Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Adventures: Series Nine Volume One – Starring: Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Matthew Waterhouse & John Leeson. Written by: Marc Platt & Jonathan Morris & Directed by Nicholas Briggs – CD / Download (Big Finish)
While it’s true that hour-for-hour, he probably hasn’t quite got there yet, the fact that Tom Baker is now on his ninth season of stories for Big Finish means it feels like he’s now been the Doctor on audio as long, if not longer, than he was on screen. Indeed January 2020 saw him clock up eight years in the audio Tardis. And whereas by the time he travelled with the Second Romana, Adric and K9 on screen, he was increasingly irritable and keen to leave the role, on audio, he’s sounding fresher than ever, seeming to vocally jump through the challenges of leading the team, like the quixotic, grinning child-sage Time Lord he always seemed to be, over forty years ago.
Also, nine seasons in, it’s about time that he was reunited with the full Season 18 Tardis team, in the topsy-turvy universe of E-Space.
It’s more or less at this point that something clicks into place. Marc Platt has been writing inventive, demented, more or less what-the-hell Doctor Who stories for decades now. Lightbulb moment – Marc Platt comes from E-Space. If you think about it like that, his entire career makes a whole lot more sense. He’s brilliant in any universe, he’s just…not from round here.
If you need evidence of that, stick Purgatory 12 in your lugholes and give it a listen. There are lots of mad, brilliant elements in here – leaping from asteroid to asteroid, death being not so much inconvenient as irrelevant, living, learning rust, and a life-form whose idea of a good time is playing chess against Adric.
No, really. We don’t know what to tell you – E-Space is light on thrills, maybe.
Purgatory 12? Heavier on thrills – there are seemingly cannibalistic space raiders, more than happy to chow down on some juicy rump of Adric (You’re entirely welcome for that image). There’s a grumpy mega-organism driving a reincarnation cycle. There’s K9 making an actual, equal, friend. There’s a bold, brave, stupid, naïve hero, seeking a noble quest. There are…more things we’d love to tell you about, but you want to be surprised when you listen, right? You know there are mad things that end up making a deeply odd sense, it’s a Marc Platt script. Marc ‘Ghost Light, Lungbarrow, Spare Parts, Loup Garoux and more’ Platt. You can more or less take creepy, freaky, complex and at least a little bit bonkers as read.
And among the background of a desolation that never ends (you don’t get a name like Purgatory 12 without good reason), there’s an embedded emotional storyline of a crucial realignment of the relationships between the Doctor, Romana, Adric and even, to some extent, K9. It begins with Adric having a teen-strop and the Doctor abandoning him on a benighted chunk of space rock, seemingly forever.
Of course, the Doctor doesn’t really abandon him, but it’s an example of the Fourth Doctor’s sometimes cavalier approach to the people who travel with him that we initially believe he might have – he gets a message and Sarah-Jane’s out the door in less than five minutes. Leela leaves, he grins his face off and chuckles madly. Even, in due course, when Romana decides to stay in E-Space, he make only the most tokenistic of efforts to persuade her to come with him, then dumps K9 on her and naffs unceremoniously off. So, with Adric, the Fourth Doctor more or less kicks him out the Tardis door in the middle of space-nowhere, and leaves him to fend for himself, at least as far as Adric knows. That’s relatively key to the drama here – Adric’s fairly new on board the Tardis, and he and the Doctor are still working each other out. It’s arguable whether or not they ever actually managed it, especially when the Doctor regenerated and Adric’s awe of him notably diminished. But here, Adric is still a swirling mass of emotions after the death of his brother, Varsh, feeling like an eternal outsider, and bouncing off the many walls of the Tardis. Even the frequently frosty Second Romana extends an olive branch to him to stop him from leaving in this story, but the impetuous youth won’t be told or restrained, and neither will the Doctor – it’s a rather touching foreshadowing of the opening to Earthshock in that regard. It would be stretching the fact to say that by the end of this story he’s the Adric of The Keeper Of Traken, but there feels like definite development in his character over the course of Purgatory 12, not least because Adric himself is crucial to the solution of problems and the escape from a fate worse than at least a single death.
Purgatory 12 is a story that works absolutely perfectly with the Season 18 vibe, wild plot elements knotted together with odder, more tangential logic that would normally pass muster in N-Space stories. If you’re a fan of Season 18, you’ll listen to Purgatory 12 and sense a return to the odd, familiar, upside-down-with-knobs-on rules of E-Space. Tom Baker blows every door off the script, Lalla Ward brings a wonderful mix or archness and a character unbending under the power of travel, John Leeson’s K9 is particularly touching here, at first feeling inadequate and electronically anxious that he’s not performing to the Doctor’s expectations, and eventually finding a kind of computer communion with his first real friend. And Matthew Waterhouse, in the role around which Purgatory 12 revolves, delivers an Adric unfinished, an Adric young and pompous and vulnerable and independent and clever, and everything that ever made him appeal to young viewers. An Adric still as much fun as ever he was.
If the hallmark of a Marc Platt script is gloriously weird, frequently creepy, dementedly inventive elements, Jonathan Morris frequently matches pulsing forward motion and elements of humour that turn the brightness of his stories up, making them seem faster and more energetic than many others in the Big Finish library.
In Chase The Night he brings an absolute belter of an idea to the weird universe of E-Space and builds in a Full Circle-style riff on life cycles and the different ways to be alive.
The Doctor and his friends land in a rainforest at night and runs into the crew of a spaceship. A spaceship that goes around the world. On rails.
Mad enough for you yet?
The reason it makes this trip is because the sun is so powerful it will burn the crew to a crisp if they don’t. They’re literally dependent on perpetually outrunning the dawn until eventually they either die or get rescued.
Enter two Time Lords, a snotty Alzarian and a robot dog. Once revealed not to be the much yearned-for rescue team, there’s a good degree of standard-issue suspicion, irritation and downright what-the-hellery about their arrival, not least from the pilot, Dena, played with a kind of strung-out, sleepless edge of command desperation by the incomparable Jane Asher (Seriously, young people, if you’ve never seen her do drama, check out the internet, find her in something called Closing Numbers. It’ll kill you, but in a good way). So what we have is a semi-enclosed environment with a creeping threat of sunshiney death, an old spaceship on rails, of which bits keep falling off, blowing up or going wrong (no pressure), with a pilot who’s strung out, blinkered and increasingly getting used to making stark, or even horrific decisions for the benefit of her dwindling crew.
Oh, yes. Didn’t we mention that? Members of the crew keep falling sick, babbling some very specific words, and then dying. Y’know, just because life would be too dull and straightforward otherwise.
When one of the Tardis crew goes the same way, leading to a cliffhanger where they’re pronounced stone dead, things take a turn for the really desperate. But life is not only what it’s cracked up to be. Somewhere in the dark, there’s a force on which the whole future of the crew could depend. But is it a force for good or evil? Or something somewhere in between?
That’s quite a lot of trademark Morris forward motion. Oh, and the humour? It’s here in spades too, with a particular running gag just one early example, when Romana speaks as she would, being one of the cleverest life forms in the room, and everyone has to repeatedly ask for an explanation of her vocabulary, which K9, with increasing electronic embarrassment, supplies. There’s also a sweet joke with K9 mentioning that he can cross the rainforest terrain perfectly well, thank you very much, and then later having to ask in a subdued, sheepish voice for assistance with ambulation over the terrain at speed.
Chase The Night is a story that mixes quite a few elements of the televised E-Space stories together – an exhausted crew, and in particular a strung out, increasingly blinkered leader in conflict with their lieutenant from Warriors’ Gate, as here, Pilot Dena frequently crosses swords with her engineer, Terson (given that world-weary tone of steady competence under the thumb of an unstable commander by William Gaminara, himself no stranger to audio work), the inevitable decay of systems both mechanical and social from State Of Decay, and the ingenious use of unusual life cycles as both a fundamental underpinning and a major part of the solution from Full Circle. In essence, then, it couldn’t be more E-Space if it tried. But still it has an energy, a runaway train urgency that none of the televised stories managed, and of course it’s all leavened with touches of delicious tongue-in-cheek humour. And it has Jane Asher, so naturally it rules all.
As an opening act to a ninth season of Fourth Doctor stories, Volume One is a triumph – both the scenarios, both the worlds we visit are odd in very E-Space ways, and the Season 18 team have an energy and a dynamic that’s friendly, certainly, but tinged with spikes of intellectual tension because as has been noted, in Season 18, every member of the Tardis team is a genius in their own right.
What you get here is an enthusiastic Fourth Doctor in a pair of E-Space adventures written by people who’ve thoroughly understood the dynamics of that environment and that sensibility. The Season 18 team is back, and they’re absolutely glorious. Tony Fyler