For quite a long time now, Tom Baker has been striding across the Big Finish landscape, as only a voice like Tom Baker’s is able. He has enjoyed 6 series so far: 3 with Louise Jameson’s Leela, 1 with the late Mary Tamm’s Romana and 2 with Lalla Ward’s second incarnation of Romana. He’s also had 4 adventures written in partnership between former producer Philip Hinchcliffe and Classic Series writer Marc Platt, as well as 2 Lost Stories originally considered for TV production in the 70s and 3 terrific novel adaptations from the 90s. Besides that, he’s also appeared in the Classic Doctors, New Monsters series, the Diary of River Song series and the anniversary special, The Light at the End. With rumours that he is to appear in a Comic Strip range as well, that’s not bad going for an actor who once said the Big Finish scripts he’d received had fallen from his lap and into a bin.
This month sees the release of the first half of a fourth series of adventures with Leela. And it’s pretty brilliant. If you’re feeling over-faced by the huge amount of Tom on offer, start here. It includes something for everyone. There’s a traditional sci-fi adventure story with the Voc Robots, an experimentally told surreal departure from the norm in The Crowmarsh Experiment and a 4-part Bladerunner-style thriller. Also, in terms of cost, it’s much kinder on your wallet. This and the second half of the series (out in May) cost £45 to subscribe: that’s 8 discs. Last year, Tom’s season of 9 discs cost £75!
Before I begin my review, I must say I’m a staunch supporter of The Fourth Doctor Adventures range. I’ve read on less positive parts of the internet that people have problems with the unambitious nature of the series, and that the majority of stories feel like wallowing in nostalgia for its own sake. Now, there are a fair amount of returning villains to be sure (perhaps more than I’d like) and some of the stories in their hour-only running time can feel a bit slight. But in the 50 releases since Destination: Nerva there are only a handful I’ve been disappointed by and although I hate to join the chorus of naysayers in this (whose persistent verbal abuse of the Big Finish Executive Producer I find irritating and abhorrent) they’re usually written by Nick Briggs.
So what of Series 7 so far?
The Sons of Kaldor opens brilliantly. Tom and Louise are on terrific form. The soundscape is wonderfully nostalgic (the door pin codes and the hum of the ship beautifully echoing The Robots of Death and instilling a kind of childhood comfort we couldn’t have expected from 70s sound effects alone). Toby Hadoke and John Dorney make for excellent Vocs and the pace of the story rattles along as it does in any script written by Andrew Smith. Part Two is a little disappointing although the plot is very cleverly unravelled. Oliver Dimsdale as villain Tace however gives a one-note performance and the threat he poses feels small, unconvincing and not altogether dramatic. Once the mysteries of The Sons of Kaldor have been unlocked, the story feels a little hollow and there isn’t very much left for any of our characters to do.
The Crowmarsh Experiment raises the game. It has to be said that Louise Jameson has always been incredible as Leela and here she gifts us with perhaps the best performance she has ever given. Confused, vulnerable and hardened, Jameson fights her way through a story which puts Leela front and centre. A philosophical, esoteric battle perhaps wouldn’t seem like a natural fit for Leela as a companion, but David Llewellyn makes such a tale feel like the missing link. The narrative only heightens Leela’s strength of character. Tom Baker is – unusually - subtly wonderful here. His performance as The Other Doctor is a muted, weird affair giving the play a definite sense of strangeness and unease. It is as if he is narrating one of his Late Night Stories such is his lightness of touch. The Crowmarsh Experiment stands as one of the very finest Fourth Doctor Adventures and deserves to be heard again and again.
The final two stories are really, as we all know, one story. The Mind Runners/The Demon Rises is a traditional four-parter when it comes to structure. In terms of pace, we do slow down a little. The first episode feels like one long conversation, although scriptwriter John Dorney is drip-feeding elements cleverly which will be important later and the dialogue between The Doctor, Leela and Taraneh sparkles. Dorney’s scripts are in fact adroitly structured. The story is expertly executed in the way Dorney reveals elements of his very clever plot. There is a memorable, well-performed villain in Mr Shift, a brutal, shocking death and a most unusual monster, all revealed at tipping points in terms of our understanding of the narrative. Whilst The Mind Runners/The Demon Rises is not as showy or as spectacular as some of its contemporaries, it is difficult not to admire the immaculate craftsmanship at work here. This is a taut, gripping thriller, brilliantly written and very well-acted.
Half way through, this series is shaping up to be another goldmine. Is it May yet?