Doctor Who – ‘Zaltys’ reviewed

It’s weekday teatime in 1982 all over again, with a star turn from Rebecca Root.

It’s hard to believe that Peter Davison has been playing his Doctor for Big Finish’s audio dramas for eighteen years. In all that time, it wasn’t until 2014’s The Fifth Doctor Box Set that the Fifth Doctor’s original, troublesome TARDIS trio of Adric, Tegan and Nyssa were reunited on audio, with actor turned novelist Matthew Waterhouse completing the set. Fast forward to March 2017, and the class of 1982 are three stories into their first fully fledged audio series. So if, like me, you have fond childhood memories of this iteration of Team TARDIS this strand of Big Finish’s main range is something of an event.

Back in Doctor Who’s so-called wilderness years, collective fandom declared that Doctor Who could be divided into ‘trad’ and ‘rad’. Zaltys is firmly in the former camp. To paraphrase one of Big Finish’s promotional slogans, it’s weekday teatime in 1982 all over again.

This trad approach is established in the first episode, with prolonged TARDIS scenes, Adric and Tegan rubbing each other up the wrong way and egregious continuity references (Thoros Beta, temporal grace, ion bonders, Urbankans, Silurians, Draconians, Telos…). To cap it all, there’s a scene-stealing appearance from Rebecca Root (Boy Meets Girl) as scavenger Sable, in the Rula Lenska/Nerys Hughes/Liza Goddard “actor from a daytime soap or prime time sitcom cast against type” guest slot.

Root’s Sable is an enjoyable character to spend time with, radiating the same deadpan sense of humour and naturalistic acting style that made her so likeable in Boy Meets Girl. I hope Big Finish bring Sable back in another story.

Zaltys’ plot is very much in the conceptual mould of Season 19, blending high concept sci-fi  hardware with psychic powers, and touching upon vampirism, cryogenics and telepathy.

The problem of the ‘crowded TARDIS’ during this period in the show is pragmatically handled by pairing the Doctor and Nyssa with Sable, whilst Tegan is afforded her own subplot (with a neat in-joke about ventilation shafts foreshadowing her later sidelining in Terminus), and with Adric forming an uneasy alliance with the self-proclaimed custodians of Zaltys (Shades of similar unions with the Urbankans and the Three Who Rule. Stupid boy!).

In fact, the blundering boy genius triggers the story’s events when Tegan talks Adric into using his maths skills to take the TARDIS to Heathrow, 1982 by appealing to Adric’s desire to impress the Doctor with his cleverness. It’s a very neat use of the characters’ dynamic in Season 19: Tegan, not a time traveller by choice, singularly obsessed with getting back home, and Adric desperate to prove his usefulness and cleverness (“Now’s the chance to show off your skills!”, Tegan taunts Adric. “Just get me to the right place in the right year”). Needless to say, it all goes tits-up and his ill-fated meddling is what scatters our heroes on Zaltys, the so-called ‘planet of the dead’.

Poor Adric. Now, I know he’s fandom’s favourite whipping boy, but I’ve always had some sympathy for the poor wretch. In the opening scenes of The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis, with Romana and K9 gone, we see that the Fourth Doctor  and Adric briefly enjoy  a kind of rapport along the lines of showboating tutor and impressionable student.

The dynamic between this duo is rudely interrupted when Tegan and Tegan come onto the scene, and suddenly it all goes a bit Dr Barnardo’s Homes. To make matters even worse, Adric’s father manqué becomes a completely different person, decidedly short-tempered with Adric, and it’s visible in Season 19’s TV episodes that Adric feels both neglected and usurped, going from teacher’s pet to runt of the litter. As Adric sniffs, “Things were different when…”, to which Tegan rejoins, “When it was just you and him?”

Full credit to writer Matthew J. Elliott for exploiting this to give Adric some pathos. As he tells the computer: “I’ve given up on people, they’re unreliable – even the best ones change. Sometimes more than you’d expect.” Aaww. Of course, if you’re listening to this play, you will be well aware that Adric’s days are numbered, and the closing exchange between the Doctor and Adric will give you a sucker-punch right in the feels.

If you’re enamoured of the subtle charms of the Fifth Doctor era and its cerebral nature, enjoy Tegan at her snarky, feisty best and want to see Adric’s foibles redeemed, it’s 1982 vintage Doctor Who with a knowing twist and no shortage of added in-jokes and humour. For continuity buffs, Nyssa’s latent psychic abilities as revealed a propos of sod all in Time-Flight are neatly introduced here. Which is nice.

Furthermore, Peter Davison and Janet Fielding are on top form, accurately reprising the character beats of their former selves with much verve, reminding the listener why we love them so much. One bonus of the Fifth Doctor audios is they accommodate Peter Davison’s waspish wit far more than his TV scripts did, making him more akin to his Time-Crash iteration, and that’s never a bad thing. Aside from Root’s acerbic Sable, guest actors Philip Franks and Niamh Cusack acquit themselves admirably as the ambiguous villains of the piece. And the Doctor is outed as a PG Wodehouse fan! So, what’s not to love?

A nifty bonus with this release is that Big Finish subscribers also receive a free copy of an exclusive Short Trip, Paul J Salamoff’s Collector’s Item, featuring the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, as they attempt to retrieve an artefact from another dimension being sold at a car boot sale from its wrongful owner. It’s an enjoyable listen that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and narrator Stephen Critchlow effortlessly recreates the Fourth Doctor’s sonorous tones.

10/10. Bring back Sable, Big Finish! We love her!

‘Zaltys’ was released on 22 March 2017. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until April 30th 2017, and on general sale after this date

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