Doctor Who – The Secrets of Det-Sen (Big Finish Review)

A stealth prequel to the iconic (but lost) Patrick Troughton story The Abominable Snowmen, this Big Finish releases promises to show us how the Doctor first encountered Det-Sen, a monastery deep in the Himalayas. But is it a thrilling ascent into ice-cold excitement, or a joyless trudge to the summit? The Secrets of Det-Sen adventure is one of two Doctor Who Early Adventures arriving at the same time: and like its counterpart After the Daleks, it adds another chapter to a classic, oft-told story. 

On a windswept plateau, halfway up a snowy mountain, we hear the familiar roaring of the TARDIS and a door creaking open. Confidently, the Doctor and his companions Steven and Dodo emerge. Climbing the mountain, the religious significance of which the Doctor explains to his friends, the old man advises them to tread carefully: and it’s not long before bandits are shadowing their movements, while an unknown snow beast lurks in the distance. The atmosphere is appropriately chilly as the trio move forward. 

“Darkness falls quickly in these parts”

Peter Purves expertly plays a triple role here; as narrator, as the Doctor, and as Steven (of course, the role he originated in the 1960s). While it’s always been a little uncanny to hear Purves play a much younger man, his portrayal of the Doctor is right on target – showcasing his intelligence and magnanimity, if not his occasional ill temper (Andy Frankham-Allen’s script sands off most of the First Doctor’s rough edges). 

Arriving at a pilgrim camp on their way up, the team encounters two locals on a mission: Pema, a traveller seeking holy medicine for her ailing father, and Oddiyāna (Paul Courtenay Hyu), a mysterious and devout man with a few secrets. Pema quickly takes a shine to Steven, and is surprisingly upfront about it, while the Doctor is fascinated to meet another traveller with a wisdom that belies his appearance. 

“The Doctor?”

“It’s my preferred name.”

“Then that is what I will call you.”

This foregrounding of belief as the motivation for the pilgrims is interesting, and Andy Frankham-Allen’s story is strongest when it touches on matters of faith. The research is well-done (the Doctor calculates that the year is 1630, based on the recent establishment of a Portuguese Jesuit mission in Tibet), but the philosophical dialogue between the TARDIS interlopers and the locals is even richer. The Doctor chides Dodo for her dismissal of the Tibetan’s beliefs and superstitions, gently realigning her perspective. Meanwhile Steven can’t wrap his head around Pema’s observation that in her culture, death is not mourned, but celebrated as the fulfilment of one’s journey. This is great stuff. 

The Doctor tells Oddiyāna that he saw a beast on the mountain, but Oddiyāna argues that the real threat concerning the pilgrims is bandits: and we soon meet Norbu (Jeremy Ang Jones), leader of a group seeking to ransack Det-Sen and claim its treasures. It’s no spoiler that this release involves the Yeti, but in a somewhat different capacity to the one we know from the classic series: though they still have a deadly tendency towards violence, fans might be surprised.

As the journey goes on, we’re treated to more of the teasing but affectionate dynamic between the three core cast members, although they’re soon split up to handle different aspects of the unfolding mystery. Recently heard in The First Doctor Adventures playing a different character to here, Lauren Cornelius as Dodo is a highlight, her buoyant energy a counterbalance to the laconic Steven. It’s a great if unintended tribute to the iconic Jackie Lane, who originated the role in 1966 (a touching dedication to her memory also begins the story).

As Oddiyāna, Paul Courtenay Hyu is enigmatic, authoritative and nuanced. It’s worth noting that Secrets of Det-Sen corrects a historical wrong in having actors of Asian heritage portray these roles. The classic series’ tendency to cast white actors in makeup to portray ethnic minority characters – not at all rare in the mid-20th century – still has the power to shock us. Unlike, for example, The Abominable Snowmen, Secrets of Det-Sen showcases excellent actors like Courtenay Hyu and Jeremy Ang Jones. When Norbu brands the Doctor and his friends ‘Westerners’, it’s not totally laughable.

We soon learn more about what each of the characters is seeking from Det-Sen: there’s an unexpected betrayal, a kidnapping, an all-out assault, and a holy relic to be won. The scenes in which bandits, pilgrims, monks, time travellers and Yeti collide at the monastery are quite thrilling: like a child smashing all of her action figures together, it’s an epic finale after a slow accumulation of tension. 

There are a few negatives. The story is a little slow to unfold, while the real heart of the story seems to arrive too late to really register – recalling the early days of Doctor Who, of course. There’s also an action scene in Part Three which doesn’t quite play well on audio: something which Big Finish releases sometimes struggle with, but usually get just right. Here, the howling mountain winds and chiming bonshō are so convincing that our immersion is broken, just for a moment, by some unconvincing swordplay.

But these are small quibbles. Secrets of Det-Sen is a fine release: a glowing, nostalgic tribute to the kind of sci-fi-adjacent Doctor Who which doesn’t really exist any more. Of course, nostalgia alone doesn’t make a good story: instead, it’s leavened with enough fresh ideas and intriguing characters to make it worth your time. 

The Extras

A short track of cast and crew interviews accompanies The Secrets of Det-Sen, featuring director Lisa Bowerman, script editor John Dorney, Peter Purves and Lauren Cornelius. Among the many interesting facts, is Purves’ anecdote about impersonating Hartnell in the recording booth, right down to the hands, which is incredibly is touching.

The beautiful music for this release by Toby Hrycek-Robinson (also credited as sound designer), included here as an extra, manages to do a lot with a little – employing the appropriate instrumentation to conjure the spirit of the Himalayas. Meanwhile the gorgeous cover art by Tom Webster, Big Finish’s most colourful cover designer, is simply ravishing – something to regard with pride on your CD shelf or in your iTunes library.

Doctor Who: The Secrets of Det-Sen was released in August 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 30 September 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Synopsis

When the Doctor, Steven and Dodo arrive in the Himalayas, they have no idea that they are about to set off a chain of events that will haunt the Doctor throughout his many lives. Joining a pilgrimage to the nearby Det-Sen monastery, the travellers discover everything isn’t as it seems. As the situation grows increasingly dire, they will have to uncover the secrets of Det-Sen before it’s too late.

Cast

Peter Purves (Steven Taylor / The Doctor)
Lauren Cornelius (Dodo Chaplet)
Jeremy Ang Jones (Norbu)
Paul Courtenay Hyu (Oddiyāna)
Kerry Gooderson (Pema Tsering)
Jamie Zubairi (Dorje Lingpa)

Credits

Producer Alfie Shaw
Cover Art by Tom Webster
Director Lisa Bowerman
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music by Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Script Editor John Dorney
Sound Design by Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Written by Andy Frankham-Allen
Senior Producer David Richardson

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who – The First Doctor Adventures Volume 5

Doctor Who – Short Trips: This Sporting Life

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