Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - Subterranea

Tom Baker's sixth series of The Fourth Doctor Adventures continues with Subterranea, which sees the Doctor and Romana travel into an underground world filled with mole-like inhabitants and a deadly race of mechanical monsters to hunt them down. Released on Big Finish this month, it goes on general release at the end of July.

Here's the synopsis for the latest adventure...

The TARDIS is going underground. When the Doctor and Romana find themselves buried beneath the surface of an alien world, they're soon swallowed up by a giant burrowing machine. This is where the inhabitants of this planet live - in huge, constantly moving, Drill-towns, chewing up the fuel and resources of the planet in order to survive.

But something else lurks in the earth. Something that feeds on the Drill-towns. Something that is relentless and will not stop.

The Silex are hunting.

As with some of my previous reviews, I'll be joined by my 11-year old son Ben, a massive fan of Doctor Who both on television and Big Finish, to discuss this latest release...


The Review...

Baz Greenland (aged 35)

One of the things I love about Big Finish is that it is able to use the audio format to bring spectacle to Doctor Who in a way that the original series could not always manage on its budget. That can definitely be said for this adventure, which sees the Doctor and Romana II arrive in a subterranean steam punk-style world of mole people drilling for riches in the tunnels beneath their dead world. While I have no doubt that the Tom Baker era could have managed this story (the drill towns are reminiscent of the mining vessel in The Robots of Death) it's nice to see this unrestrained by the constraints of visualizing it for television.

Writer Jonathan Morris creates a rich world of drilling towns, nomadic communities and the perils of the wilderness as these evolved like mole creatures scurry for wealth. The myth of the deadly Silex are an interesting concept, cybernetic hivemind creatures created out of a nuclear war that devastated the civilisation and now hunt the survivors below. While the obvious comparison is classic Doctor Who villains the Cybermen, they're closer to Star Trek terrifying Borg in nature and prove to be a considerable threat as the story progresses, hunting and enslaving the last of the native civilisation and making them into themselves.

Perhaps more significantly, there is a heavy influence of that iconic Tom Baker story Genesis Of The Daleks in Subterranea; cybernetic life forms created in the midst of a terrible nuclear war that turned on their creators and then spread death and destruction where they go. Even the name Silex, when spoken aloud, sound like the Daleks. The similarities were so similar, I was quite expecting the tale to have some link to that story. I wonder just how intentional that was.

Where Subterranea really succeeds is in how much fun it delivers once the story really gets going. The darker themes of genocide, war and an enemy that not only destroys someone's identity but is eradicating its own food source, play second fiddle to the twists, turns and action as the Doctor and Romana find themselves caught up in a race for survival. With their wonderful Yorkshire accents, top hats and hard working natures, the mole characters come to life vividly, and there is something quite wonderful at hearing the no nonsense Romana having to put up with the lively bickering of the wonderfully named Mr Maxwell Wilberforce Bell (Matthew Cottle) and his pompus wife Mrs Lucretia Bell (Abigail McKern) who emerges as a wonderfully zealous villain when her deal with the Silex to become their queen comes to fruition.

Tom Baker's Doctor gets his own duo too in Jane Slavin's quasi companion Miss Arabella Wagstaff, the ward of Mr Wilfer Wagstaff, played by Robbie Stevens. Through the Doctor and Romana's journeys the audience learns of mighty drilling cities and the communities that exist around them, making the stakes higher when the Silex attack. There are thrills aplenty when they are chased into the bowels of the planet and the Doctor turns the enemy on itself. There's also some nice character moments in the supporting cast, particularly the poor, put upon Maxwell who realises that his wife has sold him out and stops being the coward he has always been to defeat the Silex by sacrificing himself.

Overall, Subterranea fits the two-part format of these Fourth Doctor adventures well; I'm not sure there would have been enough meat on the story's bones to fill four parts but the fun nature of tale keeps the pace fresh and exciting. It probably won't leave a lasting impression as much as the previous two adventures Dethras and The Haunting of Malkin Place but its lively performances and action-packed drama (that really benefits the audio format) make it a very pleasant addition to the latest series.

Ben Greenland (aged 11)

To be honest, I didn't fall in love with Subterranea. It has a good structure but I think the Silex are too much like the Cybermen in my opinion. But let's not dwell on the negatives...

The appearance of Jane Slavin is exciting, since she is going to be the Doctor's companion in the eighth series of the Fourth Doctor Adventures. It's always good fun to see the bickering between the Doctor and Romana and the betrayal of Mrs Lucretia Bell, who later becomes a Silex, is a classic format in these sort of adventures.

The setting of the underground of the planet Cathon is an interesting idea, but it's satisfying that the survivors end up on the planet's surface by the end of Subterranea. Compared to The Dethras (check out my very first review here) and The Haunting of Malkin Place, which are both worth listening to, this story wasn't as mysterious or freaky, which I like in Doctor Who Big Finish tales. It also didn't have as much humour as those either.

But you know what? Sometimes I find listening to them a second time puts them in a more positive light. I might just go and do that...

The Extras...

An intriguing trailer for the next addition of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, The Movellan Grave which sees the titular race return after a surprise cameo in Doctor Who series 10.

As always, the interviews always short and very sweet; Tom Baker and Lalla Ward continue to offer their insight on working on the audio stories - and the changes they make to the scripts - and there is some nice insight into the story from the actors, writer Jonathan Morris and director Nicholas Briggs. There is even a lovely little moment where Tom Baker talks about Doctor Who 'fan' Peter Capaldi and gives his thoughts on the current Doctor, which definitely put a smile on my face!

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