I won’t have time to review the full set of The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 4 before the holidays, but the story on the first CD is a Christmas tale so I’ve decided to do it separately and save the rest for later.
This story sees the return of a character from the classic Doctor Who era: that late-Victorian music hall impresario, Henry Gordon Jago.
Jago (Christopher Benjamin) first appeared in the 1977 4th Doctor’s story, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” in which he and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) assisted the Doctor in investigating the strange disappearances of several young women in the Limehouse streets in the vicinity Jago’s theatre. The two made an amusing double act, and there were jokes about a Jago and Litefoot spinoff–which never came to be on television, but did much later become a popular audio series on Big Finish. Jago and Litefoot continued their adventures in Victorian London long after the Doctor had gone on his way. The series only ended when Trevor Baxter passed on.
As this story begins, we learn that Mr. Jago is already acquainted with the Paternoster Gang. He’s on his own this holiday season, since his friend Prof. Litefoot is spending the winter in Egypt, and he’s on friendly enough terms with the Paternosters that they invite him to join them for a Christmas Eve tea.
But before tea-time, Jago–who happens to be dressed like Father Christmas when he calls at Paternoster Row–has a charitable act to perform. He intends to put on a magic show for the entertainment of the children at an orphanage and needs some specially impressive new magic tricks or illusions to use.
Strax helps out by taking him to Old Smallpiece’s Emporium. The entirely dubious Old Smallpiece happens to be the Sontaran’s favorite underworld informant, as well as a merchant of alien artefacts that are out of place in London in the 1890s.
While Mr. Jago is “well versed in alien matters,” because of his work with Prof. Litefoot, he seems rather naïve as he chooses a magician’s wand and the Top Hat of Surprise (or a “a short-range transmat,” as Strax identifies the latter).
Old Smallpiece has a standing arrangement with Madame Vastra that she allows his business to continue as long as she has first dibs on any alien technology he discovers so that she can confiscate anything dangerous before it falls into the wrong hands. But with a dodgy character like Smallpiece, it’s no surprise that he doesn’t always abide by this agreement. He’s holding an auction that very same afternoon.
When Strax brings home a copy of the catalog for this auction, Madame Vastra sees one item in it categorized as a “fossil.” She recognizes it as a dangerous creature from her own era, called a gribolite.
Vastra hastens to attend the auction and obtain this item. It seems that half the alien inhabitants of London (a sizable group) are also there, plus one other veiled lady with a Russian accent who tries her best to outbid Vastra; Vastra only wins because she has more money. A successful private consulting detective can bring in a pretty good income.
She brings her purchased gribolite home, where her worst fears are confirmed. The ancient creature is “not as dormant as it seems.” A warm environment will bring it back to life–Say, for example, if the box it’s in is left sitting carelessly on a hearth before a blazing fire at tea-time.
Jago has brought another guest to tea with him, a young woman named Alice Ayling who claims to be an old friend of the absent professor whom Jago can’t recall ever meeting before. Alice is interested in “esoteric flora” and has heard that the famous Madame Vastra has a collection of botanical specimens from prehistoric eras. Vastra does have such a private garden of plants from her own time, which she calls her “Siluretum,” but she doesn’t let strangers see it. In spite of this, Alice is dying to have a peek (and perhaps pocket a sample or two).
Once the gribolite awakes and escapes, it multiplies at an alarming rate and before you know it, they’re all over.
The party is soon separated, with Strax and Jago barricaded in one part of the house, while Vastra and Alice have a confrontation just outside the Siluretum.
Fortunately, Strax has set up a number of defensive weapons to protect Paternoster Row, even ones he never thought he would have an opportunity to use. He’s particularly delighted to engage the “most pointless” of all his weapons, one which will flood the cellars of the house with the very best acid.
“Even in my wildest imaginations, I never dreamed I would use this. Yet here we are!”
Unfortunately, Jenny and Old Smallpiece are trapped in the scullery, which is in the cellar. An attempt to rescue them before only leads to Strax and Jago being trapped as well.
As acid begins to seep into scullery and the foursome faces almost certain doom, Vastra is faced with her own dilemma: freezing the gribolites will destroy her Siluretum, the only place that reminds her of the long-ago Earth she once knew. She’s ready to do it, but Alice has other ideas.
“The only thing that can save us now is a first-class deus ex machina… That only happens in the theatre.”
It’s a fast-paced story once the gribolite warms up and gets moving, with a number of amusing lines. Mr. Jago fits in well with the Paternosters and one can believe they are previously acquainted. I especially like the little in-joke where Jago and Strax use the dumbwaiter to escape, referencing a similar incident in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”; Jago declares that he’ll never get into one of those contraptions again.
Alice Ayling’s punishment for her desire to steal rare plants seems a bit harsh, but as far as I can tell she doesn’t die from it and perhaps she manages to get down after the story ends to celebrate her own happy but repentant Christmas.