The Fourth Doctor Series 7A
Tony’s eight years old again.
When Tom Baker was eventually coaxed into performing in Big Finish audio adventures, reprising his role as the Fourth Doctor, there was initial joy, and then, when he delivered Destination Nerva in 2012, for me at least, there was a touch of sadness. His voice had changed, as voices do over time, and he sounded rather frail – the spirit tentative but willing, but the physical apparatus, if not broken, then changed to a point where it sounded inherently sad.
Spin forward, as you can if you happen to have a time machine, to 2018.
Tom Baker now, in 2018 (or 2017 when these stories were recorded) is the Tom Baker of the 1970s. His voice sounds rejuvenated, and, as he maintains in interviews, he’s found a job that gives him such pleasure, and brings him such love and adoration from armies of fans again, that his performances these days are as exuberant, as lightning-fast and layered and turn-on-a-dime as they ever were. Tom Baker is the Doctor in 2018, just as he was in 1978, and if you’re doing a job in your eighties as well as you did in your forties, then you’re an extraordinary person too.
Series 7 of the Fourth Doctor Adventures takes an unusual step, releasing the first three stories (two single-disc stories and a double-discer) both as individual tales and as a galumphing collection, a banquet of Baker to get your teeth well and truly stuck into, and there are things to say about it, but the first thing to do is go and buy it, because there’s not a disappointing story here.
First up, Sons of Kaldor. Kaldor Robots (the rather more politically neutral term for what everyone recognises as the Robots of Death), in the hands of Andrew Smith, a writer who’s always got a point to work around, and who builds strong stories with layers of characterisation and questions. You know that’s going to be good as soon as you read Kaldor Robots and Andrew Smith.
There have of course been a few different follow-ons from Robots of Death. There was a whole series of Kaldor City audios in the dark days between iterations of Doctor Who. There was a novel, Corpse Marker, and there was at Big Finish the Seventh Doctor story which introduced future companion, Med-Tech Liv Chaenka, Robophobia. Smith introduces us to another new way of using and seeing the Robots of Unfortunate Reprogramming, bringing the Fourth Doctor and Leela to a shipful of them, all of whom seem to have amnesia about their mission. When our time travellers discover two bodies in the medical bay, we’re invited to wonder what’s really going on, and to get it wrong. Smith builds a world outside the ship, a world inside the ship, and eventually brings the two into harmony and focus to build a bigger picture that makes sense of every conundrum he’s posed. You’ll fly through The Sons of Kaldor, partly because it’s the Robots of Freakin’ Death, but more because he yanks you through at speed, making you ask questions that have you impatiently waiting for the answers to come clear. The end pays off your curiosity, without ever making the answers too trite, too pat – there are still questions to ponder at the end, partly because the truth about what happens in The Sons of Kaldor is bigger than a single story can accommodate, but also, one sneakily suspects, because a sequel story would be lovely, thank you very much.
Having waxed lyrical about Tom Baker, can we talk about Louise Jameson for a moment? Louise Jameson has always been an enormously good, incredibly intuitive actor. On screen, she took a role that was supposed to be ‘Eliza Doolittle in a leather bikini’ and brought a sense of the bright child to her, making Leela feel ‘real’ in the most surreal of circumstances. Watch her in The Sun Makers, watch her in The Face of Evil or The Robots of Death, and see her being fully possessed of her own – Leela’s – thoughts and feelings, whatever the Doctor was doing or saying. She’s continued that great work at Big Finish, broadening Leela out in several stories, showing us how she thinks and feels as her time with the Doctor, and her time in the wider universe continues. The Crowmarsh Experiment, by David Llewelyn, isn’t exactly a Companion Chronicle, but it is a very strong Leela story, where she’s made to question the reality of her life, the certainty of her sanity and the boundaries of her trust in the Doctor, especially as someone who looks and sounds exactly like the Doctor is urging her to come back ‘to reality’ – the reality of a life on Earth in the 1970s, of a husband and children who want her back from the delusion of her life in time-travel. It’s a wrenching piece of character drama, and it’s arguably, by virtue of its depths and layers, the stand-out story of the set. You genuinely feel for Leela by the end of the piece, both in terms of the life she didn’t live and the fact that you’ve just seen a glimpse into a world for which she subconsciously yearns. It’s strong, affecting stuff, The Crowmarsh Experiment, and if you’re at all that way inclined, there may be teardrops to shed by the end of it.
The third story, The Mind Runners/The Demon Rises, by John Dorney, is probably the best sci-fi epic movie you’ll never see. It’s in the vein of a lot of eighties and nineties sci-fi that really took the genre forward – your Blade Runner, your Matrix, a lot of the best 2000AD – and like those other works, it unfolds, layer after layer, taking you from a teen trend, the idea of ‘mind running,’ or surfing into other people’s consciousness, to see through their eyes, think through their brains, through the highest echelons on the planet Chaldera, to several other levels and strata of society before you find out what’s really going on. Starting with the basic premise of mind running, the Doctor and Leela discover that mind runners have committed what looked like suicide, despite having no previously self-destructive thoughts or inclinations. There’s talk of conspiracy, and an urban bogeyman has grown up – people say the suicides encountered the Night Mind, a force of will so dark it corrupts anyone who comes into contact with it.
But while that would be story enough in some circumstances – and give a clear, linear battle for the Doctor and Leela to face, Dorney goes much much further to show us the world of Chaldera, from political forces worried about what the mind runners might be able to discover about what they’re up to, to police who are just trying to get to the truth of what’s happening, to interestingly psychotic semi-liquid supervillains, to cults who believe that the flesh is an abhorrence and only the mind (in suitably mechanical avatars) should survive, and more besides. There is such texture in Dorney’s world, and it’s all so oddly, believably realistic that you stand no chance of working out what really is going on from any kind of standing start – it’s not till at least halfway through the second disc that you begin to have an inkling of what’s actually happening on Chaldera, and when you do, it flips everything you think you know on its head.
The Fourth Doctor, Series 7A is both a celebration and an extension of everything Tom Baker and Louise Jameson did on screen, into a wider, more colourful, less budget-restricted audio universe – The Sons of Kaldor gives you a fresh new take on one of their most successful TV encounters; The Crowmarsh Experiment puts the emphasis on Leela in a way which would never have been allowed on 1970s TV, but which in 2018 makes the Doctor and his companions feel much more like real friends, looking out for and trusting in each other; and The Mind Runners/The Demon Rises is a sci-fi epic that would take at least New Who budgets and timescales to put on screen, and more probably Hollywood capabilities.
Between them, they’re a fantastic start to the seventh series of adventures for the Fourth Doctor, four joyous hours of audio-TV that will leave you entirely satisfied, but hungry for the release of the next set.