Philip Hinchcliffe Presents ‘The Helm of Awe’ reviewed

❉ Louise Jameson remains one of the finest actresses to play a companion.

It’s a mark of how highly he’s still regarded that Philip Hinchcliffe is deemed worthy of his own Big Finish range. After all, we’ve yet to have similar ranges from Doctor Who auteurs such as Eric Saward or Derrick Sherwin. Hinchcliffe might never have put his name to a Doctor Who script but his creative partnership with Robert Holmes, which powered one of the show’s best-remembered eras, involved an exchange of ideas instead of a strict demarcation of creative duties.

The Philip Hinchcliffe Presents range essentially involves Hinchcliffe providing the story and inspiration and once again it’s Marc Platt’s turn to say ‘Tonight Matthew I’m going to be… Bob Holmes!’ and emerge smoking the famous Holmes pipe.

The Helm of Awe certainly bears a Holmes influence – the setting on a remote Scottish island recalls Holmes’ 1981 series The Nightmare Man and anyone looking for a couple of the more familiar elements from the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era won’t be disappointed. The story begins with the Doctor being summoned to Scotland by the Brigadier – perhaps the Brig wants to boost Scotland’s tourist economy by sending him there again. For obvious reasons Lethbridge-Stewart doesn’t appear, but the touching exchange between the Doctor and Leela is a lovely note to kick things off with. From there we’re into a story which irresistibly recalls The Wicker Man, with the Doctor and Leela cast in Sergeant Howie’s role and Viking folklore taking the place of paganism. One of the cliffhangers even provides a nod to that film’s most famous scene – no, not the one with Britt Ekland’s body double – and where it steals the film’s ambience and communal mistrust of outsiders it’s a very good story indeed.

One of Holmes’ great maxims about Doctor Who was in how to write a six-parter – treat them as two interconnected stories. Given modern Doctor Who has essentially halved the length of time for a full adventure, that advice seems to have been taken to heart and used to twist a four part story. After a fairly claustrophobic first half the story opens out to encompass time travel, aliens and giant robots in its second half. This diversion’s a shame in terms of atmosphere but adds the sense of scale and ambition that a BBC budget of the mid-70s could never have and even provides a minor history lessons and an interesting moral dilemma. It might meander a little whilst we await episode four but everything comes together in a typically explosive and satisfying grand finale.

While it’s always a pleasure to hear Tom’s dulcet tones (and he gets some great Doctorish moments in the second half) the heart of the story is Louise Jameson’s seemingly effortless recreation of Leela. There’s material in here which might not work in lesser hands but sings when given to Jameson – whether finding Leela’s fierce naïveté and willingness to learn, uttering Sevateem war cries in a long boating contest or disoriented by visions she never gives less than here best. It’s a gentle reminder that she remains one of the finest actresses to play a companion. Aside from that it’s a pleasure to hear David Rintoul finally make it into a Doctor Who story. Given how fresh this feels whilst remaining true to the spirit of its era it’s to be hoped that it’s not too long before Hinchcliffe swans into the Big Finish offices in Doctor-like fashion with another awesome idea.

❉ ‘Doctor Who – Philip Hinchcliffe Presents: Volume 3 – The Helm of Awe’ was released by Big Finish Productions on 11 April 2017. Available on CD and download.

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