Review by Jacob Licklider
The Third Doctor Adventures for 2021 were announced as two sets exploring essentially every part of the Third Doctor’s run; with Volume 7 exploring the Season 7 team and the space faring version of the Third Doctor during the later half of Season 11, and now we have Volume 8 exploring the Doctor and Jo as well as a UNIT story post-The Three Doctors which much like The Time Warrior and Planet of the Spiders. Volume 8 takes two very different stories and makes them work together in a package much like Volume 7 had to do with The Unzal Incursion and The Gulf.
Volume 8, like Volume 7, brings two new authors to the range in Big Finish veteran Alan Barnes and Robert Valentine, both writing their first forays into the Third Doctor’s era, both sending up classic Third Doctor stories. The set includes a prequel to Frontier in Space and a spiritual successor to The Daemons, setting up Volume 8 to be a rather diverse set with two very different stories.
Alan Barnes’s Conspiracy in Space sees a freed from exile Third Doctor taking Jo Grant on a holiday, but is cut short when the Time Lords send them to Draconia in the distant past. The planet is on edge, tensions with the planet Earth are high and war could be breaking out at any moment. The previous emperor is dead, and the Grand Widow is preparing to name her successor while two humans attempting to defect from Earth escape with the plans to a doomsday weapon. Barnes’s script is alive with worldbuilding and slips in very nicely with the future Earth stories of the era, giving us insight into the world as seen by Malcolm Hulke, giving us a ruthless vision of the future where humanity is under the thumb of corporations. The main thrust is the human defectors and the villainous Lady Zinn played by Imogen Church, who doesn’t trust the humans and is vying for her own power. Like the other Big Finish Draconian stories, this is a metaphorical game of chess, subtler at the metaphor than say Paper Cuts which was both metaphorically and literally a game of chess, with the Doctor and Jo in the middle. Barnes takes listeners down the familiar path of the Doctor and Jo immediately being captured by the Draconians, but as always the Draconians aren’t treated as antagonists. This isn’t an alien invasion story, this is a political thriller from start to finish building right to a parody of almost a Bond film (Alan Barnes’ working title was On His Draconian Majesty’s Secret Service and it’s a shame that wasn’t used). Each of the cliffhangers of the story are essentially action set pieces which feel the closest to a 1960s/1970s Bond film, straddling the tone of dire seriousness with utter camp.
There is some wonderful skepticism from the Doctor here at the very beginning, with the doomsday weapon being one only ever speculated as theoretical and it being not only possible, but actually secretly built by the humans to build up the war for their own gain. Tim Trelor as the Doctor while not exactly sidelined, is in more of an investigative role throughout the story, understanding the culture of the Draconians and how they will change (this is set before they stop allowing women into politics which is partially what the story builds up to, that regression through tragedy). The Doctor is the detective unravelling the conspiracy while Jo Grant is really the one interacting with people and having this great romantic subplot with Lieutenant Ruji, played by Sam Stafford. They’re paired off and Katy Manning sells the relationship with Stafford, as the pair share the audio equivalent of sideways glances and sweet nothings. Of course this is a relationship that is not meant to be, eventually tying itself back into the conspiracy with double crosses and danger around every corner. The direction and music are both handled for this release by Nicholas Briggs. The direction is what listeners will expect from Briggs, bringing out the performances in the actors, but it is the music where there is a pleasant surprise. Briggs draws heavily on the synthesized scores of the Pertwee era for the entirety of this set, heavily here in Conspiracy in Space, gives for a unique sound.
Overall, Conspiracy in Space is essentially a reflection on the work of Malcolm Hulke which makes for a brilliant perspective and a great trilogy in Hulke’s future Earth stories. 9/10.
The Devil’s Hoofprints also takes the approach of doing a story in the style of a writer of the era, but here it is doing more of a Robert Holmes style late-Pertwee era story. Robert Valentine’s story takes its cues from The Time Warrior, with a first episode which is focused in the ‘present’ with UNIT investigating a scientific establishment which has come under fire due to a death in the area. The Doctor and Sarah Jane both know the area due to a historical mystery where in 1855 the villagers woke up to mysterious footprints in the snow, in a year with some of the coldest days on record. Valentine asks the question of what connects these two distinct time periods and after the first episode shifting the Doctor and Sarah Jane back in time to that fateful morning while the Brigadier stays behind to deal with Clifton the head scientist who is clearly insane. In the past the Doctor and Sarah Jane meet Rev. Woolsgrove and Sir Basil Hexworthy, played by Derek Griffiths and Robert Daws respectively. These two characters are Valentine’s tribute to the Robert Holmes double act, just with more LGBT implications which make the characters imminently listenable. There is this bumbling brilliance to the characters and Carolyn Seymour’s housekeeper character is also a delight, playing against her usual type of the villains especially in her appearance in The Ghosts of Gralstead.
Valentine’s script, however, is the weaker of the two, mainly due to several issues in pacing. As stated above, it follows the plotting style of The Time Warrior, but adds more cuts back to the ‘present’ with the Brigadier which while always great due to Jon Culshaw’s brilliant performance, makes some of the action feel choppy. There’s also this implication at the end where Valentine adds one throwaway line of dialogue not meaning to be a sequel hook, but feels like an unnecessary sequel hook, if you’ve listened you’ll know what I’m talking about. Unlike The Time Warrior where much of the dangerous action which was affecting the present was happening in the past, The Devil’s Hoofprints has stuff happening in the past which is effecting the present as well as effecting the past and both of those time periods have to be dealt with. It makes the ending of the story especially feel like we should be done much earlier than we are. There’s also restraint in going full fantasy with this story which is honestly to its detriment, The Daemons being a perfect example of how mystical Doctor Who, and the Third Doctor’s era in particular, can go. Trelor, Sadie Miller, and Jon Culshaw of course are worth the price of admission, continuing the trend of the recasts perfectly embodying these characters. Sarah Jane especially is characterized really well with Valentine drawing out the investigative journalist aspects of her character which sadly fall by the wayside in many of her other appearances, which is one of her strongest character traits, at least from the classic era.
The Devil’s Hoofprints is a good story, but just needed some smoothing over in pacing places and some restructuring which could have made it great. 7/10.
The Third Doctor Adventures: Volume 8 is once again a fantastic installment and a great way of Big Finish to explore the less explored era of the show, while still playing into what makes the Third Doctor’s era work. Both stories play on the strengths of the era, examining tropes and the styles of writers specific to the era in a way to create new stories using some classic ideas. 8/10.
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