They’re back! To bring anyone who doesn’t know up to speed, Jago and Litefoot are two characters from the classic Doctor Who serial The Talons Of Weng Chiang (which get widely regarded as one of the best Doctor Who stories ever.) Henry Gordon Jago is a theatrical impresario, full of vim and bluster, and permanently coming out the worst for wear of some insalubrious endeavour. Professor Litefoot is a surgeon who occasionally works for the police dissecting bodies. Together, they are Jago and Litefoot, investigators of the strange and supernatural amongst the gaslit streets of Victorian London, in Big Finish’s own spin-off radio series.
I absolutely loved the first series which built from a charming start with The Mahogany Murderers into an involving, atmospheric and rompishly entertaining affair. The series is exactly what you want from supernatural Victorian murder mysteries–dripping in melodrama, full of smoky taverns, eeries alleyways and vampires in the smog, and brought to life with a rich sound production. The actors playing Jago and Litefoot are effortless, playing off each other with entertaining and loquacious joy (Jago in particular, with his abiding affection for alliterative assertions.)
Series 2 kicks off with ‘Litefoot and Sanders‘ by Justin Richards, which sees Litefoot investigating vampyrrhic murders around London with the assistance of a Doctor Sanders. Meanwhile, Jago is following him around, aggrieved at being left out of the loop. It’s a good opening (much stronger than The Mahogany Murderers), but is hampered by three things: 1) Sanders is quite patently the villain from the outset, 2) the series is at its best when Litefoot and Jago are playing off each other and 3) there’s no explanation for vampires. Ironic this, because last season I was thinking ‘I’d love this just that tiny bit more if they dispensed with the necessary ‘Doctor Who explanation’ and just played this as ‘supernatural Victorian’. Without it, you’re left wondering where exactly the vampires come. For all that, it’s an entertaining mystery, the blind match girl character is interesting and it does set up the whole series plot in an interesting way.
Next up is ‘The Necropolis Express’ by Mark Morris. Endeavouring to make sure that Undead-Ellie’s body is laid to rest properly, Jago and Litefoot stow away on the Necroplis Express that bears the bodies away the mass graveyards outside the city. There they discovered a monstrous man, hidden away conducting monstrous experiments–a man that Litefoot knows. The pace is picking up from the first episode, and its atmospherically told (and it gives Jago some very funny moments of cowardice.) It builds up with shades of Frankenstein and plenty of other mad scientist, and is only really let down by what I’m now starting to think of as a ‘throw the sound effects at the wall’ ending–where the conclusion is pretty much spelled out by means of the mass destruction of the location, involving a cacophanous sound production and neatly wiping the slate clean at the end. Let that not sound too negative though–this is all relative gripes in what was still a great episode of a superb show.
Which brings us to ‘The Theatre of Dreams’ by Jonathan Morris. Jago has hired the creepy Theatre de Fantasie to play at his newly acquired theatre, a strange act fronted by a woman and a harlequin to who can make people’s dreams appear before their eyes. This is, hands down, the best episode of the series so far, which I loved in a shout-it-from-the-rooftops, writers-jealous-inducing way. It’s pitch perfect from the start, with the Theatre de Fantasie demonstrating its tricks (the upperclassman harbouring the secret desire for his footman, the woman who lost her sweetheart decades ago). And once they’re installed in Jago’s theatre it gets even better, as Jago and Litefoot (and then Sachar and Quick) get caught up in its influence, unable to tell dream from reality. That kind of thing could so easily have been a mess of surrealist setpieces, but instead its a tightly wound narrative with a tight internal logic, like a sort of gaslit version of Inception. It’s conclusion is the crowning glory: a metafictional stroke of genius that sees Litefoot ‘breaking the fourth wall’ to escape the spell of the Theatre–declaring to an invisible audience that they know they are fictional characters. The final cherry on top is the winking conclusion where, just for a moment, we think that maybe the safe drinking-in-the-tavern ending isn’t as safe as it always seems, and then we’re off to…
‘The Ruthven Inheritance’ by Andy Lane. Jago and Litefoot have both been stripped of what matters to them: Jago’s theatre, and Litefoot’s career and good standing. And then they are offered a way out by the mysterious Lord Ruthven, who brings Litefoot to his estate to investigate the strange bones found in an underground necropolis beneath his tennis court. Bones that suggest a family with a dark secret: they have evolved into preternaturally strong creatures with razor sharp bones. All of which is masterminded by Doctor Sanders himself.
Now–I’m going to carefully modulate how I write this. I love this series, and even as its worst, Jago and Litefoot is thrilling fare. Unfortunately, The Ruthven Inheritance is a bit of a mess; it caves under the weight of tying up loose ends, and yet simultaneously seems to take a very long time to go not very far. Litefoot and Sachar spend a great deal of time in the necropolis cataloguing bones, revealing a secret which is disposed of pretty quickly immediately thereafter, without any real sense of threat (or, in fact, an explanation for how these strange creatures existed anyway.) And then, for the second time this series, we have a sound-effects-smorgasbord finale that’s lumbered with some heavy-handed narration of events to keep things ticking over. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, but it does feel like a weak entry in a strong series. Judging by Series One, too, it does seem as if it might be an ongoing problem; perhaps an hour is too short a time to satisfactorily end a series plot with the proper bang.
But–and I constantly chide myself for this–it may appear that I am ruthlessly picking faults here. I may be, but I should once again stress that I love this series. It’s right up my (cobbled, smog-filled) alleyway, and I’m shivering and salivating at the prospect of three more series to listen through, with another on the way. Not the mention the fact that I would feed my left arm to a werewolf to have a chance of writing my own Jago and Litefoot script. We can but dream.