Philip Hinchcliffe’s run as Doctor Who producer delivered some of the finest stories ever produced on the show. It’s wildly regarded as one of Doctor Who’s golden eras, with Tom Baker on fine form, beloved companions in Sarah, Harry and Leela in tow and gothic horror at its absolute finest. It’s the era that gave us classic likes The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, Terror of the Zygons, The Pyramids of Mars, The Robots of Death and my absolute favourite story, The Seeds of Doom.
Philip Hinchcliffe’s Doctor Who will forever be my favourite era of the show and it’s great to see him involved with the franchise once again, producing new stories with the Fourth Doctor and Leela on Big Finish. Long after 2014’s The Ghosts of Gralstead and The Devil’s Armada, August 2021 saw the fourth volume of Philip Hinchcliffe Presents with The God of Phantoms, a six-part story by Hinchcliffe, adapted for audio by Marc Platt.
I was eagerly awaiting this release. 2017’s The Helm of Awe was one of my earliest introductions to Big Finish and perfectly captured the grandeur and gothic horror of the Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who. In many ways, it’s successor, The God of Phantoms delivers on that promise. The listener is pulled into a rich, absorbing world that is gothic horror sci-fi at its best. A futuristic colony that feels like a nineteenth century west country horror, with ghosts, resurrections from the deas and conflicts haunting the local populace. Ken Bentley’s direction is vivid; the biggest positive of The God of Phantoms is that it feels like it could have been written in that 1975-77 period of Doctor Who.
There are also some familiar tropes from that period. Not is it creepy and atmospheric, but there’s even the threat of an ancient Time Lord device at the heart of the mystery; there are definite shades of The Brain of Morbius in this tale – you could imagine all the fog machines employed to bring this story to life on television. It almost goes without saying that Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are as magnificent as ever. Big Finish has given them far more stories together than we ever got on TV and the experience of playing these roles decades later really shines through. Baker’s Doctor laps up the mystery unfolding, while Jameson brings great energy to Leela, particularly when she takes centre stage in the latter parts of the story.
Unfortunately, there are some downside to the story. It certainly doesn’t need to be six parts and suffers with some of the bloating that infects many of the larger Doctor Who stories of the classic era. Very little actually happens in the first two parts and there’s no real action until part five. It has atmosphere in spades, but the pace is sadly lacking at times. It would have worked far better as a four-parter and lost none of narrative. There is an odd mix of cliff hangers too. They don’t always land, with most of the parts appearing to cut to credits without any big jaw dropping moments. However, there are some great teases, not least the Doctor’s fate which shares a very similar twist to Twelfth Doctor episode Under the Lake.
The slow pace could be forgiven if the characters were absorbing. While there isn’t a dull performance in the house – and the accents are all deliciously spot on – the often confusing narrative and multitude of characters can be hard to keep track of and there no one person that stands out as much as Leela and the Doctor. Many of the locals seems to blend into each other and with the various deaths, resurrections, whispers, rumours and scares, it’s hard to relate. Mandi Symonds plays two roles, though it’s her Time Lord Emissary that shines, exuding the right amount of arrogance befitting the Doctor’s people. Similarly, Tim Faulkner carries three roles in the story and it’s his villainous Flindor that stands out the most. His dramatic malevolence is just the right side of camp and he bounces off Baker’s Doctor well.
Hinchliffe’ story – and Platt’s script – is slow and densely packed at times, but at least it has some real energy in the final two parts. To quote modern Doctor Who, there’s some great timey wimeyness in the Doctor’s role during and prior to the events of the story, while there’s plenty for Leela to do when the inevitable conflict breaks out between the two villages and she is burdened by a terrible secret. There’s some wonderful insights into her relationship with the Doctor that makes you wish they had had more time together on screen. Jameson carries part five before Baker takes centre stage in the final part to battle Flindor for control of the planet in an almost Shakespearean battle of wills in a climax that doesn’t always play as expected – and that’s a great thing.
Ultimately, The God of Phantoms is a game of two halves. It has gothic horror tropes in droves and the atmosphere helps to carry the story for a while, but the plodding narrative and confusing array of locals drags it down. Trimming the episodes from six to four would have worked better. Fortunately, it has a terrific finale and Baker and Jameson are on fine form as always; this is certainly an example of great leads carrying a muddled story. And to be honest, muddled or not, this is Hinchliffe’s Doctor Who with the Fourth Doctor and Leela. Even if they don’t fire on all cylinders, they’re still a treat for any self-respecting classic Doctor Who fan.
Philip Hinchcliffe Presents: The God of Phantoms is available to purchase from the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 30th September.
Each of the three disks is accompanied with behind the scenes interviews the with cast and crew. Philip Hinchcliffe talks about his role bringing new stories for Big Finish, while writer Marc Platt shares his love for the ideas Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes brought to Doctor Who back in the 70s.There’s some lovely moments where Tom Baker, Louise Jameson and Hinchcliffe talk about their experience with conventions and new fan experiences of their era of the show.
It always great to see the enthusiasm of everyone involved and the interviews with the cast in this release certainly convey that. Baker and Jameson certainly carry that the most. They have been working together on Big Finish for years now and their insights into the script always delight. Finally, producer David Richardson, Hinchcliffe, Baker and Jameson finish off with some reflections on the 1975-77 era of Doctor Who, delving into the concepts of childhood scares, horror and gothic and the infamous battles with Mary Whitehouse as they reflect on the legacy it left behind with fans everywhere – Baker and Jameson included.
Philip Hinchcliffe, acclaimed producer of Doctor Who (1975-77) returns to tell new stories for the Fourth Doctor and Leela.
The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Leela to a colony world in the distant future – but they are not the only visitors to this place. The people of this planet are seeing the ghosts of their lost friends and relatives. And the ghosts are stealing people.
Trapped in the middle of an escalating conflict, the Doctor and Leela investigate the source of the spirits and find a diabolical machine, a terrible secret… and a foe long since forgotten.
Tom Baker (The Doctor)
Louise Jameson (Leela)
Aurora Burghart (Hetty Claypole)
Bryan Dick (Major Thomas Langhorn / Berno Redcraw)
Nigel Fairs (Reverend Samuel Claypole / The Snowant)
Tim Faulkner (Charles Hookham / Flindor / Wilbur Grits)
Glen McCready (John Farron / Chad Mullain / Ezra / Loggerhead Soldier)
Lynsey Murrell (Captain Ashla Dequell / Lawrie)
Sam Stafford (Adam Ross)
Mandi Symonds (Mary Claypole / Time Lord Emissary)
Cover Art by Ryan Aplin
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Music by Joe Kraemer
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor John Dorney
Sound Design by Joe Kraemer
Written by Philip Hinchcliffe
Adapted by Marc Platt