The rocket men have always had a classic 50s movie-serial feel to them. Indeed, in a science fiction context, the very notion that men with weapons who simply strap rocket packs to their back could be an enormous threat seems vaguely laughable in the 21st century (though of course it’s true that we haven’t quite got ubiquitous rocket pack technology yet). The idea has that ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane?’ sense of 50s over-excitement, and the two previous rocket men stories fitted into that vibe very well – they were Companion Chronicle stories, so most of the heavy lifting was done by companion narration, and they were tailored around the particular personalities and the particular dilemmas of two of the First Doctor’s finest male companions – Ian Chesterton and Steven Taylor. There was a theme to the narration too – ‘When do you know?’
In Ian’s case, the question refers to his admission to himself that Barbara is the owner of the special smile that keeps him going. In Steven’s case, it referred to the moment of leaving the Doctor, as Steven begins to feel himself pull away from the travelling lifestyle, ready to settle down.
It’s a theme that’s continued into this third rocket man story (and their first with a full cast), with Leela asking ‘When do you know there are no more lessons to learn?’ – she too is planning to leave the Doctor, finally sure she has ‘wisdom of her own.’
The question that’s uppermost when you come to Requiem For The Rocket Men though is actually whether the rocket men work when they go into colour, into the Fourth Doctor’s bohemian, anything-can-happen world from the black-and-white audioscape where they were an effective, brutal threat.
The answer, regrettably, is not nearly so well, no. We heard directly from rocket men leaders in the first two stories, but here we meet the king of the rocket men, Shandar, and to be honest, he’s a bit of a numbskull. That both the Doctor and the Master openly regard him as such doesn’t help us see the rocket men as a credible threat, for all we’re told of their menace and the vast numbers of slaves they’ve taken across the civilized systems. And by bringing various bits of Time Lord trickery and an occasional MacGuffin to play, both the Doctor and the Master outclass the rocket men at almost every turn here, so it feels not so much like a requiem for the rocket men as a Comic Relief send-up of the rocket men. That deflates much of the drama and threat of the story, but listen closely and you can still get some great things from Requiem For The Rocket Men.
Firstly, Geoffrey Beevers is very much en pointe, delivering his Master with the silky brilliance which is his audio trademark but also powering over the weaknesses of the rocket men plotline with sheer force of Masterly will. He throws a couple of classic Master insults in this story, while very much taking over both the role of the rocket men as chief threat (there’s a positively grin-making sequence where Shandar claims to be number one on the galaxy’s most wanted list, to which he responds with utter disdain), and perversely also the Doctor’s traditional role of investigator and stopper of nefarious deadly plans.
John Dorney may not have delivered an exactly fitting denouement to his original rocket men, but what he has done here is written brilliantly for Leela, as perhaps was only to be expected from the man behind Wrath of the Iceni. This is one of the strongest scripts we’ve heard for Leela, and she more than holds her own working undercover, mounts a siege, and takes control of events. In a way, Dorney and Jameson together deliver on the promise of Leela into which Robert Holmes tapped in stories like The Sunmakers – this is very much the grown-up version of that teenaged potential, and here she stands very much shoulder to shoulder with the best of the New Who companions – no easy feat, given that companion character development was rarely an issue of concern to Classic era writers.
She and Beevers are also complicit in a last-minute moment that stops the heart of listeners and leads directly into future Fourth Doctor story Death Match, so this is a story that never quite lets you go when you think it’s going to.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Requiem For The Rocket Men though is the Fourth Doctor. For almost the entirety of his life, the Fourth Doctor seemed content to amble about the universe, blundering into situations. When he focused on a task in hand, he had a variety of reactions, from chagrin at the Key To Time mission to an absolutely unconquerable will in The Invasion of Time. Requiem For The Rocket Man has more in common with the latter, but actually more still in common with almost all of the Seventh Doctor’s adventures. This is the Fourth Doctor acting undercover, building double and triple bluffs into his plans, and acting with a distinct sense of purpose, while throwing shadowplay left, right and centre. There’s a sense in which he uses the rocket men for his own ends to ensare a bigger player, and he lets both Leela and K9 take their share of the active danger to achieve his ambitions. That’s what feels odd – if this was written as a Seventh Doctor and Ace story, no-one would bat an eye at the Doctor’s tactics. But because we think we know what the Fourth Doctor is like, there’s a nagging sense that his actions and motivations feel more than a little out of character. Baker carries it off of course – if any actor has the skill and the chutzpah to more or less steal an entire persona from his successors, it’s Tom Baker – but you might still find yourself checking you’re listening to a Fourth Doctor story, rather than another big, sprawling, chicanery-filled day at the office for Sylvester McCoy.
There is, then, plenty to enjoy about Requiem For The Rocket Men. But the rocket men themselves go out not so much with a bang as with the ominous phut-phut-phut of a malfunctioning rocket pack.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk