With its links to the Hartnell era revealed in a surprisingly left-field cliffhanger, which doubtless sent many a fan scrabbling for Wikipedia or a Loose Cannon reconstruction, ‘The Syndicate Master Plan’ concludes with a second volume of stories.
Avoiding substantial spoilers, while at the same time acknowledging some familiar faces appear on the box set cover, we will endeavour to give our reaction to a set of stories which are remarkably difficult to talk about.
Teamed with smart new companion Ann Kelso (Jane Slavin), a WPC from 1978, plus the ever reliable K-9, the Doctor is loosely on the trail of the alien gangsters the Sinestrans, and their shadowy allies The Syndicate.
8.5 Time’s Assassin
Writer Guy Adams concludes his two part story, resolving that surprising cliffhanger from the first box set with a story which also pushes ‘The Syndicate Master Plan’ storyline in another unexpected direction.
As order begins to break down at a decidedly shady health spa on the temporally ravaged planet of Kemble, home to a number of wealthy (if delusional) patients, Elmore’s deadly experiments come back to haunt him while the Director pursues a long-standing family vendetta against the Doctor – who remains remarkably sane as the place starts to fall around him.
The first part of this tale was unashamedly bonkers, and it continues in that vein; from Blake Ritson’s dangerous scientific dabbler Elmore to Anna Acton’s over-anxious Deputy Director Brox – although, if we are honest, John Culshaw steals the show as Zephon, son of the original from ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’.
8.6 Fever Island
Dropping the Doctor, Ann and K-9 into a terrific spy genre pastiche, with a poetic script which asks questions about dreams and reality, Jonathan Barnes’ story is a treat. Arriving on the sinister island of the title, the trio soon find themselves caught up in experiments to harness the location’s unique transformative properties.
Standing alone from the main storyline, Fever Island allows both Tom Baker and John Leeson the chance to do something different, with the Doctor re-imagined and K-9 asking some surprisingly thoughtful questions. In fact, we almost wish there had been time to do more with the ideas presented here, though that might have come at the expense of the spy excitement.
Gethin Anthony (Game Of Thrones) is hilarious as British super spy Jason Vane, with Carolyn Seymour in dual roles as his Whitehall boss and his housekeeper, and the reliable Barnaby Edwards rounding out the cast.
8.7 & 8.8 The Perfect Prisoners Parts 1 & 2
Foiling a plan to destroy food production and leave a planetary system in the thrall of the Syndicate, Ann leads the Doctor and K-9 straight into another of the group’s operations. This time, it’s perception altering technology which allows the user to edit how they view the world around them – like the ultimate evolution of virtual reality.
As the story unfolds, so does our understanding of the forces behind it; the Syndicate are revealed as the same nefarious bunch of alien “Planetarians” who once allied themselves with the Daleks (and were recently recreated by a fascinating University project!)
We will go no further but to say that we found the ending to the tale immensely satisfying and were delighted that it chose none of the routes we expected with old enemies, but rather found its inspiration in the original storyline – all of which has made us want to go back and experience ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ in all its glory again.
In a diverse guest cast, Ronan Vibert is particularly impressive as Zaal, while Christopher Naylor, Timothy Speyer and Francesca Hunt all take on multiple roles, the latter as the highly amusing PR executive Drarn.
While there are plentiful connections back to that famous Dalek epic throughout, we do not feel that they overwhelmed. However, a nodding acquaintance with the Daleks’ nefarious allies, if you do not know your Celation from your Malpha, certainly helps and we can recommend Jacqueline Rayner’s entertaining Delegate Detective blog for this. Indeed, in the Extras, writer John Dorney sites it as one of his resources and he develops each of the villainous characters – as well as craftily suggesting an in-story explanation for their changing make-up jobs across the original fourteen-part epic.
As we talked about in our review of the first volume, Ann Kelso makes for a bright and brave foil to the Fourth Doctor and, regardless of developments here, we hope that Jane Slavin makes a return at some point. For his part, Tom Baker remains luminous; he retains a zest for the role which is infectious and is clearly still having a ball, a decade into his Doctorly renaissance.
As a whole, ‘The Syndicate Master Plan’ has been a hugely entertaining ride and we have enjoyed the change in format to a lightly linked storyline and the callbacks to the vibrant ideas of the Hartnell era. The only downside, with all of Series 8 released, is a long wait until Series 9. This will again break new ground, reuniting the Doctor with his S19 line up of companions, namely Romana II, K-9 and Adric.
In the meantime, March brings adaptations of the late 1970s Doctor Who Weekly comic strips The Iron Legion and The Star Beast and we will also hear from this Doctor as part of Big Finish’s multi-Doctor celebratory release The Legacy Of Time in July.