The audio stories that Big Finish have previously given away free with Doctor Who Magazine have nearly all been pieces of whimsical but inconsequential fluff, and 'The Veiled Leopard' is no exception. Writers Iain McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett play with the familiar concept of the multi-Doctor story and turn it on its head by giving us a multi-companion story, with Peri and Erimem sent by the Fifth Doctor to prevent the theft of a jewel known as the Veiled Leopard, and Ace and Hex sent by the Seventh Doctor to steal it. This makes for an amusing conceit and the two halves of the story overlap, although disappointingly the two sets of companions don't actually meet.
Given that I've described it as fluff, I probably shouldn't judge 'The Veiled Leopard' too harshly, but it dos suffer from one major flaw that has started to blight Big Finish's Doctor Who audios with frustrating frequency. Concentrating as it does on the characters, it has a plot that is both contrived and unconvincing. It's contrived in that the Leopard, which is actually an alien artifact containing the essence of an alien race, and which was placed into the Doctor's hands for safekeeping, can't travel through time as a result of meaningless technobabble. It's unconvincing because, although it makes sense for Ace and Hex to recover it for the Seventh Doctor, although it makes sense for the Fifth Doctor to send Peri and Erimem to stop it falling into the wrong hands, it does raise the question why the Fifth Doctor doesn't get his companions to steal it at that time and do whatever needs doing with it. Undoubtedly he has a reason for waiting until later (from his point of view) to get it back, but what that reason is, is never disclosed; the audience is simply meant to accept that he has a plan and not expected to question it.
Whilst I generally disapprove of focusing on characterization at the expense of plot however, 'The Veiled Leopard' is very entertaining. The first episode focuses on Erimem and Peri, and both are clearly excited to be going to a party undercover. The script is rather witty and all four companions are well captured, although perhaps unsurprisingly McLaughlin and Bartlett get their best results with Erimem, whose fiery temper prompts her to pour withering scorn on Walker when he makes jokes about the names of Pharoahs "Ramadamadingding" and icily tell him that Amenhotep "ruled the world". There is plenty of friendly banter between her and Peri, with both Caroline Morris and Nicola Bryant continuing to ably convey the strong friendship that they have developed, such as when Erimem innocently tells Peri that despite wearing an Egyptian dress she doesn't need to shave her head because, "Your hair is so much like our wigs." They seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves as they discuss the other guests and gossip with Lillian, and then try to guess who the thief is, and the writers clearly have fun with clichés, with the party filled with bitchy rich characters, all played perfectly by the cast Big Finish stalwart Steven Wickham in particular stands out as the villainous Gavin Walker), and there's even a professional burglar who leaves his calling card and goes by the name of Janus. Amusingly, Lillian is one half of Janus, a burglary double act, and in traditional Robin Hood style announces that they only steal from those who deserve it, such as Walker, and give the money to good causes.
Episode Two switches to Ace and Hex, and again McLaughlin and Bartlett capture their burgeoning relationship well, as Ace bosses Hex around ("Don't interrupt. I'm in charge, remember"), but he takes it good-naturedly, and they get on very well. Philip Olivier clearly enjoys having a more lighthearted script than he usually gets, such as when Hex poses as Doctor Smith and dispenses advice on the dangers of smoking, but unfortunately, after a recent run of decent performances, Sophie Aldred performance during Ace's turn as "Dorothy Smith" of the Perivale Smiths is deeply embarrassing as she puts on an unconvincing accent whilst talking to Walker, mangling lines such as "We've got the bloke what tried to nick it."
'The Veiled Leopard' is light-hearted but trivial, but does everything it needs to do as an entertaining freebie. For the most part it excels in whimsy, lifted throughout by David Darlington's superb incidental score, which burbles merrily in the background and evokes just the sort of atmosphere that the script is lampooning.
Now here is a curiosity. “The Veiled Leopard.” A Doctor Who Magazine ‘giveaway’ CD; i.e. an extended advert for Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio adventures… but with no Doctor. Well, two Doctors. Two Doctors who aren’t in it, that is. Two Doctor’s who stand off stage pulling the strings of their four very interesting companions, two of them created in-house by Big Finish, who both take full opportunity of their chance to shine…
Part 1 of the story features Peri and Erimem in Monte Carlo, 1966. After watching the fifth Doctor argue with an “odd little man in a strange pullover,” the two young ladies are sent to prevent the Veiled Leopard – a famous diamond which once belonged to Erimem’s father – from being stolen. The episode is very entertaining to say that it has very little plot. It’s great to see the two good friends having fun together in this very evocative setting, mingling with the likes of Lady Lillian (Lizzie Hopley) and Peter Mathis (Ian Ruscoe) who are compelling characters in their own right. Part 2 is slightly more serious, but still very good fun. Ace and Hex are also in Monte Carlo, 1966. The seventh Doctor has sent them to steal the Veiled Leopard, and replace it with a forgery. As with Peri and Erimem in Part 1, it’s great to see two good friends having a laugh together. I especially enjoyed seeing Ace letting her hair down. The character will go through so much and become so ruthless and so hard, it’s great to see as she is in this story – a young woman enjoying herself. She is clearly loving being “in charge” and playing the part of the Doctor, even impersonating his slight Scottish accent and saying things like “don’t interrupt!” to Hex when she is explaining things to him.
For his part, Hex is given more than his fair share of action, and it is Hex who finally manages to complete the seventh Doctor’s mission and steal the Veiled Leopard – no ordinary diamond, but a data storage device containing all the history, culture and D.N.A. of a dead alien species. This episode even reminded me a little bit of “Flip-Flop” as in my head I had to cobble together what Peri and Erimem were doing contemporaneously and how it fitted in with what Ace and Hex were doing… luckily the plot is quite simple so that much head-scratching wasn’t required, and in fact it all fits together rather neatly.
In all “The Veiled Leopard” is a wonderful showcase for not only the Big Finish range as a whole, but for Philip Oliver’s Hex and Caroline Morris’ Erimem (who will be unfamiliar to many fans) as well as Nicola Bryant’s young Peri and Sophie Aldred's early-New Adventures Ace. In fact, I’d say that this Doctor-less story tops all four of the previous Doctor Who magazine ‘giveaway’ CDs that actually featured the Time Lord himself! I can’t think of a greater compliment I can pay to these four wonderful companions…