Blurb: The Doctor arrives in a bleak English midwinter of long ago. Plunging into the snowy landscape of the Dark Ages, he learns that wild dogs besiege the local Tilling Abbey every night. When he is given shelter by the sisters of the abbey, the Doctor begs an audience with the Mother Superior they fiercely protect. Something unearthly has already happened here – and if the Doctor is right, it’s connected to his recent encounters with an ancient enemy.
As night falls again, the dogs can be held off no longer – and the sisters’ secret is about to be revealed. Forced to draw his enemy off into the depths of the TARDIS, the Doctor finds himself in a nightmarish chase through his own ship – but is he the pursuer, or the pursued? As they fight him on his own ground, the hornets are determined to possess his mind...
Format: Multi-voice audio drama starring Tom Baker and Richard Franklin published by BBC Audio and released December 2009.
Setting: Northumbria, England in the midwinter of 1039 and Venice, Italy in the year 1768 both on the planet Earth. The story is narrated by the Doctor at Nest Cottage, Sussex, UK on the planet Earth in 2009.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Invasion of Time and The Ribos Operation and immediately after the audio story The Circus of Doom. The Doctor mentions other malevolent alien races that he has fought such as the Zygons (see Terror of the Zygons), the Axons (see The Claws of Axos), the Nestene Consciousness (see Spearhead from Space and Terror of the Autons), the Kraals (see The Android Invasion), the Pescatons (see The Pescatons), the Krynoids (see The Seeds of Doom), the Mandragora Helix (see The Masque of Mandragora), and Sutekh (see Pyramids of Mars). The Doctor reviews his current situation with Mike Yates in the cellar of Nest Cottage (see The Stuff of Nightmares). The Doctor talks about the ballerina shoes that Ernestina wore (see The Dead Shoes). The Doctor brings the Hornets to 18th century Venice where they possess Antonio (see The Circus of Doom).
Canonicity Quotient: This story inherits the problems of its predecessors. The Doctor apparently had someone hidden away in the TARDIS although there doesn't appear to be any reason why he'd put someone there and even he doesn't seem to know who it is. 0.70
Discussion: The Hornet's Nest saga continues with its fourth installment. By this point the idea of the Doctor narrating a tale to Mike Yates has become old hat. The story does seem to afford him a little more to do. He and the Doctor finally discuss why he was summoned to Nest Cottage and oddly the Doctor doesn't even remember asking Mrs Wibbsey to place the ad. In a way, this covers an issue with the story. It seems odd that with all of the people that the Doctor could have summoned that he'd have picked Mike Yates. Either Sarah Jane or the Brigadier would have made more sense. Even Benton or Ian Chesterton would have made more sense. Summoning Mike made none, so it's good that this is starting to make its way into the plot. It's also nice that finally the "present story" has re-entered the plot as Mike and the Doctor come up for breakfast only to find that the evening has not put the stuffed animals to sleep and they are instantly attacked giving the story its first real cliffhanger. I really look forward to what the story holds for Mrs Wibbsey.
The main plot really isn't that interesting. We know that the Doctor is going to get possessed by the Hornets and then let them out into Venice. Much of the plot just seems like filler to get to that point. Magrs shows some disdain for any kind of religious belief by having a bunch of nuns thinking that a pig is divine because its eyes glow. The Hornets are possessing wolves here and after their possession of people last time and their subtle manipulations of their hosts this makes the story far less interesting. The dogs don't really do anything but act like dogs except that they also wish to rescue their queen. Why the queen couldn't control the pig well enough to get away to her fellow hornets is never really explained. I do like the explanation that the Hornets can't possess anyone whose drank alocohol. That was subtly worked into the previous tales and I hadn't realized that it was important until this point. It also explains why the Doctor drinks so heavily in Nest Cottage. Aside from some witty lines that whole first section of the story is largely superfluous and feels like it was just there to give the Doctor another destination to examine so that the story could be padded into the requisite five installments.
The second part gets even sillier. The Doctor is being possessed but he runs through the ludicrous TARDIS interiors of The Invasion of Time, not really the series' finest moment and while canon not something I'd really want to ever call back to. There's also a silly moment when Magrs implies that the Doctor has even forgotten a person in the TARDIS who calls after him as he runs by but the Doctor loses him. Then once the possession takes hold we have to calmly wait as the Doctor goes through all the motions that we'll know that he'll go through and end up expelling the Hornets into Venice. Terrence Dicks has said it many times. He's glad that they didn't get Tom for the Five Doctors because Tom's plot would have been going to Gallifrey and getting controlled by Borusa. As Terrence says, though, that would have been a weaker story because Tom never really sells being under anyone's control. He always hams that stuff up and he's such a mercurial character that it's hard to believe that anyone can control him. Thankfully, Hornets Nest presents the possession within more of a monologue, which works better, but it's still hard to imagine the fourth Doctor under that kind of control.
It probably doesn't say much for this that I can't even remember Clare Corbett's performance as the nun. Thankfully, Rula Lenska does a creepy and very memorable performance as the queen of the Hornets. The Hornet buzzing and her voice are definite wins for the BBC production as she scares as much as she needs to. Tom Baker still manages to give the same memorable performance. His readings are good but this time the dramatized scenes with the Hornets do seem to lack any kind of real punch to give them more energy. Susan Jameson continues to impress as Mrs Wibbsey. Although she has few lines in the story the line that she walks at the end between sounding helpful and sinister was amazingly well done. I kept second guessing whether it was a red herring or not until the Doctor and Mike opened the door and walked into the hordes of angry stuffed animals. The music is also pretty good, especially the music for the Doctor's possession. But there's also the music that accompanies the TARDIS leaping into the time vortex and the music at the Abbey to highlight the dramatic tension. BBC Audio seems to be learning how to make these Doctor Who audio dramas more effective and it's nice that they're upping the ante a bit to do that.
Final Rating: 6/10
Recommendation: It's the glue that ties together several threads from the previous three stories rather than a really good story in its own right. Listening to A Sting in the Tale is like watching paint dry. You know what's going to happen and just wait for all the pieces to fall into place. There are a few neat revelations along the way - explanations on why Hornets possess certain people and not others and the origins of the Doctor's dog, Captain - but for the most part there isn't much to interest beyond the witty lines intended to distract you from the lack of plot. More and more I'm thinking that this series could have been told over four installments. I recommend skipping it.