❉ Nerys Hughes delivers a sublime performance, and her dynamic with Louise Jameson as Leela is fantastic.
“Leela and Margaret are characters that, conceptually, are polar opposites, but they manage to find common ground and build up a strong relationship. It’s one of the most compelling parts of Ice Heist!, seeing the two interact, and having to deal with the Doctor they’re both stuck with.”
In March 2022, Big Finish released The Fourth Doctor Adventures: Solo, two stories set during the period between The Hand of Fear and The Face of Evil when the fourth Doctor is travelling, as the name suggests, on his own. The highlight of this set, and in my opinion one of the highlights of the Fourth Doctor Adventures range as a whole, was David Llewellyn’s The Ravencliff Witch. This tale of a haunted power station in a coastal town has much to commend it, but one of the main highlights is Nerys Hughes as Margaret Hopwood, a local resident and sculptor with a streak of melancholy about her. The production team evidently saw potential in the character, so we come to New Frontiers. The Doctor, now travelling with Leela, reunites with Margaret and (in the grand tradition of one-off characters being “upgraded” to regulars that started with Jamie and funnily enough includes Leela) they venture off on new adventures, namely Ice Heist! and Antillia the Lost.
Ice Heist! is a very interesting format for a companion introduction. Usually a story like this would have the character in question, having met the Doctor once already, becoming embroiled in the middle of yet another of the Doctor’s escapades. The Curse of Davros springs to mind as an example. Ice Heist! decides to change things up a bit by just throwing Margaret pretty much straight into the thick of travelling in the TARDIS.
This is a very clever approach, the whole “character meeting the Doctor again and becoming a companion” thing is something Big Finish have done a lot, and it means we get a very different kind of companion introduction story, one that focuses on the idea of a character who doesn’t really know what they’re getting into. The Doctor whisks Margaret off into a 23rd Century art auction to show her (in a Vincent and the Doctor-esque twist) that her work lives on. But Margaret is overwhelmed, and has a very realistic reaction to suddenly being uprooted from her own life and being shown, essentially, a reminder of her own death. Nerys Hughes delivers a sublime performance, and her dynamic with Louise Jameson as Leela is fantastic.
One of my big issues with Big Finish is the way some writers write for Leela, as a character she has roots in antiquated tropes, and sometimes it’s easy for writers to lean into those tropes without thinking because that was how she would occasionally be portrayed on TV. How often do we get stories where Leela is referred to as a savage without protest, or where she has dialogue along the lines of “What is this “light switch” of which you speak, Doctor?”. But thankfully, the Leela of Ice Heist! is light years away from this portrayal. She is intelligent, strong, and (in one of the most interesting developments for the character) has been placed in a position of being the voice of experience for Margaret, guiding her new sculptor friend through the madcap experience of travelling with the Doctor. Leela and Margaret are characters that, conceptually, are polar opposites, but they manage to find common ground and build up a strong relationship. It’s one of the most compelling parts of Ice Heist!, seeing the two interact, and having to deal with the (suddenly pocket-obsessed) Doctor they’re both stuck with.
The main plot of Ice Heist! Involves, as you would imagine from the title, the Ice Warriors being involved in a heist. One thing I really appreciated about this story was how it tackled racism very head-on. Racism is a big theme of this story, and although there are one or two squiffy moments (Leela assumes the Ice Warriors are up to something because they’re Ice Warriors, and is called a racist… Then it turns out she was right), in general it succeeds. The fact the human characters casually call the Martians “Greenies”, and refer to them as “you people”, after a while you feel their frustration and understand their hostility. And ultimately the “main villain” of Ice Heist! isn’t the humans or the Martians, but it’s the big, immoral, faceless corporation running the auction. It’s perhaps not the most subtle of stories, but it feels startlingly relevant.
The theme of “immoral corporations” continues in Antillia the Lost. A corporation funds an expedition into finding the lost artificial planet of Antillia (named after the 15th Century “phantom island”), which disappeared from space 50 years ago. This expedition inadvertently draws the TARDIS off-course, forcing the Doctor, Leela, and Margaret to crash land on the legendary planet. One thing that struck me about this story was how prescient it is: For those who don’t know, the Fourth Doctor Adventures range is recorded far in advance of most of Big Finish’s other output: Antillia the Lost was recorded in May and June 2018. So to have journalist Theodora Markway (played rather wonderfully by Anjilia Mohindra) worried that her news reports and articles have been overshadowed by AIs doing her job for her… Well, it felt spookily relevant considering the recent surge of ChatGPT.
Unfortunately, I felt that Margret was side-lined for much of this story (was this a Doctor and Leela script that had to be rewritten to include her?), and to be honest I don’t think the premise of the story met its full potential. We have a lost planet trapped in another dimension, with strange creatures stalking the surface, and an alien intelligence from beyond our comprehension waiting to take over. This sounds like the recipe for a spooky story (very in line with the Hinchcliffe era) that would challenge the listener but ultimately in terms of tone Antillia doesn’t really push the boat out much further than being a standard Doctor Who story. Which is absolutely fine, and I must stress I did enjoy this story.
Overall, the New Frontiers set is a bit of an odd one. For a pair of stories that was meant to introduce Margaret as a companion, I don’t feel as though she’s fully settled in yet. With that said, the seeds are there, and I’m excited to see where this series goes from here. As for the stories themselves, they’re both solid, and although Antillia didn’t blow me away, I don’t think you’ll go wrong with this set.
❉ Doctor Who – The Fourth Doctor Adventures: New Frontiers is now available to own as a collector’s edition 4-disc CD box set (+ download for just £24.99) or a digital download (for just £19.99), exclusively from www.bigfinish.com. Both stories in this box set are also available to buy separately as a download only (for just £12.99 each).
❉ Stephen Brennan has been writing for fanzines and charity anthologies for some time. A writer by day, a game developer by night, they can be a bit of a grump, but with a mischievous twinkle in their eye that lets you know they aren’t all bad.
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