A fizzing, whizzing, bundle of joy, The False Guardian is Doctor Who at its maddest and its best.
It has to be said – writer Guy Adams must be one of the greatest assets in Big Finish‘s arsenal. His flexibility as a writer has allowed him to write not just some of their darkest, most challenging output but also some of their lightest and most fun. One day you might be listening to something like his Torchwood stories More Than This and Made You Look. But on another day the same writer brings you The False Guardian.
This final entry in The Syndicate Master Plan: Volume 1 acts, if you will, as that modern narrative beast – the mid-season finale. As any fan of shows like The Walking Dead or The Blacklist know there’s a certain formula to follow. This chiefly involves plots that had been put on the back-burner ages ago suddenly being treated with urgency. This leads to a crashing great cliffhanger to leave the audience desperate for a resolution when our heroes return later in the year. But there’s much more to The False Guardian than that. It’s just mad, you see. Quite, quite mad.
Returning to the mystery that kicked off the series, Ann drags the Doctor in a nightmare reborn as they set course for the most dangerous planet in the galaxy.
The story acts as a more or less direct sequel to this series’ first story – The Sinestran Kill. Ann has the bit between her teeth now. She’s become a little fed up with the Doctor continually putting the Sinestrans on the long finger. The Doctor, in contrast, is a bit horrified at the idea of a companion who actually wants to be travelling with purpose, and some concrete plan as to what they’re trying to accomplish. As he tries to explain, that’s really not his sort of thing at all.
But Ann has already been through the TARDIS data banks to learn all she can about the Sinestran Syndicate. She’s even, with a little help from K9, set course for a particular planet. One that seems to be a vital part of the Syndicate’s master plan. “Only a fool let’s a dog fly a spaceship!” bemoans the Doctor but, nevertheless, for once it’s his turn to be pulled unwillingly into adventure.
It’s not long after they arrive that the clues as to their location begin to add up. There’s a massive amount of chronal radiation about, from the past detonation of some temporal weapon. There are Varga plants stalking the grounds, the homicidal vegetable found on only two planets – their native Skaro and… Kembel. But Kembel, Varga aside, has changed beyond all recognition since the First Doctor’s battle against The Daleks’ Master Plan. It’s now an elite spa servicing the weary and overworked elite of the universe. Naturally, the equally weary and overworked Lord President of the Time Lords on Gallifrey, is soon checked in, with his head of security Ann Kelso and robot dog in tow.
Endlessly quotable, The False Guardian sees Tom Baker and Jane Slavin in fine form.
From start to finish, The False Guardian provides a joyful, non-stop, romp. The dialogue fizzes like a Berocca tablet thrown into a glass of Prosecco, often with a wickedly playful sense of humour. The Doctor, for example, proves that he was woke before it was cool when he defends K9’s status as a dog, “You’ll get nowhere in this universe with that kind of prescriptive attitude… he is [a dog] if he wants to be.” Even as simple a thing as getting a massage while he discreetly questions the other guests, has added value as he lies down fully clothed, scarf and all, and simply advises the robot masseuse to ‘work around it.’
The friendship and banter between Tom Baker‘s Fourth Doctor and Jane Slavin‘s Ann Kelso really kicks up a notch here too. Now that the obligatory ‘Wow! I’m on an alien planet!’ and ‘Wow! I’m in the past!’ stories have been dealt with, this is probably the story which gives the most space for Ann’s distinct personality to flourish. They’ve been travelling together long enough now that they can safely bicker in the way that real best friends do. “You impossible man!” grumps Ann at one point, as they agree to disagree and each use their own methods to get to the bottom of the mystery. So the Doctor simply goes with the flow and lets himself experience daily life on Kembel. After all, something interesting is bound to happen sooner or later. Meanwhile Ann sneaks up and down corridors, picking locks and asking probing questions.
An enthusiastic guest cast make the story’s setting genuinely feel like a place which is mad, bad, and dangerous to be.
The world of the spa itself is reminiscent of Revelation of the Daleks’ Tranquil Repose, with a dash of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, as urbane professionals go about doing terrible things. So Anna Acton‘s Deputy Director Brox is as brittle and stressed as any executive in her position, though in her case it’s the odd guest murder she has to work around rather than the cleaner calling in sick. Blake Ritson turns in a deliciously bonkers performance as Elmore. Sounding so louche I couldn’t help but picture him leaned against a wall with his hands in his pockets throughout. Making languid small talk over the intercom, even as his victim’s screams echo in the background, Ritson makes Elmore a truly memorable villain.
But this is a story packed full of great performances. Even the ever polite army of drones (Tracy Wiles) delight as they unfailingly remember their pleases and thank yous as they carry corpses around or inform people of the imminent execution. John Shrapnel is also gently wonderful in his performance as he plays a character called ‘Nigel Colloon’ (or does he?)
The story races to a climax that will leave you tapping your fingers impatiently for Volume Two.
The only flaw to be found in this fizzing, funny outing for the Doctor, Ann and K9 is the title. ‘The False Guardian’ does rather deflate what would otherwise have been a shocking cliffhanger. Worse, it steps on the punchline of one of the story’s best gags. But that can all be forgiven for the matching cliffhanger at the end of Part Two. Planet of the Drashigs defied that tired old joke about Big Finish recycling obscure monsters by bringing back sock puppet crocodiles and making them compelling. But the climax of The False Guardian outdoes it, by riding backwards in circles around that joke on a unicycle while playing Hello Dolly on the bagpipes. It’s a brilliantly mad move that will raise a laugh from all but the most cynical fans.
It also completely justifies the swift scheduling by Big Finish of Volume Two only a month after Volume One. A wait of any longer than that to dive back into this particular asylum would be worse torture than anything Elmore could dream up.
Written By: Guy Adams.
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs.
Tom Baker (The Doctor), Jane Slavin (WPC Ann Kelso), John Leeson (K9), John Shrapnel (Nigel Colloon), Anna Acton (Brox), Blake Ritson (Elmore), Roger May (Mac Foley), Tracy Wiles (Drones). Other parts played by members of the cast.