Audio Turns out I’m slight behind in reviewing this series of Tom Baker stories by at least a month, but oddly for what’s supposed to be an instantaneous medium, it’s quite nice to follow something akin to Doctor Who Magazine’s publication schedule, especially since there can sadly only ever be a finite number of these adventures for the Fourth Doctor and the first Romana now and it seems a shame to blast through them. So I’ll talk about this month’s release The Dalek Contract in a little while, if that’s ok. Not that there’s much that you can do if it isn’t.
Release date related issues are pertinent to Jonathan Morris’s Phantoms of the Deep, a story set partially on a submarine which despite having been recorded a few years in advance found itself coincidentally joining the canon just a couple of weeks after the television series broadcast Cold War another story set on a submarine. It’s to Doctor Who’s credit that they both manage to tell completely different stories, with different sets of character types and no sense of déjà vu so we’re not left trying to decide which is our favourite of the “submarine” stories.
Still hiding from the Black Guardian, the TARDIS sinks itself in the depths of the Earth’s ocean in the Mariana Trench, and as usual because it’s a surprisingly small galaxy, they’re visited by an deep sea exploratory vehicle with the usual questions about what they’re doing there which before they can be answered are quickly superseded by some other questions about why there are super-intelligent squid warning them off their land, an ancient submarine, and a general sense that there’s something in the deep which as curious about them as they are about its habitat.
Listeners with even longer memories than last month will notice that all of this is at least superficially similar to the radio Torchwood episode Submission, which also had sea creatures in the Mariana Trench and with which it also shares the sense of dipping into the unknown, of the darkness, of humanity realising that there are just as many mysteries in its own oceans as in the galaxies overhead. More than usual we’re listening intently to the exposition of the characters as they conjure the world, their words mirroring the glimpses of abstract object hidden in the watery shadows.
As such this is a deliberately more sober entry than Morris’s first story for this series The Auntie Matter, toning down his Adamsalike tendencies, not that they’re turned off completely, what with all the hyper intelligent sea life swimming about. There are moments when the Doctor is genuinely frightened and Tom’s given the opportunity to play this little heard side of his incarnation, who on television at least, tended to joke his way through anything, even when he was being electrocuted and threatened or his companions were experiencing the same treatment.
Along with some Big Finish regulars who’re predictably well chosen by director Ken Bentley, the headline casting this time is the Borg Queen herself, Alice Krige. Her performance is impeccable as she takes full advantage of her character’s development which through Morris’s clever writing only really makes sense after the play is completed, this being a sentence which also only make sense once you’ve listened to the story too. That’s something this story does have over Cold War, where David Warner’s parallel scientist's motivations were never fully explained.
Jamie Robertson’s sound design atmospherically conjures the noisy emptiness ocean, his spot music sounding like a Dudley Simpson composition given some Murray Gold bells and guitars. K9’s back too, though his voice has been treated with a strange crackle, perhaps to indicate the recent repair cycle. Another strength of the story is that it also finds something especially interesting for the tin dog to do in a way which glances forwards to some of his previously released Big Finish adventures, especially the Gallifrey spin-off series in its early days.
If Phantoms of the Deep doesn’t quite have the buzz of some of Jonathan Morris’s best stories, his novels Touched by an Angel and The Tomorrow Windows, and indeed The Auntie Matter which are still some of his masterworks, it’s probably not trying to be. With writers this prolific, there must be a drive towards stretching themselves into unexplored areas, different styles of writing, and that’s all to the good. It’s certainly set me up nicely for his Destiny of the Doctor story Babblesphere, which was out two months ago and I’ll which probably be getting around to in July. At this rate.