❉ Tom Baker’s latest Big Finish series has one foot in nostalgia and the other in Doctor Who’s present.
What stands out the most about Big Finish Productions latest Doctor Who audio release starring Tom Baker, The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 8: The Syndicate Masterplan Volume 1, is how well the individual stories would have fit the show’s 21st century model. After an introductory episode where the Doctor is party to a young professional’s workday going astray due to aliens seeking other aliens, the requisite trips to the past and the future soon follow. In case there was any doubt, the incorporation of a personality from Earth’s history, a returning race of aliens and some hints at a larger storyline make the comparisons to mid-tenure David Tennant virtually unavoidable.
Since 2005, the Davies/Moffat blueprint has proven remarkably durable, including last year when Chris Chibnall utilized it for Jodie Whittaker’s inaugural series as the Doctor. That it also works when used for a past Doctor is unsurprising. What is somewhat surprising is hearing it applied to Tom Baker. Of all the 20th century Doctors working for Big Finish, he’s the only one whose tenure is widely regarded as a “golden age” for Doctor Who. Where his successors’ audio adventures often came across as apologias for their onscreen tenures, Tom Baker’s Big Finish run literally started from the end of one of his TV stories and largely continued in that nostalgic vein regardless of which companion he was teamed with. Until this release, that is.
Coincidentally or not, this set finds Baker’s Doctor paired for the first time in a Big Finish release with a newly created companion, PC Ann Kelso, played by actress and novelist Jane Slavin. Though Baker once dismissed the idea of a new companion, feeling that much of the appeal of his audio stories lay in nostalgia, Slavin’s portrayal of Ann brings a spark to his portrayal that was missing from his last set of stories. As shown by having Ann come from 1978 – the right year for a contemporary companion at this point in this Doctor’s history – the set has one foot in nostalgia and the other in Doctor Who’s present.
The set’s opening installment, The Sinestran Kill, exemplifies this balancing act. Even as a variety of off-hand remarks make the story’s placement in the Fourth Doctor’s timeline perfectly clear, the plot echoes the 2007 TV episode Smith and Jones. Along similar lines, Ann’s first trip with the Doctor in Planet of the Drashigs finds a vintage monster getting a rethink that calls to mind Gridlock but is unmistakably tailored to Baker’s Doctor. “That’s the spirit,” replies the Doctor when one of the guest characters declares that they’re going to die, evoking the self-awareness that characterized his late-70s portrayal but avoiding such overindulgences as “even the sonic screwdriver won’t get me out of this one.”
The set’s trip into Earth history, The Enchantress of Numbers, is in turn reminiscent of The Shakespeare Code. Computer science pioneer Ada Lovelace (aka The Countess of Lovelace) is far more obscure than William Shakespeare, the two stories are united by a preoccupation with the capacity of intellectual endeavour to alter reality. While the plot is a bit too leisurely in the first part and too compacted in the second and some of the world-building related to the Block Transfer Wars feels a bit clunky, Finty Williams’ performance as Ada compares favorably to the show’s other portrayals of other historical figures.
The final story in the set, The False Guardian, comes across the weakest, at least on first listen. Since it’s explicitly an interim chapter within a larger narrative to be continued in next month’s release, that’s a somewhat tentative judgment. That said, however the forthcoming continuation unfolds, a preoccupation with Doctor Who continuity undercuts this current installment.
After three stories where the references to past stories were generally unobtrusive, in this one they adversely impact the storytelling, particularly in the mid-story cliffhanger. The first part ends not with a character’s actual threat to the Doctor and Anne but rather that character’s declaration of identity. Most listeners will probably recognize the name in question, but prioritizing a continuity reference over the natural dynamics of storytelling suggests misplaced priorities on the part of the production team.
The False Guardian’s second part continues in much the same vein, stopping the narrative cold for an involved recap of past events and vamping until the set-ending cliffhanger that’s similarly dependent on continuity. Whether the driving force here is overt pandering to fans or simply lazy writing that assumes fans of a certain generation will give a pass to anything from Doctor Who’s history is unclear. On the plus side, though, this clumsy landing makes the quality of the episodes that came before stand out all the more. Whatever the conclusion to this storyline brings, hopefully the production team will recognize how much this set benefitted from pushing Tom Baker out of his comfort zone.
❉ Doctor Who – Fourth Doctor Adventures: Series 8 Volume 1 was released 31 January 2019. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until February 28th 2019, and on general sale after this date. CD: £25.00/Download: £20.00
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.