Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment (audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 11 August 2016 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Doctor Who and The Sontaran Experiment (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Ian Marter
Read by Jon Culshaw
Released by BBC Audio on 7 July 2016
First published by W.H. Allen & Co. Ltd in 1978
Running time: 3 hours approx.

The Sontaran Experiment was the first two-part story to be novelized. Ian Marter’s text provided a model for others to follow, selectively expanding scenes or reimagining situations and sections of the plot in such a way that the book didn’t seem to have stretched its source material too thin in order to fill the 128 page count standard for Target in 1978. Not all his examples were followed by others, but Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment remains one of the most readable Target books. It’s now one of the most listenable too.

The success of Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment as an audiobook owes much, of course, to its reader. Jon Culshaw is a versatile and sensitive performer and shows his familiarity with the television source material. His Styr (as Marter renames Styre, slightly Germanically) has a lot of Kevin Lindsay’s bored colonial officer about it, but with an added note of cruelty to the hoarse voice in keeping with Marter’s reinterpretation of the character. The Galsec crew members turn up with South African accents present and correct, all distinctive and all from Culshaw. Sarah Jane Smith is Culshaw talking slightly more lightly and gently, and Harry Sullivan not too different from Culshaw’s narrator’s voice, respecting the relationship between the authorial voice and Harry’s viewpoint in Marter’s first two novelizations.

A good number of listeners will be curious to know how far Jon Culshaw’s fourth Doctor reflects his Tom Baker impersonation from Dead Ringers. Culshaw’s Doctor is realized more sensitively and subtly here than it was in his comedy persona, though there are still more than flashes of it every time Culshaw has to talk in pseudoscientific jargon or reminisce about constellations visited. He enjoys the dialogue which Marter adds, creating a fourth Doctor a little closer to the Tom Baker whom Ian Marter knew, crossing over fiction and reality. The Doctor’s rugby ball metaphor might have appeared on television, but certainly not his carrying around a flask of Glenlivet. We are assured, though not in precisely these words, that Styr would not have survived a night in the Colony Room with Tom and his Soho friends.

One of the great strengths of Ian Marter’s writing, at least where his first two books were concerned, was that he took the sets and locations of the television stories and created something extraordinary from them while keeping faith with his source. The Dartmoor locations of The Sontaran Experiment on television become the foundation for a gnarled postapocalyptic landscape, full of monstrous ochre reeds and brittle, black ferns atop deep ravines and cavernous labyrinths. As mentioned above Styr is developed into a dedicated sadist by Marter, who writes of how Styr enjoys putting his subjects – particularly Sarah Jane Smith – through tortures far more horrible than anything realized on television. In contrast he Styre written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin is someone who can easily be read, in the words of one of my favourite reviews, as ‘a harassed Biology student trying to complete his practical on time.’ Marter’s Styr, though, is a complex creation, a cyborg entity whose flesh is likened to plastic, seaweed, rubber and steel wool, and viewed by different characters in different ways. To Sarah, he’s a noxious reptile and a bloated, snorting pig; to Harry he’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and the Golem of Jewish folklore, as if spontaneously generated from the devastated Earth, though Culshaw’s short vowels will make listeners think of Tolkien’s Gollum.

There’s a lot to intrigue in the writing, particularly the hallucinating Harry’s successive threatening visions of Sarah. Perhaps Marter viewed Harry as jealous of Sarah’s relationship with the Doctor, depicted as intense and trusting with Harry too often a third wheel. However, one of the more spectacular expansions is Harry’s exploration of the Sontaran ship, a more complex vessel in the book than suggested on television, which not only allows Harry to be heroic but is read with a careful urgency by Culshaw.

Simon Power’s sound design is appropriate throughout, especially in the torture scenes which are given suitably visceral cues. At about 180 minutes this audiobook isn’t too long and writer and reader are good companions for a few hours. It’s a small but determined sidestep into a reimagined fourth Doctor era, of interest to old and new audiences and an early indication of the elasticity of Doctor Who.

 





The King's Demons (audiobook)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 5 June 2016 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The King's Demons (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written by Terence Dudley
Read by Mark Strickson
Duration 5 hours approx.
Released 5th May 2015 (buy from Amazon UK)
 

We’re told that there is a fashion for slow television now, the latest Nordic trend to be picked up by BBC Four. Terence Dudley’s novelization of The King’s Demons is perhaps best appreciated as slow Doctor Who. However, this is no sleigh ride or canal journey. Listening to the audiobook of the story, it feels that every incident is subjected to multiple assessments and every epithet is sent in search of a synonym and in due course an antonym.

Terence Dudley’s practice as a drama series producer was often to emphasise his guest cast at the expense of his regulars. Something similar happens in the book of The King’s Demons where Dudley seems to feel his audience should be more interested in his own creations than they are in the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough. This would be less of a problem were Ranulf Fitzwilliam, Geoffrey de Lacey and the rest better-developed, but instead the listener learns little more about their backgrounds than was disclosed on television. One isn’t actually sure whether Dudley likes the Doctor and Tegan all that much. The Doctor is often priggish, smug and prone to supercilious disclosure of information. More uncomfortable is the characterization of Tegan: to be Australian and female is enough. Once Ranulf has decided that she must be a succubus – a demon who seduced men and weakened and killed them through sexual activity – Dudley likes to return to this as often as he can.

The King’s Demons has less plot than it has situation, and Dudley seems more interested in this than in story. Dudley likes to play a little with the vocabulary of material culture – he’s fond of people drinking from stoups, for example – and there is more in the text to correct the idea that Pip and Jane Baker had a monopoly on arcane and archaic wordplay in 1980s Doctor Who. The King’s Demons is painted on a small canvas but at least it has detail. Sadly a lot of that detail undermines its effectiveness. Archaic vocabulary if not used well can make an author seem self-satisfied. As for its sense of political history, Dudley seems to have read a book on King John which sought to revise conventional assumptions about his reputation, but then misunderstood it. In the novelization, Dudley not only repeats his dubious assessment that Magna Carta should be seen not as a baronial victory over the king but as an expression of enlightened royal policy, but then suggests that the charter King John signed in 1215 wasn’t as important as a later revised reissue under his son Henry III anyway. This may have something to it, but it only emphasises the oddness of the Master’s quest to prevent Magna Carta from being signed.

The source novelisation might be problematic, but this production does its best to overcome the material. Mark Strickson is a polished and sensitive narrator and the music cues are used with restraint and to good effect, though this version misses the lute playing and Strickson doesn’t attempt to sing King John’s song. His Tegan makes one wince but this accurately reflects how badly she is served by the book. Strickson does handle the many two-handed scenes of confinement well, especially the interrogation of Turlough by Sir Gilles Estram. The latter is one of the stronger characters in the book, despite his being a performance by another character, the Master. Strickson’s French accent is more thoughtful even if just as theatrical as Anthony Ainley’s was on television. The story, such as it is, is full of outsiders being cast as other people – the TARDIS travellers as demons, the Master as Sir Gilles, Kamelion as King John – but it ends with their Fitzwilliam hosts and the audience wondering what it was all about.

Sadly this is an audio adaptation for completists and the especially curious only. Terence Dudley’s grasp of what made Doctor Who work doesn’t seem to have been strong, and his belief that Tegan was still at this stage seeking to return to ‘London Airport’ (itself an anachronism in the 1980s) speaks of his detachment from the series’ continuing storylines. The effort of BBC Audio in bringing this to release is appreciated, but it’s a good thing that there remain better books than this to adapt in the novelization range.





Doctor Who: The Memory of WinterBookmark and Share

Thursday, 2 June 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Memory of Winter (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written By: George Mann
Read By: Jemma Redgrave
Released by BBC Audio, 7 April 2016

Back in November 2013, as Doctor Who’s much-anticipated fiftieth anniversary dawned, the team at the now-late AudioGO were faced with a dilemma – how could they best honour the event with a nostalgia-infused audiobook that still worked as a standalone narrative?

The result, for those who don’t remember it, was The Time Machine, the final instalment of the year-spanning Destiny of the Doctor saga which saw thespians who’d played companions return to voice an original audio adventure set in ‘their’ era of the programme. Much like its predecessors, this eleventh release conveyed a tale which could largely be heard without any prior knowledge of the previous ten storylines, but at the same time, it had the rather unfortunate job of attempting to resolve some of the overarching plot threads that AudioGO had set up over the course of 2013, leading to a rather structurally uneven release that could wholly satisfy neither franchise followers nor newcomers who were just hoping for an engaging standalone dosage of Who.

Rather than taking notes from this somewhat botched attempt at tackling a season finale of this ambitious ilk, however, George Mann – despite having more than confirmed his strengths in the realms of printed literature via his War Doctor novel Engines of War and his successive contribution to BBC Books’ short story-oriented Heroes and Monsters Collection last Summer – seems to have fallen prey to much the same pit-falls in penning the fourth chapter of BBC Audio’s Family of Winter series. Entitled The Memory of Winter, this 70-minute climactic instalment shouldn’t be regarded as a complete failure under any circumstances, but equally, it’s far from a prime example of science-fiction drama at its finest.

That’s not to say that Memory shows no signs of initial promise, nor that its narrative falls wholly flat – in fact, for the first 20 minutes or so, this reviewer couldn’t help but be convinced that the opposite would prove to be true come the credits rolling. In having the Twelfth Doctor and Clara – both of whom he manages to capture the essences of with remarkable accuracy from the outset – summoned to 15th Century France by a complacent time traveller – the last of the titular Winters, who once again summons the Doctor for help – who’s masquerading as a contemporary ambassador in the Hundred Years War, Mann instantly starts to build intrigue as to where the plot will head, particularly when he throws Joan of Arc into the mix and reveals her discourse with the mysterious “Saint of Gallifrey” in the process. Indeed, the latter mention should be more than enough to prompt any fan’s ears to perk up, as should the prospect of us finally discovering how the Winters came to secure the calling cards which Capaldi’s incarnation has so begrudgingly heeded over the course of the series to date.

Yet in spite of the inherent potential of the esteemed scribe’s premise – as well as his introduction of a similarly compelling extra-terrestrial antagonist plucked from previously uncharted realms of Time Lord mythology – this concluding part of the Family of Winter quadrilogy appears more constrained by the show’s present on-screen continuity than any of the preceding three outings were, ironically as a direct result of Mann’s ambition in dealing with the Doctor’s species at a point when he and Clara have yet to experience the events of Face the Raven, Heaven Sent or thus Hell Bent. This in turns renders the final revelations surrounding the nature of Joan’s ‘visions’, the “demon” plaguing Julius Winter’s platoon and the manner of the Doctor’s inevitable triumph against the latter antagonist that much less satisfying to the listener, a shortcoming not helped in the slightest by the struggle Mann seems to have in balancing these numerous plot threads in the space of just over a single hour of airtime.

Usually this would be the point in the review where one would hope to assert that the actor behind the microphone redeems most of the release’s faults – certainly, Clare Higgins’ enthusiastic, unpredictable approach to narrating the series’ opening chapter, The Gods of Winter, ensured that even its somewhat underdeveloped secondary characters still came off as engaging constructs for the Doctor and his Impossible Girl to interact with. In a surprising turn of events, though, Jemma Redgrave’s voice work leaves plenty to be desired, lacking the vigour she previously brought to her portrayal of Kate in both the TV show and Big Finish’s UNIT: Extinction as well as the impressively accurate differentiation of tones which Higgins employed in order to distinguish Capaldi’s oft-brash Time Lord from Coleman’s feisty but compassionate companion, with the result being that it’s not entirely difficult for one’s immersion in the storyline to be broken at times here. Perhaps it’s just a case of Redgrave not having much experience in the realm of audiobooks – finding voices for a wide ensemble of characters can’t be a walk in the park, after all – or perhaps the material simply didn’t inspire her to the same extent as Big Finish’s scripts, but either way, it’s a shame that barring a decent stab at a French accent for Joan and the soldiers, her contribution to proceedings does more to detract from Mann’s tale than to add any much-needed depth.

Not unlike November 2013’s The Time Machine, then, The Memory of Winter doesn’t so much end The Family of Winter with an impressive bang as – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem “The Hollow Men” – with an underwhelming whimper. Keen fans of Doctor Who’s occasional historical romp-style episodes like The Romans, The Unquiet Dead or The Fires of Pompeii might well find themselves interested enough in discovering Mann’s take on the Hundred Years War to warrant a purchase in this instance, but given the vastly superior manner in which Mann manages the various plot threads, continuity connections and overall structure of the previously-mentioned Engines of War, venturing to recommend Memory over that novel seems dishonest at best and downright counterproductive at worst. Those desperate for more Twelfth Doctor action will surely find elements to like here, but those wanting their dosages of Who to maintain their faith in the show in the midst of its year-long absence from our screens would be best advised to look elsewhere.





The Big Bang Generation (Audio Book)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 20 December 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Big Bang Generation (Credit: BBC)
  Read by Lisa Bowerman,
Released October 2015, BBC AUDIO

Sydney Cove becomes something more than just another tourist spot when a time portal deposits a very large pyramid all of a sudden, causing inconvenience for those wanting to use Port Jackson harbor. But furthermore beings from other worlds and time arrive with designs on the incongruous pyramid, such as notorious mobster Cyrrus Globb, Professor Horace Jaanson, and deadly female assassin Kik.  Rival Professor Bernice Summerfield and some of her dearest friends throw one more spanner into the works, and likewise for a group of con-artists headed up by a most familiar gentleman who wants to be called 'Doc'.

Eventually time and space stands to get more than a fleeting makeover, when the Ancients of the Universe are abruptly brought out of slumber. The Doctor's moniker of Time Lord will never have been put under as much scrutiny as this scenario dictates..

Despite Peter Capaldi's well-worn and wise appearance taking up much of the cover, this is very much an ensemble piece and at least as much a Bernice Summerfield story as a 12th Doctor one. For those only really familiar with contemporary TV Doctor Who, Bernice may come across as something of an unknown quantity, despite narratorLisa Bowerman's profile being reasonably high over recent years.  And many other characters are returning from numerous other spin off stories as well.

 

Gary Russell originally wanted River Song to feature in this story. Her exploratory and independent nature meant that when the author was not allowed to feature her, he opted for Bernice; possessing similarities in archaeologist/professor and just an all-round smart cookie.

With so much (dis)continuity at work Russell chooses not to try and join the dots with every previous story featuring the main character, (e.g. the Eighth Doctor classic The Dying Days is glossed over).  But there are certainly fun supporting characters, even if somewhat limited in their depth and purpose.

Professor Summerfield gang include her very own son Peter - and definitely the most intriguing of the secondary characters -  along with engaged couple Ruth and Jack (the latter being a red-eyed Kadeptian humanoid) and Keri who is a long time friend for Bernice. We also have some 'loveable rogues' in the Doctor's own temporary cohort, that comprise Legs (as the comic relief), Dog Boy (for muscle and weapons handling), Shortie, (who can plan details to a fine art), and Da Trowel, (who knows more than a thing or two about excavation across the cosmos).

 

As stated, the Doctor himself is far from the dominant character, and takes a while to be utilised. It is worth paying heed to the fact that 'Big Bang' is one of a loose trilogy called The Glamour Chronicles. Hence the other stories have the tetchy Time Lord in a more traditionally focused role, and indeed can be read/listened to in any order.

The dynamics that involve a given character against another one or group is one reason to keep listening through a 5-CD release with just the one -admittedly conscientious - performer in Lisa Bowerman. But as much as the dialogue and characterisation are quite enjoyable, there is also something of a muddled story here. The sense of threat is somehow too abstract, and come the conclusion a lot of the prior events do end up feeling incosequential.

Also troublesome is that the story proper takes a real while to get going properly. Maybe Russell should have had some real incident happen first and then use characters' speeches (and flashbacks) to fill us in on the characters. He certainly has not broken his habit of referencing the past tales of Doctor Who, be they official televised ones or officially branded spin-off in nature. We even get a roll call of a good couple of dozen former companions, bringing to mind the retrospective nature of many a 1980s TV story, such as Resurrection of the Daleks.

Fortunately one original Eleventh Doctor book I know -The Glamour Chase -gave me some appreciation for the overall plot and its resolution. There just about is enough explanation for newcomers, but I do really recommend looking to get at least a summary on this unique form of shielding which has appeared in other original Doctor Who fiction and even Big Finish audio.

There is also a lack of any really good villain. Kik the Assassin and Globb are interestingly ruthless to an extent but ultimately a McGuffin is being sought and no dark scenario for the world/ universe feature directly in the antagonists' designs.

Bowerman is a stellar audio actress, and many old-school fans will remember her very good performance as Cheetah Person Karra in Survival. She does a fine job as the narrator, is even better as Bernice (who she has played so much over the years) and does a nice enough imitation of the incumbent TV Doctor, who is in a rather subdued mood for much of the story. Other voices though are variable, and one character ends up sounding like the Spitting Image mock-up of Queen Elizabeth I, which is funny but a little too distracting for those of us who saw that late satirical show in the past.

There is some good work in production terms with the sound effects matching the cataclysmic effects of the Ancients. Backing music is suitably subtle and non intrusive. As much as Murray Gold does a fine job on he TV it is good to have a very different style for audio books such as this.

Overall success of Big Bang comes down to how much a listener is prepared for a story lacking urgency; most likely deliberately so in favour of whimsy and 'screwball' humour. This certainly is along the lines of Gareth Roberts 'missing Season 17' stories and has more than a touch of Douglas Adams' own work from outside of Doctor Who. It passes the time tolerably enough but is quite likely to prove forgettable as well.

 





The Gods of WinterBookmark and Share

Sunday, 16 August 2015 -  
 
The Gods of Winter (Credit: BBC Audio)
Written By: James Goss
Read By: Claire Higgins
Released by BBC Audio, 20 August 2015
Finding themselves yanked across the cosmos to a human colony world, the Doctor and his travelling companion are tasked with seemingly their most mundane mission yet: rescue an innocuous young girl’s missing cat. Suffice to say that as premises for a new yarn set in the limitless realms of Doctor Who go, this initial set-up seems neither as thrilling as that of recent TV serials like 42 nor indeed as continuity-shaking as that of The Day of the Doctor, yet it’s precisely the opening scenario which scribe James Goss lays before us with his latest contribution to the show’s mythology, The Gods of Winter.

The first instalment in a four-part series of BBC Audio releases featuring Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor as well as Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald – although only in name, since the studio have recruited the likes of David Schofield to narrate this interlinked quartet – Gods wastes no time in establishing the central plot arc which will bind together these otherwise standalone tales, introducing the aforementioned youth known as Diana Winter as she utilises an ominous "calling card" bestowed upon the Doctor to her ancestors for use on the worst day of each family member’s life. As was the case with Professor River Song back in 2008’s Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead, however, the increasingly antagonistic Time Lord might well feel the desire to play Michael Buble’s "Haven’t Met You Yet" through the TARDIS’ speakers, since his initial meeting with the Winters clearly hasn’t occurred for him yet (and no doubt will be held back for the final instalment’s launch this December).

Regardless, even if answers regarding precisely why Diana’s family will have such a bearing on their newfound saviour’s life in days to come are a way off, Goss provides more than enough in the way of reasons for listeners to stick around in the meantime. Much as this reviewer jested about the subdued – to say the very least – nature of the quest placed on our time-travelling protagonists’ bigger-on-the-inside doorstep above, the situation involving the colony on which Diana resides and the apparently ruthless invaders plaguing its residents quickly escalates in unexpected ways, with the TARDIS crew forced to consider the origins of the Golhearn, a race whose motivations for serving as Gods’ supposed antagonists might not be all that they seem. Rest assured that we’ve no intent of spoiling any plot details beyond those offered in the audiobook’s précis, but we’ll at least tease that jumps in time, trips to other celestial bodies and commentaries on issues such as the dangers of blind faith and corporate legalities all factor into the piece’s overarching storyline in the seamless, inspired manner which only Goss can manage (as proven by his acclaimed past work on sub-plot laden Who romps including 2007’s The Infinite Quest).

Yet although the case of Diana’s lost feline companion does give way to a more layered, compelling adventure with political undertones aplenty, those hoping that Gods’ overall stakes would simultaneously be raised in the process might come away disappointed. Certainly, later set-pieces involving space shuttle flights across planet surfaces and seemingly abandoned religious temples up the ante in terms of action, placing both the Doctor and Clara – not to mention the first known member of the Winter dynasty – in occasionally grave danger, but if anything, this audiobook’s oft-relaxed tone at times seems far more reminiscent of that of a First Doctor serial (perhaps aptly given the representational similarities between Hartnell and Capaldi’s incarnations) than of one produced since Russell T Davies took the series’ helm just ten short years ago, a trait which could well deter any listener who approached the Twelfth Doctor’s latest audio voyage hoping for an adrenaline-fuelled experience along the lines of Into the Dalek or Death in Heaven. What Gods lacks in the way of substantial threats, however, the soon-to-be released tale compensates for with a hugely intelligent structure that initially lures the audience into wondering why Big Finish didn’t take the project on as one of their Short Trips scripts given the narrative’s supposed brevity, only for Goss to then throw a spanner in the works at the episode’s halfway point which ultimately more than justifies its (approximately) 60-minute running time.

Better yet, in the form of The Night of the Doctor star Claire Higgins (better known to series veterans as the mysterious figure who resurrected the Eighth Doctor shortly before kick-starting his successor’s plunge into the Time War), Goss has scored himself a simply ideal narrator, not least thanks to Higgins’ valiant attempts to distinguish the irritable Scottish tones of Capaldi’s Doctor, the remarkably more compassionate (if infrequently reckless) voice of Coleman’s Impossible Girl as well as the ever-maturing Diana. Whereas some of the previous contributors to BBC Audio’s various audiobook versions of the New Series Adventures novels have arguably tried and failed to capture the essence of either the programme’s current on-screen lead actors or indeed the one-off supporting players who’ve never featured on the TV show, there’s little point in denying that the first of the four thespians enlisted to bring the Winter escapades to life using their only vocal chords excels in both respects, effortlessly holding her audience’s attention as a result during both Gods’ (rare but appreciated) high-octane sequences and its calmer moments.

For a Who storyline which could quite easily have left its listeners baffled as to why BBC Audio didn’t simply transform it into a Sarah Jane Adventures novelisation, then, The Gods of Winter achieves a truly commendable number of feats, utilising its lack of action set-pieces as a means by which to tell a politically (and indeed philosophically) engaging yarn while bringing a hugely accomplished narrator into the fold so as to ensure that its audience never fails to remain captivated by proceedings. As with just about any tale intended largely to set up a broader plot arc, one could reasonably claim that the lack of genuine closure regarding the origins of Diana’s calling card robs Gods of a place amongst the higher echelons of off-screen Who, yet even if that’s indeed the case, this reviewer would gladly wager that the vast majority of those wise enough to pick Goss’ supremely accomplished latest work up will be too busy lapping up its myriad merits (not to mention attempting to predict how the story of Diana’s family tree might develop come October 1st in George Mann’s The House of Winter) to even begin to notice such incredibly minor shortcomings.
 




The Massacre - Audio BookBookmark and Share

Thursday, 23 July 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Massacre (Credit: BBC Audio)

Written by John Lucarotti,
Read by Peter Purves,
Released by BBC Audio, 21 May 2015

This First Doctor historical was amongst the many early Doctor Who tales to be wiped by the BBC, at a time when home video releases were not yet introduced. Fortunately, as with all the other 'lost' stories, a soundtrack copy was retained and this story was the first of a wave of audio CD releases of various First and Second Doctor stories at the turn of the century.

Original viewers of all ages saw a sophisticated but non-preachy historical drama. The Doctor quickly leaves Steven to manage on his own in 1572 Paris; full of political turmoil between the Catholic and Huguenot religious groups. The Catholic Abbot of Amboise catches Steven's eye, and soon this loyal companion wonders if his older friend is playing a very risky game of impersonation. A young girl called Anne Chaplet soon needs Steven's help as she flees the Abbot and attempts to warn the Huguenots of a deadly conspiracy. But history tells of the inevitable Massacre of St Bartholomew's Day, and time cannot be rewritten despite the sheer pointlessness of the violence that ensued...

            A great cast was involved, many going on to be in later colour stories which all are now available. Examples include: The Deadly Assassin's Eric Chitty as Preslyn, Warriors' Gate's David Weston as Nicholas Muss and Arc of Infinity's Leonard Sachs as Admiral De Coligny. There is even a turn from Eric Thompson, father of the world-famous Emma. Also director Paddy Russell debuted here, and was behind later notable stories for the Third and Fourth Doctors.

 

The novelisation was published in the summer of 1987, and saw credited writer John Lucarotti bring to novel form the original scripts he created, after a number of amendments by script-editor Donald Tosh. Ultimately Tosh rewrote the story to be a very different one, but only received a co-author credit in the final episode.

Why Lucarotti did not approve of the final version is of real interest. Upon being promised a third historical story from initial showrunner Verity Lambert, Lucarotti then found the new team of John Wiles and Tosh to be rather less harmonious with his vision of Doctor Who. A rather darker show was being established, with grim endings such as the fate of the Drahvins, the fall of Troy, and the many tragedies in The Dalek Masterplan. This perhaps was for the best as the fledgling Saturday tea-time show made its case for continued existence, long before it was famous globally.  

Even after two other story rejections, and finally getting a green light on using the Huguenot massacre as the backdrop there were still problems. William Hartnell was getting more difficult to work with and had poor health, and the then-showrunners wanted to try and remove him as lead on the show. Lucarotti's proposal of a double role for Hartnell as Abbot and Doctor was not in line with this intended path. This reputable TV writer was ultimately so dismayed that he wanted no on-screen credit. He did not get that wish but was paid for all four instalments and many years later retained the right to adapt his intended story for book form.  The novelisation was enjoyed by both fans and general readers alike and now gets further exposure today as a CD/ Internet Download.

 

This story significantly manages to intertwine historical fact with fiction. Charles IX and Preslyn are real-life figures who are used for plot purpose; the former being a weak willed monarch under the thrall of his mother Catherine De Medici, the latter being a little paranoid but nonetheless a notable scientist of his time.

Notably unique to the novelisation is the framing device of Time Lords putting the Doctor through either an inquiry or another trial, but which future Doctor is not made too clear. More focus emerges as to the morality of his interference in events, and perhaps his eventual abandonment of the various people he meets to their fates.

The plot differs increasingly from Tosh's version after the initial sections that resemble Episode One. The key character difference is the Doctor is far more involved throughout. In theory William Hartnell would have shown his full range and poise (and as much as terrific glimmers of the Abbot did make it to screen).

As we know though, the production team were against the lead, and maybe his ill health would have also been too much also.

The paramount goal for our regulars is to survive, and it is particularly urgent, but we also care for the various Huguenots who try their best to fight a growing tide. Even  some sense of the pressure on the Catholics is generated by Lucarotti, though their ends certainly never justify their means. 

Peter Purves continues to impress, after my prior sampling of his efforts for Big Finish. He uses his theatre roots, which involved considerable variety from one play to the next, to solidly portray a host of players in the story, along with their myriad characteristics. The Doctor's voice again is done well, conveying the essence of Hartnell's rather complex interpretation. What music we do get generates a heightened atmosphere, and there are fine sound effects such as the gallops of hooves, crowd noise and other effects to signify action moments.

Our narrator only stumbles when attempting rage in voices that are markedly different  to Steven. Also while his Anne is passable, there is never any real doubt of this being a male imitation of a female, but then very few can overcome this downside of the solo-contributor format.

 

All the same, we are afforded a chance to experience the book's enticing prose, and how it plays to the mediums' best strengths. There is plenty of Steven's immediate perspective. How this man from the future uses his wits over any of his inbuilt skills or training is gripping, as is his role in partially defanging the Catholic conspiracy. Most fans agree that The Massacre is Steven's peak during his time as a companion.

Along with sterling heroes we need a good set of villains. The Catholics who ultimately win are to be respected as much as reviled. Simon Duvall is built up in the most notable antagonist, demonstrating a suave nature along with having a strong plan. How the Abbot and Duvall's fates are intertwined, not least due to the Doctor's ingenuity, is a payoff that works handsomely.

Of more trivial interest, we are introduced to some minor characters who were not retained for the final TV version, e.g. the bumbling locksmith who understandably is foiled by the TARDIS' secure door.

 

It is to be commended how Lucarotti has no easy answers and does not assume a moral highground. Even the characters we most empathise with such as Gaston, Lerans and Muss are not angelic by any means. The charismatic Admiral De Coligny is helped during the timeframe of Steven and the Doctor being around, but upon their departure he receives no better a fate than assassination. Such is the inevitable course of history. And had he been spared then he likely would have implemented methods little better than his religious enemies.

Praiseworthy also is the 'identical Doctor' aspect, which was repeated in other ways  throughout the TV show's long history. In this novel version the way both the Doctor and the Abbot show initiative and smarts is more exciting than the somewhat clumsy manner the TV Abbot saw himself into trouble. The Doctor is of course the wiser and sharper of the two, and having one of this religious zealot's own allies be manipulated into his downfall is most enjoyable.

A small flaw perhaps, but one most classic Who stories are guilty of, is the sheer lack of notable female characters in comparison to male. At least we do have two solid roles in the form of the ruthless Queen Mother and the young, vulnerable but brave Anne Chaplet.

The manner of how the Doctor manages to avoid the wrath Catherine shows the First Doctor at his typical smart best, and is especially exciting knowing he must convince as a man who only resembles him in appearance. Meanwhile the Steven-Anne dynamic is used very well to evoke real concern for the many innocents caught up between the scheming factions. It is one of the very first instances of a 'pseudo companion', i.e. who may qualify but circumstances finally say otherwise.

 

Catacombs has been a great trope over the years for Who, and they are sadly jettisoned in the TV equivalent. Along with the use of a crypt under Notre Dame, this story really has much to offer in terms of atmosphere.

Indeed, there is much suspense and intrigue, and yet the final sections do lack a touch of the all pervading sense of doom of Tosh's work. The debate between Steven and his mysterious mentor over what they can or cannot do regarding historical events is far less confrontational.

Tosh's rewrite saw potential descendant of Anne, Dodo, take up what initially appeared to be the Frenchwoman's place abroad the TARDIS. Yet I personally prefer the way that Anne is safe thanks to the Doctor's efforts. albeit with the only fleeting reference to Dodo in the epilogue Lucarotti opts for. At the same time, it is a shame that the famous soliloquy by Hartnell is nowhere to be found. It is a key moment  of Who folklore and wonderfully recreated by David Bradley in An Adventure In Time And Space from autumn 2013.

 

This is perhaps not a story to be digested in one sitting as the previous off-air soundtrack can be. It is very ambitious and intricate, and requires a lot of close attention from the listener, but is more than worth it as the foundations are rock solid. Whilst reflecting the deliberate pace of the Hartnell era, it never feels tedious. This pivotal historical is as relevant to our society and its political and religious unrest as it was back when first pieced together under the most fraught of circumstances.