This story is the penultimate one in the new fourth Doctor series of Big Finish plays and is filled with nice little nods to the past and the present.
It’s the seventies and, as we open, the Tardis materializes in a field full of cows, a nice reference to the start of Image of the Fendahl, including a joke about stepping in something nasty.
But what the fourth Doctor and Leela step in is nothing a cow has produced. They find a huge trail of mucus and immediately are set upon by a hunting party; a party hunting “you know what”, again a nice nod to Harry Potter. They are trying to rescue a missing girl, Julie, who apparently was stolen from her bed by the giant worm. We learn the legend goes all the way back to the Roman Empire and somehow it is all too real.
Leela is attacked by a Colonel Spindleton, played by Michael Cochrane who appeared in the Sylvester McCoy television story Ghostlight, where he played a mad safari hunter. I met him years ago at a convention and his love of the show was obvious, so it’s nice to see him back in top form and I mean, way over the top. His chasing Leela in his tank to protect his property is hilarious and yet, as we soon learn, hides a darker secret.
Leela was always the one companion for me that could stand against anything and survive and the scenes when she is taken to Spindleton’s manor and discovers the secret in the cellar are magic. For waiting in the cellar, where the floor is cracked, is the Master.
I loved the way Leela calls him the Cowled One and is completely unafraid. But her innocence over his identity may be her undoing, especially when the worm rears up and drags her into the depths of the crack.
Doctor Who has always done the gross and the disfigured well and this decayed incarnation of the Master, first seen in the Deadly Assassin, is an all-time classic, the image of which burned into the minds of viewers and has never been forgotten. Indeed it was one of the first six releases in the classic Doctor Who action figure range. Imagine that glaring down at you from Tesco’s shelves; fabulous.
In that story, the Master has used up all his regenerations and become a decayed husk, a living vampire that needs the power of the Eye of Harmony on Gallifrey to keep him alive as he hunts for a new body. Here, fan fiction stepped in; in the novel Legacy of the Daleks where the eighth Doctor battles the Master in the twenty second century in the wake of the Dalek invasion seen in the second season and where the Doctor left his granddaughter Susan.
As the Master tries to revive hidden hives of Daleks, it is revealed that Susan caused his disfigurement as she flew off in his Tardis leaving his burnt body to be found by his Time Lord ally in the Deadly Assassin.
He was played then by Peter Pratt. but when it was decided the Master had to come back, his new decayed form was played by Geoffrey Beever in the Keeper of Traken. And there was always a fear when the Doctor confronted him and in the middle of his quips and jokes in this play, Tom Baker has lost none of this frightened tone. The fact that these two men are from the same species, yet one is so severely disfigured, you wonder if it is a fate the Doctor fears may happen to him. And there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.
Beever has the beautiful voice that evokes Clive Barker’s comment that all villains and monsters should speak an eloquent evil and here he does in spades. And I for one would like to have seen this version continue in the series rather then turn into Anthony Ainley, good though he was, a few more adventures examining the walking dead Master would have been fun. That aspect is not used here though as we learn the Master is controlling the worm, a bio-organic machine – or so he thinks – in order to create worm holes in reality, but why?
The play ends on a cliffhanger which leads to the season finale the Oseidin Adventure.
Overall, this has its enjoyable moments but feels like the build up to the finale and we have a new era Who type cliffhanger.
The only thing I would say isthat this version of the fourth Doctor feels like his later years; jokes and quips every two minutes which wasn’t evident when he and Leela travelled together. There he was much darker Doctor, showcased best I think in Talons of Weng Chiang where he balanced danger and humour perfectly.
But then again, the fourth Doctor is back in new adventures, something fans have dreamed of for years, bringing us such lines as “Don’t blow up the cottage, she’s just had her curtains dry cleaned!”.
This Doctor may confound and confuse all those around him fooling them into thinking he’s stupid, but remember, nobody is as stupid as he seems. There are extras in the form of cast interviews which are worthwhile listening to.
Roll on the finale because the Master isn’t the only old enemy returning…