The Highest Science is a Seventh Doctor + Benny story staged over two discs. It is adapted by Jacqueline Rayner from the original Gareth Roberts novel and apart from Sylvester and Lisa B the cast includes Sinead Keenan, Daniel Brocklebank, Tom Bell and Sarah Ovens.
The book was published in 1993 – I am unsure why this book at this time; I assume it is a popular, early title (someone please set me straight). How well does it translate to audio?
The Big Finish synopsis is as follows:
The Highest Science. The pinnacle of knowledge and a terrible weapon. A legend – nothing more.
Sheldukher. The most wanted criminal in the galaxy. Evil to the core and hungry for power, whatever the cost.
The Chelonians. A vast military power, pledged to eradicate human parasites wherever they are found.
The Doctor. An ancient and wise Time Lord tracking a temporal fluctuation that endangers the universe itself.
Some things should never meet, but as Professor Summerfield is about to discover, the universe is full of coincidences.
There is a lot to juggle with here: the Doctor and Benny are chasing a Fortean Flicker, something that makes coincidences happen; they end up on a desolate, ancient planet where they encounter the rapid Chelonians (cyborg tortoises), the 8:12 (with their super weapons) and in orbit Sheldukher and his henchman Rosheen (Keenan) and super-intelligent telepathic brain, aka The Cell (Ovens). Sheldukher has Rosheen under his control as he has threatened her with extreme ageing if she tries to stop his plans.
The Doctor and Benny are separated allowing the Doctor to meet the Chelonians, then the 8:12, try to broker peace and fail. Benny, meanwhile, falls in with a rock-fan who believes himself destined for greatness and Benny to be the pretty lady told of in a rock ballad. They are first to find a desolate citadel and try to enter.
The citadel becomes the focus of events as we learn just exactly how far Sheldukher will go in his quest for knowledge and there is rather a neat twist when we find out just what is going on with the citadel and one of the other characters we have met. To make things more interesting the citadel also runs in slow time – the deeper you penetrate the more time is slowed, something that causes the Doctor and Benny problems, what with them being time travellers.
[pullquote]the Paul Cornell novel Happy Endings clears this up[/pullquote]
The story ends back on the surface with the Doctor stopping the conflict between the Chelonians and the 8:12 though not resolving it — this is an odd ending given how much we get used the Doctor tidying everything up (I read that the Paul Cornell novel Happy Endings clears this up, maybe that will get made by Big Finish at some point).
For me there was too much going on for only two discs and the writing (probably the novel, not the adaptation) is uneven. The Doctor drifts for three discs then suddenly deduces everything only because the story needs to come to an end. There is plenty of comedy from the brutal yet oddly funny Chelonians, the 8:12, various slight nods towards Douglas Adams and the general tone of the piece. Yet there is much unpleasantness and evil here, lurking just under the humour. The Chelonians are despicable, Sheldukher is evil pure and simple.
There are various under-developed threads – Benny meets a biker dude who gets killed off when they find the citadel; there is an interesting and untold story about the 8:12, where they came from though not how they got home. Overall I found myself entertained moment by moment yet curiously unsatisfied at the end. The super-evolved brain, aka The Cell also brought out some interesting ideas and again they didn’t seem to come to a conclusion. At times I even wondered if this was Gareth Roberts taking a whole set of idea, adding the Doctor and Benny then trying to make it work as a whole. I note this was his first novel and perhaps I am being too cynical!
There are two pieces of dodgy science in this one, thought I only spotted one: the extreme ageing and the slow time.
At the start, the crew of Sheldukher’s ship come out of cryo-sleep; later Sheldukher neutralises the preservative on one of them causing them to age to dust. Later he also ages Rosheen a few decades. This may be an effective image and a powerful threat, but is scientifically poor. Cryo-sleep doesn’t preserve in this way, it doesn’t hold back time in a way that can be later brought back into play. The time isn’t hidden away somewhere.
The slow time
The other piece of dodgy science is revealed in the story when Benny herself wonders why, if they were in slow time inside the citadel, did the outside world not age rapidly? The story needs the slow time for various reasons, but the Doctor’s pseudoscience babble is no more than the writer disguising the fact they have written themselves into a corner.
Like Paul Cornell’s Human Nature the novel was almost turned into a TV episode. Gareth Roberts also wrote The Dead Planet for the Tenth Doctor, though only the idea of public transport whizzing through a Fortean Flicker survived and the dead planet.