Stars: Tim Treloar, Katy Manning, Jon Culshaw,
Daisy Ashford, John Levene, Michael Troughton,
Bethan Dixon Bate, Joe Jameson, Andrew Wincott,
Rosalyn Landor, David Dobson, Dominic Wood, Guy Adams
Written by John Dorney and Guy Adams
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Big Finish Productions, 2019
“Run free, my children, run free! Spread out! Soon everyone in England will be a Primord!”
With the recent centenary of Jon Pertwee’s birth, it would probably amaze the actor that his work is still celebrated today. The Season 10 classic series Blu-Ray boxset of Doctor Who has recently been launched, highlighting both Pertwee’s Third Doctor and the “UNIT family”: Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates) and John Levene (Sergeant Benton). It’s the third season in what was a hugely successful Doctor/support team for the program (1971-73) – and would also signal the beginning of the end of the Pertwee era.
Big Finish has complemented the timing of the Blu-Ray release with Volume 5 of The Third Doctor Adventures, featuring two further additions to the “Pertwee canon”. As a regular listener and reviewer of the Big Finish Doctor Who range, until now I’ve largely avoided the “further adventures” of the first three Doctors, preferring to focus on later incarnations and modern series content. There has probably been an element of snootiness involved there – as much as I’m a child of the Seventies (the Pertwee era of Doctor Who is the earliest I can remember), I was sceptical of serials with other actors recreating the roles of late, iconic performers like Pertwee and Courtney.
For example, I’ve enjoyed Jon Culshaw’s impressions for more than a decade but could he really do Courtney justice and recreate the Brigadier? I mean, Kamelion, yes, but the Brig? And who was this Tim Treloar bloke that he qualified to succeed the great Pertwee as the Third Doctor? Never mind that a rudimentary search of the Big Finish website reveals Treloar has done quite a lot of work for the company’s output and that on IMDB he’s been a long-time thesp in TV and film, clocking up appearances on The Bill, Foyle’s War, Silent Witness, Father Brown and Call the Midwife, as well as a cameo in Disney blockbuster Maleficent! Strangely, I’ve never before had any issue with the recasting of the First Doctor on television (both Richard Hurndall and David Bradley) but clearly when it came to BF’s recasting of earlier Doctors, I had more of a bugbear than I realised!
I’m therefore pleased to report that my doubts and scepticism were horribly misplaced. Not only do Treloar and Culshaw deliver outstanding portrayals of the Third Doctor and the Brigadier but the two stories that make up this set – Primord and The Scream of Ghosts – are very faithful to the tone of the writing of the period and wonderfully evocative of the Pertwee era, particularly in their use of sound effects and incidental music. The inclusion of Manning (in both tales) and Levene (in The Scream of Ghosts), both portraying their parts in a youthful manner that’s in spite of their true age, further cements the impression that these two tales could very plausibly (with some minor exceptions) have neatly slotted into the Pertwee era.
John Dorney’s Primord is an indirect sequel to the early Pertwee classic Inferno. As Dorney points out in the CD extras, the Primords in the original TV serial were largely surplus to the greater parallel universe/apocalyse scenario. They served as the generic “monster of the week”, memorable for their faux hairy make-up and canines, but with little development whatsoever. In this tale, Dorney seeks to make the creatures more three-dimensional and empathetic – the Primords are all pawns in a greater scheme by quarters of the British political and military brass and at least two of them are originally people that mean something to companions Jo and Liz Shaw (Daisy Ashford, recreating her mother Caroline John’s character).
There is also an implied intelligence and cunning to the Primords that only becomes evident as the broader story takes shape – and is exhibited by the most unexpected of antagonists. It’s a great twist that propels the plot further along in the third and fourth episodes after a gradual build-up in the first two instalments.
The performances of the supporting cast in Primord all contribute to an outstanding script and production. Michael Troughton (the other son of Second Doctor Patrick) relishes the opportunity to play the villainous General Sharp, while Bethan Dixon Bate is the amoral defence secretary Lady Madeleine Rose whose political ambitions clearly override any consideration for the welfare of the Primords or the victims of their weaponisation.
But again, in a story where all but one of the four major characters has been recast, it is Ashford’s turn as Liz that is particularly impressive. Ashford’s voice is almost indistinguishable from her mother’s, in a way that Treloar’s is not from Pertwee’s nor Culshaw’s from Courtney’s; Treloar and Culshaw at times sound very much like the Doctor and the Brigadier but there are other times when their natural inflections inevitably creep in. That’s not as noticeable with Ashford – perhaps that’s the advantage of being related – but Liz’s role in the story also benefits from the twist in her regular characterisation. This no doubt gives Ashford some more freedom with her interpretation, whereas Treloar’s and Culshaw’s portrayals have to be largely consistent with type.
Another highlight of Primord is the pairing of the Brigadier and Jo Grant – which, to the best of my knowledge, never happened on TV! – as they investigate Sharp’s operation while the Doctor works with Liz on a cure to the Primord virus. Culshaw and Manning make this combination work so well that they literally become the heroes of the story in the Doctor’s absence, particularly as events escalate and they stand as the only true levels of resistance to Sharp and the broader Primord threat. You never truly doubt that it is the Brigadier and Jo that you are listening in on.
“Harmonise the signal …”
The Brigadier and Jo are briefly paired together during the proceedings of Guy Adams’ The Scream of Ghosts but rather than split off, the regulars in the Doctor/UNIT family are switched and swapped numerous times throughout the plot. Sergeant Benton, for example, has a nice moment of introspection with the Doctor as he relates how his absence of a social life outside of UNIT prompted him to join a group of CB radio enthusiasts from around the world to broaden his horizons. It’s a wonderful moment of rare sincerity glimpsed in Benton and it is deftly delivered by John Levene, performing the part for the first time in these Third Doctor dramatisations.
Big Finish, being the specialist that it is, has throughout its 20 years of delivering Doctor Who for audio done some wonderfully inventive things with sound, dating back to early instalments like Justin Richards’ Whispers of Terror (1999). The Scream of Ghosts also imaginatively utilises sound as a core plot point. Guy Adams explains in the CD extras that his script is evocative of sound in a great many forms – it embraces the concept of hauntology (ie of structures capturing and evoking atmosphere and sound), explores early developments in mobile telephony through arrogant and capricious scientist Professor Caldicott (Rosalyn Landor) and her assistant Armitage (David Dobson), and, in aspiring musician Warren Deckland (Dominic Wood), portrays the general fascination of instrumentalists since the Sixties and Seventies with experimental music and sound, including musique concrète.
In many ways, the story is quite self-referential, given Doctor Who’s iconic theme tune and experimental, electronic sound effects were themselves products of some outstanding young minds (eg Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgkinson). Warren even closes out the story by mixing the theme tune when the Doctor leaves him with recordings of the story’s very own extra-terrestrial menace – a “cheat” that was effectively used by the TV program occasionally in the Pertwee era to bridge its own cliffhangers!
As a tale, The Scream of Ghosts is entertaining “Pertwee fare”, with an old TV foe (familiar to us as listeners, not necessarily the Doctor) rearing its ugly head. This particular alien race was pretty underwhelming on TV, and indeed has remarkably enjoyed more of a charmed life in Doctor Who spin-off fiction than they’ve probably deserved (I must admit to being staggered by their multiple appearances in other Big Finish stories). Adams’ own renditions of the enemy are unsurprisingly full of their trademark volume and pomposity but unfortunately the prior baggage of their lone TV appearance (for this listener, at least) continues to undermine whatever menace and authority they have. Even the Primords, by comparison, don’t suffer in the same way, even though they arguably were the weakest link in Inferno too.
It’s a pity because were the antagonist more convincing and sinister, The Scream of Ghosts would probably be a great – rather than just a good – serial. Certainly, it’s spooky and atmospheric in parts, playing on many of the insecurities in viewers/listeners that the Pertwee era was very good at exploiting, eg electronic poltergeists that beg for help, static-filled TV sets that seemingly swallow up their owners and unnerving voices that talk through inactive earpieces. As it is, it is just edged out by Primord as the better of the two tales.
Given the writers of both serials have kindly story doctored the other’s work, another intriguing and enjoyable aspect of this boxset is the loose continuity between them. Gender politics and diversity are very strongly felt in both tales, with Jo remarking that between meeting Liz in Primord and Caldicott in Ghosts, she is getting used to suddenly meeting more women with scientific credentials!
Given both stories are0 set in the Seventies, there is an acknowledgement that women were only beginning to be trailblazers (Daisy Ashford remarks in the extras that even her own mother Caroline John did not realise that as Liz she paved the way for more positive female role models). Liz complains that despite her prior knowledge of the Primord virus, she was approached second for expert advice. Similarly, Caldicott has spent a decade proving that her work in mobile telephony is valid, to the scepticism of a male-dominated telecommunications establishment; she therefore doesn’t take kindly to being lectured by a “patriarch in a cape” when the Doctor admits that he was not aware of her work largely because he knows (from future knowledge) that the real advances in mobile phone technology will occur in America, not England.
The difference between Liz and Caldicott, though, is that the former does not take either chauvinism or a lack of appreciation for her scientific prowess too personally; she continues to work at her best, in spite of the glass ceiling. Caldicott, on the other hand, is clearly bitter and frustrated with her lack of progress over a significant period of time and is consequentially hostile to both men and women alike.
It’s also great to see Jo herself, despite her unsuccessful O-levels in elementary school science, proving that you don’t need a super IQ to save the world. In Primord, Jo is a little intimidated by Liz’s scientific prowess but in Ghosts there is no one the Doctor trusts more to save the day – and the planet. Indeed, in a nod to Doctor Who serials of the modern era, Jo becomes literally and figuratively the most important person on Earth, even giving the antagonist the Doctor’s usual ultimatum of a last chance to stand down or suffer total defeat. To reinforce that she doesn’t have the Doctor’s near omnipotence, there’s a nice scene where she turns to UNIT’s original Osgood (from The Daemons) for advice.
There are other nice little touches of continuity between the serials as well. Jo’s affection for dogs is referenced in both tales – the characters of Private Callahan (Joe Jameson) and Warren have four-legged friends. There’s even a joke in Ghosts about (to quote Culshaw’s Brigadier) “damn fool fire extinguishers” when UNIT’s finest are assaulted by one – they are also the “weapon of choice” in fighting the Primords. While Primord and The Scream of Ghosts can be enjoyed independently of the other, they feature “Easter eggs” that enhance the listening experience.
The Third Doctor Adventures Vol 5 is a highly pleasurable listening experience, and a good introduction for listeners (like me) that have until now eschewed this “continuation” of the Pertwee era. In all, this set of serials not only successfully recaptures the nostalgia of the Third Doctor’s tenure extremely well – both through the music and sound effects, and the exceptional performances of Pertwee’s, Courtney’s and John’s surrogates – it also highlights just how unforgiving, sexist and regressive the Seventies could be on matters of gender equality and diversity. To the BF production team’s credit, it tackles these issues without putting on the “rose-tinted spectacles” while maintaining the “feel” and atmosphere of the Pertwee era.