As we make our way through 2018, the world of Doctor Who can once again rejoice with the return of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor in a new set of Big Finish stories.
It seems like a good long while since Baker stayed away from the show, wanting to carve out a separate identity from that of his estranged Time Lord counterpart. These days, the world can appreciate his madness, daftness, and brilliance in fresh stories every year thanks to the magic of Big Finish.
Which leads us to the first offering of 2018 with a Fourth Doctor flavour, a new box set with three self contained adventures – two single stories and one two-parter. But has the Fourth Doctor had his day or is he as relevant now as back in the 1970s and ’80s?
Starting off with The Sons of Kaldor by Andrew Smith, the Doctor and Leela (Louise Jameson) are once more up against the dastardly VOC robots last seen on screen in Robots of Death. This time round, the problem isn’t the robots but a group of rebels desperate to incite change through any means necessary, perhaps offering the most interesting change in their characteristics since their inception. These robots are not mindless drones to be controlled; they have no false idol to follow nor do they have a dark ulterior motive: they simply want to exist. This lends far more depth to them and to the Doctor and Leela’s relationship with them as well.
This is a sharp start to series 7 of the Fourth Doctor Adventures and is tremendous fun for listeners. One minor quibble would be, at least for this reviewer, that the VOC voices are slightly different for this production, which is a little difficult to adjust to for the first 5-10 minutes of listening. One would imagine that a little more soul in their voices helps to establish pathos, which is very true and does serve for a heartbreaking scene when one particular VOC fears death more than his programming should allow. But this is a very minor quibble from a fusspot so feel free to ignore it as it doesn’t impact the story.
However, David Llewellyn’s The Crowmarsh Experiment offers the most thought provoking story from this new series, with Leela facing a change in identity and Baker getting the chance to play a character other than the Doctor. It oozes with uncertainty as the comfortable pairing of the Doctor and Leela is ripped away, leaving the listener with a trepidation as to how events will unfold. It’s remarkably well written with strong performances to match. Perhaps (and this is said in whispered tones) this story is one of truest in style and flavor when it comes to Big Finish recreating the feel of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, circa 1970s Saturday teatime. It’s got a wonderful Avengers style of oddness, similar to The Avengers series six where the stories became almost science fiction in London.
Leela’s struggle to understand who she really is and which “reality” is real is handled expertly by Louise Jameson who will break your heart with this performance. 41 years on from initially playing the companion and Jameson has only got better and better in the role. Make no mistake, this is Leela’s adventure that the Doctor is involved in, not the other way around.
We finish our Fourth Doctor outing with a conspiracy thriller-cum-high octane-thriller with the John Dorney two parter, The Mind Runners/ The Demon Rises. In equal parts, this the most ambitious of the set and the most frustrating as well. Whilst Dorney’s dialogue remains as sharp and intoxicating as ever, the story itself starts strongly but loses momentum halfway into part two. A Doctor Who story, like a James Bond film, is only as good as its villain and here the pace starts to fall. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the titular ‘baddies’ – they kill, they scheme, they plot, and they hinder – the listener isn’t left with a resounding impression of a worthy villain receiving a worthy comeuppance.
But as with most of Big Finish’s sterling efforts, there’s still plenty to indulge in: tight direction, sizzling dialogue for the Doctor and Leela, and some engrossing sound design that help create a living, breathing alien world.
Overall however, this new series of Fourth Doctor stories is a tremendous success and a fun way to spend a lazy afternoon with this classic TARDIS team. Long may Doctor number Four and his friends return to us via Big Finish again and again.
The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 7 – Part One is out now from Big Finish, priced £35 on CD or £30 as a download.