Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Philip Hinchcliffe Presents Volume 03: The Helm Of Awe
The Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who that ran from 1975 to 1977 is often referred to as the 'golden era' and rightly so. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe oversaw some of the all time classics from Genesis of the Daleks and Pyramids From Mars to The Robots of Death and The Talons Of Weng Chiang. Tom Baker's first three series under Hinchcliffe rarely hit a dud. (The Hand of Fear might not be the strongest entry in the Doctor Who canon but it beats the pants of much of what came later).
In recent years, Big Finish has been the haven for new stories featuring classic Doctors and Tom Baker has given fans plenty of new entries with companions Leela (Louise Jameson), Romana I (the late Mary Tamm) and currently Romana II (Laila Ward). While Tom Baker is currently recording 'season six' on the Fourth Doctor Adventures with Laila Ward, he's also taken time to record a new audio with a story by Hinchcliffe himself.
The Helm Of Awe is the third audio by Hinchcliffe, the two being The Ghosts of Gralstead in 2014 and The Devil's Armada in 2016. Here's how Hinchcliffe described his contributions to Big Finish.
“The starting point was there were a few basic ideas that were kicking around for another series, had we made it. I thought this project would be fun to be involved with, and I've tried to and tell stories that are in the same spirit as the ones Robert Holmes and I were telling.”
The audio is released in four parts, a format straight out of the classic series, on audio and CD. It's available for Big Finish customers now and goes on general release on the 31st May. Here's the synopsis...
The TARDIS arrives on the remote Shetland isle of Bothness and the Doctor and Leela find themselves threatened by Vikings! Only all is not as it seems. The locals are celebrating the old Norse fire festival of Up Helly Aa, so there’s nothing to be worried about. Or is there?
For, unknown to the islanders, the TARDIS crew are on the trail of an ancient artefact invested with mysterious powers that has recently been stolen and brought to this remote location.
Somewhere on this island lurks something ancient, and evil, and alien. The Doctor and Leela will have to stop it. Only on this occasion time might not be on their side.
So onto part one, which sees the Doctor and Leela follow a signal from the Brigadier to a remote island off Scotland celebrating the old Norse festival and a mystery around an artefact uncovered at Edinburgh Castle. Baker and Jameson continue to slip into their old roles with ease and Marc Platt, who adapt's Hinchcliffe's story, knows how to write their banter well (I loved the Doctor scoffing at Leela's war canoe she had back in her old Sevarteen tribe). She gets a lot of good stuff here, bonding with Joanna (and good guess turb from Joanna Renwick) and her colleagues and teaching them the war cry of the Sevateem tribe as she joins their race in the sea. Baker seems a little more morose at first, having little interaction with the story, but that changes with part two.
In true Hinchcliffe-fashion, it's full of atmosphere too, the Northern Lights adding an eerie quality to their arrival at the old house full of suspicious characters, friendly allies and an eccentric old professor with his own mysterious relics. There is a sense of something building too, winds rising as Leela and her team mates on the sea are wonderfully evocative, particularly as they lurk closer to the strange interface. And with old clocks ringing and doors creaking, the old manor house the Doctor and Leela find themselves in is right out the gothic stories of that era. The cliffhanger is effective too, viking warriors rising out of the boiling seas and the - this is the kind of thing that would have been right out of place in the mid seventies had the budget allowed.
Part two certainly sees things build up; it turns out Leela crossed interface and encountered the vikings through a catastrophic vision of the future. Together with new ally Joanna to the Doctor, things begin to build. The Doctor encounters Joanna's father, the professor and finds himself thrown down a shaft for his troubles, where he encounters a robotic entities parading around as Vikings (in true Doctor Who fashion) while Leela continues to struggle to determine what are real Vikings and what is part of the festival. The fact that you know a threat is coming - ancient warriors or aliens - and no one will be able to tell the difference, only ups the tension.
Tom Baker questioning the Viking device is wonderfully amusing, deducing that the threat is actually a robotic alien race known as the Barbezums in the caves beneath the island. The robotic voices of this alien threat, the great use of sound effects to conjure up their lair, an atmospheric score and Baker's witty banter make for an engaging story. Leela meanwhile finds herself bound and imprisoned the burning galley, making for another effective cliff-hanger, even if it feels like a bit of a repeat of part one; but then the point I guess is that she is living the future she had a vision off in the interface. With the added peril of the Doctor trapped with her as he attempts the rescue, it certainly leaves you eager for part three.
The third part changes tact in a surprising new direction as the Doctor and Leela find themselves transported from the burning ship to a vessel in World War II with Joanna's grand father, heading for Norway. Assumed for Nazi spies, they find themselves in a precarious situation, particularly when a German U boat appears. It's a great piece if World War II drama, given a sci-fi twist as the robotic berserker (the titular Helm of Awe) joins the battle and destroys the U boat. There's also a great moral debate about picking up Nazi survivors before they find themselves under attack and the Doctor's poor hat gets torn apart. The battle is totally absorbing and exciting piece of sea attack versus killer robot that could never have been achieved back in the 70's.
Things take a slower pace in the rest of part three, as the Doctor and Leela are taken to the island as traitors, encounter younger versions of characters and face the threat of execution. The fact that the islanders seem to forget all about the berserker the moment it vanishes is a nice twist. There's also a nice timey-wimey twist (to quote the Tenth Doctor) with the Doctor being given an artefact he was accused of stealing in the future. With the presence of the aliens over the centuries creating a time distortion effect, this is pure Doctor Who territory while the Doctor being shot adds another welcome cliffhanger before the final part.
It all comes full circle in a dramatic final part which sees the Doctor and Leela return to the present and find themselves face to face with a host of angry villagers out to kill them. There is a great The Wicker Man vibe to the finale as the listener learns that the aliens have been using the island as a staging ground for a galactic mining operation, influencing the locals. Joanna and her father face up to their legacy and fight back in a spectacular showdown as a volcanic rages and giant robots go on the rampage.
It's spectacular stuff, making full use of the story without the restraints of a budget and yet it still feels like it could have come right out of the Hinchcliffe era. Tom Baker really lets loose in the finale as he faces off against the alien menace and Leela and her new allies fight back.
The Helm Of Awe is a great story; the idea of aliens using Earth and a staging ground and controlling the human populace is nothing new to Doctor Who but it is well executed. Mixing in Norse mythology, a remote, hostile setting and blending time travel with killer robots, it is one of the strongest Fourth Doctor additions to Big Finish and is well worth a listen.
The first disk contains parts one and two. The second disk contains parts three and four and contains three additional tracks devoted to the music of the story. These three tracks are a great addition, perfectly capturing the evocative feel of the Hinchcliffe era, a mix of ominous music, a bombastic robotic score for the titular Helm of Awe and a Scottish twang in parts.
The final disk is devoted to behind the scenes recordings. with discussion from director Ken Bentley, producer David Richardson and Marc Platt, who adapted Philip Hinchcliffe's story to script. The fourth track is particularly interesting, as they discuss the influences of the 'Hinchcliffe era' and the use of history within the story, while the former Doctor Who producer Hinchcliffe adds some commentary about his inspirations for the story in track two and how he tried to consider Robert (Bob) Holmes' style of storytelling.
Track six focuses on Tom Baker and Louise Jameson and you get a real sense of their passion for the story. Baker's use of language, completely separate to his persona of the Doctor, is mesmerising. Track seven sees Baker and Hinchcliffe discuss their early days meeting each other while the producer and Jameson chat about the casting of Leela, which is a nice piece of history for Doctor Who buffs. It's interesting to see Baker discuss how things were more 'difficult' after Hinchcliffe left.
The remaining tracks feature discussions with the cast and addresses the themes of the story and a final lovely message from Tom Baker. These extras add a nice touch to what is a strong entry in the Doctor Who catalogue for Big Finish.