Alan Barnes's Trail of the White Worm

Audio For  the first half of the final story of the series, writer Alan Barnes's Trail of the White Worm takes us right back into the Hinchcliffe end of the franchise with a Holmesain story that riffs on an old horror classic, features a megalomaniac Time Lord foe and is thick with the atmosphere of the late 70s, portrayed on audio via the culture clash between the exoticism of punk culture and the parochialism of Derbyshire’s Hardyesque bygumism. It’s as though the whole thing’s happening in Dominic Sandbrook’s dreams on a night when he’s fallen asleep after a reading Bram Stoker’s book, its supernatural elements still rattling about his brain.

The TARDIS drops the Doctor and Leela in the Peaks, where they find themselves embroiled in the search for a missing girl and the mystery of mucus deposits across the rocks of the Dark Peak Gap, created by what the locals calls a “you know what” but whose identity is rather given away from the title. Before long we’re straight into the classic structure of the time travellers becoming separated, with different bits of the back story being revealed to them and us, the Doctor’s deductive powers filling in the vital missing pieces, Barnes leaving just enough breadcrumbs that we might ourselves be able to guess if we’re listening carefully enough.

Apart from Bob Holmes, the other writer who most obviously comes to mind is Paul Magrs.  This is first of these plays which seems to tonally glance deliberately in the direction of the AudioGo range especially in the latter sections when the White Worm becomes the focus and the listener’s challenged to imagine the unimaginable. Certainly the characterisation’s as bonkers as Hornet’s Nest, featuring Colonel Splindleton an aristocratic big game hunter who has access to a massive arsenal of weapons and an aristocrat labelled Demesne Furze (which in reality’s a leafy new build in Headington, Oxford) (no really, it’s on Google’s street view).

As ever with this series, Big Finish’s attracted an A-list for audio cast. The Colonel’s  huge gestures and Vernian adventurism is perfectly suited to Michael Cochrane, veteran of The Archers and an eerily accurate Malcolm Muggeridge on Holy Flying Circus, the Monty Python bio.  He’s joined by Rachael Stirling, yes that’s Tipping the Velvet and Boy Meets Girl’s Rachael Stirling as Demesne, almost unrecognisable with her pitch perfect, according to Tom in the extras, impression of Ealing regular Joan Greenwood, rolling her rrrrs and sounding about twenty years older. Impeccable.

There’s Becci Gemmell from Land Girls too as Julie, a kind of quick witted I can’t believe she’s not Lucie Miller figure with aspirations for the bright lights of Carnaby Street but the clear draw here is the return of Geoffrey Beavers as the Master in a story set chronologically before his debut in the role in The Keeper of Traken. Without the cumbersome make-up to deal with, Beavers is able to bring his rich consonants to a role which he’s made his own across a number of the these audios, the perfect mirror image to the fourth Doctor, Anthony Ainley never quite was during their single adventure.

I hope you’ll forgive the fixation on casting but they are one the highlights and with at least six paragraphs to fill and not wanting to give away too much of the story, I’m left to free associate with my starry eyes. Perhaps the only advice I’d offer is saving the play for next month and listening along with the final couple of episodes from The Oseidon Adventure. Though it’s relatively self contained, it does still feel like half a story and will perhaps be most satisfying with the other half, which features some of the same characters and resolves much of what happens here. Apparently.

Doctor Who: Trail of the White Worm by Alan Barnes is out now.

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