Big Finish Review: Doctor Who: The Third Doctor Adventures Volume Six

Big Finish Review: Doctor Who: The Third Doctor Adventures Volume Six

Tim Treloar returns as the [recast] Third Doctor for the sixth volume of The Third Doctor Adventures at Big Finish. Joining him are Katy Manning as Jo Grant. John Levene as Sergeant Benton, while Jon Culshaw reprises his role as the recast Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.

Written by Guy Adams and Jonathan Barnes and directed by executive producer (and Dalek voice performer) Nicholas Briggs, The Third doctor Adventures Volume Six comprises two four-part stories. It is available for download now exclusively at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release from the 30th June 2020. Here are the synopses:

6.1 Poison of the Daleks by Guy Adams

UNIT has been seconded to handle security at Breathe Industries’ revolutionary new air filtration plant. The Doctor is initially dismissive… but when a man seems to appear out of thin air and die, his curiosity is piqued.

The Doctor soon discovers that the plant is connected to another time, another place. Stranded with Jo, the Brigadier and Benton on a distant planet, the Doctor discovers the terrible truth behind Breathe Industries' new technology. His oldest enemies, the Daleks.

Can even the Doctor and UNIT manage to save two worlds at the same time?

6.2 Operation Hellfire by Jonathan Barnes

When the Doctor accepts an invitation to an audience with a popular horror writer, he's expecting a rather dull evening. But he quickly senses the presence of another Gallifreyan nearby. The Time Lords have a mission for him.

Soon the Doctor and Jo and themselves at the height of the Second World War in 1943. Caught up in a struggle involving occultist Nazis, the Prime Minister, top secret agencies and a mysteriously powerful amulet, they must distinguish friend from foe and avoid sacrifice upon the altar of evil.

The Review...

It’s not so long ago that the idea of a Big Finish Doctor Who range led by an actor who hadn’t actually played the Doctor on television was a controversial idea, as was the concept of recasting TV characters whose original actors have now passed on.  But here we are, six years into The Third Doctor Adventures and long past the days when Tim Treloar’s takeover of the Third Doctor from the late Jon Pertwee had to be coyly obfuscated by giving him double duties as the narrator of each story, or a plot contrivance would be needed to keep Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart out of the story in order to cover for the absence of the more-recently deceased actor Nicholas Courtney.

The Third Doctor’s era on television was not just about the charm of the individual actors but also about the chemistry between the entire recurring cast of characters – the Doctor, Jo, the Brigadier, Captain Yates, Sergeant Benton and even the Master – and if the range was ever to have a decent chance of recreating that, the deceased actors needed to be recast.  Both Big Finish and fandom in general seem to have come round to accepting this.  To the company’s credit, this has been done as organically as possible, with the recastings occurring only when natural choices have emerged from within the Big Finish family – or even the literal families of the missing actors.

Last year’s Volume Five gave us Primord (which had Daisy Ashford deputising impressively for her real-life mother Caroline John as Liz Shaw, and wizardly impressionist and long-standing Doctor Who devotee Jon Culshaw stepping in as the Brigadier), which turned out to be surprisingly pleasurable as a sequel to the fondly-remembered TV story Inferno, given that it featured not a single actor from the original production.  Now, Volume Six sees the return of Culshaw alongside Treloar and TV actors Katy Manning as Jo and John Levene as Benton. The line-up of characters from the TV era grows near to completion.

Furthermore, while Manning and Levene are on zesty and instantly recognisable form as the characters they first played five decades ago, Treloar and Culshaw are now so relaxed in their roles that they easily evoke visualisations of the original actors without straining for self-conscious impressions of them. Perhaps most importantly, shorn of the over-emphasised cod-Pertwee lisp that marred some of his earlier performances, Treloar is now effortlessly the Third Doctor: the voice may not be exactly Pertwee’s, but the character feels entirely right.

Poison of the Daleks

There’s something rare at the heart of this story.  We live in an era in which Doctor Who’s recurring villains tend to return for rematch after rematch with every possible Doctor, in any available medium, sometimes with little regard for credibility.  And yet, as far as I’m aware, Guy Adams’ Poison of the Daleks is only the second adventure in forty-eight years to pit the Third Doctor and the Brigadier against the Daleks (there may be a novel or comic strip adventure that I’m forgetting, but off the top of my head I can only think of Big Finish’s audio Masters of War from 2008, and I’m not counting that, as it featured the ‘Unbound’ alternative Third Doctor played by David Warner, rather than the Pertwee model). 

Perhaps unfortunately for Poison of the Daleks, the previous story to do this was 1972’s Day of the Daleks which, to a certain type of fan (of which this writer is one), stands as a defining adventure not just for the era but for Doctor Who in general – matching action-driven storytelling with temporal complexity and a dash of philosophy (despite the naff Dalek voices).  And given that Manning and Levene are common to both productions, as is the device of splitting the narrative between UNIT-era Earth and a Dalek-dominated future, the comparison becomes acute.  Luckily, however, Adams’ is story is just unusual and lively enough that the familiar elements seem like comforting strengths.

The tale moves quickly and is full of interesting characters well-cast. Ellie Garnett and Clive Hayward do well as traditional Pertwee-era archetypes, the unhelpful politician and scientist behind this week’s suspicious scientific installation. The Three Doctors-style decision to throw the UNIT regulars into an alien world for the bulk of the story feels fresh, especially the time lapse which allows our heroes to really get to know the group of rebels with whom they fall in: Alexandria Riley’s compassionate leader, Red, and Abigail McKern’s sarcastic stranded off-worlder, Skwoj, coming across especially well.

And throughout, producer, director and Dalek voice artist Nicholas Briggs (whose polymath services have been essential to Big Finish since its inception) reminds the listener that perhaps his single greatest talent is his unerring ability to create just the right pulsing, buzzing musical background for the Daleks, with four episodes of pitch-perfect Dudley Simpson pastiche that cements the effect that the listener has been transported back in time to the 70s.

But the biggest delight is that the Brigadier and Benton get to lead alien rebels on military manoeuvres against the Daleks (and, at one point, carnivorous Varga plants). Benton gives the Brigadier the perfect venting point for his exasperation with the situations the Doctor keeps leading him into, and with Culshaw fully settled in and Levene giving the same unique performance that only he could ever have given, the chemistry between the two is reignited to full effect. In fact this is some of the best material the two characters have ever been given.

Overall, Poison of the Daleks is lots of fun. It’s not Day of the Daleks - but what is?

Operation Hellfire

Operation Hellfire by Jonathan Barnes (principle writer for Big Finish’s range of Sherlock Holmes dramas) skews its mixture more towards the innovative than the traditional. It pits such classic Pertwee elements as a mission for the Time Lords and a tangle with black magic cultists versus Second World War spy intrigue and a character plainly based on the writer whose influence hung over much 70s Doctor Who and contemporary horror fiction, Dennis Wheatley.

Sadly, despite some strong dialogue and boisterous performances from all concerned, particularly Mark Elstob as the Wheatley-esque Douglas Quilter and Beth Goddard as a waspish Time Lord agent who is hard not to visualise as the stylish Gat from this year’s TV episode Fugitive of the Judoon, the story is perhaps too overloaded to be entirely effective.  There are a shifting set of villains with differing plans and motivations, an overlong stretch depends on Jo Grant’s ludicrously unconvincing attempt to masquerade as a Satanist, and the final episode packs in one too many twists.  A potentially great idea – that the popular Raiders of the Lost Ark perception that the Nazis were also diabolists was a myth deliberately concocted by the Axis powers themselves to lure occultists in Allied countries to betray their homelands – is largely thrown away.

Operation Hellfire also features an extended cameo by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, having been established as an ally to many Doctors since the 2010 Matt Smith episode Victory of the Daleks, and played here by the same actor, Ian McNiece.  I’ve never been hugely convinced by McNiece’s take on Churchill – he’s a fine and charismatic actor (his Harcourt in 1985’s Edge of Darkness is one of the great whimsical masterminds of espionage drama) but he can’t really do the famous Churchill voice and, shorn of the visual props of his TV appearances, largely comes across as a standard authority figure.  And sadly the script squanders the abundant potential of a Third Doctor/Churchill double-act by keeping their interactions to a minimum.

Despite all that, the story does move along at a fine pace and gives Tim Treloar some excellent Pertwee-esque material into which to sink his teeth. There’s a short but beautifully-written exchange towards the end of the last episode about the “interesting complexities” of the universe which is as fine a ‘moment of charm’ as any in the Third Doctor’s era. And the box-set as a whole is strong enough that it leaves this reviewer in keen anticipation of next year’s adventures.

The Extras...

Each story gets the usual four tracks of enjoyable interviews with the cast and crew, and it’s revealing to hear the absent McNiece was not present to record with the rest of the cast. Everyone is suitably enthusiastic, particularly Culshaw, whose delight at playing the Brigadier is palpable, and Manning, who seems moved that the on-set chemistry she remembers from her TV days has been effectively reincarnated. Elsewhere, there is a thoughtful contribution from Operation Hellfire actress Jeany Spark, with some insightful musings about the motivation of her character Daisy Chapel. And producer David Richardson gives some cryptic clues as to the direction the next box set may take.

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