Doctor Who – The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 8 Vol. 1 review

After seven years’ worth of stories paired with television companions, the Fourth Doctor and K-9 have a new friend in tow: WPC Ann Kelso, played by Jane Slavin.

This eighth season of audio adventures mirrors a idea from the Doctor’s onscreen adventures; just as season sixteen brought us a quest for The Key To Time, so this series is linked through the search for the truth behind The Syndicate Masterplan.

8.1 The Sinestran Kill

Detecting anomalous energies, the Doctor arrives to foil an assassination and saves the lives of both Ann and a hardware shop owner in the process. From gangland thugs to an alien attack on New Scotland Yard, writer Andrew Smith mixes in plenty of local colour, and police vernacular, as he blends in the flavour of a 70’s crime drama to create a smart introduction to both the new companion and the wider conspiracy.

As well as the smart and inquisitive Ann, we enjoyed the character of gang squad (Chief) Inspector Scott Neilson, played with restraint by Frank Skinner. Neilson knows of UNIT and is unimpressed – wonderfully, he threatens to feel the Doctor’s collar! Also in the guest cast is Glynis Barber (Blake’s 7) playing one of the not-so-bright gangsters. Despite being a smaller role, she clearly has a ball with it!

8.2 Planet Of The Drashigs

The Drashigs were Pertwee-era terrors, but for our money their reputation was always more dangerous than their visuals; to paraphrase Dan Starkey, they were the most fearsome glove puppets in the Doctor Who universe!

Phil Mulryne’s story finds a novel way to up the stakes, making them the main attraction of DrashigWorld, a rich man’s folly (with shades of Jurassic Park) where all known species of the predator are kept for the pleasure of the viewing public. Naturally, all are imperilled when an experiment goes dangerously wrong and there are plenty of monstrous thrills and spills, primarily with the smaller, faster and even more dangerous Emerald Drashigs.

In the guest cast, Fenella Woolgar plays scientist Vanessa Seabourne, while Jeremy Clyde gives his best David Attenborough as the planet’s owner, Lord Braye. With no Sinestrans in sight, this is Ann’s introduction to the future and the story also debuts the newly constructed K-9 MkII, voiced by the wonderful John Leeson.

8.3 The Enchantress Of Numbers

Next up, writers Simon Barnard and Paul Morris bring the TARDIS to Newstead Abbey in 1850, following a mystery. Mistaken for a medic, the Doctor tends to Ada, the Countess of Lovelace (Finty Williams), a gifted mathematician currently in disgrace due to her gambling and living in her late father’s home.

Meanwhile, Ann investigates below stairs, making a valuable ally of Hophouse the butler (Barnaby Edwards) as bird-masked Plague Doctors from the middle ages stalk the area…

Cleverly constructed, holding back vital puzzle pieces to build up an engaging mystery, this tale of secret passages and shifting mazes kept us guessing while at the same time educating us on the story of Ada and her notions of ‘poetical’ science. It also made pleasing use of an important concept from later in Tom Baker’s run, which prompted a little fannish cheer.

While Ada Lovelace might be Finty Williams’ first Doctor Who role for Big Finish, it is not her first time playing opposite Tom Baker’s Doctor – she had a role in 2010’s BBC Audio release The Demon Of Paris. Of course, for listeners (or parents) of a certain generation, she will be eternally remembered as Angelina Ballerina.

8.4 The False Guardian

After these distractions, Ann is back on the trail of the elusive Sinestrans. Setting coordinates with the help of K-9, she promptly endangers the TARDIS by taking it to a planet suffering from a wave of dangerously unstable temporal particles. Stranded, the Doctor, Ann and K-9 insinuate themselves as guests at a rather exclusive complex where the Doctor encounters a worryingly familiar name…

As the first half of a four-part story, to be concluded in Time’s Assassin, it is hard to judge this tale, although the first two parts offer plenty of 60s call backs and a couple of great revelationary moments. Fast and funny, drawing deep from the well of series lore, there is a charming Hitchhiker’s Guide feel here – from the post-production treatment on voices to the script itself. It is something we’ve heard in Guy Adams’ work before and it is always welcome.

Summary

While these four tales are the first half of a linked season, the second and third appear standalone following the modern series route of a futuristic trip and a celebrity historical to break in the new companion. This came as a bit of a surprise, we expected more of a link between stories, but perhaps more will slot into place one we have heard the second volume. Along the way, there are plenty of links to the show’s history, which should please the fannish audience, though they do not overwhelm.

Ann Kelso is bright, brave and nobody’s fool. She absorbs the futuristic elements of her adventures with an appropriate balance of incredulity and enthusiasm, impressing the Doctor from the start. Tom Baker is on his usual ebullient form throughout, he and Jane Slavin clearly have a great chemistry in real life and it translates well.

One thing we did note is Ann’s previous work as a detective before transferring back to uniform. Might there be a story to be returned too? If it calls for more of Frank Skinner’s DCI Neilson, then all the better.

As with Series 7, The Sinestran Masterplan drops in two volumes, as well as with individual releases on download. Pleasingly, there is only a single month’s gap between volumes, meaning there will not be such a lengthy wait for the resolution of Volume 1’s surprising cliffhanger.

It is great to hear The Fourth Doctor Adventures pushing its boundaries and trying something new, all backed by the usual exemplary Big Finish production values. We look forward to seeing where this is all headed in Volume 2