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The Christmas Invasion is often considered a classic among the Whovian fanbase, although I doubt many hold it in such high regard because of the Sycorax. Yet Big Finish's decision to have the seventh Doctor face them makes so much sense. Partly because Sylvester McCoy is the perfect voice to utter their name and partly because their race are an example of the dark themes that often plagued Sylvester McCoy's serials. Whatever way you look at it a race that can control species via their blood types is an extremely dark and scary idea; even early Sylvester McCoy such as (one of my least favourite classic series stories) Paradise Towers had a murky undercurrent to them.
In Harvest of the Sycorax, the seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) arrives on a space station in the far future, where he meets Zanzibar Hashtag (Nisha Nayar). Emotions are now considered diseases, controlled through medication and a tablet that diagnoses if somebody is scared, upset, angry.... When the Sycorax (Giles Watling) invade the space station her emotions start flooding back. In an effort to control the human population, the human race has been sold to the Sycorax as slaves except for a set few who are immune to the Sycorax's control. But why are the Sycorax so desperate to access the space station's vault?
Sylvester McCoy is quite simply brilliant in this release. It appears to be the early season 24 Doctor, which can be gathered partly through how the play generally has more comedy from the seventh Doctor rather than his darker persona in later seasons and partly through how Sylvester McCoy amazingly manages to sound as young as he did in Time And The Rani. Sylvester McCoy offers some great light relief to this story and it is a joy to listen to. It doesn't quite reach Colin Baker's performance in Judoon In Chains but it is one that I can see appealing to fans of the new series only (particularly those who hold Matt Smith's 11th Doctor in high regard).
Then there's the other star of this release: the Sycorax. I wasn't amazed by the Sycorax in The Christmas Invasion but I didn't particularly hate them either. In Harvest of the Sycorax, they are much better utilised. Their jibing towards the space station crew when they reveal they can't open the vault is satisfyingly cruel, especially when they are talking in their own language rather than trying to speak English. Thankfully, however, the Sycorax don't talk in their own language for their entire appearance in the audio drama. Once the Doctor becomes involved with them thankfully the TARDIS translation circuits kick in and we can hear them in English. They are just as cruel when they send a text to Zanzibar's tablet claiming to be from the Doctor and lure her into the vault. The Sycorax are delightfully ruthless, the kind of alien race you could imagine living in Ancient Rome and enjoying the amount of blood shed in the gladiatorial arenas.
The issue with the tablets and emotion medication is a great social commentary on modern society too. It may sound similar to the episode Gridlock but the fact that it is medication rather than mood drugs makes it all the more disturbing in my view. It feels like an idea that could fast become a reality with our reliance on tablets to provide us information. If we knew that sadness could be eliminated completely for example I think the vast majority of the world's population would be willing to take prescribed medication for it. It's the way this world is heading and writer James Goss deserves credit for realising that. If Big Finish ever return to the character of Zanzibar I hope it is in a Cyberman story; essentially the more we hide behind screens and use modern technology the closer we come towards acting like Cybermen.
Harvest of the Sycorax probably has the fastest pace of the Classic Doctors, New Monsters audios. The entire adventure breezes by in the space of an hour, meaning it is absolutely impossible to be anything other than entertained by it. This feels like a new series story first and foremost that happens to have a classic series Doctor slotted in. In my view it is definitely a more entertaining story than TV's The Christmas Invasion also: I don't think The Christmas Invasion is as great an episode as many like to claim anyway. For a Doctor debut story, disappointingly David Tennant's 10th Doctor spends majority of the episode's running time in bed. In Harvest of the Sycorax on the other hand, whilst not a Doctor debut story Sylvester McCoy features in the majority of the audio and is just as much a star of the release as the Sycorax.
Overall, Harvest of the Sycorax is a fantastic audio drama release by Big Finish, featuring some brilliant social commentary on modern society's current useage of modern tablets. The idea of emotions that can be removed through medication is suitably disturbing and the Sycorax are utilised better here than they were in The Christmas Invasion. It is a delight to listen to Sylvester McCoy's Season 24 Seventh Doctor, especially when he gives such a solid performance in the lead role. I hope that should Big Finish return to Zanzibar Hashtag in a future release it will be with a Cyberman story as a society where emotions can be removed via medication would make a strong setting for a Cyberman audio.