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Audio Drama Review
Big Finish’s monthly Fourth Doctor releases have recaptured the essence of the Tom Baker era in many ways, including the performances of the regulars and the sound design, but arguably not in terms of story duration. The single-disc, two-episode format has come in for some criticism because the vast majority of Baker’s television serials comprised four or six instalments, not just two. The contents of this box set, the six-part The Foe from the Future and the four-part The Valley of Death, help to redress the balance.
The Grange is haunted, so they say. This stately home in the depths of Devon has been the site of many an apparition - and now people are turning up dead. The ghosts are wild in the forest. But the Doctor doesn’t believe in ghosts. The TARDIS follows a twist in the vortex to the village of Staffham in 1977, and discovers that something is very wrong with time. However, spectral highwaymen and cavaliers are the least of the Doctor’s worries, for the Grange is owned by the sinister Jalnik, and Jalnik has a scheme two thousand years in the making. Only the Doctor and Leela stand between him and the destruction of history itself. It’s the biggest adventure of their lives - but do they have the time...?
Neither of the lost and found stories in this collection is as well known (to me at least) as the infamous Killers of the Dark (otherwise known as The Killer Cats of Geng Singh) or Sealed Orders, but The Foe from the Future is probably the more familiar of the two, having been briefly discussed on the DVD reissue of The Talons of Weng-Chiang in the first Revisitations box set.
A few elements of the opening episodes clearly inspired Talons, the serial that Robert Holmes hastily penned to replace this one at the end of Season 14, such as the involvement of a disfigured foe from the future, who needs fresh supplies of flesh to sustain him. Like Magnus Greel, Jalnik’s (Paul Freeman) condition is the result of his journey back through time (though this version also owes a debt to The Fly) and the full horror of his appearance is reserved for one of the cliffhangers (which takes some doing on audio - well done John Dorney, who adapted Robert Banks Stewart’s storyline into full scripts). However, other aspects of the story are quite different from Talons, in particular a journey to an alternative year 4000 during the final four episodes.
The plot unfolds in a most satisfying manner, never dragging as Doctor Who six-parters tend to do. On the contrary, Dorney makes a virtue of the serial’s structure, building up to a nail-biting, and at times poignant, final couple of episodes. I was a little dubious about certain paradoxical aspects of the resolution, but the writer makes light of this by having Leela point out that the Doctor doesn’t really understand the situation either.
Previous Lost Stories box sets had to be given the Companion Chronicles treatment, because they dealt with deceased Doctors. However, this one contains full-cast dramas, thanks to the long-overdue participation of Tom Baker - which, as we discover during interviews on a bonus CD, his co-star Louise Jameson had a hand in arranging.
We also learn that one of my favourite characters in this serial, Charlotte “from the village” (Sherlock’s Louise Brealey), is entirely of Dorney’s devising, created in order to prevent protagonists from talking to themselves. She should come back as a regular companion!
Howard Carter’s incidental music does not evoke the period as well as Jamie Robertson’s does in the monthly releases, though all other aspects of his sound design are excellent (including some hauntingly memorable time-technology sounds and some gruesome flesh chomping), as are the performances of Baker and Jameson.
The Foe from the Future is a welcome blast from the past.
A century after his great-grandfather Cornelius vanished in the Amazon rainforest, Edward Perkins is journeying to the depths of the jungle to find out what became of his ancestor’s lost expedition. Intrigued by what appears to be a description of a crashed spacecraft in the diaries of that first voyage, the Doctor and Leela join him on his quest. When their plane runs into trouble and crash lands, everyone gets more than they bargained for. The jungle is filled with giant creatures and angry tribesmen - but in the fabled lost city of the Maygor tribe, something far worse is lurking. Will the Doctor defeat the plans of the malevolent Godrin, or become just another victim of the legendary Valley of Death...?
As is pointed out during the CD extras, though The Valley of Death was originated by Philip Hinchcliffe, the producer during most of Tom Baker’s first three years as the Doctor, tonally this serial feels more like the era of his successor, Graham Williams - as well it might, since it was initially pitched as a Fourth Doctor / Romana storyline. One wonders therefore why Big Finish did not get Mary Tamm on board for this audio version. Instead the finished product features Louise Jameson as Leela.
This is not to say that Leela seems out of place, because Jonathan Morris, who has adapted Hinchcliffe’s storyline, writes for her very well. In addition to her usual resourcefulness and thirst for vengeance, she refers back to her experiences in The Face of Evil and Horror of Fang Rock.
The writer also evokes Hinchcliffe’s time as producer by featuring UNIT. In common with two previous Fourth Doctor UNIT stories (Terror of the Zygons and The Android Invasion), The Valley of Death involves duplicates, and in common with two previous Fourth Doctor UNIT stories (The Android Invasion and The Seeds of Doom), the Brigadier is absent (here his replacement is General Hemmings, played by Richard Bremmer). Rather like Pyramids of Mars, the story begins with a British explorer condemning the “primitive superstitions” of the “ignorant savages” among his guides.
Despite being a four-parter, this is really two stories in one, the first half taking place primarily in a H Rider Haggard style lost jungle world, the second featuring an alien invasion of London, with scant connection between the two. Morris himself is the first to admit that the plot is “bonkers”, likening it to the similarly unpredictable The Hand of Fear, which changes direction with each episode.
As with The Foe from the Future, the story’s composer, this time Andy Hardwick, elects not to echo the musical tone of Baker’s television tenure, though some of his cues are reminiscent of Simon Hunt’s work on the Serpent Crest audio series.
Though inferior to Foe, Valley is still good fun, in the same sort of way as the B-movies that Hinchcliffe was clearly seeking to evoke.
Spread over six discs, the ten episodes in this collection are supplemented by interviews not only on the final disc but also crammed at the end of the first five CDs. With a total running time in excess of six hours, that’s a bumper bundle of Baker.
Here’s hoping for more in the future. Might I suggest Killers of the Dark and Sealed Orders...?