By Tony J Fyler
Dethras, the latest Fourth Doctor story from Big Finish, is a tale of science, politics, strength, fear, responsibility and a chimpanzee. It’s almost ridiculously timely in an age when anti-science feeling is running high in politics, and the threat of science being shackled by the needs of political gain is both real and frightening. An age where a march for science is deemed a necessary thing.
Written by Andrew Poynton, it’s mostly a study in fear and weakness, but it’s far better and less lofty than that makes it sound. When the Fourth Doctor and the Second Romana (Tom Baker and Lalla Ward respectively) land on a Second World War submarine, they find it can’t last long where it is before the outside pressure cracks it open like an egg. And then, because this is a story that fits into a very specific time period when Douglas Adams (he of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy fame) was Script Editor of Doctor Who, they discover a locked room full of scared people and an inexplicable chimpanzee.
Chimpanzees were not standard issue on World War II submarines, in case you were wondering, so the chimpanzee would be inexplicable under normal circumstances. But this particular chimpanzee, who goes by the name of Franklin, is altogether more inexplicable than most, and is also integral to the plot of Dethras, which only begins to make sense when you realise there’s a strong thread of evolutionary theory at work here, twined around what is essentially a power struggle between science for its own sake and the politics which makes use of it, with the Doctor and Romana ending up on different sides, playing each towards the middle. This is the debate over splitting the atom, and then using an atom bomb, but given a science fiction twist to make it modern and interesting.
Poynton takes his core elements – the World War II submarine crew, the chimpanzee, evolutionary theory and the battle between strength and fear – and weaves an intriguing quadruple helix out of them, which dares to ask questions about scientific ethics, paid research, politicians who are governed by fear of the other, and the choice between fear and reason that it’s necessary to make, both in science and in politics, if your endeavours are to ultimately be of benefit to humanity, rather than being advances used purely for profit and war.
No, honestly, we promise it’s not an ethics lecture. That’s what it’s about, but in the foreground there are wars, and hiding, and ultimate weapons of mass destruction, and stand-offs with battleships and green globs of potentially universe-destroying goo and low-level telepathy. There’s Romana being brave and the Doctor being angry and politicians being stupid in a way it’s easy to recognise, and people not being what they seem to be. And, as an added bonus, there’s a chimpanzee!
There’s more even than that, but some of the plot elements make for great reveals and cliff-hangers in this story. Poynton, and director Nicholas Briggs, keep things moving at a steady pace, developing threat, mystery and thrill, and eventually opening out the drama on a broader canvas than you initially suspect is even available to them. It’s impressive, engaging stuff, driven by some standout performances at the core of the story that help make the world against which Dethras is told seem bigger and broader and more real than the two simple episodes of the story’s length normally allow: there feels like there’s a world off the corners of the audio screen, that these are real people with real grievances and motivations, rather than characters created to ask important questions about science, war, and fear.
Alistair Petrie and Sheila Ruskin particularly bring a deep level of realism to their antagonism that hooks you in and doesn’t let you go till close to the end of the story. And, for what this is worth, John Banks is a darned effective chimpanzee. The world is helped to feel real too by some impeccable sound design – from the very first scene, you absolutely feel like you’re listening to a TV story from the early Eighties. You can almost hear the boxy sets, the vinyl spaceship command chairs, the early computer-generated effects and the plywood corridors. Big Finish is frequently renowned for its sound design, but here it’ll genuinely make you prick your ears up. Then you’ll nod and smile.
And as for the title, it would spoil you to find out in advance what Dethras, but suffice it to say that Dethras – a great ‘Doctor Who’ word, that gives no clue whether it’s a planet, a person, an ultimate weapon, a process, or some other thing entirely - is at the centre of the story, the element on which everything turns.
Dethras does a lot with its two episodes. There’s all the high-brow stuff about fear and science and politics, sure, but that’s all woven into the fabric of the character motivations, rather than foregrounded, so it never beats you over the head with its subjects. But there’s also lots of action, lots of surreal, unusual imagery, and some engaging subsidiary characters too, so you care what happens to everyone in the story. There’s tense, Das Boot-style drama, there’s a Star Trek Wrath of Khan-style standoff, and there’s ultimately a sense of accepting and living up to one’s responsibilities.
With a run-time of an hour, Dethras never feels like it has the time to drag, but you come away feeling like you’ve spent at least twice as long on the edge of your seat, and have absorbed an enormous amount of world and argument and action along the way. Dethras is a classy piece of many moods, cogent arguments, and perhaps most of all, an entirely wonderful chimpanzee.