The Fifth Doctor Box Set is one of those instances where Big Finish pull just a couple of stories together, and usually sell them at a price akin to two new release DVDs (£25 download, £30 CD) – a big financial investment if the stories don’t live up to the enjoyment you could get from two new release DVDs. This box set reunites the ‘full Tardis’ crew – Nyssa, Tegan and Adric returning alongside Fifth Doctor Peter Davison for two ‘early Fifth’ era stories. So ultimately, before you shell out for this one, you have to ask yourself one question – how much do you like Adric?
No no, neither of these stories is an Adric lovefest (you’re welcome for that image), all I mean is that there are plenty of Fifth Doctor stories with Nyssa, Tegan or both in them, and the magic selling point of this box set is that it allows Big Finish to tell specifically early Fifth era stories by bringing Matthew Waterhouse back into the fold as the Alzarian rebel without a calculator.
Of the two stories, it’s probably fair to say that Psychodrome has a point, and Iterations of I has a plot. Let’s take a closer look and see what you get for your money.
Psychodrome is pitched very much as an immediately post-Castrovalva story, with the new Tardis team still very unsure of each other. The adventure which unfolds within the psychodrome is fairly basically-structured fare – while there are not strictly goodies and baddies, there are familiar societal types and tropes pitted against each other with the Tardis crew stuck very distinctly in the middle. When the threat emerges, it’s armed with a satisfying array of psychological crippling-points for our travelers, from which in the 21st century show it would take a couple of episodes of moody silence and distance to recover. But in early 80s Who, there’s not that luxury, and the only way the Doctor and his friends can escape is to put aside the fears they hide at being new in the time machine – particularly effectively so in the Fifth Doctor’s case, as he suffers from anxiety about living up to his name and history and struggles to self-define – and joining together in acceptance of each other, psychological warts and all. That’s what I mean about it having a point, rather than a plot – writer Jonathan Morris has gone in with the idea that everyone in that particular Tardis team was brand new, and yet we were always expected to believe that they just picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and started buzzing round the universe of space-time, saving the world from Urbankans and Terrileptils and the like. No, he says, they had to adjust to each other’s perceptions, and look each other in the eye, and come out stronger and more united. Which, to be fair, they do in Psychodrome, so the story achieves his goal of filling a big plot-hole in early Davison Who. Well done, Mr Morris. But you come out of listening to Psychodrome feeling like there’s a big box ticked on your ‘Stuff To Wonder About’ bucket list, rather than that you’ve listened to all-time classic which, to be fair, you may have just paid £15 for. The sense is very much one of satisfaction of having done it, rather than nail-biting enjoyment in the doing of it.
Iterations of I
Iterations of I, on the other hand, by the increasingly impressive John Dorney – well now, that is one creepy little so-and-so and no mistake. Right from what feels like a pre-credits sequence, even though it isn’t one, it has the sensibilities of ‘scare the pants off ‘em’ 21st century Who, while neatly capturing the sense of the full Tardis, and giving if not entirely, then very nearly enough to each of them to do, as well as bringing in a tight supporting cast. The core idea is something the like of which Christopher H Bidmead would have come up with, so it suits the era well. The difference being Bidmead would have sucked all the life and soul and storytelling out of the idea in a quest to Take Mathematics Seriously, whereas Dorney’s sense of the strong central idea simply provides a springboard for storytelling – imagine a computer, in a room, on an island, flashing just one letter. The Letter I. And the sense that the computer wants you to hit Return, to react to the prompt. What’s behind that feeling? What’s the meaning of I? And what happened to the members of the cult who used the computer before you, who were convinced that God was an incredibly large and complicated number – and who set out to find it?
When Peri Brown later saw the Fifth Doctor regenerate into the Sixth, her first words were ‘I…I, I…’ – prompting the Doctor to remark ‘That’s three “I’s” in one breath – makes you sound rather an egotistical young lady.’ This story takes that simple mannerism of speech and twists it into something that will stay with you, as a shudder up the spine, for some time after you’ve stopped listening to the story.
There’s no real navel-gazing in terms of period in Iterations of I – it could be from any point at which this Tardis team were together, though there are dialogue cues that suggest its placement – Tegan has just given up squawking about getting back to Heathrow. And there are moments, late in the script, when everything gets a little too Jonathan Creek for its own good, but in the storytelling, the creepy central idea, and the kind of things on which it focuses, Iterations of I is 80s Doctor Who, as it would be done on screen in the era of Listen. So much so in fact, it makes you wonder why, if Dorney can turn out scripts like this for audio, he has yet to be offered at least a shot at writing for the TV show.
So should you buy the Fifth Doctor Box Set? Yes – but with birthday money, or Christmas money, or a sudden unexpected small Lottery win. Iterations of I is intelligent, creepy Who, of a higher quality even than some of the recent TV run. Psychodrome is a more pedestrian piece, but it does fill a big gap in our on screen understanding of a Classic Tardis team. The hour-long extras disc is worth listening to once, but not something which adds the kind of value to tip you over from an undecided Big Finisher to a definite buyer. It’s fair to say that your understanding of the Fifth Doctor, both on audio and to some extent on TV, will be significantly improved by getting this box set. But it’s also worth saying the same is true of quite a few cheaper stories (Try Circular Time for starters), so wait till some kind soul gives you more money than you’d normally expect to have one month – then go back to the early 80s for this Davison double-bill.
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