❉ A phantasmagorical foursome of familiar foes and friendly faces!
At first glance, Big Finish’s third monster-mashup in its Classic Doctors, New Monsters range might appear to be a policy of diminishing returns, with the blue meanies of Balhoon, the timid Tivoli and Christmas special plot devices the Kantrofarri several leagues below the ‘big bads’ featured in the first two sets in the series such as Weeping Angels, Sycorax, Racnoss and Vashta Neruda, but appearances can be deceptive – a suitable motif for this set of four stories where things are not what they seem, hence the set’s subtitle The Stuff Of Nightmares…
From a writers’ point of view, this is no doubt an advantage as tapping into the potential of less iconic and well-explored alien races offers more fertile ground creatively than high concept, instantly iconic monsters whose MO is already well known to the audience, and this set comes from the pens (or laptops, rather) of four great talents from the Big Finish writing room: Tim Foley, Roy Gill, Anthony Valentine and John Dorney, all We Are Cult favourites from their previous contributions to BF franchises such as Torchwood, Stranded, The Pasternoter Gang as well as the main range.
In the ‘something old, something new’ spirit of this range, we have two of the longest-serving Big Finish Doctors, Colin Baker and Paul McGann (reunited once again with India Fisher, deep joy!), and relative newcomers the range’s prodigal son himself, Tom Baker, and Tim Treloar, who’ve voiced the Third and Fourth Doctors for the last ten years and hopefully for many more years to come.
For the first story in this set, The House That Hoxx Built, Treloar’s uncanny recreation of Jon Pertwee’s dashing Doctor is accompanied by Sadie Miller who first took on the undoubtedly daunting task of stepping into her late mother Elisabeth Sladen’s slingbacks as the beloved Sarah Jane Smith last year in the unmade serial Return Of The Cybermen. With that audio, she immediately captured Sarah’s likeness to great effect and just gets better and better with each appearance – she absolutely captures not just the vocal quirks of Sladen as Sarah, but also the spirit; from the journalist’s breathless enthusiasm and inquisitive curiosity, to that halting catch in her voice during moments of tension and terror, and the way she cheekily teases the Doctor at his most haughty or tetchy, and Treloar meets her at every beat, to the extent that you can fully believe that you’re listening to a bona fide ‘lost’ Season 11 serial.
The story itself takes one of those genre settings that Doctor Who has always excelled at toying with, the manor house mystery with all the trappings, with one foot in Victorian ghost stories and another in the golden age of detective fiction, albeit set in Earth’s far future at around the time most of the planet was rendered uninhabitable by solar flares, recalling the juxtapositions of gothic and fantasy that gave the Sixth Doctor’s John Ridgway-illustrated DWM comic strips such evocative flair. It’s hauntological sci-fi, and introduces us to a relative of The End Of The World’s Moxx of Balhoon – the Hoxx of Balhoon, played by everyone’s favourite space potato Dan Starkey. If, like me, you’re a sucker for egregious continuity references and fan service, you’ll be rewarded with mentions of the likes of Peladon, Florana, Sarah Jane’s yellow anorak from The Sontaran Experiment (yes, really) and the ‘in-universe’ debut of a certain “questionable umbrella”.
The second story in the set continues the who(or what?)dunnit vibe with another tried and trusted genre-smash in Robert Valentine’s sleuthy espionage romp The Tivoli Who Knew Too Much. Valentine makes great use of Toby Whithouse’s race of timid and submissive rodent-featured humanoids, seen on telly in The God Complex (2011) and two-parter Under The Lake/Before The Flood (2015), and veteran character actor Robert Daws makes an excellent impression as another member of the Tivoli race, Timble Feebis. Daws has been a familiar face on TV screens for many years, memorable for such roles as the pompous, priggish Roger in Outside Edge (Central TV, 1994-1996) and upper class twit Tubby Glossop in Jeeves & Wooster (Granada TV, 1990-1993), and aspects of both roles are evoked in his portrayal of this particularly twitchy, wheedling and craven Tivolian, whose characteristics are played off against the mischievous anarchy of Tom Baker slipping effortlessly into the Fourth Season 15 Doctor and the fearless, gung-ho nature of Louise Jameson’s Leela, which makes for some fun repartee. It’s worth noting that, having settled into reprising his Doctor for Big Finish over the past decade, he really does sound like the Doctor of his imperial reign of 40 years ago rather than the fruity ‘Tom Baker as Tom Baker’ self-parodic mannerisms honed over many years of being indulged in numerous DVD commentaries and appearances in documentaries and retrospectives, his performances barely betraying the fact that Tom is now hurtling towards his nineties.
The last two stories in this set can be considered a two-parter of sorts, starting with Roy Gill’s Together In Electric Dreams. To detail too much of the connections between this story and the one that follows would mean giving away some spoilers and twists that are integral to enjoying these stories, as they’re in keeping with this set’s running themes of not all being as it seems. What can be said is that beneath their sci-fi façades, this closing brace of stories draw on the folklore and mythology of accumulated civilisations and cultures from Greek myths to Jungian archetypes. Gill’s tale sees a post-Trial Sixth Doctor visiting the Sleep Museum on the tellingly-titled Lethe Foundation – dedicated to “the science and the sociology of dreams” as Professor Clovis explains to Sixie; and we’re introduced to a new companion, Mari.
Colin’s Sixth Doctor is at his most sophisticated, erudite and droll here, written in a way that echoed to this listener a character to whom Six has often been compared; Seattle radio shrink Dr Frasier Crane at his most charming and least catastrophic. It’s fair to say that ever since Colin’s Doctor was first rehabilitated by Big Finish over 20 years ago, he’s grasped the opportunity to fully demonstrate the full breadth of his incarnation unencumbered by the production pitfalls and cruelly curtailed screen time of his TV tenure, and on evidence of this story he’s still giving everything he’s got, audibly rising to the occasion and delighting in the script’s concepts and numerous classical allusions. Susan Hingley’s Mari Yoshida also provides good value in her scenes sparring with the Doctor (although probably not the one you were expecting…) and there’s a star turn from the superb Rebecca Front, brilliant in everything and making what is surprisingly only her third Big Finish appearance, although fans may also recall her as Col. Walsh in The Zygon Invasion (2015).
From Six to Eight, the set draws to a satisfying conclusion with If I Should Die Before I Wake by BF stalwart John Dorney and it’s always a delight to bear witness to the Eighth Doctor in tandem with India Fisher as Edwardian adventuress Charley Pollard, who really earns her fee here by voicing a various Greek fates in idiosyncratic style!
A phantasmagorical foursome of familiar foes and friendly faces, by the close of this four-disc box, one feels that one has been taken on quite the journey across dimensions, with the arc of a concept album.
DOCTOR WHO – CLASSIC DOCTORS NEW MONSTERS: THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES
Writers: Tim Foley, Robert Valentine, Roy Gill, John Dorney
Director: Barnaby Edwards
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: Matt Fitton
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
Duration: 304 minutes approx.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – Classic Doctors New Monsters: The Stuff of Nightmares’ was released 28 July 2022 as a collector’s edition 4-disc CD box set (+ download for just £24.99) or digital download (for just £19.99), exclusively from the Big Finish website: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who-classic-doctors-new-monsters-3-the-stuff-of-nightmares-2647
❉ Jay Gent (they/them) is editor of We Are Cult, a graphic designer and digital marketing & social media freelancer, and theatre critic for Wales Arts Review. Jay has contributed to a number of magazines, websites and books including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die and Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television in the 1980s and edited (with Jon Arnold) charity anthology Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon).