Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Doomsday Contract

Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Doomsday Contract

The second of Big Finish’s run of Doctor Who 'Lost Stories' released in March, The Doomsday Contract is another production that gives the listener an intriguing glimpse into the what-might-have-beens of the ‘classic’ TV series.  (Check out our review of the other 'Lost Story' Return of the Cybermen here)

The Doomsday Contract sees Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, Lalla Ward’s Romana and John Leeson's K9 finally experience a storyline that had originally been intended for the show’s 1979-80 season, and it’s one that’s worth discovering now.  It has been written by Nev Fountain, based on the original storyline by John Lloyd, and directed by Nicholas Briggs.  It is available exclusively from the Big Finish site here and goes on general release from 30th April. Here's the synopsis...

Earth - a small, insignificant planet. Entirely devoid of intelligent life.

At least that's according to the legal documents. The Doctor, Romana and K9 find themselves at the centre of a most unusual trial.

An intergalactic corporation wants to bulldoze the planet for a development project. Only a previous court's preservation document is standing in their way. The Doctor has been summoned as an expert witness. If he can prove Earth contains intelligent life, the whole world will be saved.

But with a fortune at stake, it was never going to be that simple.

The Review

The run of Doctor Who stories featuring the Fourth Doctor, the second incarnation of Time Lady Romana and robot dog K9 is an oddly special period of the show’s history.  It consists of only seven transmitted stories (before the arrival of space orphan Adric changed the balance of the regular cast and the tone of the stories), only one of them (City of Death) is generally considered great, and the whole thing is a little cheap-looking even by classic Doctor Who standards.

But its unique charm can be put down to two factors.  The first is the interplay between the two leads: the Doctor and Romana breeze through each story with a wit, joie de vivre and carefree air reminiscent of John Steed and Emma Peel, walking a similar line between child-friendly platonic partnership and a very gentle hint of a more adult chemistry (Baker and Ward were a couple during production, and briefly married afterwards). The second is that most of the stories have at least a sprinkling of the genius of late, lamented The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy creator Douglas Adams (1952-2001), whose stint as Doctor Who's script-editor during 1979-80 would end up being his last ‘proper’ job before his rise to fame.

Romana (Lalla Ward) and the Doctor (Tom Baker) in Douglas Adams' uncompleted Doctor Who story Shada

The Doomsday Contract was commissioned by Adams from his friend and occasional co-writer (on The Meaning of Liff, Dr Snuggles and two episodes of radio The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), John Lloyd.  In a recent Doctor Who Magazine interview, Lloyd modestly described his career as consisting of 75% “total failure”, but he’s a legend of British comedy as the multi-award-winning producer of Blackadder and Spitting Image, among many others, and creator of QI and The Museum of Curiosity. (The main reason the Doctor Who script was cancelled was because production of Not the Nine O’Clock News left him too busy to finish it).

For the Big Finish version, Dead Ringers (and frequent Big Finish Doctor Who) scribe Nev Fountain has taken the copious story notes Lloyd produced for Adams and fleshed them out into a full adventure.  The cover credit ‘by John Lloyd, adapted by Nev Fountain’ seems a little disingenuous; it sounds like Lloyd never got as far as producing a full script for the TV version, so the credit would perhaps be more accurate if it were ‘Written by Nev Founain, from a story by John Lloyd’.

Although some later Who authors, such as Gareth Roberts and Jonathan Morris, carved a niche for themselves with novels and audios pastiching this period of the programme, Adams’ delicate touch is a difficult one to replicate. The Doomsday Contract has the benefit of ideas that were the product of Lloyd and Adams – two very sympathetic minds – working together. It exhibits many of the strengths of Adams’ TV serials, and some of the weaknesses, along with something of the quirky intelligence and off-kilter worldview that have made Lloyd a fascinating speaker in recent years.

The story is an essentially a sci-fi spoof of legal systems. The Doctor is summoned by an old friend, Smilax (Paul Panting), to be an ‘expert witness’ on behalf of intergalactic ecological organisation the Plenum Trust who are taking the planet Earth’s new owners, the Cosmegalon Corporation, to court to prevent them from destroying the planet to make way for a development of ‘mega-condos’. However, Cosmegalon’s unscrupulous CEO, Skorpius (Richard Laing) dispatches time-reversing assassins the Children of Pixis to get the Doctor out of the way – with fellow time-travellers Romana and K9, naturally, caught in the crossfire.

There are a multiplicity of elements which recall The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy specifically. Although Doctor Who has always been funny, but it has rarely been as overtly comic as this.  Fountain’s script is full of clever dialogue spoofing bureaucratic procedures, and the story throws up several imaginative Adamsian conceits, such as when the Doctor is forced to take refuge in ‘the Witness Protection Micro-Universe’, and planets called things like ‘Helvetica’ and 'Kevin's World'. This sort of thing is catnip to Baker and Ward, whose interplay remains somehow undimmed despite the actors being recorded separately.  Even on audio, her straight face and his wide eyes are entirely visible, and both are actors are gifted a number of laugh-out-loud moments.  (The treasurable Leeson, voicing K9, gets a few zingers too, especially when he tells the Doctor and Romana that he’s glad to see them.)

Much as on TV, the story gains from putting the two leads on separate paths for large parts of the adventure.  As ever, Romana proves more than capable of thinking herself out of a tricky situation, and retains her endearing habit of addressing her sidekick-of-the-week by surname only.  And the audio version of Baker’s Doctor, always more relaxed than he was on TV, seems most at home in this kind of larky run-around. If anything, this highlights a problem common to this story and others from the Douglas Adams period: the absence of a strong sense of threat.  The Doctor and Romana never seem to be in real danger; or if they are, mostly they don’t seem too worried about it.  At first glance, that shouldn’t be much of a problem in a comedy, and as I say, The Doomsday Contract is charming and sometimes very funny.

But humour in a story can be sharper and more impactful if one cares about the characters and if there is a genuine sense they might come to harm; something on which Adams was able to capitalise in his non-Doctor Who work.  In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the adventures of Arthur Dent are zany and colourful, but they also commence with the total destruction of the Earth and all but one of Arthur’s friends, daubing everything with a hint of melancholy and genuine loss.  In The Doomsday Contract, the destruction of Earth is only threatened, and it never seems like something that is very likely to happen.

Despite this, it’s a very enjoyable story, especially if you’re a fan of the Adams style.  It’s directed with zest by Briggs (who also plays a key character in the ‘Micro-Universe’ sequences, somewhat reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy's Captain of the ‘B’ Ark) and features several fruity and funny supporting performances, especially Jeany Spark as worry-wart prosecuting counsel Tragacanth and Julian Wadham as the quick-to-condemn Judge Perigord Trent.  It’s an imaginative addition to the Doctor/Romana II TV stories and fits beside them perfectly.  If John Lloyd has ever lamented that his chance to write Doctor Who came to nothing, at least he can now be content in the knowledge that the story he conceived wasn’t a duff one.

The Extras

A short suite of interviews features many of the key players, including Fountain, Briggs, Baker and Ward, although sadly not Lloyd.  It’s a shame there isn’t more detail about the story’s mid-pandemic recording – Ward made her contribution from Hong Kong, being unable to return to the UK – but the ever-enthusiastic Briggs is engaging as he describes his delight in creating something so influenced by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the radio series which influenced his youthful love of audio drama.

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