Diverted from their hunt for the Syndicate, the Doctor, Ann and K9 find themselves wandering into an entirely different kind of story. Britain’s suavest secret agent of the 1970’s, Jason Vane, is on his deadliest mission yet.
This eighth series of Big Finish’s Fourth Doctor Adventures is shaping up to be a thoroughly modern re-imagining of this corner of Doctor Who on audio. The creation of a new companion for Tom Baker in the form of Jane Slavin‘s Ann Kelso was much trumpeted. But that’s proving to actually be the least of its innovations. Freed somewhat from the “teatime 1977 all over again” mandate, it’s still absolutely true to the Fourth Doctor as a character while embracing some very 21st century storytelling.
It’s not even simply that The Syndicate Master Plan has given us an arc plot linking the stories together. After all, Graham Williams was giving us The Key to Time back when Russell (Not Yet T) Davies and Steven Moffat were sitting cross-legged six inches from their cathode ray tubes in mute admiration of it. It’s more that even when only lightly connected to the arc plot there’s a definite sense of a shared theme.
Questions of identity bubble up repeatedly throughout. Way back in The Sinestran Kill we met an alien former hitman in witness protection on Earth – not just given a new identity on paper but with his personality altered to make him less homicidal. Since then we’ve delved into what it feels like to be a Drashig and how history defines people. We’ve also landed on a Kembel populated almost entirely by people constructing new self-images for themselves. Ann’s own situation, as revealed in Time’s Assassin, underlines the theme of identities lost and constructed.
John Leeson rises to the challenge of K9’s mind being expanded in ways not entirely comfortable for the tin dog.
And so, despite being an apparent detour from the Doctor and Ann’s hunt for the Syndicate, Fever Island is a perfect reflection of the season’s themes. When the TARDIS is knocked off course by a mysterious force K9 finds himself with surprisingly un-robotic doggy thoughts. What are dreams? Where do they come from and where do they go? What is life anyway but, as Shakespeare said, a little dream sitting in the great blackness of non-existence? John Leeson does a remarkable job of not only exploring these thoughts, but also expressing the extent to which K9 is disturbed by even having them in the first place, and all while staying within the lines of K9’s established personality.
(It’s not, however, quite as unique a concept as Leeson seems to think in the extras. He’s perhaps forgotten the non-BBC Australian spin off show in which he starred as K9. One episode, Dream-Eaters, does feature K9 trying to understand and experience dreams. Memorably it features one of the best sight gags ever when he enters the Dreaming dimension and meets a certain woolly creature..)
No less troubled by all this is the Doctor. But K9 turning all philosophical is easily the least disquieting of the transformations he’ll encounter on Fever Island. No sooner have he and Ann stepped out of the TARDIS but they meet Jason Vane – tuxedo wearing agent of British Intelligence outfit ‘the Nursery’, who’s on Fever Island to find the evil megalomaniac Okulov.
Jonathan Barnes’ premise cunningly allows Fever Island’s Bond pastiche to both have its vodka martini and drink it.
On the one hand Vane allows the story to play in the milieu of Ian Fleming’s novels. Make no mistake, female boss apart, it’s definitely the James Bond of the books being channelled here. So we get a drily unflappable hero who speaks, and even narrates the action, in pure Fleming prose. But we also get to see from the outside how ridiculous that world is as the Doctor, Ann and ‘icy beauty’ (TM Jason Vane) Dr. Pursglove all struggle to take him seriously.
The script establishes Fever Island as a place where dreams overwrite reality, transforming those who wander into its mists. Considering that, it’s not terribly difficult to guess where Vane’s story is going. However, the story deals well with the questions the scenario throws up – is it better to be a fake superhero or a genuine nobody? If every hero needs their archenemy, is Vane responsible for the crimes of the villain the island creates for him?
Paradoxically, Fever Island’s plot is both underdeveloped and rushed but still satisfies in terms of character, atmosphere and themes.
It’s slightly strange, however, that the clear inverse parallel between Vane and Ann’s own situation isn’t addressed at all. Moreover, the fact than Ann is the only person exposed to the mist who isn’t effected by it goes unremarked upon. Though there’s still time as she heads into the finale for the Doctor to retroactively identify it as a clue.
Fever Island is undoubtedly slightly lopsided in terms of plot. On the one hand, the central premise leaves the questions of exactly how the mist works and where it’s coming from largely unexplored and it doesn’t feel like there’s quite enough plot to fill the hour. The resolution is hurried and becomes a bit of a dash to wrap up the intriguing premise. That said, what you get here are two episodes of Doctor Who doing something brave and different. Both a witty love letter to Ian Fleming’s novels and an opportunity for both Tom Baker and John Leeson to step outside their usual characters and do something excitingly different.
Jason Vane is England’s suavest secret agent, and today he’s on his deadliest mission yet. Tracking down the evil Okulov… before he destroys the world.
The Doctor, Ann and K9 are, in contrast, finding their own mission a little hard to complete. A strange storm in the vortex has swept them back in time, back to Earth in 1978 and a strange place called ‘Fever Island’.
A place where their worst nightmares are about to come true…
Written By: Jonathan Barnes
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs
Tom Baker (The Doctor), Jane Slavin (WPC Ann Kelso), John Leeson (K9), Gethin Anthony (Jason Vane), David Rintoul (Dr Leon Jessel), Bettrys Jones (Miss Pocket/ Dr Caroline Pursglove), Carolyn Seymour (The Commodore/ Mrs Kidd), Barnaby Edwards (Desmond Kettley). Other parts played by members of the cast.