Review by Jacob Licklider
Big Finish Productions with the Third Doctor Adventures have perhaps taken the greatest risk since the inception of the range with Tim Treloar replacing Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor, and that’s releasing a box set without any returning cast members from the Third Doctor’s era. Katy Manning’s Jo Grant is not present nor John Levene or Richard Franklin. Fans of Jo Grant, fear not, she will be reappearing in Volume Eight, as Volume Seven brings one story from Season 7 and one from Season 11, meaning that they include Liz Shaw and Sarah Jane Smith as companions, bringing back Daisy Ashford and Sadie Miller in those roles as well as Jon Culshaw as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Taking this step (and announcing Miller’s involvement in Volume Eight) means that Big Finish are not afraid to use their recast performers in the ranges resulting in fully recast casts instead of having at least one original cast member present. The Third Doctor Adventures Volume Seven also brings two new authors into the range: Big Finish veteran Mark Wright (although not writing with his usual writing partner Cavan Scott) and, in his first four part story, Tim Foley. This takes the range into new territory as Big Finish goes headfirst into its new box set led era of stories.
The Third Doctor Adventures Volume Seven opens with The Unzal Incursion by Mark Wright which takes listeners back to Season 7 of Doctor Who with a story that very easily could have become the greatest hits of Season 7 or the Pertwee era, but Wright’s script really goes in the other direction. The story has a brilliant premise, and like the best of Doctor Who, one that is incredibly relevant to the real world. UNIT is overseeing the activation of Hotspur, an early warning system for alien or domestic threats, something which after the events of the time is perhaps paramount to keeping the Earth safe. Of course, this almost immediately goes wrong as the Doctor, Liz, and the Brigadier are blamed and sent as fugitives while UNIT soldiers begin to turn on our heroes. The conspiracy goes deep into the heart of UNIT as an organisation, right down to the training level while a group of aliens in the shadows ready to destroy the organisation. Wright’s script acts as a sister story to The Ambassadors of Death; doing an alien invasion story where it’s really the human beings who are the main threat and causing the most danger to our characters (and including the title format from that story where the cliffhanger repeats before the title sequence finishes). Yes, the Unzal themselves aren’t like the Ambassadors as they are actual villains, but they aren’t really the threat and are essentially the synthetic voiced monsters. They are a great enemy and just how they condition people into causing dissent in the governing powers and the brainwashing goes deep. Wright has built such an interesting species that kind of goes against the infamous derision from Malcolm Hulke that you could only do alien invasion or mad scientist stories, as The Unzal Incursion does an alien invasion with a very human twist. The aliens are in the background and it’s the humans helping them invade which acts very much like a proto Season 8 story which is fitting with one of the twist reveals here.
Claire Corbett plays Cherilyn Dankworth who is one of the scientists behind Hotspur and one of the first to have come under the influence of the Unzal. Dankworth is given this air of menace from her introduction as Wright makes it clear that she is going to be our villain, drawing on the Pertwee villains from the era with Corbett making her feel like a real threat. There weren’t really any female villains until the very end of the Pertwee era, and adding one in here actually makes this story somehow feel more authentic as it draws on the female villains from the Bond franchise which of course the Pertwee years were inspired by. The real highlight of this story is the return of Daisy Ashford as Liz Shaw; last seen in Primord where she was brilliant, but not quite herself. Having Liz as a character on her own as the companion to the Doctor here is excellent and just wets the appetite for more appearances of the character. Wright takes the opportunity to take advantage of the scientist aspect of the character, having Liz and the Doctor work on the scientific aspect of Hotspur to uncover the conspiracy which is something that essentially left the era once Jo Grant arrived. Trelor and Ashford also capture that loving but still sparring relationship between the Doctor and Liz as Liz did leave because the Doctor only needed someone to hand him her test tubes, but with this added care that just works so well. Jon Culshaw also appears as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart here and is perhaps put a little into the background, but Culshaw as always is a delight and there is something so great about having this team back together doing era appropriate stories outside of the previously limited timeline. The Unzal Incursion is Mark Wright’s tribute to The Ambassadors of Death and the spirit of Season 7 bringing back characters for a conspiracy plot which also can act as a bridge to the rest of the Pertwee era and comes highly recommended. 9/10.
The Gulf is the other story included in The Third Doctor Adventures Volume Seven and goes to the end of the Pertwee era in its setting with Tim Trelor being paired with Sarah Jane Smith, played for the second time by the wonderful Sadie Miller. Tim Foley gets his first two-hour release and relishes in the premise. The Doctor and Sarah Jane arrive at an artist’s retreat on an ocean planet where people have been going missing and interpersonal tensions are rising while something is lurking below the surface. This is of course a standard Doctor Who style plot typical of the era, but Foley elevates it by making this story an exploration of character dynamics with several comments on the types of lives people live throughout their time alive. As the Pertwee era was always political, The Gulf is no exception as the relationship between art and war is explored by Foley with a very interesting conclusion. Some may find the final scenes to be a bit too heavy on exposition as it does have the Doctor essentially telling Sarah Jane what happened “historically” to the surviving characters, but in this instance Foley avoids that by adding in less of a certainty about what the themes are. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer as to if the surviving characters are entirely absolved of their actions here which makes for an interesting examination and an open ended-ness which works for this story without having to make this a sequel. There is also something great in having the creature be a psychic one, lacking a real physical form yet not lacking a presence. Throughout the story there is this feeling that the creature could be anywhere and could be taking advantage of anyone as it brings others into itself. It is preying on those who have had trauma in their past and showing them their trauma which forces them into the creature itself.
Sadie Miller, as previously noted from her performance in Return of the Cybermen, is the spitting image of Elisabeth Sladen, bringing the character back to life and having an excellent role here. Foley has Sarah Jane making the connections with the artists on the colony to try and get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearances. It’s a portrayal which is straight out of Season 11, as once Tom Baker entered as the Doctor, Sarah Jane’s journalism and strengths almost disappeared completely and restoring it here from Foley in the writing and Miller in the performance is excellent. There is clearly a love of her mother’s work in Miller’s performance and she loves taking up the mantle and a place in Doctor Who’s history. Wendy Craig headlines the excellent guest cast in leading several artists in their own relationships and having one older voice among a group of younger supporting characters helps the setting feel richer. Tim Trelor as the Doctor also feels more like in the role of an outsider detective coming in allowing Sarah Jane to be the one to make connections. As with all of Foley’s scripts there is great depth to the characters and emotions which is always a delight, making this slightly edge out the previous story in the set, though not by much. 10/10
Overall, The Third Doctor Adventures Volume Seven continues the trend of excellent adventures for the Third Doctor, taking listeners into previously limited eras with three excellent recasts and two stories which perfectly capture their respective eras. Trelor, Ashford, Culshaw, and Miller all lead the set while Nicholas Briggs’ direction is excellent and brings the set together from two brilliant scripts. 9.5/10.
You can get it on download or CD here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who-the-third-doctor-adventures-volume-07-2375