Nev Fountain, in case you didn't know, has written two of Big Finish's finest, most inventive outings: Omega, the excellent, though slightly over-long sequel to The Arc of Infinity; and The Kingmaker, the even better repost to Shakespeare's often unquestioned historical bias. What characterised these two tales was equal measures of complexity and wit; with two such unmissable stories under his belt, another one was eagerly awaited. No surprise that both 'complex' and 'witty' are there in spades in Peri and the Piscon Paradox and no surprise either that Nicola Bryant does an excellent job in handling the various voices that the story requires. Even though the music overdoes the cutesy and saccharin-tragic more than once, the sound design is pretty good too. So far, so good.
Disc 1, it has to be said, is a rather lengthy set-up: not bad by any means and with enough to keep you intrigued but still not much more than an extended prologue. Disc 2 is, for the most part, much better than the first, due to the unravelling of the paradox of the title being far more engaging than its set up. Peri's more cynical other self brings a welcome new aspect, while the actual voice of the Sixth Doctor makes it sound much more 'real'. The whole thing really takes off and builds to something unexpectedly dramatic.
So why is it so uninspiring?
Not long after Big Finish started releasing Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctor CDs, I can't have been the only one who wondered if somehow stories could be produced that featured the first three. Nor can I have been the only one who thought up something not dissimilar to what the Companion Chronicles actually became. Now for those Doctors no longer with us, the format is as much as one would expect (or could hope for): a well-intentioned attempt to fulfil a yearning for times irretrievable. Yet for those Doctors still around, the Companion Chronicles format feels like short change: one has come to expect the full treatment whenever possible. However clever, however well-performed Piscon Paradox undoubtedly is, like so many other Companion Chronicles, it's just something one might listen to once, maybe quite enjoy and never listen to again. Had the budget stretched to actually having Peter Davison voice the Fifth Doctor on disc one, the effect might have had more weight, but then one would have come close to dramatizing the whole thing anyway. I'm still wondering why they didn't do just that.
There is, alas, a more obvious difficulty with P&tPP; that the unexpected dramatic climax doesn't fit. We are led to believe that Nicola Bryant had a great deal of input into the script and there's nothing actors like better than a chance to show off their 'emotional range'. So it is that the writer (her current partner, so I'm told) seems to have been persuaded to include something for her to, er, get her teeth into. Near the end of what has been broadly comic, we get five minutes or so of heart-rending, angstful introspection. Again, Ms Bryant does a fantastic job in delivering it but, while I certainly don't want to make light of domestic abuse, the (un)intended shock actually comes from a writer of such calibre resorting to a list of well-worn cliches to achieve it. And it's so out of place. When that's all over, we're straight back into wry-smile mode with a let's-tie-up-some-loose-continuity-ends moment, ending in a haze of wistful melancholy and two truly awful puns.
The problem with The Piscon Paradox is not only with its own peculiar tonal rollercoaster but with the Companion Chronicles range as a whole. Other CCs usually sound decidedly 'third division' compared to the main monthly range and though this particular one generally doesn't, it's not going to appeal to anyone other than real die-hard old school fans. If the combined talents of Fountain and Bryant can't make this format truly work, then alas no-one can. Enough people must be buying each Companion Chronicle release to make it worth Big Finish's while persevering with them, but while I have often been tempted by the synopsis, they never seem to deliver. At least Peri and the Piscon Paradox comes close.