Blurb: ‘Wanted: retired army Captain for light household duties and fireside companionship. Must tolerate mild eccentricity and strong scientific advice. Knowledge of Giant Maggots, Super Intelligent Spiders and Prehistoric Monsters a positive boon.’
Responding to an advert apparently worded for him alone, Captain Mike Yates (retired) is reunited with a ghost from the past. But why has the Doctor, that mysterious traveler in Time and Space, sent for his former UNIT acquaintance?
Trapped by a horde of vicious creatures in an apparently innocuous English country cottage, the two old friends are on the brink of an enormous adventure. As the Doctor relates his recent escapades, it becomes clear to Mike that they – and the Earth at large – are facing an enemy of unimaginable power and horrific intent. The nightmare is only just beginning…
Format: Multi-voice audio drama starring Tom Baker and Richard Franklin published by BBC Audio and released September 2009.
Setting: Nest Cottage, Sussex, UK on the planet Earth in 2009.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Invasion of Time and The Ribos Operation. For Mike Yates it appears to happen just after the framing sequence of The Magician's Oath. In his advertisement the Doctor mentions giant maggots (see The Green Death), super intelligent spiders (see Planet of Spiders), and prehistoric monsters (see The Sea Devils and Invasion of the Dinosaurs). The Doctor tells Mike that lately he's been fighting giant rats (see The Talons of Weng-Chiang), killer robots (see The Robots of Death), and skulls from the dawn of time (see Image of the Fendahl). He mentions that he once traveled with a dodo (a reference to the character Dodo, see The Massacre). He also says that he usually gets along fine with insects except for the Wirrn (see The Ark in Space) and the Zarbi (see The Web Planet).
Canonicity Quotient: There's a lot of stuff here about Mike knowing the fourth Doctor, which doesn't appear to be correct at all. He even talks about seeing him at a party of the Brigadier's as if we're supposed to believe that the Brig and Mike are friends after what happened in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. It also has Mike saying that he's heard of other Doctors, which ignores the fact that he's met the fifth Doctor prior to this (see Deep Blue). The Doctor at this cottage boozing up and waxing on about his adventures seems out of character for the fourth Doctor but as this is a mostly unexplored period it just "feels" wrong. There are many explanations for this. 0.75
Discussion: Although Big Finish is known for doing Doctor Who audios, the BBC has produced a fair number of Doctor Who audio productions themselves. Usually these are "talking book" style for either the tie-in books produced by BBC books or more recently they have produced audio readings of the Target novelizations. After years of Tom Baker saying "no" to Big Finish, it quite a coup for the BBC to get him to agree to do new stories with the Fourth Doctor. In this case the adventures would not quite be a full-cast production. Instead it would involve the Doctor and former companion Mike Yates primarily talking to each other or the audience and narrating their adventures. Two other actors would be involved in each episode to provide a few voices so that there are some dramatized moments in the production. In form it's similar to one of Big Finish's Companion Chronicles but with fewer actors. I was somewhat dreading this release as most of the buzz that I'd heard was negative, but being a completionist I decided to slag on.
It probably has something to do with expectations, but I didn't think that this was anywhere near as bad as I had been led to believe. The good thing is that I knew in advance what the format would be. I know that many people were turned off initially because they'd expected a full cast audio drama but instead received something much more akin to a reading of the material. It's certainly a different type of storytelling than the average Big Finish production, but to me that isn't a horrible thing. I prefer the full cast dramas and having experienced the 4DA's this does feel a little bit like "going backwards", but it's not that big of a deal honestly. It's a bit more than a simple reading of the material, which creates some interest and I just wanted to get into the story as it was being told.
To me the real standout performance here was Richard Franklin. The later Mike Yates portrayed here and the framing sequences of his Companion Chronicles has always been so interesting. He's melancholy and full of regret. The sections that Mike narrates, talking about his trip to the cottage and meeting the Doctor again after years are so well performed. You get the sense of a man with no life of his own. Who else responds to such an advertisement on a whim. He obviously has no one else to spend his Christmas Holiday with. It's nice to see him have his reunion with the Doctor and experience something of a healing. It does seem a little odd that he blames the Doctor for "dragging him into the strange again". It makes it sound like he was somehow forced into these situations in the past by the Doctor but if The Vengeance of the Stones is anything to go by, he willingly signed up for UNIT and was already have problems with extraterrestrial threats before that. It also seems odd that after Mike gives so many indications that he's not happy being dragged into these situations that he gives this overblown sound of delight when the Doctor announces that he's going to tell him another story about "The Dead Shoes". It was bizarre almost to the point of being surreal.
Having the benefit of the 4DA's, I believe that it's a little unfair to critique Tom's performance. He's actually really good in this from a vocal standpoint. His voice is a few years younger and it shows. He sounds closer to his younger self than he does on the 4DA's and I think that he gets the tonal quality of the Fourth Doctor down to a tee. Like many other commentators, I thought that some of the actual dialog seemed a bit strange for the fourth Doctor. It was almost as if someone had originally written the story for third Doctor and then allowed Tom a chance to amend the script as himself. Yet, I give the story the benefit of the doubt. There's a big gap between The Invasion of Time and The Ribos Operation. I think as much as two decades of material could have occurred there. We don't know what the Doctor has been through in that time nor do we know how much the mental strain of holding the Hornets in check is taking on him, so I'm ok with him being a little out of character. After all, the Doctor changed quite a bit in his later seasons anyway, so it's not as if this was without precedent.
The story is very much a standard "invasion of earth" type of tale. The idea of stuffed animals coming to life isn't that far a cry from plastic dolls coming to life and killing their owners. I do like the pacing as the listener comes into this through Mike's point of view, experiencing the story out of order and therefore giving things a more mysterious and menacing manner. The scene where Mike is attacked by a stuffed animal and the Doctor has to calm it is very well done and helps to heighten the action. I also love some of the humor that Magrs puts into the story such as when the Doctor says "Down, Captain" referring to his dog but then adds "not you, Mike." Unfortunately the whole thing gets a little silly when Tom starts talking. All the stuff about the evening time "when stuffed animals go on the hunt" just sounds goofy and meaningless. Tonally, Tom is perfect but a lot of what he says veers from some great dark storytelling to these weird little asides. The thing about comparing the companion Dodo to the dodo bird is another example of this kind of thing. It just didn't work for me. I also don't know why the Doctor feels the need to give his stories portentous titles like "The Dead Shoes". It seemed a little over-the-top to me. Still, I enjoyed this far more than anything else that I've ever read or heard from Magrs. At least it didn't have Iris Wildthyme in it and bereft of her presence I could appreciate his writing a bit better even if it's really not my favorite style.
Some of my other issues are that at this point, Mike seems superfluous to the plot and only present to give the Doctor someone to talk to. Having listened on, I do know that this point is addressed but it seemed like a problem when listening to this one first. I also didn't like that the ending because it basically flagged that this story was just going to be a sequence of tales that the Doctor narrates to Mike, thus leaving us without Richard Franklin's wonderful performance for most of the overall story arc. Having the first story set up the situation it seemed a bit of a missed opportunity not to run forward with the story but instead to just go further and further into narration. I also felt like with Mike helping to set up the story, there was less space for the story being told, so it felt like everything was wrapped up way to conveniently. The Doctor finds out who the villain is and that they want his mind and he invites them all over and they willingly oblige, thus putting them in a position for him to hypnotize them. We also have the convenient element of the TARDIS force fields being set up around the cottage to keep the Hornets in. This is by far not the first Doctor Who expanded universe tale to use such a convenient device but it annoys me every time that the TARDIS is used in this way. There are numerous times when this could have helped the Doctor and it seems rather silly for him not to have used it.
The production values seemed a little low. As many people have said, it doesn't even seem as if people recorded their lines in the same room. There are pauses as one person says their line and another person gives theirs. Once the Doctor starts relating his story to Mike, Mike appears to disappear for almost the rest of the story with only a word or two to remind us of why the Doctor is narrating. It seems a bit odd that the conversation wouldn't have been a bit more interactive. When someone is supposed to interrupt someone else there's also that same uncomfortable pause where someone is obviously told to stop talking mid-sentence and then someone else's line is spliced in. The music and soundscape are a bit sparse. There isn't a whole lot to spice up the performances. A few places some sounds are heard or some music is played but mostly this is just a couple of people reading to each other. It does really favor more of the audio book format as some have mentioned, which is a bit of shame really as I'd prefer utilizing the audio medium more. I do wonder why whoever was making the decisions on this felt the need to create a complete unique and overblown theme song when they use the Fourth Doctor theme as well. I'd have preferred them saving that money to have some more music within the story itself. Susan Jameson is wonderful as the glum housekeeper Mrs Wibbsey but unfortunately there is just way to little of her. Daniel Hill gives a bizarre performance as Percy Noggins going very over-the-top. The electronic effect for his voice when he's controlled by the Hornets is creepy as is the whole idea of being possessed by a hive of hornets, but for the most part he really fails to convince.
Final Rating: 6/10
Recommendation: It's a bit strange, really. There are advantages to the format of telling the story in "enhanced talking book" style but there are also some downsides. One is that the pacing is incredibly slow. Richard Franklin and Tom Baker really shine and Magrs writing really creates a wonderful atmosphere but is undermined by his need to throw in silly nonsense every so often. The guest cast is all over the place and the soundscape is inconsistent. Honestly I'd recommend giving this one a skip and checking out Big Finish's Fourth Doctor stuff.