Audio Frequencies (DWM #509, March 2017)

Reviewed this issue:
Original Sin
Cold Fusion
The Ravelli Conspiracy

The Sontarans

It’s a measure of the distinctive flavour of Virgin Publishing’s New Adventures that their Big Finish adaptations come with their own, bespoke version of the Doctor Who theme – a sweeping, symphonic arrangement far removed from the tinny synth stylings of Sylvester McCoy’s TV tenure. It’s a small but significant detail that says: Toto, we’re not on BBC1 before Bergerac any more.

In Original Sin, the Seventh Doctor isn’t even with Dorothy any more. Andy Lane’s novel was published in 1995, when the Time Lord had swapped Ace for space archaeologist Bernice “Benny” Summerfield – a role now so indelibly linked with actor Lisa Bowerman, it’s almost a surprise it’s not her face on the original book covers.

The story opens in medias res with the Doctor and Benny arriving on 30th century Earth to follow up a warning from a dying alien. At the height of the Earth Empire, our little blue planet is now a 2000 AD-ish landscape of spaceports, cities in the sky and robo-valets. But not everyone’s sharing in the good times: the undercities are vast slums, and civil unrest is so rife that the death of 50,000 people in an explosion barely registers as a blip in the rolling news cycle.

This is all grist to the mill, of course, for the Seventh Doctor: the man who loves the sound of empires toppling is right at home in this heartfelt (if not entirely subtle) satire of colonialism, muttering darkly about “the rich building on the backs of the poor” like a cosmic Jeremy Corbyn.

He also gets to chew the moral fat with a mad scientist called Zebulon Pryce, who challenges the fundamental principle that all life is valuable. In the midst of this weighty metaphysical discourse (“For every ‘thou shalt not kill’ there’s a ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live…’”) our hero is forced to examine the blood on his own hands, and concludes: “ Killing is wrong, except when it’s right, and I know the difference. That’s the only answer I can give.”

This is thrilling, positively Nietzschean stuff from a period in which the Doctor was self-identifying as ‘Time’s Champion’ (he actually says it out loud here), and plays to Sylvester McCoy’s talent for brooding introspection.

If it sounds heavy going, it isn’t, John Dorney’s script deftly balancing such earnest pre-millennial angst with the quickfire wit of 21st century Doctor Who. Sample rat-a-tat exchange: “Don’t worry, you’ll soon be out of your misery.” “I’m not miserable.” “You soon will be.”

With the population under martial law and citizens being subjected to interrogation by the mind probe (yes, the mind probe), Adjudicator Roz Forrester and her rookie new partner Chris Cwej are assigned to investigate a death in police custody. Unfortunately for them, they investigate it rather too well, stumbling upon a conspiracy that forces them into an uneasy alliance with the Doctor and Benny, their prime suspects. Yasmin Bannerman and Travis Oliver played the characters in 2015’s adaptation of Russell T Davies’ Damaged Goods, so feel comfortably at home in the roles, even before they decide to throw their lot in with the Doctor at the end of the story.

A densely-plotted, punchily executed piece of high space opera, packed with clever ideas and thought-provoking philosophical asides, Original Sin is a fitting testament to the reach and ambition of Virgin’s New Adventures, skillfully brought to life by director Ken Bentley and his cast.

Among that cast, incidentally, is one Philip Voss, whose only previous Doctor Who booking was in Marco Polo, a full 53 years ago. Here, he’s playing another figure from the show’s distant past whose identity, as they say on the internet, WILL SHOCK YOU. Unless you’ve read the book, of course, in which case it won’t.

Fifth Doctor adventure Cold Fusion was published a year after Original Sin, this time as part of Virgin’s Missing Adventures range. For those keeping score, that means it gets the original Davison-era theme tune – but then immediately wrong-foots us by opening with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor.

He’s arrived on an alien planet to hear a ghost story – but instead of chills, Lance Parkin, who has adapted the story from his own book, kicks off with an extended knockabout comedy sketch, complete with a cute robot who tells the Doctor, “To select audio navigation, press enter here”. You can’t accuse Big Finish of not knowing their audience.

When we meet the Fifth Doctor, he’s in the very early days of his new body, on the trail of some time disturbance (standard) with Tegan, Nyssa and Adric. On a barren ice planet, they cross paths with Roz and Chris, the latter posing – much to Tegan’s disgust – as an Australian called ‘Bruce Jovanka’. This leads to a good joke about the different meaning of Fosters to the people of Traken and Australia. Well I thought it was funny, anyway.

Whereas previous multi-Doctor stories had forced earlier incarnations to adapt to the current house style, Cold Fusion is very much a mash-up of two distinct eras. The Fifth Doctor sequences come complete with contemporary catchphrases like (all together now) “That’s not Heathrow!” plus an eerily authentic-sounding early 80s score (credited to Fool Circle Music – see what they did there?) that brilliantly evokes the spirit of Peter Howell, Paddy Kingsland and co. Yet the highfalutin talk of Time Lords being born in the loom of the House of Lungbarrow – not to mention putting Nyssa in a hotel room with a naked man – couldn’t be more 1990s. And just to add to the temporal displacement, the Fifth Doctor quotes the First Doctor from 1963’s An Unearthly Child, while his interrogator responds with lines from 1976’s The Brain of Morbius. You may need a flow chart.

Like many of his New Adventures contemporaries, Parkin can’t resist poking about in the nooks and crannies of ancient Gallifreyan lore in a manner that would have had Russell T Davies reaching for the smelling salts. He even introduces the Doctor’s wife, played Christine Kavanagh – and there are no River Song-style cheats here: this is his actual wife – as in Susan’s grandmother – who the Doctor decides should be called Patience. Well shouldn’t all wives?

Once reacquainted, Kavanagh and Peter Davison get to share some unusually intimate scenes. No, not like that – I’m talking mental transference, Time Lord-style, as they reached into their shared memories via some highly evocative sound collages from director Jamie Anderson.

Parkin contrives to keep his Doctors apart until the final act, when Seven breezes in to save Five from execution with one of his patented anti-war speeches. Which, on this occasion, proves spectacularly ineffectual. There’s also a lovely little skit about the dangers of two Doctors reversing the polarity of the neutron flow of the same bomb (bottom line: very big bang) and a truly shameless gag about a temporal pair o’ Docs. Yes, really.

The Seventh Doctor doesn’t just meet his former self, of course – he’s also reunited with Adric. It’s a poignant encounter that’s all the better for being subtly underplayed, though Sylvester McCoy does slightly misread what ought to be the real gut-punch moment.

Matthew Waterhouse does a convincing job, for good or ill, of channeling his 18-year-old self, while Janet Fielding gives one of her best performances as Tegan. Nyssa, for her part, remains steadfastly Nyssa; on being asked if her clothes are dry, she replies “No, they’re velvet, so they’ll take a while” – which is so exactly the sort of thing Nyssa would say, your heart really goes out to Sarah Sutton. And it goes without saying that Peter Davison never puts a foot wrong – which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still say it once in a while.

Cold Fusion is an atmospheric, cinematic exercise in world building, painting vivid pictures of ice deserts, frost lands and ski trains. At six episodes, it’s also a sprawling epic that might have benefited from a slight haircut – I must confess to getting slightly lost with some of the plot strands (what was all that stuff about fusion bombs again?) – but on the whole does a good job of maintaining momentum across its marathon running time without resorting to the longueurs that habitually dogged the old TV six-parters.

In the 1990s, Doctor Who’s new print adventures were sold as “stories too broad and deep for the small screen”. These latest adaptations would suggest that, on audio at least, breadth and depth are not a problem, and I’ve no doubt that, for readers of a certain age, hearing these stories come alive will elicit just as much of a thrill as being able to watch the The Power of the Daleks on your phone.

From New and Missing to the Early Adventures (keep up, do), First Doctor caper The Ravelli Conspiracy is what we fans call a “pure historical”. (Does anyone else in the world use those two words together? Or, indeed, use historical as a noun?) That said, it’s less in the spirit of the improving history lessons envisaged by Sydney Newman than one of script editor Dennis Spooner’s mid-60s comic revels, complete with 16th century Florentine guards grumbling about their gout in broad cockney accents. I guess we’d call such jests Spoonerisms, if it weren’t already taken.

It’s literally a Machiavellian plot, with the Doctor, Vicki and Steven bumping into the infamous schemer within seconds of arriving in the Renaissance. Arrested as conspirators, the trio find themselves caught up in the political machinations of the day, including a plot to assassinate the Duke of Nemours – brother to Pope Leo X and great uncle of Catherine Medici, from TV’s The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve.

It’s an enjoyably unhurried, low-stakes tale from writers Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, in which the Doctor getting locked in a room passes for a dramatic cliffhanger. Maureen O’Brien co-narrates with Peter Purves, who also doubles as both Steven and the First Doctor. At 77, Purves still sounds full of youthful vim and vigor – as if at any moment he could be about to throw over to Valerie Singleton for an item on Beatrix Potter – which has the curious effect of him having to “play old” in order to mimic an actor 20 years younger than him.

Where The Ravelli Conspiracy is all jaw-jaw, The Sontarans is very much war-war, pitching the Doctor, Steven and Sara Kingdom (the invincible Jean Marsh) into battle with everyone’s favourite spud-faced clone troopers.

Big Finish excels at filling the gaps between old TV stories, and here it’s managed to prise open a crack within a story (1965’s The Dalek Master Plan) which, coupled with Marsh’s other recent audio appearances, should at least settle those pub arguments about whether Sara is a “proper” companion. (Ah, who am I kidding? It won’t settle a thing.)

Set on a hunk of rock in the middle of an asteroid belt, Simon Guerrier’s story is a very physical affair, full of fighting, grunting and running through tunnels, while our heroes also spend literally half an episode falling down a (very deep) hole.

The truth about the Sontarans, though, is they’re a lot more fun boasting about war than actually doing it, which is why the highlights are the bits in which Dan Starkey’s Field Commander Slite interrogates Steven to learn more about human military strategies – including the value of humour on the battlefield. Personally, I’m not convinced the Sontarans are really cut out for jokes (“… and he said, I’m sorry, sir, we don’t serve potatoes!”) but it would certainly bring a new meaning to Sontar Ha!

To raise the stakes, Sara claims this local skirmish could put all of “future history” is at stake. Future history: it’s a lovely phrase, and – from New Adventures that are now 20 years old to Early Adventures that are brand new, via a 2016 recording of a 1996 take on the Who Class of ’82 – it’s also as good a description for all this glorious, time-twisting, head-spinning madness as any.

Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #509, March 2017 © Panini UK Ltd

All titles available from Big Finish