram and Baron Maupertuis respectively. A special mention also goes to Samantha Béart, another promising up and coming actor in the BF acting stable. She took this writer completely by surprise with her portrayal of hapless cat lady Mrs Prendersly. Béart delivers such a regal and Victorian performance in this play that she is unrecognisable from some of her previous roles across BF’s audio output.

The audio adaptation of All-Consuming Fire is a fun, entertaining diversion from the rest of Big Finish’s recent Doctor Who output. Although the original novel was quite dark in parts and the plot isn’t the most original in Doctor Who fiction, the humour underpinning the Doctor and Bernice’s performances, coupled with Watson’s wonder at the incredible things he witnesses over the course of his narration, means the audio adaptation is not full of the angst or earnestness that underlies some of BF’s more recent Doctor Who releases (particularly The War Doctor and Doom Coalition boxsets).

Of course, if you’re a devout Sherlock and Doctor Who fan, the pairing of McCoy’s Seventh Doctor with Briggs’s Victorian Holmes may never assuage your thirst for an on-screen meeting between Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. If so, then you need to approach All-Consuming Fire with a more open mind – that is, leave your trenchcoat or sonic screwdriver at the door, don a deerstalker cap or grab a question mark umbrella and let the story unfold. You may be pleasantly surprised at how well the premise works and how much you enjoy it!