Audio Frequencies (DWM #513, July 2017)

Reviewed this issue:

Philip Hinchcliffe Presents: The Helm of Awe
Alien Heart/Dalek Soul
The Jago & Litefoot Revival

Not many producers earn an above-the-title credit; it’s an honour usually reserved for actors, and an elite club of distinguished directors. But if Philip Hinchcliffe Presents is a deliberate nod to Alfred Hitchcock, then the allusion is well chosen. For what other Doctor Who producer in the pre-‘showrunner’ era more definitively stamped his vision onto every aspect of the series – from script to set design to the setting on the studio dimmer switch? And what other producer brings more of his own distinctive, Hitchcock-style tropes to the party? With Philip Hinchcliffe, you know exactly what you’re going to get, to whit: gothic horror, obscene vegetable matter and a good dollop of Mary Whitehouse-scandalising teatime brutality for tots.

He didn’t do it alone, of course. Even now, while dreaming up these new stories for Big Finish, Hinchcliffe admits he always asks “What would Bob do?” – a touching tribute to the late Robert Holmes, the other half of Doctor Who’s great hive-mind during perhaps the most honeyed of its many golden eras. But even with the show’s most celebrated script editor at the controls, it was a period that prized atmosphere over plot, Hinchcliffe cannily intuiting that convincing world-building was the measure by which his productions stood or fell. (For an example, look no further than Terror of the Zygons, an evocative mood piece that stands barnacled head and shoulders above scores of stories with more robust, less preposterous plots.)

It’s this thrilling, wintry gothic atmosphere (a harder trick to pull off than you might expect – one false move and the spell is broken) that Hinchcliffe and scriptwriter Marc Platt succeed in evoking beautifully in The Helm of Awe, which feels custom-built to send a nostalgic shiver down the spines of a generation weaned on the Hinchliffe-Holmes diet of early evening terror. (Yes readers, I am but a heartbeat away from deploying the term “hot buttered crumpet.”)

For a start, the story literally sets the TARDIS co-ordinates for January 1977. The setting is the remote, fog-bound Shetland Islands. There’s a haunted manse, filled with curious antiquities – one of which comes alive in the form of an armoured robot berserker – and a bewitched laird (the wonderful David Rintoul, continuing the great Hinchliffe tradition of possessed human vessels like Sorensen, Scarman et al).

There’s more, much more: ancient legends, smugglers’ coves, ghost Vikings and mournful horns sounding in the dank fog all add extra chills. Then there’s the old tower, with its broken staircase which the laird’s daughter, played by the excellent, Emmy-nominated actress Joanna Vanderham, warns “leads down into the dark… We used to say that’s where the monster lived”. Scared yet?

The hook for the story is Shetlands’ famous Up Helly Aa fire festival – as familiar to us 70s children as Tom Baker himself thanks to the oft-repeated Blue Peter film in which John Noakes watched the locals torching a Viking longship in honour of the islands’ Norse heritage. It’s a highly effective device that allows Platt to explore themes of family and ancestral lines, while also delivering a ready-made Wicker Man folk horror vibe.

Then, just when you think you’ve got the measure of the story, it executes a screeching handbrake turn at the midway point, and we suddenly find ourselves thrust into a Second World War spy thriller, with the Doctor and Leela captured as enemy agents aboard an Allied ship dodging German U-boats in the North Sea. Throw in an ancient, powerful Norse treasure and there are obvious echoes of Seventh Doctor classic The Curse of Fenric – which, let’s face it, was as Hinchcliffe as 1980s Doctor Who ever got.

It’s an immutable law of Doctor Who that the resolution will prove less satisfying than the set-up, and that goes double for stories that lean heavily on atmosphere, all those fussy explanations only serving to burst the carefully-crafted bubble. But that shouldn’t take away from Hinchcliffe’s achievement here – nor indeed that of Platt, a first-rate talent in his own right who has taken Hinchliffe’s (“very detailed”) storyline and run with it.

The Helm of Awe is also a fantastic showcase for Tom Baker – sounding every bit as vigorous as his mid-70s pomp – and Louise Jameson, reliably fabulous as the noble warrior naïf, vanquishing her enemies one minute and eating porridge oats from the box and apologising for forgetting to pack her sea legs the next.

In place of those fantastic sets and mood lighting, meanwhile, Hinchliffe’s attention to world-building is honoured through evocative sound design and Ken Bentley’s astute direction. Short of sticking half-an-hour of Basil Brush in front of it, it’s difficult to imagine how it could feel more authentically Philip Hinchcliffe.

Dethras is another Fourth Doctor story that bears the imprimatur of a specific producer-script editor team. This time, though, we’ve shuttled forward to 1980-vintage Who, when John Nathan-Turner and Christopher Bidmead were busy dismantling Douglas Adams’ “undergraduate humour” in favour of scientifically-literate space opera. So while Adrian Poynton’s script starts out with, in the Doctor’s words, “three men and a chimpanzee all alone in the engine room of a sunken submarine”, opportunities for clammy, claustrophobic horror are left unexplored as the action quickly moves into space (or N-Space, if you like), where you can almost picture the sub hanging against a greenish-hued BBC starfield. Plus, for added verisimilitude, Jamie Robertson’s score channels the spirit of Peter Howell, Roger Limb and co like the world’s best Radiophonic Workshop tribute band.

Sorry, back up, did he just say “three men and a chimpanzee”? He did indeed. But don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg – this isn’t the era for silly jokes, remember – but the cue for a very Bidmeadean tale of science gone awry that finds room for discussions of evolution, metamorphosis and telepathy – plus Romana gets to say things like “What’s a shiny new Xankari ship doing in the Stargazer’s Halo?” Come on, we were all thinking it.

Actually, Poynton shows admirable restraint when it comes to scientific bafflegab, in a story that shakes out into a thoughtful, if never quite gripping, treatise on war and peace – specifically, that old question: if you want peace, should you prepare for war?

It’s a great script for Lalla Ward, who always excels as a Doctor manqué. Plus there’s a lovely guest turn from actual Season 18 alumna Sheila Ruskin (Kassia in The Keeper of Traken) who, in the bonus interviews, regales us with one of those classic studio floor anecdotes that ends “… and then everyone went for lunch!”

Fifth Doctor adventure Alien Heart / Dalek Soul kicks off a new trilogy of linked double-bill stories in explosive style, hitting the ground running in Stephen Cole’s opening half in a manner that’s as breathless as its dashing young hero.

As was the fashion back then, it starts with the TARDIS running into a spatio-temporal anomaly (cue mental image of Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton clinging onto the console while someone shakes the camera), shortly before Nyssa is carried off by a cluster of “glutinous green multipeds” (jelly spiders, to you and me). The Doctor, meanwhile, hooks up with Captain Sonderal (Eve Webster) of the Intelligence Corps Investigation Unit, Peter Davison turning that winning, boyish charm up to 11 in between moments of boiling anger as he investigates why 10 whole planets have been obliterated from the sky.

It’s a kinetic, action-packed blockbuster that in some ways feels a world away from the stately, studio-bound fare of much early 80s Who, but in others feels positively trad – as if this is what all Doctor Who at the time would have been like if they could have afforded to make Earthshock every week, or if every story had had Graeme Harper giving it “loads of pace and energy”.

When the Daleks rock up and start crowing, in that way they do, that their “triumph is inevitable” and “the new Dalek age will begin”, no-one would blame you for betting it isn’t, and it won’t. But after a sly false ending at the end of Alien Heart – cheery goodbye pleasantries, into the TARDIS, job done – Guy Adams’ Dalek Soul throws us forward five years into a very real dystopia where the children of Skaro do, indeed, appear to have won. There’s a genuinely horrific sequence in what are effectively Daleks gas chambers – Terry Nation’s creations are always most effective when the Nazi parallels are at their most explicit – after which we discover Nyssa is working as the Daleks’ cold, calculating chief scientist, and that the Doctor is also a collaborator – a fifth columnist who deliberately leads a group of rebels into the path of a Dalek slaughter.

This is shocking stuff. It’s particularly disconcerting to hear this Doctor, of all Doctors, as a ruthless, sadistic Dalek agent who kicks dead traitors to the kerb and serves as a mouthpiece for his masters’ racial hatred, in scenes that can’t help but recall Peter Miles’ iconic turn as the Himmler-like Nyder. Peter Davison sells the concept brilliantly, while Sarah Sutton responds to an unusually meaty role for Nyssa – who even gains the whip hand over the Doctor at points – with perhaps her best performance in the role.

All credit to Cole, Adams, script editor Alan Barnes, director Ken Bentley and the cast (including Nicholas Briggs, whose mastery of the Daleks is easy to take for granted) for what must stand as one of the Fifth Doctor’s finest hours. Though I should warn you I feel much the same about Terminus.

And so we come full circle and return to the winter of 1977, when one of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ most irresistible confections, The Talons of Weng Chiang, introduced viewers to doughty pathologist Professor George Litefoot and florid theatrical impresario Henry Gordon Jago, whose single appearance made such an indelible mark on Doctor Who fans, they’ve now parlayed their mayfly screen existence into 12 full seasons of audio adventures.

In advance of this month’s 13th run, our redoubtable investigators of infernal incidents have taken time out to regale us with a story as part of Big Finish’s Short Trips range. In The Jago & Litefoot Revival (Acts 1 and II), George (Trevor Baxter) attempts to adumbrate a recent exploit in suitably scholarly fashion to the learned men of a scientific institute – only for Henry (Christopher Benjamin) to gatecrash the party and, old showman that he is, proceed to give the story “a more flavoursome quality”, full of “terrifying twists and rambunctious revelations”.

It’s the perfect framing device for a couple who – fittingly, given their vaudeville credentials – make a wonderful stage double act, with Jago playing the clown to Litefoot’s straight man, in much the way Eric Morecambe would bother Ernie Wise while he was trying to sing the nice ladies and gentlemen a song. In fact, Henry is in full-blown Good Old Days mode, in a story that delights in the etymological supererogation of the English language, Baxter and Bejamin swilling vowels and consonants around their mouths like a fine claret.

Naturally, the tale they have to tell turns out to be a decidedly rum do involving a demonic mouth organ, a band of ghostly gunslingers walking across the Aegean Sea and no fewer than two Doctors – writer Jonathan Barnes deftly capturing the spirit of the Tenth and Eleventh Time Lords, despite the absence of David Tennant and Matt Smith. Dashed queer it may be, but it’s also a touching meditation on Jago and Litefoot’s enduring friendship, and a stirring testimonial to the Doctor himself (with Ten, in particular, revealing a rather moving reason for his presence). By way of a sideshow, Barnes also slips in a logical explanation as to why our heroes keep finding themselves in so many devilish scrapes. Well, logical-ish.

At one point, Jago attempts to impress upon his learned companion the trick to holding an audience’s attention. “They all want spectacle,” he explains. “They all want charm, they all want a hint of the forbidden, and a soupçon of the naughty.”

Spoken like Philip Hinchcliffe himself.

Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #513, July 2017 © Panini UK Ltd

All titles available from Big Finish