Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Adventures: Series Nine Part Two – Starring: Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Matthew Waterhouse & John Leeson. Written by: Alan Barnes & Andrew Smith & Directed by Nicholas Briggs – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
There’s a theme for the second part of ninth series of the Fourth Doctor’s Adventures. While the Doctor and Romana are stuck in E-Space, looking with a degree of method for a CVE to lead them back into their own universe with the stowaway Adric, it’s by no means inconceivable that others might have heard of them too, and be similarly searching for a universe a little bit roomier than the one they’re used to. The Planet Of Witches by Alan Barnes and The Quest Of The Engineer by Andrew Smith both focus in very different ways on people who want out of E-Space; in the first case to take a message from that pocket universe to a wider audience, and in the second to search for knowledge it’s beyond the scope of E-Space to provide.
You’re probably going to want to hold on to your brain a little for The Planet Of Witches, and maybe not operate any heavy machinery while you listen, because it demands a fairly high level of attention, and if you refuse to give it what it needs, it will happily sweep you up and away and you’ll be lost. A formulized system of witches and witchfinders is in operation in this story, with bounty hunter-style finders capturing and bringing ‘witches’ – for which, read those with above-average minds – to the mysterious ‘Tiresias’ (Samuel Clemens) who wants them for complicated reasons of his own. There are many levels to the system, and our Tardis team fall foul of a finder by the name of Raxxil (Michael Simkins), who’s transporting three prime specimens of witchery (including one who goes somewhat obviously by the name of Crone, and who gives good cackle) to Tiresias and his familiars (think of the scarecrows of The Family Of Blood), to do…whatever he does to them.
There are distinct echoes of State Of Decay here – a society in regression from technological sophistication back to barbarism, witch-burning and the generalised supremacy of faith-positions over fact-positions, but whereas in State Of Decay you could follow the deterioration over time in fairly straightforward terms, here, Alan Barnes does something arguably more interesting with the idea, using technology as part of the fundamental regression. There’s also a feeling of The Face Of Evil here, with Tiresias a somewhat mysterious godlike figure for much of the run-time, surrounded by ritual, and dividing society into the technologically adept and those who eschew technological knowledge, preferring to rely on mysticism and faith.
The actual knitting together of a lot of plot elements is where you need to keep hold of your brain, because as we journey through this world of witches and witchfinders, fakes and familiars, it’s quite possible to lose track of who’s who and what’s what and what happens to whom as we go. But there are, it turns out, many ways to serve Tiresias – as an elevated consciousness, as a useful spinal column, as a… tasty, nutritious shake… and an awful lot of which fate belongs to which…erm…witch depends on how good a brain you have. Enter two Time Lords and the boy with the badge for mathematical excellence. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and the robot dog of course – which really rather alters the answer to the question of what could possibly go wrong. All of which has to be sorted out before we discover quite exactly how many people want to get the hell out of E-Space, and why, but suffice it to say, it’s more than the number you’re used to if you’ve watched Season Eighteen.
Just as well there are some Moirai on hand to allocate people their destiny, really (that’s ‘goddesses of fate in Greek mythology’ to you). Except of course, like Tiresias, and like almost every witch on the planet of witches, they’re not really what they seem. They’re something else that’s equally interesting, and they’re more than willing to make Adric an offer he very nearly can’t refuse, but goddesses would probably be stretching it a bit, even for Season Eighteen.
When things get complex and multi-layered and more or less hit Season Eighteen levels of what-the-hell-am-I-listening-to?, persevere – Alan Barnes has you covered, and along the way, there’s glory to be had, not least from the members of the Tardis team, complete with good Time Lord banter between the clever clogs and the swot, enormous fun between K9 and Tiresias, some properly satirical gubbins between star-boy and the tin dog where it sounds like they’re agreeing about just how immensely clever they are together, and oh yes, you’re really not going to want to miss the conversation between Adric and the Moirai. We’d love to quote you some, but the thing about Alan Barnes’ script is that if you give really even one or two specifics, you spoil something, which can only be explained if you spoil something else, and before you know where you are, there are no surprises left in a script which has more than its fair share to offer.
Ultimately, while you need to concentrate through The Planet Of Witches, it’s a solid introduction to the idea that in E-Space, CVEs, although they’re never known by that name in a universe that seems wherever you look to be down at heel and in a state of regression, are things that have been rumoured, whispered, poorly if at all understood, but turned into legends enough times to make people set out on damn foolhardy plans to find them, use them, and turn their shrivelling lives around. The story feels about an episode too long in the final analysis, as it goes through one slightly laborious final twist, trying to maintain its momentum all the way but then being resolved with a relatively simple device. But as an introduction to the idea that it’s not just the Doctor, Romana, K9 and Adric who are searching for CVEs in the pocket universe, Alan Barnes gives us fertile new ground for conflict, drama and storytelling in future potential Season 18 sets.
The Quest Of The Engineer, by Andrew Smith, is a bold bugger of a thing. It has to be – when you introduce a major new character and have the courage to call them ‘The-’ anything, you need to deliver on the promise of that portentousness, or you’ll end up falling flat on your face and looking foolish.
Andrew Smith is not a writer accustomed to falling flat on his face and looking foolish.
He doesn’t start here.
There are so many things to love about this story, it’s an utter embarrassment of riches.
Chasing down another rumour of a CVE, the Tardis team encounter a world which knows about technology, but frankly wants no truck with it on the grounds that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. While there, they find a man they’re looking for, who’s been imprisoned for wittering on about strange occurrences in the heavens. When they find him, naturally enough in the local jail, there are gracenotes of Binro the heretic or our own Galileo about Regis Tel (played by the masterly George Layton). Quite apart from the evidence of a comet winking out of existence – potential CVE activity, we’re led to wonder? – there are planets disappearing, in a direct line making for the one on which they’re currently standing.
Drama! Suspense! Let’s blow this rebel scientist’s mind by taking him on a trip in the Tardis!
Before they know what’s happened, they’ve arrived on what should be a rogue planet, but absolutely isn’t. What happens next needs the kind of visual effects budget only audio can afford.
Suffice it to say, the planet that isn’t a planet is actually what happens if a Death Star and a Rubik cube who love each other very much get certain urges…
There are shades of The Pirate Planet in at least the big science-fiction concept at work here, not to mention that whole Star Wars thing, and a touch of the Tesselecta from Let’s Kill Hitler. But to justify such a grand technical conceit, you again need to underscore its existence with an intelligence of quite staggering size who could conceive and built it.
Enter the Engineer, a character of quite breath-taking brilliance and utter callousness the like of which we’ve not seen or heard so well executed in quite a while. Take elements of Davros, elements of Kane from Dragonfire and the ever-present danger of a flip to grandiose insanity from Mr Hindle in Kinda and you’re getting somewhere close. Rarely, if ever, does this character make stupid mistakes, so no average cunning plan of the Doctor’s is going to be enough to square up against the man who custom-builds programmable, piloted planets. He has the scale of the best of the Bond villains, and for the vast majority of the story, it’s Lalla Ward’s Romana who’s given the grand tour and torture package, while the Doctor, Adric, K9 and Regis explore on what for the sake of notional accuracy must be called ground level. There are things happening on ground level of which the Doctor takes a dim view – slavery, planet-mulching, whole populations schlurped up like the last awkward drops of milkshake in the bottom of a cup. Worlds full of people with lives ahead of them, sacrificed to the Engineer’s quest.
What quest is that? Well, obviously we’re not going to blow that for you – there’s a fairly solid chance you’ll guess it before it’s actually revealed in any case, but not long before. And among the planet-squishing and population schlurping and slavery and some truly horrifying Frankenstein-meets-Peter-Pan experiments, the quest depends on finding a CVE, a way out of the small pond of E-Space, so this big fish can find the answers he needs to complete his work.
The character, like the science fiction, is a work of utter mastery by Andrew Smith, and you need a real artist to deliver so callous and single-minded and never ever obviously stupid a character as the Engineer.
Nicholas Woodeson. You’re going to want to remember the name, because in audio terms, he’s up there with Michael Gough’s Toymaker, Michael Wisher’s Davros, Peter Butterworth’s Meddling Monk, Christopher Gable’s Sharaz Jek and Edward Peel’s Kane. Really, he gives that good a performance as the Engineer, if it had ever been a televised episode, you’d know his name instinctively thirty years from now, because the villain would be nailed to your memory. By the end of the story, the grandiosity of his schemes, the vastness of his callousness and the desperation of the need which has driven it all are revealed and he becomes one of the object lessons that Doctor Who has always done so well. Love turned to obsession, burned by betrayal, fanned into hate and grown cold with three decades of determined action becomes a laser-focused plan to do whatever is necessary to turn back the clock, to undo death, to rewrite the dark and gruesome parts of his own history. By the end, the Fourth Doctor’s own words echo round your head – if someone pointed out a child to you, and told you it would grow up to be totally evil…could you then kill that child? The Engineer is evil, absolutely. Callous, brutal, fanning his own overweening ego in the blood of millions. But we understand by the end what drove him down that path, and if it doesn’t excuse him his horrifying actions, it at least puts them in the context of the brilliant man who played the game he was told to play and found himself betrayed by those who made the rules.
Again by the end, it feels like if not a full episode, then maybe an inconvenient half-episode could be shaved off the running time here, but The Quest Of The Engineer handles its tensions better and more naturally as it drives towards its cataclysmic conclusion.
Bottom line, if you only had one of the Fourth Doctor Adventures Series Nine to listen to, it should be The Quest Of The Engineer. All the stories in the series have plenty to recommend them – from the rusteroid of Purgatory 12 to the bizarre train ride and expanded definition of life of Chase The Night and the social Darwinism of The Planet Of Witches. But for a knock-down, drag-out mind-expanding bit of sci-fi with a stunning central villain and a tale of stakes and consequences along the way, you’re going to have to Andrew Smith it.
Give The Fourth Doctor Adventures: Series Nine Part Two a handful of your lifetime today. It’ll pay you back in spades. Tony Fyler