Unless you’re genuinely brilliant like Douglas Adams, you’re not going to emulate City of Death, or come anywhere near.
In a world where the deaths of legends has recently made the universe we know feel a little shaky round our ears, Who-fans, rejoice! Rejoice at the fortune which still, in 2016, thirty-five years after he stopped playing the Doctor on TV, gives us brand spanking new Fourth Doctor stories, with Tom Baker sounding as bold and unpredictable as ever.
Season five of the Fourth Doctor stories on Big Finish audio kicks off by bringing the chronology forward again – Baker has done seasons with Louise Jameson’s Leela and the now sadly-passed Mary Tamm as the First Romana, but we’ve never been this far forward. Recapturing the double-act of Season 17 on TV, and of recent novelisations, the Fourth Doctor and the Second Romana are back, Lalla Ward and Tom Baker sparking off each other in that accepting but often quite exasperated way that made them such fun on screen.
They’re back in the 1960s, and in a neat move, the story picks up with them sitting in the Doctor’s house in Baker Street, where they were heard in The Auntie Matter, sending K9 off in the Tardis on a magical mystery tour round time and space to confuse the Black Guardian. Back then, Mary Tamm was Romana, and it’s a mark of the slightly absurdist tone of Wave of Destruction that The Auntie Matter, set in the 1920, picks up here in the 1960s with Ward’s Second Romana, just as K9 returns from his trip. It’s that delicious absurdity of tone that studs Doctor Who throughout 52 years with little moments of genius, their causes cheap but their effects priceless, and Justin Richards taps into that vein here in a way that feels unique to this Doctor and companion pairing, a kind of bafflegab moment of madness, absolutely thrown away and twice as impressive as a result. Soon though, Wave of Destruction really kicks in and gets going, with laboratories and dead bodies that, as it turns out, aren’t quite as dead as several others in recent months have been. There’s a thoroughly annoying pirate radio station with the jingle from hell too (Something about pirate radio stations seems to dog the Doctor’s footsteps. If you haven’t heard the audiobook version of Dead Air, with David Tennant narrating in first person as the Tenth Doctor, you really should, and you really should right now). And pretty soon – because like most Justin Richards stories, this one belts along like a supercar driven by a White Rabbit - there’s an alien invasion to deal with that can only be thwarted by everybody playing a very specific part, which leads to properly funny Doctor Who comedy. Richards was asked to provide a story that had the tone of Season 17, something a little lighter than usual, and while, as he says, he never strives to emulate City of Death, because that’s a pathway littered with the broken bodies of weeping would-be comedy geniuses, he delivers something with a bit of that story’s ethos, never afraid to let comedy be comedy, without ever compromising the deadly seriousness of the approaching, world-conquering threat.
If Mary Tamm’s Ice Queen Romana was ripe for comedy by having her comfort zone ripped out from under her, there’s something almost delicious about hearing Ward’s Romana get the same treatment – while Tamm was arch in response, there’s something grittily, fumingly furious about the Second Romana when, in this story, she’s called on to do things she considers ridiculous and beneath her. While the Doctor goes off to talk to equipment manufacturers for the making of A Clever Thing, Romana is packed off with the daughter of the nearly-dead man (Professor Lanchester, investor in pirate radio because his son is a DJ, fiddler about with waveforms, because…science!), to go shopping for shoes and appalling sixties pink plastic handbags. What’s more, when the said DJ son, Mark (played with a louche charm by Karl Theobald) is caught up an antenna mast, the Second Romana has to step into his shoes and spin some discs – to save the world, obviously. You honestly haven’t lived until you’ve heard Ward’s crawling-with-discomfort Romana, robbing the horrible DJ patter of the confidence it requires to sound like anything other than nauseating rubbish, as if she’d rather face down a squad of Daleks single-handed than speak another word of it. It’s priceless stuff, and Richards wickedly admits on the extras that part of the tone was developed outward from this scene.
The alien threat in Wave of Destruction…
Aww, bless. Without revealing who’s planning to invade this time, you sort of have to feel sorry for the aliens in this audio. They began their life on TV, and were staggeringly, mind-bogglingly dull and ineffective. There’s something entirely mystifying about that, because they have unique abilities that really should make them properly “Ooooh!” scary – but rarely do. Big Finish has been significantly kinder to them than TV was, and their particular skills have been put to effective use on a number of occasions, including here, but it’s as though they know they’re bottom of the League of Scary Invaders and need to pull up their Socks of Evil in Wave of Destruction, so they give a lot of blood-curdling speeches and get quite giggly and hysterical at the thought of human beings dying in their millions. What’s more, again as if aware they have something to prove, they’re a pretty trigger-happy bunch this time around, and good people die with a regularity that adequately serves to ramp up the actual threat they pose. But if they do a lot of ranting, at least these aliens give Tom and Lalla a chance to show off the Doctor and Romana’s particular skills, and their different approaches to being threatened. Romana nips into a TV shop (cue a sneaky New Who reference), and the Doctor gives a counter-speech which is part authentic Fourth Doctor, part New Who breathtaker, more in line with the Tenth Doctor’s ‘no second chances’ nature. The solution to the invasion threat, as mentioned, requires everybody to be in a particular time and place, doing particular clever things. Cleverly. If that sounds flippant, it’s unintentional, because actually giving the Doctor, two companions and a couple of humans something credible and clever to do in order to save the world is no mean feat within the space of a quick two-part story.
Overall, should you get Wave of Destruction? Well, of course you should, but you knew that coming in. It’s Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, ably assisted by John Leeson as K9 in a deliciously satirical mood. It’s Season 17 all over again, but with a new script by Justin Richards on great form. It’s funny as hell without ever overbalancing the ‘We will kill you now because we want to’ threat of the aliens (who, incidentally, I’m not crediting, so as not to spoil the surprise, but who deliver a newish take on an old enemy). And it’s got the rollicking energy of a season-opener to push along a script that’s anarchic, satirical, funny and dark by turns. Wave of Destruction proves that while Justin Richards may not be ‘genuinely brilliant like Douglas Adams,’ he is genuinely brilliant like Justin Richards – and that’s a thing more than worth being in and of itself.
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