Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: The Mahogany Murderers Review
What started as a one-off Companion Chronicle went on to spawn one of the most-popular Doctor Who spin-offs. In this review, I take a look at the pilot episode for Jago & Litefoot.
Looking back over 10 years t0 May 2009, it's hard to overstate just how much of a phenomenon "The Mahogany Murderers" was on its release. It isn't often talked about today, in the era of River Song meeting the classic Doctors, Dalek Universe, Christopher Eccleston's return to Doctor Who and the return of pretty much every New Series character, but, at the time, the return of Jago & Litefoot was a huge deal. Notoriously, this was a story that sold out its first print run in a matter of weeks, and it was several months before CD stocks could be replenished, so in demand this release was. And it isn't hard to see why word of mouth lead to this story becoming one of Big Finish's best-selling titles: it's an absolute blast. From start to finish, this is a huge amount of fun, and opens the doors for one of Big Finish's most acclaimed and long-lasting Doctor Who spin-offs: Jago & Litefoot.
Picking up the story of the Infernal Investigators a few years after "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", this story puts Jago and Litefoot on two different story strands that connect up in some surprising, and dangerous, ways. When a strange body turns up on Professor Litefoot's mortuary table, the pathologist and the theatrical impresario become dragged into a murky plot involving a mysterious doctor, a warehouse full of advanced technology, and a criminal gang made entirely of wood... Right from the beginning, this story absolutely hits the right tone for Victorian London. It has all the feeling of a Penny Dreadful, or a Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes, while still be recognisably Doctor Who, and having its own identity, which is no mean feet. The descriptions of hot chestnuts in wax paper bags, and the strong smells from the River Thames are absolutely evocative of the period of fiction this emulates, and they really help to ground the stories in a world that we know and love very well. It works as a shorthand: we know and understand this world (I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who didn't have some experience with these kind of stories), so writer Andy Lane can just get on with telling a good story. This may adhere to the clichés of pulp Victorian fiction, but who cares when it's quite this fun? Everything is just that bit exaggerated, that bit over-the-top, and I love it. It sets out the tone and template for the Jago & Litefoot series going forward, and, while the cliched tone and format would have struggled had they not been willing to experiment and try different things, for a one-off, it works incredibly well. There are some threads left deliberately hanging for the spin-off to pick up on and run with, but it does tell one complete story as well, so, if we hadn't got a series off the back of this, you wouldn't have been disappointed.
Of course, what makes this story the roaring success that it is are its central characters. Lane brings Jago & Litefoot back to life with all the traits from "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" present and correct. Thanks to the set-up of the story (for the main bulk of the narrative, Jago & Litefoot are separated, and are narrating this story to each other in the Red Tavern after the fact), there's plenty of opportunities for comic interludes and witty badinage between the two. I love the two differing styles of storytelling the two characters bring to this story: Litefoot's narrative is a lot more clinical and precise, while Jago's has the theatrical flourishes you'd expect of a florid impresario like him. The best bits of the story are, without question, the moments where the two friends pick holes in each other's stories: the moment with the swordstick may be one of the best gags in the history of Doctor Who. In many ways, it ends up becoming a little bit of a meta commentary on the nature of stories, and the different ways we tell them. Of course, this is all helped by Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter's wonderful, wonderful performances as the intrepid investigators, both of whom pick up their roles like they'd never been away. The dynamic is there right from the beginning, and both bring their sections of the story to life with gusto. Baxter, especially, has a whale of a time with the other characters, and it makes the whole story fly by. Director Lisa Bowerman pulls double duty on this release, as she also voices the small role of Ellie the barmaid (a role that would continue into the Jago & Litefoot spin-off series), and, despite the size of the part, is able to bring a bit of colour to the role. Her direction, meanwhile, is impeccable: bringing the best out of her actors, and making sure every scene is the best it can possibly be. Finally, David Darlington's work on the post-production is superlative, bringing the world of Victorian London to life. Big Finish Productions are very good with this period (as demonstrated not only by the Jago & Litefoot range to come, but also Sherlock Holmes and The Paternoster Gang), and all that talent is brought here to make this release one of the strongest for production in the Companion Chronicles range.
Overall, then, "The Mahogany Murderers" may not be typical of the Companion Chronicles range, but boy, does it make for a fantastic story. Bringing back two characters who, while being immensely popular, were not companions could have been seen as a risky move for a range called The Companion Chronicles. However, it is testament to all at Big Finish that not only was this release a roaring success, but it also helped launch a spin-off range that would go onto critical acclaim, and become one of the most beloved in the franchises history. "The Mahogany Murderers" is a key moment in Big Finish's history - one that fans can look back on today, and still count as one of the company's best.
You can purchase "The Mahogany Murderers" as a digital download here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who-the-companion-chronicles-the-mahogany-murderers-475
All pictures copyright to Big Finish Productions. Thank you very much for reading.