Picking up from the Master’s abduction of Leela at the end of Requiem for the Rocket Men, Matt Fitton’s Death Match is very much a sequel to that story. Once again it focuses very much on Leela, as she’s picked as the Master’s champion in the eponymous Death Match - a gladiatorial contest-slash-gameshow where champions duke it out to the death. There are bonuses, there’s fine catering, and it’s an expensive hobby for those with money to burn. It’s the Master’s own invention, and gives a nice insight into what he gets up to between his usual evil schemes.
Leela’s kidnap is news to the Doctor and K9, travelling alone together, unaware of the Master’s last-ditch skulduggery - and under the impression that she’s happily building a new life with her student/‘pair-bond’ Marshall (Damian Lynch). They intercept a distress call from Marshall, and all three quickly end up in the middle of the Death Match.
If Rocket Men was a sort of Ocean’s Eleven-styled caper movie, then Death Match owes a clear debt to The Hunger Games, with its sponsors, posh officials, and tactics of elimination. There’s a touch of Battle Royale here too, with exploding jewellery that goes off if anyone forfeits the games.
Leela carries a lot of the story and the action, most of which has her mid-fight and panting with exhaustion. Her relationship with Marshall is key, and he proves himself worthy of her love. Lynch again gives a strong, understated performance as Marshall, the noblest of the Rocket Men. They’re so well-matched that you know it’s going to end in tears, but the ending makes perhaps more sense of the fact that we know she’ll eventually end up with Andred, and not too far in the future considering the mid-season fifteen setting of this series. Louise Jameson is by turns brave and hard-as-nails, but the ending of the story shows her the bravest she’s ever been, as she stoically deals with her loss.
The Doctor and K9 have a lot to do, and have a rollickingly sarky rapport, but rightly, take a back seat to the story of Leela and Marshall. Tom Baker is, as ever, Tom Baker - perhaps not quite on the belting form of Rocket Men, but he has some good moments, angrily facing off against the Master (who is gleeful about the brutality of the Death Match where the Doctor is scathing) and trading quips with the deadpan K9. His finest moment comes at the end, where he invites Leela to travel with him again - a quietly emotional moment between the two that shows how their relationship has been given new legs by Big Finish.
Meanwhile, the Master has something of a love-interest of his own, as the ambitious and ruthless Kastrella (an excellent Susan Brown) has designs on becoming his equal partner. Geoffrey Beevers plays another blinder here, his Master clearly respects just how nasty Kastrella is, and the lengths she’ll go to to get what she wants. That said, he’s clearly also not into her - this incarnation is charming, but isn’t flirty in the slightest, and he’s happy to sacrifice her when the moment comes.
This is another strong effort from Big Finish, and this run of Fourth Doctor Adventures seems to go from strength to strength. Doing action like this on audio can’t be easy, and the only slightly weak part is the scenes with Kastrella’s champion, the Red Knight. He’s given a suitably grisly origin, and we’re told his armour is fused to his flesh - but he comes across as a little underwhelming, sounding like a cross between Brian Blessed at his most bellow-y and Rik Mayall in full Flashheart mode, but without the jokes.
Death Match is a worthy sequel to Requiem for the Rocket Men, it has plenty to offer, and is well-scripted and thought-through - considering that the ‘arena’ concept has been done to death in Sci-Fi. But at the heart of it, there’s Leela and Marshall - one hell of a match. In a knowing nod to her future, the Doctor notes that she might have to lower her standards a little. That time will come soon, and somewhere on Gallifrey, a chancellery guard won’t know what’s hit him before too long - but there’s a few more adventures to savour yet before that happens.