The Ravencliff Witch plunges the Fourth Doctor into a mix of folk horror and disaster movie. And in Ravencliff he meets the woman who just might be his new best friend
In theory, it’s always been the most obvious ‘gap’ in Doctor Who history. Yet, Big Finish has rarely explored the time between The Deadly Assassin and The Face of Evil, when he was travelling alone. In part that’s undoubtedly down to Tom Baker having one of the strongest succession of companions. If you could make new stories for Leela, K9 and Romana, why wouldn’t you? But the new series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, Solo, finally sees the Doctor travelling by himself for a while.
The end result is oddly liberating. This is a Doctor whose personality was even more expressed than most through his relationships with his companions. He’s a mentor and a tutor to Leela, and any Romana story comes with a prerequisite amount of witty banter and gentle one-upmanship. So what’s this Doctor like when there’s nobody around? The first notable difference is how amiable and content he is to simply bum around the universe, with nobody to justify his meandering course to. The second is how much he talks to himself in the early scenes. And despite that normally being the death of audio drama, here it works surprisingly well. Possibly that’s because, on reflection, the Fourth Doctor did always seize on any opportunity to have an intelligent conversation with himself, even when he did have companions.
A Holmesean atmosphere of menace and mystery places The Ravencliff Witch firmly in Season Fourteen territory
The Ravencliff Witch sees the Doctor pitch up, naturally enough, in the small coastal town of Ravencliff. He immediately falls in with local sculptor Margaret Hopwood (Nerys Hughes), as together they investigate strange goings on, both ancient and new. For a thousand years the ghostly apparition of the so-called ‘Ravencliff Witch’ has stalked the beach. Each time it appears it’s as an omen of death and destruction. But now other things are afoot – the local wildlife are being driven into wild frenzies, people are vanishing, leaving nothing behind but a scorched silhouette, and out to sea are sinister tides. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s an experimental nuclear power station using a brand new radioactive element. One even the Doctor has never heard of.
The plot itself hits similar notes as Image of the Fendahl in places, and the script has deep roots in the atmosphere of menace and mystery of the Hinchliffe era. It doesn’t however, go quite as far into the darkness. In Tom Baker’s original run we always knew things were at their darkest when the Doctor himself was troubled, even frightened. It’s true many of the events here plunge deep into horror territory, like rabid foxes threatening to eat people alive. And the Doctor certainly lays out the apocalyptic stakes in no uncertain terms. But he always seems pretty confident in sorting it all out.
The pairing of Tom Baker and Nerys Hughes brings a fresh new energy to the Fourth Doctor Adventures
Weighed against that is Richard Earl’s perfectly judged performance as the power station’s administrator, Gordon Miles. He joins a great Doctor Who tradition of such characters, as his attitude evolves from simply dismissing the Doctor’s concerns to outright paranoia as events overtake him. The Ravencliff Witch is a drama of vast cosmic forces and inexplicable natural horrors. But it’s Miles who’s at the centre of some of its most disturbing moments.
Meanwhile, the pairing of Nerys Hughes and Tom Baker works fantastically well. It’s a combination that gives the story its heart and makes The Fourth Doctor Adventures feel incredibly fresh for a strand now in its eleventh series. Although they’ve only met they immediately start to form the kind of friendship the Doctor hasn’t had since Sarah Jane. It’s no wonder that a return visit to Ravencliff is already on the cards due to the pair’s chemistry.
The Ravencliff Witch paradoxically proves that companionless adventures for the Fourth Doctor can work, while simultaneously illustrating how effective this type of companion relationship can be. A potent SF twist on folk horror and disaster movie mainstays, it’s the starting line for a whole new era.
Doctor Who: The Ravencliff Witch
The TARDIS lands in Ravencliff, a small town on the English coast that stands in the shade of a newly built power station. And that just happens to be haunted.
Every now and then a spectral figure is glimpsed on the beach – the Ravencliff witch. And every time she appears, it’s the prelude to disaster.
The Doctor has to solve the mystery of her appearances if he wants to prevent a catastrophe. But he won’t have to do it alone – as he has the help of Margaret Hopwood, a renowned sculptor destined to play a big part in his life.