I kind of feel bad for Paul McGann sometimes. The other actors that played the Doctor got at least a season, and in most cases at least three, before having to pass on the part. McGann got to star in the movie, which wasn’t very successful, and then never got to play the Doctor on film again. He did, however, go on to star in several audio dramas. And some of them, like Invaders from Mars, are downright fantastic.
Invaders from Mars takes place in New York in the late 1930s, during the height of organized crime and the glory of radio. Those two things might not seem connected, but they both come into play in the story. The Doctor and his female companion Charley find themselves in Manhattan, thrown into the middle of an investigation of a mysterious murder, which, unknown to them, was committed by a couple of gangsters with alien tech weaponry.
But how did they get their hands on this technology? That’s one of the many things that keeps this audio drama interesting. Meanwhile, Orson Welles is preparing for his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, which as we know, will throw the city into mass panic, not realizing it’s a radio show and not a radio news broadcast. And so the question is raised, War of the Worlds might just be a story, but does it have something to do with this other alien tech?
There are numerous characters that feed into this story, delicately balancing the large number of characters. With a small-scale war for the alien tech threatening to break out, the story introduces Chaney, the mob boss to whom the tech belongs, Mouse and Ellis, Chaney’s two thugs responsible for the murder in question, and Cosmo Devine, a sinister independent player who aims to get his hands on the technology for his own evil purposes. This is not including the characters at the radio studio, one of which is connected to the aforementioned sinister players in the battle for the alien tech.
When the Doctor comes in, he finds the victim of the murder, a private investigator. The Doctor discovers that the body was killed by some form of radiation, and, through a rapid series of events, takes on the identity of the P.I. and resolves to find out who is at the other end of the mystery.
In comparison to Paul McGann’s other performances, his Doctor in the audio dramas is somewhat less hyper than his Doctor in the movie was, and presents a more calm authoritative presence than you might expect. McGann does this very well, however, and it even makes up for Charley’s annoying voice. If you found Donna annoying, then you will hardly be able to stand Charley (although I liked Donna, and I still don’t like Charley very much). Like some other female companions in the show, she seems to have no other purpose than filling dialogue and being someone for the Doctor to save, but I still find her more bearable than some other companions (Susan, for example).
Mark Gatiss was the writer and director of this audio drama, who you might be familiar with as co-creator of BBC’s Sherlock, as well as playing Mycroft in the same. He’s also been highly involved with Doctor Who over the years, and I venture to say that this audio drama is some of his best work. He weaves the elements of the story together in a way that’s not easy to do with an audio art form, and makes it a story worth listening to repeatedly.
There are some things to watch out for, however. There is a reference to a male character having a male lover (although you never actually meet the other man and it’s not necessarily normalized). There’s more language in this story than in other audio dramas, misuses of God’s name and mild profanities, so I would recommend parents to listen to this before letting your kids listen to it.
The worldview of the story is found mostly in the concluding events, of which I will be quite vague so as not to pour forth spoilers. Chaney, who is the mobster, is in the end presented not so much as a bad guy as an anti-hero. Part of that is that he’s not as diabolical as we’d assume men in organized crime are, but it may also soften our views towards criminals. It does not, however, present the law as idiotic, corrupt, or otherwise undesirable. On the other hand, law figures are pretty much excluded in this story. So while it may soften our view towards criminals, it does not bring down the authority figures as you might expect.
The focal part of the story, however, is a very familiar theme. The Doctor does all that is within his power to stop evil and save lives. While the most evil bad guy in the story reveals himself to be a traitor in every sense of the word, the Doctor is loyal to those he has no reason to be, strangers for whom he cares. That’s worth emulating.