Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 8: The Syndicate Master Plan Volume One

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Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 8: The Syndicate Master Plan Volume One –  Starring Tom Baker, Jane Slavin, John Leeson, Frank Skinner, Glynis Barber, Ewan Bailey, Nicholas Khan, Leon Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Jeremy Clyde, Lizzie Roper, Andrew Ryan, Finty Williams, Andrew Havill, Eve Webster, Barnaby Edwards, Glen McCready, John Shrapnel, Anna Acton, Blake Ritson, Roger May & Tracy Wiles. Written by Andrew Smith, Phil Mulryne, Simon Barnard, Paul Morris & Guy Adams & Directed by Nicholas Briggs – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)

As universal legend Tom Baker turns 85, it’s time to take your unfeasibly long scarves out of mothballs and wrap ’em round your necks. The Fourth Doctor is back, and it’s 1978 all over again – only better. Less Yorkshire Ripper. Less Margaret Thatcher. More Jane Slavin. Better.

If you’ve never encountered Jane Slavin before, you’re in for a treat.

Of course, if you have encountered Jane Slavin before, you’re still in for a treat, there’s just more chance that you’ll know it before we start.

Slavin plays the first brand spanking new Fourth Doctor companion Big Finish has created, Police Constable Ann Kelso, in this eighth series of Fourth Doctor stories, and she first encounters the Fourth Doctor in The Sinestran Kill by Andrew Smith.

Andrew Smith – as you probably already know – spent decades as a police officer between initially being a clever, inventive, philosophically interesting writer…and again being a clever, inventive, philosophically interesting writer. He also has form in introducing us to new Fourth Doctor companions, having been the writer who gave Adric his first – and probably, if we’re honest, finest – couple of hours in Full Circle.

For Kelso, Smith gives us a classic ‘The Doctor investigating an anomaly’ story that pays a degree of homage to Sixties and Seventies British police drama, before becoming a thing that’s pure Andrew Smith, unpeeling reality like layers as people and aliens turn out to be more than we – or even they – think they are.

Tom Baker gets more and more brightly luminous as his time with Big Finish goes on, and the cast here gives him the leeway to be the mercurial Fourth Doctor, while never underselling the reality of their characters’ lives. Listen out for Ewan Bailey and Glynis Barber as gang bosses Hugo and Kathy Blake particularly, but as is frequently the case in New Who, it’s the new companion actor who’s given most time and space to show us why both the actor and the character, deserve a place on board the Tardis. Slavin’s Kelso is practical, level-headed, not one to freak out in a bizarre alien crisis when people are swapping skins, chasing her through Scotland Yard or, for reasons of which they’re not entirely sure, turning out to be really keen to assassinate mild-mannered shop owners. Where Kelso comes in the pantheon of the Fourth Doctor’s friends, only time will tell, but it’s clear that Slavin and Baker have a tremendous friendly chemistry which translates to the drama and lets you easily accept PC Kelso as a fellow traveller in time and space. Above all, she comes across as being useful in the stories in this first set, as though, while the Doctor was off being all clever and smiley and ultimately saving everyone, you could stick with Kelso and she’d keep you alive.

Phil Mulryne’s Planet of the Drashigs is a simple, glorious joy ride. It’s Jurassic Park – with Drashigs. But Mulryne gives you your money’s worth of invention. We’re only familiar with the Drashigs from Carnival Of Monsters, where they were huge and crawly and with the heads of Hell’s Jack Russells – but just as in Jurassic Park, there wasn’t just one kind of big scaly bugger to run away from or be fascinated by, Mulryne invents a gorgeous array of Drashigs (really rather forcefully making the case for a TV re-do with 21st century visuals) – there are the big scary swampy Drashigs we know and run from, but there are also (get this, it’s terrifying) albino, burrowing, take the legs out from under you Drashigs (surely the stuff of Lair of the White Drashig sequels?), and then there are the smaller, pack-hunting Emerald Drashigs – the velociraptors of the story – who are a bit too damned clever for your own good if you happen to be trapped in a reserve with them.

Phil Mulryne takes the terrifying prospect of a reserve full of multiple Drashig-types and adds even more layering though – it’s not just ‘Let’s run away from Drashigs for an hour.’ The Jurassic Park style disaster movie depends on the intellectual hubris of humanity, and with the Drashigs, Mulryne invents freely, giving us new reasons to be fascinated by the terrifying predators, and also adds a dimension that takes them beyond the howling nightmare they’ve previously been. Fenella Woolgar shines as Vanessa Seaborne, a lynchpin to the new dimension of the Drashigs, and listen out too for Lizzie Roper playing somewhat against vocal type as Trencher. There’s also a practically unrecognisable touch of audio-helper Dan Starkey here, adding a whole new string to his bow. Big Finish has a strong history of reinventing one-hit wonder TV monsters and villains and taking them forward in exciting ways, and with this story, Phil Mulryne writes himself into the pantheon as Drashig-Master. More, in future, would be really rather fun. After all, it’s not as though the Jurassic Park franchise stopped after a single outing, and with the new elements Mulryne brings to them here, there’s little reason why the Drashigs too couldn’t expand their place in the Doctor Who universe in some genuinely interesting ways.

Next up, Simon Barnard and Paul Morris give us a celebrity historical story that’s far more than the sum of its parts, The Enchantress of Numbers. When you learn that the most central of its parts is Ada Lovelace, mathematical genius and one of the world’s first computer programmers, it’s probably enough to tell you to strap in. There are all sorts of mad, wonderful, referential elements here, as well as a fundamental storyline that’s elegantly timey-wimey (imagine the Terminator doing advanced mathematics to save its world and you’re onto something), and yet at its core, heartbreakingly human. In terms of the story dynamics, it’s also a solid example of the ‘Doctor and Companion Do Upstairs Downstairs’ model, as the Doctor hobnobs with Ada on trips to the church to pay tribute to her father, (the sheer force of bad behaviour that was Lord Byron), and to the tavern to fleece the locals at cards, while Ann goes downstairs to investigate maids, butlers and secret tunnels that may or may not exist at any given time. There’s a chance the timey-wimey mathy-wathiness of the plot might slip by you towards the end, but that just means it repays a second listen, and it ends with a lovely moment of classic Tom Baker era fun, reminiscent of City of Death. For listeners who love their stories to drip with warm, delicate characterisation, Finty Williams’ Ada will probably make The Enchantress of Numbers the highlight of the set.

And Series Eight Volume One ends on a solidly retrospective note with The False Guardian by Guy Adams. The Doctor and Ann land in the grounds of exclusive spa-cum-asylum-cum-prison, tangle with Varga plants (Oh yes, nostalgia-fans, this has your name written all over it), and meet a patient named Nigel Colloon who thinks he’s someone else entirely. The creepiness factor in this story is high, and there are dark deeds behind the hot stone massages. Kelso gets to show off her rather-more-than-beat-cop analytical and sneakiness skills as she goes wandering purposefully off, and the story ends on a mid-season cliff-hanger which both raises the nostalgia factor three more notches and begins to make you wonder about the whole ‘Syndicate Master Plan’ sub-title of the series. What’s more, John Shrapnel plays Colloon – even if you can’t immediately place his face, two or three words of ‘that voice’ and you’ll know who he is, and be more than happy to spend an adventure in his company.

The Series Eight Volume One box set is a must-get audio because Tom Baker remains a solidly quintessential Doctor, seeming if anything to get better as he ages. Jane Slavin was born to be a companion to his Doctor and Ann Kelso manages to show us lots of fun, sensible companion action, while seeming like there’s still lots we want to get to know about her. And the writers here have given us a smorgasbord of Who-styles – from Smith’s alien gang warfare hiding in plain sight through Mulryne’s Reinvention of the Drashigs and Barnard and Morris’ sensitive celebrity historical, to Adams’ update on some nostalgic notes set on a world of gruesome body horror and professional smiles. Everyone serves the work, and the work serves the legend of the Fourth Doctor, while introducing us to a great new companion who has more to give.

See? We told you so – get this box set: it’s 1978, but much, much better. Tony Fyler

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