Big Finish continues the adventures of Rory Williams (voiced by Arthur Darvill), that unassuming modern lad from Leadworth who, by a remarkable set of circumstances, ended up as an ageless Auton in 120 CE in a shrinking universe without stars.
At the end the Lone Centurion, when Rory abdicated as Emperor and left Rome, he apparently made his way back to Britain. This second set of audio dramas picks up a few centuries later in Wales, where Rory is now living in Camelot and serving as an apprentice to Malthus, the court physician. Since Rory was a nurse in his human life, this is a job he feels more suited to than gladiator or assassin–although he wryly observes that nurses were underpaid even then.
Once and Future Nurse
The story begins with Rory visiting the Pandorica, which he’s hidden in an unspecified location, to chat with his fiancée Amy Pond inside and bring the listener up to date with his situation.
“I haven’t met the king, or queen, and Merlin isn’t around much,” he tells her, but he’s looking forward to meeting some of the famous Knights of the Round Table. Lancelot is the only one he can actually name, so it’s lucky that Camelot’s bravest and most celebrated knight is the first one he encounters.
Lancelot is brought to Malthus injured after returning from his quest to recover the Golden Sigil of Elathorn with a tale of fierce battle with three wyverns. The number of wyverns he slew continues to increase as the story is repeated around Camelot.
Malthus prescribes his usual remedy–an imbalance of humours that can only be righted by removing a leg, even though Lancelot’s wound is on his back. But Rory’s 21st-century knowledge of medicine enables him to save not only Lancelot’s leg, but his life. While tending to the wounded knight, Rory also meets Queen Guinevere, who is, per the Arthurian legends, in love with Lancelot. This Lancelot, however, is not the man of legend and does not reciprocate the queen’s affection. In fact, he develops a crush on Rory, writing poems about him, and bringing Rory forward socially at the court.
It’s at this point that Merlin returns, and he is not the wizard of legend either. Merlin quickly emerges as the villain of the piece, manipulating the ineffective King Arthur with warnings about the evil spells of the unseen (and probably non-existent) Morgaine le Fae.
During his recent travels, Merlin has learned of a “grave matter” that’s brought him immediately back to Camelot:
“A dangerous artefact has been smuggled into Camelot–a box, the size of a hut, an arcane weapon that is supposed to contain the power of a divine trickster… [with] a guardian… a centurion.”
So of course Merlin becomes a danger to Rory once Lancelot’s new best friend draws the wizard’s attention.
Malthus grows jealous of Rory’s medical skills after Lancelot’s life has been saved a couple more times and Lancelot will only accept treatment from Rory; he accuses his apprentice of being a sorcerer and suggests to Merlin that Rory has put the knight under a spell. Then there’s the Roman sword and centurion’s uniform stored away in Rory’s room (Rory claims that the belonged to his father, which suggests that Camelot exists only about a generation after the Romans left Britain in 410).
Once he believes that Rory is the centurion guardian, Merlin attempts to learn the location of the Pandorica, which he wants to use to augment his own powers. This will be a plot thread through all three stories.
To begin with, he tricks Lancelot into taking poison, blames it on Rory, and has our hapless hero brought to the dungeon to try and torture the information out of him. Fortunately, Rory isn’t human and impervious to the torments of the rack. Loving Amy as he does, he probably wouldn’t talk even if it did kill him.
It’s only through Guinivere’s intervention, giving Rory the chance to save Lancelot’s life once again, that he escapes the dungeon and is knighted by Arthur. Merlin is forced to back off… for the moment.
This first story, full of poisons and plots for power, made me worry that this set was going to be a reprise of the Roman Empire stories of the first Lone Centurion in a new setting, but the second one is more in the Arthurian spirit.
The Glowing Warrior
A Christmas tale, loosely based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the midst of the holiday festivities, a man arrives at Camelot with his skin and clothes glowing green. Instead, when he faces the Knights of the Round Table, “I am here to challenge…” is all he gets out before he drops down in agony.
As Camelot’s newly promoted medical expert, Sir Rory tries to do what he can to treat the man’s burning skin, but with one last gasp of “Green Fire!” the poor man dies.
It’s Guinevere who assigns Rory the task of finding out “who is this glowing man and what did he want?”
Rory examines the body and attempts a makeshift autopsy, which introduces the phrase “Camelot: CSI!” Lancelot picks it up and repeats the phrase at intervals throughout the adventure that follows without understanding it.
Rory finds that the man doused himself only minutes before he entered the castle with a mixture of phosphorus, lead, and other nasty chemicals to create the green glow that burned him to death. An important clue to his identity is found in one of his boots: A simple map providing directions from an abandoned tower to Camelot.
Lancelot and Rory embark on their investigation/quest by going to the tower, where they encounter a mechanical knight guarding the gate, though it proves no challenge to them. Inside, they find what Lancelot calls a “damsel bound,” a woman kept prisoner who isn’t very impressed with her rescuers.
She tells them that she is the Lady Lynn. The Order of the Green Fire–“a sect that uses the power of the emerald fire”–attacked her home castle, about three days’ travel away, and captured her brother, Lord Bertilac, before they imprisoned her here. She insists on returning home right away. Rory would prefer to return to Camelot to get reinforcements before facing this Order of the Green Fire, but he doesn’t want Lynn to go on her own. And Lancelot is keen. So off all three of them go to Castle Bertilac.
Along the way, they rescue “a humble minstrel” from a bog and run into one or two more easy-to-overcome problems in the Cave of Riddles. There’s also a clear trail of phosphorus to follow. The path is laid out so plainly that Rory begins to suspect it’s all a trap. And it turns out that he’s right.
Question: Can you really knock an Auton out by bonking him on the head?
This was an amusing story, my favorite of the three. As a former medievalist, I like that it parodies the traditional Arthurian quest–although, apart from the opening scene and Rory getting confused with Sir Gawain at one point, it really doesn’t have much to do with the Green Knight’s tale. Lancelot, who has turned his literary efforts from poetry to history, attempts to record their adventure as it unfolds and provides a running commentary.
There’s a final challenge involving a mechanical, phosphorus-spewing dragon, and Rory has to choose between saving Lancelot or Lynn. But when it’s all over and the truth about the Order of Green Fire is exposed, Rory realizes that they have to get back to Camelot as quickly as possible.
The Last King of Camelot
Rory and Lancelot return to Camelot after their above adventure, and arrive in the midst of a battle.
Merlin has staged a coup; the castle guard is under his spell and are in allegiance with the wizard–“our true king”–who they believe has saved them from the “corrupt” King Arthur.
Arthur and Guinevere were forced to flee and are currently defending their position in the Forest of Ni.* Arthur has been wounded. While he lies around in his tent, moaning for mead, and pretending that his wound isn’t very bad, Guinevere and the non-bewitched knights loyal to the king are trying to take the kingdom back. The return of Camelot’s champion is therefore very much welcome.
Now that Lancelot is back, Guinevere plans an organized attack to recover Camelot and she wants him to lead it. But Merlin sends his guards into the forest and the knights are forced to fight before they’re prepared (they were up late drinking the night before). While Lancelot is a brave knight, he’s an ineffective commander.
It’s Rory who ends up giving the orders, under Guinevere’s direction. The queen has a better understanding of military strategy than anyone else, but the knights won’t take orders from a woman. Rory isn’t used to fighting from horseback, and the medieval broadsword is much heavier than his old Roman sword, so Lancelot gives him constant instructions throughout the battle. Arthur insists on getting up and leading the charge at the last minute in spite of both Rory’s and Guinevere’s warnings that he’s not well enough.
Anyway, they emerge victorious, but Arthur collapses after the bewitched guards have been driven away. We learn just how serious his wound is; it’s become badly infected and antibiotics are a long way in the future. The king’s chances of surviving don’t look very good.
Arthur has no heir. As he pulled Excalibur out of a stone to become king, so the next king of Camelot will do.
How do they get Excalibur back into the stone? Well, they’ll need a wizard to do that.
Rory sees what Merlin is really after: the wizard means to insert Excalibur into the Pandorica to access its enormous power (I’m not sure how that would actually work, but that’s the plan). So our hero will have to deal with Merlin himself.
When they finally march on Camelot, Rory proposes one-on-one combat between Arthur and Merlin to settle who is the True King; it’s the only way the non-bewitched people will accept a new ruler. But he intends to take Arthur’s place in the combat himself.
“Now all I have to do is duel a wizard to the death…”
This is another good story. At the end, I was again afraid that Rory would end up becoming an unwilling king, just as he had become Roman Emperor, but he’s learned his lesson from that experience. This time, Rory puts a stop to the idea by naming a more logical successor to take Arthur’s place. No sword in the stone required.
Merlin doesn’t die, but disappears. There’s just a hint that he’s not finished with Rory and the Pandorica, and might reappear in future stories. In the interviews with the cast at the end of the story, they don’t say where Rory will be going next, but both Arthur Darvill and the writers seem eager to do more with the Lone Centurion.
I’m looking forward to it!
*That’s what it sounds like they’re saying, but if this is a Monty Python ref, the joke never lands. No Knights Who Say Ni! ever show up and demand a shrubbery.