Jonathan Morris utilises the structure of Michael Apted’s Up series to snapshot the franchise at various points in its history and describes how at 14up!, in 1977, the show had increased its reliance on its prime asset, Tom Baker, because Saturday night on BBC One in that year wasn’t about the programmes but the personalities, “Basil. Tom. Brucie. Ronnie. The other Ronnie.” One of the many successes of this Big Finish series has been its ability to identify the extent to which Tom's magnetism dominated his stories and treat it a gift rather than try to produce stories that work in spite of him.
Alan Barnes’s The Oseidon Adventure is at the apotheosis of that approach, a story in which one of the pillars of Tom’s performance, his boggle eyed, breathless sarcasm, bulldozes out and becomes the driving force of a plot that challenges the listener to take a step back and wonder if they can really believe anything they’re hearing. If by the end of the first episode you’re not, like me, doing your best impression of Gwen Cooper in Torchwood’s Miracle Day, throwing your hands in the air and saying “So... why the hell... you know... blerp... Bollocks.” you’ve missed the point and you’re clearly not enjoying it as much as I did.
At the close of the previous adventure we were awaiting the arrival of some mystery alien ally of the Master which the cover of this adventure reveals to be the Kraals, the staticly stony faced antagonists from Terry Nation’s The Android Invasion which should give some clue as to the direction of the story. As the inlay synopsis explains “Chief Scientist Tyngworg has not just one plan, but a back-up plan, and a back-up back-up plan worked out...” Except what’s interesting about the play is what’s not in that synopsis and the parts of that synopsis which are just flat out wrong, and gloriously so.
In the accompanying interviews, Louise Jamson admits to reading parts of the script several times before she fully understood what was going on, not helped by having to record everything out of sequence. I can understand her perplexity such is the complexity of Barnes’s script which for much of its run time takes great pleasure in bewildering the listener, utilising its non-visual medium to trick us as to what’s happening to whom and how. It would be tempting to label The Oseidon Adventure as farce were it not for the element of bursting expectation inherent in that genre. The writer doesn’t let his audience off the hook that easily.
Which isn’t to say the play’s entirely a romp. As with Trail of the White Worm, Barnes is careful to set his work in a fully realised, if not entirely realistic 1970s, creating a certain distance from its television counterparts by including very specific pop culture references and making his antagonist as much as anything else the right wing Daily Mail reading sensibilities most right or rather left thinking people despise, typified by Michael Cochrane’s Colonel Spindleton, with the plastic recreation of Devesham from the original adventure symbolic of the synthetic Britishness which represents the Conservative ideal.
It almost goes without saying Tom and Louise are as excellent as ever both having tremendous fun chasing after the story as it motors away from them and as expected Geoffrey Beavers enjoys a much more expanded role as the Master, his guttural growl a perfect extrapolation of his on-screen horrific make-up. But the undoubted comic triumph are Dan Starkey and John Banks as the Kraals, which as the cd extras reveal realised early on that the best approach is to essentially to have Sontarans doing Zippy impression. The result is slightly more nuanced than that, and even if this isn’t some one hit monster with a new-found series potential, they’re certainly funny enough to carry this hour.
Doctor Who: The Oseidon Adventure by Alan Barnes is out now from Big Finish.