Over the past four months, I’ve been rewatching Star Trek: Voyager from start to finish. All seven series of it. (I promise, this isn’t a cry for help.) If you don’t know it, it returns to Gene Roddenberry’s mission statement to “Explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!” by dumping a federation starship in an uncharted quadrant of space.
It could have reinvigorated the franchise, introduced new aliens and new ideas thus refreshing the well-worn Star Trek tropes. In the event, aside from a few high concept episodes, it felt like the same old Star Trek. It’s a criticism that can be levelled at the so-called E-Space Trilogy from Doctor Who‘s 18th season. Aside from Stephen Gallagher’s beguiling, cine-literate, hard sci-fi serial Warrior’s Gate, the other stories are, at their core, a base-under-siege story and a sci-fi retelling of vampire mythology. Both of which are the show’s stock-in-trade.
This year, Big Finish are revisiting E-Space, expanding the trilogy into hepatology with four new adventures split across two boxed sets. If it goes well, I’m sure things will expand further so that it defies such terms and just becomes “that time the Doctor, Romana and K-9 got stuck in E-Space”.
The potential in realising this whole new universe via an audio medium where the only real limits are the writer’s and, indeed, the listener’s imagination is huge – it’s what makes this latest set of Fourth Doctor adventures such an attractive prospect. It’s also a refreshing change of pace for the range, which has in previous releases become formulaic in the way it routinely shifts from replicating the styles of Hinchcliffe/Holmes to Williams/Adams and back again. Those plays, whilst often incredibly entertaining, and some of the best Big Finish have to offer, could also feel jarring in their two-part structure and incongruous references to the times we live in now, rather than Saturday teatime in the 1970s. The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 9 returns to a more authentic feeling four-part structure and has some excellent music and sound design from Jamie Robertson that evokes those adventures of the early 1980s.
This four-part structure really allows the stories to breathe, and to give everyone stuff to do, which is especially helpful as the Doctor now has three companions, with the addition of a returning Matthew Waterhouse as Adric. The Fourth Doctor and Adric’s relationship is a lot better and far more interesting than some fans give it credit for, and it provides writers Marc Platt and Jonathan Morris with some rich material to play with.
Marc Platt’s Purgatory 12 opens the boxed set and finds Adric still reeling from the death of his brother and struggling to find his place within the TARDIS team. Some crossed words with his surrogate parents – the Doctor and Romana – and he asks to be let out at the next stop so that he can make his own way in the universe. It’s just rather unfortunate that their next stop is a barren asteroid which is about to collide with a rather unusual penal colony.
I say unusual because it is. If ever there was a writer who could grasp the potential weirdness of E-Space it’s the writer who penned Ghost Light. Platt’s dialogue is evocative of the very strange and very alien environment that surrounds the prison. The early scenes where Romana and K-9 explore the surface are vividly realised through that winning audio drama combination of writing and sound design. There are faces in the rust clouds and smoky tendrils reach out from the scars in the ground. A strange life form, affectionately named ‘The Gullet’ is the source of these phenomena, feeding off the colony’s inhabitants and it soon has the TARDIS crew in its sights.
As for the remainder of the TARDIS team – Adric starts to find a place for himself amongst this colony of losers and rejects, dishing up what little food they still have and hitting it off with the warden. This is a facet of Adric’s character that was always fumbled on-screen, but here it works and becomes a key part of the plot and its resolution. Sure, he’s a maths genius, but he’s also resourceful and pragmatic and easily ingratiates himself with those at odds with the Doctor. He was envisioned as an Artful Dodger type, after all. It must be rewarding for Waterhouse as an actor to be given more weighty material to work with, even if, through no fault of his own, he no longer sounds like a teenager.
Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, of course, no longer sound like they did in the 1980s either. The Doctor and Romana are mostly separate for a lot of the action, perhaps due to both actors being in different studios. It’s not a problem and is something that only occurs to you afterwards, given that Platt teams the Doctor up with a rag-tag bunch of convicts. Baker is clearly enjoying the experience – One standout moment involves him laughing at a blackly comic joke about a grisly crime committed by one of his new friends, only for him to immediately check himself. It’s a fun bit of business and you can imagine Tom coming up with it ad-hoc.
Repentance, justice and belief are the key concerns of Purgatory 12 and with its barren setting, high concept villain and less than salubrious supporting characters it calls to mind Warrior’s Gate. This is a story that fully embraces the possibilities of this new region of space, introducing us to weird science, a wide range of alien civilisations and strange new worlds. It’s therefore disappointing that it drops the ball at the climax, concluding the story with a high-stakes chess game which, in Doctor Who especially, feels rather played out.
Jonathan Morris’ Chase the Night similarly mines the storytelling possibilities of E-Space with a story that deals with inequality, dictatorships, collective consciousness, nature and tying people to railway tracks. As I say, the four-part structure really allows the stories to open up in a way the Fourth Doctor audios haven’t done before.
Answering a distress call from a crashed ship, the TARDIS lands on a planet where daylight is literally fatal. Given the ever-expanding, near-infinite interior dimensions of the Doctor’s ship, it’s a surprise that we’ve never seen them ride to the rescue on such a scale before.
Whilst waiting to be rescued, however, the distressed crew have come up with a novel solution, building railway tracks and converting their downed ship into a train, allowing them to avoid the scorching hot sun in a sort of reverse Snowpiercer situation. Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho’s social satire looms large here, especially in the inequality between the crew and the complex moral dimension to the horrendous punishments doled out by the ship’s pilot to her detractors. (Played chillingly by an against-type Jane Asher)
It leads to a fantastic scene between the Doctor, Romana and Adric where the young Alzarian’s pragmatism clashes with the Time Lady’s moral fortitude. There is a theme developing in these stories that seek to make Romana’s departure at the end of Warrior’s Gate less abrupt. One character’s harsh response to a difficult decision she makes is perhaps the inciting incident that leads her to stay in E-Space.
This is so clearly a story where the real monsters are inside the train, that it momentarily wrong-foots you when a more monstrous threat appears to emerge. As the train’s engines fail, and crew members succumb to a strange infection, the Pilot becomes even more unhinged and desperate to survive. It’s also a story that is absolutely brimming with big sci-fi ideas that Morris confidently knits together to provide a resolution that feels left-field but is actually incredibly fitting.
If Chase the Night teaches us anything, it’s that the march of time is inescapable. Where Purgatory 12 mostly kept the former Mr & Mrs Baker apart, here Morris writes a lovely bit of business where they try to negotiate their way out of a very difficult situation. It’s a scene that would have really sung at the height of their powers, but it’s no less enjoyable here.
It’s not 1981 any more, but despite ageing actors and a divorce, Marc Platt, Jonathan Morris and the Big Finish team have successfully recaptured that feeling of the best of Season 18 – big science fiction ideas tempered with real-world scientific concepts, with an undercurrent of doomy finality. It’s some of the best material Tom Baker has had in years, and I’m eagerly anticipating the next two entries in the E-Space hepatology.