Review: The Fifth Doctor Box Set (Spoiler-Free)
Gustaff Behr reviews the Big Finish audio adventures Psychodrome and Iterations of I.
Amidst the excitement that is Series 8, it’s easy to forget that Big Finish is still releasing Classic Doctor Who audio dramas monthly. Although I will admit that the wait between the previous release and this one feels more than a month. What made 2014 truly unique is the fact that Doctors 4-8 are each getting a box set full of their own classic romps. From Dark Eyes to The Worlds of Doctor Who, but for now, let’s harken back to 1981 and join the original Fifth Doctor TARDIS foursome…
It’s been decades since Adric has been heard. Barring the less than villainous representation of him in The Boy That Time Forgot where he was voiced by Adrian Scarborough, Adric has been one of the riskier companions to bring back. This is partly due to fans having a somewhat marmite feel towards him. You either love or hate him. Rarely is there any sort of middle ground. Reuniting Adric with the rest of the TARDIS team also revives the original dilemma that forced writers to delete him from the show in the first place: An overcrowded TARDIS!
The idea of having four protagonists in a story puts an enormous strain on the author as everyone has to be given something to do. This isn’t so much an issue for the other foursome in Peter Davison’s era (Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough), but for most of Peter Davison’s first season onscreen, one of his team would occasionally be sidelined: Adric in Castrovalva, Nyssa in Kinda, Nyssa again in The Visitation, Adric in Black Orchid and unsurprisingly Nyssa in Earthshock. Going into this box set, one of its defining traits would be the ability to use all four characters expertly without dumping one in either a prison or the TARDIS console room.
The box set features two 4-part stories. The first is penned by veteran Johnathan Morris and is called Psychodrome. Now some of you already know that one of the key factors that decides whether or not I watch/listen to something new (that is most likely outside of my usual comfort zone) is the title. As a title, Psychodrome sounds epic! It is set shortly after the events of Logopolis. Stop! Wait! Let’s start here! This is a fantastic idea people. This gives Peter Davison the chance to really harken back to his roots by giving us a very (let’s say that again for emphasis) VERY (and uppercase it) fresh Doctor. Hearing this portrayal again feels like a post-regeneration story in its own right.
Not only that, but Psychodrome might just be the best Johnny Morris story I’ve listened to and that is saying something. So many foreshadowing, ironic echoes, running gags, callbacks – call forwards! Just talking about the lipservice we get here, this story is like Day of the Doctor, but then we get to the story and you’re like ‘wow’. Best of both worlds! Wish we had something like this following on from Castrovalva as opposed to the abhorrent Four to Doomsday. Even if you like Four to Doomsday, after listening to Psychodrome, 9/10 times you’re going to find yourself agreeing with me. Morris creates a story that is so rich with character development, but manages it in a way that doesn’t change who these characters are by utilizing the fact that at this point, these characters don’t really know one another. Nyssa has nowhere to go but the TARDIS, Tegan never wanted to travel in the TARDIS and Adric doesn’t quite recognize the Doctor as himself, more as a pale imitation who isn’t quite as prepared or planned as his scarf and curls Doctor. Remember this is Five at the very beginning. These concepts are all explored in a very unusual setting populated by very unusual factions that like the Aplants from the Angels two-parter has a way of hiding their true importance.
The second story is written by John Dorney who has written some of my personal favorite stories such as The King of Sontar, The Burning Prince and The Crooked Man, so I was expecting more than just a haunted house The Island-esque story from him. Something on par with The Crooked Man. Iterations of I delivers! Well mostly! It’s quite the clever script, but also combines out-of-the-box ideas and mixes them with the haunted house genre of storytelling. The fright factor is present and very infectious. The sound design team really did their homework on this piece. It can easily give Night Thoughts a run for its money.
Onto the other aspects of this box set, one of the treasures comes in the form of the original 80s radiophonic workshop tracks playing throughout the story. Doesn’t get more 80s than that! You can tell no expense has been spared. Big Finish really wanted to bring back the early 80s vibe and they succeeded amicably. This genuinely feels like a radio drama preformed in 1981, except the quality of the microphone is still that of 2014 thank goodness. Anyone who’s ever listened to Slipback will understand where I’m coming from.
A jarring aspect was the old-ish sounding Adric which is justified as Matthew Waterhouse is 52, but it feels odd when hearing him act alongside the mildly gruff sounding Peter Davison, the virtually unchanged Sarah Sutton and the accent disguised Janet Fielding. Perhaps it’s because I’m already used to them. Whatever the case may be, it takes a little getting used to, but by the second story, you should be completely used to him – no biggie!
Another issue fans might have with the second story is that the ideas used might go over their head. It’s very abstract in a sense and hard to wrap your head around it if you’re not used to it this level of creativity. It’s clever, but also teetering on the verge of being too clever for its own good. This leads to a decline in episode three with the inclusion of a plot twist that is…I’ll be honest: Pathetic! Given how smart and unique this story started out as, pulling a plot twist this mundane and lackluster is a sore topic for discussion, made even worse by the fact it was pulled out of thin air with no setup, some kind of hint or foreshadow. Bonus points for the fact that it’s also obvious that inclusion of this particular subplot was only added to pad the story another twenty minutes when it wasn’t needed at all. This I feel is this story’s biggest flaw. Consistency is equal to/or greater than the sum of the writing. This means that it is okay for a mundane story to get better or stay the same, but it cannot be allowed to get any worse. This I feel is what happened here.
The time placement for these stories: Psychodrome is set shortly after Castrovalva, but before Four to Doomsday, while Iterations of I is set after some time after Black Orchid since Nyssa mentions the Doctor starting to read the book he received in the book’s namesake episode.
Iterations of I: 7/10