The Auton Infinity twists and turns in an adventure full of surprises and a keen emotional connection to the Doctor and friends
The naming of Big Finish box sets is a tricky business these days, as they try to sum up an entire collection of stories. But the latest in the Fifth Doctor Adventures range is trickier yet. Dubbed Forty 2, it’s not a reference to some particularly Douglas Adams-ish goings on in the contents. Rather it marks this out as the second volume dedicated to celebrating four decades since the broadcast of Castrovalva, Peter Davison’s first full story as the Doctor. Adding to slight surreality, this time it’s not an overarching title for a set of stories; there’s only story here: The Auton Infinity. Though it does continue to arc plot begun in the two stories of Forty 1. If that sets your head spinning, wait until you hear the story itself. For it’s here that the dense and complicated building blocks of plot finally reveal their intricate design.
Those who haven’t listened to the first volume might feel a little lost at points. However, everything you need to know is covered again here. Indeed, beyond the central concept, little of the specific detail of those stories impacts here at all. Still, as a refresher, the first volume found the Fifth Doctor bouncing up and down his own timeline. His consciousness is leaping into his own body at different points in time, and from one adventure to the next. Sadly Tegan is from too early in the 1980s to make the obvious “What, like in Quantum Leap?” comparison, but you get the idea.
Against a background of UNIT war games gone terribly wrong, comes one of the best Fifth Doctor stories in years
This second volume, aka the six episode The Auton Infinity, begins by putting all that on the back-burner. The Doctor has leaped again to find himself in the company of a post-Five Doctors, pre-Battlefield Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. As far as the Brig’s concerned the Doctor’s been out cold for hours, and we segue into an extended flashback of the Doctor’s most recent adventures. The following few episodes are easily the strongest of the whole Forty saga. In fact, this is arguably the best Fifth Doctor story in quite some time. The Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough are somewhat non-plussed to find themselves wandering into the middle of a UNIT war game. It’s an exercise complete with UNIT troops role playing as alien defenders in squidlike masks. But, of course, there’s more these masks than the troopers slipping them on expect…
Big Finish have proven they’ve an uncanny gift for assembling likeable, engaging UNIT teams at the drop of a hat, and The Auton Infinity provides more evidence. There’s forward thinking, faultlessly professional Captain Meers (Oscar Pearce), and brave and cheeky Sgt. Wharry (Fiona Hampton). Meanwhile, as with all the best UNIT stories there’s a bothersome civil servant. One whose attempts to take charge go hand in hand with lagging two steps behind in even understanding the problem. This time it’s Veronica Holmes (Lucy Fleming), fretting unhelpfully about the destruction of government property as the Doctor strips equipment to jerry rig a device to save the planet. And of course, there’s the Brig, there strictly as an observer, you know. Well, at first… Even the ill fated privates who come under the Nestene influence are, ironically, humanised by a neat little introductory scene at the start.
This TARDIS team are firing on all cylinders, with a cast on top form rising to meet the challenge of the story
Tim Foley’s script dances as it achieves an increasingly difficult task in a Doctor Who story – keeping you guessing. The Autons have invaded this small patch of valley in a remote corner of Wales, with no clear objective but the destruction of a handful of UNIT squads. And as a TARDIS incongruously disguised as a circus tent attests, the Master is also somehow involved. He’s initially a shadowy presence around the margins, a willow the wisp the Doctor fruitlessly chases here and there. Even the Doctor admits, to his nemesis’ delight, that not only can’t he come up with a way to stop their evil alliance, he can’t even work out what their objective is.
The regular cast seem to know that they’re part of something a bit special, too. Peter Davison brings real gusto to the Doctor’s dashes back and forth trying to gather the clues. Similarly, in a strong story for Tegan. Janet Fielding clearly relishes the opportunity to work with some deeper cuts into the character. Teamed with the Autons’ motherly leader Prodigal for much of the runtime, she’s by turns a hostage, a sounding board and a confidant as the slightly psychic plastic woman and the Australian air hostess realize that they have more in common than they’d have assumed.
Meanwhile, it’s a delight to have Mark Strickson back in the Big Finish fold at all. So it’s just a bonus that he’s having such fun with a Turlough on top, sarcastic, pessimistic, form. It’s a particular stroke of genius to correct one of The Five Doctors’ oversights, and pair him with the Brig for much of the story. The make a wonderful odd couple, with all the usual awkwardness of running into your old maths teach in Asda multiplied by a thousand.
Seamlessly playing three major roles, sometimes in the same scene, Jon Culshaw earns a well deserved salute
Speaking of the Brig, Jon Culshaw, surely deserves a round of applause for the sheer audaciousness of playing three major characters in one story. With the Brigadier he shows surprising delicacy, shading in both a Brig who has somewhat lost his swagger and is content to sit in the shade to watch the bright young things overtake him and, later in the story, one with a bit more of his old spirit, eyebrow raised, and moustache twitching as he takes this latest wave of nonsense in his stride.
But Culshaw also provides what must surely be his most convincing impersonation of all with his take on Anthony Ainley’s Master. Every drawl, every lazily rolling chuckle, every splutter of shock at a plan gone just a little bit horribly wrong, sounds like the darkest necromancy. The Auton Infinity shows a particularly strong understanding of this Master too, urbane and sophisticated in manner, but pure chaotic evil by nature as he flies by the seat of his pants through a universe threatening scheme with little more motive than “why not?”
By comparison, Culshaw’s Kamelion could feel like a little bit of box ticking to help almost complete the set of Fifth Doctor companions in Forty. He’s essentially relegated to classic ‘Nyssa duty,’ hanging about in the TARDIS, delivering crucial exposition and punching buttons to push the plot along. But then again, it would be churlish to complain that, along with all its other achievements, The Auton Infinity doesn’t manage what no other story ever has: make Kamelion interesting.
Despite losing itself slightly in the list of necessary explanations towards the end, The Auton Infinity is a magnificent summing up of the Fifth Doctor and his era
As with so many Doctor Who six parters before it, The Auton Infinity falters slightly as it heads into the final two episodes. It provides satisfying explanations of the Doctor’s bouncing through time, and everything else that’s being going on throughout Forty. It also resolves everything with a neatly thought out solution. But both explanation and solution are labyrinthine enough that for a little while it all smacks of a particularly dramatic Powerpoint lecture. It’s an element driven by knotty narrative mechanics that sits at odds with a story which great strength is its command of emotion and personality.
Yet even here it’s admirable how well it draws together the whole Fifth Doctor era together with one perspective. When Big Finish first announced Forty 1, there were some voices curious about how its stories of Telosian Cybermen and Ice Warriors celebrated the Fifth Doctor. But the end of the final episode in this two box set saga, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect summing up of this Doctor or his time on screen. It brings together his companions, his enemies, his hopes, fears and regrets. Even some of the tropes and plot beats familiar from the era are seamlessly remixed into something both modern and internally consistent.
Forty proves a fond portrait of one of the finest Doctors of them all
This is a perfect portrait of an incarnation who feels more bound by the rules than most. A man who, in contrast to his 21st century counterparts, is driven by regrets of the things he couldn’t or didn’t do, rather than those he did. And it’s a timely reminder why Peter Davison is one of the finest actors to helm the good ship TARDIS, and the Fifth Doctor so loved.
So, let’s doff our panamas in salute to a legend. Anyone for forty more?
Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor Adventures – Forty 2
Snowdonia. UNIT is running a training exercise with the Brigadier in attendance. Except it isn’t long before things start to go badly wrong. The fake aliens primed to attack the troops might not be so fake after all, and a temporal disturbance attracts the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough into the fray.
Old enemies are on the scene with a deadly plan – but they might be the least of the Doctor’s worries.
Because he’s recently been sent backwards and forwards through his own lifetime… and he’s finally going to find out why.
Doctor Who – The Fifth Doctor Adventures: Forty 2 is now available to own as a collector’s edition CD box set (+ download for just £19.99) or digital download (for just £16.99). Big Finish listeners can save money by purchasing both of the Forty anniversary box sets together in a bundle for just £38 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £33 (download only).