Even by the standards of Doctor Who, a phenomenon which has always met the needs of its audience with books, toys, comics and more, fans of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor have been spoiled for choice in the early months of 2021. As well as the deluxe Blu-Ray release of the classic Season 8, along comes another instalment of Big Finish’s Third Doctor Adventures – a range now well-established since its 2015 debut. As always, it’s both an opportunity to take the avuncular, debonair Third Doctor and his companions in new storytelling directions, and to faithfully recreate the feel of watching a long-lost story from the era. All that’s missing are the wobbly sets, grainy location filming and gratuitous explosions.
It’s a remarkably convincing recreation – an even more impressive show of devotion and love than last month’s instalment of the First Doctor Adventures, featuring another cast stepping into the shoes of a classic TARDIS lineup. The presence here of Sadie Miller and Daisy Ashford, portraying the companions made famous by their parents (Elisabeth Sladen and Caroline John) so many years ago, makes that connection literal.
An Earth-bound mission, featuring our favourite military organisation, is our first stop in this pair of new stories.
The Unzal Incursion
The Third Doctor era’s debt to UNIT is the launchpad for this opening salvo. We open as UNIT’s director, Cherilyn Dankworth (Clare Corbett), demonstrates the Fulcrum training facility to Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (Jon Culshaw). Inside, Sergeant Attah (Misha Malcolm) urges her men to hold the line in a fight against lethal robots: it’s a high-tech training simulation.
Elsewhere, Dr Liz Shaw (Daisy Ashford) is working on a project named Hotspur – merging the world’s radar facilities into a single advanced early warning system, a first line of defence against alien invasions. The underlying message from these opening scenes is clear – technology can not only augment mankind’s ability to fight, it might also be our best bulwark against threats from beyond Earth. As Liz explains, “the precious minutes we will gain as a result can be the difference between life and death.” It’s been lauded by UNIT, but the Doctor (Tim Treloar) is sceptical. Although his ego is bruised by Liz’s lack of attention, he urges her to take the spotlight at a ‘linkup’ party for the new system.
It’s not long before a conspiracy rears its head: we listen in to Dankworth’s secret communications with a shadowy figure, who reminds her that “the incursion must engage on schedule.” The Director then authorises the release of a neutralising agent on her subordinates, and the coup begins. The Doctor and Liz spring into action – realigning the polarity of the quantum oscillators, naturally – but not before a “conditioning web” is activated and Sergeant Attah captures the Brigadier, using him as leverage for the Hotspur access codes which Liz holds. It wouldn’t be vintage Doctor Who without a kidnapping or two.
Naturally, our heroes escape to safety the TARDIS, however, and then on a chase to the enemy’s base of operations at Fulcrum – and the heart of the Unzal invasion. The adventure is everything that a fan of the Pertwee era could hope for, incorporating the same sense of apocalyptic urgency that the UNIT stories often invoked. The oft-mentioned James Bond influence of the early 70s stories makes itself known here, too: that zeal for big-budget setpieces and cutting-edge technology manifests in a thrilling plane crash sequence, and a drone army pursuing our heroes.
“Lady with the scales there. Five rounds rapid”
There’s plenty of more blatant fan-service, too, including a cameo for the beloved Bessie. Recognition is also due for the uncanny incidental music – Big Finish boss Nicholas Briggs himself lends his talents here, with a woozy recreation of the kind of music only achievable in the 1970s with synthesisers, tape loops, and the full might of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Acting as director of both stories too, Briggs is at the height of his powers here.
Mark Wright’s script is strong and captures the characters well, doing a fine job of making the three fugitives feel appropriately isolated as they unravel the conspiracy. It also elevates Liz to a position of central importance in the narrative – with the Doctor regularly, vocally recognising it. It’s a smart choice, highlighting that Liz’s expertise and independence was well ahead of her time back in 1970. The Unzal Incursion is let down in some areas, though. Dankworth and her alien allies never seem like a match for the combined forces of Liz, the Brigadier and The Doctor. The Unzals, in particular, are frustratingly under-developed: we only get a few clues about what their motives could be, and even what they look like. The story could have been fleshed out further – it’s a relatively straight line from beginning to end, and Part Two is disappointingly incident-free. But what could be more faithful to the spirit of vintage Doctor Who than that?
Things pick up again in the second half, and it all wraps up with the forces of evil just moments from victory. The story does leave a lot of lingering doubts, and I did wonder if a few more scenes might have ended things in a more satisfactory way. But there’s so much to love here: a consciously faithful recreation of a bygone era, that aims for nostalgia as much as thrills.
The second story gets a bit more experimental, straying from the template established by the Pertwee years. For one, we’re now in deep space, on an ocean planet with a toxic purple sea. The setting is a spin-drifter, an abandoned deep sea platform formerly occupied by a galactic corporation – now the enclave of an all-female artistic collective, led by the magisterial Marta Malvani (Wendy Craig), a portraitist. Others include Jesko, the cook, and Pen, a painter.
Instead of Liz, the Doctor is joined by Sarah-Jane (Sadie Miller). They arrive and are quickly taken in by one of the artists, Lynette, despite her foul mood. We learn that one of the collective, Laurel, is missing – presumed to have drowned in the ocean. The spin-drifter is an isolated, claustrophobic setting, and the relatively compact cast underscores a sense of emptiness. The installation is battered by the elements, and rotting from the inside, and the sound design and script cues set the scene well: the wind, rain and rust are almost tangible.
That isolation, and the harshness of the alien world around the base, feeds into the unusual intensity of the artwork being produced. The paintings are disturbing, macabre, and – as the Doctor notes – populated by strange creatures. The Doctor and Sarah Jane learn that the artists are using water from the toxic sea within their paintings – a fascinating idea that immediately piqued my interest. The Gulf is full of fascinating ideas like this, like a sub-plot about warring galactic mega-corporations, that make the setting feel richly realised, and not just another base under siege story.
Speaking of which, it’s no spoiler to say that something otherworldly is involved, and that the reappearance of the missing Laurel doesn’t bode well for the rest of the collective. The Waters of Mars, a new Who story, might come to mind when listening to The Gulf; in terms of its creeping dread and a relentless, elemental enemy. Suspicion takes a hold of the occupants of the station, as a malevolent intelligence preys on their fear, and The Doctor and Sarah-Jane learn why the station was abandoned so suddenly.
“I’m out of the sea – but the sea is in me”
The legendary Wendy Craig is the MVP of the cast as Marta, bringing elegance and nuance to her role as a shepherd struggling to protect her flock. A short scene with the Doctor in which Marta explains her simple philosophy – and her humble place in a chaotic universe – is worth the price of admission alone. The Gulf bets heavily that the emotional weight of the story will carry much of the drama, and Craig’s performance is no small part of that.
An ending which doesn’t quite hang together, can’t spoil what’s come before. The Gulf is the highlight of this volume, with Tim Treloar’s Doctor showing the full extent of his range – his empathy, bravery and curiosity all coming to the fore. This could be the perfect starting point for fans who haven’t given the Third Doctor Adventures a try: and if they might be expecting a pale imitation, to correct their false assumptions.
Doctor Who – The Third Doctor Adventures Volume 7 was released in May 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until the 30th June 2021, and on general sale after this date.
Dispensing with the music suite is a shame, as Nicholas Briggs’s work is a fine addition to the stories, and would have been interesting to dissect independently. However, the behind-the-scenes interviews expand to fill that space, and each story gets around thirty minutes of contributions from the actors, writers and producers involved.
Nicholas Briggs shares his encyclopaedic knowledge of Doctor Who, going into terrific detail about the production circumstances of the Pertwee years and how it created such a unique series – and how it’s reflected here.
We also hear from the writers, and it’s fun to compare the relative experience of Mark Wright (a twenty-year Big Finish veteran) and Tim Foley (somehow only just getting to write a four-part Doctor Who adventure), an experience he describes as both giddy and terrifying. The principal cast also contribute, including Tim Treloar, Sadie Miller, Daisy Ashford and Jon Culshaw – another avowed Doctor Who fan.
7.1The Unzal Incursion by Mark Wright
Under the supervision of the Doctor, the Brigadier and Dr Liz Shaw, UNIT are getting ready to activate Hotspur: their new, advanced early warning system.
But something goes wrong. Can it be that UNIT has been betrayed from within? Suddenly bases are falling across the globe, and only the Doctor and his friends are able to escape.
Not knowing how far the conspiracy goes, the Doctor, Liz and the Brigadier become fugitives. Their investigations lead them to the Fulcrum military training facility. And something beyond the Earth.
7.2 The Gulf by Tim Foley
The TARDIS lands on an ocean planet where the Doctor and Sarah find themselves stranded on a former rig, which has recently been converted into an artistic retreat.
But art is far from the residents’ minds. A troubled member of their collective has disappeared, and the Doctor senses a sinister psychic presence. The waves are rising. And there’s something in the water.
Tim Treloar (The Doctor)
Daisy Ashford (Liz Shaw)
Sadie Miller (Sarah Jane Smith)
Jon Culshaw (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart)
Sam Benjamin (Private Robbins)
Clare Corbett (Cherilyn Dankworth)
Wendy Craig (Marta Malvani)
Lucy Goldie (Laurel)
Avita Jay (Harper)
Misha Malcolm (Sgt Nicola ‘Nicki’ Attah)
Gary Martin (Unzal / Unzal 2)
Jennifer Saayeng (Pen)
Issy Van Randwyck (Jesko)
Bethan Walker (Lynette)
Cover Art by Tom Webster
Director Nicholas Briggs
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music by Nicholas Briggs
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor John Dorney
Sound Design by Benji Clifford & Luke Pietnik
Written by Mark Wright & Tim Foley
Creative Director for the Haisman Estate Andy Frankham-Allen