Ah, Doctor Who in the early to mid-1970s, a golden age. The shift to more Earthbound adventures, an increased social conscience and more emphasis on the evil that men do. (And people say that the Chris Chibnall era doesn’t reflect their Doctor Who)
All of which is present in the latest volume of Big Finish’s latest entry in their Third Doctor Adventures series made up of two stories Primord and The Scream of Ghosts. It’s no spoiler to say that the first is a sequel to 1970’s Inferno but it would be a spoiler to tell you which adventure the second is a sort-of prequel to. So I won’t.
Anyway, returning monsters aren’t the main attraction here. That would be the recasting of the much missed Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John as the Brigadier and Liz Shaw. I’m sure there was a temptation to do this much earlier, but it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. Which is perhaps why, in this fifth volume, Big Finish have finally taken the plunge and cast Jon Culshaw as the Brigadier. It was a wise move to wait, Tim Treloar is clearly very comfortable now in his role as the Third Doctor, ably capturing the spirit of Pertwee’s original performance, so comfortable in fact, that he’s not shy in emulating that famous lisp every now and again.
So with Katy Manning and the remaining members of the UNIT family already onboard and the audience now accustomed to the new/old line-up, what better time to recast the Doctor’s oldest friend. Before we even get to discussing the stories in the set, it’s worth pointing out that Culshaw is superb as the Brigadier. That he gets the voice right is perhaps no surprise from a seasoned impressionist. But he also gets into the head of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and in the few scenes he shares with Tim Treloar’s Doctor, they’re bickering and riffing off each other just as comfortably and entertainingly as Nicholas Courtney and Jon Pertwee ever did.
Much like Culshaw’s performance as the Brigadier, the two stories in the set are impersonating a style of Doctor Who but also adding depth and weight to them, with neither John Dorney or Guy Adams wishing to provide hollow imitations of such a beloved era.
John Dorney’s Primord sees the Brigadier and UNIT seconded to a county-wide search for missing convicts following a series of prison transfer hijacks. The Doctor and Jo, meanwhile are in nearby Cambridge visiting Liz Shaw who needs the Doctor’s help with a major scientific project she’s been working on. Of course, both plotlines dovetail rather neatly, and we find ourselves in the familiar territory of cold war paranoia, scientific installations, corrupt politicians, rogue senior military personnel and monsters besieging the south of England.
It’s certainly territory that’s well-worn, but what makes Primord so interesting is how it manages to combine the cosiness and charm of the Season 8-10 UNIT family with the colder, bleaker tone of Season 7. Various plot developments and, in particular, the ending are savage, brutal and blunt. and yet, moments earlier, when all appeared to be lost, there’s a touching little scene between the Doctor, Jo and the Brigadier that you would never have got with the earlier, more cautious Third Doctor of his early exile. We also have the reintroduction of Liz Shaw, who provides an obvious bridge between the two series.
As Liz Shaw, Daisy Ashford (daughter of Caroline John and Geoffrey Beevers) is less assured than Culshaw’s Brigadier. She mostly captures the cadence but the voice isn’t quite there. John Dorney’s script makes a virtue of this, with the uncanniness suggesting that something is very wrong indeed with Professor Shaw.
There’s also some nice material, reminiscent of School Reunion between Liz and Jo, which is played nicely, both women displaying the requisite levels of respect and intimidation. Unfortunately, the various twists and turns of Liz’s storyline, including the final emotional punch are less effective due mostly to the fact that this isn’t really the Liz Shaw we know and love. However, this may just be a personal, pernickety little gripe, and Ashford does give us a layered and complex performance of which her mother was rarely afforded onscreen.
As a listener, you may be more willing to accept the slight inconsistencies and more readily engage with the story being told and the era being evoked. And the feel of that era is achieved brilliantly on every level from the script, the stock characters (Michael Troughton is particularly brilliant as a domineering, blustering army general with a dark secret), the sound design and the music. Primord feels like a culmination of four volumes of hard work, considered thought and terrific casting which finally completes our UNIT family. It’ll be exciting to see where it goes next.
It goes to a research facility (naturally) where a breakthrough has been made in portable communications. The Brigadier, Jo, Benton and the Doctor all converge on a small South East village (of course) where mysterious broadcasts and terrifying noises have been making life rather difficult for both the local residents and telecommunications specialist Professor Caldicott. And, because this is Doctor Who, things are about to get a lot worse.
Guy Adams fleshes out Sergeant Benton in much the same way as John Dorney did with Liz Shaw, this time it’s Benton who provides the inciting information to convince the Doctor to leave his laboratory to investigate the source of the strange transmissions. The reason that it’s Benton is down to a charming bit of business involving his hobby as a CB radio enthusiast, communicating with people from all over the World.
In an early scene, it’s suggested that it’s his work with UNIT, and specifically the Doctor, which has sparked this desire to broaden his horizons. It’s a nice scene and played with a good deal of affection and warmth by Treloar as the Doctor. Both men meet with one of Benton’s contacts, the electronic musician ‘Concrete’, who also answers to Warren and has heard terrifying noises out in the countryside. Given that both this and Primord highlight gender inequality in the backstories for Liz Shaw, the defence secretary in Primord and Professor Caldicott, it’s something of a disappointment that the role isn’t played by a woman, in tribute to Delia Derbyshire, especially given the heavy nudge-nudge-wink-wink final scene.
That said, as much as this is a story that fleshes out Sergeant Benton, it’s also one that puts a lot of the onus on Jo Grant to deal with bolshy scientists, missing villagers, dangerous alien technology and stopping the Brigadier from blowing everything to Kingdom Come. It’s material that Katy Manning clearly relishes, and she does wonderful things with it.
As well as evoking the South East England of 1970s Doctor Who, Lee Adams and Joe Meiner’s sound design does some wonderful things with Adams’ script, the unnerving screeching of the ‘ghosts’, the creepy buzzing in characters voices when they fall victim to the terrifying soundwave, the noises off-on business involving Benton and his soundproof headphones, this is one you’ll want to listen to with your own headphones on, maybe even in the dark. The Scream of Ghosts is a solid Pertwee era story, but it’s heightened by the fact that it’s being specifically written with the audio medium in mind.
Overall, The Third Doctor Adventures Volume 5 is a more than effective tribute to a golden age long gone, and to those no longer with us. Two brand new 1970s UNIT stories that hint at a new golden age for Big Finish. Whether or not we’ll see Culshaw’s Brig step out of the Third Doctor range to interact with other ranges to interact with other Doctors (or the new UNIT?) remains to be seen, but with Kamelion also under his belt, 2019 is fast proving to be Jon Culshaw’s year!
The Third Doctor Adventures: Volume 5 is available to buy here
Primord by John Dorney/The Scream of Ghosts by Guy Adams
Tim Treloar (The Doctor)
Katy Manning (Jo Grant)
Jon Culshaw (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart)
Daisy Ashford (Liz Shaw)
John Levene (Sergeant Benton)
Guy Adams (Bob Ellis)
Bethan Dixon Bate (Lady Madeleine Rose)
David Dobson (Armitage)
Joe Jameson (Private Callahan)
Rosalyn Landor (Caldicott)
Michael Troughton (General Sharp)
Andrew Wincott (Captain Hall)
Dominic Wood (Warren)