The Doctor, Ace and Hex arrive in Ireland, 1649, to the sound of thunder…only it’s not thunder. The TARDIS has brought the time travelers to Drogheda, just before Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army raze the town to the ground, and there are almost no survivors. The Doctor befriends a pregnant widow named Mary, after sternly telling Ace and Hex not to get involved in historical events. But when the moment comes, Hex and Ace take up arms alongside the Irish. Ace is injured in battle, and Hex is captured by Cromwell’s forces. Hoping he can change history and prevent another massacre like Drogheda, Hex becomes Cromwell’s personal advisor, trying to steer him toward more humane treatment of prisoners, civilian and otherwise. Hex tries to get Cromwell to be more concerned with how history will see him. As the Doctor tries to help Mary bring a new life into the world, Hex is helpless to watch as his best efforts only ensure that Cromwell will continue carving a bloody path through history at Wexford.
Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Philip Olivier (Hex), Clive Mantle (Oliver Cromwell), Roger Parrott (Doctor Goddard), Hugh Lee (Fitzgerald), Clare Cathcart (Mary), Ian Brooker (Colonel Sinnott)
LogBook entry and TheatEar review by Earl Green
Review: A gripping historical epic, The Settling gets back somewhat to Doctor Who’s roots, delivering a little bit of a history lesson along with a ripping adventure yarn. Though I was aware of Oliver Cromwell’s controversial place in history, I had never specifically heard of Drogheda or Wexford before listening to The Settling, though I promptly looked them up afterward to see how history really recorded those events (sans time travelers). Sydney Newman would be proud.
With the Doctor almost pushed into the background, and Ace relegated to running errands for him, The Settling is Hex’s story, and Philip Olivier more than rises to the task. His interactions with Clive Mantle as Oliver Cromwell are at the heart of the story, and in some ways it ends up being structured a bit like the classic Hartnell story The Aztecs – a TARDIS traveler tries to change the course of history with the best of intentions, and everything quickly winds up heading into hell. And that’s not a comparison intended to say that The Settling is anything less than original – it’s a compliment.
Structurally, there are a few other problems that nagged at the back of my head; some of the four episodes are much longer than the others. I know I’ve griped about Big Finish’s tendency toward ditching the 25-minute limit of the classic television series, but if there’s a good reason, then by all means let’s ditch it and keep everything at something like a consistent 35-37 minutes per episode. Here, the episode lengths are helter-skelter; why not just do two episodes whose length is enforced by the running time of a CD. There’s also another increasingly common Big Finish gag: nonlinear storytelling. Much of The Settling appears to be recounted in flashback. I wouldn’t complain, except that the Doctor Who audio writers almost seem to have adopted nonlinear storytelling as part of the series’ remit, along with time travel and sonic screwdrivers. Memo to Big Finish: it’s an effective device used sparingly, but you can’t use some variation of it on every story.
There’s something almost surreal about switching back and forth between pitched battles and the Doctor gently eliciting a confession from Mary, but that’s a phenomenon that only persists for the first two episodes.
Any minor quibbles aside, The Settling is one of Big Finish’s best historical Doctor Who stories to date, and a chance for Hex to shine not just as the Doctor’s sidekick, but as a wholly rounded person with his own ethics, drives, and beliefs – something that’s long overdue.