Review by Jacob Licklider
Before we begin…a few statements due to the presence of one performer in this release. Trans men are men, trans women are women, non-binary people are non-binary, and James Dreyfus is transphobic. Additionally as James Dreyfus does not use pronouns (see this tweet which reads in part: “2) I don’t consider myself ‘cis’. You may, if you choose. I don’t. 3) I choose not to use ‘pronouns’. You may, if you choose. I don’t.”), James Dreyfus will be referred to as James Dreyfus or simply as Dreyfus in respect with Dreyfus’ wishes.
The Fourth Doctor Adventures: Solo contains the first two of five stories making up the eleventh series of the Fourth Doctor Adventures which is already quite an achievement as it has reached a status as a staple Big Finish range, and surprisingly it has taken eleven years to have a full series where the Fourth Doctor is travelling alone. There have been some standalone special releases such as the Fourth Doctor’s appearance in Classic Doctors, New Monsters and Doctor Who and the Iron Legion, but every series in the range and a majority of the appearances outside of the range have had a companion. This series allows Tom Baker a chance to work on his own with one-off characters within the stories fulfilling the companion role, including a character who was bumped up to companion status for next year’s series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, which allows Baker a chance to test different types of characters outside of the normal Fourth Doctor companion archetype which was either close friend or pupil or both. It also continues the trend of the last two series in having all of the stories being four-episode serials which means they each have enough time to avoid the problems of 1-hour Doctor Who stories.
Timothy X. Atack opens the series and this volume with Blood of the Time Lords, set immediately after The Deadly Assassin, with the Doctor discovering a Gallifreyan book in the TARDIS which has the ability to alter the time-stream permanently. This is the inciting incident for the plot which Atack uses to explore some of the Doctor’s time at the Academy as well as the undercurrent of secret societies and organisations within the Time Lords. The first episode ends with a cliffhanger that elevates things, echoing The Deadly Assassin, with the Doctor confessing to a murder, rationalising motives and the second episode immediately becomes a trial. While Atack’s tribute to The Deadly Assassin could have been a detriment, he was smart in limiting it to the first episode of the story while still contextualising the Doctor post-The Deadly Assassin. Baker plays the Doctor here as lonely and longing to go back and collect Sarah Jane, with the opening scenes including the Doctor calling out for Sarah and then deflating the mood once he realises she isn’t there. While it isn’t a performance where Baker plays the Doctor differently, the undercurrent makes it stand out in this story especially where the character is at this point in his life.
The murders don’t stop after the first episode, and the conspiracy goes deep with one of the Doctor’s tutors from the Academy, Sedanya, played by Annette Badland, is working with several mysterious figures to harness the Mandelbrot, a bat-like creature which terrorises the Recursary. Badland is perhaps the guest star who outshines the rest of the cast, the rest of the cast being wonderful especially Christopher Naylor, Jane Slavin, and Adrian Lukas, but Badland as a villain allows her to really let loose as an actress. She embodies every strict teacher you’ve had who also clearly shouldn’t have been a teacher, though with students like the Doctor there is some sympathy (Atack includes a lengthy reading of trouble the Doctor caused as a student which is quite long and keeping in character). James Dreyfus as the Master for the majority of the story is second fiddle to Badland making an interesting dynamic. Dreyfus gives a good performance as the Master with confirmation that this is meant to be either the second or possibly third incarnation of the character, making the character more unhinged and unrefined. Atack subtly includes nods to Joseph Lidster’s magnum opus Master which adds more depth to the audio.
The Ravencliff Witch is the second and concluding story of this set and introduces Margaret Hopwood, played by Nerys Hughes, the character who while not meant to be a companion will become one in 2023. In her first appearance it becomes clear why Big Finish would bring her back for future sets, Hughes and Baker have amazing chemistry, falling along the lines of two older characters who can connect on a different level. Margaret is a sculptor and the only person standing in the way of an expansion of a power plant in a community with legends of a witch. There have also been sightings of said witch and it is up to the Doctor, Margaret, and some members of the community to get to the bottom of what is causing the sightings. This script is from David Llewelyn who like Atack’s tribute to The Deadly Assassin is doing a tribute to The Stones of Blood, the first half being gothic horror before shifting genres into something more science fiction heavy, although here Llewelyn goes into a political thriller story which is something the Baker era didn’t do often. It makes for a nice change and shift at the halfway point to something completely different but really enjoyable. Llewelyn doesn’t make it feel like a Pertwee serial, although thematically there are similarities to The Green Death and Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and the cliffhangers add to that. Richard Earl appears as Gordon Miles who is revealed fairly early on to be our human villain who becomes more and more unhinged as the story moves along due to the frustration of not being able to expand. This is also a story where Nicholas Briggs actually plays a human character which nowadays is kind of a rarity, but it’s wonderful when it happens as he’s allowed more nuance in his performance on top of his wonderful direction.
The music is provided by Jamie Robertson for this release implementing variations on several of his themes for the other Fourth Doctor Adventures releases which blends very nicely into the stories, but really pops in the suite version included at the end. Robertson and Toby Hrycek-Robinson sound design a story each, giving both stories unique feelings fitting with the era. The Fourth Doctor Adventures: Solo continues the streak of Fourth Doctor Adventures series being top quality since the eighth series. The unique dynamic of the Fourth Doctor on his own makes this release stand out from previous series and Tom Baker still shines after all this time. 9/10.
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