Odd events are taking place as the Tardis materializes on board a space-craft: a mysterious killer stalks the ship’s ducting; two dubious policemen are investigating the theft of art treasures, and the computer has taken on its own distinctive personality. Soon the doctor stumbles on a shocking secret, a secret upon which depends the fate of the entire universe…
Thirty-five years ago in 1985, there was a first in Doctor Who as Slipback starring Colin Baker as the 6th Doctor and Nicola Bryant as Peri became the first Doctor Who serial to be produced as a radio drama broadcast on Radio 4. Rummaging through my Doctor Who collection I came across my home-recorded audio cassette of the drama, which I haven’t listened to in many many years and didn’t remember at all. Listening to“Slipback” though brought back memories of a brief summer when Doctor Who was on hiatus and in danger of cancellation. Produced by the BBC and broadcast in the summer of 1985 it was a radio drama in six 10 minutes episodes broadcast from 25 July to 8 August 1985.
These days I have become resigned to long delays between series, due to showrunners needing more time to or due to their commitments writing for multiple productions. Now with the coronavirus also affecting tv production schedules, we are having to wait even longer. In 1985, as a teenage fan, it came as a total shock that Doctor Who was on a break threatened with cancellation after a relatively steady 22-season run since 1963. After the 22nd season, Colin Baker’s first series aired it had drawn criticism from viewers for its more “horrific” violent tone. The BBC then decided to push back the programme for a whole year which stirred up everyone who loved the show. There was outrage in the tabloids at the decision and music producer and Doctor Who fan Ian Levine produced the protest music single Doctor in Distress ( bless Colin. Nicholas and Anthony for having a go!). The BBC responded a few months later with “Slipback” as a kind of placatory offering to the fans during the hiatus filling the gap before the Trial of a Timelord 23rd season came back in the autumn.
It was broadcast as part of BBC Pirate Radio Four, a children’s magazine show aimed at attracting younger viewers. Perhaps giving the BBC the benefit of the doubt, the scheduling was meant with the best of intentions, designed to attract a new era to the tv show. To me, it seemed to me the BBC had the knives out for the show. Doctor Who was traditionally made by the drama department not the children’s department at the BBC so as a fan I felt a little uncomfortable at the scheduling. As a massive enthusiast about the show, it seemed the show’s status was being purposely demoted to “just a children’s show”
“Slipback” is written by Eric Saward, author of one of my favourite classic Who stories on TV “Earthshock” so my expectations of this story would have been immense at the time. Its definitely lacking the atmosphere of Earthshock. It shares a freighter and aspects of time travel but there the similarity ends. Is Slip back actually any good? Well, it’s roughly an hour and for audio stories for me are about whether I can connect to the characters and their reasons for being there. We are introduced to Shellingbourne Grant, a first officer onboard the census ship Vipod Mor, alongside the ship’s computer. Fair warning the child-like voice of the computer does quickly become annoying as it has been programmed to sound like a “ ditzy dame “ so your ears may feel assaulted as mine did. There seems to be Douglas Adams homage to the story as Eric Saward teases out some of the characters.
I got Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy vibes listening to the voice of the computer which reminded me of the American drawl of Trillian. and it seems a deliberate decision of the script. There is also a service drone the Doctor encounters called Barton who much like Marvin, the paranoid android is voiced for dry comic relief. Jon Glover, who is an experienced actor, plays Shellingbourne Grant,( He was also in HGTTG ) as droll, smart, questioning, trying to complete his duty as systems and events are going spiralling out of control. He has a secret which his role facilitates but this soon catches up with him. I honestly wasn’t that keen on the policemen he encounters. The performance of them as atypical “evening all” policemen didn’t add much to the story and the monster prowling around was in the end inconsequential.
Captain Slarn is played by Valentine Dyall, who played the Black Guardian in several of the tv serials, The Armageddon Factor (1979) the Mawdryn Undead, Terminus, Enlightenment trilogy (1983) I’m not surprised he was well known for being a voice actor for many years as, “The Man in Black” the narrator of the BBC Radio horror series Appointment with Fear. His distinctive low gravelly voice easily suites the nature of the self-important Captain who as an ill-tempered character, won’t hesitate when roused in mustering his real and imagined illnesses to pass into his crew. Captain Slarn restricted to his cabin is quickly jealous at the thought of Peri and Grant being together so he delights in seeing his body swell with the Mors Immedicabilis the incurable death infection. It is wonderful listening to Valentine Dyall and I think children would have enjoyed his growling captain. Valentine Dyall plays the vindictive Captain with such lovely relish for what is really a small role. All the crew, including his masseuse Seedle acquiesce to the Captain so he doesn’t lose his temper. One thing omitted is the Doctor doesn’t meet the Captain which is a real shame. Dyall and Baker together now that would have been something but the fantastic Valentine Dyall died a few months after recording and “Slipback” was broadcast posthumously.
Doctor Who audio dramas, thanks due to (award-winning) Big Finish have gained a respectable following over the last few years and Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor has been able to expand his portrayal in audio in a way he never really was given time to do in his tv tenure (being sacked after the 23rd season) “Slipback” is years before Big Finish and it does feel a product of its time, with many familiar aspects of classic Who embedded in the plot. Peri and the Doctor encounter a loud growly monster and they get chased. Peri falls down a ventilation shaft. The script doesn’t offer any new insight into the 6th Doctor or Peri as characters. They are atypical as they were in season 22.
It’s an energetic performance from Colin Baker as always although the script really gives him too little to do in the end. With the 6th Doctor and Peri the antagonistic aspects of their relationship which became so tiresome in their first season are still here. They are snippy with each other at times. Peri gets scared and the 6th Doctor is boastful, arrogant, brash, rushing in. Nicola Bryant does feel poorly served at times by the way Peri is written. Colin has the last word in most of the cliff-hangers though. He enjoys doing them to leave the listener in no doubt this is a point of high drama and you should be on the edge of your seat.
Overall, I did like listening to “Slipback” again to an extent although at 55 minutes, except for the main villain’s motivation, we learn mostly superficial details about the characters just to enable the plot to move forward. Its a run of the mill story from Eric Saward and that pains me. I would have liked to have learned a bit more about why Grant, or the Captain were as they were but the time doesn’t allow it. There were some interesting elements such as the voicing of the villain with the mystery of the eclipse of time allowed to turn going full circle at the beginning and the confrontation with the Doctor and the Inner Voice is energetically handled by the actors. But other times the story meanders too much in the early part with the Doctor and Peri running away from the monster. What I do like is the ditzy computer does gain some sense of understanding as events move to a conclusion.
The appearance of the Timelords is a surprise I don’t remember. They are booming sounding almost godlike calling the Doctor. But they arrive near the end in the last ten minutes and their presence becomes too brief allowing the wrap up of the story. I suppose their entrance and the Doctor’s comments about interference reflects the tensions of the time. Questioning the doctor’s actions is probably a foreshadowing of the themes of season 23.
“Slipback” is hardly ever mentioned in fandom and reviewing it again I can get a sense why. I think at the time in 1985 we felt just glad to have something whilst waiting for the new series. and although I liked it ( that is as strong as I can go) It feels like it should have been so much more. But it was a sign of the times I guess that the series wasn’t being loved as it should then. It feels as if the BBC were experimenting at the time with a different format (and probably saving money) but without knowing how to exploit the format of audio drama to deliver for all ages.
6.5 / 10 Don’t go down to the ducting or you could be lunch!