Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions
Writer: Philip Hinchcliffe, adapted by Marc Platt
RRP: £8.99 (CD) / £6.99 (Download)
Release Date: September 2014
Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online
Review Posted: 12th September 2014
“Philip Hinchcliffe, acclaimed producer of Doctor Who (1975-77) returns to tell new stories for the Fourth Doctor and Leela.
"The starting point was there were a few basic ideas that were kicking around for another series, had we made it," says Philip. "I thought this project would be fun to be involved with, and I've tried to and tell stories that are in the same spirit as the ones Robert Holmes and I were telling."
The Ghosts of Gralstead (Six episodes)
The Doctor and Leela return to Victorian London, in the year 1860.
At St Clarence’s Hospital, respected surgeon Sir Edward Scrivener requires the bodies of the dead… At Doctor McDivett’s Exhibition of Living Wonders and Curiosities, miracles are afoot… And in Gralstead House, the ghost will walk again. Mordrega has come to Earth…
The Devil's Armada (Four episodes)
The TARDIS lands in Sissenden Village in the sixteenth century. Catholic priests are hunted, so-called witches are drowned in the ducking stool, and in the shadows the Vituperon are watching… and waiting…”
Nostalgia. It’s a funny old thing, one which can disappoint and satisfy in equal measure, and one which seems very much Big Finish’s buzz word right now.
“Come! Let us journey back to the sixties!” they cried when giving us their new Early Adventures range (and, as discussed in my review of Domain of the Voord, fail to deliver that which they claimed they were going to be delivering). This cry was also echoed when the Fourth Doctor joined the Big Finish fold: finally, we were going to get some true-to-television Fourth Doctor action, was the implication, with some of the more straight-laced fans sighing in relief at this news and frowning upon the Nest Cottage trilogy for having a Fourth Doctor that felt older and not the incarnation he used to be. (Presumably they don’t mind the fact the Fourth Doctor changed wildly from story to story on screen anyway.) I rather loved the Nest Cottage releases, giving us what essentially felt like a Fourth Doctor set in a future beyond his tenure on television– an afterlife for past regenerations, perhaps? Where was the First Doctor’s garden as glimpsed in The Three- and Five Doctors? Do past incarnations just spend all day running around in mist in the time-stream as glimpsed in The Name of the Doctor? Or do they, as hinted in Nest Cottage and indeed on screen with the mysterious Curator, have a life of their own with their own adventures, continuing but perhaps discreet and sneaky this time around? I kind of like that idea; that once gone, there is a fragment out there that carries on. In the world(s) of Doctor Who, why not?
I was apparently in a minority it would appear though, as people cheered for Big Finish’s intent to return to TV and were very kind towards The Fourth Doctor Adventures’s first series. I think it is fair to say though that I was less impressed with what we got. Whilst nothing was outright bad at all, it felt very conservative at times: this was a series that could go anywhere at all in time and space, and we had painstaking attempts to fit it in with events seen in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a return to Nerva, and a series so keen on aping an era that it forgot a lot of the time to have a dash of colour and enjoyment along the way, too.
That has improved increasingly as the series has run on, but at times I still wish for something a bit... more. We glimpsed it with The Foe from the Future, which managed to balance nostalgia and something new and exciting well, and stories such as The Crooked Man have been as strong as the strongest of other Big Finish releases, but they have definitely missed a certain something for me, and I think that’s the time-free quality that the main range sometimes has. Though set in the past, it strides into the new, and more often than not, this is something The Fourth Doctor Adventures has avoided doing.
I think you can imagine then that I was not exactly cheering with joy when hearing about this box set. I like Philip Hinchcliffe’s era on screen, and I think that Hinchcliffe himself is always an articulate, interesting and thoughtful interviewee, but this harkening back to nostalgia again, couple with a sense of underwhelmement (a new word I’ve coined) with The Lost Valley, Hinchcliffe’s own audio play as used in The Fourth Doctor Box Set, did not endear me to this idea, but what we have here in the Philip HInchcliffe Presents set is exactly what I have been yearning for: something new and enjoyable, whilst looking to the past as well. If nothing else, it simply confirms to me that what the Fourth Doctor needs is to join the Main Range fold, as hour-long stories are simply not cutting it for him. At six- and four episodes apiece, the stories in this box set have ample room to breathe, and give us two of the most enjoyable Big Finish outings for Doctor number Four to date.
We kick things off with The Ghosts of Gralstead, a Victorian adventure with bodysnatching, spooky goings on in the entertainment business, a god-like enemy from the future flung into the past, and a pleasing mixture of classes that tells its own story... no, no, come back! I swear I’m not just repeating the plot of Talons, this is its own thing... sort of.
Yes, much like Foe, this has its roots firmly in Weng-Chiang’s territory, to the extent where Jago and Litefoot are nodded to mere moments into the play and some of the lines are almost taken wholesale from Robert Holmes’s scripts: playful homage or blatant cribbing? You choose. Ghosts is another little sibling to Talons, just as Foe was, but, just like Foe, it manages to push beyond these trappings by simply being a really good story in its own right. You can see the fingerprints, but the overall story merits more attention than that.
In the CD Extras, Hinchcliffe freely says that him and Robert Holmes had few if any ideas for what they would have done together had they stayed on for one more season, but that an adventure yarn with explorers and the enjoyable mash-up of Victoriana and Doctor Who would have appealed, and the story he has given Marc Platt to adapt shows that perfect synthesis of old statesman and new writer. It gels together amazingly well, and applause must go to Platt as well as the cast, which is incredible throughout. Perhaps most impressive to me was Emerald O’Hanrahan as Clementine Scrivener, who gets comparably little to do, but manages to fill that role with a life and zest all of its own. Louise Jameson is wonderful, finding new things to do with a role she’s been playing on-and-off for absolutely years now, and Tom Baker is also on fine form here, giving us a performance that at the end of Part Four has rarely, to my eyes (or, rather, ears) been bettered.
Truly, there’s not a duff note throughout the tale with regards to performance. The story itself though sadly ends with a whimper rather than a bang after six episodes of adventure: a real pity, but perhaps the only real sour note for me in Ghosts.
What Ghosts is, though, is very much what fans often distill Hinchcliffe’s era as being: Leela! The Victorians! Spookiness! Fog! Colourful background characters! It’s safe to say that Talons looms large and has a lot to answer for in this regard.
Hinchcliffe’s era was much more than this though, and The Devil’s Armada goes some way to addressing this. Taking a leaf out of the good book Mandragora, this story flings us into history and mixes alien goings on with real-life events. Again, like Mandragora we have superstitious religious hyperbole on display here and what purports to be a god as a foe, so again, I think it is fair to say that the fingerprints are very much on display.
And again, it’s a damn good play in its own right, with cast and script both strong and solid, and this time consistent, with an ending that is every bit as good as the rest of it. In may ways a sequel to Marc Platt’s First Doctor Companion Chronicle The Flames of Cadiz, Armada flips that tale on its head by telling events from the English viewpoint as the Spanish Armada amass, ready to take on Queen and Country as religious persecution and witch-hunting reaches fever pitch on shore. The play never once shies away from the brutality of such persecution, and characters that try to redeem themselves are never quite saved due to the severity of their actions beforehand. Even characters with shades of grey are more determinedly black or white due to circumstance, which makes for a refreshing change.
Things aren’t perfect in this play. The central threat is essentially Azal or the creature down in the Satan Pit all over again, which rather dulls things, but it’s made up for with a guest cast that boasts Beth Chalmers (whom I adore, even if they did rather piss away poor Raine), Nigel Carrington and Jamie Newall all being... well, brilliant. I struggle to find an accurate description other than that.
Across these two plays, we have some of the finest guest performances Big Finish have given us for a while. The same goes for the plays. Nostalgic? Yes, but not in a way that is cloying, which has been the real problem with the Fourth Doctor’s Big Finish adventures so far. I see that the box this set comes in has the number one printed upon its spine, giving me home that there is more to come. Certainly, I’d love to see more Fourth Doctor releases of this quality and consistency, and if that means a shift to box sets and longer plays rather than monthly releases, then sign me up.
You want to see Tom Baker in his element once again? Go for the box sets and skip the main range. The best is here.