Doctor Who: The Third Doctor Adventures – The Annihilators (Big Finish Review)

After producing the previous set’s Conspiracy in Space, an outer-space thriller in the vein of latter Third Doctor serials such as Frontier in Space, Heather Challands is back behind the reigns on The Annihilators, which in no small way boasts the distinctive flavour of Jon Pertwee’s first season. Stranded by the Time Lords, the Doctor is Earth-bound and an associate of UNIT, and his experiments to restart his TARDIS are proving futile. Add in companions Dr Liz Shaw and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and we’re firmly in season seven territory.

Writer and director Nicholas Briggs and script editor Alan Barnes have crafted a story that folds in multiple elements – not least the surprise appearance of another Doctor and past companion – while staying true to the spirit of the era, the latest release of many in this range to do so.

After a “temporal hallucination” of the Doctor’ past self, the story proper begins with the Brigadier investigating, much to the disapproval of the local constabulary, sightings of criminals and a noxious green slime in the water down at the docks. The Doctor and Liz, alongside a platoon of UNIT troops, are soon called in to help. A series of disorienting time jumps – where whole hours disappear in an instant, much to the confusion of our characters – complicate matters considerably, yet the ultimate threat is more covert and, like often is the case with Doctor Who villains, not all is as it seems.

Briggs has plotted a pleasingly down-to-earth story – to begin with at least – one populated by an assortment of police types, not all of whom are friendly, and two warring groups of alien visitors thrown in for good measure. There are secret missions, psychic suggestion, aliens in human disguise and collusion among the authorities to cover up a conspiracy. It’s very entertaining.

All these elements are rounded off in the final two parts with a threat to the solar system and all life on Earth – a walk in the park for the Doctor, really. And for a classic Doctor Who serial, The Annihilators is surprisingly fast paced. Scenes jump forward at speed, and although the serial is seven parts – almost three hours – long, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

We’re assuredly long past debating the virtues of a recast range of Third Doctor stories, considering the pitch-perfect performances from Tim Treloar, Daisy Ashford and Jon Culshaw; at countless points I was convinced I was listening to the original performers. Their praises have been sung many times, but it bears repeating simply due to the thrill that comes from listening to a story that absolutely sounds like it was made with the original cast.

Beyond telling a solidly entertaining and speedy tale, The Annihilators has one other major element to get excited by: the debut of Michael Troughton in his father’s role of the Second Doctor. The performance might not be as tonally close to the original as Treloar’s take on the Third, but it’s something special to hear the actor’s son in the role. (And after the likes of Ashford playing Liz and Sadie Miller playing Sarah Jane Smith, there’s a precedent for continuing the family legacy.) You can easily visualise the character moving about hyperactively, at times befuddled, at time mischievous, and at times with a glinting intelligence in his eye.

It’s not only another incarnation along for the ride but Jamie too, played as always by Frazer Hines. Given his older appearance noted in the story and shown on the cover art, and oblique mentions of the pair having been “sent” to this location in time and space to “help” (i.e. by the Time Lords, surely?) – not to mention the upcoming volume of Second Doctor Adventures having the subtitle Beyond War Games – it’s safe to say Big Finish is playing the long game with this Doctor-companion pairing, and fan theories of a ‘season 6b’ look to be coming to fruition finally on audio.

Does Troughton’s debut overshadow this Third Doctor serial? Not at all – the latter is certainly at the centre of things, Liz and the Brigadier each have their own functions and the other Doctor’s presence is always framed as being an intrusion into his future rather than the reverse. As Briggs explained in a pre-release interview in Big Finish’s Vortex magazine, the story could certainly be two or so parts shorter; but the inclusion of Second Doctor and Jamie, although not strictly necessary for this tale, is certainly very welcome.

Having Jamie and Liz in particular interact is great fun, as is the knowledge that Troughton, no stranger to Doctor Who, is continuing in his father’s footsteps. Their time together here is a fine entree for further adventures that begin later this year.

Third Doctor stories having been coming thick and fast in recent months, and what’s not to love when the quality of care taken with the material is so high. From scripting to performance to post-production, the team behind The Third Doctor Adventures know what they are doing, and they’re doing it well.

The Annihilators has all the trappings of an era-authentic serial, but is a lot of fun for fans of any era of the show simply for its distinctive tone. You can certainly enjoy the tale being told on its own terms, but the added tszuj afforded by the Second Doctor’s presence gives it something extra. The latest Third Doctor release hits the mark with a tale of adventure, thrills and knowing hints at an exciting future.

Extras

“What would life be if I couldn’t write a Doctor Who story?”

Nicholas Briggs’ fond memories of season seven are matched only by the joy and camaraderie described by Tim Treloar and Daisy Ashford at the chance to record together again and embody the characters they understand so well.

Michael Troughton explains the approach he took to his father’s role, being not a pure recreation of that character’s voice but a combination of Patrick Troughton’s performance and something of his own self. Treloar, for his part, shares about how much fun the stories are to record, tempered of course by his desire to do the material justice and bring his whole actor self to the sessions.

“It’s great that I’ve got the trio of Troughtons under my belt at last.”

Heather Challands chips in with some thoughts on the cast the experience as the new range producer, while Briggs reveals that the recording occurred across five days rather than the usual three, which goes to show how complex a schedule a story such as this demands.

Doctor Who: The Third Doctor Adventures – The Annihilators was released in February 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 March 2022, and on general sale after this date.

Synopsis

There’s something in the water at Lewgate Docks. Something strange, and green, and deadly. Summoned to the North of England by a mystery informer, the Brigadier finds his investigations hampered at every turn by the local police. Just what are they trying to hide?

While the Doctor uncovers sinister goings-on in the city morgue, Liz attracts the attention of something unearthly. But with Time running out, quite literally, the Doctor, Liz and UNIT aren’t the only ones to find themselves targeted by a world-shattering alien menace…

…because they’ve got a previous Doctor and his best friend Jamie in their sights, too!

Cast

Tim Treloar (The Doctor)
Daisy Ashford (Dr Liz Shaw)
Jon Culshaw (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart)
Michael Troughton (The Doctor)
Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon)
Karen Archer (DCI Denise Walker)
Daon Broni (Sergeant Al Sinclair)
Mark Elstob (Greshtrenor Leader / DC Lee Staniton / Dr Daniels / SM Roach)
Sam Stafford (Private Pritchard / Corporal Snell)
Bethan Walker (Greshtrenor Sub-Leader / Dr Jane Broadbelt)

Production Credits

Cover Art by Sean Longmore
Director Nicholas Briggs
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Producer Heather Challands
Script Editor Alan Barnes
Sound Design by Steve Foxon
Written by Nicholas Briggs
Senior Producer David Richardson
Incidental Music by Nicholas Briggs

Suggested Listening

The Third Doctor Adventures: Conspiracy in Space
The Second Doctor Adventures: Beyond War Games
The Diary of River Song: New Recruit

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