Since 1999, Big Finish has been producing Doctor Who audio plays featuring numerous actors from the original television series. For many years, however, they were unable to convince Tom Baker to reprise his portrayal of the Fourth Doctor. This impasse was finally overcome just recently, and Baker began recording a series of audio adventures, first for the BBC itself, and now for Big Finish. The first Big Finish “season” sees Baker re-teamed with actress Louise Jameson, returning to her role as Leela, the primitive descendent of a human space expedition that had been stranded on an alien planet generations before the Doctor met her. The stories in this Big Finish season were set between the on-air adventures “The Talons of Weng Chiang” and “The Horror of Fang Rock.”
The final two releases of this first block of audio adventures are the linked stories “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure.” The attraction these particular stories had for me is that they have Geoffrey Beevers once again portraying the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master in his final, death-like incarnation. He first played that role so very effectively on television in “The Keeper of Traken,” and returned to it many years later at Big Finish in a pair of audio plays starring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. In addition, “The Oseidon Adventure” features the alien Kraals & their robotic servants from “The Android Invasion.” Given the ties “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” had to two of my favorite Tom Baker television serials, I could not resist picking them up.
(I do not think I am really giving away any major spoilers by revealing the involvement of the Master or the Kraals, as their images feature prominently on the covers of the CDs!)
“Trail of the White Worm,” in certain ways, does a good job capturing the feel of the television stories around which it is set, evincing much of the atmosphere of gothic horror of the Philip Hinchcliffe & Robert Holmes years. Set in the English countryside of the late 1970s, “Trail of the White Worm” has the Doctor and Leela arriving in the TARDIS to discover that a mysterious creature is menacing a small, isolated village. The Doctor meets the posh Demesne Furze, played by Rachael Stirling, who relates to him the local legends of the White Worm, which date back two millennia to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. Meanwhile, on a nearby estate, Leela comes across the retired Colonel Spindleton, portrayed by Michael Cochrane. A reactionary with a grudge against progress, the Colonel has a fondness for shooting at trespassers with his remote controlled tank, although he quickly learns that Leela is more than a match for his security arrangements. She, in turn, discovers that the Colonel has thrown in his lot with the Master, who dangles before him the promise of restoring to Britain its lost greatness.
The ending of “Trail of the White Worm” leads right into “The Oseidon Adventure.” The Master opens a space/time portal to the Kraal home world, and his alien allies march forward with an armored column and an infantry of android soldiers. At first, “The Oseidon Adventure” appears to be a straightforward alien invasion story, much in the vein of the early appearances of the Master when the character, as portrayed by Roger Delgado, would summon a succession of extraterrestrial menaces to attack Earth, only to be opposed by the Doctor and UNIT. However, writer Alan Barnes does a magnificent job of confounding expectations. Just when you think you know where “The Oseidon Adventure” is heading, he throws in a series of unexpected plot twists, with double and triple crosses coming left and right. I really should have foreseen something like this, given how the original serial “The Android Invasion” so successfully played with the idea of infiltration & identity theft. But since Barnes did such an excellent job of making it seem one thing was going on, when in fact something else entirely different was occurring behind the scenes, I was constantly getting caught off guard. The end result is a suspenseful story that really leaves you guessing what is going to happen next.
Tom Baker return to the role of the Doctor is superb. It’s almost as if there hasn’t been a three decade lapse in time since he last played the role, and he’s picking up right where he left off. I do think that his performance in these two stories was somewhat more akin to the rather more silly, buffoonish tone he increasingly adopted during Graham Williams’ tenure as producer than the relatively more serious, somber take of his first three seasons with Hinchcliffe. That said, it is great to have him back. If he had perhaps a bit too much fun recording these stories, well, that’s Tom Baker for you.
Louise Jameson also does good work slipping back into the role of Leela. I know that she has played an older, somewhat more sophisticated version of the character in other Big Finish releases. So I’m not sure how difficult it was for her to now take a step back and return to the intelligent but uneducated savage she portrayed on television. I think Jameson does admirable work at recapturing this younger version of Leela. Together with Barnes’ scripting, this does sound like the character we saw in those classic Doctor Who serials of the late 1970s.
And then there is Geoffrey Beevers. The man is excellent at imbuing the Master with malicious, sly, sneering malevolence. Listening to “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure,” I was reminded once again why his performance in “The Keeper of Traken” left such a lasting impression on my childhood memories. Beevers really brings to life the Master, and makes you believe this is a figure that could actually defeat the Doctor. The ending of “The Oseidon Adventure” leaves open the possibility of at least one more encounter between the Master and the Doctor before the events of “The Keeper of Traken,” so hopefully Beevers will be back in the recording studio with Baker at some point in the near future.
All in all, the actors, writer Alan Barnes, and director Ken Bentley have all excelled at capturing the feel of the original Tom Baker stories. These two audio plays utilize elements from the television series, while nevertheless crafting stories that develop in new, unexpected directions. They also take full advantage of the unlimited scope of the audio format. I seriously doubt that either the immense figure of the White Worm or the massive Kraal army would have been achievable on the limited budget & resources the television show had access to in the late 1970s.
“Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” are both entertaining, well-produced tales. If you are a Doctor Who fan, but you have not listened to any of the Big Finish releases, they make an excellent jumping on point.