Sunday, 13 September 2009
Dr Who: The return of Tom Baker...
Much excitement in the world of Dr Who fandom recently when it was announced that Tom Baker, until the arrival of David Tennant the most popular actor to play the venerable Time Lord on TV, would be returning to his career-defining role in a new series of audio-only releases for the BBC. Apart from an appearance in a dreadful 3D charity production in 1993 Baker has resisted all attempts to drag him back into the fictional world of Dr Who ever since he quit the part in 1981. Big Finish, purveyors of full-cast audio adventures featuring his successors – Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (and even TV movie one-shot Paul McGann) - found all their approaches to Baker rebuked as the actor seemingly had no desire to turn back the clock and take control of the TARDIS again. But lately Baker’s been mellowing, narrating abridged versions of the old Target book novelisations of many of his TV episodes. From this it seemed only a small step – and some delicate negotiations, no doubt – to coax the actor back into telling some untold takes of the fourth Doctor, albeit in vocal form only. And now here they are with ‘The Stuff of Nightmares’, the first audio in a five part series under the umbrella title ‘Hornets’ Nest’, arriving on CD this month. It’s a name well-chosen for truly it is the ‘stuff of nightmares’; sad to say the return of Tom Baker to the Dr Who fold is not only a huge disappointment it’s also…I hesitate to say it…absolute rubbish.
Where to begin with this misbegotten and misguided project? It seems to me that if you’ve managed to get an iconic old actor back into a studio to recreate the role which made his name, you’re going to at least try to be true to the legacy of the show and tell a story which resembles, even in passing, the TV show itself. You also write your leading man so he vaguely resembles the character as seen on TV. ‘Stuff of Nightmares’ does neither of these and it does a whole lot more (or less, depending on your viewpoint) too. The audio is written by fan writer-turned-pro-writer Paul Magrs; I’m not hugely familiar with his work (I rarely read the 1990s Virgin New Adventures because their remit seemed to be to tell Dr Who stories so unlike their Tv counterparts they might as well be an entirely different series) but I’m aware he created a camp character called Iris Wildthyme (voiced on audio by Katy Manning, erstwhile Jon Pertwee companion Jo Grant) who travels through Time in a double decker bus. Like many fan writers who cut their teeth in the Dr Who books published when the show was off-air and barely surviving as a cult, Magrs seemed to delight in writing Dr Who stories which were Dr Who in name only. So it is with ‘Stuff of Nightmares; listening to this – and it’s an excruciatingly long and dull 60 plus minutes – it’s not hard to imagine that here was a writer who’d looked at a photo of Tom Baker, seen him being interviewed by Richard and Judy and then, having never seen him as the Doctor on TV, thought he had a pretty good handle on what his Doctor might sound like. Because I’ve seen every Tom Baker Dr Who episode several times and, trust me, he never sounded anything like the quaint oddball written by Magrs in this audio.
Baker’s Doctor was a wild, dizzyingly mercurial character, always on the go, always on the move, always seeking out the strange and the new across the Universe and doffing his cap towards it with a sly smile and a proffered bag of jelly babies. He was almost never – never at all, in fact – portrayed as a self-proclaimed “bucolic” living in a whimsical cottage somewhere in England in a state of semi-retirement with a housekeeper called Mrs Wibsey and battling a stuffed-animal curator named Percy Noggins. He never did this. This is Dr Who rewritten by someone who has entirely missed the point of the character they’re writing for; this is Dr Who with one eye on the Jon Pertwee portrayal depicted in the old ‘Countdown’ comic in the early 1970s where the third Doctor lived in a country cottage conducting arcane experiments for no readily-explained reason. So ‘Stuff of Nightmares’ puts the Doctor – this Doctor – in a ludicrous and twee situation this version of the character would never have tolerated for more than five minutes.
Part of the problem, it has to be said, is the creaky format Magrs has to work with. Because this isn't really a full-cast audio production; it's an awkward hybrid of radio play and narration and it's so clumsy and contrived it falls apart almost immediately. The story starts off with Mike Yates (Richard Franklin), a fairly minor if recurring UNIT character from the era of the third Doctor, answering a frankly-dubious and unlikely magazine advert: "Wanted: retired army Captain for light household duties and fireside companionship. Must tolerate mild eccentricity and strong scientific advice. Knowledge of Giant maggots, Super Intelligent Spiders and Prehistoric Monsters a positive boon." Not only is the first indication that we may be in for a script littered with dreary old continuity references because Magrs, being a fan-writer, can't resist throwing them into his script to show off how much he knows about the history of Dr Who (does this really impress anyone any more?) it's also the first indication that Magrs is writing for Tom Baker rather than the Doctor. Yates, reading from his diary or to some other unknown listener, recounts how he arrives at the cottage, meets housekeeper Mrs Wibsey (Susan Jameson - she gets about three lines in the whole thing) and finally meets a man he recognises as the Doctor. Magrs body-swerves the fact that Mike Yates never met the fourth Doctor so wouldn't have a clue who he was by a howlingly contrived "we met at the Brigadier's birthday party" explanation. With the Doctor now in the picture the production becomes, briefly, a play, as minute after minutes of creaky, tortuous dialogue which quickly becomes agonisingly verbose narration by Baker with Yates all but forgotten apart from the odd "You see, Mike" line - drags in what purports to be the plot. It's here that we finally see what a misfire Magrs has made of the Doctor. Despite cramming in some guff about the Doctor constantly crossing his own timeline and potentially meeting various versions of himself all the time (what's that all about?) Mags, despite his love of stuffing continuity references into every nook and cranny of his script (Dodo! Wirrn! Zarbi! Sarah Jane! Jo Grant! Uncle Tom Cobley!), makes no attempt to place the story within the fourth Doctor's own timeline. This is understandable as the TV fourth Doctor never sounded or behaved remotely like this. To be fair, Baker himself does what he can with the poor characterization of the Doctor but even he can't lift some of this lumpy, leaden dialogue - the fourth Doctor just never used words like 'weird' - but he sounds a bit bored and unconvinced throughout, as if he's aware that his TV heritage is being both betrayed and undermined here but just can't do anything to salvage the situation. Despite the mismanagement of the character, it's always a delight to hear Baker's rich, fruity tones, even with the actor's age and occasional breathlessness robbing him of the energy and vitality of his TV portrayal.
As for the plot itself it's hard to know quite what to say about something so underwhelming. Now this is only the first of five linked instalments and it may well be that the thing broadens out, becomes a deeper and a bit more satisfying (someone out there will have to let me know because I ain't listening to any more of these!) but it's hard to imagine a series which could have started out worse than this one with its rambling story of stuffed animals being brought to life by alien hornets (not in itself a bad concept, just a bit too cute for Dr Who in the 21st century) and their collector Percy Noggins (ouch) voiced by Daniel Hill with a performance too arch for even the tawdriest of village hall pantomimes.
So there we have it. Tom Baker returns to Dr Who and unfortunately the wait just hasn't been worth it. Maybe I'm biased by the fact that, whilst I have a lot of time for audio drama generally, it somehow has never really seemed the right 'fit' for Dr Who which is such a visual series. Maybe those more versed in the audio format and more comfortable with it will find much to enjoy in the 'Hornets' Nest' series. But I can't help feeling that, to do so, you'll need to set aside a lot of your critical faculties and just revel in the simple fact that here's a new Dr Who story starring Tom Baker in voice only because there's really nothing at all else here to connect the actor to the character the way he dominated the series for seven years back in the 1970s and early 1980s. It's a crushing disappointment and, to be honest, next time I want a fix of Tom Baker's Doctor I'll be reaching for a DVD to remind myself of his glory days, not listening to this terrible travesty which casually tramples all over everything which made the fourth Doctor so memorable and then reconstructs it as something else entirely.