Blurb: Winter at the seaside. The wind blows. The waves crash. People are dying and a strange spindly figure stalks the cold, deserted streets. A typical holiday for the Doctor and Leela in other words.
When they stumble across a grotesque series of murders at the coast, the TARDIS travelers realize the local constabulary is out of its depth. Something supernatural has come to town, something evil. And it all seems to be tied in to a particular young family.
Monsters lurk behind strange doors. Tragic secrets wait to be uncovered. And somewhere, deep within, the Crooked Man sits. He is waiting for you.
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson published by Big Finish Productions and released March 2014.
Setting: Earth: Eastwold, England sometime around the year 2014 and The Land of Fiction.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock and after the audio story White Ghosts. Leela refers to Xoanon talks about how her father took the test of the Horda, so that she could live (see The Face of Evil). Leela refers to the police as blue guards (see The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Foe from the Future, and Energy of the Daleks). The Doctor talks about visiting the Land of Fiction once before and meeting characters like Gulliver and Rapunzel (see The Mind Robber). Ellis is a fan of Professor X (see No Future).
Canonicity Quotient: It seems very out of place for the Doctor to say that he "smells" death. Even if this is a euphemism for some deeper sense then it's usually Leela who would have it, but here she feels nothing out of place. 0.98
Discussion: The third season of Fourth Doctor Who Adventures had made great strides. They truly feel like stories that could have been produced at the time when Tom Baker and Louise Jameson were making Doctor Who. It also seemed like Tom and Louise were really jelling this time around. Their energy and enthusiasm just to seems to be in a whole different space then it was before. I was excited to learn that the third story would be written by my favorite Big Finish writer, John Dorney. Dorney always seems to understand the subtleties of character better than many of the other writers and also seems to be able to tell a compelling story with some neat twists. That's pretty much everything I want in a story so I went into The Crooked Man with a lot of hope.
My hopes were pretty well realized. Once again, the script and direction work together to give us a story that is just as dark as the Doctor Who of Tom Baker's early days was. The idea of a book seller being killed by having one of his books shredded and forced down his mouth is disgusting and yet it's the kind of horrible imagery that Doctor Who of those days thrived on. The nice thing is that on audio they are forced to do exactly what the series of the time would have done. They would have described the murder in all its grizzly detail and left the rest up to your imagination. That's so much more horrible than actually showing the body like they would on TV nowadays. Having the Doctor and Leela investigate the murders is a great way to build up suspense and I have to confess that I had absolutely no clue where things were going until the big reveal despite having it slightly telegraphed when the Doctor noticed that whatever killed the bookseller broke out of the case.
The twists in the story really help to complement the plot. Yes, it was a twist that the story was about the land of fiction bleeding into our world. The same thing is described in the novel Head Games, but here it takes on darker aspect. For each fictional creation that makes it into our world, someone from our world must die. It explains the grizzly murders in the town. Each one was a victim of one of the fictional characters. Yet, suspicion falls quickly on the Crooked Man as the reason for the hole in reality. It isn't unless the reader thinks about it that he realizes that if the Crooked Man didn't create the hole that he didn't even get let out until he came out of the manuscript in the bookseller's shop. This makes sense, since that's the same time as the door appearing in the house. But what doesn't come naturally is that it means that since Simon was the first one to come through the hole that he had to murder someone. One wonders if he wasn't the reason that Laura's father died since it's likely that he would have come through at the house. I also really love the ideas that fiction and fictional media are constantly increasing. It seems that the Land of Fiction needs a master to try and regulate the fiction and pick what's a winner and what isn't. It also make one wonder about the relationship of the Land of Fiction to the real world. Do the characters that get to stay in that world take root more strongly in our subconscious or is it because they are a stronger part of our subconscious that they have more power over there? In any event, the idea of characters existing from unpublished manuscripts, fan fiction, novelizations, and even strong fantasies makes them not only an eclectic bunch but also ads a touch of humor whilst also being a commentary on the glut of stories and story telling media that we have available. Heck, at one point a monster out of a D&D roleplaying book lumbers after them. It seems like Mr Dorney is lamenting that there's so much wasted material that people never even get a chance to experience and that it's cast aside much like how the characters themselves have been cast aside.
As usual, Dorney makes a story with some emotional heart and character study. This time it isn't Leela or the Doctor on study. They're played wonderfully. I do love the touch that Leela being the most literal minded of them would have the most chance against a creature that feeds on imagination. I also like that she notices that Ellis has a thing for Laura because she notices body language. Her brief touches innocence as she wonders about the Doctor's various idioms are done well and Louise is still giving great performances. I do think that they missed a nice beat when Leela is so dismissive of Ellis at the end. I would have liked for her to have commented about how she found Ellis kind of sweet or in some way for the story to end with a nod to her eventually ending up with Andred a character who is not really dissimilar from Ellis. The Doctor is also on form being several steps in front of everyone else with the plot. I've read some reviews which criticize this about the story, but to me this just feels like any other Tom Baker story. His Doctor is always ahead of the curve and Tom seems to really thrive on these darker stories. The character of Ellis is fun. He seems like just a regular policeman, but you find out that he's a hardcore geek that can easily reference the more esoteric fictional characters that pop up throughout the story. I like how he's so nonplussed by the more bizarre elements going on around them and it's nice that in the end he winds up with Laura because he's the kind of dependable, reliable person that you can find in the real world. I do have to say that I found the revelation about Simon to be a bit obvious almost as soon as episode two started, but the whole idea of what a perfect father is and how he'd do anything for his family is incredibly touching to me, having a family of my own and his ultimate sacrifice for them still resonated with me and felt pretty profound. I've read some reviews that criticize Laura but really she must have known that something was up when the man of her dreams appears in the flesh and it's obviously put her out of sorts since the first episode shows her as paranoid, looking around herself and wondering if other things from her imagination will pop up. Yet, I think that it's completely believable that she someone would fool themselves into living a fantasy if it were prevented to them. As it is we have people who retreat from reality into far less believable fictions on the computer. If a fantasy became 100% lifelike I don't think that anyone would live in the "real world". I do have to say though, that I have one criticism on the Laura/Simon score. The Doctor says that he already knew that Simon was fictional because he had the same last name as Laura as if that were an impossibility. Yet even though it's rare some men do take their wives' last names and there are also cases where people who happen to share a last name already get married. This seems like a very old-fashioned point of view, which doesn't seem really appropriate for a Time Lord. I'm also a little disappointed that the subplot between the Doctor and Leela has been completely dropped at this point. I hope that it'll crop up again towards the end of the season but this seems like a real shame if they don't use this to explain the relationship between the two of them in season 15.
The production on this one maintained the usually high standards that I've come to expect from Big Finish. The music wasn't Dudley Simpsonesque but that's fine for me. Even in the days when he was a regular, some director's chose to use other composers. This time the score fits the tone of the story with a sort of discordant piano music throughout. There's a nice soundscape with various sounds setting the mood of the holiday location as well as those associated with books. There's also various action sounds with growls, breaking windows, and pounding on doors to keep things moving along. I'd be also be remiss without mentioning Neil Stuke as the Crooked Man. He's not very interesting from a character point of view but Stuke makes him seem both somewhat jovial and creepy and deadly all at the same time. The treatment of his voice just makes him a little more sinister and he's great to add to the atmosphere that things are askew in the world. Dorney also seems to be the only writer that understands how to properly pace two-part stories. All of the other regular writers for this range have had at least one story that had pacing that felt off but this story feels like it's just as long as it needs to be.
Final Rating: 9/10
Recommendation: It's another dark and atmospheric fourth Doctor tale that'll remind you of those stories from the height of Tom Baker's run. Watching the Doctor and Leela investigating murders is a delight and there are some twists and turns that'll intrigue older fans while not excluding the newer. Along the way there's some nice character moments and I think that most people will find it hard to get through the end without tearing up a little. I highly recommend it.