The latest Fourth Doctor Adventures Boxset from Big Finish provides a Tom Baker showcase in The Nine
Big Finish’s move to giving box sets names rather than series numbers has only really had one downside. And that’s a noticeable difficulty in finding one appropriate, overarching name or theme to connect the diverse stories. In this case they’ve billed the latest volume of the Fourth Doctor Adventures as Doctor Who: The Nine, despite the eponymous villain only featuring in one of its three stories. So put any expectations you have of a greater presence for him aside. You’re still left with a trio of outings for Tom Baker showcasing all his considerable charm and wit.
With the Doctor travelling solo, each of the three stories introduce a temporary new friend
In the interviews accompanying The Nine, composer Jamie Robertson refers to the sense of warmth and joy that somehow encapsulated Baker’s time on television, no matter the horror or death count on screen. And there’s no finer way to sum up this boxset. As with all the current ‘season’ of Fourth Doctor Adventures, the setting is between The Deadly Assassin and The Face of Evil, when the Doctor is travelling alone. It seizes the opportunity to bring the Time Lord himself to the fore. And the stories here give Baker even freer reign than normal to be his whimsical, wittiest best.
Each story does teams him with a different new friend though. One who, as is the way with these things, falls into the companion role, albeit temporarily. Doctor Who writers, perhaps inevitably, usually adore creating characters that would have been great companions if only… But refreshingly The Nine features three assistants to the Doctor’s investigations who, nevertheless, have within them something that means they never really could be a longterm companion. It’s a nice reminder of just why the Doctor selects those happy few to invite to travel with him. And also of just what special people they are.
The Dreams of Avarice sets the Doctor on the trail of kleptomaniacal Time Lord the Nine
The Dreams of Avarice gives us that singular appearance for the Nine, and what a tremendously fun baddie he is. John Heffernan has a whale of a time playing the unhinged kleptomaniac, as does the audience listening to him. An earlier incarnation of the same Time Lord we usually know as the Eleven, he’s less about schemes of universal domination and more about filling his vault with lovely, lovely loot. He’s not even not that discerning. Along the way, the play mines some hilarity from his inability to let pass any opportunity to possess something. Not even a latte.
Perhaps because there are fewer of them, and perhaps because the Nine’s ambitions are so fluid, flowing directly from his id’s desires at any given moment, his past incarnations also seem to give him less trouble than the Eleven’s. There’s some grumbling from the sidelines that his unhinged kleptomania is beneath them. But they largely leave him along to get on with it. It’s a far cry from he constant backseat driving the Eleven has to put up with. That said, he has enough trouble grappling with his own compulsions, as his mania means and need to continuously go bigger and bigger and bigger means even he never quite knows where his scheme will go next.
Tom Baker is matched with Richard Dixon’s Probert as the jaded copper gets dragged into the strangest case of his career
Tom Baker, meanwhile, is paired with Detective Inspector Probert. He’s a plain speaking copper who’ll have no truck with any silliness today, thank you very much. He starts off as a grand foil for a Fourth Doctor on top form, and you can almost hear the throbbing vein in his temple as his latest arrest, some bloke in a ridiculously long scarf, keeps letting himself out of his cuffs to do odd jobs fixing light fittings and air conditioning. But he soon evolves into a man trying to keep his head in a suddenly mad world. His and the Doctor’s hot pursuit whisks him away to a decadent planet of rocket boots and Vatican sized waiting rooms. But still he remains dogged in his pursuit of the Nine and his ever more outlandish desires.
It’s this balance between the Nine’s madness running rampant, and the Doctor’s audible warm smile at Probert’s holding on to his old certainties by his fingernails that makes The Dreams of Avarice such a delight to listen to.
Shellshock places a concussed and confused Doctor in a military hospital. But what it is the sinister secret behind its revolutionary new procedure?
The set’s second four parter is the World War One based Shellshock. Beginning with the Doctor awakening in a psychiatric ward for victims of shellshock, having been found amid the aftermath of a bomb blast in no man’s land, it’s early scenes are another opportunity for Tom Baker to indulge himself as the discombulated Time Lord slowly gets his mind back in order. But there’s a mystery to be solved in this German field hospital. How has sinister Dr. () invented electroconvulsive therapy a quarter of a century early? And what’s more, how does it have such an extraordinary effect, completely altering the personality of shell shock victims into battle hungry berserkers consumed by blind patriotism?
The story successfully walks the difficult line between featuring an alien menace and blaming humanity’s own failings on it
The Doctor’s aided in his investigations by Nurse Hanna Schumann, who is also becoming increasingly concerned by the treatment’s strange results. She’s intelligent, resourceful, courageous and, as she learns to trust the Doctor, able to keep an open mind about even the most outlandish possibilities. Yet the script successfully keeps her one step beyond where the Doctor can reach her. Her patriotism and sterling belief that the war is a just one, even in the face of the Doctor’s attempts to guide her to a wider point of view, is a nice note in a pseudo-companion. And one which immeasurably improves on Journey Blue’s similar denouement in Inside the Dalek.
Simon Barnard and Paul Morris’ script is equally skilful in holding the line between featuring an alien menace behind the scenes, as required by the Doctor Who format, and avoiding excusing the worst excesses of the human race by blaming them on outside influences. The creative team rightly cite Quartermass and the Pit as an inspiration here. Yet Blogtor Who couldn’t help but think of the 2017 Wonder Woman movie. Both in its WWI setting and Diana’s struggle to come to terms with humankind being quite capable of such horrors with out without interfering gods. The fiercely intelligent script also keeps on piling on the complications as the plot advances. It all makes Shellshock a deeply satisfying listen. Even if a late get-out-of-jail card feels rather more Russell T Davies than Robert Holmes…
Peake Season brings together the Doctor and fantasy writer Mervyn Peake in a wonderful pairing of affectionate bickering
Following these two four-parters comes the small but perfectly formed Peake Season. While the other pair are also availably separately, this is exclusive to The Nine and certainly succeeds in making the upgrade worthwhile. It continues the theme of giving Tom Baker fun material to work with. Indeed, this two parter is built on top Baker being a huge admirer of the writer and artist Mervyn Peake. Creator of the Gormenghast books, Peake is famed for his sly sense of humour and satirical depictions of worlds and social conventions calcified by blind adherence to ‘how it’s always been done’ even as decay creeps in, ignored. So it’s natural that Lizbeth Myles’ script immediately plunges the Doctor and his new friend Mervyn into exactly such a world.
The puzzle at the heart of the mysterious “The City” isn’t terrifically challenging and the typical Doctor Who listener will start to have a sense of the answer’s general shape barely halfway through Part One. But Big Finish know what the real attraction is here. They avoid overcomplicating the plot to allow us to focus on the magnificent mismatched bromance between Mervyn and the Doctor. In a bravura move, the story immediately creates an incident involving a Police Box in a certain writer’s study. Followed by someone touching something they shouldn’t. We then timejump instantly to them having shacked up together as reluctant bedsit flatmates for the past several weeks. And, wonderfully, they’ve been earning their crust as political cartoonists for a local newspaper.
Exclusive to The Nine, Peake Season will leave you with a smile right the final scene
It actually makes Mervyn, despite his brief tenure, feel even more like someone with a complete relationship with the Doctor than some full time companions. After all, how many of those have had to argue about the washing up, or the Doctor’s socks in the sink? It helps too that Mervyn is so well sketched, if you pardon the pun, and performed by David Holt that from him that familiar mix of admiration and exasperation feels absolutely real and enchanting. And as they run down the cobbled streets into mystery together, it’s almost a shame Mervyn can’t stick around longer in The Fourth Doctor Adventures.
The final coda will left you laughing like a… like a… well, like a Tom Baker. And what finer laugh is there than that?
Doctor Who: The Nine
Doctor Who — The Fourth Doctor Adventures: The Nine is now available to own for just £24.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £19.99 (download only) exclusively from the Big Finish website.