The Auntie Matter), we’re now straight into the business of sorting out what a Fourth Doctor and Romana story is really like outside of The Key To Time season. The answer if Nicholas Briggs’s The Sands of Life is a model, is some pretty generic Doctor Who which fills an hour with some excellent performances, atmospheric sound design and some intrigue, which is fatally difficult to review in this context because despite its unusual three episode structure (Big Finish tend to offer two per disc), this is only the first half of the story, and the slightly “generic” element could just be a classic bait and switch, the second disc turning the entire story on its head.
In the near future, the Doctor and Romana tumble to Earth just as masses of alien beasts capable of manipulating the time stream are apparently returning to their breeding ground in the Sahara Desert, during which endeavour they wipe out a space platform owned by a conglomerate called The Conglomerate, whose CEO, Cuthbert isn’t too pleased about it. All the while Romana finds herself communicating with the beasts, which is of particular interest to Earth forces when the time team are inevitably captured and then Cuthbert who pulls some strings to force the Doctor’s co-operation in his investigation of this unusual species. Before long Romana’s lost in the desert and the Doctor’s rushing to save her.
There’s not one element of that which doesn’t thrum to the sound of some other Who adventure and throughout the story beats remixed from elsewhere are deafening pitched in, from the Doctor obfuscating in the face of authority to intergalactic xenomorphism to the tension between big business and the government. This is more comfort Who and Briggs’s script is incredibly witty throughout, especially in those moments self-reflexively relating backwards to Tom’s own wild pronouncements about the kinds of things he’d like to see in Doctor Who related to badgers and companions shaped like parrots.
It’s the usual tension in these Fourth Doctor adventures about whether they’re supposed to be providing a waxwork recreation of Saturday night television drama in the 70s or something which throws the essentials into a contemporary mix. That’s marked here by Briggs’s own pastiche of a Dudley Simpson music backing what are entirely cinematic scenes, suggesting Planet of the Dead scored in the style of Planet of Evil. In the first series, that resolved itself into producing something which sounded like their source material but with stories which simply couldn’t or wouldn’t be produced then because of interesting narrative structures or changes in socio-political concerns. This is looser, purposefully less focused.
Yet it’s always compelling because of the cast. In the background to the main story is that of a new elected President of Earth who’s also hearing voices, played by Hayley Atwell. Yes, that’s Captain America’s Hayley Atwell, who despite her fame elsewhere remains a Big Finish regular (this is her fifth story) (I think) and is amazing value in a tiny role which must surely grow in importance in the bottom three so we’ll talk more about it then. She’s joined by the ever reliable David Warner, as the blandly evil Cuthbert, a clear analogue to certain Earth-1218 individuals whose business ownership means he’s arguably one of the most powerful men on the planet, certainly more powerful the elected representatives of the people.
All of which ignores the reunion of John Leeson as K9 with this TARDIS team. He’s been no stranger to the franchise obviously, but this is (again, I think) his first appearance in a regular format Who adventure outside of cameos, spin-offs, one off stories, remakes like Shada and audiobooks like Shada and it’s like he’s never left, picking up his chemistry with both Tom and Mary and proving that his voice always transcended the limitations of the tin dog, however cute he was. With due respect to David Brierley, K9 was never quite the same that season. What’s also remarkable is that there’s no showboating, no great entrance. At a time of crisis he’s simply, there, in the TARDIS chatting to Romana. Good dog.
Doctor Who: The Sands of Life by Nicholas Briggs is out now from Big Finish. Review copy supplied.