2022 marks the fortieth anniversary of Peter Davison’s first season as the Fifth Doctor on TV Doctor Who, and Big Finish has decided to mark this occasion with a series of box sets subtly different from the usual releases for this Doctor. At the outset of Forty, the Fifth Doctor is pulled from his time stream and his consciousness projected, Quantum Leap-style, into his body at different points in the lifespan of this incarnation. The Doctor must solve the mystery of who is causing the temporal displacement without revealing to his immediate companions that he isn’t the man they think he is.
Although somewhat esoteric as the linking thread for a series of box sets, this device does successfully create an interesting tension as the Doctor strives to solve the problem while he and the companions concerned try not to reveal too much about the other’s future. This becomes particularly thorny as the Doctor, plucked from a very early point in his lifespan and re-emerging some time later, finds himself wondering where his young companion Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has disappeared to. However, as Tegan (Janet Fielding), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and most of the listeners will know, Adric was killed – something which the Doctor will go on to grieve for the rest of his fifth life (his last word before regenerating is “Adric?”).
The Doctor and his friends have limited time to ponder such issues of conscience, however, as they soon find themselves thrown into encounters with Cybermen and Ice Warriors… Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor Adventures: Forty 1 comprises two stories written by Matt Fitton and Sarah Grochala and directed by Ken Bentley. It is available now exclusively from the Big Finish site here, and will go on general release on 28th February.
Secrets of Telos
1967’s The Tomb of the Cybermen is a defining adventure from the black-and-white era of Doctor Who and gained additional cache in the 2010s when Matt Smith declared it the story from which he drew inspiration for his version of the Doctor. The four-part Secrets of Telos is the second time Big Finish has produced a sequel to it – although, unlike Fourth Doctor adventure Return to Telos which concerned itself with the intricacies of the original story, a deep knowledge of the classic adventure is probably not required to appreciate this one.
The backstory is straightforward enough: Tomb of the Cybermen saw an archeological expedition to the planet Telos to uncover ‘the last resting place of the Cybermen’, with a little help from the Second Doctor, only for the ancient creatures to reawaken and cause havoc. Secrets of Telos finds the few survivors of the expedition escaping the planet in their vintage ‘50s-style space rocket. The Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS lands aboard the ship and he tries to re-ingratiate himself, Tegan and Nyssa with his old acquaintances, only to find that, having only just encountered the Patrick Troughton Doctor, they aren’t so quick to accept who he says he is. But in Doctor Who style such concerns quickly become secondary as a Cyber-threat asserts itself aboard the ship.
There’s something of a Star Trek: First Contact feel about the story, as a life-and-death battle ensues against the ruthless Cyber-forces that are spreading through the ship and assimilating members of the crew. Although perhaps that isn’t really a fair comparison, as such scenarios were a sci-fi staple explored many times before that 1996 film, not least in the key Fifth Doctor TV story Earthshock (referenced here several times – being the story in which Adric died). In any case, the sense of jeopardy and claustrophobia are well conveyed, helped by small cast of well-defined characters and some strong acting.
Most of the cast of The Tomb of the Cybermen have passed away, sadly, so reuniting the original actors was not practical and Secrets of Telos therefore recasts the survivors. In keeping with the anniversary theme, the production is more of a reunion between Peter Davison and some of his previous co-stars. His All Creatures Great and Small stablemate Christopher Timothy plays Professor Parry, the leader of the Telos expedition played on TV by Aubrey Richards. Sadly, Parry was never a great character – not seeming to be a particularly good scientist, his blandness is excused in the original story by his more colourful support cast – and though Timothy gives him a little more gruff impatience, he’s still fairly unengaging. Elsewhere, Barbara Flynn, Davison’s co-star in 1980s drama A Very Peculiar Practice, appears (in flashback) as a rival scientist. Flynn emits a similar amoral vibe as she did recently on TV in Doctor Who: Flux and is thankfully given more to chew on here.
Most fun of the support cast are Tamzin Outhwaite as ship’s engineer Morton (unseen in The Tomb of the Cybermen) and Ronan Summers as Captain Hopper. Outhwaite (in her second Cyber-encounter, having also appeared in 2013 TV episode Nightmare in Silver) is quick-witted and salty, while Summers delivers an unreconstructed 1950s action hero performance pleasingly reminiscent of the original Hopper, George Roubicek. (I keep referring to the 50s because Tomb of the Cybermen was very much throwback sci-fi, even in 1967.) Nicholas Briggs does his usual impeccable work as all the Cyber-voices, and everything is boosted by one of Howard Carter’s best-ever scores, metallic clanging used effectively to convey the ever-present threat of Cyber technology.
“I don’t like the look of that.” “You don’t like the look of anything!”
In keeping with many Matt Fitton scripts, the story plays intricate games with existing Doctor Who lore. Although on occasion the script is a little too heavy on the continuity details (some explicit references to the circumstances of Adric’s death could cause problems down the line), it will be interesting to revisit The Tomb of the Cybermen now, given the additional knowledge of the backgrounds, motivations and fates of certain characters as revealed here. However, Secrets of Telos also works as a reasonably exciting space adventure. The best material, though – as befitting the celebration at the heart of Forty – is given to the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa and the unusual tensions between them caused by the Doctor’s time shift. There’s a spiky affection to the relationship between Tegan and Nyssa (such as in the lines quoted above) that builds nicely on what was seen on TV. Davison, Fielding and Sutton respond with great energy, managing to find fresh angles to characters they’ve been playing, on and off, for four decades.
God of War
Sarah Grochala’s story is quite a different proposition. In what feels like a structural nod to Forty’s mandate to explore the Fifth Doctor’s TV era from many angles, it’s a two-parter (with stories like Black Orchid and The King’s Demons, before 2005, this Doctor had more hour-long adventures than any other). As with those stories, God of War is a mixture of historical and science fiction. The Doctor has just experienced another time shift, back into an earlier point in his life, and is once again travelling with Adric as well as Tegan and Nyssa. The TARDIS arrives in ninth century Iceland where the leader of a nearby Viking settlement has awakened what seems to be a Norse god. The frozen volcano would appear to hold a whole army of gods, and their leader wants them revived. On seeing these ‘gods’ of course, the Doctor recognises them instantly: Ice Warriors…
Although the setup is similar to TV story Empress of Mars and Big Finish’s much earlier Red Dawn, Grochala has found freshness in it, not least deriving from the fact that – as she admits in the supplemental interviews – an Ice Warrior/Viking juxtaposition has never been done before, but seems like a natural combination. Enhancing this are Grochala’s choice of Vikings. This is an all-female settlement: leader Revna Ulfsdottir (Belinda Lang) escaped from a tyrannical husband after producing many daughters for him but no sons, and is now encamped with her children, struggling for survival in isolation. Lang (recently the dangerous Prime Minister Celia Tate in Survivors: New Dawn 1 – read our review here) and Matilda Tucker as daughter Inga are impressive, using non-stereotyped Lancashire accents rather than cartoon Nordic to convey the outcast nature of Revna’s tribe. Their performances and Grochala’s writing make it quite credible that Revna would see the figures in the ice as representing salvation from the gods.
Once again Nicholas Briggs is on hand to voice the creatures, and another parallel with Secrets of Telos is that the story provides strong material for the TARDIS crew. Having shifted times again, the Doctor can only confide his situation to Adric, for fear of giving Nyssa and Tegan foreknowledge of the events of their Telosian adventure. As a result, the TARDIS crew split into two groups for much of the adventure, and both sets of actors have fun with their subplots. Yet, the Doctor also now knows more about Adric’s ultimate fate than he can let on to his young friend. And Adric, for his part, is showing more maturity, including a hint of a romantic spark with Inga that is subtly but tangibly conveyed by Waterhouse and Tucker and leads to interesting developments. Waterhouse’s evocation of his more youthful self is consistently convincing while effectively rising above the awkwardness occasionally seen on TV.
The only weakness of the script is that a previously unmentioned ‘warming tincture’ conveniently carried by Nyssa for use in cold climates is clumsily introduced early on in a way that makes it clear that it will become important to the plot later – which indeed it does. Overall, however, God of War is a strong story benefiting from its short running time. It’s a pacy, punchy adventure that achieves a distinctive feel and uses its characters well, while furthering the mystery of the Doctor’s time shifts.
Some Final Thoughts
It’s probably not really a spoiler to reveal that by the end of Forty 1, the mystery of the Doctor’s time-shifting has not yet been solved. Presumably future box sets will continue to explore this while shifting the Doctor further into different periods of his Fifth incarnation and into contact with future companions (including Turlough, Peri… even Erimem?). And hopefully as part of this the meaning of the umbrella title will be revealed (it can’t simply refer to Davison’s anniversary, surely?).
Forty 1 is a recommendable box set with two enjoyable stories and bodes well for future releases in this run. It looks like Forty will be an effective anthology of the different styles and companion groups of the Fifth Doctor’s era, but the interesting central mystery and the fresh character twists wrung from that suggest it will be much more besides. This box set in particular shows that, while they could often be an unwieldy ensemble on screen, the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan together are, with more consistent writing and unfailingly energised actors, among Big Finish’s most charming TARDIS teams.
The usual suite of behind-the-scenes interviews allows for some entertaining sparring between Davison, Timothy and Flynn, and later between Waterhouse and Lang – all TV contemporaries clearly delighted to be unexpectedly reunited many years later. Elsewhere, Sarah Grochala talks interestingly about the research and inspiration that went into her script, although it’s a shame there’s no input from Matt Fitton, given the complexity of the overall ‘time-shift’ storyline his script had to introduce. Director Ken Bentley is, however, on hand with several insights, including that remote recording is less stressful than studio working, as ostensibly ‘wrapped’ actors can easily be recalled from their living rooms to record pick-ups!
Celebrating four decades of the Fifth Doctor, with stories from across his timeline.
1.1 Secrets of Telos by Matt Fitton
Professor Parry’s expedition to the tombs of Telos was hardly an unmitigated success. The handful of survivors limp home in a spaceship… unaware that the deadly peril they faced from the Cybermen is not yet banished.
Into this situation stumble the Fifth Doctor and his friends Nyssa and Tegan – and they’re soon in a deadly fight for their lives.
Except things aren’t quite that simple – something odd is happening to the Doctor. He’s suddenly in a different part of his own timeline inhabiting his future self with no idea of why or how this has happened.
Who is bouncing him through time? And what could they possibly want?
1.2 God of War by Sarah Grochala
The Doctor is still being jolted through his own timeline, and has now found himself with Nyssa, Tegan and Adric in ninth century Iceland near a Viking settlement on the edge of a volcano. A settlement whose leader has just found a god in the ice.
The TARDIS crew are soon in a battle with the fearsome Ice Warriors. There are a lot of lives to save… and not just those of their new friends.
The Doctor’s about to find that his biggest battle may be with his own conscience.
- Peter Davison (The Doctor)
- Sarah Sutton (Nyssa)
- Janet Fielding (Tegan)
- Matthew Waterhouse (Adric)
- Nicholas Briggs (Grand Marshall Xasslyr / Ice Warriors / Cybermen)
- Barbara Flynn (Professor Vansom)
- Belinda Lang (Revna Ulfsdottir)
- Tamzin Outhwaite (Morton)
- Ronan Summers (Captain Hopper)
- Christopher Timothy (Professor Parry)
- Matilda Tucker (Inga Kundsdottir)
- Cover Art by Ryan Aplin
- Director Ken Bentley
- Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery Nicholas Briggs
- Music by Howard Carter
- Producer David Richardson
- Script Editor John Dorney
- Sound Design by Lee Adams
- Written by Matt Fitton and Sarah Grochala