Audio Frequencies (DWM #508, February 2017)

Reviewed this issue:
The Third Doctor Adventures Volume 2
Jagi & Litefoot Series 12
Order of the Daleks

Absolute Power

What does 1970s Doctor Who mean to you? If it’s Tom Baker bestriding Saturday nights like a pop-eyed colossus in 13 feet of Begonia Pope’s best yarn, you’re in luck: the Fourth Doctor and Leela are still busily making myths with Big Finish, even roping in Philip Hinchcliffe to add some authentic, post-Basil Brush gothic chills.

But if your idea of 70s Who is more wrapped up in memories of Venusian aikido, “Greyhound to Trap One” and action by HAVOC, things are clearly more problematic. Because, however many creative workarounds you come up with, there’s no getting away from the fact that, like the Season 11 title sequence, there’s an awkward, Jon Pertwee-shaped hole at the centre of things.

It’s a measure of the trust Big Finish have earned from fans that they’ve been able to think the unthinkable, and re-cast the first three Doctors. But while William Russell and Frazer Hines, who have lately assumed the mantle of their respective TARDIS captains, can rely on a bank of goodwill from time served in the Who family, Tim Treloar was always going to be a riskier proposition.

Fortunately, it’s a risk that appears to be paying off and, having won over the doubters with last year’s debut, the second volume of The Third Doctor Adventures finds Treloar slipping convincingly back into Pertwee’s dandy duds, while placing a protective cloak around your actual, 70s-vintage Jo Grant (Katy Manning).

Perhaps to compensate for the lack of you know Who, this two-story collection has early 70s, Pertwee DNA running through its very bones. In The Transcendence of Ephros (and if that isn’t an album by Yes, then it ought to be), that means a faithful recreation of off-world stories like Colony in Space and The Mutants.

Ephros is, according to the Doctor, “a verdant paradise”. Verdant is a very Third Doctor word, isn’t it? Like Russell T Davies’ favourite bugbear, ‘indubitably’. Anyway, it’s a moot point, as the planet is actually now a baking desert on the brink of destruction. While the suits of Galactux Power Inc – no, I’m sure they’re lovely, really, and very big on corporate responsibility – prepare to harness the energy of Ephros’ imminent explosion, the locals refuse to budge, having fallen under the spell of a rapture-like religion, in which they are ready to “let go of the flesh” and transcend to a higher state of consciousness.

Doctor Who has long delighted in exposing the leavers and pulleys behind false gods, and here writer Guy Adams even dares to ask what right people have to turn their children into martyrs for their own beliefs. It’s Jo who gives full voice to this rage, in a wonderfully impassioned performance from Manning: “You could have put all this energy and excitement into living,” she berates them. “Into the here and now. But now’s not enough, is it?”

The Doctor, meanwhile, is busy butting heads with Galactux boss Karswell, entertainingly played by Pertwee era alumnus Bernard Holley as a growly northern industrialist who threatens to hunt down any staff not pulling their weight “with a fish knife and a smile”.

David Llewellyn’s The Hidden Realm brings the TARDIS back to Earth to investigate a series of unexplained disappearances in a new town near Luton. Not quite as atmospheric as Devil’s End, perhaps, but the story’s mix of science and folklore – not to mention lots of poking about in the woods and bombing up and down in Bessie – conjures an authentic UNIT-era vibe, seasoned with a dash of those early 70s Countdown comic strips. (Robot magpies, anyone?)

A satisfyingly spooky mystery with strong, well-drawn characters, it’s another tale with corporate profiteering in its crosshairs, giving the Doctor plenty to get on his high horse about. Does Tim Treloar succeed in selling that patented Pertwee blend of moral outrage and pompous mansplaining? Indubitably, my dear.

One thing historians, distracted by such fripperies as Watergate and the three-day week, often fail to notice about the 1970s is that it was a golden age for the television spin-off. The Muppet Show, The Bionic Woman, Mrs Columbo, Jason King and George and Mildred were just some of the fruits that fell from the tree of their respective parent shows during the decade, while Happy Days – itself a spin-off – spawned a further five offshoots. These days, they’d call it the Happy Days Television Universe (HDTVU) or something equally irritating.

In 1977, Doctor Who’s producers briefly flirted with the idea of a spin-off themselves. But, in stark contrast to the winsome teenagers of current extra-curricular offering Class, Jago & Litefoot would have centred on two middle-aged men in Victorian London; forget Hollister, Snapchat and Uber – this would have been strictly frock coats, telegrams and Hansom cabs.

In truth, it was never really anything more than production office spitballing but, thanks to Big Finish, florid theatrical impresario Henry Gordon Jago and doughty pathologist George Litefoot (the reliably fabulous Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter) have now racked up a dozen series as investigators of infernal incidents – and, on the basis of this latest run, there’s plenty of life in the old dogs yet.

The wheeze at the heart of Justin Richards’ Picture This – people trapped inside paintings – is so brilliantly simple, it’s amazing Doctor Who’s never got round to it before. It flirted with something close to the idea in 2006’s Fear Her and 2014’s Flatline, but this owes more of a debt to that other 70s sci-fi horror classic, Sapphire and Steel – specifically, the bedsheet-dampening story in which luckless victims became marooned in photographs – while the concept of eyes that literally follow you round the room will surely have Steven Moffat kicking himself for not thinking of it first.

Paul Morris and Simon Barnard’s The Flickermen sets out to tell a similar story using a different medium: this time, instead of paint, the disappeared are “preserved on cellulose” – literally caught on camera as ghostly, guttering images. Much of the action takes place at a travelling fairground, where Jago and Lightfoot venture inside Old Ma Hambley’s House of Horrors – a haunted tent that gives them both the screaming oopizootics. “Even I can barely bring myself to step beyond those fearsome flaps!” remarks Henry, memorably.

With London “once again at the mercy of a bloodsucking blackguard”, School of Blood finds our heroes following the vampire trail to St Cecilia’s School for Girls where, owing to a misunderstanding, Lightfoot is installed as head of sixth form. Paul Morris’ gothic twist on St Trinian’s proves a fun, lively diversion, before finale Warm Blood raises the stakes (sorry) with a full-on vampire uprising – a plan aided by a right pea-souper of a fog that allows the creatures to walk about in the middle of the day with impunity.

As Jago and Litefoot are drawn into a deadly trap – with poor barmaid and reformed vamp Ellie (Lisa Bowerman) having apparently suffered a relapse – Justin Richards piles on the bluffs and double-bluffs in a manner that keeps the listener guessing to the end, while also finding room for some genuine pathos amidst all the penny dreadful hi-jinx.

Naturally, the redoubtable duo have the whole business wrapped up in time to go home and enjoy a cold collation – but there’s a hint in the dying moments that another old enemy is waiting in the wings. And so the spin-off that never was keeps spinning on, and on. May it never stop.

For all its persuasive claims to being the show’s greatest decade, there’s no denying 1970s Doctor Who lacked the emotional chops of the current iteration. But there were occasional wobbles in the stiff upper-lip, the most celebrated example being when a quietly devastated Third Doctor slipped wordlessly away from Jo’s engagement party and rode off into the setting Welsh sun.

“Goodbyes are not really my forte,” admits his successor twice removed towards the end of Big Finish’s latest run of Sixth Doctor adventures – a trilogy designed to wrap up the ongoing mystery of fellow traveller Mrs Constance Clarke (Miranda Raison).

Constance is a great name for a Doctor Who companion – like being called Loyal or Dependable – and everyone who writes for her leans into this idea; when Colin Baker gets a line like “my most constant companion,” he somehow manages to sound the speech marks around ‘constant’. A Lieutenant Wren working at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, she is by some measure the poshest gel ever to make a home aboard the TARDIS; next to her, Barbara Wright sounds like Adele.

In Order of the Daleks, Mrs Clarke (first name terms are still strictly off-limits) accompanies the Doctor to the planet Strellin, where an elite corps of marooned Skarosian scientists have been making a nuisance of themselves by introducing advanced technology to the indigenous peasant folk. In the local monastery, they discover the Brotherhood of the Black Pearl are harbouring a new breed of Dalek – forged, rather beautifully, from stained glass and lead. You can’t help but feel writer Mike Tucker, whose day job is building cool props, must be rather frustrated at having to present this jewelled vision on audio, but he has at least inspired one of Big Finish’s most frame-able covers.

As hinted at in the title, Jamie Anderson’s Absolute Power pitches the Doctor against yet another ruthless corporate blowhard (I imagine Big Finish can expect a stiff letter from the CBI) and, for extra spotter points, there are more primitives in thrall to non-existent gods. It’s a slightly fussy story, with rather too much in the way of plot, but there’s great sport to be had in the idea of Constance attracting a gentleman admirer – a situation that prompts her to go the full Celia Johnson (Anderson even works in the phrase ‘brief encounter’ to prove he’s in on the joke).

Wrong-footed by the attention, Mrs Clarke declares the time has come to ‘resign my commission from this ship’ and return to London to solve the mystery of her missing husband, Naval Intelligence officer Henry Clarke (Matthew Cottle).

The final act of that mystery plays out against the backdrop of bombed-out postwar Vienna in Quicksilver, Matt Fitton’s beautifully atmospheric homage to The Third Man – complete with chases through the sewers, a thrilling showdown on the Ferris wheel and Lt Commander Clarke in the Harry Lime role. It’s an unusually grown-up resolution, too, eschewing sci-fi bafflegab explanations in favour of a very human story of heartbreak and betrayal.

“I can’t claim to know much about the condition of the human heart,” admits the Doctor. And yet, when it comes to it, it’s Constance who really fumbles their awkward, terribly British goodbye, while the Doctor takes a cutting of her rose bloom to remember her by, the old romantic.

Except it turns out it’s not goodbye at all. In fact, far from being left alone to smell the flowers, the Sixth Doctor finds himself a thorn between two roses, departing for destinations unknown with both Mrs Clarke – who has now loosened up sufficiently to allow him to call her Connie – and her predecessor Philippa ‘Flip’ Jackson (Lisa Greenwood).

Last heard drifting back to Earth through space (and yes, I know that’s not technically possible, so don’t write in), chirpy cockney Flip lands back aboard the TARDIS after her wedding day is rudely interrupted by aliens, as companion’s wedding days are increasingly wont to be. She quickly forms a bond with Constance (who, naturally, admires her ‘pluck’), setting up a fun dynamic – like a before-and-after Eliza Doolittle – for future adventures.

Back in the early 70s, Doctor Who found it so hard to talk to clever women, they had to send Liz Shaw back up to Cambridge and replace her with ditzy blonde Jo Grant. These days, he can happily find house room for a Bletchley code-breaker a street-smart Londoner, neither of whom seem the type to pass him his test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is. The moral, I suppose, is that some parts of the 1970s are more worthy of keeping alive than others.

Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #508, February 2017 © Panini UK Ltd

All titles available from Big Finish