They say life begins at Forty! And certainly these adventures celebrating four decades of the Fifth Doctor prove that there’s life in the old dog yet
Fans of a certain age might squirm a little uncomfortably in their seats as they realize that it’s a whole forty years this month since they watched Peter Davison’s debut in Castrovalva from behind the sofa. But it’s a landmark worth celebrating, and Big Finish’s Doctor Who: Forty does it in considerable style.
Admittedly, when Big Finish announced the concept for these two boxsets it sounded a strange way to mark the occasion. The Fifth Doctor would become displaced in time. In these stories he finds himself inhabiting other moments in his life, dropped into confrontations with classic Second Doctor villains. But despite featuring the Cyberman of Telos and the Ice Warriors, Forty firmly focuses on the Fifth Doctor’s own history. Almost like a science fiction take on the classic midlife crisis, the two stories in this set see him gain a new perspective on where he’s been and where he’s going and not much liking what he sees.
The Secrets of Telos combines a mystery for the Doctor with a terrible dilemma for his companions
The set opens with six-parter The Secrets of Telos, and the Doctor finding himself dislocation in time. But rather than his usual mode of transport through history, this is something more like Sam Beckett’s predicament in Quantum Leap. The Doctor’s mind has been projected forward along his own timeline to possess his own future body. His first hint that something is wrong is Tegan getting her hair cut short and changing from her stewardess uniform into a white boob tube in the blink of an eye. And his second is that Adric is nowhere to be seen.
Exactly why Adric no longer travels with them is something Nyssa and Tegan wisely decide to keep from him. But the difficulty they have in keeping their secret, and the more the Doctor realizes he wants to know, web of time be damned, forms the emotional core of the set.
The companions’ dilemma worsens considerably when the trio discover they’re on a rocket ship heading away from the planet Telos. A rocket ship carrying an unintended cargo that evokes all their worst memories. Janet Fielding in particular rises to the challenge of some excellent material as her unresolved anger with the Doctor for failing to save Adric threatens to explode at the non-plussed Time Lord.
The synergy between the pulsing sound effects and purring voices of the Tomb Cybermen and the driving metallic theme of their 80s incarnation is stunningly effective
But this isn’t just any rocket ship. It’s Captain Hopper’s rocket ship from Tomb of the Cybermen, and we’re revisiting it only six hours after the events of that story. Tomb is a story that Big Finish have revisited more frequently than most. But ultimately Secrets of Telos is a superior example. If Earthshock had vague notions of channeling the atmosphere and danger of Alien, then Secrets of Telos is the Alien³ of Cybermen stories. There a rogue alien egg threatens the crew in their cryo-chambers. Here it’s the lone surviving cybermat from Tomb that conceals itself aboard in order to convert them as they sleep. But after the inevitable crash that follows, things take a decidedly different turn.
The themes of Tomb are successfully echoed here, with a vast underground Cyberman stronghold on a long lost planet, the Doctor and his friends of a fate worse than death, and a maniacal, self-declared genius with deranged notions of using Cyber-technology for her own twisted plans. But Tomb was always one of the 1960s’ most visceral entries. As a result, this hybrid between it and the patented body horror and violence of the 1980s works astonishingly well. The driving insistence of Howard Carter’s literally note perfect recreation of 80s Cyberman music adds huge amounts of tension and dread, and sits perfectly atop the more inhuman, electronic purring of Nicholas Briggs’ 60s Cybervoices. The result is a story where such elements complement and elevate, rather than dilute, its homage to the Fifth Doctor.
The presence of Christopher Timothy and Barbara Flynn both add to a quality guest cast but makes Forty a celebration of Peter Davison’s career
Appropriately, Secrets of Telos also acts as a celebration of Peter Davison himself. The production team admit to indulging themselves in the casting of this set, and the decision to bring in former co-stars of Davison from beyond Doctor Who is a masterstroke. Our new Professor Parry is Christopher Timothy, who starred alongside Davison in the original All Creatures Great and Small. Meanwhile, Barbara Flynn, whose sexy and confident Dr. Rose Marie frequently left Davison’s more timid Dr. Daker at a loss for words in A Very Peculiar Practice is the mysterious Professor Vansom. Flynn, recently seen on our screens as the deliciously malicious Tectuen, brings the same sly superiority and velvet wrapped condescension to Vansom.
God of War features the Ice Warriors’ long overdue encounter with the Vikings that inspired them
The two episodes of brisk runaround God of War bring up the rear for Forty 1. The Doctor has now quantum leaped his way to events straight after the story Kinda. Reunited with Adric, he confronts some of his own mistakes in his relationship with the young man. Once more, it provides the emotional heart of Forty, the Doctor needing Adric to know how much he cares for and respects him, while consumed with audible regret and a sense of helplessness. It’s fair to say the emotional impact of Adric’s death on his friends went unexplored on television. But Big Finish have definitely made up for that in style in recent years.
The Doctor’s inner turmoil plays out against a script that gives an invigorating twist on a familiar standby. Once more, some unlucky humans have dug an Ice Warrior out of the ice. And, again his reaction to discovering that Mars is now a dead world is problematic to say the least. But this time, the location is a remote Viking settlement in the 1st century, and the locals have mistaken the one-handed Martian for the Norse god Tyr. The beats of the plot jog by at a nicely judged pace that fits the concept perfectly to the runtime. Meanwhile, the resolution manages to bring the action to a pleasing halt without seeming abrupt. Combined with Nicholas Briggs playing Xasslyr in the style of his recent Ice Warriors from Cold War and Empress of Mars, it makes for a very modern feeling adventure.
The core mystery of Forty is largely unexplored in this first volume, but it sets the Doctor a huge moral quandary for Forty 2 to resolve
The Doctor’s drifting through time having little direct impact on the plots of these two stories. Despite that, the linking theme of self-recrimination and powerlessness it creates is a highly effective one. The conclusion in September’s Doctor Who: Forty 2 will make for fascinating listening. Not only will it presumably explain just how and why this is all happening to the Doctor. But if so far Forty is akin to a dark mirror of It’s A Wonderful Life, leaving the Time Lord demoralised about his own failings, will we ultimately leave him in a more hopeful, celebratory mood to mark forty years?
Doctor Who: Forty 1
Doctor Who – The Fifth Doctor Adventures: Forty Volume 1 is available now as a collector’s edition CD at £19.99 or on download from the Big Finish website at £16.99.
Plus, Doctor Who – The Fifth Doctor Adventures: Forty Volume 2 is due for release in September 2022 and is currently available to pre-order as a collector’s edition box set (on CD at £19.99) and as a digital download (at £16.99). Big Finish listeners can save money by ordering both volumes together in a bundle for £38 on CD. Alternatively, the bundle can also be ordered for £33 as a download.