“The Kingmaker” is story number 81 in Big Finish‘s main range, a Fifth Doctor adventure with Peri Brown and Erimem. I listened to this audio a few months back, in January, but I didn’t really get it. I had been given a project at work that was purely visual and mostly mindless (unlike my usual work which involves both thinking and writing), and I realized that I could listen to audios while I worked on it. (I am so jealous of the artists here: they get to stream episodes of the X-Men cartoon to watch/listen to while they draw. I wish I could have Doctor Who on all the time.) I listened to “The Light at the End,” which was great, and then I listened to “The Kingmaker,” and it was just meh. It felt very talky and fragmented, and I just figured that it was an uninteresting historical, which was sad, because I love history and how Doctor Who goes back to tell stories about historical events.
A few days ago, I found Time Scales, which is a site devoted to fan ratings of Big Finish audios. It also has ratings for Doctor Who television episodes, but to me the main benefit is that it tells me what audios I might be interested in. (By the way, if you’re going to visit that site, please note that if you omit the “the” from the URL, you go to a site that attempts to download a virus onto your computer by pretending that it’s an update to Flash Player. Ask me how I know.) While I was browsing the site, I looked up “The Kingmaker,” and it has a rating of 8.7. This is fantastic. To give you an idea of how good that rating is, only seven of the modern TV series episodes has a higher rating than “The Kingmaker.” An 8.7 puts it in the top ten of the hundreds of Big Finish Doctor Who episodes. So, I had to listen to it again, give it a second chance.
And I’m glad I did. “The Kingmaker” is utterly brilliant.
Now I realize that I just reviewed Dead Air and said it was wonderful, and you might think, “Geez, you just say anything that’s related to Doctor Who is fantastic.” Well, that’s not really true. I’d like to think that I have some aesthetic discretion, and I have pointed out some not-so-wonderful audios and books. “The Kingmaker” is just wonderful on so many different levels.
Spoiler-free synopsis and review:
If you’re familiar with British history and the War of the Roses, you know that the Kingmaker was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, a man who was at the center of English politics and over many years controlled who was on the throne and who wasn’t. One of the mysteries stemming from this period is the fate of the two sons of Edward IV. The princes and heirs to the throne, they had been put into the care of Richard of Gloucester when Edward died, but Richard imprisoned them in the Tower of London and took the throne himself as Richard III, and no one knows what happened to the princes. It’s assumed that Richard has them killed, but it’s never been proven.
In “The Kingmaker,” the Doctor decides to go find out what happened to the princes. He lands in 1485, after the princes have been imprisoned in the Tower, and heads out while Peri and Erimem go to change into period clothes. The TARDIS hiccups and lands again in 1483, just after Edward IV has died and Richard has taken custody of the princes, but Peri and Erimem don’t realize that they’re in a different time zone than the Doctor until after they’ve left the TARDIS, and when they look for it, it’s gone and they’re on their own, stuck living in 15th century England while the final events of the War of the Roses unfold around them.
As I noted before, this story operates on so many levels. At its core, it presents and solves the mystery of the two princes, in its own very Doctor Who way, which is in itself satisfying. Then there’s the complexity of having two sets of characters in different time zones, with the one in the future trying to figure out what happened to the ones in the past, while the ones in the past are trying to figure out how to get themselves out of their situation and are trying not to change major historical events. The guest characters in this are all well-defined and well-performed, and Richard especially has an incredible amount of depth; you never quite know if he’s good and honorable or evil and despicable. Then, there’s the ending. Or the endings, as it were. There are at least three moments in the play in which you think, “Oh, ok, that’s what happened! Great story!” and then it throws something else at you and you realize it’s not the end. The reason why it works like this: nothing in this story is unimportant. Every detail matters.
One other thing that makes this story delightful is its style: anachronistic and irreverent, without overshadowing the main plot. For example, Peri and Erimem spend some time working in a pub owned by a man named Clarrie, and when he trains them to be tavern wenches, he gives them scripts to upsell the customer (“Now, when the customer orders a pork pie, what do you say?” “You know, sir, that pork pie would wash down well with a pint of our fine house ale.”). He then mentions that they’re good workers, a lot better than the ones that he can get from “an agency.” If you’re not used to it, it can be a bit surreal, but it injects a lot of humor into what might otherwise be a very serious, talky tale, and prevents the audio from sounding like history class.
Overall, without going into any spoilers, this story brings together a large number of unique concepts and characters and ties them all together into a wondrous whole, in an atmosphere of both mysterious danger and irreverent humor.
And I mean, spoiler-full. If you don’t want spoilers, you shouldn’t be reading this.
I think the thing that really impressed me about this is the complexity of the plot and how you never quite know what Richard is doing until he does it. You don’t even know if he believes what Mr. Satan tells him at the beginning of the audio. However, the motives of his actions are all explained. The revelation that as a mysterious historical figure, he’d been visited by time travelers before who wanted to know why he did what he did and that he had no intention of attempting to take the throne until he’d been told that that’s what he did was amazing, both because it influenced his life and decisions so profoundly and because it gave us a glimpse of the damage caused by time travelers who aren’t careful.
Then there was the fact that he learned on his own about the Web of Time and that the time travelers were terrified of the Doctor, and used that knowledge to his own ends, to find out more and manipulate the Doctor, this mysterious and powerful figure. That whole section, where Richard explains what happened and tries to get the Doctor to give the order to kill the princes, bears listening to again. And yet, Richard was a character with a well-established personality and goals, and he stuck to them. He was loyal to his brother, only seizing the throne because history said he did so, and repeatedly noted that he would do anything, but only if he had a very good reason to do so. As a bonus, his attempt to manipulate the Doctor gave us another instance to watch the Doctor face his responsibilities head on: does he order the death of the princes to preserve the Web of Time, or does he spare them like he personally wants to do? Luckily for him, he’s the Doctor: he can look at a situation and make connections no one else can between disparate events, and he figures out what the big secret is, saving the lives of his companions.
The reveal of the villain behind everything was unbelievable, hilarious, and absolutely awesome at the same time. And a non-evil villain, too. Perhaps he was rather insane, but his intentions were good, at least from the point of view of his society and history. His fate, and Richard’s, was totally unexpected, and I’d like to think pretty unique in Doctor Who stories. Usually everything gets put back in their right places; this one didn’t quite accomplish that, but close enough…
This audio was just brilliant, and I need to listen to it again, to get all of the details down. I can definitely see why it’s ranked so high, and if anyone were to ask me to recommend an audio that I’ve listened to, this would probably be the one I’d choose.