After a long period of limbo, I'm glad to say that this Doctor Who review page is back up and running. My full time work in Production at Hospital Radio Chelmsford (www.hrc.org.uk) keeps me very busy and on my toes, but I'm determined to keep this page going for a long time to come.
I hope you enjoyed The War Machines review. I'm currently aiming to produce one review every six to eight weeks. At the moment I can reveal I'm in the middle of reviewing Big Finish's Only The Monstrous, starring the late John Hurt. Below though, is a list of what I'm looking to review across the rest of the year:
March: Only The Monstrous
April: The Aztecs
June: The Power Of The Daleks
July: The Tenth Doctor Adventures, Vol. 1
September: The Sensorites
November: The Enemy of the World
December: The Nightmare Fair
I still intend to review the TV and Audio stories I originally promised for the 50th Anniversary, but now the 50th has long since past, I'm doing them at a lot more loose and slower pace. I'm also still open to any reader review suggestions. Any constructive input is welcome. I hope you enjoy all my future posts.
Wednesday, 1 February 2017
Broadcast: 25th June – 16th July 1966
The Doctor – William Hartnell
Dodo Chaplet – Jackie Lane
Polly Wright – Anneke Wills
Ben Jackson – Michael Craze
Professor Brett – John Harvey
Sir Charles Summer – William Mervyn
Professor Krimpton – John Cater
Major Green – Alan Curtis
Voice of WOTAN/War Machine Operator – Gerald Taylor
Kitty – Sandra Bryant
The Minister – George Cross
Main Production Credits
Producer – Innes Lloyd
Script Editor – Gerry Davis
Writer – Ian Stuart Black, from an idea by Kit Pedler
Director – Michael Ferguson
Designer – Raymond London
Costumes – Daphne Dare and Barbara Lane
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Make Up – Sonia Markham
Production Assistant – Snowy White
Studio Sound – David Hughes
Studio Lighting – George Summers
Film Editor – Eric Mival
Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
Arriving back in contemporary 1960s London, the Doctor and Dodo visit the newly completed Post Office Tower, where a new revolutionary computer system called WOTAN is being developed. WOTAN, unbeknownst to its creators, has a will of its own, and soon decides that civilisation cannot advance further with man running it. To this end, it decides to take control of human society, and hypnotises people around it, to enlist them in its new cause. It creates new soldiers, “War Machines”, to help takeover London.
When the Doctor finds out, he sets out to capture one, helped by new friend Ben, the local authorities and the army. Successful, the Doctor reprogrammed the War Machine, sending it to attack and neutralise WOTAN. Dodo decides to stay in England, but the Doctor is unexpectedly joined by his two new friends, Ben and Polly, who sneak aboard the TARDIS after him.
Between The Man in the Velvet Mask (Virgin Missing Adventure Book) and The Smugglers (TV serial)
Charles Summer: This, er, might be a little more dangerous than we think.
The Doctor: Ah, Temper, Temper.
The War Machines is one of those fun and accessible Doctor Who stories, which you can enjoy watching, whatever day you’re having. In fact its’ perfect for those grey miserable days, where you’re unwell or stuck indoors, and just want some delightful diversion to pass the time. Fortunately though, The War Machines has more on offer than merely a good televisual romp.
Firstly there’s the freshness of it, compared to most 1960s Doctor Who, which personally I put down to the story’s deliberate contemporary setting. Surprisingly, the first two episodes of The War Machines are the only time in the TV series that we get to see it attempt a fleshed-out portrayal of London, at the height of its “Swinging Sixties” pop culture and glamour. Sure, on a 1960s BBC budget and mindset, it was never going to look as spectacular as a James Bond movie, or as manic as the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, or as realistic as the adult drama of The Wednesday Play, but it’s certainly more convincing than I would have expected, giving off a vibe of The Avengers, with a packed-out, but not artificially hip nightclub, and the cool, irreverent manner, shining from Polly’s character.
Adding to the believability of the London setting, is the drab reality, laid out bare on screen, even as soon as the characters leave the nightclub, as a homeless man searches around for a place to sleep; the area strewn with large gigantic empty warehouses, unspoken relics, of for the time, recent and continuing mass closure of docks and shipping yards, as trade dried up, and workers were made redundant in their thousands. Then of course, that’s subtly juxtaposed with the traditional high society of London’s rich west end, as represented by Sir Charles Summer. In fact, I feel that this is the most real portrayal of London in Doctor Who till at least The Web of Fear, 2 years later, but not properly until Remembrance of the Daleks’ venture through suburban London, filmed in 1988.
Secondly, there’s the novelty of its concept. The War Machines is also surprisingly the first appearance in Doctor Who of artificial intelligence as an antagonist, a villain; and only the second exploration of artificial intelligence in Doctor Who, since the TARDIS in The Edge of Destruction. The depiction of it represented by WOTAN, feels like a reactionary one – a fear of computers being able to think for themselves. However, in 21st century terms, that feels so mundane, laughable even, since we now understand this to be a basic need so computers can operate under the considerable more complex conditions and tasks they do now. The real concern, written into story’s narrative, is whether computers should have their own consciousness, will or self-control; a wonderful idea to explore, except the script completely avoids exploring it, choosing to favour purely action, and a B-movie style plot. While a computer in charge of the safe development of the Earth, would logically determine Humans as a threat, Ian Stuart Black completely fails to translate this in his script, and turns WOTAN into a stereotypical villain; so it’s cold, literal and machine-like dialogue, mostly falls flat, separated from its original concept.
Another fascinating aspect to WOTAN, is exactly how he controls, or hypnotises his human servants. My personal pet theory is that WOTAN has worked out the form of electrical energy used in the human body to communicate information to the brain. WOTAN would then, using its superior processing power transmit stronger electrical impulses to its victims; impulses that would be bigger, louder and more overwhelming than a human’s own neurotransmitters; hence why it can also work down telephones. In short, WOTAN has invented human Wi-Fi. Sadly, this is all guesswork; it’s a real shame the final script leaves no clues as to the whole idea behind WOTAN, and merely turns it into another “monster of the week”. The complete ambiguity at the heart of WOTAN’s concept, is one of The War Machines’ greatest missed opportunities. Artificial intelligence would go on to be explored in far better and greater detail in later Doctor Who stories, like The Ice Warriors, The Green Death, The Face of Evil and Four to Doomsday; not to mention other Science Fiction of course, notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). One particular pertinent example from memory, is the 1996 two-part finale from BBC action series BUGS – The Bureau of Weapons/A Cage for Satan, when the villain Jean Daniel, unleashes an artificial intelligence called Cyberax, which invades and disturbs people’s minds. I digress though.
The War Machines themselves, are also the series’ first robotic monsters, built to replace man. While Sci-fi had dealt with Robots in film and literature decades ago, their first proper use in Doctor Who brings with it, an excitement in their visual direction by incoming director, Michael Ferguson. Furthermore, it feels as a slight precursor to later serial, The Tenth Planet, because The War Machines too, was originally conceived by Kit Pedler.
We take it for granted now, but the use of conveying narrative and scope through fictional TV and Radio news broadcasts, also helps to go some way to selling the sizeable and global threat of WOTAN. At the time of the story’s broadcast, it was still a relatively new technique for TV Drama, memorably used six years earlier in Quatermass and the Pit (1957); although it’s not a new idea per se, as films used images of mocked up newspapers, to tell smaller plot developments simply and clearly, to help the pace of the narrative run at a faster, more accommodating pace. Nevertheless, this was still quite novel for Television, and as a result, helped Doctor Who to come across as modern and more credible.
The third factor that gives The War Machines an edge, is perhaps the most obvious – the new incoming companions, Ben and Polly. Their charismatic, energetic and fun personalities are a huge breath of fresh air, after the gradually staling format of regular characters, which had been going since the show began. In some ways, this was a very good thing, as it seems a while in the series since we had companions this well-defined. Polly is a very brave and down-to-earth young woman, her posh accent disguising an altruistic and giving nature, easily relatable, with a great sense of humour. Ben on the other hand, is an instinctive man of action, decisive and alert, often rather impetuous, but fiercely loyal to the last.
These two companions are particularly striking, because it was the first time in Doctor Who that new companions were unashamedly contemporary. While first companions Ian and Barbara were meant to come from the contemporary time they first joined the series at, they weren’t meant to be in any way representative of the section of society that they fictionally came from, they were recognisable authority figures that the audience could trust. Ben and Polly on the other hand, are clearly crafted to relate to the general masses of their younger audience – two trendy and “hip” youngsters; one a regular at the local club scene, the other a local cockney, on leave from national service. Maybe even more surprising is the fact that, after Ben and Polly, Doctor Who producers avoided having distinctly contemporary companions again, until Ace in 1987, and the most contemporary companion of all, Rose Tyler in 2005.
The arrival of Ben and Polly into the series, also marks the point in the show when companions stopped being the Doctor’s personal friends and equals (albeit alleged in Dodo’s case), and were instead the Doctor’s sidekicks or assistants, more akin to popular ITV 60s action show, The Avengers. While many companions maintained a strong level of friendship with the Doctor, they were never explored as characters in the same level of depth and dimension as Ian, Barbara, Vicki and Steven had been before; and arguably wouldn’t again, until at least Liz Shaw and Jo Grant, during a production renovation of the show in the early 1970s.
Furthermore, The War Machines also sadly marks when the format and definition of Doctor Who itself, was restricted, and arguably dumbed down by new show Producer Innes Lloyd, and Story Editor Gerry Davis. Although both joined the Production of the series officially at an earlier date – Davis at the end of The Massacre, and Lloyd at the start of The Celestial Toymaker; in many ways their early collaborations on making Doctor Who were old story commissions already in place, holdovers from former story editor Donald Tosh, including The Ark, The Celestial Toymaker and The Gunfighters. The Savages meanwhile, was the first Doctor Who storyline by Ian Stuart Black, commissioned by outgoing producer John Wiles, after experienced TV scriptwriter Black actively sought to work on Doctor Who. So The War Machines was the first serial to be produced under the creative direction, Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis wanted the show to go in.
Before Doctor Who, Innes Lloyd, by all accounts hated science fiction, but came to appreciate the show as an adventure yarn for all the family. Unfortunately, this was also the yardstick, by which he judged the format of Doctor Who. Despite praising the flexibility of the show’s format, Lloyd seemed determined to make Doctor Who pursue purely the space adventure and sci-fi thrillers of alien menace, which had got the show easy popularity in the past. All other genres in Doctor Who were unceremoniously ejected, and deemed unsuccessful, particularly historical-based stories, and the recent comic sendup of Westerns in The Gunfighters. Unfortunately for Lloyd, circumstances led to two further historical serials being made – The Smugglers and The Highlanders, although these were given a unique tonal shift, by story editor Gerry Davis.
Gerry Davis, in contrast, loved science fiction, and upon working on Doctor Who sought inspiration for new story ideas, taken from real life scientific ideas. To that end, Davis found and recruited British medical scientist and parapsychologist, Kit Pedler, as Doctor Who’s unofficial scientific advisor. Pedler would come up with many great concepts, including the idea of the Cybermen, and even the early premise for The War Machines.
I guess the rather longwinded point I’m trying to make is, with Gerry Davis’ passion for creating new science fiction in Doctor Who, combined with Innes Lloyd’s determination to simplify the series’ focus, and throw out it’s less crowd-pleasing, and more experimental genres and elements; Doctor Who became fairly standard sci-fi escapism, with a line in grotesque alien menace. The show was now a distillation of some of the more popular episodes of its former self, and increasingly less remarkable in comparison to the more disposable light Sci-fi thrillers, made under Lew Grade, Gerry Anderson and Brian Clemens; except for a few canny Sci-fi concepts, mostly proposed by Kit Pedler. Out went much of the character drama, ambition, and endless possibilities of its original concept, and in came spectacle, action-filled plots, stock characters, and generally shallower storytelling. However, this didn’t necessarily result in poor Doctor Who. In fact, some of the show’s best, and fondly remembered serials come about during the next two years. Besides, as many people will tell you, Doctor Who can, and often, does sci-fi escapism really well. Despite this though, as the programme hurtles towards what has been affectionately named as “the Monster era” (The Tenth Planet – The Dominators), there’s a definite loss of depth, scope, but most of all, of that magical creative freedom which allows Doctor Who to go anywhere and be almost anything a writer or producer chooses.
Unfortunately, it was a creative freedom that wouldn’t truly return until the explosion of spin-off mediums, when Virgin Publishing and Big Finish Productions took the franchise to many pastures new and experimental places, ironically after the TV series had been first cancelled in 1989. The revived TV series, which began in 2005 has tiptoed awkwardly between the accepted Sci-fi escapism of its former self, and some of the new ideas inspired by spin-off media; but all the while still refusing to be as bold and experimental as its early years. Personally, I have never really bought the argument that Doctor Who as a TV series could never be as varied in genre, and as creatively ambitious as it’s book and audio mediums, given that Verity Lambert, the original producer of Doctor Who attempted the impossible, and often succeeded on a day-to-day basis. Even The Web Planet works to a fair degree, purely due to the sheer effort by most just to get it off the ground. Maybe one day, we’ll be able to witness a 21st Century series that truly lives up to the original concept of the show. I live in hope.
In 1966 though, the original series concept for Doctor Who is all but dead by the time of The War Machines. The ghosts of its former self, namely The Smugglers and The Highlanders, are two anomalies, in many ways made due to Gerry Davis’ affection for romantic period adventure, like those by Robert Louis Stevenson. The only exception at this time was virtually anything written by experienced Doctor Who writer, and former script editor, David Whitaker; but Power of the Daleks in particular. In part this is because Whitaker can’t help himself, but write fascinating character drama, its second nature to him. On the other hand, it’s also because Innes Lloyd, Gerry Davis and Patrick Troughton, worked hard to create a new, complex, and workable character for the new Doctor, beginning in that story. So the importance of that event required special measures. In the end though, most writers did follow Gerry Davis’ template for “strong, simple stories”, with many non-conforming complex scripts being rejected. The new format was here to stay.
As hinted above, the adjusted format, wasn’t the only major change happening within Doctor Who at the time of The War Machines. By this time, the health of lead actor William Hartnell, was deteriorating badly, while suffering from continued arteriosclerosis. Although Hartnell had taken necessary breaks during the production of The Celestial Toymaker, and The Savages; story editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd tried to minimise The Doctor’s lines and active presence in the overall narratives of the stories to make it easier for Hartnell to take part in them, and remember the scripts. William Hartnell’s illness would only get worse in the episodes to come, so these script edits proved not only to be shrewd, but essential. However, I think they also unwittingly created an interesting quirk in The Doctor’s character. The War Machines does a good job of making it look like The Doctor waits to make a calculated plan of attack, but he also stands back from the main action of the narrative, and persuades others to drive along the plot for him. To me this also sounds like one of defining traits of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor – the sly quiet observer, watching, studying and directing the action of those around him, while silently plotting his next move. So unconsciously, what was once an aid to William Hartnell, seems warped to become an actual element of the Second Doctor’s character, helped along by having more proactive companions like Ben, Polly, and later Jamie, who in many ways, all lead the action of the plot for him.
Furthermore, these aids to William Hartnell seem to have worked, his performance clearly rejuvenated, and full of life during The War Machines. He gleefully marches into the Post Office Tower at the start of the story, and displays great comic timing in his eccentric quirks, which Hartnell has perfected for the character of The Doctor. I just love that moment, when William Hartnell mock scolds the captured War Machine in Episode 4. He's clearly enjoying every moment of it, and is very much back on form. Hartnell also makes a cute double act with William Mervyn. While the character, Sir Charles Summer is very much Mervyn’s stock-in-trade, a slightly pompous upper class authority figure (not unlike his famous character portrayal of Inspector Charles Rose); Hartnell and Mervyn play off each other really well, even if Mervyn occasionally seems a little bemused at Hartnell’s eccentricities. Sometimes it even appears that Sir Charles is competing with The Doctor, for the same place in the narrative, even saying very similar dialogue at times.
The two new companions, Anneke Wills and Michael Craze, are by far, the standout performers of The War Machines though. They bring an exciting and infectious enthusiasm to their parts, that in many ways rubs off onto the surrounding cast, particularly William Hartnell. However, there’s an honesty and conviction too, which genuinely sells both the characters and the drama of the story, and frequently act much of the supporting cast off the screen. Sadly, that includes Jackie Lane, who courageously tries her best to salvage, one of the worst written Doctor Who regular characters ever invented. Alas, poor Dodo, was no more though, as Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis gave up on this failed experiment of a companion, who quite frankly, struggled to work from the time she began, during the final moments of The Massacre. However, with hindsight, Lloyd and Davis did the right thing, as Ben and Polly very quickly prove to be strong future companions, within just a couple of episodes.
New Doctor Who director, Michael Ferguson, also adds an extra edge to the production, giving the stage direction and action sequences, a level of clarity and dynamism rarely seen during the early years of Doctor Who. There’s great use of the on-location footage, both of London, and of the Post Office Tower. The on-location shots of the War Machines in action are especially impressive, with some striking high-angled shots, and some very atmospheric low placed ones. My favourite is when the War Machine is displayed by its reflection in a murky puddle, next to a sorry, overturned bicycle. We would see more of this kind of artistic expression in later years, as more creative directors began to work on Doctor Who, but at this point in time, Douglas Camfield, Christopher Barry, Derek Martinus, and now Michael Ferguson, were fairly peerless amongst a sea of BBC staff directors on Doctor Who, some of whom used the show as training, and others who struggled more with the challenges, limitations and differences between TV and Film production.
After three episodes of realising the threat of WOTAN though, The War Machines seems to fall at the last hurdle, by turning out to be a disposable thriller after all. The long, padded build-up of the construction of the War Machines, is at first, hypnotic and captivating, but gets a bit tedious by episode four, without much change in the plot. The capture of the faulty War Machines is a lovely fun little sequence, but essentially the whole story is wrapped up by a couple of minutes of ‘jiggery pokery’ and wire twiddling by The Doctor, and suddenly a World threat is over in the blink of an eye. It’s a rather deflating conclusion, even if its one that makes sense per the logic of the story.
The War Machines then, stands as both a perfect summary and statement for the new direction and new format Doctor Who will take for the next couple of years. An enigmatic, but ingenious Doctor, with feisty proactive companions, engaging in a fun throwaway adventure, with some thrills and great sci-fi ideas along the way. Many of the new elements to the show, put into play by Producer Innes Lloyd and Story Editor Gerry Davis, will continue to form part of Doctor Who’s storytelling for decades, up to the present day. However, this bold new direction is as much a regression as an evolution, because where character drama and development used to be key to the show’s success, now action and style seem to have taken their place. Even the sci-fi concept of WOTAN is fairly undeveloped, and ends up only ever being a temporary menace. There’s a resolution to this entertaining escapade, but more than ever before, Doctor Who has become more about the thrill of the adventure, than about the deeper definition and meaning of its characters, and their actions. As Season 4 begins, we start to see more and more that The Doctor and his companions have stopped being people who choose to become heroes, and start to become roles fulfilling heroic archetypes. In The War Machines though, everything is new and reinvigorated, including much of the cast; so the effect of this change is quite exhilarating in the short term. It’s neatly packaged and plotted, excitingly directed, and the story of inhuman menace threatening contemporary Britain is a breath of fresh air after what came before, even if, with hindsight, we know that it will be done again far better through the years. There may not be a lot of meaning, complexity or depth to The War Machines, but above everything else, it is good, solid, harmless fun. And some days, that’s all Doctor Who ever needs to be.
Sunday, 8 March 2015
Released: February 2012
The Doctor – Tom Baker
Leela – Louise Jameson
Harcourt – Ian McNeice
Jephson – Gareth Armstrong
Christopher – Anthony Howell
Lizzie – Daisy Ashford
Beryl/Professor Hilda Lutterthwaite – Laura Molyneux
Dr. Henry Carnforth – John Dorney
Main Production Credits
Producer and Script Editor – David Richardson
Writer – Justin Richards
Director – Ken Bentley
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Jamie Robertson
Recording – Paul Midcalf at Audio Sorcery Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery
Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
On a visit to the Morovanian Museum, on Morovania Minor, the Doctor and Leela find themselves in a bizarre recreation of twentieth century Britain, from the ruins of Castles, to a forest and country house estate, where they hear about a mysterious collection. Entering the house, they come upon Harcourt, an “intellectual jackdaw”, whose eagerness about knowledge and learning, prompted him to start a collection upon everything, and anything. The Doctor’s suspicions are raised however, when a couple of his own cultural anecdotes, suddenly appear as part of Harcourt’s impressive exhibits...
The suicide of a Lepidopterist brings the Doctor to the conclusion that Harcourt, is literally draining the knowledge and experience of his intellectual guests, and that he and Leela, are next on the menu. However, the truth is even more perverse. The Doctor and Leela, have arrived at the Morovanian Museum, but have arrived early in one of its new exhibits. The new Renaissance section of the Museum, was built at the behest of one man, Jephson, who seeks to own all the knowledge that has ever existed. This knowledge is drained from its participants, whose consciousness’ are neutralised, before being fed into androids, blank ciphers, who are used as “collectors” of new data, through sight and sound. Harcourt is himself a machine, albeit one with personality, only his prime purpose is as storage for Jephson. The knowledge itself has been realised into physical existence, within the section of the Museum, hence the mish-mash of various historical buildings and cultural environments. Jephson plans to absorb the knowledge of all the experts and intellectuals he has invited to exhibit’s opening.
The Doctor thwarts Jephson, by cunningly giving him new unknown “knowledge”, which he made up himself. The integrity of Jephson’s absorbed data is now comprised, gradually corrupting, until the physical environment of the exhibition collapses. The Doctor and Leela escape in the TARDIS, as the Museum’s systems reboot, restoring those who survive to their former selves.
Between Destination: Nerva (Big Finish Audio) and The Wrath of the Iceni (Big Finish Audio).
The Doctor: “How does it feel, not being the cleverest man in the room?”
Harcourt: “I wouldn’t know. How does it feel?”
The Doctor: “Looks like the Game is up, Harcourt!”
Harcourt: “It’s Marshall Harcourt.”
The Doctor: “Really.”
Harcourt: “No, not really.”
Renaissance Man is a delightful small adventure that exhibits both Doctor Who’s trademark flair for great high concept stories and its light moral wisdom. Renaissance Man is only the second of BIG Finish’s Fourth Doctor adventures on audio, but it is already an improvement on the mixed results offered by debut adventure, Destination: Nerva. Renaissance Man’s premise of an intellectual obsessed with knowing everything, by having a living computer absorb the minds of the Universe’s experts, is a simple and effective concept that wonderfully juxtaposes the archaic with the fantastical. Destination: Nerva did this too, but it wasn’t concise enough an idea to fit itself into the new shorter format BIG Finish has created for the Fourth Doctor audio series. Renaissance, on the other hand is a much better fit; there’s no feeling of an interesting part of the story being left out, and its plot nicely comes to a natural conclusion in the last ten minutes. Or at least it nearly does.
The idea of a scientist or intellectual obsessing and pursuing over becoming a “super” intellect, or mutating into one, is an old idea in fantasy and sci-fi. It can be found in fiction’s long history of genius-like heroes such as Sherlock Holmes and Captain Nemo, superhuman intelligence as explored in Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, or the plethora of Sci-fi B-movies of the 1930s and 50s. In Doctor Who, the premise of an intellectual person or being that obsesses over knowing everything has also been explored, most notably in perhaps Ghost Light. Also of note, the unmade 1980 TV serial, Shada shares a slight thematic similarity too, due to its’ villain, Skagra, wanting to “become” the Universe. Author Justin Richards gives this old idea, a further novel and dark twist, with the intellectual person, then absorbing the minds of all the universe’s experts to create a perfect visual record of knowledge for a museum. It’s this exhibitionism, treating obscure knowledge as trophies of status that gives Renaissance Man, a welcome and enchanting British flavour to the macabre, that Doctor Who often does so very well.
The plot is also executed efficiently, with a clarity and pace that helps to articulate the rich visuals conjured up, in what is surely one of Justin Richards’ most polished scripts to date. The first 15 minutes is one of the most perfect beginnings to a Doctor Who audio in several years, effortlessly drawing the listener in with small irresistible portions of intrigue, gradually giving us the full picture, like the perfect starter course, setting our senses ablaze in anticipation of the meal to come. Furthermore, the slow build of intrigue, mixed with lots of development, scene setting or action, feels just like some of the best Doctor Who TV stories, whose beginnings, entice the audience into the fantastic world and adventure they’re about to be immersed in. I also love the particularly neat conclusion to the story: The Doctor, bringing down the Villain’s “world” of knowledge with lies and false data, corrupting the entire library of information, to the point where it all collapses in on itself. The idea is so perfectly set-up, and feels like a very Doctor-ish victory to nicely round the story up on.
By the end of episode one of Renaissance Man though, the cracks unfortunately begin to show. The cliff-hanger at episode one’s conclusion sounds especially contrived and perfunctory, considering one of the previous characters was already dead, so another stock character didn’t need to be murdered just to labour the point, and Harcourt’s police masquerade was already in effect, giving the script no dramatic reason to delay the Doctor’s inevitable arrest, except for the artificial manufacture of a cliff-hanger of course. Then, during episode two, after Harcourt’s plans are exposed, and the Doctor sets in motion his counter-plan, the plot suddenly starts running on the spot, engaging in endless escape, run, and capture, which ultimately ends up being little more than padding, imaginatively disguised with as many new locations in the museum and visual gimmicks as possible. Sadly this has the effect, of taking me out of the story for a while, waiting for the action to tick by until it’s just the right time for the Doctor’s end game to reach its climax. For me it ebbs away part of the excitement, in what is for the most part a fairly thrilling adventure. I suspect it’s also partly compounded by the story concept being quite as simple and straight-forward as it is. I could easily imagine this production being 30 minutes long, instead of 50, and you wouldn’t really miss much of real significance out.
The original characters in Renaissance Man are rather simplistic too. True, the nature of what the villain has done to them has rendered them, as mostly mechanical slaves to the needs of acquiring knowledge, but often they mostly feel like a distraction from what’s really going on. Secondly, even in their original state as real people, every new character bar the two protagonists, come across as stock characters either playing out as stereotypes, like Professor Lutterthwaite, or generic amiable characters, adding a hint of their original personality before being changed into mere shells, such as Christopher and Lizzie, although as with Destination: Nerva, the shorter format of the 50-minute stories, does constrain what a writer can do with his character development somewhat. It’s a particular shame, as more time for development would have allowed the listener to get a real sense of the horror, of people losing their identities and personalities. Instead the audio is robbed of a worthy dramatic opportunity, just as with Destination: Nerva, to save time. This I feel is probably one of the few negative aspects of BIG Finish trying to emulate the revived Doctor Who TV series in its format. In the first place, there are some subtleties and drama that are easier to convey quickly on screen, via the physical performance of an actor, or a clever use of imagery and editing by the director. Trying to get away with this on audio is a tall order for any producer, writer or director. Secondly, the TV series has often cut around story events so the audience can move quickly from plot point to plot point. While this helps to maintain an enjoyable fast pace throughout the production, just as often I feel it has equally lost out on some potential drama or character development, that would make its revelations and machinations feel more momentous and substantial. I should add that, this isn’t the case all or most of the time, but enough times to be of note. Inevitably then, BIG Finish’s occasional attempt to replicate the “new series” experience in audio form, has also had decidedly mixed results.
The villain of the piece, the real “renaissance man”, Jephson, is sadly also a stock stereotype, the ranting manic, who can’t see anything beyond his obsession. I confess it was clever of Richards to disguise him as pretending to be a mechanical slave of Harcourt’s, but it’s a shame that in an audio full of characters meant to be shallow, that the villain turns out to be just as uninteresting, if not more so. Harcourt, on the other hand, proves to be a worthy character foil to the Doctor, but only as one who endlessly spouts witty retorts to him, in their verbal duelling. In every other respect, for reasons that become clear later, he too is essentially a script device; albeit one that is much more entertaining and amusing.
I guess I feel that’s Renaissance Man’s saving grace. Above its flaws and generalised, almost workman-like characterisation, the audio, and Richards’ writing is enormous fun to listen to. The light-hearted manner in the dialogue effortlessly carries you along the narrative; the wit shining through with various amusing Anthony Read-esque* jokes and funny genre homages. Justin Richards’ expert attention to the tone of Doctor Who’s Graham Williams era on Television (contemporary to this Doctor and companion partnership) is very much appreciated by this listener, and in my view certainly pays off. Richards is undoubtedly one of the more successful writers in this approach of writing Doctor Who: taking the best of the past, while leaving behind its flaws, and adding inventions of their own to the mix. I noted it while reading his novel, Apollo 23, a near-perfect evocation of the tone of the early Eleventh Doctor era from 2010. While it’s an approach to Doctor Who that performs well, I don’t believe it should be seen as a template. Most often, it’s the innovations and reinventions to Doctor Who’s mythos, storytelling and characters that succeed the most; but the celebratory approach just happens to be the way that works to Justin Richards’ strengths as a writer.
Renaissance Man proves this further with Richards’ uncanny and attentive characterisation of the Fourth Doctor and Leela. Bringing to life, such an impressive and iconic duo in Doctor Who’s long history, would be daunting to many a writer, but Justin Richards makes it look easy and effortless, his Fourth Doctor sounding like a lost 1970s TV script, full of warmth, wit and wonder. Leela is brilliantly realised too, with better (and sometimes funnier) dialogue than in half of the character’s original TV episodes. Richards acutely and affectionately relays her point of view and literal philosophy, and clearly enjoys showing Leela’s amusing misunderstandings of different language and cultures, paying homage to some of her best and fondly remembered moments on Television.
Another layer of enjoyment to Renaissance Man is of course, the wonderful cast themselves, and Big Finish has chosen a particular fine ensemble for this production. In fact, I feel one or two are bit underused, like Anthony Howell, for instance; both by the constricted demands of the shorter story format on the script, as well as the status of their supporting characters in the narrative. On the other hand, the character of Harcourt seems to be written especially for the wonderful Ian McNeice, such is the verbosity and rich variety of words, the protagonist performs. Even the name Harcourt, is quite possibly an affectionate nod to Ian McNeice’s character in the superb 1985 BBC Drama, Edge of Darkness.
However, the star of the show is undoubtedly the lead man himself, Tom Baker. The contrast with Destination: Nerva could not be greater. The great man is clearly enjoying the madcap world that Richards has conjured up, and the old subtle touches of dry-witted delivery and amusing sudden exclamations, of which I’ve always loved from Baker, have gloriously returned, hopefully, for many audios to come. If I didn’t know better, I would say Tom Baker was getting back into the stride of being the Doctor again, considering the Hornets’ Nest audios, required a different kind of performance, more in keeping with narration. However, this was actually Tom’s second Big Finish recording (the first is Energy of the Daleks), with Destination: Nerva being recorded out of order, a few audios later. To my ears though, I feel this is Tom Baker’s best audio performance so far. Louise Jameson continues her superb and faultless performance, with another strong showing to add to her list of previous superlative audio appearances. Tom Baker and Jameson between them, take you back to those golden moments of 1970s Who, as though they’d never left. I know it feels like I’m sprouting clichés all over the place, but the attention to detail across the production, and the hard work on behalf of all parties to maintain that consistency of tone, makes the listen such a joy to any fan of the period. If that wasn’t enough, then there’s also the non-stop fun of hearing Tom Baker and Ian McNeice, two of Britain’s finest character actors, locked in vocal wordplay, as one tries to out-quip the other. Just 50 minutes of verbal gymnastics with those two would be worth the price of admission alone, but of course, fortunately there’s much more. McNeice also effortlessly slips into his various character parodies, every time he and the Doctor, enter a different section of the museum. The rest of the cast also do a fine job, although the more shallow natures of their characters mean that they don’t always get a great deal to work on.
Renaissance Man’s production is also of a high quality. Castle courtyards, forests filled with birdsong, a busy police station, the clinking of glasses and a honky-tonk piano of a Wild West bar, the ricocheting bullets of a spitfire diving into battle, and the comforting sound of a grandfather clock, lightly ticking away in the living room of a country house – all these victories of superlative sound design prove that Big Finish’s productions sound as fine as they ever did. Jamie Robertson’s music is still on good form, after Destination: Nerva, providing a nice Dudley Simpson-esque atmosphere to events, although on this occasion it’s starting to veer a bit closer to Keff McCulloch’s unflattering Dudley Simpson homage in the attempted BBC Video reconstruction of Shada in 1992. Robertson’s sound design though, seems to be absolutely peerless; although it could be that I’m mis-remembering the success of early Big Finish. I do love how Robertson brings back the specially edited “thump” from the TARDIS landing sound effect, that was used on and off, during the TV series between 1975 to 1978.
Ken Bentley’s direction gives us a much better cast performance on this occasion, and the editing certainly feels tighter (or maybe that’s just the script). There’s far less theatricality on display, and just the right level of irreverence, keeping the production smoothly ticking over, while the enjoyable tone consistently achieved, makes Renaissance Man always entertaining.
“It’s teatime in 1977, all over again”, is the tagline for Big Finish’s first full series of new Fourth Doctor adventures on audio, and Renaissance Man is the first of them that I feel genuinely achieves that. A superb cast, and richly creative sound design, bring Justin Richards’ novel high concept story to life with aplomb. Then Richards and Tom Baker win you over with a wonderful layer of wit and whimsy that brings back to me, in part why me, and numerous others, loved the Fourth Doctor in the first place. Tom Baker re-captures what it is to be the Doctor, in a way he hadn’t quite achieved with the BBC Hornets’ Nest series, and it’s a joy to hear once again. Justin Richards succeeds admirably in creating a small love letter to the era in audio form, and I salute him for it. And yet, despite this Renaissance Man ends up becoming a romp. The supporting characters, including the villain, are fairly throwaway and little developed, and the narrative is padded out with action, losing the plot’s earlier pace and substance. In a bizarre way, this is how many mid-1970s serials turned out, so it’s hard for me to work out if this is intentional, or once again a negative constraint of the audio series’ 50-minute format, which likely also prevented much development on the characters too. Even with these flaws though, Renaissance Man is never anything less than great fun, and endlessly re-listenable. The future of the Fourth Doctor at Big Finish looks bright indeed.
(* = Graham Williams was the producer of Doctor Who on TV from 1977-1980. Anthony Read was the Script Editor of Doctor Who on TV from 1977-1979)