Blurb: The Doctor and Leela return to Victorian London, in the year 1860.
At St Clarence’s Hospital, respected surgeon Sir Edward Scrivener requires the bodies of the dead… At Doctor McDivett’s Exhibition of Living Wonders and Curiosities, miracles are afoot… And in Gralstead House, the ghost will walk again. Mordrega has come to Earth…
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson published by Big Finish Productions and released September 2014.
Setting: Earth: London, England and The Congo in 1860 & 1861.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock. There is no indication of where this fits in relation to other stories that take place within the same gap but it is likely that it takes place after the audio story Zygon Hunt. The Doctor and Leela talk about having been in Victorian London before and mention Jago and Litefoot as well as the Doctor's instructions to Leela on how to make tea (see The Talons of Weng-Chiang). The Doctor mentions that it has been a long time since he has lost a companion (see The Daleks Masterplan and The First Wave). Leela uses janis thorns and thinks that the Congo is like her own planet (see The Face of Evil). Leela mentions that the Doctor explained dimensional transcendentalism to her (see The Robots of Death). The Doctor mentions that he's met Alexander the Great (see Farewell, Great Macedon).
Canonicity Quotient: The Doctor and Leela at one point act slightly out of character with Leela seriously suggesting that the Doctor is never wrong and he having to correct her. In any other story it would be the reverse. Other than that, it perfectly fits into the canon. 0.99
Discussion: Philip Hinchcliffe was producer of Doctor Who from 1975 through 1977, corresponding to the 12th through 14th seasons of the series. These were also the first three seasons for Tom Baker's Doctor. This was at the time when the show was at the height of its popularity. Fandom has long looked at those three seasons as the pinnacle of Doctor Who and that everything after that point was something of a comedown. It's no denying that Philip Hinchcliffe was a large part of that success. He wanted to push boundaries and tell cutting-edge stories. Partnered with veteran writer, Robert Holmes, as script editor the two were prepared to make Doctor Who into darker territory using an increasing amount of horror elements to tell their stories but always in a way that satisfied the general style of Doctor Who, that science and knowledge always triumphs over ignorance over superstition. Courted by Big Finish, Hinchcliffe produced two new Doctor Who storylines that were then fleshed out by veteran script writer Marc Platt and turned into the two stories contained within the Philip Hinchcliffe presents box.
The first story is The Ghosts of Gralstead. Using The Talons of Weng-Chiang as a template the story once again sees the Doctor and Leela in Victorian London. This story uses different trappings of the era. Instead of the Chinese, we deal with characters from colonial Africa and the story deals with themes of racism and colonialism. Mordrega and society's reaction to her mirrors the Elephant Man while grave robbers work to supply bodies for medical research and don't worry if the bodies may be a little to fresh. There's a freak show and a quack doctor who actually manages to effect cures. The only real criticism is that it never really strays to far from Talons. While Talons is regarded as one of the best episodes of the series of all time, I'd have hoped that we'd try to do something other than just recapture the greatness of that story and try something a little different instead. The Hinchcliffe era on television never needed to retread old ground and it would have been nice to see something a little more fresh than trying to redo the greatest hits.
Still, the story is strong and is enhanced by being allowed 6 episodes. This allows for a larger than normal cast who are able to play off of each other in varied ways to keep the story interesting. It also allows the world and plot the space needed to properly develop. It's a huge shift away from the typical style of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, which are almost all confused to two episodes. The longer runtime allows for a lot more intrigue and a lot more character depth than we're used to getting.
The issue is that Platt admits that he doesn't really know how to write a 6-parter. So he copies from the original series again and takes the story to a new location. Yet, it doesn't feel the same. In the original series when a 6-parter was broken up in this manner the two parts on their own still felt like an intrinsic part of the story. When the action in Talons of Weng-Chiang moves from the Palace Theater to The House of the Dragon it still feels like a continuation of the same story. In this episode 5 feels like filler and just seems to be a way to write out Abasi. If the African element had been more interwoven into the story in the manner that Chinese mythology was in Talons then maybe this would have felt like a natural extension of the story. Instead it just felt like a way to sidetrack everyone for a bit so that this could be a five parter instead of six. Then episode six feels like it wraps things up far to quickly. It's also unclear why the TARDIS displaces everyone in time unless it's just part of the running joke that it can't steer properly. It allowed Mordrega to rack up more of a body count, but otherwise doesn't seem to have affected the story at all. The fact that the Doctor feels redundant to the proceedings doesn't help matters much. After such an excellent buildup in episodes one through four it's a disappointment that falls a little flat in the final two.
It has to be said that I'm also not really a fan of the mystical in Doctor Who. Hinchcliffe writes in the writer's notes about how 19th century people would interpret alien technology but even the aliens themselves treat the Corona of Alcyon as a magical rather than a technological artefact. The Doctor doesn't even bat an eye when told that it was bathed in the blood of a god and now has magical properties. There's also no indication Mordrega and Pajito are from a parallel reality with different physical laws. The Doctor seems to know where Alcyon is placing it within the same galaxy as Earth. Platt seems to be channeling his inner Tolkien with this one as the Corona entices everyone that comes into contact with it and tests them to see if they are worthy of possessing it. It also has the property to bring everyone that dies within its near vicinity back to life. This really hinders any sense of peril that the story could engender. I'd contrast this with another story like Night of the Stormcrow where not knowing exactly what the Stormcrow was actually helped create the fear and tension that the story was trying to engender. Here a little more explanation probably would have gone a long way.
There are other things that don't work for me. I'm confused why Clementine is an adult with a childlike mind. I had thought that something about the original visitation had damaged her mind and that when all the alien influences were sent away at the end that she'd be whole again but apparently it didn't help. Why not just make her a child? Did someone feel that having a child locked alone with Mordrega for months would be to much for the audience? Why can Clemy feel Pajito's presence until they discover that the link isn't in his tomb? Surely she should have felt his presence wane as soon as the link was stolen. It creates more dramatic impact for her to notice it when the tomb is opened but it doesn't make much sense. Edward's motivations seem somewhat unclear. He seems to want to study Mordrega but never does much other than put her out at parties for people to see her in a very superficial way. Then he doesn't care if she eats brains to stay alive. I understand that he doesn't believe that she's an alien and just thinks that she's insane. Yet, I would think that any rational individual would consider that even if she was just a deformed human being that if she were so deranged as to want to feed regularly on human brains that she might turn on her supplier or at the very least show her true colors at one of the parties that he puts on by killing one of the guests. Wanting the notoriety of showing off such a monstrosity to the public doesn't seem to be worth the risk. It seems like if Mordrega had actually given him anything like real information that could have helped him in his field or something of the sort it would have helped to explain this but instead he seems just as crazy as he thinks she is. However, I will say that I do like that the story parallels Doctor McDivett and his freak show with Scrivener and Mordrega as just another quack with a "freak". The only difference is that Scrivener's more upper class background makes them more palatable to high society.
Tom Baker and Louise Jameson seem to be really relishing working with Philip Hinchcliffe again. It probably doesn't hurt that the six-parter gives them a little more meat to work with storyline. Leela gets a bit of a crush on Abasi and is genuinely afraid of Mordrega. It's two things that Jameson has never really had to play with Leela and she enjoys stretching the character in some new directions. Tom gets to play a little more with the angry side of his Doctor and he also seems to enjoy the Doctor tone of this tale, which really allows his wit to shine even greater when it's time to let it out.
They're rounded out by some interesting characters played by some interesting characters. Mordrega of course is the central villain. Completely amoral she doesn't mind killing as many humans as necessary to satiate her hunger. She reminds one a bit of Jasmine from TV's Angel, being a supposedly benign being that eats humans on the side. Carolyn Seymour does a wonderful job giving Mordrega a voice. She can seem quite polite and well mannered but when she's being her true self she injects the voice with a sort of predatory tone that makes her seem incredibly frightening. She's assisted by Edward Scrivener, an unscrupulous man of medicine who would seemingly stop at nothing to be recognized by society. Gethin Andrews plays Scrivener with a sort of "used car salesman" quality. He seems slick and oily and not the type of person that you should trust. Martin Hutson plays his brother, Cedric Scrivener. He's an interesting man being a big game hunter in Africa but he isn't the kind of stereotype that you normally see in stories like Ghost Light. Instead, Cedric seems genuinely interested in the science of it all and having experienced the loss of his wife and his daughter's sanity he has something like the weight of the world on his shoulders. Hutson gives Scrivener that a very fatalistic air. He's a man that has had so much happen to him that he doesn't feel like things can improve until the Doctor shows him that maybe his "curse" can be over. Completing the Scrivener family is Cedric's daughter, Clemy, played by Emerald O'Hanrahan. She does a good job of making Clemy sound like a child even if the script makes some of her behavior hard to fathom.
Alan Cox goes a bit overboard with Dr Gideon McDivett. He's a bit to stereotypically over-the-top Irish. Still, the idea of a carnival quack who can really heal people is an interesting one and it's a shame that McDivett doesn't get more to do in the story. Cox also plays the Butler, Hill. He plays Hill using as a remarkable Toby Hadoke impersonation. Having heard Hadoke on many Doctor Who DVD commentaries I thought for sure that he'd been cast in this story to play Hill. Instead, it turns out that it's just another roll played by Cox. Hill is fairly bland but he is supposed to be a servant so there's not much to criticize there. Abasi is Leela's love interest in the story. She instantly becomes taken with him when she sees him in the theater and it's a really cool thread here that Leela gets another "savage" to hang out with and fight with in the story. Unfortunately, Abasi doesn't have Leela's bravery and his character arc is to find the courage to face his fears and confront his father's killer. Ivanno Jeremiah plays Abasi as a fish out of water unsure of his place, but his loyalty to Leela it touching and he put a lot of real emotion into his proposal to her towards the end of the story. Jonas Bulmer and Ned Davey are a typical double-act. They're very similar to Mr Quill and Mr Oak from Fury from the Deep or Mr Kidd and Mr Wint in Diamonds are Forever. They're unscrupulous grave robbers. When there aren't enough dead bodies they don't mind killing a few people to make some fresh ones so that they can be paid. They're not very interesting or dynamic characters but they're important ones for showing the how dark those times were. Similarly, Mrs Targate runs a poor house, but is a close-minded racist who thinks it "isn't natural" for people to stop dying from disease. She has some amusing conversations with Bulmer and Davey but is mainly only there to provide color, something that Mandi Symonds provides effortlessly. Obingo is the evil warlord who displaced Abasi's father as the King of his tribe. His role only exists in episode 5 but he becomes the major antagonist there. He steals the show, giving a charismatic portrayal to this petty and cruel warlord that distinguishes him from a generic run-of-the-mill villain. Also, it gives you a nice feeling when he gets his comeuppance at the end.
Platt refers to this story as an epic and one can certainly see why he feels that way. The Ghosts of Gralstead doesn't feel the need to emulate Dudley Simpson's musical style and instead creates a lush cinematic type score that's really refreshing to listen to. It gives an impression of what the Tom Baker era may have sounded like if they'd ever been able to make movies as was discussed at the time. There's also a richness to the soundscape. Everything from Africa to Victoria London is recreated. There are other worldly sounds and ghostly echoes. The whole thing sounds fantastic and it's another nice reason to have a longer story every now and then to get these kinds of production values.
Final Rating: 8/10
Recommendation: The Ghosts of Gralstead plays things safe by emulating one of the Hinchcliffe's eras best stories, The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The trappings are new, the performances are fantastic, and the production values are epic. Unfortunately the effort can't be maintained. After four nearly perfect episodes, the story begins to flag with the latter two. Still, the whole effort shows that a six parter can allow a story to breathe in a way that shorter stories can't and the story never gets bad even if there are a lot of things that don't make sense. I'd definitely recommend it.