Big Finish Review: Doctor Who – The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 8 Part 2
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The latest series of The Fourth Doctor Adventures from Big Finish has been a little different to the norm; rather than be reunited with a former companion, Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor was granted a brand new companion in Jane Slavin's Ann Kelso. You can read our review of part one here.
Part two covers the remaining four stories of series eight, picking up directly with the cliff-hanger in The False Guardian. The set has once again been directed by Nicholas Briggs, with scripts by Guy Adams, Jonathan Barnes and John Dorney. The set is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st March.
Here are the synopses for The Syndicate Masterplan Volume 2.
8.5 Time's Assassin by Guy Adams
The true identity of the Director has been revealed and he wants vengeance upon the Doctor for past crimes...
But the Director is not the only danger to the crew of the TARDIS. Deadly experiments are coming to a head, and everyone’s life is at risk.
However, the greatest threat is yet to come. The Syndicate’s plans are in motion... and no one is safe from them.
8.6 Fever Island by Jonathan Barnes
Jason Vane is England’s suavest secret agent, and today he’s on his deadliest mission yet. Tracking down the evil Okulov... before he destroys the world.
The Doctor, Ann and K9 are, in contrast, finding their own mission a little hard to complete. A strange storm in the vortex has swept them back in time, back to Earth in 1978 and a strange place called ‘Fever Island’.
A place where their worst nightmares are about to come true...
8.7 The Perfect Prisoners Part 1 by John Dorney
The Doctor, Ann and K9 are hot on the trail of the Syndicate, and straight into trouble.
After contending with killer robots and dangerous aliens, the clues lead straight to a machine that can literally make your dreams come true. A device that in the wrong hands could lead to misery for billions.
But who’s the real villain here? And what exactly is their master plan?
8.8 The Perfect Prisoners Part 2 by John Dorney
Secrets have been revealed, and the Doctor and his friends at last know who they’re fighting.
An epic journey across space leads them to the true mastermind of the Syndicate conspiracy.
Alliances will shift. Friends will die. Can even the Doctor come out of this alive?
Once again, I'll be joined by my son Ben, the biggest Doctor Who fan this side of Gallifrey, who'll be giving his own thoughts on this latest release. Spoilers of course for those who have not yet listened yet, because you really will want to experience some of these revelations first hand...
How much you like Time's Assassin will probably depend on how much you enjoyed The False Guardian and how much you know of The Daleks' Master Plan. The third series Doctor Who epic from the Hartnell era is a major influence on this tale, and is rich with characters and revelation, even if it sometimes feels a struggle to keep track of just what is going on.
The trouble with multiple characters on audio is that you don't have any visual markers to identify them by, relying on the voice work. Time's Assassin works hard to achieve these necessary distinctions, Jon Culshaw in particular providing a chilling, venomous Zephon. But when other members of the Syndicate engage with the story, all scheming villains in their own right, it becomes hard to see the light from the dark.
That being said, there is plenty of terrific peril as the facility is overrun by the Varga Plants and the Doctor's death is teased - not the for the first time in this set. Time's Assassin really hinges on the big twist and it's a doozy; [SPOILER WARNING] Those wondering how a new Doctor Who companion could be slotted in without any impact to future stories certainly got their first hint of Ann's fate here, with the shocking reveal that she is a sleeper time agent. It adds a sense of momentum to the rest of the set as the Syndicate storyline really takes precedent over individual tales.
Talking of which, Fever Island is the only stand alone story in the set, even if the weapons technology driving the storyline has direct ties to the criminal organisation. Fever Island is a brilliant homage to James Bond, told through Gethin Anthony's British secret agent Jason Vane, out to defeat his arch nemesis Okalov. It's a delightful, OTT affair, with flashy music, brilliant Fleming-esque character names (Bettrys Jones' Dr Caroline Pursglove) and a terrifying gas that is controlling the titular island and rendering its victims into a terrifying, hallucinogenic state.
Having the very blunt Ann and the audacious Fourth Doctor enter the scenario offers some delightful commentary on what is happening. I loved that every time Jason launches into his mission update, Ann cuts in and asks him who he is talking to. And the gas turning the Doctor into Okalov was wonderful, Baker indulging in a delightfully OTT Blodfeld impression. My biggest gripe with this story is that we didn't get more of this, because it really is one of the most fun Doctor Who stories I've listened to in a while.
The twist over what is really happening - the experiment of David Rintoul's Doctor Leon Jessel and Bettrys Jones's Dr Caroline Pursglove accidentally opening up portals into other universes is great sci-fi, while Jason's real identity, an anorak, spy genre-loving geek is a fun, if somewhat sad resolution to his character, but one that gives Fever Island a lot of heart too. It is a blast from beginning to end, and a nice detour from the heavier Syndicate storyline running through the rest of the release.
The Perfect Prisoner (Parts 1 & 2)
The Perfect Prisoners two-parter brings the syndicate storyline to a head in dramatic fashion. It suffers a little from the same direct ties to The Daleks' Master Plan, the lost story, meaning that you really have to keep up with all the twists and revelations that take place here. But at the same time, the urgency and emotional stakes are higher than the previous two-part story that bridge parts one and two.
The initial investigation into a tech company releasing a new devices to the masses is a nice commentary on modern society from writer John Dorney; the idea that humans enslaved to their devices are the 'perfect prisoners' is a cruel if somewhat stark twist late on in the story. The investigation that forms the first part is an intriguing hook, as the identity of the syndicate members begins to unravel.
The complexity of these differing Machiavellian personalities again make it hard to keep track of who is who, while the Barnaby Edward's Desmond Kettley and Simon Bubb's Jodor Colwyn add an extra layer in the space security service who become embroiled in the Doctor and Ann's investigation.
The character of Ann continues to unravel in spectacular fashion - the idea of a sleeper agent within a sleeper agent is a nice bit of mind-boggling revelation to keep the listener on their toes, while the reveal that her 'true self' Anya Kingdom is connected to the tragic Doctor Who companion in The Daleks' Master Plan is a nice touch. Given her journey throughout this story, it was rather sad to see her gone by the end, Anya revealed as someone completely untrustworthy to the Doctor, with the real Ann Kelso now just a memory.
Dorney's script packs so much into this final two-parter, paying off on the build up of the previous six stories and delivers a satisfying, thrilling adventure. The streamlined focus of the final part works, getting the listener back on track as the race to free humanity and defeat the real villain paints a great picture of hero and villain, with Ann / Anya caught somewhere in the middle.
And here are some thoughts from my son Ben (aged 12)…
Just a month after the first set, The Syndicate Master Plan picks up where The False Guardian left off. Time's Assassin feels like the weaker side of a great part one, with Zephon taking centre stage and The Doctor, Ann, K9 and pretty much everyone else side-lined. That said, the parts with the Doctor are still great, with Tom Baker still in his prime, even though he is tied up then shot into a void for most of it. Zephon is the son of Zephon, the member of the Galactic council inThe Daleks' Master Plan, and he is desperate for revenge on the Doctor here for his involvement in the extermination of his father. The plot feels stretched out, but it does reveal that Zephon has contact with the Syndicate and reveals a dark secret side to Ann, not seen before.
The next story, Fever Island, is a James Bond parody with mist from another dimension and a mysterious Scottish island. It is instantly a fun more enjoyable story leading on from the cliff-hanger of the previous tale, with many twists that are unexpected and people becoming what they aren't supposed to beust keeps going, creating a fun, tense atmosphere.
The finale, The Perfect Prisoners, starts with the dark Ann killing yet another contact of the Syndicate. Here, The Daleks' Master Plan knowledge is needed more than ever as the Doctor and co. finally discovers what the Syndicate are and what they are doing. While investigating devices that manipulate how you perceive reality, the Syndicate is revealed to be the galactic council mark two, made up of the sons and wives and so on of the original members, with Zephon trying to join before being blown up.
The biggest twist of the set is then played at the end of part two as Ann is revealed to be an undercover agent who didn't know she was undercover for the SSS, the space security service also seen in the The Daleks' Master Plan. Part three is then mainly 'Ann' chasing down members related to the council/Syndicate and also trying to destroy the Doctor. It is very fun and quite sad at the end when the Doctor boots Ann out of the TARDIS to stop being hurt by her true identity. Overall a very enjoyable two sets, which proves Tom Baker is still as good as ever.
Each story is accompanied by trailers for the next instalment, which again feel a little redundant on a box set release. However, the usual high standard of behind the scenes interviews remain.
The impact of The Dalek's Master Plan weighs heavily in the discussions from the cast and crew in the interviews for Time's Assassin, as the cast and crew reflect on the twist around Ann's character.
There is a great discussion with guest star Gethin Anthony, reflecting on his time on Game of Thrones and how fantasy as a genre is a marvellous way for audience's to escape from real life.
The interviews feel a little out of place after part two of The Perfect Prisoners, given that there is still more of this particular story to come. But they do offer more fascinating insights into the journey of Ann Kelso, the influence of The Dalek's Master Plan, something that is developed further in the interviews at the end of the set. There is very much a fondness for Jane Slavin from all involved, with a bittersweet realisation that her journey as Ann Kelso has ended. I loved the idea that John Dorney kept threatening Jane with Ann's death while Slavin still holds out hope - as do we - that there could be more stories featuring Ann Kelso to come...
Some Final Thoughts...
The ambition of this release, like part one, cannot be denied; a attempt to tell a very different and serialised set of Fourth Doctor Adventures, introduce a completely different type of companion and tell an effective follow-up to The Daleks' Master Plan.
For the most pat it works, in no small part to the terrific chemistry between Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor and Jane Slavin's Ann Lelso. So much so in fact, that there is a real gut punch to her departure just eight stories in. The heavier focus on following up The Daleks' Master Plan is both a blessing and a hindrance, offering a tantalising mystery and keeping the audience on their toes as the twists unravel. But the deep ties to the lost classic story also feel like a distraction at times.
While I preferred the somewhat more episodic feel of part one, this set does feature the best stand along story of series eight in Fever Island, a brilliant James Bond-influenced spoof with real heart. This set also gives Slavin plenty to get her teeth into, with three different personalities in one body. She really has been the star of the show alongside the almighty Tom Baker and I will certainly miss not having more adventures with the Fourth Doctor, K9 and mistress Ann Kelso.