Saturday, 24 January 2015
REVIEW - THE 4TH DOCTOR BY GARETH ROBERTS BOX SET
They're back after more than three decades apart.
Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are reunited as the Fourth Doctor and Romana II. Like most fans, I was delighted to hear that Big Finish was going to do Four/Romana II/K-9 tales. With the passing of Elizabeth Sladen and Mary Tamm, the pool of companions left for the Fourth Doctor to travel with is tiny. Save maybe a couple of Four/Adric adventures, Romana II and Leela are all that’s left. For the month of January, Big Finish has given us The Romance of Crime and The English Way of Death. Let’s see how things turned out:
The Romance of Crime
The Romance of Crime is set on a futuristic prison with the Doctor and Romana going up against Xias, a being whose only desire is… murder.
The first tale, arguably, feels a bit like Destination Nerva in that Nerva was Tom’s first Big Finish story, but was an overall poor re-introduction to the character. The Romance of Crime features lots of twists and turns and the pacing is top notch. As usual, Tom Baker dominates the script, but it’s Lalla Ward that draws the short end of the stick. As a huge fan of the Gallifrey audio series, I know Lalla Ward is more than capable of delivering a stellar performance and she does so in this, managing to duck one of my initial concerns that Romana II would be portrayed more along the lines of the Gallifrey-Romana instead of the Doctory Romana that travelled in the TARDIS. Lalla manages to expertly tap into the difference and revert back to the Classic Era Romana. Unfortunately it’s the script that fails her.
As I mentioned, this is a great story with lots of twists. It’s just not a very good story for re-introducing Romana II. You see she doesn’t really do much until about halfway through the story, instead being reduced to following the Doctor around and making a couple of snarky comments at him. When she does get to do something, she becomes something of a determinator/damsel in distress amalgamation for the Doctor to rescue.
Another negative aspect of The Romance of Crime is the character of Frank Spiggot, the Guide of the Week who serves as the Doctor and Romana liaison for this story. Frank is probably the weakest element of the whole story and it’s mostly because of some running gag (that isn’t funny) about his wife and children. This gag grew old in a flash, yet the narrative still never allowed a chance to do it slip through the fingers.
The Romance of Crime also marks the first appearance of the Ogrons in Big Finish who haven’t been seen/heard since the 1973 serial Frontier in Space. Since I haven’t seen Frontier yet and Day of the Daleks isn’t one of my ‘let’s go watch this again and again’ titles, I was worried that their presence in this tale would hurt the story. Fortunately it didn’t. Their lack of intelligence, gullibility and overall uselessness is played up mostly for comic relief which works well given how dark the overall tale is. It helps balance the darker tones contained within the story.
Rating: The Romance of Crime: 7/10. A nice enough story that succeeds in almost every area except showcasing just how much we need Romana II travelling in the TARDIS.
The English Way of Death
The second tale – The English Way of Death – drops the heavy Sci-Fi element and drops the Doctor and Romana in 1930s England. It is the better story in Gareth Roberts Box Set, but in many ways, it doesn’t feel all that different to its predecessor.
First things first, the issue with Romana not having a lot to do is completely wiped clean here. In fact, not only does she start the ‘investigation’, but for the most part, she is taking point on it. That isn’t to say the Doctor is wasted. He is afforded just as much time to do his thing and The English Way of Death treats both characters equally. That’s more like it. It is Doctor Who after all, but don’t include such an awesome character like Romana and not give her something brilliant to get up to.
The plot for this tale is also more or less on par with its predecessor when it comes to narrative complexity. It does feature less comedic moments and is overall more serious, but suffers from padding in several places. The villain for this piece is also vastly more interesting, not to mention more entertaining than Xias was, giving us more depth and making the character feel more rounded than Xias’ generic xenophobic rants and ravings.
The supporting cast for The English Way of Death also manages to be more entertaining and developed, even though they rely on certain ‘old English-y’ tropes and stereotypes. In fact, this story feels very The Auntie Matter in tone and dialogue and even borrows a few plot ideas from said story. Or is it the other way around given Death was actually written first? Anyway, the similarities are there, but it’s not enough to put you off this story.
However…yes this review has one of those…
For whatever reason, Lalla Ward gives a very overacted performance in several parts of the story when she’s meant to be grieving or upset. She isn’t hamming things up, but her exaggeration of dialogue reaches the degree of being very grating to listeners who are used to so much better from her.
I haven’t touched upon it, but John Leeson as the delightfully cute K-9 is nothing short of beautiful to listen to. Gareth Roberts nails his character and even improves on the original model, giving us an unusually snarky K-9 who is capable of predicting the exact time the Doctor will 1) get into trouble after leaving the TARDIS and 2) require the robot dog’s help. If there is a comedic element in The English Way of Death, it’s the ever lovable do-anything dog.
In conclusion, let me confess that I haven’t read the novelized versions of The Romance of Crime or The English Way of Death, but if they do follow the pattern set by Love and War and The Highest Science, then it’s probably safe to assume that it’s an accurate adaption of the source material. This is a bit of a shame as sometimes it is necessary to change bits and pieces of the original to make the audio product more enjoyable. There are a few parts of this box set that could’ve benefitted from the Big Finish touch.
Rating: The English Way of Death: 7.5/10. Superior in many ways to the first tale, but still just an average tale with several above average elements thrown into the mix for good measure.