In fact, I’ve ummed and erred over whether to even write this review. I don’t like writing reviews like this. But I’ve reviewed — and raved about — every series of Jago and Litefoot so far, so it feels wrong to miss one out. (And it least it proves that I can give bad reviews, and that I don’t just gush over everything I read.)
But it’s finally happened–I’m about to write a bad review for Jago and Litefoot. That hurts me enough. And, worse, I found myself not even enjoying work from the pen of writers I normally love.
Firstly, though–as a baseline, Jago and Litefoot is always good. Mainly because the characters of Jago and Litefoot are great. Secondly, because Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin are superlative in the roles. Thirdly, because The Talons of Weng Chiang, which this spins off from, is Doctor Who at its best. Even when I moan about an episode, it’s still, really, pretty good. Just because it’s Jago and Litefoot. But I’m not used to Jago and Litefoot — or Big Finish — just being ‘good’, because at its high points, previous series were my favourite reading/listening experiences of 2013.
The first episode is The Skeleton Quay by Jonathan Morris, who previously wrote my favourite Jago and Litefoot episode back in Series Two with Theatre of Dreams. It dispatches Jago and Litefoot to the seaside to investigate mysterious sightings at Shingle Cove. The writing and production are atmospheric — it has a classic, Woman In Black feel to it — but suffers from three things: 1) the overall series villain is incredibly obvious; 2) the episode villain is incredibly obvious and 3) the actual reveal squanders all the atmosphere before it. It certainly has its reasons to recommend it, but at this point in Jago and Litefoot, it actually feels slightly lazy.
The second episode is Return of the Repressed by Matthew Sweet, which sees Jago being psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud. Other reviewers give this one a bit of a battering, but I actually quite like it; it’s my favourite of the series. It’s artfully constructed around plot elements that mirror Freudian theory, and in that respect is more calculated than the usual rompish stylings of the series thus far, but I found it to be a clever, entertaining story that is, as always, marvellously acted.
Then the series takes a bit of a turn. I’m used to the series structure of three individual mysteries with the ‘big bad’ lurking in the background, coming front and centre in the last episode (or the last thirty seconds of the third.) This time round, our antagonist, the Colonel, is pulling out all the villainy early on, making the last two episodes more of a double set than usual. The problem is that George Mann seems to have been left a bit of a thankless task in episode three, Military Intelligence, having to shuffle his characters all around the board to set wheels in motion. And really… not a lot happens. The Colonel’s plan is unremarkable, his quasi-steampunk Sentinel bodyguards are under-used (apart from an excellent moment whereby they are disabled by the confusing use of Jago’s alliterative linguistic style), and it does seem rather as if a set of handcuffs have been placed on the story to simply set up the corners for the finale. Which is a shame, because usually I love George Mann as a writer and it came as a surprise to see his name against the credits when I’ve come to writing the review. The episode is, of course, not without merit. His female spy Agatha is good fun, and an excellent addition to Jago and Litefoot’s succession of strong female roles (although she sounds confusingly similar to the villain of the first episode) and it’s great to have Ellie Higson back. Not to mention, this is some of Jago’s best dialogue.
And then, on to the finale, which has always seemed a bit of a thankless task. The Trial of George Litefoot by Justin Richards has had all its playing pieces set up, seeing Litefoot under trial for the alleged murder of Jago. It eschews the expected setup — the last act reveal that Jago is alive — and gets that out of the way pretty quickly, abandoning the trial and going for a bit of rambunctious action to sort out the vagabond villain. The Colonel is, to be honest, dispatched pretty easily, and has never quite managed to feel like much of noteworthy villain at all, but at the very least the scenes surrounding the trial are very, very funny – Litefoot’s upper-class horror at the conditions of his jailing, and a disguised Jago defending his own honour when his name is besmirched in the trials are really great moments.
But overall, as a series, it feels a bit disappointing. I was looking forward to their return to Victoriana, after their sojourn in the 1960s, hoping it would get back to the rip-roaring feel of the earlier series, where it mixed melodrama and gothic into that signature tongue-in-cheek Doctor Who style, but none of this series has managed it quite as well as they once did. In fact, there’s an echo of Moffat-era Doctor Who, in that it’s coasting on its characters, its actors, its production and its core concept. You’ll still enjoy every episode, but its as if, overall, something’s not quite there. Hearkening back to the beginning, someone coming to this series cold would probably give it a much more positive review, but like many Doctor Who fans complain now — it’s still great now, but it’s been so much better. Sorry Big Finish. Sorry George Mann. I still love you, though.