Review by Michael Goleniewski
The Tribulations of Thadeus Nook by Andrew Smith
In the middle of a reading lesson featuring a prominent novel that just so happens to have a time machine in it, the Fourth Doctor and Leela come close to colliding with another ship in the vortex which prompts them to follow it to Normandy 1944 on the eve of the famed WWII invasion. They soon encounter a person whom they assume is the pilot captured by German soldiers and in need of rescue which inevitably brings them to the man in charge of the machine and this odd tourist, Thadeus Nook. Mr. Nook is in charge of his own company ‘Thadeus Nook’s Time Tours” and using a risky banned alien machine for financial gain at the expense of potentially doing devastating damage to the timelines. Needless to say, the Doctor and Leela need to put a stop to the business but with all of history at stake and with several passengers caught in the middle, it’s not going to be an easy task…..
‘The Tribulations of Thadeus Nook’ is an immensely fun piece full of time-traveling escapades and a wonderful send-up of Wellsian storytelling from which the narrative derives more than a little inspiration. The overarching premise allows for a wide variety of settings and soundscapes from the beaches of WWII Earth to a volcanic alien landscape and Andrew Smith’s writing is balanced nicely between light-hearted comedy and darker drama especially once the tour delivers some of its big moments. But after an incredibly creative and engaging first half including a surprising tie-in to the show’s real-life origins surrounding the infamous day of its premiere, things calm down and devolve into a decent but fairly basic alien time-meddling plot that sticks to one place and places Leela’s ultimate fate into question. It’s there that problems really start to escalate with a tedious back and forth through the vortex and another boring deep-voiced alien tyrant who serves as the ultimate menace to be thwarted. But despite those issues and some nastier events that the plot ends up visiting, the script never goes too much into grim territory and always manages to retain a strong sense of the absurd and the odd most of the way through which helps keeps the audio incredibly engaging.
Moreover, the script uses the Doctor/companion separation trope brilliantly after the first part sets up the premise and overall plot. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor is forced to pair with one of Nook’s hapless bystanders as a companion who has his own dark secret of his own while Louise Jameson’s Leela is forced to be the voice of reason as a stowaway among one of Nook’s tours in a brilliant subversion of both of their usual roles in a given story. It provokes some great performances out of the pair of them and helps to push both characters into new territory for a while though again it’s all mostly forgotten once things escalate in the latter half. While most of the rest of the cast is fairly forgettable, Nook himself is a major standout and more than just a sleazy businessman. Brendan Murphy plays the character with a significant heart to him in wanting to find success on his own terms but pressured into less than reputable ends both by the circumstances of his life and by his clients who want the full time-travel experience. This means he’s forced to behave as an over-the-top salesman in public and utilise his talents for more amoral means but can still be the warm-hearted dreamer in private conversation especially when paired with a loving and attentive significant other played by Laura Riseborough. It’s a surprisingly strong performance for a character who could’ve easily been a human ripoff of the Meddling Monk and it’s him that drives most of the story forward in dealing with the side effects of his work and helping him to realise what’s truly important in his life by the end.
‘Tribulations of Thadeus Nook’ continues the tenth series of Fourth Doctor Adventures on another strong note with a narrative that’s full of entertaining time shenanigans and a strong vibe that’s reminiscent of many classic adventures surrounding time travel. While its first half of the story is far more creative and energised than its second and the addition of a surprise alien villain into the mix feels like more of a forced story-telling hindrance to the audio than as a true boon, the performances from Tom Baker and Louise Jameson continue to be stellar and Brendan Murphy’s Thadeus Nook proves to be an enjoyable and very likeable focus from which to hang the narrative on. Entertaining, truthful, and fairly smart about what it has to offer, it’s another great story full of heart in a series that’s proving to be one of the Fourth Doctor’s best.
— 8 / 10
The Primeval Design by Helen Goldwyn
The Fourth Doctor and Leela have landed on the rocky coastline of Dorset in 1830 in order to catch a glimpse of something that lived before the dawn of humanity. Looking to meet the owner of a local fossil shop who also happens to be one of the most prominent early palaeontologists of the day, they get significantly more than they bargained for when they find not only ms. Mary Anning but also a strange mystery at hand. A local villager has been found dead, ripped apart in a savagely gruesome fashion by something utterly unfamiliar to the region and it might possibly tie into all of the marvellous discoveries and bones being found. A nasty secret is nesting and being resurrected below the clifftops of Dorset helped along by one of Anning’s most prominent adversaries and Mary along with the Doctor and Leela are about to stumble headlong into the discovery of the century……
‘Primeval Design’ has much in common with another exceptional FDA ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ in being a pseudo-historical piece surrounding a lesser-known female historical figure and an extraordinary situation involving some of the details of her work. In general, it feels like it has more of a clear sense of what it wants to be compared to its predecessor in the volume though Helen Goldwyn’s script is noticeably sluggish to the point where at times it does feel excessively drawn out. But it’s still paced well with substantial build-up and a well-crafted soundscape by Jamie Robertson that takes time to relax and lets things stand on their own. It’s honestly a bit of a nice change compared to the constant intense go-go-go nature of other stories in the range though what listeners are probably coming to the audio for is the prominence of the dinosaurs hinted at in the synopsis. The plot mostly delivers on that front, and while there is an alien threat behind what’s going on to be sure which might disappoint some people going into it, it is somewhat connected to and backed by the history of Earth in a natural way and the vocals performances are really haunting once things get going in the second half.
The real focus of the audio however is on Lucy Briggs-Owen who is very likeable as Mary Anning and proves to be the easy highlight of the adventure. It’s nice to hear a lesser-known part of paleontological history both by circumstance and by nefarious intention touched on so prominently and her struggles in being trapped into her position due to the gender politics of the time and her desperation to be recognised for her work are very well-handled and performed. She’s also an inspirational grounded contrast to Ian Conningham’s delusional high-minded Professor Numan and has strong chemistry with the TARDIS team, treating them almost like stray animals who rapidly grow on her in a way that makes her another strong candidate as a full-on companion. Speaking of which, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are obviously enjoying every moment of the script. Four gets another chance to show his duelling prowess as well as showcase his more amusing alien humour in some tense bits of danger and Leela is in usual form moving a tense side plot along involving a young couple and their soon to be born child. The writing gives everyone something to do in the course of the plot and the climax brings the cast together nicely against a skeletal invasion / Voltron-style monster. It’s big and slightly silly in a way that contradicts a lot of the subtlety that the atmosphere and script had been building up to that point. But it’s hard to deny that it’s not fun even in those over the top moments and it will appeal very well to the younger dinosaur enthusiasts who might be listening to the adventure.
‘Primeval Design’ is a strong emulation of other success stories in the FDA range though it’s not the quirky sci-fi slugfest that you’d think it would be in combining Doctor Who with the popular saurian monsters from another epoch. Helen Goldwyn’s script will not be to everyone’s taste with how slow-paced and drawn out it is in places and the climax it leads to is one of Big Finish’s dumbest in a way that doesn’t quite work with the narrative it spends so much time telling. But far from being a dusty over-exaggerated relic, it’s still an incredibly interesting and entertaining adventure that knows when to bring the action and when to bring the intellect and the heart. The cast performances from both main and side characters are all fantastic, the intelligence behind some of the dialogue and concepts at play is extremely compelling, and its primary focus Mary Anning is another strong historical female lead with so much to tell about her life’s research and a lovely personality to boot. A wonderful highlight of the range as a whole albeit in many different ways than most will be expecting and a strong way to conclude another overall great series of Fourth Doctor adventures for 2021.
— 9 / 10