Big Finish Review: The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 9 Vol 2
This January, Big Finish reunited the Fourth Doctor, Romana II and Adric for a new set of adventures in E-Space, set between 1980 stories State of Decay and Warrior's Gate (you can check out our review of Volume one of The Fourth Doctor Adventures series nine here).
Volume two features two further stories with Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and Matthew Warehouse as the TARDIS trio along with John Leeson as K9. Written by Alan Barnes and Andrew Smith and directed by Nicholas Briggs, The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series Nine Volume Two is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, or as individual volumes The Planet of Witches here and The Quest of the Engineer here. Volume Two goes on general release on the 31st March 2020.
Here are the synopses...
Two new E-Space adventures for the Fourth Doctor, Romana, Adric and K-9.
The Planet of Witches by Alan Barnes
Whilst attempting a detailed scan of E-Space, K9 detects the trail of a large spacecraft. Seeking a lead for their escape, the Doctor sets out on its trail towards a misty yellow planet.
Arriving just in time to witness a crash-landing in the planet’s swamps, the Doctor and his crew discover a number of escaping prisoners fleeing from someone claiming to be a Witchfinder... whilst terrifying ‘familiars’ float around them.
For this is the planet of the witches... and the witches may just know the way home.
The Quest of the Engineer by Andrew Smith
The TARDIS crew’s attempts to escape E-Space lead them to a strange planet with a surface that shifts and changes constantly.
Losing their ship down a fissure, they venture into the depths of this world and encounter the man who rules this place – a man known only as ‘the Engineer’. He tells them that he’s on a quest for illumination, and to find a rumoured portal in space that may lead to another reality, with knowledge unknown in this universe.
It seems he may be on the same quest as the Doctor and his friends. But can he be trusted? And who is he really?
Joining me again is my son Ben, a massive Doctor Who fan and a regular reviewer of Big Finish with me at The Digital Fix...
The Planet of Witches
Baz Greenland (aged 38)
The latest volume of The Fourth Doctor Adventures kicks off with a superb gothic horror tale. Like State of Decay, this is another atmopsheric E-Space story that would not have been out of place in the Hinchliffe era of Doctor Who. With Macbethian witches, strange familiars and tyrannical witch-finders, The Planet of Witches is a gourgeous story that really makes the most of the audio format, freed of the limitations the original televised Doctor Who budgets would have come up against.
Witches on brooms, levitating wicker men. It's all here, wrapped up in the mystery of just how an ancient Greek blind prophet Tyresius has ended up in E-Space. There are some wonderful ideas at play too, not just the obvious fusion of magic and technology as the Doctor and Romana try to ascertain what is real. Lalla Ward shines here as her icy persona finds her confronted as a witch, a role she clearly has fun playing into. Even K9 gets an intriguing little story line as her 'familiar', killed and resurrected as a villain as the stakes are raised ever higher.
Abigail McKern shines as guest character the Crone; there's plenty of ham to be had in her witchy performance, but there's a lot of depth too, particularly when the truth about her is revealed, leading the Knights of the Fire into Hell itself. It's dark, forbidding and dramatic and she plays very well off Tom Baker's Doctor, who is clearly back in his element in this gothic horror setting. Alan Barnes' script is witty and very funny at times, giving all involved plenty of delicious dialogue to get their teeth into.
This story makes great used of it's four-part format, offering plenty of devious twists and turns along the way, culminating in that ultimate question in the fight between good and evil. Can you make a deal with the devil, even if it is for the right reason? The answer might be the same as always, but The Planet of Witches has a lot of fun getting there, with plenty of magic and unexpected turns to get the listener hooked to the very end.
Ben Greenland (aged 14)
After a brief respite, we're back for the second half of the Fourth Doctor's new travels through E-Space. The Planet of Witches always held promise for me, so it was slightly risky going into it, hoping it wouldn't let me down. Did it? No.
The witches themselves (actually the familiars) already looked good on the box art, and their role in the story actually had function, unlike some monsters. The element of the TARDIS crew being split up came into play here again, which although a bit tedious as a repetitive formula sometimes is a necessity when you have this many regulars to contend with. But all their mini adventures are well realised and entertaining to listen to, as they introduce the guest characters who eventually are shifted from one regular to the other. The inclusion of Raksill the witchfinder felt a little like a third wheel, playing no other part than to bring the side characters into the story, but he was entertaining while he was alive.
The villain of this story indeed shares a lot of similarities to the other E-Space story State of Decay; great vampires, having come from N-Space and wanting to return. That was a nice touch to explain why the whole witch thing was so similar to our universe, and the villain itself was brilliantly realised, and played off well against Adric and indeed all of the characters. The twist of Crone's identity was an interesting one and helped the story to progress, rather than just being a mad old woman and a liability.
The regulars are on top form in this story, with everyone bringing their A-Game, especially Tom Baker who is delightful as ever, while Lalla Ward and Matthew Waterhouse are also brilliant in their performances here. However, it's K9 who (once again) has the least to do, although when he's on screen (?), he is great, getting to become evil once again and serving the villain Tyresius as his familiar. This story is a massive step up to both stories of the last volume (though that is not to say Chase the Night was bad), and brings promise for the culmination of the series.
The Quest of the Engineer
The Quest of the Engineer is another strong entry for series nine of The Fourth Doctor Adventures. It doesn't quite have the 'magic' of its predecessor, though it still delivers grand ideas and epic set pieces that could never have been as effectively realised on screen in the early 80s. Living planets, gravity torpedos and other technological marvels make for a return to the hard science concepts that have become associated with the late Fourth Doctor era.
Andrew Smith's script has an engaging mystery and fantastic concepts. Ancient wars, slaves from conquered worlds, moons obliterated, resurrected civilizations, maniacal villains and invasion of planet Lydas. There are moments where The Quest of the Engineer feels like a homage to classic Doctor Who story The Tenth Planet. An invading planet targeting another. Slaves resurrected as Cyborgs. Characters like Jonas act as a living carcass of an enemy, making them a grotesque Cybermen-esque metal men for the E-Space era
Once again, there's plenty of the principal cast to do, though Adric, having played a big part of volume 1 is a little less prominent that the Doctor and Romana. Lalla Ward gets to play off against Nicholas Woodeson's maniacal, if slightly tragic, Engineer in a number of scenes while Tom Baker relishes playing the Doctor as an action hero in the depths of the living planet ship.
The Quest of the Engineer delivers a story in scale and grandeur that could not have been as effective on screen, making for a dramatic conclusion to this latest series of The Fourth Doctor Adventures.
When this story starts, you get the feeling that you've missed something down the line and you hope they'll explain the backstory. That is the only major issue I have with The Quest of the Engineer. Otherwise this story is great and holds your attention throughout, while simultaneously juggling about three different plot lines.
Part One is the most intriguing, with the mystery slowly unravelling. However the big selling point of the story - a planet that can reconfigure itself like a jigsaw - is revealed to be a lie, making for a disappointing conclusion. The idea of planet ships is an ambitious one, and certainly couldn't have been managed on TV, at least not at that point in the show's history, although it does share a little similarity to the Dalek's vision in the 1964 story The Dalek Invasion of Earth.
The Engineer himself is actually quite a complex and simple character at the same time, as more nuggets of who he is are sprinkled throughout the tale's course. Despite his past and what his plans are, you almost feel slightly sorry for him when you realise what drove him to do this in the first place. But that isn't to say what he's done is forgivable, abducting the population of planets as a slave force or ripping away their carcass to put on a robot. He also plays off brilliantly against Romana with whom he's paired up against for the bulk of the story.
The guest cast are great too, with their own fleshed out backstory and motivation and ability to actually contribute to the plot and actually drive it forward; all qualities you want in a guest cast. The regulars are also just as good, Romana and K9 actually serving as the ones who goes up against the villain, while Adric and the Doctor slowly bring down the Engineer's plans from behind the scenes. Tom Baker is great at playing the humour (Especially the amusing exchange between the Doctor and Regis about the Doctor's non existent beard), the horror and the desperation that the Doctor goes through here. But again, K9 seems to get the short straw. On TV that was understandable, a troublesome prop. But on audio you don't have that limitation so you can use him to a greater extent, even if he is just a robot dog. It's amazing how many times over these two volumes that K9 is seemingly destroyed (With that actually serving as the episode two cliffhanger in The Planet of Witches).
You can almost forget, by the end of this series, that the Doctor, Romana, Adric and K9 were barely ever a TARDIS crew, with Adric introduced in Full Circle, separated from the rest of the crew until part three of State of Decay and Romana's exit in Warrior's Gate. Here, you are left wanting more. This series has been a great thrill, and proves that The Fourth Doctor Adventures range works really well in the four part format. I look forward to seeing what the next few years bring for this Doctor.
Again, like the last volume, there is no music suite, but there are plenty of behind the scenes interview with the cast and crew. As usual, there's plenty of enthusiasm and appreciation from all involved. Particularly enjoyable in the interviews for Planet of Witches are Lauren Cornelius's passion for audio drama and Samuel Clemens delving into the different voices and motivations of Tiresias and the familiars. But it is Tom Baker that really shines with his boundless energy, discussion on the preposterousness of Doctor Who and imagining of a villain talking to himself in a mirror!
There are some wonderful memories and insights from George Layton and Tom Baker in the interviews for The Quest of the Engineer. Layton reflects on his past career and love of Doctor Who while Baker jokes about old actors meeting up and asking are you well-ish (a reflection on the mortality of meeting up with someone you worked with decades ago). A real joy is hearing Baker talk about his casting as the Doctor and the wonderful legacy it left on his career ever since.
Matthew Warehouse talks the joy of working with 'his Doctors' at Big Finish. Nicholas Woodeson the Sweeny Todd influences on the Engineer and the concept of villains not acting like villains, while John Leeson remarks at the wonder of playing K9 after 41 years!
Some Final Thoughts...
While volume 1 was a bit of a mixed bag, the stories in volume 2 represents some of the best Fourth Doctor Big Finish stories in years. Both Alan Barnes and Andrew Smith deliver strong scripts, all directed with flair by Nicholas Briggs. The performances are strong throughout, main and guest cast alike. From gothic horror to galactic wars, this set has it all and is already the highlight of 2020 so far...