The Pursuit of History
Tony embraces, life, liberty and the pursuit of history.
The Cuthbert stories have always been a take-them-or-leave-them affair for Big Finish, despite having almost everything conceivable going for them. Firstly of course, they star the entirely peerless David Warner as Cuthbert. There is a universal law that states that if a project involves David Warner it is inherently made better than the combination of two projects that don’t involve David Warner. The original Cuthbert stories included Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and Daleks as well, but still…
They were alright, certainly, but given everything they had going for them, they never especially smashed it out of the park. They seemed to suffer from Eminence Syndrome – Big Finish pushing ever so hard to establish new Grand Villains, and succeeding with diminishing returns each time they were used.
Now though, a lot of time has gone by, a lot of water has flowed under bridges, and we’ve sadly lost Mary Tamm along the way. Now we’re in the era of Second Romana stories, and Cuthbert’s back.
There have been a couple of tweaks along the way that make The Pursuit of History rather more fun than the original Cuthbert stories. Firstly, the script, by Nick Briggs, seems to let Cuthbert off the leash a little more, allowing him to be almost Masterly in his dancing delight in besting the Doctor. There are some genuinely funny lines for Warner’s Cuthbert here, and he delivers them with a Northern dryness that adds significantly to their impact, Cuthbert this time around having even more of the Northern sarcasm and sharp-spiked wit for which he was originally known. It helps that for part of the story, he’s back in the 19th century in England, pulling a bit of a Mark of the Rani with added train robbery, and that for other sections of the story he’s Mr Urbane Businessman, swanning in with an almost Trumpian self-confidence and far more charm to arrange a deal with politicians that will leave them in hock to his conglomerate for their very survival. It allows Warner to show a range of colours in his performance, from the ‘greater than all this’ contempt for his fellow train robbers to the ‘I could crush your planet like a bug’ undertone of his business dealings, all delivered with a dancing tone and a sprinkle of Northern sugar.
Secondly, Briggs has freed Toby Hadoke’s Mr Dorrick a little from his slavish devotion to Cuthbert. As might be expected, the almost Dickensian lickspittle, when allowed a project of his own to head up, is something of a nasty little sadist, and rather more of an unpleasant grinder of the faces of the poor than his playful master ever liked to openly be. Hadoke, when given his head, makes a thoroughly effective villain, as he’s proved before now in the Jago & Litefoot series, and here too he adds more light and shade to proceedings than the scripts previously allowed him, meaning you get more value for your storytelling money out of Hadoke this time around.
It's true though that The Pursuit of History feels like exactly what it is – part 1 of a two-part story, while also being a continuation of a story that began a long time ago. As such, there are parts of The Pursuit of History that feel like world-building, and parts that feel like character filler. There’s a part with a talking, possibly non-existent parrot, too. Because why the hell not, that’s why.
But just when you think maybe the whole point of The Pursuit of History is to move your idea of who Cuthbert and Mr Dorrick really are along a little way, things get really interesting. To some extent, they get interesting when we see Cuthbert at work brokering deals, because he always felt in the original stories to some extent like words on a page – “CEO of the biggest conglomeration in the galaxy” is easy to write, and much harder to become or render in an audio play. Here though, we hear him doing it, with that delicious Warner lightness that hides a pretty hefty chunk of sharpened steel under its sugar coating. But actually it’s towards the end that things get really, really interesting, as people turn out not to be who we – and probably they – thought they were, but something far more insidious instead. It makes a particularly satisfying kind of sense that the reveal of this episode should be what it is. In fact, it makes sense of something that goes all the way back to the Baker-Ward era on TV, and it certainly whets the appetite for the next episode, Casualties of Time. That promises to bring Cuthbert’s story into a whole new focus, while satisfying fans of the Fourth Doctor-Romana pairing with a storyline you might not have particularly realised you were missing, but which, when it’s complete, will fill an unusual gap in your life.
So is The Pursuit of History one to get?
Yes, because however on the fence you were about the original Cuthbert stories, this one is better by virtue of Nicholas Briggs having another few years of writing under his belt, and equally, Tom Baker having a couple more years to settle back into playing the Doctor on audio, and growing from giving it a go to absolutely loving it – a sense that has been woven through at least the last couple of series of Fourth Doctor adventures. David Warner’s having fun being snarky, Toby Hadoke’s having fun stepping out of the shadows, and while it would be stretching it say Jane Slavin’s Laan are having fun, it’s fitting that where Cuthbert goes, the Laan go with him, and here we get far more of a sense of a reason for their interconnectedness than we got in previous stories. John Leeson steals quite a few scenes here, both as K9 in somewhat exhausted mode, (his intonations on the simple ‘Yes, Master’ providing above-average laughs in this episode), and as a whole new range of big blue furry time-sensitives – imagine Sully from Monsters, Inc, and give him the power to see through time, and you’re not too far from Leeson’s character here. As the episode comes to a close, it’s another cast-member entirely though who provides the delicious surprises that absolutely nail The Pursuit of History in place as one you’re going to want to pick up, and give us more than a hint about Cuthbert’s true nature and his place in a cosmic game of cat-and-mouse that’s been going on for longer than anyone truly appreciates.
Pick up The Pursuit of History for all these reasons – Briggs, Baker, Warner, Hadoke, Slavin and Leeson – and pick it up because the ending promises to put this two-parter among the most memorable Fourth Doctor adventures in your audio collection.