T’Sar Wars, the opening chapter of Paul Magrs’s new fourth Doctor opus Serpent’s Crest

Books Something I’ve always loved about Doctor Who is its capacity to make me chuckle about the tiniest of things. Listening to T’Sar Wars, the opening chapter of Paul Magrs’s new fourth Doctor opus Serpent Crest, that chuckle happened at about the thirtieth minute. After being grabbed from Nest Cottage in the company of Mrs Wibbsey by servo robots and deposited in the far future, the Doctor finds himself mistaken for Father Gregory, an old ally of their hosts the Tsar and Tarina of the Robotov Empire. If the cover is anything to go by (a pastiche of this old Geoff Love vinyl), we know that the real man is soon to appear and Tom Baker is once again given the opportunity to play a double but thankfully without the need to wear the comedy beard.

So we’re primed for the moment when Gregory appears and we hear what Tom’s done about the accent. This isn’t the first time he’s been called upon to utilise a Russian lilt – the character is a riff on his Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra after all. But there’s something quite extraordinary about hearing one of the most recognisable voices in British acting relishing the opportunity to extend his consonants even further and play a character who’s even more bonkers than his signature role, which based on the interpretation that’s appeared in the previous two AudioGo series, is really saying something. Like I said, I chucked. Then I realised quite how much menace was implicit behind the performance.

The first of these adventures to dispense entirely with narration, T’Sar Wars is thick with Hinchcliffian atmosphere with its enmeshing of historical drama with futuristic tropes, though to say much more would spoil some of the play’s best surprises. I’m probably safe in mentioning that amid the action and adventure is a useful discussion about the nature of humanity with a nice inference that it’s not what a person is made of but their attitude which makes them worthy of the Doctor’s heroism. Magrs has investigated similar themes before, not least in the heartbreaking The Zygon Who Fell To Earth, although it’s worth underscoring that T’Sar Wars is very much a romp rather than an emotional rollercoaster.

As the Doctor, Baker is the slightly more understated, brooding sometimes terse figure of that period, only now and then breaking out his teeth and curls when he’s trying to bluff his way through the situation. This is presumably to contrast with his Gregory persona, but there’s less of a sense of the dialogue being “read” as was the case early on and worried fans when that first little clip from The Stuff of Nightmares was released. There’s less of a sense of Tom just playing Tom, that he’s remembered who the character is and that bodes well for the Big Finish releases (for which this has the spirit of coming attractions) as well as the rest of this series.

The main link to the whimsy of those first two series is Susan Jameson as Mrs Wibbsey, his landlady and still the most eccentric of choices for a companion. She still retains that element of dottiness, but removed from the influence of the Hornets (finally) she’s slightly less of a Mrs Hudson figure and their good-natured bickering isn’t too far from the relationship he had with Sarah Jane, though with slightly less inquisitiveness and Wibbs also has an ability, similar to Donna Noble, for saying the wrong thing at the right time for plot. Nothing wrong with that if you’re trying to drive an hour’s worth of drama forward and there’s a reality to Jameson’s performance which is rare in Doctor Who in any medium.

Although, of course, Tom could play all of the parts himself, T’Sar Wars has attracted a good cast, not least the Valeyard himself, Michael Jayston as the Tsar (himself) who’s mainly called upon to act suspicious which he does very well indeed. Suzy Aitchison also catches the tone of a Tsarina steeped in secrets. It goes without saying (though I’m saying it anyway) that the story could do with being the length of the old stories simply so we can hear them doing more acting. Which is about the only criticism of Magrs script – it’s not long enough. With this many ideas it would have made a perfect six parter in the old days though given this is another series of five linked stories, perhaps this won’t be the last we’ve heard from any of them.

Doctor Who: Serpent Crest - Tsar Wars by Paul Magrs is out now from AudioGo. Review copy supplied.

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