Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor: Shadow of the Sun – Starring Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, John Leeson & Fenella Woolgar. Written by Robert Valentine & Directed by Nicholas Briggs – CD / Download (Big Finish)
The notion that this story wasn’t intended to be released right now, but was originally supposed to be part of a Fourth Doctor season three years from now, is difficult to get your head around once you’ve heard it, because there have rarely been more timely Big Finish releases than this one.
On the face of it a very comfortably Leela/K9 era Fourth Doctor story aboard a luxury space cruiser, Shadow Of The Sun is really a Robert Holmes-style satire on the notion that one person’s firm belief is equal to another person’s scientific reality.
It’s the story of a kind of Heaven’s Gate cult that believe they’ll find a utopia at the heart of the sun, and are heading towards is on the aforementioned luxury space cruiser – because after all, if you’re going to find Utopia in the heart of the sun, you might as well travel in style.
The dilemma for the Doctor and his friends then is how to save everyone’s lives from the physical inevitability of their annihilation, when almost nobody wants to be saved, because they don’t believe there’s anything to be saved from. The dilemma underneath the dilemma of course is whether anyone has the right to save members of what is objectively a death cult from the fate which they firmly don’t believe is their death but a transformation of state or status. Do you have the right, in fact, to save grown-up people from themselves?
Cover all that in a great clock-ticking adventure story and add a persuasive cult leader (the caramel-voiced Paul Herzberg as Suleiman Zorn – and how great a name is that?), a turncoat traitor (played by Somebody, as Someone, and surely you don’t expect us to give that away?), Fenella Woolgar as rich seeker after easy truth, the also-magnificently-named Lady Malina Rigel-Smythe, a world-weary but not quite that world-weary captain (Glen McCready), and an autopilot getting its HAL well and truly on (Barnaby Edwards), and what you have is a drama that’s just populous enough to give most necessary sides on the question of whether it’s right to interfere with the wishes of believers, even if what they believe is stupid and suicidal.
In a world where people are looking at a pandemic plague and denying it’s serious, claiming it’s a strategic weapon, claiming, even, that it’s spread by communication beacons, with – and let me be sure I’m crystal freakin’ clear on this – nnnnnnnnnnno credible evidence whatsoever, Shadow Of The Sun comes rather close to the bone of humanity’s determination to believe in its special status both as a species and as a group of individuals, while telling a cracking good adventure yarn and giving most of its protagonists a good deal to do – slight spoiler alert: Nobody, but nobody, ‘mingles’ like Leela.
The fact that the story was recorded while the country and the Western world was in lockdown or something like it becomes a credit to the sound mixers, because frankly unless you’re poking about with bits of equipment looking for unevenness – and if we’re honest, even if you are – it’s practically impossible to tell that it’s a story made up of individual, locked-down performances. This of course should hardly be surprising – some of the best Big Finish stories have been recorded in chunks with individual actors reading in from a distance (the technological equivalent of lockdown to all intents and purposes), so it should be no surprise that with a tweak here or there and the construction in a few actors’ homes of a padded recording niche, the company can more or less continue with business as usual.
This is business in fact rather on the excellent end of usual, with a cast seeming to throw itself into the script with relish, and the script by Robert Valentine full of some good fruity, juicy dialogue which, it must be presumed, will have warmed the heart of at least Tom Baker, who gets to deliver lines about death cults, and reality being the only thing that doesn’t disappear when you stop believing in it, and possibly of Barnaby Edwards too, whose ‘positively flippant’ autopilot of potential death has a roaringly good time throughout the story, the brulee-crust of its civility laid thinly over a personality almost gleefully eager to give a hearty ‘Says you!’ and eject you out of an airlock for looking at it funny.
The thorny question at the heart of all this – should people be allowed to do thoroughly asinine things that harm themselves? – actually speaks to the nature of consent, and how belief alters that. In our society, intentional immediate physical self-harm is seen as a symptom of a mental health issue, and we generally take steps to ensure the harm is minimized. Intentional gradual self-harm, through drugs, alcohol, unhealthy eating or religion is less stringently or immediately addressed, because (ironically like climate change) the harm only becomes apparent when symptoms manifest. Intentional mass suicide though depends on the motivation of those committing the act – if you tell people you’re going to drive them into the heart of a sun and they’ll die, consent depends on a determination that dying is good and/or leads to something better, and the people who consent to that will have a particular motivation in mind. If you tell them you’re going to drive them into the heart of the sun but they won’t die, in apparent contradiction of observable, repeatable physics, then they’re consenting to salvation from that physics, rather than to the effect you can objectively know it will have on them.
Which means, basically, if you’re going to drive a bunch of people into the sun, you have to be able to deliver on that salvation to avoid being morally culpable for their deaths when a) they believe you, and do as you tell them to, and b) physics turns out not to care about the fantasy of a solar utopia, or a meeting with aliens behind a passing space rock, or a miracle cure for a virus you’ve told them they’re getting.
That whole thing about injecting disinfectant. I’m not going too fast for you, am I?
Doctor Who has of course over the years both had its cake, eaten it and had it again when it comes to magical realism. Plenty are the stories where ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ or even ‘happy thoughts’ are a real force in the physical universe – The Curse Of Fenric depends on belief as a protective force, The God Complex similarly uses ‘faith’ as a force that can be removed, replaced, stoked and used to feed a minotaur. Even Big Finish recently gave us a story (Scorched Earth) in which ‘thinking happy thoughts’ was a genuine plan of the Doctor’s. And the thing is, each of those stories works in their own way, because Doctor Who is science fantasy, not strictly science fiction. Remove the capacity for magic altogether and you end up with the dreariness of Doctor Who that must always be rooted in pure science – and let’s face it, a little Logopolis goes a long way.
But Shadow Of The Sun steers a middle path – never dreary, but never admitting magical thinking to its central dilemma, it insists on the primacy of observable reality over wishful thinking and clicking your heels together in the face of disaster, but it services the listener’s need for compelling characters and storytelling along the way too.
It’s a dangerous game, comparing audio stories to some of the Leela era’s finest, but Shadow Of The Sun feels like it’s up there. It has more than a tang of The Sun Makers about its sledgehammer subtle satire, but the point of such a comparison is that that satire works absolutely, and it more or less has to be fairly in your face if it’s going to work at all through the medium of Doctor Who. Added to which, there’s enough done in the audio editing to let you feel the opulence of the space cruiser, its size and scale, and the oddly monstrous purpose to which the believers in Heliotopia (got to love a good portmanteau) intend to put the ship. The atmosphere is like being on board a ship with the Manson family, or the Jonestown believers, or the Branch Davidians (Really? Google is your friend…) – they’re all peace and love and grooviness so long as you don’t intend to stop them achieving their goal. And yet the core group of characters have a pleasing distinctiveness of voice and characterization, Glen McCready as Captain Brandis and Fenella Woolgar adding richness, uncertainty and a horrifying counterpoint to the ship of credible cretins and their death cruise.
All told then, Shadow Of The Sun feels like an absurdly high quality Leela and K9 era Fourth Doctor story, with a biting satire dressed up in all its finery and heading towards the sun. It would have felt like that three years from now, when it was initially due to hit your earbuds.
Right now though, it feels like a lesson we all need, delivered in time to make a vital point through exciting, engaging science fantasy drama. Tony Fyler