Big Finish deliver up another triumph in the form of The Death Collectors + Spider's Shadow - a three part story followed by a 1 parter that links directly on. The Death Collectors sees Doctor Who at its most sci-fi, with some lovely flavours of horror thrown in for good measure, this is one story that really plays for scares.
In short, the plot kicks off with an 'accident'. A man has returned to a space station from an alien planet down below, but he hasn't returned the same man he set out as - he isn't even really alive any more. As the Doctor turns up, following a mysterious distress signal, things get weirder by the minute as the destructive 'virus' known only as Decay begins causing havoc on the station.
Thematically, The Death Collectors brings to mind a whole host of previous adventures - there's the morbid, gothic feel + the Doctor clashing with a rival scientific ego that touches on the Brain of Morbius while the revived series has had a whole host of sci-fi 'possession' storylines in the form of '42', 'The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit', 'Midnight' and 'Silence In The Library/Forest of the Dead'.
The Death Collectors is especially reminiscent of this last story, both in the idea of a space suit becoming filled with a formless alien consciousness speaking through a half dead-half alive host. We also get a River Song-esque role in this story's one-off companion, Danika.
Of course, Alien/Aliens serves as a reference point too, as it has done for so much sci-fi in the character of Mors, the misguided scientist that puts research before human life. It's a small cast in this story but that's where a lot of its strength comes from - the Doctor is alone and Sylvester's performance of him plays off brilliantly against the other characters who are equally well-acted.
If I was to have one criticism of this story, it's that a lot of it doesn't really go anywhere. While you're listening to it, caught up in the tension, it's fantastic, but at the end of each part you step back and think, nothing much has really been developed. The story does pose some interesting ideas about life and death though and if you're a fan of 'philosophical-Who' then this is a good story for you.
I also found it refreshing to see an alien race (in the form of the eerie, gurgling Dar Traders) that on first impression is horrific, but are actually fill the role of allies in the story (albeit, shifty, reluctant ones).
You also get the Doctor nearly trading in his 7th life to save the day as well as offering to take on a new companion, only to be swiftly rebuffed. And there's a nice little twist/cliffhanger at the end. There's also a real sense of added gravitas to The Death Collectors too as numerous points foreshadow the 7th Doctor's death in the 1996 TV movie - most obviously, the use of the 'Madame Butterfly' song. This is a story close to the end of his 7th life - and as such, the themes of death and morbidity feel even stronger.
Without a doubt though, this story's strength is the out and out thrill factor. It's got some great scary moments interspersed with those wonderful dashes of comedy Sylvester's Doctor does so well. The tension is built up wonderfully and there's loads of rasping calls of 'i see everything' and 'we will trade' to send shivers down your spine. The fussy, disobedient computer, Nancy, is also a nice touch - although when it starts endlessly glitching and repeating things it can get a little annoying.
So, all in all, while The Death Collectors might not be the most original, or strongest of stories in terms of plot - it's a real fun riot of action, scares and above all tension from end to start.
Spider's Shadow on the other hand is witty, clever, innovative - whereas The Death Collectors was the big epic action story, Spider's Shadow is far more complex. It starts off completely baffling, told all out of order in a weird case of deja vu-esque repetition - a little confusing yes, but stick with it and it really pays off.
As the story builds to a crescendo in parts 8 & 9 and the reason why time has gone all weird and mucked up is revealed this story really comes into its own - it's just a feeling of 'Wow! Now that's good!. Sylvester McCoy is an absolute dream in this story. There's something unique and beautiful to this quirky 1-parter and in many ways it almost feels like a '...and the moral of the story is' fairytale, helped along by the fact that the protagonists are two princesses.
Taking this 2-disc collection as a whole, across both stories, this may just be me searching for more connections but there's also some lovely bits of continuity if you chose to see them as such - In the first story you get the Doctor saying 'ashes to ashes' linking back to Remembrance of the Daleks while in the second story you get a conversation between the Doctor and one of the princesses which goes something along the lines of 'Dance, Doctor, dance!' 'I'm a little out of practice' - which looks forwards towards Eccleston's 'The Doctor Dances' two parter and a similar conversation he has with Rose.
To sum up, I loved these two stories. On their own they are good, but what makes them truly great is that packaged together - one following on directly from the second - they present two opposing sides of a coin. The themes of each one juxtapose each other perfectly and present an exciting, evolving showcase for the 7th Doctor.