Madame Vastra, the prehistoric Silurian lizard-lady and Victorian detective, made her initial appearance on Doctor Who along with her cheeky Cockney wife Jenny and the battle-loving but lovable Sontaran Strax in the episode A Good Man Goes to War. We first meet them as old friends of the Doctor’s, which for a long time led me to believe I’d missed an important episode.
The trio appeared in several subsequent episodes during Matt Smith’s run as the Doctor, as well as in Peter Capaldi’s introductory story. I know I wasn’t the only fan who wanted them to have their own spinoff series, solving bizarre mysteries on the gaslight streets of 1890s London, but a period costume drama with science-fiction style special effects, plus two of the three stars in heavy alien makeup every week was more than the BBC was willing to budget for.
But these expensive production difficulties disappear with audio drama. Big Finish has done four boxed sets of stories under the title of “Heritage,” featuring Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey, and Catrin Stewart as Vastra and her companions. The first set contains three adventures and a bonus disk.
The Cars That Ate London
I’m sorry that this one comes first, since it’s my least favorite of the set. It has some funny moments, such as Strax’s attempts at Cockney rhyming slang and his fomenting a workers’ revolt–not to mention his Sontaran Death Hymn sung to the tune of “My Darling Clementine”–but the plot is reminiscent of The Crimson Horror.
Fabian Solak (voiced by Alan Cox) has opened a factory that produces electric cars using what he calls a clean and renewable energy source. Vastra notes this is remarkable, since any kind of motorcars are still a novelty on the streets of London in the 1890s, and the technologies he refers to are more than a century ahead of their time. There’s also the highly suspicious circumstance that men who seek work at the factory often come out of it as “mindless savages.”
Jenny and Strax attempt to infiltrate the electric car factory as workers, and find that employees are immediately sorted by intelligence into “Factory Floor” or “Management”. Those on the Factory Floor are worked to exhaustion on assembly lines, but people sent upstairs to Management fare even worse.
Mr. Solak, horrified by visions of a pollution-poisoned future, is working to save the world, but the powers behind him only want to destroy it. Siccing electric cars on the population of London is only the beginning. Good thing the Paternosters are on hand to put a stop to it!
A Photograph to Remember
I like this story much better. It may be my favorite of those I’ve listened to so far.
On their day off, Jenny and Strax take in an exhibition of spirit photography. Jenny’s disappointed that the photos look fake, while Strax can detect that the “miasma” seen in each image was actually something present at the time the photo was taken. The man running the show is also suspicious; he seems to be using a holographic disguise. Could he be an alien?
Meanwhile, Madame Vastra has a new case–a widow whose husband was “lost” four weeks ago, and then “found” again, “like a parcel.” He’s sitting in the parlor, quietly doing needlework. While he looks just like Mrs. Parsons’s late husband, he says that he’s Euphemia, Duchess of Buccleuch.
It emerges that Mrs. Parsons had her husband’s photograph taken a few days after his death. This seems weird to Vastra and to modern sensibilities, but it was actually a common practice for Victorians; if you didn’t get around to getting photos of your loved ones while they were still alive, it would be not only your last chance to do it, but a comforting memento of the recently deceased. Anyway, Mr. Parsons returned from the dead shortly after that.
As Vastra’s investigation continues, it emerges that Mr. Parsons isn’t the only case of someone coming back after having a post-mortem photo taken, and they all believe that they’re celebrities (also recently deceased). It’s Jenny who notices that these photos and the ones at the exhibition were all taken by the same photographer.
It’s a fun mystery, but the best part is when the Paternoster Gang meets their counterparts in the Bloomsbury Bunch. The photographer is human, but his partner is an entrepreneurial Sontaran working with another Silurian who, like Vastra, was disturbed from her eons of hibernation by a Victorian public works project but didn’t have the good fortune to encounter the Doctor. While the two groups are obliged to work together to see the spirits of the dead sent to rest, they don’t really get along. This should be an opportunity for everyone to make nice friends, but Jenny is the only one who seems interested in continuing the acquaintance. Even so, there are indications that we will be hearing from the Bloomsbury Bunch again.
The Ghosts of Greenwich
Another good one. Vastra investigates a series of sightings of “spectral agencies” on the streets of Greenwich… except that the ghostly figures are people who aren’t actually dead yet. Twenty-four hours later, that person does turn up dead, or aged as if they’ve gained 40 years in a matter of minutes. This seems to be connected to a man dressed like a gent in top hat and cloak, also seen in the Greenwich streets by his surviving victims.
In the local library, Vastra finds accounts of this temporal phenomena going back to at least the 1700s, although the amounts of time being stolen from people were only seconds, then minutes or hours. Whatever’s been stealing time, it’s getting bolder and stronger.
The investigation leads the team into the Observatory itself, where they discover an ages-old monster that’s been there for a long time, and its human guardian, who’s been there for quite some time too. The Prime Meridian turns out to be more than just an arbitrary geographical line on the globe.
This story has an extra kick of peril in it when our three heroes have 40 years stolen from each of them, which is hard on Strax (Sontarans don’t usually make it anywhere near 60) and on Jenny. Jenny’s “old” voice when she speaks to Vastra is particularly good. You know they’ll get their time back and be okay before the episode is done, but it was the first time in the set that any of the Paternosters seemed to be in personal danger.
The last disk in the set is a audio “making of” feature, where the series writers and production team talk about its development, including how long they’d wanted to do it. There was a long delay in getting the rights to use all three characters–which may have also been an additional impediment to any further television appearances.
The three main actors, as well as several of the supporting performers from each of the stories, talk about their characters. Neve McIntosh and Dan Starkey agree that their characters’ voices were to some extent created and influenced by their alien makeup, and it requires a bit of work to do the voice with it.
At the end, one of the writers says that the overall “Heritage” story arc is going to “go to some interesting places.” In these first stories, there are hints of something “ancient” lurking and waiting to be revealed. I’ve also bought Heritage 2 and 3, and 4 is preordered, so let’s find out what happens next!