Originally available as a subscriber-only release, but no generally available, the single (lengthy) episode 'Cryptobiosis' by newcomer Elliot Thorpe is something of an oddity, set on board the steam ship Lankester and revolving around a plot by mercenary Chief Mate De Requin to capture a mermaid to sell for profit. This serves to illustrate just how much Doctor Who has drifted away from science fiction and into fantasy over the years, with absolutely no attempt to provide a pseudo-scientific explanation for the mermen: we are expected to simply accept that they exist, with the Doctor casually noting, " I must admit, I thought you were myth" and leaving it at the that.
With little time to establish the story, Thorpe begins 'Cryptobiosis' with the Doctor and Peri already on board, Peri having been promised a cruise. This isn't going entirely to plan, with Peri protesting, "Where did you land us? A cramped steam boat in the middle of a storm, accused of murder!" From the moment that we learn that they are asking questions about a mysterious sick patient, followed by the revelation of the murders, it becomes enormously predictable that suspicion will fall upon the Doctor, and lo and behold, Captain Callany decides to arrest him. Refreshingly however, Thorpe provides an unexpected twist, as Callany conscripts the Doctor into the navy so that he is subject to its rules, and makes him ship's doctor, whereupon he asks him, "You know something, don't you?" That the Captain actually trusts the Doctor, and has orchestrated his arrest and subsequent conscription as a bluff, makes for a rather pleasing exercise in audience misdirection.
The small cast generally does a fine job, with Michael Cuckson's performance as the shrewd Captain Callany particularly worthy of note, especially when he's pleading with the clearly unstable De Requin, "Sell the Lankester after I die. Don't use your gun to make a living!" De Requin works reasonably well as a villain, planning to abduct and sell a mermaid for money rather than accept Callany's offer because (it is implied) he despises his job as First Mate and feels trapped by the Lankester. This is an unusual motivation for a villain, but sadly Thorpe is unwilling or unable to explore it in more detail in the limited running time available, instead giving De Requin plenty of gloating and maniacal laughter. Actor Tony Beck, already hampered by a ridiculous accent, can hardly be blamed for hamming it up in the role, although as De Requin's tenuous grip of sanity loosens, he does do an impressive line in hysterical giggling. Shortcomings aside, De Requin does make for a suitably dislikeable villain, especially when, tragically, mermaid "Amy" dies, which does mean that when Nerus wreaks an unpleasantly macabre revenge on him, ominously promising, "You will get what you want at the bottom of the ocean. You will see as many of my people as you like… You will be our circus attraction" it is entirely satisfying.
Billy Miller is very good as Nerus, making the merman's ruthlessly practical approach to safeguarding his people seem entirely reasonable. He's clearly not without compassion: when Peri asks him to rescue as many of the sailors as possible from the wreckage of the Lankester the Doctor cautions her, noting that the mermen need to preserve the secret of their existence, but Nerus agrees to consider it.
Both of the regulars are as reliable as ever, with Nicola Bryant channeling fury when Amy is murdered, leaving her baby Galatea with Peri, who stands up to the deranged de Requin to protect her. Colin Baker actually gets less to do, although he does at least get to the deliver the line, "I know lots of things. I'm an almanac. With wit" with considerable relish.
Overall, 'Cryptobiosis' is a curiosity. It doesn't quite work: there isn't time to develop the characterization enough to really make any of the characters feel more than two-dimensional, and the simple plot feels like a snapshot of something larger, especially with the intrusive reference to the Forge which adds nothing and feels almost like fanwank. The casual inclusion of mermaids is a brave move however, and this, along with the scenes in which Nerus questions the Doctor on the seabed, results in a dark fairy tale feeling to the story. It isn't a terribly satisfying story, but it isn't bad by any means.
An established marketing ploy by the good folks at Big Finish has been the offering of an exclusive bonus audio adventure to those who subscribe to the Doctor Who plays, and now that the more widespread availability of the audios means that subscribing direct from Big Finish is no longer the cheapest method of buying the audios it’s more important than ever that these bonus CDs are actually worthwhile.
The last subscriber story – Julian Shortman’s 6th Doctor and Peri tale ‘Her Final Flight’ – had a reasonable premise but the story was let down by the flawed telling. It’s good to see that story’s leads back in action though, as with the regular Big Finish releases concentrating so much on ‘new’ companion Evelyn and breathing new life into badly-served TV companion Mel, it is becoming increasingly rare to hear the fine teaming of the 6th Doctor and Peri.
‘Cryptobiosis’ finds the pair very much in a traditional Doctor Who story, as they are trapped in an isolated setting - in this case a ship - with a murderer. We even get the worn-out ‘body discovered - Doctor accused of murder’ scene, despite the Doctor himself plainly being elsewhere when the killer strikes. This isn’t a whodunit though, as with only two speaking crew-members there really aren’t enough possible suspects to go around, and though the author does his best to sow the seeds of confusion early in the audio it’s always fairly clear who the villain of the piece is. In many respects this story echoes that of the 8th Doctors debut audio Storm Warning, with the isolated transport setting, a mysteriously ‘ill’ traveller being kept drugged in their room (who turns out not to be wholly human), and a nefarious turncoat crewmember, though thankfully unlike that audio ‘Cryptobiosis’ doesn’t fall to pieces in the second half. Once the identity of the drugged traveller is revealed the play runs along a fairly predictable route with the Doctor acting as the voice of reason between human and non-human – indeed I could quite imagine this story being played out in the Pertwee era – but for all it’s familiar moments this story remains an enjoyable variation on a theme.
The acting of both regulars and guest stars is generally high, with only a last minute bout of eye-rolling manic overacting by the villain letting the side down. Production-wise however what keeps this from being entirely convincing is the entirely silent ghost crew of the ship. Just because there are only 4 actors (plus the 2 regulars) in the play I don’t know why the production has to be quite so clumsy in this regard – even if the actors themselves couldn’t double-up for the odd additional crewmember surely the production team would be able to obtain some audio ‘extras’ to provide a bit of background detail?
Still, while the production is a little unconvincing ‘Cryptobiosis’ is nevertheless a good, solid traditional Doctor Who story, and well worth tracking down.