With Tom Baker’s debut season for Big Finish now available to hear – in which, with one exception, he is very definitely recreating the way he played the role on screen – it’s interesting to go back to this five part series from AudioGo which almost feels like a halfway house between the whimsy of Hornet’s Nest and Demon Quest and the harder science of the post-Talons Leela season.
Serpent Crest starts off with a tale that’s hard to tell whether the central conceit works well, or is just irritating. Tom Baker plays Father Gregory, a mystical figure who has influence over the Tsarina, and is the only one who can cure her son from a blood-related condition. And it’s not the first time he’s done so. In 1971, the character had the surname Rasputin, and Baker was one of the stars of Nicholas and Alexandra; forty years later, the story is set in the Robotov rather than Romanoff Empires, but the set-up is much the same. So Tom Baker in 2011 gets a chance to recreate two of his past roles – one from 1971, one from 1978 or so – inevitably has scenes working with himself – and enjoys himself a little too much.
There’s enough set up elsewhere though to ameliorate the annoyance, and it really helps that this is a full cast play, rather than a Doctor (or Wibbsey) narrated story. This sounds more like the television Fourth Doctor than we’ve had in the previous stories (think back to how long it took some of the other Doctors to relax into their audio incarnations back in the early Big Finish days).
A good spot of Victorian melodrama comes in the second part. Terence Hardiman gets his teeth into his role as a country priest who is only barely managing to keep in control of his own life, let alone keeping a weather eye on his “ward” – a young boy who has to wear a mask all the time, in case his disgusting real face frightens everyone in the village.
Again, this is more of a full-cast play, with some occasional necessary monologues from the young boy (whose real origins aren’t really difficult to guess, particularly when Mrs Wibbsey recognises his tutor), and at an hour, is slightly shorter than most of the instalments in any of these serials. In fact, it could probably have been trimmed even further: there does feel like there’s some padding so that we don’t get there in 35 minutes or so!
However, we’re back in fantasyland again for part three – although, to be fair, it means that we’ve had one episode of science fiction, one historical and now one fantasy, so the series is reflecting the various different type of stories that Doctor Who encompasses. However whenever we’ve had this sort of story before in these Tom Baker audios, they’ve been an excuse for excesses on the part of the venerable actor, and this time is no exception.
Magrs clearly enjoys writing this type of tale: it’s reminiscent of some of his Iris Wildthyme/Eighth Doctor stories, and there are various story-telling devices at work, including an unreliable narrator and breaking down of the fourth wall. The idea of the Doctor’s scarf coming to life (and the eventual explanation for it) is a neat one, although it’s very hard to shift the thought of Kaa from Disney’s The Jungle Book or his equivalent, Sir Hiss, in Robin Hood.
With part four, we get the inevitable recasting of the role of the Doctor. Big Finish always maintained that they wouldn’t recast the first three Doctors (even if Frazer Hines’ impersonation of Patrick Troughton is as near as damn it exactly that), so it fell to AudioGo to take the leap, and bring someone else in to play the second incarnation of the Time Lord. They’ve kept it in the family though, with David Troughton stepping up to the microphone and playing the part his father created.
For the most part, it works very well. Magrs has structured the script so that he’s the only Doctor in the first half of this story. We get to see him interacting with a reactivated Captain Yates, and trying to charm the local villagers. But we know that Wibbsey isn’t convinced – and a startling moment between the two of them hints at something deeper involved.
By the time the fourth Doctor arrives on the scene, things are heading towards a catastrophe, and it does seem as if for the first time, we’re going to have a Doctor team-up where they’re working on opposing sides.
The final episode wraps up the various plotlines that have been set in motion throughout the serial, without needless referencing back to previous adventures. There are a few meta references – the Doctor is needed “elsewhere” (i.e. for his Big Finish stint) – and a reasonable explanation as to the appearance of the Second Doctor (which doesn’t make reference to Season 6B, something I’d half hoped for) which add to the fun for fans.
It’s one of those episodes where everything slots neatly into place: suspicions about the role of the Second Doctor in proceedings continue to be fed, with the explanation staying true to the character’s nature as well as the story demands. More than in the previous episode, David Troughton’s portrayal of his father’s role is spookily accurate (although if this is to be done again, he needs to add a few more of the “hmms” and other verbal punctuation that the older Troughton employed), and there’s a fanboy thrill to hearing Second and Fourth working against and with each other.
Verdict: The best of the three AudioGo Baker adventures. 7/10