One of the classics of the Big Finish Doctor Who audios, Steven Moffat's favourite Eighth Doctor episode, and a strong contender for one of the best Doctor Who stories in any medium.
It's an Edwardian Christmas Eve in 1906, and the servants at an English manor prepare for the holiday. Amid all the cooking and cleaning and preparing, scullery maid Edith is getting picked on by the other servants: cook Mrs. Baddeley, lady's maid Mary, and chauffeur Frederick. Even the butler, Mr. Shaughnessy, is getting his licks in. Edith is dumb, uneducated, unpopular, "a nothing, a nobody". While she cleans the pots and pans, everyone else in the house is looking forward to Mrs. Baddely's delicious plum pudding. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without one of her plum puddings.
The TARDIS parks herself in complete darkness. Charley and the Eighth Doctor head out to investigate, and after some initial scares, they realise they're in the scullery of a dark and deserted English manor house on Christmas Eve. The washing-up water is still hot, the plum pudding's still in the oven, and the table's all laid out — but there's no one around. Oh, and time appears to be frozen. But Charley can hear Edith singing, and she can hear a scream...
Time unfreezes enough to let Charley and the Doctor enter the same continuity the servants inhabit. In this world, they're the Doctor of Scotland Yard and his plucky young niece. Edith is murdered and found standing upright with her head in the sink. Although the servants insists it must be suicide, the Doctor notes that it's really extraordinary difficult (to the point of impossble) to drown oneself while standing up. Edith's colleagues insists that she must have simply been too dumb to know it was impossible. Mary (who's sleeping with Frederick) is demoted to scullery maid to fill in for Christmas. Frederick can't love her now, of course. Who could ever love a scullery maid? She's nothing, a nobody. Mrs. Baddely, meanwhile, feeds Charley her plum pudding. Her favourite plum pudding. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without one of those plum puddings. And Mrs. Baddely's plum puddings were always Charley's favourite, ever since she was a little girl.
Twenty minutes after ten, when the clock chimes eleven, Mrs. Baddely is also murdered — stuffed full of plum pudding. And no one remembers Edith anymore. But Charley can hear Edith's voice reverberating, begging Charley to remember her. Edward Grove is alive. There will be a third murder at midnight.
The victims won't stay dead... and, come to think of it, have oddly flexible ideas about what roles they (and the Doctor and Charley) have to play in the murder mystery. Edith is murdered again, this time suffocated with a plunger. Frederick is the next victim, run over by his own car. Inside the house. When the Doctor tries to leave the house or go upstairs (to where His Lordship and Her Ladyship supposedly live), the servants immediately try to kill him. They happily back down again when he stops trying to leave, and go back to their roles in the story. Charley, herself a native of upper-class Edwardian England, is particularly suited to the designs of whatever entity is running this dumbshow. It wants something from her... but what?
As time warps, twists and reverts itself around the Doctor, he quickly realises that the Lotus-Eater Machine is toying with him. He's not allowed to leave the World Limited to the Plot. But he does, because he's absolutely terrified, and heads off into the TARDIS, where there's another scullery waiting for him. And inside the scullery, another TARDIS. Edward Grove is alive. Edward Grove is the house.
The Doctor coaxes the house into coming out and talking to him through Mr. Shaughnessy. But Charley is trapped on the other end of the time barrier, together with Edith (now twice dead), who's still begging Charley to remember her. And then, it finally turns out that Edith was the cook in Charley's house when she grew up. Having served at Edward Grove in 1906 as a scullery maid, she was always picked on, always ignored, a nothing, a nobody. But when she was eventually hired as a cook by Charley's father and moved into their home, there was always one person who remembered her name, someone who cared: little Charlotte Pollard. Charley always loved Edith's plum pudding. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without one of Edith's plum puddings. And when Charley died in the R101 crash, Edith had nothing left to live for, and she slit her own wrists with a kitchen knife.
But Charley surviving the R101 crash upset the time stream so heavily that Edith's death (now rendered meaningless) gave birth to a sentient, malevolent time stream energy that feeds on constant death. It took residence in (or rather, as) Edward Grove: the house where young Edith envied the lady's maids, got abandoned by the chauffeur, aspired to be a cook, was bullied by the butlers.
The Doctor, meanwhile, has realised most of this. And in desperation, he resorts to what his Seventh incarnation was most notorious for: Talking the Monster to Death. He tries to convince Edward Grove to commit suicide, so that his victims will be set free. When Edward refuses, the Doctor, absolutely scared out of his mind, devises an even more extreme last-ditch attempt to contact Charley beyond the veil of the time barrier: he commands Mr. Shaughnessy to grab his throat and strangle him.
And it works — now dying, the Doctor is able to cross the time barrier and talk to Charley. But Charley has never met the Doctor. She died in the R101, so Edith's suicide could have meaning. She remembers the crash, the flames, the bodies around her. With great effort, the Doctor eventually gets through to Charley, and Charley chooses life, finally vanquishing the house's consciousness.
Before they leave, the Doctor and Charley drop by in 1906 proper, where young scullery maid Edith is scrubbing the pots. They tell her she's not nothing, not a nobody, and that she's actually quite wonderful. With that, they leave — the Doctor still very scared, and Charley now having to live with the Double Consciousness of fully remembering both her rescue and her death. This will come back to bite them.
Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without any tropes!
- A Bloody Mess: A rare audio-only example: The Doctor and Charley mistake spilled raspberry jam for blood.
- Absurdism: It's a Robert Shearman episode, so this is a given.
- Achievements in Ignorance: Discussed. When it's pointed out that it would be physically impossible for Edith to have committed suicide by drowning herself in the sink/suffocating herself with a plunger, the other servants suggest that she managed to do it anyway because she was too stupid to know it was impossible.
- Anachronic Order: Bits and pieces of the temporal loop are pulled from different parts of Edith's life. See also the trope below.
- Anachronism Stew: An in-universe example appears when Frederick references Agatha Christie and says he drives a Chrysler. However, as the Doctor points out, it's 1906; Agatha Christie's first novel won't be published until 1920, and Chrysler cars won't exist until 1924. The servants promptly change their story, which leads to fantastic Black Comedy once Frederick is murdered and Mary starts to cry about him and his "Chrysler, or possibly Bentley".
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The Extra-Strength Masquerade that Edward Grove enforces on the servants causes them to overfocus on details.Doctor (about the unseen heads of the house): If you've seen them, you know what they look like! If they're human, describe your masters! Old, young, short, tall, with glasses, without, bearded, clean shaven? Or else you're servants with no one to serve!
Mary: I'm pretty sure Her Ladyship doesn't have a beard...
- Author Appeal: The episode has similar themes to Shearman's earlier episode "The Holy Terror", and his much later story "Scherzo".
- Back from the Dead: Some turns of the "Groundhog Day" Loop resurrect some people whilst leaving others dead.
- Because You Were Nice to Me: Edith is Charley's former scullery maid. From the future from the perspective of when this story is put.
- Black Comedy: Just try not to giggle while you're being terrified.
- Butt-Monkey: Edith is this to the other servants.
- Catchphrase: Several; the servants repeat a number of their lines as a side effect of the time loop. But especially "Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Mrs. Baddeley's plum pudding!", "You're nothing, you're nobody." and "X is the murderer - s/he's got shifty eyes."
- Christmas Carol: Hark now hear the angels sing. Hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm!
- Christmas Episode: Though this one is more in the "scary, dramatic" tradition like "Death In Blackpool" or "Twice Upon A Time" than the "fun and silly" tradition like "The One Doctor" or "The Husbands of River Song".
- Contrived Coincidence: People getting murdered every hour, on the hour.
- Cosmic Horror Story: The people in the house are trapped in an endless loop of murder with something that feeds off their deaths. Brrr.
- Deadpan Snarker: Played for both dark humour and drama. As the Doctor begins to realise that the house isn't quite normal, he treats any occurrence with a sort of dark acceptance.Doctor: Yes, of course, Mrs. Baddeley. It's quite clear that Frederick brought the car into the house, ran himself over with it, and put it back outside before he finally expired.
- Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: Edward Grove deliberately tries to invoke this trope. The Doctor throws the teacup to the floor in defiance.
- Distinction Without a Difference: Edith says she couldn't write her name in the dust. She gets scolded for disagreeing, until she points out she can't write, but if she could she could write her name in the dust.
- Dramatic Shattering: The Doctor throws a teacup on the floor in anger.
- Driven to Suicide: Charley is nearly convinced to kill herself by Edith. Edith herself was driven to suicide by the news of Charley's death. And the Doctor begs Edward Grove to kill itself.
- The Edwardian Era: They're back in Charley's home era.
- Extra-Strength Masquerade: The people trapped in the loop tie themselves in ridiculous verbal knots trying to justify the increasingly absurd murders.
- Force Feeding: Mrs Baddely dies this way in one of the loops, force-fed her own Christmas Pudding.
- Foreshadowing: The TARDIS just doesn't want to go to Singapore in 1930...
- And of course the references to Shakespeare...
- A Glitch in the Matrix: Several. The servants only intermittently remember that Edith was the scullery maid instead of Mary; they start out saying that the Doctor and Charley are the chief inspector from Scotland Yard and his niece, then switch to calling them Amateur Sleuths; Frederick lets loose an Anachronism Stew when the Doctor interviews him; and so on. This is one of the first signs that something's very seriously amiss.
- "Groundhog Day" Loop: Of just two hours.
- Heroic Sacrifice: The Doctor telling Shaughnessy to kill him so he can meet Charley and tell her not to kill herself.
- Insane Troll Logic: Mr. Shaugnessy thinks that when poor Edith dies, she must've been unaware it was impossible to drown herself in a sink, so she did. He then proceeds to do this with all of the deaths.
- Internal Homage: The story is a wonderful and elaborate love letter to "Ghost Light".
- Ironic Nursery Tune: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"
- Just One Second Out of Sync: Something similar. The Doctor can't see the people frozen in time.
- Laser-Guided Amnesia: The Servants forgetting Edith.
- Les Yay: Edith seems to have a great interest in Charley. She even killed herself when Charley died on the R101.
- Literary Allusion Title: II Henry IV, III.ii
- Locked Room Mystery: A bit more literally so than the Doctor suspects at first. When he tries to leave the house or go upstairs (to where His Lordship and Her Ladyship supposedly live), the servants immediately try to kill him. They happily back down again when he stops trying to leave, and go back to their roles in the story.
- Love Triangle: Mary, Freddy, Edith.
- Meat Puppet: Mr. Shaughnessy gets used like this by the house.
- Merlin Sickness: Charley suffers from this for a bit, until she shakes it off, noticing its effects.
- Mood Whiplash: A good chunk of this audio manages to be utterly hilarious while simultaneously scaring the crap out of you.
- Noodle Incident: The Doctor and Charley finding a first edition of Oliver Twist in Charing Cross road.
- Never One Murder: Instead it's one every hour. Then at midnight the whole thing starts over again.
- Ominous Music Box Tune: The adventure starts off with one.
- Our Ghosts Are Different: Edith is between existing and not, because she killed herself when Charley died on the R101. When the Doctor rescued her from that...
- Pet the Dog: Mr. Shaughnessy relents a bit when Edith says she can't write, and shows her how her name is written.
- Poetic Serial Killer: The victims are killed in a way that reflects their job. Edith is first drowned in the sink, then suffocated with a plunger and finally beaten to death with a broom, Mrs. Baddeley is suffocated by having her mouth stuffed with her own plum pudding, and Frederick is run over. None of the murders make any sense, either, except for maybe the one with the plunger: there's more water in Edith's lungs than could have even been in the sink in the first place, it would have taken far too long to get that much pudding inside Mrs. Baddeley, and Frederick is run over indoors.
- Red Herring: Rob Shearman was given the tricky brief of seeming to solve the season's time paradox without actually doing so. So at a glance, this episode seems to resolve the issue of Charley's paradoxical existence, but really just deals with a result of it, not the cause, which is a lot bigger.
- Ret-Gone: Edith is forgotten every time there's a second death. Then "Groundhog Day" Loop kicks back in.
- Retroactive Precognition: The "Groundhog Day" Loop gives people some knowledge of their deaths.
- The Reveal: Edward Grove is the house.
- Sapient House: The episode builds up to the reveal of the true meaning of the Madness Mantra "Edward Grove is alive": Edward Grove is not the name of a man believed dead, as the protagonists originally assume, but the name of the haunted house itself. It turns out that the psychic energy of a violent death combined with a time paradox somehow granted Edward Grove sentience, and it has been messing with time, and killing people, to lengthen the phenomenon and thereby its own existence as a sentient entity.
- The Scream: On the hour, every hour. The same one. Every time.
- Serial Escalation: Each death is more outrageously funny and/or scary than the one before.
- Suicide, Not Murder: Mr. Shaughnessy says this of every death.
- Suspect Is Hatless:"(When trying to remember what she looks like) Fairly sure the ladyship doesn't have a beard!"
- Talking the Monster to Death: The Doctor eventually talks Edward Grove to death.
- Temporal Paradox: Kicked off the timeloop.
- Time Stands Still: At the beginning of the story, before Charley and the Doctor are admitted into the time loop.
- Timey-Wimey Ball: The Doctor rescuing someone from certain death has never had any real adverse effects before, and certainly not to the extend that Charley's rescue seems to be having. Charley developing a Double Consciousness as a result is also a new development in the series. Both concepts would later be explored more thoroughly in the 2005 TV series episode "Father's Day".
- UnPeople: Edith isn't allowed to backtalk, or offer her opinion. Mrs. Baddely says the staff in general "Are nobody". Seeing as they're trapped by a temporal parasite, they've literally become UnPeople
- Wham Line: As Charley and the Doctor sit in the TARDIS:The Doctor: " ... I was wrong to think we could escape the house, instead we've taken the house with us!"
- What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Though in the Doctor's defence, the human is an innocent, and the non-human is a sadist that shows no interest in doing anything more with its existence than torturing people with bizarre deaths. (Not to mention the Doctor is something of a benevolent Humanoid Abomination himself, so can hardly be accused of prejudice against eldritch abominations in general).Edward Grove: "Please, Doctor! It's her life or mine! Please! Please make her kill herself! It's her life or mine!!"The Doctor: "... Exactly
- When the Clock Strikes Twelve: ... bad things happen.
- Whodunnit?: Who's killing people every time the clock strikes the hour? And why are the murders getting more and more absurd?
- World Limited to the Plot: Well it is a Robert Shearman episode. Nobody can leave the house or go upstairs, because there isn't an outside or upstairs - it's a Locked Room Mystery with no outside to the room.