Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Adventures: Series 7: Volume 1 – Starring Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, John Leeson, Martha Cope, Oliver Dimsdale, Toby Hadoke, John Dorney, Cathy Tyson, Damian Lynch, Julian Wadham, Dan Starkey, Josette Simon, Sarah Lark, Alex Wyndham, Robert Duncan, Andy Secombe & Justin Avoth. Written by Andrew Smith, David Llewellyn & John Dorney. Directed by Nicholas Briggs – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish
The Sons of Kaldor
For some time now, Big Finish have been making a fairly well-documented move to releasing stories in the form of box sets, rather than individual CDs. Most of their ongoing spinoff series, from Jago & Litefoot to Counter-Measures to UNIT to Graceless have already been in the form of box sets for many, many years (as have many non-Doctor Who properties such as The Avengers, Survivors and The Omega Factor.) most of these series began using this release format, while others – such as Gallifrey – started life as individual CD releases and moved to the box set format somewhere along the way. In recent years, we’ve also seen well-established monthly series also make the change to box sets: The Eighth Doctor’s range has, since the shocking events of Lucie Miller/To the Death, exclusively been released as box sets (the Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition series, the recent Time War package, as well as the recently-announced upcoming series Ravenous). As a result, it only seemed a matter of time before they went to a box set format for some of their ongoing ranges; we’ve seen it recently with their Blake’s 7 releases, and now it’s an option that is being made available to subscribers of the Fourth Doctor range. There is, however, an important distinction that should be made when comparing these Tom Baker stories to, say, the Eighth Doctor range; whereas all Paul McGann stories are now released exclusively as box sets, with the Fourth Doctor we still – to an extent – have a choice: the individual stories are available as discrete downloads (although if you want the physical CDs, you still have to buy the box set). As a result, we here at Mass Movement have decided to continue to review the Fourth Doctor Adventures as individual stories, rather than posting just one review for the whole box set.
Back in 2001, Magic Bullet Productions began release of their highly acclaimed series Kaldor City. Based on the work of Chris Boucher – not just the much-loved Robots of Death, but some of his other Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 work as well – it told the story of life in the eponymous metropolis under the powerful First Families, the out-of-control Security Forces and, of course, the various forms of Dum, Voc and Super-Voc Robots, automatons that had infiltrated every aspect of daily life. The series starred Russell Hunter, reprising the role of Chairman Uvanov from The Robots of Death, as well as Paul Darrow as Kaston Iago, a thinly-veiled post-Gauda-Prime version of Blake’s 7’s Kerr Avon (who Magic Bullet did not have the rights to use). Peter Miles also appeared as Firstmaster Landerchild (a character who had first appeared in Chris Boucher’s Past Doctor Adventure novel Corpse Marker) and Scott Fredericks reprised his role of Carnell, a psychostrategist who had appeared in the second season of Blake’s 7 (further lending credence to the idea that Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 share the same universe – a factor that supported the idea that Kaston Iago was, in fact, Kerr Avon). Carnell had also appeared in Corpse Marker, a book that, in many ways, set the stage for Kaldor City and gives a more thorough rundown of Kaldor society than The Robots of Death ever could.
It was a brilliant series, one cut tragically short by the death of Russell Hunter. And yet before Magic Bullet went on to pastures new with their Faction Paradox series, they still managed to tie things together nicely with the Uvanov-free final CD, Storm Mine, an episode that was so groundbreaking in its approach to psychological drama that it is still being analyzed and talked about almost 15 years later.
Since that final story, we have not heard very much from the denizens of Kaldor, save two short very tongue-in-cheek audio plays from Magic Bullet: The Prisoner, released on the MJTV CD Paul Darrow – The Actor Speaks, and Metafiction, released as a one-off download on the Magic Bullet website several years ago. However, back in 2011, Big Finish made their foray into Kaldor society with the exceptional Seventh Doctor story Robophobia, a tale that is well-known for – among other things – introducing the character of Liv Chenka, who would return years later to become a regular companion of the Eighth Doctor. This month, as part of their new box set-version of The Fourth Doctor Adventures, they make a fascinating return again in the form of the mind-blowing tour de force The Sons of Kaldor.
What’s really fascinating about this story (and one of the reasons I began this review with this brief overview of the Kaldor City series) is the exercise in world-building that it builds on – an exercise that has been so successfully accomplished through a combination of the writings of Chris Boucher, then later the writers at Magic Bullet and now Big Finish. Kaldor society is so intricate, so incredibly detailed that it’s an absolute joy to return and hear more stories about its denizens. In fact, Kaldor is probably the only planet in the entire Doctor Who universe where we’ve seen a level of detail even somewhat akin to that of the Doctor’s own home planet of Gallifrey (not including Earth, of course).
However, it is interesting to note the slightly different vision Big Finish has with regards to Kaldor society, as compared to their Magic Bullet predecessors. In the latter’s original Kaldor City series, the relationship Kaldor had to the rest of the universe was always very tenuous. In fact, one was never quite sure if the Kaldor Topmasters and their underlings even believed in life on other planets. They certainly weren’t generally aware of their original connection to Earth and their status as one of its principal colony worlds (“You were born on a planet called ‘earth’”, Justine says to Kaston Iago in Metafiction. “Is there also a planet called ‘soil’?”). In that series, although Uvanov is pushing the Company Board to reach out and try to establish some sort of offworld trade, it becomes quickly apparent that knowledge of any kind of interplanetary contact is limited to the Company Elite.
Which brings us to The Sons of Kaldor. If we view this story, as well as Kaldor City, as being one long narrative stretching all the way back to The Robots of Death, then this story – like Big Finish’s previous outing, Robophobia – obviously takes place years later, once offworld trade had been firmly established. But there’s more to it than that: at the beginning of The Sons of Kaldor, at least, the founding families have lost control over Kaldor society and the governance of the planet appears to be fairly democratic in nature. But all of that may be about to change.
The Doctor and Leela arrive inside a seemingly unoccupied airship. The only beings who could be construed as passengers are a human female and a hairy bipedal creature, both held in some sort of cryogenic suspension in the medical lab. Once they begin to explore, however, our time travellers quickly discover a more ominous fact: the ship seems to be manned solely by Kaldor robots. The ragtag crew of Vocs and Dums (and one sole Super-Voc, half-dismantled on a bed in one of the crew quarters) seem to be on some sort of secret mission, but as they have their memory wiped every two months they have no idea what that mission happens to be. And to make matters worse, there seems to be a peculiar banging coming from one of the hatches leading to the outside world…
Once the mysterious woman in the medical bay is revived, however, the pieces begin to fall into place. How the robots’ actions are tied in with the strange, furry creature in the other cryogenic pod, a covert mission, the possible outbreak of civil war on Kaldor and the robots’ own emerging consciousness as sentient creatures forms the backbone of one of the most engaging Fourth Doctor stories in years. The Sons of Kaldor is, in fact, a glorious return to a time when the console room was wood-panelled, Chris Boucher was writing, people like Pennant Roberts and David Maloney were directing, Robert Holmes was script editing and Dudley Simpson was adorning each episode with imaginative, creepy music. This story feels like a Season 14 serial; it evokes a time when the series was at one of its highest points and everything just seemed to click.
Although the story is missing, unfortunately, Chris Boucher’ characteristic style that made The Robots of Death, Corpse Marker and Kaldor City so exhilarating, writer Andrew Smith continues to demonstrate that he is a force to be reckoned with in Doctor Who audio. Originally known as a one-off writer who penned Season 18’s Full Circle, Smith has recently been making a name for himself with a number of high-quality Big Finish releases, including stories in the Main Range, the Companion Chronicles, the War Doctor series, Classic Doctors/New Monsters, the Third Doctor Adventures, the Lost Stories and the Early Adventures. In fact, in a few short years he’s become one of Big Finish’s more prolific writers. But it was Tom Baker’s Doctor who he started with all those years ago and it seems like that’s the Doctor he still knows best; not only is The Sons of Kaldor a tight little bottle story, it showcases the Fourth Doctor in a way we haven’t seen in a while. He’s almost in his “Sherlock Holmes” persona again, picking up on subtle clues and nuances that only this Doctor can.
Louise Jameson is also at her finest; Leela is fierce but also compassionate, and the relationship she establishes with number of the Voc robots is eye-opening. These are not the same mindless automatons we saw in The Robots of Death, or even Robophobia; instead, something seems to be happening to them this time, and there is a very distinct reason why that something has come to pass. There’s a stellar secondary cast here as well: Martha Cope’s duality as the obviously-frightened-but-trying-to-retain-control Commander Lind gives the audience someone to relate to as events spiral out of control, and Oliver Dimsdale is absolutely riveting as the fanatic Rebben Tace. But one of the highlights of the story is Big Finish stalwart Toby Hadoke as the self-aware robot V26. It’s interesting; the last time Big Finish dove into Kaldor society, in Robophobia, Hadoke played one of the terrified humans most opposed to robot proliferation. Now he’s on the other side of the fence, portraying a robot who is trying to grow beyond his programming. It must have been interesting to play the flipside of the coin.
All in all, The Sons of Kaldor is a spectacular return to classic base-under-siege Fourth-Doctor-era magic. Nicholas Briggs directs, and there’s no doubt as to his knowledge of the subtleties that made the early Leela stories so successful. This story is not only a fine addition to Doctor Who canon, it’s also an excellent supplement to the growing body of work that has been chronicling the expansion and stagnation of Kaldor society. Peter McAlpine
The Crowmarsh Experiment
Doctor Who has always been at its best when there is a mystery to be solved. Some of Big Finish’s most successful stories – The Chimes of Midnight, The Condemned, The Kingmaker and Cobwebs, for instance – have a mystery at their very heart. In a way, Big Finish’s decision to – in general – retain the episodic structure of Doctor Who serves these kinds of stories very well; it’s the slow, methodical working out of these mysteries that makes these stories such gems.
The Crowmarsh Experiment begins innocuously enough. Responding to a distress call, the Doctor and Leela arrive on a planet covered in vegetation but with no sign of animal life. Stumbling upon an old pyramid-like ruin, they are shocked to find a frantic woman being pursued by mechanical flying drones. The drones utilize some sort of tractor-beam technology to physically lift both the woman and Leela into the air, before dragging them back into the pyramid with them.
It’s a nice, exciting a little prologue, but that’s all it is because (after a suitable few seconds of dead air) we then rejoin Leela – or rather, “Dr. Leela Marshall” – who is being revived by her colleagues in room C5 of the mysterious Crowmarsh Institute, London. It is the 6th of March, 1978, and suddenly there are some very big questions to be answered.
The Doctor is there as well, but he seems to have no memory of his life on the TARDIS. Instead, he goes by the monicker of “Dr. George Stuart”, the supposed head of Project Sisyphus. The project’s aim is the development of a “ideology-killing weapon” that can, supposedly, force its victims to believe whatever far-fetched scenario its operators want them to believe. Leela – as well as one of her supposed colleagues, Jennifer Lloyd – had both agreed to undergo the process as test subjects. Leela’s life aboard the TARDIS, she is told, was a far-fetched fantasy to see just how bizarre a scenario Project Sisyphus could actually make its subjects believe.
As with its immediate predecessor in this box set, The Crowmarsh Experiment deals with the nature of reality. But while The Sons of Kaldor is content to focus on the robots’ growing sentience and their perception of the world around them, this story focuses more on the question of what is actually real.
What’s really interesting here is the whole notion of world-building. While The Sons of Kaldor does a very good job of building upon a world that has been growing since its inception in 1977’s The Robots of Death, The Crowmarsh Experiment is successful in creating a tangible world within the space of its first half hour. This is what makes this story so stunning: even though we, as Doctor Who fans, know that Leela’s adventures aboard the TARDIS could not be simply in her imagination, we are still heavily drawn into the world of the Crowmarsh Institute. The whole story begs the question: if something seems to be real, how does that make it any different from what is real? From the moment she arrives at the Institute, Leela is told “you are safe here”. It is a prodigiously powerful mantra: we all want to be safe, to some extent. And yet, Leela quickly discerns that there must be a truth beyond that which she is being told.
One of the story’s highlights, and one of the ways it builds upon Leela’s memories, is by re-introducing characters that she and the doctor have run in to during their recent adventures. Dan Starkey (TV’s Strax, and Big Finish’s go-to guy for Sontaran voices nowadays) plays Ministry official Linus Strang, a thinly disguised version of the Sontaran Strang from The King of Sontar. Even more heartbreaking is the return of Marshall (played again by Damian Lynch) from the stories Requiem for the Rocket Men and Death Match, this time using the moniker Colin Marshall. Marshall was probably the closest Leela ever came to love, in the Big Finish Doctor Who releases anyway, and his arrival on the scene – as Leela’s husband and the father of her two children, no less – steps things up a notch.
All these familiar faces suggest that something is amiss, and yet even when Leela seems to get a surefire warning about the nature of her peril, she hesitates. It is this hesitation and its subsequent consequences that reflect The Crowmarsh Experiment’s greatest strength: Louise Jamison. This is, at its core, a character story, and Jameson shows us once again why she has become such a valued property at Big Finish. We have seen an emotional Leela before, but never one so plagued by uncertainty and doubt. And yet, there is an inner strength that is always present; Leela is always, well, Leela, and when faced by an almost impossible choice (one which forms the basis of episode one’s mesmerizing cliffhanger), it is only the strength and resolve that has become synonymous with the character that can even hope to save the day.
The Crowmarsh Experiment is a terrific story, the second winner in what is shaping up to be a great season. There’s no doubt that the Doctor takes more of a back seat in this one, but Tom Baker himself also gets a chance to flex his acting muscles as the mysterious Dr. Stuart. It’s experimental stories like this that not only give the actors a chance to explore their characters in a more unorthodox way, but also give the audience a chance to come at their characters from a very different direction. It’s also fun to puzzle out a story like this, and – in this case – even when the solution becomes obvious, the world has been built in such a convincing way that even we are not sure our heroes are making the right decisions. If Big Finish can stay on their game, this season is shaping up to be one of the best collections of Fourth Doctor stories they have ever done. Peter McAlpine
The Mind Runners & The Demon Rises
The second half of Part 1 of Series 7 of the Fourth Doctor Adventures from Big Finish (everyone clear where we are? Good.) is a two-part futuristic story from experienced Who audio writer John Dorney. If the first two episodes of Series 7 took the Fourth Doctor and Leela into territory that had the benefit of being at least a little familiar, this is new and vibrant by contrast, with a hint of classic sci-fi movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix around its edges.
The Mind Runners sets the scene for us – on the planet Chaldera, you can plug in, drop out and mind run, surfing into other people’s consciousness, to see what they see, feel what they feel, be who they are. But there are dark forces abroad, and mind runners appear to be committing often bizarre suicide after running, giving rise to an urban bogeyman myth. It’s said the suicides have encountered the Night Mind (Dum-dum-daaaaaah!).
So – Dorney starts us off with something solidly portentous for the Doctor and the mystically-inclined Leela to investigate: why are these people really dying? Is the Night Mind real, or just a myth – and if it’s real, who might it be? What, come to that, do the government forces have to do with anything? Has a runner uncovered something they shouldn’t have by accidentally running into a top official’s mind? Are the suicides really murders, and if so, how can they be stopped?
You might think that’s quite enough to be going on with, but to cover the run-time of two hours, Dorney puts lots more spadework in than just that. He gives us mysterious liquid men, cults who believe the flesh is weak and corruptible and that transcendence to a pure mental form housed in what amount to Cyber-bodies is the true nirvana, and a kind of grand-scale pitcher plant with plans of its own. What Dorney gives us are levels – his Chaldera society feels like a real society, with people in some corners scared of the power wielded by others, games, bluffs, double-bluffs, arguably triple-bluffs which don’t become clear until very late in the game, and a real sense of science-fiction scale. He also keeps us busy, because the Doctor and Leela, getting initially involved in trying to stop a mind runner committing a sticky, pretty gruesome suicide, have to navigate these societal levels while leaping from mystery to mystery to mystery as the drama unfurls like petals in sunlight, revealing new things as people live, and die, and kill to pursue their own objectives.
What actually is going on is something you have absolutely no chance of guessing before at least halfway through the second half of the story, The Demon Rises, and arguably the title gives away at least the direction in which the story eventually develops. But even then, if you think you’ve got a solid grasp of what’s going on, be entirely aware, John Dorney’s seen you coming a mile off, and has other storytelling twists up his plot-stuffed sleeves.
It would be wrong to suggest this is the pinnacle of Dorney’s career – he’s had many, many hits in the past, and on the evidence here, will go on to have many many more in the future – but The Mind Runners/The Demon Rises is a story rich enough, layered enough, and peopled well enough with characters who feel entirely real and self-motivated that it could stand alongside most of the televised Fourth Doctor and Leela episodes (many of which are considered to belong to a golden age of Doctor Who), and also alongside some of the most highly-regarded sci-fi movies of the seventies.
In terms of the performances, there are some impressive vocal talents on display here, including Josette Simon as Taraneh and Andy Secombe as the gloriously odious and really rather scary Shift. The pacing of the two halves of the story is ramped right up, so one thing you’ll never have a chance to be with this story is bored. There’s no chance of ambling or idling along, waiting for the next thing to happen – before you’ve even let the thought form, another six things have been kicked off, running at different rates to weave and wind you into different levels of the mystery of Chaldera. It’s to Dorney’s credit, and also that of director Nicholas Briggs, that none of this overwhelms or confuses the listener, but that with all the swirls and spirals and levels of society and action going on, there’s a thread to which you can cling which keeps you moving steadily forward. That thread, as it should be, is the intervention of the Doctor and Leela – it’s perhaps perverse that both Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, already responsible for some of the best and most memorable stories in the history of Doctor Who – seem to be firing on more cylinders now, some forty years since they appeared on screen together, and that their relationship seems warmer and tighter in audio than ever it was on TV, leading to Doctor Who stories that more credibly feel like the two of them are friends, genuinely looking out for one another in a universe gone (certainly in these stories) increasingly mad.
The Mind Runners/The Demon Rises accomplishes many things: it plays with real high-concept sci-fi in terms of the development of new techno-trends, from social media and virtual reality to the ultimate escapist trend that is mind running; it draws a realistic, multi-level dystopia that while suitably science fictional, also feels connected to the dystopia in which we now live; it keeps the listener guessing, unravelling new levels of complexity and mystery almost every step of the way; it makes you laugh, and cry – there’s at least one death here that will punch you in the stomach; and it paints a colossal, complex picture of a world across the canvas of your imagination, forcing you to hold tight to the objects of certainty, the Doctor and Leela, to get you through the madness to a sane and fully-realised conclusion.
It might be wrong to suggest this is the pinnacle of John Dorney’s career, but in the alignment of stars that deliver The Mind Runners/The Demon Rises, it’s at the very least one of many pinnacles you’re going to want to experience for yourself. Tony Fyler