The Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Adventures
The Paradise of Death
Episode One (27/9/1993)
‘Since when have I ever painted my toe-nails pink?’ The BBC’s first attempt at Doctor Who for the radio since Slipback, and, again, it’s meant to plug the gap left on TV. The difference is that the show is no longer a going concern so it makes sense to do a nostalgia piece for the 30th anniversary, bringing back the senior living Doctor and reuniting him with the most popular companion.
It’s a funny sort of nostalgia, though. Because rather than trying to recreate his own TV era as a period piece, Barry Letts’ script instead brings the third Doctor, Sarah Jane and the Brigadier to 1993 and an age of virtual reality. In that respect, the approach is very 1973 – taking something from Tomorrow’s World and giving it a Doctor Who spin. Combined with the anachronistic use of the Peter Howell theme and some dodgy continuity that seems to over-write Sarah and the Brigadier’s first meeting in Invasion of the Dinosaurs the overall sense is of a parallel universe where Jon Pertwee never left. Alternatively, my personal fan theory is that this follows on from The Five Doctors with the third Doctor and Sarah Jane knocked off course on their way home and squatting in the wrong bit of their timeline.
What it has in common with the Pertwee years proper is a distaste for unrestrained capitalism (the Parakon Corporation is clearly the villain from the outset), and a slightly pessimistic view of human nature (the Doctor compares ‘ER’ Experiences Reality to heroin). Its villains are a sensualist (Freeth) and a sadist (Tragan), exploiting human greed and gullibility for their own ends. Letts has clearly given some thought to how this can work on audio – ER gives an excuse for characters to narrate what they’re experiencing; the Parakon Corporations’ advertising explains the premise neatly and Sarah Jane’s phone calls to her editor help as well. The casting is astute: Freeth is Harold Innocent, Tragan Peter Miles. It’s quite a good first episode, the inexplicable Jeremy Fitzoliver aside.
Episode Two (3/9/1993)
‘He knows how wary the human tribe is of foreigners. What sort of a welcome do you think a gang of alien carpet-baggers from outer space would get?’ The third Doctor is written, as he often was after his own era, as a compulsive raconteur of extraordinary alien facts (think Dimensions in Time’s Megaluthian slimeskimmer). Obviously he did do this – from time to time, but here great chunks of his dialogue seem consist of whimsical made-up science or monsters. Still, Pertwee seems to be enjoying it and Nicholas Courtney is, as ever, the perfect straight man, gently prompting for explanations for his (and our) benefit.
Courtney does get one lovely moment, when the Doctor appears to have plunged 200 feet to his death (like the 10th Doctor, he can survive falls that would kill number four): ‘I’m sorry, Miss Smith. Sarah Jane. We just have to face it. The Doctor is dead.’ The way he slips out of formality to offer Sarah a human touch is very sweet. Elisabeth Sladen is handed a script that doesn’t quite make emotional sense – she tells Jeremy she feels like she’s just lost her best friend, but seems as chipper as ever as she twists her editor’s arm or goes investigating the Parakon spaceships. But at least she’s got lots to do, scared but defiant when Tragan discovers her snooping, and a bit vague about whether she’s been in space before (perhaps because she’s remembering the fake space mission in Invasion of the Dinosaurs).
I’m enjoying how briskly this is moving: the reveal that Freeth is an alien comes halfway through this episode, and it’s good to see the Doctor and the Brigadier quickly working out what might have been strung out a lot longer. The downside is that, with no visuals, it threatens to become a bit busy, but at least it has ambition.
Episode Three (10/9/1993)
‘They’re on a very high dole, of course. And happily unemployed, apparently. You seem to have solved capitalism’s biggest problem.’ The Doctor and the Brigadier hob-nob with the President of Parakon, an amiable old duffer (played by Maurice Denham) who, it transpires, is in the pocket of the corporations and unaware of Tragan and his son Freeth’s dodgier practices. Meanwhile, Sarah and Jeremy are the feet on the ground, so to speak, joining up with Captain Rudley, a friendly local, to learn more about the decadent culture of the planet.
The politics are about as subtle as a brick, the the Parakon Corporation’s wealth based on ‘rapine’ which provides the population with a universal basic income (the Doctor doesn’t approve). However, there are a couple of unusual bits: Rudley is a former ‘Temple Guardian’ and criticises the ‘sin against the spirit’ of the gladiator contests (‘typical Temple cant’ says Tragan), which suggests a rather more tolerant view of organised religion than in the other spin-offs of the 1990s. Whereas the reference to ‘a moon brothel’ is pure New Adventures, and is a bit shocking coming from the pen of lovely old Barry Letts.
The best moment is when Elisabeth Sladen performs Sarah Jane’s horror at the experienced reality of killing a man, a scene with a real gut punch of horror in the midst of the mild comedy of the Doctor and Brigadier’s interactions with the President, and the very broad characterisation of the feckless Parakonese.
Episode Four (17/9/1993)
‘You may mock, Lethbridge Stewart. I know as well as you, that expression would sound like nonsense to a classical subatomic physicist.’ Barry Letts has fallen in with the very 1990s strand of Doctor Who fiction that is aware of and feels the need to explain some of the inconsistencies and absurdities of the past (here: the phrase “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”). Luckily, he does it with a sense of humour.
The rest of this has the style of an Amicus Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation (think: The Land that Time Forgot) with a lost continent of enormous, vicious dinosaurs and tribespeople riding huge bats, with Pertwee-era-appropriate mystic overtones as the rebellious Onya talks about the hermit who healed her mind.
Linking into the idea of an alternative Pertwee era that continued into the 1990s, there’s an odd scene here that suggests the Brigadier is the out-of-condition Battlefield version rather than the active soldier of the 1970s series. Chasing Sarah Jane and Jeremy, who have gone on a crazy rescue mission, the Doctor and Brigadier run out of puff, prompting the Doctor to comment, ‘They’re younger than we are, by several hundred years’. Here, we’re being asked to picture veteran actor Jon Pertwee in purple velvet and grey cape rather than the “man of action” of Invasion of the Dinosaurs.
Episode Five (24/9/1993)
‘The past is dead, and I am still alive.’ Having it conclude with the Brigadier staging a revolution while the Doctor wrestles Parakon’s champion might be era appropriate but in theory shouldn’t work as the climax to a radio adventure. However, there are worse things to listen to than having Harold Innocent effectively narrate a duel, and it’s not like the BBC didn’t devote hours of airtime to describing cricket matches, so being generous you could see this as Letts pastiching radio sports.
In general, this is as action packed as you can get for radio, with good parts for all the leads including Elisabeth Sladen, whose distress at Rudley’s lonely death (‘Nobody should die alone’) is pretty devastating. The reveal of Parakon’s secret – a galactic Ponzi scheme where the dead of one planet fertilise the next in the interests of Parakon’s corporate greed – is also strong.
As a way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of a cancelled series, this is good: it has a great cast, very strong sound design and Peter Howell’s music. It gives plenty of kisses to the past, like a Venusian lullaby and a call-out to Aggedor, without ever feeling like a period piece – unlike the Big Finish Third Doctor Adventures.
Doctor Who and the Ghosts of N-Space
Episode One (20/1/1996)
‘Look, Lethbridge Stewart, you are becoming prolix. Is there any danger of you getting to the point this side of Christmas?’ The follow-up to The Paradise of Death was recorded in 1994 but not broadcast until 1996. It was the first audio Doctor Who I heard, so I tend to think more fondly of it than most, even though the premise – the Brigadier visits his ancestral castle in Italy (why not Scotland, which would make much more sense?) to meet his Uncle Mario and fight off both Mafia and ghosts – is patently absurd. Even more absurd because Sarah Jane, struggling to write a racy potboiler, and Jeremy Fitzoliver have separately arrived in Sicily on an impromptu holiday.
Barry Letts is clearly reaching for a spooky, gothic feel to evoke memories of The Dæmons (recently recolourised and repeated in 1992) – hence the Castle of Otranto Italian setting, I suppose. Like The Dæmons, it posits a semi-scientific rationale for the supernatural (ghosts are the Null-Space reflections of people who have become too possessive of the material world, and cannot transfer fully to N-Space on their deaths). Like The Dæmons (or Are You Being Served – The Movie), this has the sense of the regulars going off on location for a jolly adventure, which is quite a feat given it was probably recorded in booths in a basement.
If you can overlook the silly Italian accents (especially by Harry Towb as Mario), I think this is a bit funnier than The Paradise of Death. There are some amusing scenes of Sarah Jane stalking the Brigadier and the Doctor sparring with him, and Sandra Dickinson evoking Trillian. It’s got a Pertwee moment of charm (when he shows concern for a shocked Sarah Jane), and it’s got monsters that mix Lovecraftian ‘teeth and tentacles’ with MR James’ ‘ape creature’. It’s over-stuffed with coincidences, some of the dialogue suggests Barry Letts is turning into late period Agatha Christie and starting to digress into irrelevancies like the best types of marmalade. It’s also quite idiosyncratic and oddly appealing.
Episode Two (27/1/1996)
‘Such things are surely the stuff of the romantic rubbish with which foolish young women like to freeze their young blood.’ This is proper gothic, not the Hammer Horror pastiche of the Hinchcliffe years. Letts evokes Anne Radcliffe and Horace Walpole to hammer the point home. Monks wander castle corridors with alchemical ingredients; mysterious parchments and young English wards locked up in gloomy, crumbling castles. It’s all very evocative.
The connection to the side-plot with the Brigadier is clearer when Mafia boss Max Vilmio turns up in 1818, the year of Frankenstein, like a Scarlioni knock-off (this one’s a fake). Courtney isn’t hugely well served by the material which tends to partner the Doctor and Sarah Jane (whereas The Paradise of Death paired him with Pertwee, while Sarah Jane and Jeremy formed a secondary duo). Still, he’s given more to do than Richard Pearce, who has to be content being the butt of every joke (‘You’re a wally and a wimp. And if you think of anything else beginning with a “W” you’re probably that as well’).
Elsewhere the Doctor builds an out of body machine that allows him and Sarah to visit N-Space and meet the hideous N-Forms. It’s this story’s equivalent of The Paradise of Death’s Experienced Reality machine – that is, a fairly crude way of allowing the characters to narrate what they’re seeing to the audience. Ultimately, it allows him to track the time cracks back to their origin, and travel with Sarah back to the 19th Century for the next part of the story.
Episode Three (3/2/1996)
‘Before this night is out I shall have at my command all the powers of hell.’ There’s already a sense this is running out of puff as the Doctor and Sarah nip back and forth through time, from the 19th century back to the 16th. Meanwhile, the Brigadier attempts to forge the Sicilian locals into a fighting force and Jeremy undergoes some torture (bit strong, this) at the hands of Max.
If this were on TV, the lack of momentum might be less troublesome: the visuals of attacking N-Forms and the BBC costume department’s reliable ability to make history look sumptuous would help. Instead, we’re left with a lot of very thin scenes of Sarah Jane gossiping with Louisa, the Doctor hob nobbing with the gentry, and Uncle Mario being an annoying stereotype. At least the latter gives Nicholas Courtney chance to do his best exasperated acting.
As it is, my favourite bit in this episode is Sarah Jane’s horrified realisation that her friend Louisa will become the ghost of the white lady, and that she’s going to die. The Doctor’s response, ‘Well, of course she is, aren’t you?’, is a neat reminder of his immortal alien’s perspective, in its own way as otherworldly as the fourth Doctor’s.
Episode Four (10/2/1996)
‘Does catamite mean what I think it does?’ This is a step up. The Doctor and Sarah’s attempts to stop the 16th Century Max from drinking his elixir, uniting human and N-Form existences and becoming immortal are entertaining, especially when Sarah has to disguise herself as a male and gets thrown into prison as the Doctor’s twinky sidekick. Sladen is great, and Pertwee gets some good “moments of charm” as he explains to Sarah that he’s a Time Lord criminal and apologises for getting her locked up.
The Brigadier’s attempts to forge a fighting force from five hopeless assistants are good too. Jeremy gets the first decent material in nine episodes as he reveals he’s a crack shot and even won a pink teddy bear at the fair (the Brigadier’s reaction is so perfect you can see it). Letts continues to find it tough to write for radio – the Doctor and Sarah Jane spend ages talking to themselves about what they’re seeing and doing, without even the excuse of an out of body experience – but it’s mostly vivid and funny enough for this not to matter much.
Episode Five (17/2/1996)
‘If I was in the legend all the time, then it appears we haven’t changed the course of history after all, to use your vulgar phrase.’ There’s a slight sense of treading water as the Doctor and Sarah Jane have to return to 1818 and ultimately the present day because Max has escaped the apparently certain doom they inflicted on him in the previous episode. However, Letts does a good job of upping the stakes and making this look like complication rather than obfuscation.
Given that The Ghosts of N-Space is generally regarded as the poor relation, I’m enjoying Pertwee’s performance in this much more than The Paradise of Death. Largely I think it’s because the script is giving him more third Doctorish things to do, like his comforting little homily about a skinny-dipping adventure with his old Gallifreyan mentor in this episode. Whatever, Pertwee responds with a stronger performance, going from laughing along with Sarah Jane and calling her his ‘partner in crime’, to suddenly getting grumpy when he realises they haven’t succeeded.
Alongside Sladen’s pitch-perfect Sarah Jane and Courtney’s Brigadier-on-a-mission (rather than being the Doctor’s batman as in the previous radio play), the result is far more authentically Season 11 than The Paradise of Death.
Episode Six (24/2/1996)
‘I’ve had it with N-Space, things don’t stay the same from one minute to the next.’ The conclusion is a bit messy, but it gives each of the main cast a great moment: the Doctor, in righteous fury, confronts and outwits Max; the Brigadier is freed from his cursed inheritance; Jeremy’s sharpshooting saves the castle, and Sarah Jane helps the late Louisa’s ghost move on from N-Space even at the risk of her own life
The idea of challenging the devil in hell inevitably recalls The Dæmons, but there are worse stories to imitate and this develops in quite a different way. Given its appalling reputation, this is surprisingly fun, and I think I slightly prefer it to The Paradise of Death. Sadly, Jon Pertwee’s death meant this is the end of the road for the third Doctor and Sarah Jane, one of my favourite TARDIS teams. At least it ended appropriately, with magnificent bombast and Sarah reconnecting to her own adventures.
Next episode: Death Comes to Time