For the seventh year in a row, January brings the thrill of another series of Doctor Who: Fourth Doctor Adventures – and it is still a thrill, both that Tom Baker was persuaded to return to his most famous role and that he clearly relishes every moment!
This year brings a slight tweak in format; rather than monthly releases there are two sets of four stories coming out, the first released in January and the second in May. Stories can be still be bought individually on download, or as a box set (with the option of CDs for those who desire them).
After two years of stories fearuring Lalla Ward’s Romana, it feels refreshing to return to the pairing of the Fourth Doctor and Leela, with K-9 in tow on occasion.
The Sons of Kaldor
First up is a return to the world of the 1977’s classic serial ‘The Robots of Death’, with the TARDIS arriving on another ship full of the art deco automatons – this is one eerily devoid of any humanoid life, save for a wounded woman and an alien in medical healing tubes
The ever-reliable Andrew Smith brings us a strong opener as he develops ideas from the backstory of ‘Robots’ and weaves them into a wider story about a war for control of the planet, building on tension between the original founding families, ingrained prejudices about the robots and even looking at the nature of the robots themselves.
It is not the first time that Big Finish have played with the Kaldor City robots, Sylvester McCoy starred in 2011’s excellent ‘Robophobia’, and despite their striking visual appearance – or perhaps because they are so memorable and easy to visualise – they translate brilliantly into the audio medium. Providing the unnaturally calm and modulated tones here are Toby Hadoke and regular Big Finish scribe John Dorney, who also script edits this range.
The Crowmarsh Experiment
Dr Leela Marshall wakes from the aftermath of an experiment with dreams of another life where she was a time traveller. Having acted as a test subject in one of her own experiments, she now struggles to discern what is real and what is fantasy. Luckily she has the supportive assistance of the rather familiar Dr Stewart.
Focusing heavily on Leela, David Llewellyn’s story cleverly reuses echoes of characters from earlier Fourth Doctor Adventures; Dan Starkey becomes man from the ministry Linus Strang, while Julian Wadham plays Dr Holman. Although previous knowledge is not a deal-breaker, as the story stands well on its own, this rewards long-term listeners with an extra level of satisfaction and a further emotional gut-punch when a later connection is revealed.
Louise Jameson is, naturally, superb and it is great to hear her so well written for. Credit must be given to this team for continuing to develop Leela, building some emotional backstory to lay the seeds for her over-hasty departure from the TARDIS onscreen in ‘The Invasion of Time’.
It is is also fun to hear Tom Baker give a subtly different performance as another sort of Doctor and, given the mind-bending nature of the tale, a wonder that they resisted the temptation of a cold open to the story.
The Mind Runners / The Demon Rises
The latter half of the set forms a four-part story by John Dorney, which deals with the fate of the planet Chaldera.
Having been up on virtual bricks for the first two tales, K-9 plays an active part here as we meet the Mind Runners, youths who vicariously hitch a ride to enjoy the thoughts and experiences of others. This goes on against the backdrop of a planet running short of resources and all efforts being put towards a “Great Project”; with teleport experiments a failure, Chaldera’s desperate leaders have resorted to the construction of an almighty rocket in which to flee their doomed world.
With a spate of mind runner suicides, one of which the Doctor and Leela witness, the pair find themselves working with a local police officer to investigate. They have some job to get her interested though, as the mind runners are written off as disaffected youth, indulging criminal activity as a result of the severe power restrictions placed on society with all its resources focussed on the rocket.
Across the four episodes, John Dorney has the space to create a complex, desparate world with various groups and agendas – from the government to the fanatical conciousness uploading Digitals and the shadowy threat of the demonic “Night Mind”, which few truly believe is real. It also does not hurt that, being released in one go, the wait between instalments evaporates and you can enjoy the whole thing in one immersive sitting.
Leela enjoys plenty of agency throughout, paired in an uneasy alliance with Josette Simon’s weary police officer Taraneh. The other standout performance in the guest cast is Andy Secombe as the appropriately named Mr Shift.
In a witty script, Tom Baker delivers some zingers, our favourites being “They’re building a rocket and I’m not talking salad” and the brilliant “Some of my worst enemies have been myths…”
Backed by superb music and sound design by Jamie Robertson, and deftly directed by Nicholas Briggs, the Tom Baker continues to sparkle on audio. Seven series in, he is effusive in his praise for the productions, clearly adoring the process of making these stories and the extras reveal that he comes well prepared and has plenty of input.
For her part, Louise Jameson’s Leela is a fantastic foil for the Fourth Doctor, and it was nice to hear her given plenty to do, both dramatically and emotionally, within these tales. This feels like a far more equal pairing on audio than perhaps it was during their brief stint together on television.
For us, the grouping of these stories into a box set helps to highlight how much variety there is even in a range pitched quite tightly within a certain era of the show, from the futuristic Kaldor to the neo noir of Chaldera and contemporary 1978. With volume 2 in May and further series with a new companion promised for 2019, The Fourth Doctor Adventures continue to be a jewel in the crown of Big Finish’s expansive output.