Audio Apologies again for the lateness of this opinion indeed two opinions since I’m writing about two Big Finish releases together, but with my plan to watch all of Doctor Who grasping towards the Key To Time season a few weeks ago, I decided to wait and listen to them within sequence providing the opportunity to see just how authentic these new episodes are in comparison the era they’re meant to be emulating. As I might have expected, and as I’d assumed based on the rest of the newer season, the answer veers wildly between not at all and quite a bit and often in the same scene. But as I’ve discussed in previous months, this season has been less about recreating a 1970s tea time and more about offering Mary Tamm the opportunity to add colour and complexity to her incarnation of Romana, which this certainly does.
Cuthbert, the Whoniverse’s Rupert Murdoch analogy is back and continuing his time experiments, this time aided as the title to The Dalek Contract suggests by the classic era pepperpots, who the audience, the Doctor, Romana and K9 all know have a different agenda, not that we or they could convince him of it. Whatever he’s planning is so huge that it’s shifted the planet Proxima Major out of its usual orbit, making the atmosphere barely habitable for its inhabitants who’re either in Dalek internment camps or split into rival factions fighting for the future of the planet. As The Final Phase begins, our heroes are right in the thick of it and the fate of all reality hangs in the balance with just a couple of Time Persons, a robot dog and a blue box holding things together.
In reality, and there is a lot of talking about reality, there isn’t an awful lot which is new here. Much like the first Cuthbert two parter, this is pretty generic stuff, but like the first Cuthbert two parter that’s not necessarily in a bad way. As with those stories, and for reasons we’ll return to in the next paragraph, this is comfort Who, something which purposefully takes few risks with its storytelling and leaves the listener with a (toothy) grin at the end. But there are moments when this listener groaned at that or the other reveal, the Cuthbert and the Daleks plans, so carefully withheld for much of the story, are finally spelled out, not least because the narrative prevarication leading up to them means that there simply isn’t enough time to properly investigate what could have been their nonetheless potentially interesting implications.
Which leads the other usual caveat, that as is also so often the case with Doctor Who, it’s the incidental pleasures which make this worthwhile. For one thing, we finally have K9 versus the Daleks for the first time in the franchise’s history (I think) after Terry Nation apparently balked at the idea for Destiny of the Daleks and the near miss in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End and it is a joyous piece of acting from John Leeson and Briggs which just about makes up for us not being able to have seen the superimposed laser beam taking pot shots at some silvery or gold plywood on screen. Plus a sudden upswing in the fourth Doctor’s compassion, something which I’ve discovered is largely absent from his television portrayal in this era, which tends towards the big picture at the expense of smaller acts of kindness.
But melancholically, for the most part these four episodes are about Romana’s reason for staying in the TARDIS at the end of their moribund mission to collect the space trinket and travel the universe with the Doctor, bridging the gap between seasons sixteen and seventeen. This is one of Mary Tamm’s best performances as she comes to terms with the fact that for all their needling, she’s grown to respect the Doctor quite a bit and even if their flight from the Black Guardian makes it extremely difficult for her to return to Gallifrey, that she’d quite like to knock around with him for a while. Unfortunately we won’t now get to enjoy those adventures. Would they have taken the opportunity to hint towards her fate as outlined in the Gallifrey spin-offs, of the Pandora influence? We’ll never know.
Similarly, as you might expect given the richness of his characterisation we may never discover the fate of Cuthbert either, which must certaif inly have been a plan for future seasons, unless he returns to fight some later incarnation of the Doctor or Tom and Lalla ever record together however unlikely that always is. At a time when the new series seems entirely disinterested with the idea of having too many arch enemies or megalomaniac antagonists, David Warner’s mogul has demonstrated that it is possible to produce a figure which is a match for the Doctor and with an injection of social commentary. His entire disinterest in anyone but himself even to the point of persistently getting Romana’s name wrong will be familiar to anyone who anyone who keeps up with the gossip websites.
So here we are at the end of another season of Fourth Doctor stories and as I predicted they’ve been a mixed blessing in that they’ve shown that the first Romana is a character which can be extended beyond the season she was invented for but who’s longevity has tragically been cut short. Asked to choose, it’s the standalone stories which have offered the most pleasure, and the memory of sitting in Starbucks hooting into a Gingerbread Latte during The Auntie Matter is still very special. Who would have thought, back in the late 70s, that thirty years later the same actors would be recreating the same characters for an appreciative public and in some ways utilising material of even greater complexity, wit and intelligence and that we’d be able to enjoy it miles away from our living rooms?
Doctor Who: The Dalek Contract and Doctor Who: The Final Phase by Nicholas Briggs are on sale now. Review copies supplied.
[Incidentally Big Finish have recently announced that the first fifty of their releases, from the turn of the millenium, are to be permanently reduced, cds £5 (while stocks last) and downloads £2.99. The bargains start here.]