One of the most highly-regarded story strands from Big Finish remains the Sixth Doctor and Charlotte Pollard adventures. Released between 2008 and 2009, this short run of plays remains a fan-favourite, thanks to the unusual pairing of a classic Doctor with a future companion, and a strong sequence of stories that really explored this unorthodox dynamic. But all good things must come to an end, and "Patient Zero" opens the trilogy of stories designed to bring Charlotte Pollard's time in the TARDIS to a close. Bringing together a number of threads that had been running through Big Finish's audios for quite some time, "Patient Zero" has a grand scale, and a great sense of the stakes never being higher. Coupled with some of the best performances in a Big Finish audio drama ever, this definitely stands out as a classic, even today in the era of multi box-set arcs and the like.
Following on straight from the previous adventure for this TARDIS team, "The Raincloud Man", Charley falls ill, having been infected with a virus the Doctor can't identify. Finally tracking the virus down to the Amethyst Viral Containment Station, the Doctor finds himself up against a station supervisor with a dark secret, a mysterious race of aliens dedicated to the elimination of all viruses, and a squad of Daleks on a very secret and very dangerous mission... Right from the beginning, the stakes are high for the Doctor and Charley, and neither really get a moment of respite. Doctor Who stories often build the tension up gradually, taking time to build in moments of humour and lightness before plunging us into the darkness. Patient Zero, however, just launches the listener, and the Doctor and Charley, straight in. There's not much humour here, and what there is is pretty dark. It makes for a very hard listen in many ways: if you're pretty intelligently minded, you can kind of see the ending coming a mile off. But what makes this such a good listen is the tension ratcheting up notch by notch, as the situation gets ever more dangerous. It's rare we get to hear the Sixth Doctor quite this flustered and desperate, as circumstances run away from him, and he is forced to resort to ever more desperate plans. There's a fantastic sense of mystery to the story as well, as the two main threads of the story are drawn together: the purpose of the viral station and just exactly what has happened to Charley. The listener is trying to get ahead of the game, but there are several twists and turns that genuinely shock and surprise. What also helps this story is its genuinely original take on the Daleks. Sure, we all love a good Dalek story, but "Patient Zero" takes the pepper pots, and flips them completely on their heads. These Daleks are hesitant, considered, and, dare I say it, scared of upsetting the flow of time, and are having to fight those instincts that come naturally to them. I love the way Nicholas Briggs writes for the Daleks here; he makes them less of the mindless death machines they can often be portrayed as, and more calculating figures. This especially comes across in the Dalek Time Controller; a Dalek who will go on to have a huge significance in future Doctor Who audio adventures, and is a slimy, calculating mastermind that makes for a genuinely original figure in the ranks of the Dalek hordes.
Away from the Dalek/Viyran subplot, the other half of the adventure involves Charley interacting with the mysterious and psychotic Mila. I'll try not to say too much about her reasons for being in the story (I don't want to spoil it), but let's just say that she has been on the periphery of the Doctor's adventures for quite some time, and has now found an opportunity, through Charley, to become more involved. Mila is one of Briggs' best ever creations: someone who has been driven absolutely round-the-bend by her experiences, and treats everything as some kind of light-hearted game. However, she can turn in an instant from light and jovial, almost child-like, to cold and emotionless, empty even, and her scenes with Charley are a highlight. It helps that Jess Robinson gives a fantastic performance as the deranged girl, absolutely able to turn as and when the script needs her to. She bounces off India Fisher really well, who is able to make Charley being ill interesting, and is able to make her seem much more vulnerable than the character is often allowed to be. Michael Maloney is allowed to have loads of fun as the various Fratalins, and Nicholas Briggs is as intimidating as ever as the Daleks (especially his distinctive voice for the Dalek Time Controller). But it is Colin Baker who steals the show here: in the behind the scenes extras, he says this is one of his favourite ever Doctor Who scripts, and it isn't hard to see why. The Doctor runs the gourmet of emotions here: from distrust and even anger at Charley, to a desperate desire to protect her, and from fury and indignation at Fratalin's intense secrecy to his pride at defeating the Daleks, and, ultimately, his hubris. The final scene he shares with the Dalek Time Controller is chilling. Briggs also directs this story, and gets some fine performances out of his cast, despite the fact that there's only five of them (one of whom is himself!). It feels like a much larger cast, quite honestly, because their range is so strong. Finally, the post-production work from Howard Carter brings the epic scale of the story to life, especially the climactic battle between the Daleks and the Viyrans. Once again, on a production front, this story is absolutely flawless, and brings this story to life with consummate skill.
In conclusion, then, "Patient Zero" is nothing short of a masterpiece. A phenomenal script, pitch-perfect performances and sumptuous production work come together to make a story for the ages that doesn't fail to impress. Often, stories that try to push the Doctor to the limit can feel anti-climactic, or fall flat. Not "Patient Zero", which kick starts the end of Charlotte Pollard's time with the Sixth Doctor on a real high. To this day, this remains one of my favourite Sixth Doctor productions, and a real high point in the back catalogue of Big Finish stories. This has to be heard to be believed.
You can purchase "Patient Zero" as a digital download here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who-patient-zero-290
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