Season 18 of Doctor Who is one of my favourites. It’s the first season run by producer John Nathan Turner (aka JNT) and he brought with him script editor Christopher H Bidmead. Bidmead comes up with this crazy idea – let’s treat Doctor Who like proper sci-fi, that adults can enjoy and that’s full of proper science.
Look through season 18 and you’ll find the likes of The Keeper of Traken, Warrior’s Gate and Logopolis – excellent stories that put science and sci-fi ideas front and centre.
Tragically, season 18 was also very dull and very hard to understand. Even to this day, grown men and women stand around trying to work out what the hell Warrior’s Gate was all about.
Bidmead didn’t hang around forever, but he did return briefly to write the Peter Davison story Frontios, which was another of those science type stories. He also came back to write a story for Colin Baker, The Hollows of Time, but that was never made.
Now Big Finish has got Bidmead to brush the script off, spruce it up, give it a humungous edit because it was 30% too long, convert it to audio since it was always intended as a very visual play and hand it over to them for their ‘Lost Stories’ season.
And you know what? Like most of season 18, it’s absolutely incomprehensible and not very enjoyable, but I still really liked it.
One slight hitch: there were two returning enemies of the Doctor in the original script, but Big Finish couldn’t get the rights to one of them, so he’s been replaced by AN Other enemy of vague origins and identity. Who is it? Well, the clues are there if you can do anagrams…
The Doctor and Peri have been on holiday, visiting old friend Reverend Foxwell in the sleepy English village of Hollowdean. But why are their memories so hazy?
Piecing together events they recall a mysterious chauffeur, who is not what he seems, and Foxwell’s experiments that could alter the nature of reality. Huge sand creatures have been sighted on the dunes, and many of the locals are devoted to a leader known as ‘Professor Stream’.
But who is Stream? And what lies within the Hollows of Time?
The Doctor will discover that not every question has a definitive answer…
Is it any good?
It’s a very curious mixture of the good and the bad. As with much of season 18, I admire the script rather than enjoy it. It’s a Bidmead ‘science’ special, with the Doctor returning to Earth to visit an old friend from WW2 Bletchley Park, surreptitiously using the opportunity to investigate some weird gravitational anomalies in the area. In the quaint little village that ‘Foxy’ has ended up, there’s some strange goings on, with a young boy talking about ‘sand creatures’ that he’s found. But it’s the activities of Professor Stream and his entourage, Jane and ‘Steel Specs’ (aka (spoiler alert) The Master and his minions) which are the biggest concern.
The ‘science’ is cobblers, although it looks like science, with attempts to ‘unfurl the other seven dimensions that support the super-structure of the universe’ at least being more interesting than usual. Surrounding the ‘science’, however, are some very Sapphire and Steel moments, not least of which is the Doctor driving a car through outer space after it merges with his TARDIS or going through time corridors to end up inside the TARDIS time rotor. Indeed, there’s a very unworldy and dark atmosphere almost unique to the whole play, with even the Doctor seemingly vulnerable to mind control.
Baker’s good, Bryant’s good but with a wobbly accent. But that’s kind of where the good stops.
Susan Sheridan plays the part of Simon, the boy who’s found sand creatures (aka (spoiler alert, even though they’re on the cover) Tractators). It’s entirely obvious it’s an actress playing a boy and it makes you think of a thousand tedious Gerry Anderson shows from the 60s as a result. Hywel John as Steel Specs gives possibly the worst performance in any Big Finish audio play ever – although that might be deliberate, given the nature of his character, it’s still painful to listen to either way. David Garfield is hideously over the top, although that does fit the part of Professor Stream quite well.
There’s also a framing narrative, with Peri and the Doctor relating the story to each other in a “do you remember what happened a few days ago?” Designed primarily to get the play down to length, explain within the text why the Doctor doesn’t recognise one of his old (unlicensed) enemies as well as overcome the problems of the visual nature of the original, it just feels clunky and unnatural. Given how verbose the script is in other parts, with, for example, an incredibly long explanation of Captain Oates’ bravery that could have seen the red pen in mere seconds and the Doctor going on various other linguistic expeditions, I’m sure it could all have been better handled or a different approach found, given a bit more time. And there’s not really a good reason for why they’re relating the story to each other, either.
At the end of it, I’m not entirely sure I know everything about what was going on. Most of the overall story seems clear, but the details are a bit fuzzy – again that Sapphire and Steel quality.
However, of all the Lost Stories so far, it’s undoubtedly the best. The Doctor/Peri relationship works decently well for a change, it’s intellectually stimulating and you do genuinely want to find out how it ends. Pretty good.
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Nicola Bryant (Peri)
David Garfield (Professor Stream)
Trevor Littledale (Reverend Foxwell)
Susan Sheridan (Mrs Streeter)
Hywel John (Steel Specs)
Victoria Finney (Jane)
Writer: Christopher H Bidmead
Director: John Ainsworth