The Fourth Doctor is back and this time he’s found a new best friend.

Jane Slavin makes the Doctor laugh. It comes across time and again when Slavin and Tom Baker, or their co-workers, discuss their working relationship. Their similar sense of humour drives a wonderful back and forth of continuously making each other laugh. That might not seem like a terribly difficult achievement at first glance. After all Baker in Big Finish interviews these days seems to always be on the brink of laughter. Yet, thinking about it, he’s usually laughing at himself and his own jokes. Something he gets away with chiefly because he’s genuinely so charming and fun that without fail everyone around him is laughing too. So Slavin’s gift for standing as an equal in their double act of laughter is rare indeed.

Baker discusses his admiration for Slavin at length in the interviews at the end of The Sinestran Kill. It’s strikingly similar to the way he always used to talk about that late, great Elisabeth Sladen. And it’s probably this which makes her so perfect for the new role as WPC 166 Ann Kelso, the Fourth Doctor’s first new companion since 1981. Lis Sladen’s tragically early death meant that we never got to hear Sarah Jane and the Fourth Doctor reunited on audio. The past seven seasons have given us the Doctor’s teacher/student relationship with Leela and also the fencing between the Doctor and Romana as two of the galaxy’s greatest wits. However, the Fourth Doctor Adventures have had a very particularly shaped hole in them. A gap for the Doctor who, as he would put it many centuries later, “just wants a mate.”

The Doctor and Ann immediately refresh the Fourth Doctor Adventures with a new type of friendship between Doctor and companion.

It’s this dynamic of the Doctor and his best friend which Ann Kelso creates anew.  Ann is a contemporary (that is 1970’s) human with an inquiring mind and a nose for trouble.  So her very presence alongside the Doctor pushes the Fourth Doctor Adventures into a new, but familiar, direction.

On that score, The Sinestran Kill is a hit. The Fourth Doctor once famously complained about his companions either being imposed on him, or pushing their way in uninvited. But The Sinestran Kill sees him putting Ann through what seems like an audition process. Each stage of the way he audibly ticks boxes on his mental checklist of what makes a great companion. Crucially, the final scene is reminiscent of the end of last year’s TV episode Arachnids in the UK, and sees the Doctor and Ann having an actual, proper, grown up conversation about the wonders and dangers of TARDIS travel.

The story sees the two initially cross paths professionally, so to speak. He’s investigating sensor readings of dangerous alien technology at work in London 1978. She’s alarmed to discover a notorious underworld crime gang targeting a shop on her beat. The two cases are, of course, one in the same, bringing the duo together to uncover exactly what notorious intergalactic mobsters the Sinestran Syndicate are up to on Earth.

Alien mobsters the Sinestrans would have been right at home in Doctor Who in 1981.

In style and substance the script by Full Circle writer Andrew Smith simultaneously recalls 1980’s and 2000’s Doctor Who more than 70’s. For example, at one point the Doctor pays a courtesy call to tell the bad guys that if he will uncover what’s going on and, if he doesn’t like it, “I’ll stop you.” However Tom Baker, being Tom Baker, spins his own twist on such David Tennantisms. He plays that scene as a jolly wheeze. The Doctor boldly strides into his enemy’s stronghold to threaten them simply because it strikes him as a hilarious thing to do.

But in other places entire species are lumped together by profession in a way you’d rarely see these days. The Sinestrans and their ‘cousins’ the Lemurens are entire species of mobsters. At another point the Doctor instantly recognises an alien as being from a species uniformally made up of ruthless hitmen. How such species evolve and function has always puzzled Blogtor Who. Who drives their buses, or mans the checkout at the local late night supermarket? Does every visit from a plumber end in an attempted assassination? We’re also given the concept of “Justice Planets”, populated exclusively by galactic policemen. Imagine politely making your way down a city street on such a planet at rush hour (“Ullo ‘ullo, ‘ullo ‘ullo, ‘ullo ‘ullo ullo…”)

Frank Skinner’s unflappable DCI proves a perfect foil for the Fourth Doctor

While this might make The Sinestran Kill a little old fashioned in some ways, it doesn’t impact on the quality. The knot of mysteries concerning how the Blake gang and the Sinestrans are connected, why the shop is being targeted, or even if it is being targeted, is left to simmer nicely, ultimately serving up a satisfying series of revelations. It also gives us Frank Skinner‘s DCI Scott Neilson. Skinner is a life long Doctor Who fan who, per the cast interviews, could barely restrain his joy at working with his childhood hero. Nevertheless, Skinner keeps all that out of his performance.

DCI Neilson is chronically unimpressed by the Doctor, unflappably accepting of disappearing Police Boxes, shape shifting aliens and ray gun flaunting hitmen as little more than irritations getting in the way of proper police work. In that regard he’s cut from the same cloth as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. As with Nicholas Courtney’s military man, Skinner’s stolid copper is the perfect counterpoint for the mercurial Fourth Doctor.

The Sinestran Kill is just the beginning of the adventure for the Doctor and Ann.

The Sinestran Kill leaves enough plot threads dangling to tantalize the listener. The Doctor and Ann set off at the end to uncover the wider conspiracy the Sinestran operation on Earth was a part of. But we also never find out quite why former detective Kelso has gone back down the ranks into uniform. We can presume this first half of Series Eight will explore the former. The Syndicate Master Plan is a bit of a giveaway as a subtitle after all. Hopeful hints point to a future return to the corridors of Scotland Yard 1978, and more pained exasperation from DCI Neilson as he’s forced to play straight man to the Doctor again.

It’s early days yet. But as a setup for a new companion and setup, this is as effective a beginning as Rose or The Time Warrior.

Doctor Who: The Sinestran Kill. Cover by Anthony Lamb (c) Big Finish
Doctor Who: The Sinestran Kill. Cover by Anthony Lamb (c) Big Finish

Synopsis

When the Doctor decides to trace an anomalous energy signature on twentieth century Earth, he stumbles into an assassination attempt.

Gangland thugs are trying to murder a seemingly innocent shopkeeper, and it’s only the intervention of the Doctor and Ann Kelso – a WPC who happens to be on the scene – that prevents a tragedy.

But why do the gangsters want the shopkeeper dead? And what does this have to do with alien technology?

The first stages of a grand conspiracy are about to be revealed. And finding the answers will take Ann Kelso on a journey like no other.

Written By: Andrew Smith.
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs.

Cast

Tom Baker (The Doctor), Jane Slavin (Ann Kelso), Frank Skinner (DCI Scott Neilson), Glynis Barber (Kathy Blake), Ewan Bailey (Hugo Blake), Nicholas Khan(Jimmy Lynch), Leon Williams (Tony Reynolds). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Producer: David Richardson.
Script Editor: John Dorney.
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs.

Doctor Who: The Sinestran Kill is available both as an individual release and as part of the boxset The Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 8 Volume 1: The Syndicate Master Plan. Both are available from Big Finish now.

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