The Plot: Moscow 1967. The Doctor and Ace have arrived behind the Iron Curtain, and the Soviet Union is seeking a new weapon that will give it mastery in the Cold War. What is the secret of the Martian relics? As the legendary War Lord Sezhyr returns to life, the Doctor is faced with some of his oldest and deadliest enemies. The fate of Earth – and the future of Ace – are now intertwined …
Blimey Ace, you were only meant to blow the bloomin door off!
When Big Finish first started producing its series of ongoing Doctor Who audios, the one thing head honcho Gary Russell said they would not be doing was to produce unmade scripts from the original TV series – which of course was very sensible as the company was having to work very hard to establish its own identity and trying to reach well beyond the core of Who fandom. But after 10 years the company can now take a more flexible approach and can afford to produce both riskier (like the ‘Unbound‘ range) and more traditional fare that will probably appeal to a smaller constituency. The ‘Lost Stories‘ range from Big Finish launched in 2009 with a series of adventures featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri and was in the main aiming to provide alternate versions of some of the stories that were gazumped by the ‘Trial of the Time Lord’ season. This second batch of recordings continues after two releases from the Hartnell and Troughton era by taking on material initially prepared to go out in the never-made 27th season for the Seventh Doctor.
In 1989 Doctor Who was cancelled without much warning and Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, as the seventh face of The Doctor and his companion Ace respectively, came to the end of their third series. However another had been planned and this series of ‘Lost Stories’ from Big Finish presents a quartet of adventures based on some of the ideas that script editor Andrew Cartmel had been discussing with his writers Ben Aaronovich and Marc Platt at the time. Some of these are well known in fandom and others got used up in the ‘New Adventures’ series of novels which Cartmel, Platt and Aaronovich all contributed to.
As the title hints, in this first ‘Lost’ installment, the Ice Warriors are back … well, again actually, since they recently also appeared at Big Finish in their two-part Eighth Doctor adventures by Jonathan Morris, Deimos and The Resurrection of Mars. While those twinned two-part stories were set in earth’s future, this is set in 1967, the year in which the creatures first made their TV appearance in Doctor Who. Here they are part of a complicated plot combining an Italian Job style caper (Ace gets to use her beloved Nitro 9 to blow open a vault) and intrigue in Cold War (pun intended) Russia as factions, terrestrial and other, vie for Martian artifacts hidden in the Kremlin.
This story brings together two of the well-documented ideas that were due ton appear in the potential new series for 1990 relating to Ace’s exit from the show, which would have seen her being groomed as a potential Time Lord and being shipped off to Pridon Academy on Gallifrey so making room for her replacement, a safe-cracking aristocrat. But as Cartmel and co know this they play with those expectations to a greater and lesser extent. For the most part this works very nicely in a story in which we find the wily and manipulative Seventh Doctor himself become a pawn in the cold-blooded games of the upper echelons of Gallifrey as their ‘Adjudicator’ sets up a series of tests for Ace – thus the Doctor is forced to recuse himself to see if Ace will be able to overcome the odds stacked against her and prove that she is worthy enough to be accepted by the Time Lords for training.
The initial two episodes on Thin Ice are fairly slowly paced, providing valuable time to get acquainted with a cast which includes cockney conman Markus Creevy and his girlfriend and partner in crime Raina, who are in the employ of a very sympathetically drawn Ice Warrior, Lord Hhessh, who somewhat improbably becomes an active participant in the team’s caper, which climaxes with the Doctor driving them all away at top speed across a frozen lake (perhaps a jokey nod towards Alexander Nekski’s famous battle on the ice?). The Doctor senses that the plan is actually a set-up by Major Felnikov, who has been testing a recovered Ice Warrior helmet on a succession of ‘volunteers’ to develop it as a weapon but with fatal results for the wearers, but is unable to avoid the trap being increasingly reigned in by the Time Lords ‘adjudicator’ who is assessing Ace’s ‘application’ (which of course she knows nothing about). The second two episodes feature much more action as the setting switches from Moscow to London though for this to work it does require one character to place an Ice Warrior helmet on their head for reasons that do not immediately seem all that clear – the plot is not the main thing here anyway, with the focus on mentor/mentee and parent/child relationships providing the solid narrative backbone of the play.
I am hungry. Where are the fish fingers?
As befits the 60s ambience and a story of criminals double crossing each other, this is a breezy adventure with a smooth and expertly constructed plot that knows just when to add further complications to maintain listeners’ interest and which is not averse to a few jokes along the way. The rhythmic, percussion-based music by Simon Robinson is up to his usual high standards but is also nicely in keeping with the synth sounds of the original era of the show. Indeed, this succeeds very nicely in evoking the feel of the show as it was at the end of the 80s with its Machiavellian plots and theme of stranded aliens, crashed spacecraft, missing relics, resurrection and re-birth familiar from many of the episodes that Cartmel and Platt were making at the time.
This makes for a great start to this alternate version of Season 27 and neatly sets up the arc that will control the whole season and also provides a highly original introduction for the new companion. Recommended, and not just for those curious for what could have been either. It stands up on its own very well.