Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 8 Part 1
January saw Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor return for four new adventures, as he kicked off the first half of series eight of the long-running Big Finish series. For the first time in Doctor Who history, the Fourth Doctor has been joined by a brand new companion, especially created to join him in his adventures on the TARDIS; Jane Slavin as Ann Kelso.
The Fourth Doctor Adventures: Series 8 part 1, which also goes by the sub title The Syndicate Master Plan Volume 1, has been written by Andrew Smith, Phil Mulryne, Simon Barnard, Paul Morris and Guy Adams. Directed by Nicholas Briggs, it is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 28th February.
Here are the synopses...
8.1 The Sinestran Kill by Andrew Smith
When the Doctor decides to trace an anomalous energy signature on twentieth century Earth, he stumbles into an assassination attempt.
Gangland thugs are trying to murder a seemingly innocent shopkeeper, and it’s only the intervention of the Doctor and Ann Kelso – a WPC who happens to be on the scene – that prevents a tragedy.
But why do the gangsters want the shopkeeper dead? And what does this have to do with alien technology?
The first stages of a grand conspiracy are about to be revealed. And finding the answers will take Ann Kelso on a journey like no other.
8.2 Planet of the Drashigs by Phil Mulryne
When the TARDIS lands on an alien planet, the Doctor’s intentions to show Ann Kelso an advanced future society are thrown into disarray. Because they have arrived on DrashigWorld - a park where every known species of the terrifying predators has been gathered together to entertain and thrill the public. The familiar wetland Drashigs, the albino burrowing Drashigs of the desert, and deadliest of all, the tiny Emerald Drashigs of the rain forests.
And it’s not the best day to have arrived. The park has been shut down due to a visitor fatality. A Galactic Attractions inspector is on site meaning everyone is extremely tense and under pressure.
It’s exactly the right circumstances in which someone might make a mistake. And on Drashigworld, mistakes are deadly.
8.3 The Enchantress of Numbers by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris
The TARDIS lands in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, in 1850. Mistaken for a medic and his maid, the Doctor and Ann are brought to meet Ada Lovelace - the mother of computing and daughter of Lord Byron - who has recently fallen ill.
But the travellers are not here by chance. Something odd is happening on Earth, and they’ve determined that this place is the centre of it.
Strange figures are walking the land. Strange figures wearing bird-like masks. What do they want with Ada? And how will it change the future of humanity?
8.4 The False Guardian by Guy Adams
Ann Kelso doesn’t like mysteries. Keen to investigate the trail of the Sinestrans, she sets the TARDIS on a new course... but flies into danger.
Arriving on a desolate world that the Doctor finds somehow familiar, the TARDIS crew discover that something is wrong with time. The inhabitants of an unusual complex are experimenting at the command of their enigmatic director... somebody who has quite a strong grudge against the Doctor.
Facing an old foe who was presumed dead, the travellers are soon trapped in a diabolical scheme. But is it just the tip of the iceberg?
I'll be joined by my son Ben, who'll be giving his own thoughts on this latest release...
The Sinestran Kill
The opening story sees the Doctor caught up with 70s London criminal gangs and there is a really swagger and enthusiasm that blends Doctor Who with The Sweeney. Adding in the introduction of 70s WPC Ann Kelso is as close to contemporary companion introduction as you would get in Tom Baker's era.
It is simply but effectively done, drawing Ann Kelso into the case of a hit against a local shopkeeper and the Doctor in search of alien weaponary in a time and place it shouldn't be. The performances by all involved really elevates the story. Baker is as sublime as ever and Slavin makes a big impression as grounded, determined Ann Kelso. Long term Doctor Who fan Frank Skinner also stands out as the former UNIT officer with knowledge of the Doctor and his TARDIS, who is deeply distrusting of him. His new role as anti-terrorist officer draws heavily from writer Andrew Smith's own experiences, making for a well rounded character and the world in which he exists.
The alien witness protection angle is a nice twist, making for a far more interesting story than gangsters with alien weaponry. It also sets up the Sinestran storyline well, developing an intriguing arc to the eighth series and giving agency to the new companion Ann, whose skills as a police officer will come in handy aiding the Doctor in his search for the intergalactic criminal organisation.
But Ann is more than a resource and she impresses the Doctor with her ability to take on danger and fight the good fight. She is different to previous companion Leela and future Romanas, having something of Sarah Jane's pragmatic but amiable quality about her. The joy of Big Finish is it's ability to explore the stories between those we saw in television and Ann Kelso slots in nicely as a new co-star between series 15 and 16.
Planet of the Drashigs
The second story sees the Doctor take Ann to a futuristic world in a tale that comes across as attempt to do Jurassic Park with a classic Doctor Who monster. While entertaining fare, it is the least interesting story of the bunch. The mysterious planet soon falls into chaos with the discovery that various forms of Drashig (the monster from Carnival of Monsters) are running havoc after attempts to pen them for the pleasure of the viewing public fail.
John Leeson makes a surprise return as K-9 and there's actually plenty for him to do in Planet of the Drashigs as he leads survivors to safety against the predators; the emerald Drashigs of the story are very reminiscent of the raptors from Jurassic Park, intelligent and deadly, creating for some interesting drama as they invade people's minds.
Jane Slavin gets less to do this time as Ann gets caught up in the chaos while Baker's Doctor goes head to head with Andrew Ryan's beaurocratic Titus Wayland, who is less John Hammond and more a classic villain trying to cling to power as everything falls apart around him. Still, for its simplicity, it's a fun tale full of danger and tension and a nice change of pace to the stories that take place either side of it.
The Enchantress of Numbers
After a trip to the future, the next tale follows a well trodden Doctor Who formula by taking the new companion into the past. It's a lovely piece of gothic horror, a trope well recognised within the Tom Baker era of the show and is certainly the strongest story in this set.
Interestingly, it plays almost as a straight historical for the first part, with the added ghostly presence of the dead Lord Byron haunting his daughter and real historical figure, Ada Lovelace. Finty Williams brings a grace and commanding presence to the role of Ada, the mother of computing, who has found herself exiled from society and dreams of mathematics to gamble and live a simpler life in the country.
But it's the gothic touches that really intrigue the listener; the plague doctors in bird masks lurking in the grounds, the giant maze before the manor house, it is all vividly created to conjure up a dark and mysterious setting in the listener's minds. The big reveal is a delightful twist, turning into a mix of ghost story, period piece with elements of The Terminator thrown in with the references to a futuristic war between robots and humanity, with Ada Lovelace at the centre of it all.
The Enchantress of Numbers is one tale I will certainly remember, packed full of mystery tension and atmosphere. Tom Baker shines as always, delving into the mysteries unfolding, while Jane Slavin brings a more pragmatic approach to Ann, who finds herself encountering past prejudices against the female species. Like Planet of the Drashigs, she doesn't get quite as much presence in the story, but that all changes with the final entry in this set.
The False Guardian
The False Guardian kicks off a two part story that returns to the Sinestran storyline and serves as a cliff-hanger before the release of The Syndicate Master Plan Volume 2. The Doctor and Ann arrive at a dangerous planet ranged by killer plants from Skaro and figures from the Doctor's past seeking revenge.
There are a lot of ties to classic First Doctor story The Daleks' Master Plan and while the infamous pepper pots do not appear in this story, the events of that epic tale haunt this adventure. It does mean that you mind need to read up on some of your Doctor Who history (I had to google a particular name after the cliff-hanger to part one) but that doesn't detract from the mystery unfolding.
Ann really gets to put her problem-solving skills to the test as she goes undercover to learn what the Sinestrans are up to, while the Doctor faces a couple of figures from his past, one of which is malevolently brought to life by Jon Culshaw. It's a little difficult to sum up the story without the second half for context, but it certainly keeps the listener on their toes as the Doctor and his companion begin to uncover the clues to something sinister at play.
And here are some thoughts from my son Ben (aged 12)...
The Fourth Doctor Adventures returns for series eight and like series seven, it is split up into two box sets released in separate months. The four stories vary in tone with the latter half being the stronger section.
The first story, The Sinestran Kill, introduces new companion Ann Kelso, as aliens possess and control gangsters thus forming a new grudge against Ann's shopkeeper friend who also, inevitably, is revealed to be an alien too. The Doctor's arrival is particularly swift, with Ann immediately finding the TARDIS and the gangsters being foiled by the Doctor. The cliffhanger to part one, with the Doctor about to shot the shopkeeper, keeps the listener guessing, while part two follows a different pattern, as a police versus alien story which completes Ann's introduction to Doctor Who superbly.
The next story, Planet of the Drashigs, is essentially Jurassic Park in space with aliens in place of the dinosaurs. This story has a subtle feel with danger around every corner, reintroducing the Drashigs with superb menace although it feels like the weakest story of the four. From the worst to the best, as story three, The Enchantress of Numbers, is a very fun celebrity historical with plague Doctors trying to terminate a computer virus and anyone in contact with it. It is very dark in places, with Ada Lovelace's father's ghost possessing her to use block transfer computation to give robots an advantage against humans in an upcoming war where they won. I felt like I missed something at the start but dismissed it only for it to be explained in part two with a lengthy flashback sequence. The best part has to be the Doctor's line. "We demand tea. And cake."
The last story, The False Guardian, is heavily influenced by the lost twelve part First Doctor story The Dalek's Master Plan which also most likely influences the overall title of The Syndicate Master plan. While heavily laden with past references,it is also very enjoyable, with Varga Plants, to 'Mavic Chen'. It pays to be listening carefully when the Doctor explains the basic plot of the Master Plan, as the cliffhanger(s) make much more sense. The time wave which could be the aftereffect of the time destructor is also a very nice touch. The story continues in next month's Time's Assassin.
Overall, this box is a very enjoyable set of stories which is worth listening too.
Each story is accompanied by a trailer for the next one (though as a boxset release this feels rather unnecessary).
There is also a great set of interviews with the cast and crew for each tale, the best of which surrounds The Sinestran Kill as producer David Richardson talks about his desire to create a new companion for the Fourth Doctor, set between The Invasion of Time and The Ribos Operation. There is a lot of affection for Jane Slavin, Frank Skinner's adoration for Tim Baker is adorable, Andrew Smith's discussion of his past as an anti-terrorism officer is fascinating and there's a lovely discussion with Slavin over the late Mary Tamm.
The interviews for Planet of the Drashigs witha nice exploration of the classic Doctor Who monsters and a tongue in cheek look at its big screen influence while the interviews for The Enchantress of Numbers offers a fascinating insight into the real Ada Lovelace and her role as a pioneer of future compute programming. And for those who might have been confused by the many The Daleks' Master Plan reference in The False Guardian, the behind the scenes discussions makes everything clear while Jon Culshaw's notes on the character he is playing is a great discussion on just how delightfully creepy early Doctor Who could be
Some Final Thoughts...
Jane Slavin's Ann Kelso fits into Tom Baker's era like a glove, never feeling contrived or out of place. It's a great set of stories and the longer running arc across this box set and the next is a nice change of pace. That being said, each episode works on its own, with The Enchantress of Numbers emerging as the strongest of the set. It's lovely to hear Tom Baker in action and to continue to be surprised after all these years