Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series Eight Volume Two: The Syndicate Master Plan– Starring Tom Baker, Jane Slavin, John Leeson, John Shrapnel, Jon Culshaw, Anna Acton, Blake Ritson, Roger May, Tracy Wiles, Gethin Anthony, David Rintoul, Bettrys Jones, Carolyn Seymour, Barnaby Edwards, Ronan Vibert, Simon Bubb, Christopher Naylor, Timothy Speyer & Francesca Hunt. Written by Guy Adams, Jonathan Barnes & John Dorney & Directed by Nicholas Briggs – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
When we left the Fourth Doctor he was busy being killed by a relic of his remote past – or at least a relic of his remote past: the next generation, in both a moment of personal vengeance, and an advancement of the plans of the mysterious ‘Syndicate.’ We still had very little by way of concrete evidence of what those plans might be, but they involved a planet familiar to the First Doctor, some deeply overgrown plant life, and some truly demented goings-on in the name of science.
Time’s Assassin, by Guy Adams, takes us briskly on from there, giving us more of a clue as to some temporal shenanigans, ssssort of killing the Doctor and having him have to negotiate and rebel his way back to the land of the living and oh yes – revealing something utterly mind-boggling about his new companion, Police Constable Ann Kelso, from 1978 Earth.
You’re gonna want to strap in for this one.
Time’s Assassin allows for some characters – in fact, for many characters – to reveal the full extent of their almost moustache-twirling madness and grotesquerie, and some of the cast grab that opportunity with both hands (special hat-tip to Blake Ritson as Elmore on that score), and you’re left with a sense of something in the Caves of Androzani/Vengeance On Varos mould, in that nice people, even vaguely redeemable people, are desperately thin on the ground, leaving the Doctor, Ann and of course K9 seeming bright and shiny and lovely by comparison.
Except – for the reasons that make you strap in – you’re going to be worried about the future.
Fever Island, by Jonathan Barnes, is one of those classic ‘We’ve got an ongoing crisis here, but let’s take time out to do something completely different’ episodes. The plans of the Syndicate might be gathering pace after the events of Time’s Assassin, but here, the Doctor and Ann find themselves on a remote Scottish island, with plot-narrating secret special agent Jason Vane, who’s trying to stop the evil Okulov in his tracks while mugging to the imaginary camera and being casually sexist. What this is of course is a love letter to the ITC dramas of the Sixties and Seventies, from The Avengers to more blatantly outrageous fare like The Persuaders and Department S, while acknowledging the absurdities of the sub-genre as it goes. Along the way there’s a gas weapon of mass…oddness, the Doctor turned bad, the power of imagination and some affectionate jabs at the stereotypes of strong-jawed secret agent heroes and their sexist and overly confident swagger through their fictional lives. Fever Island is a detour from the dark plotting of the Syndicate, but precisely because it takes us away from the internecine, double-knotted convolutions of that organisation, it’s probably the most fun and the quickest listen in the set. Dark fun, to be sure – but fun nonetheless.
And then, it’s eyes down and no stopping for a two-part, two-hour finale to the Syndicate storyline, The Perfect Prisoners by John Dorney.
There’s not really any way around this. John Dorney’s gonna break your hearts. However many you have.
He’s not going to rush to do that though, he’s going to give you quite the black and white space-drama serial, updated with newish (to us) virtual reality technology and a touch of meta-fiction, as things that may have happened may possibly have happened before, and the world or indeed the cosmos as you experience it might not in fact be the way it ‘really’ is, if any such concept can be said to be valid. There’s some gloriously savage metaphor in here, in slave worlds which, in the blink of a distracted eye, seem no longer to exist, and the reality of what’s going on feels slippery under your feet for some of the journey of these last two episodes. There’s also, it has to be said, a reveal that you should, and might, guess in advance, but which will nevertheless make you gasp when you reach it. There’s redemption, and choosing sides, and winning through in the end.
And then there’s the end.
Y’know? The point where he breaks your hearts. You might be ready for it when it comes – and the cunning devil’s taken that into consideration too, and has a character speak your rational Who-fan arguments back at you.
They’re no good. They won’t fly. He’s going to break your hearts.
So…yay. There’s that to look forward to.
The Fourth Doctor Series 8 Volume Two has more of a frantic, elevated pace to it than the first volume did – as you’d expect of the second half of a series arc, where strands are drawn together, surprise reveals keep you guessing and – not that I’m bitter or anything, but – your heart is utterly, utterly broken at the end. If you bought the first volume, you can’t possibly go through the rest of your life without knowing how it all turns out. Guaranteed, it’s not going to go how the first volume led you to believe it would. And if you haven’t got that aforementioned volume yet…you’re going to want to do that. The combined Series Eight is an episodic hymn to long ago with new colours, new ideas, Jon Culshaw playing half the cosmos, Tom Baker on fine, multi-faceted form and a great new companion from Jane Slavin. It’s the story of what might initially feel like a gang of also-rans, after the Big Bad has left the scene, and how they go about proving their villainous potential. These are villains with points to prove, scores to settle, civilisations to enslave and Time Lords to extermi- I mean, to destroy. They’re more ghoulish and vicious than you might imagine, and they allow the Fourth Doctor and Ann Kelso to tread old ground in a new, fresh, friendly style, while they give you an adventure you can’t possibly miss. Tony Fyler