With The Evil One released this month, we’re at the halfway point in Big Finish’s third series of adventures for the Fourth Doctor. With that in mind, I thought it might be nice to launch our occasional Big Finish reviews with a look back at these first four stories.
The Doctor and Leela arrive in the middle of a warzone at the behest of the Timelords, for a purpose that’s not immediately clear. At the heart of all this is Strang (played brilliantly by Dan Starkey), an entire Sontaran clone army in one body who has some very big plans indeed. The Sontarans have become a bit comical of late, due to Starkey’s hilarious Strax so it’s lovely to hear them being delightfully unpleasant in a way we’ve not really heard before.
The story itself rattles along at a fair old pace from pitched blaster rifle battles, to betrayals, to slave camps, to cloning banks, barely giving you time to catch your breath and wonder how Leela doesn’t recognise the Sontarans in The Invasion of Time. It’s also a good look at the Doctor and Leela’s relationship; We’ve discussed in a previous podcast how their partnership seems strained both on and offscreen and it’s clear here that Big Finish want to expand that within the fiction. The play ends on the pair at loggerheads over a decision made in the closing minutes and it’s to Big Finish’s credit that they can do new and interesting things with these characters almost 40 years on. A belter of an opener to this new series of adventures.
2. White Ghosts by Alan Barnes
The Doctor and Leela arrive at the farthest reaches of the known universe on a planet that only sees sunlight once every thousand years. Which is probably just as well because what happens during that one day of sunlight is really rather unpleasant.
White Ghosts is your classic base under siege narrative, and it does feel suitably claustrophobic as the creatures of the title advance on our protagonists. What sets this apart from other base under siege tales is the motivation for the creatures and that the threat actually appears to be coming from within. The supporting cast are all excellent, and Baker is on top form as the Doctor, desperately trying to keep everyone alive. All in all, this is a story that feels very much a part of the era it’s trying to invoke whilst also applying a layer of character depth more in keeping with the 21st century stories. The current series however, has a far more negative effect on the following story….
3. The Crooked Man by John Dorney
The plot of this third story sees the Doctor and Leela investigating a series of bizarre murders in a sleepy seaside town that appear to be connected to a strange supernatural being known as The Crooked Man.
The Crooked Man himself is a sinister, immensely creepy character voiced by Neil Stuke who is far and away the best thing in the story. His harshly voiced female cohort on the other hand is one of the worst examples of over acting to compensate for lack of visuals I’ve heard in some time.
What I find most jarring with this story is that it’s set in the present-day. Not the Doctor and Leela’s present day of 1977 but our own present-day of 2014, immediately indicated by a reference to eBay a minute or two in. There is a story reason for the setting, which explains the villains motivation but to explain more would be to spoil one of the more pleasing aspects of the story. Even if you do forget the present day setting, the truth of The Crooked Man is that with Sarah Smart, it’s primary focus on a familial relationship, paternal love, and the power of stories it feels much more like a lost 11th Doctor story than a lost 4th Doctor one. Whether or not that’s a bad thing all depends on what you want from a Big Finish audio I guess; do you want your favourite Doctors in new stories that you can relate to the now? Or do you want adventures that feel like they could fit neatly into established continuity? I’d argue the best Big Finish stories can do both without having to resort to the sort of blatant pop culture references on display here. Stories like…
4. The Evil One by Nicholas Briggs
The Doctor and Leela materialise on the Moray Rose, an abandoned starliner (See what they did there?) beseiged by metal praying mantis’. To make matters worse SOMEONE (I won’t name names, even if the cover art does) is manipulating Leela for their own ends.
What Briggs manages to do here with his script is to perfectly balance the feel of mid 70’s Who with the emotional aspects of mid-noughties(?) Who. Not only that but he litters the story with references and call backs to The Face of Evil putting the primary focus on the companion over the alien plot, something very common in the RTD years especially. The last few minutes of the story isn’t a massive, action packed, race against time to stop the villains, they dispense with that fairly quickly. What we get instead is the Doctor and Leela TALKING to each other, and we start to get a sense that whilst the Doctor doesn’t always agree with Leela’s unique outlook on their adventures, he greatly admires her strength. It’s a properly touching scene, and I’m reminded of Russell T Davies when he recently stated it was a crime he’d never got Nick Briggs writing for the show. There’s still time though eh Steven?
All in all, this is a strong collection of stories that give the two leads (Especially Louise Jameson) plenty to work with in the tight hourlong format. Even in The Crooked Man there’s a lot to enjoy even if it’s setting and pop culture references are incredibly jarring. When the series is at it’s strongest in something like The Evil One it’s maintaining a balance between the era it’s trying to replicate and the era we’re currently in without sacrificing their “It’s Saturday Teatime 1977 all over again” tagline.