Blurb: While investigating a temporal anomaly in Central London, the Doctor and Jo Grant meet Professor Harold Saunders, a man who possesses an unstable alien artefact, and who is seemingly haunted by the ghosts of dolls.
Who is the mysterious Mrs Killebrew? Why is a pack of hounds hunting them in reverse? And can Jo pick up any bargains while backwards shopping on Oxford Street?
Format: Limited-cast audio drama, a Companion Chronicle from the point-of-view of Jo Grant. Published by Big Finish Productions and released September of 2008.
Setting: Earth: London, United Kingdom. UNIT dating makes the precise chronological placement of this story iffy but it's during the third year that the Doctor is with UNIT, which I would place in 1972. Jo narrates the story by typing it in her blog in London of 2008.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Daemons and The Day of the Daleks. Jo refers to being hypnotized by The Master (see Terror of the Autons). The implication is that some time has elapsed since the Daemons as Jo indicates that they stop alien invasions on a frequent basis and that this is what has caused her to constantly miss out on her training classes at UNIT. In the framing sequence Jo mentions Cliff and their work in the Amazon rain forest (see The Green Death and Planet of Spiders).
Canonicity Quotient: The war between the audios and the novels continue as this story contradicts Genocide's account that Jo and Cliff divorced. I realize that the new series would take this on board later but at the time that this audio was created that had not happened yet. There's also some strangeness with Jo stating that aliens always invaded every Friday, which doesn't fit what we were presented with onscreen and likely a reference to the author's own thinking of the stories when he was a child. HannaH mentions that the Doctor is Earth's first peaceful alien contact but the British government had at least already signed a treaty with the Fulgarites prior to the Doctor's arrival at UNIT (see The Perpetual Bond). 0.85
Discussion: The Doll of Death was a very fun companion chronicle. It was the first audio recorded for the character of Jo Grant and it's clear that they wanted to recreate as much of the atmosphere of the Barry Letts era as possible in the story. The name itself is a bit of a misnomer as there isn't a whole lot of death in this story. I believe that only one person dies. Yet the title easily conjures up images of the Auton doll from Terror of the Autons and it does fit the sort of overly dramatic titles that were so common in this period of the show's history. In fact, you can almost say that this one's entire purpose is to recapture the feel of the Pertwee stories.
The story has all of the elements to recapture that Pertweeness. You have the phone call about some mysterious goings on. You've got the Brigadier trying to grapple with something that's outside of the norm. You have Jo coming through despite being perceived as as flighty and useless. You have the Doctor mulling over whether he'll ever be able to leave the Earth and being a little underhanded in his attempts to get off the planet. You're knocked over the head with some 70's politics and the Doctor has to deal with a bureaucratic idiot. There are even dolls as we've mentioned harkens back to the Autons. In many ways it is Pertwee by numbers and that is only a good thing.
That isn't to say that the story doesn't have some neat concepts of its own. The whole idea of retrocausation is neat as is the idea that an alien might be interested in observing the Doctor as Earth's first peaceful alien contact. Whether or not that's true at least from the TV show's point of view it works and it does remind you of the Pertwee era. The ghostly dolls, giant dogs with no eyes, and backwards speech also add to a creepy atmosphere that pervades the story and keeps your attention as you listen. I also like that this is very much Jo's story and she's the one driving the action. Her interaction with Benton is really cute and her anecdotes about Mike Yates feel so right for the period and are also amusing. I really like how the Brigadier when confronted with moving backwards in time is worried that he might "disappear up his own birthday". It's an amusing turn of phrase but fitting for the situation that they're in.
I can't say enough good things about the sound design on this one. I don't always notice the music but in this one it's hard not to notice how perfectly Pertwee the music is. It is very much of its era almost feeling like they lifted the score straight from the TV episodes. I know that it isn't the case but I love those low, percussive, electronic notes that just reminded me of watching those amazing stories on TV. HannaH is very creepy not only because her voice is so creepy but also because her backwards cries of "Momma!" are so shrill. Even the dogs sound so vicious. It all helps to add to that creepy atmosphere of the story making you feel unsafe in a normal "modern" Earth setting. I also have to express my admiration for Katy Manning's performance. It's her first outting as Jo in decades and it's clear that she hasn't yet perfected her performance. Her young Jo sounds great but she quivers her voice far to often. Jo did that in the TV show but not in everything that she said. That was reserved for when she was emotionally distraught. I also don't think that her Doctor was very good at this point although by her next one that will be polished. Her Brigadier was ok and her Benton although brief was just about perfect. Still, Manning is a master of voicework and even the other parts like HannaH are performed fantastically. Jane Goddard also does a fine job as Mrs Killebrew. The character is supposed to be elderly and annoying and you get that conveyed in spades in her performance. Her voice sets me on edge but I think that it's supposed to so I give it high marks in that case. The great sound design in this one really helps to sell the story, which isn't highly innovative as we've said and has some problems which I'll mention below. It really helps the whole thing to feel like a Pertwee story which to me is exactly what an audio should do - evoke the feeling of the era that it's set.
The story is really beset by problems though. HannaH's motivations don't make any sense. She says that she wants to leave but then when it comes down to it she doesn't want to go back to her own world and would rather send someone else back in her stead. Um, why? If she's here to interview and/or study the Doctor she'll have soon reversed herself past the point when he arrives on Earth and the Earth itself will only get steadily more and more primitive. It seems like a move to heighten the drama at the end but doesn't make much story sense. The whole retrocausation is not realized well at all. There's a Red Dwarf episode that covers this and that's a story that works. Here you have an issue where the Doctor steals some cakes so that they can get some food, but imagine this from someone viewing this forwards in time. The Doctor would be sitting and barfing the cake up and it would reassemble itself. He would then back up into the cake shop and place it on the counter. Someone would then walk by and buy the cake and eat it. The cake was never baked, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Plotwise it doesn't make sense either. HannaH apparently arrives at some point in the future since she runs backwards in time. Yet, she and Mrs Killebrew state that Harold Saunders stole it. Yet how could he have done. He died in this story meaning that whenever HannaH did arrive he was already dead and would have only "come alive" from her point of view towards the end of these events. It also seems strange that Saunders was seeing all these ghostly dolls before the Doctor gets involved. Once the Doctor and Jo get into the reverse time flow the confrontation happens in Saunder's lab at some point before the Doctor reenters but presumably after he has the confrontation with the forward going Killebrew. It's heavily implied that HannaH returns to her own world during the confrontation so why is Killebrew still involved at a point before all of that and why did Saunders see ghost dolls before all of this? From HannaH's point of view that confrontation should have been the end of the story even though it was near the beginning for the Doctor and Jo. There's other strangeness too such as why are there "retrievers" and why are they dogs? Surely a more intelligent being would be better to capture a fugitive. Also what is up with the other dolls? The one dolls is possessed by HannaH but why do the other dolls move sometimes? Are those other beings from her world?
Final Rating: 7/10
Recommendation: If you love the Pertwee era then this is the story for you. There are a lot of the elements that made the Pertwee era great and the sound design is gripping but also evocative of that era. The plot also has some neat conceits, but I wouldn't recommend thinking to closely about the whole thing. On the surface it works but once you start examining the individual elements it falls apart. As an avid Pertwee fan I highly recommend this one, but treat it like candy. It'll make you feel great but don't expect anything to nutritious from it.