Reviewed By: JMChurch25
Review Date: 11/5/18 10:57 pm
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The first in a new trilogy of Seventh Doctor stories in the main range for 2018, "Red Planets" is an alternate history story for Seven, Ace, and Mel that plays with several different threads and ideas. Investigating a strange time ripple, Seven and Melanie Bush land in a modern timeline where a modern socialist republic exists in the place of London and communism hasn't collapsed but rather spread across the world. The scary thing is that Mel and the Doctor not only remember different events but that Mel seems to be under the impression that this is the correct history. Meanwhile, Ace is apparently stuck in Berlin 1961 investigating a strange occurrence in history while saving a dying British spy injured trying to cross the Wall. What do these plots have to do with each other, why is there a spaceship headed to Mars so soon in Earth's history, and most importantly why is there a strange signal transmitting from the moon of Mars itself? Separated into two distinct but interconnected stories with Ace in one and Mel and the Doctor in the other, Una McCormack's script is quite complex with a subtle edge dropping us more or less right at the beginning of the investigation with little initial hint as to what's going on. It also sees the return of the darker Seventh Doctor and the narrative and soundscape reflects this with a grounded atmosphere and a surprisingly realistically portrayed setting. It never feels unbelievable like many 'alternate history' stories and I love how the story directly acknowledges how utterly odd and yet real everything is with its subtle links to the Revolution and fake but real-sounding terms and events. A lot of that believability also comes down to the direction and especially to the reactions and performances of the characters. Sylvester McCoy's Machiavellian schemer is back and especially strong here in his disbelief and questioning investigations into what's going on. There isn't much of the comedic bumbler here; this time he's all serious and desperate for answers. Bonnie Langford's Mel is also really good here and much more subtle than we as a listener are used to. I like how she genuinely believes in this alternate timeline but still struggles and wants to believe the Doctor which comes out here in words and tone. Her performance and rapport with McCoy are very strong and I'm so glad she improved this much after she left the show. Once again if I had to pick a weak link, it would be Sophie Aldred as Ace. She's not as bad as she has been in other stories like some of her other past adventures with Hex in particular and I like how her story ties into what's going on. But I also didn't find her particularly engaging either at least not compared to Mel and the Doctor. Her journey here is important to the narrative don't get me wrong but her plot isn't nearly as interesting as what's going on with the rest of the team. While it does struggle a little bit in the middle with shifting alliances, some lackluster cliffhangers that could've been improved with more drama, and a bit of slower dialogue and pacing, the climate and atmosphere more than make up for it. It takes quite a long time before the big reveals actually happen but where it all ended up reminded me of a more advanced version of the Third Doctor story "Inferno". It proves to be fascinating and a different twist than I was expecting and while it leads to a conclusion that's a little too quick, I for once didn't feel cheated by it. It all made perfect sense and it made for some tense final moments before everything wrapped up. I had high hopes for "Red Planets" but even I was surprised at how good it ended up turning out despite some minor issues. With a strong atmosphere, great simmering plot, and strong darker performances from all of our leads, this one ended up really satisfying my fix for a new Seven story and I think most fans will come away from this one very happy.