The Sands of Life caught me off guard with its three slightly shorter episodes, I was all tucked up in bed awaiting another three more bursts of adventure, until some way into episode two/five, awaiting the inevitable build up to a cliffhanger I realised it wasn’t happening as the, spoiler alert, situation with dealt with, and the story itself giving way to about twenty minutes worth of interviews.
Is this the first five-part Tom Baker story? In theory Paul Magrs’s AudioGo series are five parters, though they’re more like five linked single episode stories. His television era was all four and six parters. Not that TSOL/WATL conforms to the usual five episode structure established in the Troughton era which amounted to a four parter with some extra running about and being captured in the middle. The first three and second two conform more clearly the split structure of The Seeds of Doom or the average nuWho two parter, each chunk dealing with the same story in a new locale, TSOL in the desert, WATL mostly in Cuthbert’s Conglomerate headquarters.
From the epic to the enclosed, Briggs steers us into the territory of Robert Sheerman’s Jubilee and so Dalek, as the Laan mother captured in the first chunk is subjected to horrific experiments in an attempt by Cuthbert to discover how he can “save” the Earth from them, even though those very experiments are simply angering the Laan and in no way dissuading them from inadvertently destroying the planet through their birthing ritual. Meanwhile Romana and Earth’s new President Sheridan Moorkurk are still in telepathic communication with the Laan and experiencing all of this creature’s pain with the Doctor in the middle trying to work out why these sentient alien paupuses have turned up here in the first place.
Which all sounds a bit messy but is fairly straightforward in the listening thanks to a parallel character arc for the President, a young women thrust into power thanks to a protest vote against the Conglomerate still attempting to square her relative inexperience as a person with her authority as a politician, the story turning on her decision-making abilities and independent thought. While the Doctor is still at the centre of the action, it’s Sheridan’s struggle which gives the story its philosophical teeth, aided extraordinarily by Hayley Atwell’s capacity (yes, Hayley Atwell) to communicate all of these contradictions.
Otherwise my casting comments about the previous episode still stand though there’s some added mystery as to who Cuthbert is, if he is as he seems. The usual suspects have skimmed through the book and volume of my brain (It’s Davros! It’s the Master!) but since this is all supposed to be “in period” its more likely to be something which isn’t so much about personality as status. Interestingly in his post-match interview, David Warner (who really is stonking in the role) says that he only discovered it was recurring at the recording of this one which makes it all the more fascinating. Oh Mr Briggs what are you up to?
When writing about the first half I suggested is was fatally difficult to review because it was only the first half. The second half doesn’t have that problem. It’s charming. It’s still as I said then “pretty generic Doctor Who which fills an hour with some excellent performances, atmospheric sound design and some intrigue” but as anyone who’s watched the television series sometimes will know, that can be devilishly difficult to achieve however many episodes there are. Plus there’s a really ballsy moment when one of his characters recalls the line everyone is thinking at an important moment of the story in a staggering piece of self-awareness. Only franchises with this history are capable of that.
Doctor Who: War Against the Laan by Nicholas Briggs is out now from Big Finish. Review copy supplied.