❉ Reprising her role as Leela, Louise Jameson’s performance stands as one of her finest hours for Big Finish.
“While being a “savage” superficially positions Leela as an outlier among companions, she actually embodies something very fundamental about Doctor Who. Of all the values the Doctor prizes in his friends, intelligence is among the most critical. The Doctor may get top billing, but she’s very much the main character here.”
There’s arguably no riskier avenue for Doctor Who than nostalgia. On the one hand, five decades worth of history can provide the raw material for compelling stories, and subtle nods to the past are a nice treat for devoted fans. Conversely, this same history shows that treating the past as an object of worship rather than something to be investigated tends to yield mixed results.
For the better part of two decades, a variation of this dynamic has been at work across Big Finish Productions’ range of Doctor Who releases. Nowhere is this more apparent than those featuring Tom Baker as the Doctor. While the mindset of The Fourth Doctor Adventures has broadened a bit from the initial tag-line of “It’s Saturday teatime in 1977 all over again…”, the streak of nostalgia running through them remains unmistakable. This includes the latest release in the line, Series 7 Volume 1.
This isn’t a bad thing, and neither is it surprising. Tom Baker remains the most popular of all the “Classic Series” Doctors, with more stories in the top ten of Doctor Who Magazine’s most recent comprehensive survey than any other Doctor. That each of those stories comes from a different season points to both an enduring fondness for his overall tenure in the role and the challenge faced by those making the audio dramas. Their success is defined not just by how well they recapture the aesthetic of the equivalent TV season but also whether they can give fans a reason to buy new stories instead of simply re-watching their DVDs.
Very often, the key to the latter point has been less a function of Tom Baker himself (good as he is) than his companion – one companion in particular. For the majority of his Big Finish appearances, Baker has been accompanied by Louise Jameson reprising her role as Leela. While this was somewhat driven by necessity, particularly the unfortunate deaths of Elisabeth Sladen and later Mary Tamm, the net effect has been very beneficial for the line overall.
As much fun as it would have been to hear the Doctor and Sarah together again, on some level it would have felt inessential. Despite the abrupt exit, both the character and her relationship with the Doctor felt fully formed on-screen. To the extent there was anything under-explored, it was addressed in School Reunion and her other appearances in the programme’s TV revival. Likewise, because nostalgia is so intrinsic to the appeal of these new adventures, there’s very little Baker can – or should – do beyond recreating his majestic performance from decades earlier.
In contrast, Leela presents a genuine opportunity to develop a companion whose potential wasn’t always fulfilled on television. Though she started off as a character who was explicitly growing and learning from her travels with the Doctor, that element got sidetracked midway through her onscreen tenure. Since the current release is explicitly set during that time-frame, these stories help redress the balance.
While being a “savage” superficially positions Leela as an outlier among companions, she actually embodies something very fundamental about Doctor Who. Of all the values the Doctor prizes in his friends, intelligence is among the most critical. His regard for Leela – with her mix of keen instinct and inquisitiveness – demonstrates a very egalitarian approach to that trait. Because the person asking questions tends to have more dramatic potential than one who acts as if they know everything, emphasizing Leela is also a boon narratively. The Doctor may get top billing, but she’s very much the main character here.
Of course, none of this would matter if Leela wasn’t played by an actress as adept as Louise Jameson. This shows through most clearly in the set’s standout story, The Crowmarsh Experiment by David Llewellyn. What starts as a straightforward adventure on an alien planet turns nightmarish after Leela awakes from being knocked unconscious to find herself on 20th century Earth facing the possibility that the life she’s known has all been imagined, the result of a psychological experiment gone wrong. Jameson navigates not just the disconnect between Leela’s new surroundings and her memories but also the emotional impact of being introduced to children she can’t remember and a husband who lives in her memory all too deeply. Jameson’s performance here stands with her role in last year’s War Doctor finale as her finest hour for Big Finish.
The other stories in the set are more typical adventures but also fine showcases for both Baker and Jameson. The opening instalment, The Sons of Kaldor, is certainly the most traditional and – with its connections to The Robots of Death – the most overtly nostalgic. Fortunately, writer Andrew Smith doesn’t simply recapitulate plot-lines from its TV ancestor but rather uses select elements to craft a logical next act for that society’s narrative. In short, it’s Doctor Who nostalgia done right.
The second half of the set is written by Big Finish regular John Dorney. The story, which begins with The Mind Runners and continues in The Demon Rises, takes the Doctor, Leela and K-9 (played as usual by John Leeson) to the doomed planet Chaldera. Against the backdrop of a massive evacuation effort, the trio get caught up in a string of mysterious deaths. The local police are intent on dismissing them as suicides, but the Doctor rightly senses something more sinister at work.
The Doctor’s suspicions give Leela a chance to show another aspect of her personality. For all the pleasure derived from witnessing her expand her horizons, there’s also great joy in the supreme confidence she displays in her most natural role – that of a hunter. The scenario also allows her innate wisdom to shine with clever – but also perfectly in character – dialogue like “a man of water is invisible in rain”. It’s a tribute to Jameson that these aspects all feel part of a cohesive whole.
The current series marks a change of release strategy for The Fourth Doctor Adventures. Rather than releasing stories simultaneously each month on CD and download, Series 7 is presented as two volumes on CD and digitally, with individual stories available via download only. The second half of Series 7, which will include a returning villain, is due out in May. Whether one chooses to spread out the individual episodes or consume them ravenously is a matter of personal preference. The variety of stories on offer combined with Baker and Jameson’s performances ensure that either approach will be satisfying.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – The Fourth Doctor Adventures: Series 7, Volume 1’ was released on 18 January 2018. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until February 28th 2018, and on general sale after this date. You can get Volume 1 of the seventh series of The Fourth Doctor Adventures on CD at £25 or on download at £20. Don’t forget that all CD purchases unlock a download option on the Big Finish website or the Big Finish app. These Fourth Doctor tales can also be purchased individually on download at £8.99 each.