‘Romana? Romana, you’re catching flies with your gob, love.’There’s a proud tradition in both fiction and real life of people with posh names, names that in a crueller age would be the target of playground ridicule, turning out to be complete and utter villains.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer gave us a punk-haired Slayer-killing vampire, and named him Spike.
Thomas Harris created a serial killing cannibal…annnnnd called him Hannibal
And whoever named Ickle Bubba Murdoch ‘Rupert’ has one hell of a lot to answer for.
Big Finish has been playing in the same paddling pool since Season 2 of the Fourth Doctor stories, with the adventures of Cuthbert. Cuthbert is such an innocuous name it makes it difficult immediately to take him seriously as a baddie, but so far, he’s tortured the Laan, done deals with Daleks and generally swanned about the cosmos of time and space like an intergalactic Donald Trump (there’s another one – who looks at a baby and thinks ‘Oh, he looks like a Donald’?).
Of course the Cuthbert stories were derailed somewhat by events in the real world – they began with the Fourth Doctor and the First Romana, then disappeared into a cul de sac with the untimely death of Mary Tamm. That makes this season of the Fourth Doctor adventures the ideal time to come back to Cuthbert, his lickspittle Mr Dorrick, and the interminable Conglomerate though, as the Second Romana’s on hand to provide not only continuity of response to Cuthbert’s shenanigans, but actually quite a degree of Season 17 comedy on the business of regeneration.
What the previous Fourth Doctor release, The Pursuit of History, and this second part strive to do is give Cuthbert’s adventuring to and fro in the causal nexus of space-time a bit of oomph, a bit of meaning, and perhaps, a line which could conceivably be drawn under his character development to date.
Does it work? Beyond any shadow of doubt, yes. Really, despite having the inestimable talents of David Warner on which to draw, these are the first of the Cuthbert stories that really hook the listener into the central mystery of the man – exactly how did he make his fortune? Exactly why does the Fourth Doctor keep bumping into him? While the end of The Pursuit of History turned the whole Cuthbert arc on its head and hinted at the potential of who and what Cuthbert actually is, Casualties of Time is a story that needs a second listen to really make sure you understand all its nuances and really appreciate which way round it’s telling its story.
Romana is for the most part stuck with Dorrick and her new blue time-sensitive friends, the Oortag, trying to make a godforsaken bit of temporal kit work, without enslaving either a whole species, like the Laan, or come to that herself to its less than tender mercies in order to keep Cuthbert’s empire alive through his handful of quantum gateways, and so keep the Conglomerate from being ripped out of history altogether. The weird thing about that is that through Dorrick’s testimony, as well as through a handful of episodes in the Doctor’s strand of the story, we find out that things are…well, complicated is probably too soft a word for the relationship between the Conglomerate and the people of the cosmos. Not all bad, not all good, a kind of balancing act between the demons of a man driven to make immense amounts of profit, and to achieve power along the way, and the angels that almost inadvertently collect along his path, the good he does to get to where he wants and needs to be. In other words, Casualties of Time is the first of the Cuthbert stories to make the man really human, really complex, really identifiable. In fact, this story makes Cuthbert almost an avatar of any political or business figure you care to name – their motives may be altruistic or profitable, but they’re all a distillation of the grey that defines humanity. This story is the first time we really see Cuthbert in that complexity of greyness, which in itself makes a kind of sense as we discover what and who he actually is.
That said, we also get to distinctly understand his origins, and how his story fits together – how he attained his wealth, how he attained his power, it all dovetails neatly in a story that we can only presume must have given Nick Briggs migraines for weeks to write. Certainly you can feel the care in the construction here, because most of the questions that arise – and they certainly do – are answered somewhere along the line.
What you end up with in Casualties of Time is a very, very busy script that repays your second listen more than your first, that brings an old enemy (and again, a very logical one), back to Big Finish, to join with Cuthbert, who’s been pitting his wits against the Fourth Doctor since Season 2 of his Big Finish adventures. There’s a circularity that joins up, a sense of completeness, and a depth to Cuthbert’s character that we’ve never seen before, all wrapped up in a plot that both adds to that depth while making, as long as you keep hold of your brain, a pleasing degree of sense. There’s some solid MacGuffinry too, in the same vein as this season’s other temporal two-parter, The Paradox Planet and Legacy of Death – a vein familiar from City of Death and The Leisure Hive, and so reinforcing the timestamp of the story, and the Doctor’s relationship with the Second Romana.
In terms of performances, Tom Baker continues to sound more and more comfortable bringing his Doctor to the Big Finish party, while David Warner revels in some lines that are practically Doctoral in their dancing comedy. Toby Hadoke, back as Dorrick, continues his strong work from The Pursuit of History, rising from lickspittle to Guy Snider-style henchman – a man still weak, but dangerous with, as he sees it, nothing to lose if his plans fail. Lalla Ward turns in a performance which resonates with stories like Destiny of the Daleks and City of Death – having things to do, being no slouch in her own right when faced with grandiose schemes, and being, perhaps, just a little irritated with the Doctor for his dilettante approach to the whole business of interfering in time and space.
Casualties of Time ends the fifth season of Fourth Doctor stories at Big Finish on a highly charged, power-punching note, with only the ending feeling a little too manufactured for comfort – though it does answer the eternal question of when a parrot is not a parrot at all. The fifth season has been a strong collection of stories from start to finish, with perhaps only 5.5, Gallery of Ghouls, being a little less engaging, so Casualties of Time has big boots to fill, but Nick Briggs is no slouch – he attacks the challenge with a verve and a gusto that help push the listener through both necessary listens, resolving the history of Cuthbert, delivering a rabbit punch of Classic villainy, and weaving a storyline through everything we’ve known so far, while delivering a character who stands as a philosophical exploration of free will, and what it ultimately means.
Pick up Casualties of Time today, and find out the truth about Cuthbert and his Conglomerate – you’ll kick yourself until you know.
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