Doctor Who: The Third Doctor Adventures Volume Seven – Starring: Tim Treloar, Sadie Miller, Daisy Ashford, Jon Culshaw, Wendy Craig & Misha Malcolm, Written by Mark Wright & Tim Foley & Directed by Nicholas Briggs (Big Finish)
“I’ve put all my eggs in the one basket.”
“Well that’s fine… supposing no-one steals the basket.”
The Brigadier and the Third Doctor there from The Time Warrior.
Ironically, the Brig is in much the same situation in the first story in this seventh Third Doctor box set, The Unzal Incursion.
Written by Mark Wright and set during the Doctor’s first, rather more spiky year as UNIT’s scientific advisor, The Unzal Incursion has a lot of the flavour of that year, with a little evolution from the 1970s. Liz Shaw (played by Daisy Ashford, daughter of Caroline John) with a frankly uncanny rightness of tone, has been leading a project to give the Earth a long-range warning system to pick up any alien wrong ’uns heading our way. As soon as it goes live, the Invasion Of The Week that was later to become a staple of the show becomes much more difficult to achieve.
Which is as good a reason as any for a bunch of alien wrong ’uns to want to knock it out or control it. The Hotspur Network, as it’s rather catchily called, becomes the focus on the Unzal Incursion, but like a lot of the best stories from the Liz Shaw season, the threat is already here. With a hint of Inferno around the edges, almost overnight, UNIT is compromised from within. Previously perfectly loyal officers go over to the enemy. And the Doctor, Professor Shaw and the Brigadier are forced onto the run, with all the forces of a hostile UNIT on their tails.
Chases in Bessie, chases in helicopters (with Lethbridge-Stewart in the pilot’s seat), sonic weapons, mass brainwashing, all the good stuff from early Pertwee-era Who is here, with a cast who frankly sound like they’re having the time of their lives. There’s an incredible zing between all the main players, Tim Treloar as the Third Doctor anchoring the piece with ever-increasing confidence and a vocal Pertwee stride, Jon Culshaw as the Brigadier sounding like he’s got the job he was born to play, and Daisy Ashford fitting in perfectly as Professor Shaw.
There’s an interesting question posed in the sub-text of The Unzal Incursion – at what point do your actions stop being your responsibility? There’s a good deal of brainwashing involved in getting UNIT to turn on its leader, and the question is raised of whether simply being brainwashed is defence enough for those who do unconscionable deeds, or whether at some point a line is drawn and responsibility allocated for not fighting a difficult personal fight to escape the brainwashing.
Along the way, there’s some excellent Liz Shawing, of the king you’d love to have seen on screen. There’s a classic Third Doctor gambit, stepping forward to be the Unzal’s ambassador to the powers that be, and there’s an utterly barnstorming performance from Misha Malcolm as Sergeant ‘Nicki’ Attah, described as a relief for Benton. We’d very much like more of Sergeant Attah, please and thank you, and ultimately, we’d like her to be Brigadier of UNIT North or somesuch, second only to Lethbridge-Stewart himself. We’d like that because Malcolm’s performance is fresh, and vibrant, and a joy to listen to, and because she feels like a paving of the way for the likes of a young Winnifred Bambera to come up through the ranks. More. Please. Thank you.
In all fairness though, we could ask for more of almost everything in this story. More of the effortless chemistry between Culshaw and Treloar (adjusted slightly in this story so that it reflects that first Pertwee season with its sizing up of each other). More Daisy Ashford, any time she’s free and the stories can be written for her. And more hardcore UNIT action stories like this one, to sweep us along and make us eat popcorn as the episodes power by us one after another with a pulse-raising punch and purpose.
And then there’s The Gulf.
Two more dissimilar stories it would be hard to even devise, but you won’t be chewing popcorn listening to Tim Foley’s tale of serious psychological horror.
You’ll be too busy biting your nails.
There’s a whole different atmosphere here, as Foley takes the Third Doctor and Sarah-Jane (again played by the daughter of the original actress, in this case Sadie Miller) to an artistic retreat with several serious differences. A platform on a giant lethal ocean, occupied solely by women artists, presided over by Marta Malvani, a seemingly past-her-prime artist, who now mostly guides the works of others. In a mark of staggeringly ironic casting, Marta Malvani is played by Wendy Craig, an actress of legendary status and power, whose prime is not only here and now, but has been enduring in one form and another for decades. You could more or less stop reading once you know Wendy Craig is in The Gulf and be assured of its quality.
But there’s so much more to say. This thing is creeeeepy. Rivulets down the wall, water-monsters talking you to death, old secrets rising to the surface, complex relationship drama creeeeeepy.
Tim Foley always has a dab hand with his scripts of getting you to buy into the character-chemistry, but this is a story so immersive, so multi-faceted, you may need a good brisk walk in the sunshine once you’re done with it, just to restore your equilibrium. That’s only right for a story where the villain seems to ooze into you from the walls, from the air, from the drinking water, and from every conversation you have.
Imagine a situation where the air you breathe became both insidious and aggressive, wanting to trip you into one reaction. One obvious reaction, and then you die. Don’t blink. Don’t move. Don’t breathe…
This is a story very much in a 21st century vein, but starring the Third Doctor and Sarah. It’s very distinctly an evolution of the kind of story that could have – and would have – been told on TV during their era, but the character chemistry between the two of them remains true to that Seventies model.
It would be utter folly to try and explain all the backstory of The Gulf to you – and besides, it would ruin the experience for you. But in the foreground suffice it to say that one of the young artists on the platform falls into the deadly sea, and is missing, presumed about as dead as you can imagine.
And then she comes back.
The creepy suspicions that begin to drip into every conversation are what powers The Gulf along, and when the truth is finally revealed, it’s so very worth the wait. As with Daisy Ashford’s Liz Shaw in The Unzal Incursion, there’s at least one scene in The Gulf which is pure Sarah-Jane, of the kind you’d have paid good handfuls of salary to have seen on screen. Slightly weirdly, they’re both scenes of companion-torture. But where Liz is tortured physically, and you hear her magnificent resistance, Sarah-Jane gets the psychological treatment, and it reveals something about the relationship between our favourite journalist and her ever-absent Aunt Lavinia that will help put them both in a brand new light.
The Unzal Incursion is full-on early UNIT action adventure that will get your pulse pounding. The Gulf, by way of utter contrast, is a clammy, claustrophobic terrorfest, probably way too dark for TV at the time, but absolutely up there with the likes of The Chimes Of Midnight in the sustained atmosphere and chilly finger up the spine stakes.
Both of the stories in this box set could well be thought of as masterpieces in their own right. The cast is spot on, anchored by Tim ‘Flawless’ Treloar, and you’ll come out the other side of this box set believing you’ve just been through a Third Doctor kaleidoscope of moods – and loved every minute of it. Tony Fyler