It’s a good word, immaculate. Difficult to live up to though, with its connotations of spotless perfection.
It’s appropriate to use it several times over to describe The Third Doctor Adventures Volume 5.
Other good words: spectacular; holy moly, goosebumps and wow. Which, now I see them written down look like a firm of Dickensian solicitors, but let’s not dwell on that. Let’s dwell instead on the widening of the Third Doctor Adventures from Big Finish into a more fully authentic UNIT Family feel, with the recasting of two key characters in a way that’s not so much ‘sympathetic’ as it is ‘blindingly obvious,’ and the return to mainstream full-cast Who of the legend that is John Levene.
Let’s get this out of the way before the whole review becomes a hymn to the power of Culshaw. When Nicholas Courtney came into a room, he very often came in voice-first – or if he didn’t, it felt like he did, because that voice was so powerful and evocative and rich you could bathe in it.
When Jon Culshaw’s Brigadier first appears in Primord, you’ll get exactly the same shivers up your spine, and the same hairs on your arms and your neck will stand to UNIT-standard attention, because the performance he delivers is that good. Uncannily, world-rattlingly good. The Brigadier’s come home, simple as.
Next, let’s talk about the return of Liz Shaw, in the person of Daisy Ashford. Seems unlikely anyone interested doesn’t know, but Daisy’s the daughter of original Liz actress Caroline John and long-serving Master, Geoffrey Beevers. Daisy goes for a more essence-based resurrection of Liz Shaw, but she makes it sound so effortless, you really do have to pinch yourself not to believe that it’s Caroline John herself, at her on-screen age with her on-screen voice, coming back to join the world of audio Who. Positively spooky, but spooky in the way that makes you want to throw street parties and throw flowers at the feet of the new, brilliantly cast Liz Shaw.
Benton’s back! John Levene shrugs off decades like they’re dust on his stripes and brings back Benton, to play a leading role in the second story in this collection, alongside the Doctor and Jo.
And before it all becomes about the newcomers and the returners, let’s not forget there’s an ever-increasingly confident Tim Treloar in the audio version of the frills and the cape, and there’s the force of unstoppable nature that is Katy Manning, back for their fifth outing as the Doctor and Jo.
If you’re still reading this and you haven’t dashed to the Big Finish website yet, what the hell is wrong with you?
You want more reasons? Really?
OK, well, obviously, from the title of the first story, Primord, by John Dorney, you know you’re in for a sequel to one of Season Seven’s immortal hit stories, Inferno. A sequel. To Inferno. More green ooze, more hairy, shaggy, staggeringly contagious men-beasts. Go – click the buy button, you know you need to. What John Dorney does with them here speaks to both the Cold War paranoia of this age of UNIT (UNIT dating controversy notwithstanding), and, perhaps rather creepily, also to the increasing insularity of thought in our current politics. And while this will be a disappointment (and perhaps a spoiler) to some fans, there are no big drills in this story, and no parallel dimensions or eyepatches either. I know, I know – don’t worry, there’s plenty of Interesting Stuff to take their place.
Now, a warning. For me, at the beginning of Primord, the writing feels a touch overwhelmed with fan service – oh, did I not mention, it also includes the first meeting of Jo and Liz! – and the UNIT Family vibe might be a touch overwritten in terms of whizzo jolly Seventies fun and larks. But that, if anything, feels like a writer in the later half of the 2010s, evoking an atmosphere from the first half of the 1970s, for people who might just conceivably not otherwise get the fundamental beats of a handful of relationships – particularly given the fact that at least one of those relationships is an extrapolation, with, in case this passed you by, the first meeting of Jo and Liz. So while to fans who eat and drink the Pertwee era, it might initially feel a bit ‘Five Go Adventuring,’ stick with it, because John Dorney’s a good writer, and he’s just easing you in to an old team with a new energy, and soon enough there are Primords all over the place and highly tactical deployments of fire extinguishers to at least partially save the day. Primord takes what becomes in Inferno something of a side element and puts it front and centre, spinning off from that point into brand new, striking relevant threats. While the dialogue at the beginning may be something of a primer in where we are and what we’re doing in terms of Doctor Who history, the further in you go, the more rewarding the story, and the new expanded range of relationships in audio Third Doctor adventures, become.
The Scream of Ghosts, by Guy Adams, benefits from the primer-coat applied by John Dorney and cracks more briskly on with a story of the mysteries of a newfangled science – mobile telephony.
There are smiles to be got out of the notion that mobile phones are science-fiction, but of course that’s exactly what they are from the point of view of the Pertwee UNIT family, and the invention of such technology is viewed with suspicion by all and sundry – including the Doctor, who understands that the technology is ahead of its time, and so is probably being given a nudge into being by alien forces with motives of their own.
And then of course, there’s the scream. The scream and the message picked up by amateur CB radio enthusiasts, who are CB friends – the walkie-talkie era equivalent of today’s Facebook friends – with Sergeant Benton.
That’s a connection that pitches the Doctor into a battle with an alien familiar to us, but whereas Primord is a sequel to an on-screen Pertwee adventure, Guy Adams here constructs a story that while full-on and very redolent of Pertwee’s UNIT years throughout, actually in its resolution acts as a prequel to a Tom Baker adventure, as the alien menace that’s trying to use the early advent of mobile phones as a way to invade and subjugate the Earth is defeated and imprisoned – at least for some time.
Of the two, by virtue of having the introductory work to the fully realised world of UNIT stories done for it, and therefore being able to rattle along at a frenetic but understandable pace, Scream has the more fully natural feeling of a story of the day – at least for my money – and it’s also not front-loaded with fan-pleasing squee-moments, being rather more workaday UNIT at its beginning. Everyone’s performance remains on full power, with Jon Culshaw further cementing his new lifelong audio role into every listener’s mind, but now with the added bonus of a proper part for John Levene, bringing Benton’s no-nonsense, down-to-Earth personality back into the mix. There’s plenty for Tim Treloar to do as the Doctor, and he does it with a flair and a gung-ho approach that’s becoming his own trademark as much as it was Jon Pertwee’s, and there’s some joyous work towards the end of the adventure for Katy Manning, almost literally stepping into the Doctor’s shoes as UNIT’s (Acting) Scientific Advisor, standing up to the universe’s bullies with her usual resilience, but now with more button-pressing and twiddle-fiddling. Joy. Sheer, unadulterated joy.
Every Third Doctor Adventures box set so far has had something special to recommend it, some point of novelty by which to differentiate itself, and almost to justify the whole experience of recasting actors who have sadly left us. Few though have been as bold as this one – bringing both the potential of future Third Doctor and Liz stories to the table, and the prospect of a fully-rounded Seventies UNIT team with which to more determinedly mine the era’s unique charm for new adventures.
One wonders how they’re ever going to top this – and of course one final evolution of the team naturally, if a little blasphemously, suggests itself. With a new audio Third Doctor now firmly in place, a new Liz, and a blisteringly good new Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and with Jo Grant still fighting bravely by the Doctor’s side, can it possibly be too long before a new Delgado-Master joins the world of the audio Third Doctor?
If so, at least after the stunning performances in evidence in this box set, he will have a full-strength UNIT family to contend with. Tony Fyler