Doctor Who And The Pescatons – Written by Victor Pemberton & Read by Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Bill Mitchell – Download (BBC Audio)
You really have to wonder what happened to Victor Pemberton on childhood holidays at the seaside.
Not only was Pemberton the man who brought us the world’s scariest seaweed in the Patrick Troughton Doctor Who story Fury From The Deep, he also wrote the script for this mid-seventies deeply odd audio story, where the villains are hyper-intelligent giant sharklike metal-bodied fish.
There will be three main audiences for the newly re-released audio download of Doctor Who and the Pescatons. There’ll be those who are old enough to have bought either the vinyl or the cassette version when it was first released in the mid-seventies. Then there’ll be those who may have listened to it when it was re-released in 2005 on CD, with an added-on interview with Elisabeth Sladen, which is also included in the new download version. And then of course there’ll be those who’ve never heard it before and are mystified by this early attempt to spin-off Doctor Who into an audio medium, from the modern point of view where Big Finish has been in business for over two decades, so audio Doctor Who alongside the televised version is a fact of life.
The structure is something akin to an old Big Finish Companion Chronicle – two parts, 25 minutes a part, with narration from a leading character interspersed with acted-out scenes with more than one actor. The story itself is an odd mish-mash of Pemberton’s ideas from Fury From The Deep and HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds – arriving on a deserted mud-bank beach, the Fourth Doctor and Sarah-Jane embark on an adventure to save the Earth from an invasion by the sharklike Pescatons, who are fleeing the destruction of their own planet and intend to take over our distinctly watery world.
What’s perhaps oddest about this story, listened to in 2019, is that it sways back and forth from recorded scenes to narration quite wildly, allowing the Doctor to apparently leave Sarah-Jane on the beach to tell us about a previous adventure where he went investigating an undersea cave – again, tangling with deeply unfriendly seaweed – and then swing back to the here and now, where a Pescaton is apparently on the run through London Zoo, looking to get to some seawater to survive. The second episode mostly focuses on the actual invasion of the Pescatons – which is where the heavy borrowing from HG Wells comes in, swinging into more narrative about another occasion when the Doctor landed on Pesca, planet of the Pescatons and met their leader, Zor (played with gravel and glory here by Bill Mitchell). Back in the here and now after that remembrance, the Doctor realises that Zor’s already on Earth, tackles him, beats him in a manner which is quite briefly described, and then, with their leader defeated and the remaining Pescatons no threat, the Doctor naffs off again to the furthest reaches of the universe.
To say that the script needed development work would be a gross understatement, but even four decades on, there are things to love about Doctor Who and the Pescatons. There’s the fact that it exists at all – that someone, while recording was underway on Masque of Mandragora, thought ‘Let’s release a totally new Doctor Who adventure as a record!’ That they got permission to do it with the current Doctor and companion. That, while the story needs a fairly solid kicking into shape, Tom Baker takes his duties here as seriously as he took the show, meaning it sounds to some extent like the kin of what would come later with Big Finish. That the sound design involves Brian Hodgson (including a re-created Tardis flight sound, and a Pescaton heartbeat effect that sends shudders through the listener just as much as Jeff Wayne’s Martian ‘Ulla’ sound for his musical War of the Worlds – with which it’s a contemporary) helps enormously to sell the concept of the Pescatons and the drama of the story. Bill Mitchell has a voice that is staggeringly recognisable to whole generations of older listeners, and his trademark rumble, electronically treated, really sells the size and scope and terrifying power of the Pescaton leader, for all that the words he’s given to say are fairly standard ‘evil alien’ patter, more akin to Doctor Who of the early sixties than the mid-seventies.
For all that Doctor Who and the Pescatons is clearly put together in a hurry, it remains a very easily listenable story that will, when the Pescaton heartbeat and its subsequent roar kicks in, make your heart beat faster. While at the time it didn’t immediately lead to a range of new Doctor Who adventures on vinyl, it has remained a consistently interesting curiosity, which even in the age of Big Finish still stands as a competent early trailblazer in the art of the possible.
The Lis Sladen interview, recorded when Doctor Who had been revived in its 21st century format, starts with the Pescatons, of which her memories are gloriously slight – it was, after all, one morning’s work forty years before she’s being asked about it! – and then free-ranges over her whole time on Who, from Pertwee to Baker, from Letts to Hinchcliffe, and covers in brief the Doctor Who section of her autobiography, with memories of the people she enjoyed working with, the very odd occasion when she put her foot down for the sake of the drama, and the times when Tom Baker stood up for the brilliance of her character against production choices that would have made Sarah-Jane more of an idiot than she should be.
All in all, Doctor Who and the Pescatons is still worth a listen for its grand ambition, for the commitment which all three actors put into delivering their roles, for the sound design which still makes it live to this day – and for the added joy of a free-range chat with Elisabeth Sladen. We all wish that were still within our grasp, so hearing her both perform in non-TV mid-seventies Doctor Who, and then discuss her career, is an extra special slice of joy. Let the Pescatons invade your ears today, and imagine it’s 1976 all over again. Tony Fyler