Doctor Who Review: Blood On Santa's Claw
I’ve been wanting to come back to writing these reviews for a long time, and I am very happy to be back at Christmas to review one of my most highly anticipated Big Finish stories. I still remember seeing the cover of this story on the back of Doctor Who Magazine some time last year and I was blown away by how exciting it looked especially considering I am already a massive fan of anthology box sets; and I feel a set of writers all contributing their own tone and personal styles to a darker Christmas story is the recipe for the perfect story. But this is where we come to my first major problem with the box set; I feel somewhat patronized and cheated due to the fact that each story was said to be from a different writer, but each name is in fact an alias. Quite literally in some instances; the third story is credited to Andrew Lias (Alias) as are the other two out of four except with names like Sue Denhom and to me it feels like the production is way to happy with itself for thinking of this when it really isn’t as clever as they make it out to be.
I would understand if you were to think I am overreacting to something that is meant to just be a silly joke, but this box set was sold to me as four different writers collaborating on a project. I never really like it when there is just one person involved with a project whether that be Doctor Who or otherwise and I think multi episode series should be a collaborative project as it means ideas are seen by various different creatives and a writer is not swamped by the amount of writing that they have to do. A good example of a writer losing control of a narrative due to the quantity of writing is Steven Moffat’s Jekyll which had little to no input from script editors or executives leading to a massive mess in terms of story.
Something similar happens in this box set, as the stories are too focused on delivering the twist in the fourth part than to give any sense of identity to those that precede it. For example in the second story while there were problems with the pacing, as half an hour was nowhere near long enough for the world building and character work to be effective, there is a sense of where the story is going as the Doctor, Peri and Joe are investigating a place that does designer babies in which couples can see all of the children they could have and pick one to adopt. It definitely felt like the story was leading towards a conclusion in which the Doctor manages to stop the operations which take place to rid of the babies which don’t get adopted but then fifteen minutes through the kids turn into werewolves and that becomes the problem that they have to overcome. I’m not even kidding, there is no reference to werewolves before this point and the story just expects you to go along with the twist while you don’t get an explanation as to why this happened until part four. This is despite the fact that part four was disguised to be a separate story meaning the audience are just meant to expect this strange and disorientating twist and go without explanation completely. This is where we get to my second major issue with the box set and that is the arc and everything it does from both a narrative stand point and a structural one. But before I get onto that I would just like to mention some of the things I do like about the box set.
Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant both feature in this box set and they are having one of their best dynamics. Naturally they are both giving award worthy performances but this was to be expected from Big Finish at this point, but even the scripts give them good moments together. The sixth Doctor seems to have taken on a bit more of a kind and slightly odd grandfather role rather than the angry uncle you only see at Christmas in the TV series and Peri seems to have grown up to the point where she is willing to tell the Doctor what she thinks of him in a great moment which deconstructs the way in which the Doctor introduces himself in a way in that even I didn’t consider. But what is probably the best moment of the four stories is in the final moments in which Peri is crying at everything that she has had given to her but taken away in such a short time and asks the Doctor if he could hold her while she cries and he gently says he will and the silence in which he has nothing to give but comfort and understanding is one of my all time favorite moments from this TARDIS team. That being said it isn’t all the perfection some stories give this team as they are joined by a random third wheel called Joe who is decent enough but it is obvious from the start that he is only here to create conflict about Peri and the Doctor’s relationship. I don’t dislike him by any means but in the long line of forgettable third wheel companions he doesn’t do much to stand out other than the twist reveal which I will get onto later. Another thing which I really liked about this box set was the world building of the places they all go to. The first part has a brilliantly realized world in which certain religions are only allowed if enough people follow them, but at this point in history religion was changed due to the fact that anything you believed in was counted for a short while including Shakespeare and Santa Claus and the opening hook of the story being Santa found dead on an alien world is a product of these great ideas.
That being said the short run time means that some of the ideas the writer wanted to include for plot convenience feel more like contrivances than world building and the story ends with the Doctor very conveniently appearing in his TARDIS after being shot by a history gun, which yes is as ridiculous as it sounds. This is a shame because some of the characters and ideas are genuinely fantastic but just feel wasted so the story could be over quicker. Both the good and bad things follow through into the second part with the concept behind the Designer Babies being very interesting and topical as well as providing a good hook for the episode which is like an out of context moment for mid way through the story. But this time the short run time and the series arc ruin these fantastic ideas and none of the positives I had for the opening of the story get satisfying pay offs for the sake of a twist. These twists reduce the replay value of these stories as none of the world building or characters get satisfying enough pay offs to allow this. The third story which is also technically the final story due t the fact that it is a secret two parter starts off on a similar note with a good hook with the TARDIS disappearing and a party that has been going on for centuries, however things immediately begin to fall apart with an unoriginal reveal of it being a prison followed by my main and biggest problem with the story which comes as the cliff-hanger. I will be spoiling this story in my final paragraph and while I wouldn’t recommend this story based on my own experiences; I learned the hard way that it has a very passionate group of fans, so bear that in mind.
So the story begins with a ridiculously over the top exposition dump about which was made worse by the fact that the same wolf howling sound was going off in the background constantly. The wolves in question being Were-Lords; Time Lords genetically engineered for the war with the Great Vampires before hiding on Earth to manipulate events and somehow eventually infiltrate the Doctor’s life and eventually allow an invasion to happen. I struggle to remember exactly what it is that happens because there are some massive lapses in logic that I will get into in a minute but worst of all is that the idea is not as interesting as it makes itself out to be with the Were-Lords seeming more like something a ten year old would make up for their fan fiction. This is not a bad thing I mist stress and on paper manipulating the Doctor’s interference in order to get what they want works but it is really the execution which fails it here as there is no thematic or cultural relevance to this Were-Lords and while that is not desperate for a villain to work, the stories building up to this all contributed to the political actions of the world that allowed concepts like Designer Babies to take place and all of which made open and obvious political messages to facilitate this twist. There is a tonal juxtaposition here which does not work and just felt like it was just going for the surface level idea of surprising the audience than creating stories that can be revisited on their own merit. There is also a key moment where they make a big deal about them finally having beat the Doctor and even going so far as to bite him in the neck with what sounds like a horrible wound, only for the Doctor to make a few wincing sounds and it just disappears later on.
They try yet another twist in which the new companion Joe is revealed to be a spy for the Were-Lords who deliberately became Peri’s partner so that he could lead the Doctor here, learning how to fly the TARDIS from the secondary control room and conspiring against them the entire time. There are several holes in this twist, first off the audience had no way of know Joe was a villain especially people who have only just heard of him as his first time meeting the Doctor takes place off screen. This means that the writer has no respect for the audience as he is deliberately contriving these situations, giving the audience no way of working it out so the twist would seem more intelligent. Secondly, if Joe was just trying to lead the Doctor and Peri to the prison where the Doctor’s kindness would trick him into freeing him then why bother spending all of this time travelling to random places that have no relevance to his plan, if could literally fly the TARDIS which let’s be honest looks like a pretty difficult thing to do then why not just take them there straight away? Also call this a nitpick all you want but I think the sheer amount of companions who could benefit from learning how to help pilot the TARDIS is enough to explain that Joe teaching himself doesn’t work. I understand that they wanted to just get them to the prison and with Doctor Who having literally no canon whatsoever I don’t think adhering to it is a good idea but the story just casually mentions this and it doesn’t quite sit right with me mostly due to the fact that it is very contrived.
But back to the main complaint of this box set which is the overall twist of the Were-Lords. I think what makes me so bitter about the twist is that there is nor reason for it to happen. And when I say that I mean from a character point of view. The Doctor and Peri are at their happiest and most content in this set meaning that there is no arc for them to learn that they need to stick together as the story opens with them using their combined intelligence to solve the mystery. The Doctor is also at this incarnations kindest and the only thing e learns is that his kind actions are going to create some enemies that will get him in new ways each time but then he already knew that meaning that this set for the Doctor at least only serves to remind him of his own impact.
Peri gets the most emotional development in this story as she has to deal with the fact that her partner is evil and that her technical children are killed, then brought back, and then killed again. Peri’s so called arc is the most interesting this box set does but it really just serves to put Peri into emotionally trying situations that she has to overcome based on what happened in these events and not a character flaw that she has. This means that the only thing this box set does for her character is put her through hell which she did not need to go through. If I had to think of anything good to say about the twist it would be that the fore-knowledge of knowing Peri’s fate in Mindwarp creates a tragic sense of dramatic irony as we see Peri so close to happiness but we know for a fact that it will be taken away before the end. This creates a sense of pathos which moves throughout the story and is one of the very few elements which I would say work.
The story then ends disappointingly which is what I did guess would happen. There is a random device created to explain why the Were-Lords are destroyed, and while some stories like The Parting Of The Ways justify their somewhat convenient endings with the villains being otherwise too powerful this story does not get that as yet again the run time prevents there from being any demonstration of the stakes, instead throwing the plot at the listener without pausing for breath.
Overall this story was immensely disappointing as I was thinking about buying and listening to it ever since the story was announced. The execution is the main problem as the performances are excellent and the ideas and worlds are sublime with only the scripts and over reliance on a single writer to create the product making this set a complete mess. The overall set is too determined to provide cheap shocks rather than four solid stories that can be revisited and enjoyed again as there is nothing I would revisit this box set for other than an example of how to not put together a series arc. I don’t want this review to come off as my preferences affecting my objective look at the story as I think the final story twist which creates a narrative arc can and has been done brilliantly. An example is the first War Master box set, which manages to be four separate stories connected by a surprise twist and only increases its replay value. Blood On Santa’s Claw is not without merit, in fact far from it, but feels more like a wasted opportunity than anything else.
Written by: James Fraser
Over Christmas I shall be reviewing the second War Master box set as well as some odds and ends in both Big Finish and novels including Ravenous 1, Human Nature, and the Tenth Doctor and Donna volume three. Merry Christmas everyone!