Review by Michael Goleniewski
The Third Doctor Adventures range has always been a very strong one boasting many memorable stories under its belt. Volume 5, however, is a particularly exciting one as for the first time we not only have an actor taking over the voice of the Third Doctor but also a new actor to play Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and a new actress for the role of Liz Shaw after the passing of Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John in recent years.
All of that in conjunction with returning leads Katy Manning as Jo and John Levene as Sergeant Benton almost makes you feel like the whole gang is back together again which got me especially excited as a long time Whovian even if neither story synopsis particularly got my blood pumping. How does this fifth Third Doctor set play out and do its two stories continue to entertain and honor the legacy of the era?
5.1 Primord by John Dorney
‘Primord’ is a gigantic story in terms of Who canon with many interconnected threads and pieces at play. It has rather large shoes to fill in making each new actor work in their respective roles, reuniting the Doctor with Liz long after she left as a companion, and bringing the monsters from “Inferno” back as a tangible and believable threat.
So once again, it’s a major credit to John Dorney as a writer that this story succeeds as spectacularly as it does. The soundscape and score continue to be great and perfectly reminiscent of the time period and the writing handles each element needed to make this story work brilliantly. It feels like a celebration of everything the early Third Doctor years represented while at the same time illuminating many of the same elements and turning them on their head. The plot and premise work as both an individual story and as an intense sequel to ‘Inferno’ full of surprises that leave you questioning things at every moment. But it also gives you plenty of answers that you weren’t expecting to get particularly as to the companion dynamic and why Jo ended up being better for the Doctor in the long run.
Speaking of the cast and characters, Tim Treloar continues to be amazing as the Third Doctor and Katy Manning are exceptional as Jo Grant. By this point, both have had plenty of time with their roles and chemistry and they both continue to be fantastic as usual. Regarding the newer voices, however, Daisy Ashford’s Liz Shaw isn’t quite perfect as her inflections are almost a bit too high-pitched and sweet compared to her usual mannerisms and tone. But she does get the gist of her character very well emphasising that this is still the same character that we’ve come to know. Still, Liz in this adventure is not quite the same person even though her dynamic with the Doctor is still very familiar. Time has not been the kindest to her, to say the least, and that change ends up playing a big part in guiding the direction of the adventure. Jon Culshaw, on the other hand, is eerily good as the Brigadier in a way that makes you wonder if Courtney came back to life somehow and recorded his lines. He nails everything about the character from voice to tone to personality and energy and his performance really is flawless from start to finish in every way.
When everything is all brought together, it really does feel like you are listening to a proper story from the era in a way that other adventures in the range came close to but never quite managed to hit in the same way. If I had to nitpick one or two small things, I would say that some of the bigger revelations are a bit too dialogue-heavy and the bigger picture is a little bit predictable. To make a strange but apt comparison without giving away spoilers, if “Inferno” was “Jurassic Park” in terms of the monsters of the story then “Primord” is most definitely “Jurassic World” in that regard. But it never once feels forced or unnatural with its plot and the fact that it keeps your interest engaged and leads to a coherent and bittersweet conclusion with all of that behind it frankly astonishing. In short, “Primord” is not only a great adventure but a perfect love letter to the Third Doctor and his era in every way. It’s not only worth the price of admission for the set alone but one that any Third Doctor fans owe it to themselves to check out.
5.2 The Scream of Ghosts by Guy Adams
With “Primord” pushing boundaries beautifully for the range as a whole, the second story of the set ’Scream of Ghosts’ brings things back down to basics with a more traditional adventure involving loud sonic waves, mysterious voices, mobile phone technology and electronic devices causing mayhem left and right. It’s a fun exploration of a relatively spooky genre and Guy Adam’s script is a strong one evoking many haunting moments and chilling sounds. There is also an alien menace at play as you’d suspect and it is a race that we’ve seen before in Classic Who. But as to which one would constitute a major spoiler that’s worth keeping secret especially as it’s really the only big surprise we end up getting.
It’s a strong adventure with a great soundscape and a creepy vibe but it is a fairly predictable one when you get right down to it and most of the plot points you’ll be able to figure out fairly quickly once it gets moving. It’s in the smaller details that the story really gets really interesting. There are strong themes of feminism in Jo’s battle to be taken seriously and the prickly attitude and dismissal of Professor Caldicott’s research by the Doctor and the Brigadier, both of which end up paying off exceedingly well. While every cast member is great and everyone gets plenty to do, this really is Jo’s story in the sense that she gets to save the day as UNIT’s surrogate scientific advisor when the Doctor is indirectly put out of commission halfway through. There are some fun touches with the sound in the story and a lot of the intrigue comes from some different character interactions. Jon Culshaw’s Brigadier gets paired with Katy Manning’s Jo for most of the adventure with the Doctor as played by Tim Treloar is sent off with John Levine’s Sergeant Benton and a couple of the other members of the side cast. It gives us some very different dynamics than we’re used in conjunction with the great performances of each cast member even as each team is put through some standard situations in the narrative.
While standard doesn’t necessarily mean bad, it does mean that ‘Scream of Ghost’ does suffer slightly in comparison to its predecessor. It’s not bad and it’s still a great adventure with a lot to recommend on its own merits especially with a better than usual team. But compared to the stellar quality of the other story in the set, it just can’t quite hold your attention or interest as well as it could’ve.
FINAL VERDICT: While the quality of the set is a little bit mismatched with one story outweighing the other one significantly, Volume 5 of the “Third Doctor Adventures” is still another major win for Big Finish. The addition of Jon Culshaw as the Brigadier and Daisy Ashford as Liz Shaw is a stroke of absolute genius and it along with the usual standards of quality from Tim Treloar and Katy Manning allows the Third Doctor team to shine in a way we haven’t seen or heard in a very long time. Each story is great in its own way with lots to love for both Classic and New Who fans and it evokes the ’70s era of the show flawlessly with its soundscapes, scores, and writing. You aren’t going to find better Third Doctor stories in audio form right now and so Whovians (especially Third Doctor fans) owe it to themselves to check this set out as soon as possible.