Written by Gareth Roberts
Adapted by John Dorney
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Big Finish Productions, January 2015
Whereas Romance was almost a Season Seventeen story with the picture turned down, this one is a slightly stranger and more freewheeling brew, pitting the Fourth Doctor, Romana II, and K9 against zombies, a hired assassin, a body-snatching sentient gas, mind-boggling science, and British Edwardian Manners. It kicks off with the Doctor breezily bypassing the Randomiser to return some library books in 1930, and unravels into a twisty-turny plot of mistaken identity and brain-eating - expertly combining P.G. Wodehouse, space opera, and zombie movie. It makes perhaps better use of its audio format than Romance - it has more of the feel of a radio play, but also conjures up tall visual orders like time corridors and sentient mist with ease. The only time it feels a little unwieldy is when the approach of an undead Policeman through said mist is described by one character to another. Happily though, this is just a blip, the rest of the story skips along beautifully.
The dialogue is packed with zingers, the characters are gloriously bonkers (and often very polite) - and Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, and John Leeson all excel. Tom sounds like he's enjoying himself hugely, and delivers lines about the average daily amount of attempts on his life with laid-back aplomb. Meanwhile, Lalla Ward is as charmingly indignant as ever, and John Leeson gets a creepy stand-out moment when K9 is possessed by the gaseous Zodaal.
Just as Romance echoed Eldrad from The Hand of Fear, Zodaal has split himself into components like Scaroth in City of Death, but with the added twist that he had his sense of humour removed - a nice riff on those humourless, grandiloquent 'possessed' villains of the seventies.
A strong supporting cast is led by Terrence Hardiman (of The Beast Below fame, and also known to a generation of British children for his performance as the Demon Headmaster), as the undead Hepworth Stackhouse and Annabel Mullion as sultry assassin Julia. Nick Briggs does an excellent job of directing as usual, and Jamie Robertson's score is a neat halfway house of Dudley Simpson's sound of '79 and the electronic approach of the Radiophonic Workshop's music from 1980.
Most of all, though, it's the joyous invention of Roberts' story - brought to life so well by Dorney's script that makes this such a winner. Big Finish continues to go from strength to strength, and has managed with this box set to reunite a TARDIS team we never thought we'd hear together again, and give them some of their finest material. Here's hoping that The Well-Mannered War (coming later this year) isn't the last we hear from them.