I have to admit I absolutely love the Novel Adaptations that Big Finish produce; I’ve heard all of them that have been released so far with my favourite being the brilliantly dark Damaged Goods, will this adaptation of a Mark Gatiss book be as exhilarating as the previous instalments in this series? Or is it best for it to be shaded in the night, unseen? (These terrible puns will never go away)
Professor Nightshade – tea time terror for all the family, and the most loved show in Britain. But Professor Nightshade’s days are long over, and Edmund Trevithick is now just an unemployed actor in a retirement home, fondly remembering his past.
It’s the same through the entire village of Crook Marsham – people are falling prey to their memories. At first harmlessly, and then, the bodies begin to turn up.
The Doctor and Ace arrive on the scene – but, with the Doctor planning his retirement, it may be time for Professor Nightshade to solve one last case.
It’s hyping itself up when a story from Big Finish starts with a warning; and that’s exactly what happens in the opening seconds of Nightshade, voiced be a certain Mark Gatiss. Now, I know he’s had some flack from the fandom in the past in regards to some of his more recent televised episodes; but here at GallifreyArchive, every story is unique and has the right not to be judged by other things that may be associated with it. So if you’re here expecting Gatiss hate, then I think you may be disappointed, as, unless Nightshade is genuinely bad; you won’t find it here.
The story itself starts off sounding rather familiar to those who have watched An Unearthly Child and The Daleks as it seems to be echoing a lot of the same themes, same tone and the same nostalgia that those stories now arouse. When we learn that it starts off as a TV show being watched by Edmund, who could only be described as a fanboy, relishing in what appeared to be his former glory. Edmund, it would seem, is the William Hartnell of this tale, an out of work actor who, in his twilight years is appearing to try and relive the magic of a show that helped define him. Whilst with William Hartnell it was Doctor Who, it seems that Edmund was Professor Nightshade.
To me, it’s quite clear that the novelisation of Nightshade was published during Doctor Who’s wilderness years; a time when the future of the show was always uncertain and there were still calls from fans to bring it back; Mark Gatiss has done a wonderful job of mirroring events that I have no doubt were happening at the time of publication; but in a universe where the Doctor and Ace are also real and not characters of an old beloved sci-fi show.
Of course with this being a Doctor Who story though, things aren’t always as they seem; just when you think you’ve worked out what’s going on in the story, there’s another narrative thread that I have to admit is somewhat jarring; which is what makes Doctor Who so… well… Doctor-Who-y. It’s not long before an alien has tried to capture Edmund, believing that he is in fact Professor Nightshade; this appears to be a tale of mistaken identity.
It’s not long before the Doctor and Ace arrive in good ol’ Yorkshire; in 1968 and in the pouring rain. Now I wasn’t born in 1968, in fact it would have been 28 years before I was born, but I can confirm that chances are, if you were in Yorkshire, it would have been raining.
One thing that I noticed that Mark Gatiss had done, was write a character called Doctor Shearsmith, a nod, I’m sure to his friend Reece Shearsmith who recently appeared in Sleep No More; now his has nothing to do with the story, but if Mark Gatiss likes naming characters after his friends, he’s more than welcome to follow me and talk to me on Twitter. A character called Daniel Whitaker in anything would undoubtedly be a great character.
Hearing Ace fall silent at the sight of a man is something that I would never have expected to hear; however in Nightshade her gaze is seemingly stolen by a man called Robin who runs a local pub with his step-dad. I know that it was fairly common for falling in love to be a reason for the Doctor’s companions to leave him, with Susan and Jo being two examples off of the top of my head from the Classic era, and I think that it must have been a bold move for Mr Gatiss to have given Ace a love interest in a novel; I do think it works well with her character though, as we’re used to seeing the tougher side of her, the side that’s not afraid to smash a Dalek with a baseball bat, and seeing her slightly more fragile than normal gives her character a new lease of life.
Another thing that is really interesting in Nightshade is how Gatiss has written the Doctor; instead of him just being this godlike figure, sure of everything and proclaimed Lord of Time, there are moments in which he doubts himself and is genuinely concerned about Ace’s wellbeing. This compassion for his companions is something that has been looked at in excruciating detail since the revival, but it’s really refreshing to hear a Classic Doctor be so caring and selfless. The monologue that Sylvester McCoy is utterly heart wrenching and haunting, hearing the Doctor thinking that it’s been too long, growing tired of the mad, chaotic lifestyle he’s lived for so many lives is beautifully performed by McCoy, and shows a side to the Seventh Doctor’s personality that was rarely seen on screen. This may well have been one of McCoy’s finest and most underplayed performances to date.
After watching the brilliant An Adventure In Space And Time and learning a bit about William Hartnell’s tough later years, I think it’s safe to assume that the actor who brought the Doctor to our screens was almost certainly the inspiration for poor Edmund Trevithick; his grouchy behaviour and bluntness seems to echo similar traits to the late, great William Hartnell.
Having the village of Crook Marsham cut off from the rest of society, it’s up to a gang consisting of a Time Lord, a feisty young woman, a retired cult actor, a landlord’s son and a carer to save the day. What a mismatched bunch, this story is totally Doctor Who (not to be confused with the short lived CBBC series, Totally Doctor Who).
The awkward yet undoubtedly blossoming romance between Robin and Ace is absolutely brilliant and totally relatable; having both fairly recently been a teenager myself and working with teenagers, these awkward and stilted romances are what growing up is all about and Ace and Robin encapsulate it perfectly. I have to admit, the pair of them seem to bond over a fairly uncommon experience that I hope not many of my readers can personally relate to, but it’s bonding nonetheless.
With this particular Novel Adaptation consisting of two episodes both being an hour long, it means we only get one cliffhanger; the cliffhanger in question is very eerie and ghastly; Mark Gatiss really knows how to stir up the Victorian sense of dread…
The second episode doesn’t start where the previous one left off, which is unusual for Big Finish releases of late; however it does give a good sense of parallel stories happening simultaneously, as well as showcasing Ace’s more compassionate side yet again.
Edmund’s character really does seem to develop more in the second act of this tale, with the Doctor being one of the only people who’ll properly believe his madness; after all, the Doctor must sense something familiar about the character that Edmund used to play…
If there’s a common theme in Nightshade, it would probably be morbidity and mortality, (that’s a great name for an episode of Doctor Who actually; Morbidity and Mortality, I’ve written that down) and it shows just how passionate about gothic horror Mark Gatiss really is; I mean Edmund actually starred in a few Hammer Horror films don’t you know? This story isn’t really gothic in the sense it’s all foggy and gloomy constantly, but the themes are definitely very strong undertones in this tale.
As a reviewer who tries to keep as many spoilers out of my reviews as possible; it always makes the reviewing of the second half of any Big Finish release rather difficult; as I want you to get the same thrill that I did whilst listening to the story, going in as blindly as possible. If the first episode was more conventional Doctor Who, then I’d say that the second is much more Hammer Horror on audio, with a smidge of Scooby-Doo, and it works extremely well.
I know I’ve talked a fair bit about the impending relationship between Ace and Robin; and it’s slightly weird to see the full makings of a relationship play out in under two hours, but I have to admit I have a soft spot for this pairing; they seem to be the perfect fit for one another. Another great pairing in the second half is the Doctor and Edmund, who, although aren’t linked through love or lust, share a few very personal moments that are very emotional.
Earlier in the review, I talked about how the Seventh Doctor gets an absolutely beautiful monologue about how he’s tired of Doctoring around the place; and it’s seemingly bookended near the end of Nightshade by a reprisal of one of the most famous Doctor Who speeches ever, retold in a familiar voice; it also leads to a cameo that you can probably work out if you look at the cover art. The cameo isn’t exactly what you might expect though; then again, if you listen to much Big Finish, you’ll know that what you expect probably isn’t what happens in the end.
There’s an extremely big moment that helps to close Nightshade; one that I thought Big Finish might have announced as a fairly big deal; as I think it most definitely is. There are a lot of parallels between Nightshade and the First Doctor’s adventures, and the ending is reminiscent of The Dalek Invasion of Earth; you’ll probably know what I mean by now.
Overall, Nightshade is a great Doctor Who story that focusses more on its main characters than it does on its monsters; which is in no way a bad thing. Mark Gatiss has managed to further develop the characters of both the Doctor and Ace as well as making the listener care deeply about the ensemble cast. If you have any doubts of Mark Gatiss as a writer, then I implore you to listen to Nightshade and be proven wrong; it’s one of the most rewarding listens of recent memory. Kyle C Szikora has done an absolutely stellar job of adapting the novel into a great script, and he too should be highly commended.
The rating system on the GallifreyArchive is achieved on a scale of 1-10.
For Nightshade, I will give a rating of:
Should you want to purchase Nightshade, it’s currently available physically for £14.99 and as a download for just £12.99, which you can purchase by clicking here!