We’re now at the last and least explicable of The Companion Chronicles range, with Lalla Ward (aka Romana II) the final companion to fill the dimensionally transcendental Jackanory armchair. With the previous entries, there’s been a semi-reasonable excuse for the story’s existence – the actor who played the companion’s Doctor being dead and therefore no tasteful or faithful way to have a play featuring the companion alongside her Doctor. Here, we have a simple disagreement between the actor (Tom Baker) and Big Finish that’s resulted in Tombo not appearing in any Big Finish plays, leaving the companions to fend for themselves.
This would still be a good enough reason for the play if Tombo’s companions had had no other opportunities to appear in stories. But of the surviving fourth Doctor companions, Sarah Jane has had two series of Sarah Jane Smith adventures and now has her own TV show; Leela, Romanas I & II and K9 have had three series of Gallifrey to mess about with; Tegan and Nyssa have both had fifth Doctor stories; and the less said about Adric the better. They’ve all been well-mined for dramatic nuggets.
So I think it’s pretty clear that the Big Finish luvvies really just wanted another excuse to work with lovely, lovely Lalla again.
Putting that to one side though, in the form of The Beautiful People, we do have a perfectly acceptable piece of season 17 hokum to while the hour away, and a reasonable enough conclusion to the series.
Plot (reminiscent of Big Finish’s web site in the late 70s)
Put all your worries behind you.
Situated in fifty acres of relaxing sculpted gardens, the Vita Novus Health Spa offers a sanctuary from the stresses and strains of 32nd century life. Our exclusive programme of weight loss therapy is celebrated throughout the galaxy for its ease, simplicity and one-hundred-per-cent success rate. No matter how full-figured you may be, we can make you slimmer, healthier – and happier.
In fact, you will leave Vita Novus feeling like an entirely new person. And that’s guaranteed.
We cater for all endoskeletal carbon-based life-forms. All major credit cards accepted. Parties welcome.
Is it any good?
It’s a nice bit of throw-away fun. We get a clear indication of where things are going from the outset, with talk of the Randomiser instantly plonking us in Douglas Adams’ and Graham Williams’ season of silliness, as if Doctor Four’s quest for doughnuts didn’t make it obvious enough.
It’s not long though, before we’re in Vita Novus. The choice of a fitness farm, where everyone’s trying to be thin and healthy and mysterious deaths are taking place, is somewhat odd as a setting for the story, since it puts you more in mind of Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford’s pairing, and doesn’t strike me, at least, as being very fourth Doctorish. But since the play is very much trying to play up to his perceived image as a Bohemian free-thinking eccentric who says “live and let live” to whatever your lifestyle choice might be, it’s a reasonable enough choice, even if it’s a touch too modern.
The plot chugs along nicely, a simple adventure tale with people getting captured and then escaping, captured and then escaping a suitable number of iterations à la old-school Who. There are a few too many continuity references – some backwards to previous stories (eg references to the Tythonian ambassador of Creature from the Pit and one of Romana’s tricks from Destiny of the Daleks), some forwards to future stories (eg the Doctor proclaiming to hate celery) – for true comfort, but a suitable number of in-jokes for an Adams-esque story, including a Victoria Wood reference of all things. Romana is depicted almost note-perfectly, as is K9, but the Doctor is so outlandishly eccentric, spending most of the adventure in the gift shop, that you can’t help but think that’s taking too many liberties with the character to work for most listeners.
Like The Blue Tooth before it, The Beautiful People provides no explanation for Romana deciding to relate this tale of typical Tombo silliness. It’s even more of a fireside story than its predecessor, too, right down to Lalla Ward solemnly intoning the chapter headings at the start of every episode. Ward narrates her story far better than she acted her Gallifrey adventures, doing a surprisingly good K9 impression but an oddly off Baker impression. Marcia Ashton does a good job with her over-the-top villainess. And the sound design is thankfully unobtrusive, unlike previous stories’.
Like much of season 17, this probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and while not a completely authentic recreation of Doctor Who‘s most ridiculous era, it’s close enough that you could still imagine it being made if they’d needed another story at the time. If you liked City of Death, you’ll probably like this. Fans of more serious Doctors should steer well clear though.
Listen to the trailer (Windows Media Player)
Lalla Ward (Romana)
Marcia Ashton (Karna)
Writer: Jonathan Morris
Producer and Director: Mark J Thompson
Price: £8.99 (£10.50 International)
Available from the Big Finish site.