The Plot: Margrave University in 2001, and Raine Creevy is enjoying her first trip into the future. For the Doctor, there are mysteries to solve: what are the alien creatures imprisoned in the science labs? And what are the true motives of the student Scobie and his followers? With enemies on all sides, the Doctor teams up with his old friend Brigadier Bambera and the forces of UNIT in a battle for the future of the whole world.
“Blown up anything big lately?”
Angela Bruce as Bambera is back! That’s probably all you need to know about this audio, the third in this mini-season of stories approximating what would, maybe, have been the 1990 TV series of Doctor Who, had it not been cancelled the year before. As an exercise in counter-factual TV history, it proves to be a highly rewarding dip into nostalgic pools and those in the right frame of mind will probably find the temperature of the water very much to their liking – more so perhaps than those new to Who and his Seventh incarnation …
Following on directly from the swinging sixties of Thin Ice and the Thatcher-era 80s of Crime of the Century, we now follow the Doctor’s chronological progress as he investigates strange goings in that most iconic (if cinematically less than prophetic) of science fiction years – 2001. The Doctor arrives at Margrave University following a cybernetics link to the robots he fought off at the end of his last story. He discovers that the science department is in fact being run by UNIT and that bellicose Bambera is in charge. Following a plan that he apparently set in motion (he just doesn’t know it yet, a typical bit of Seventh Doctor era nefarious deviousness), Ace and Raine go undercover to find out who has been sabotaging the animal testing facilities while in one priceless comedy scene he has to disarm a bomb left in the labs by science geek Scobie.
It turns out that UNIT are involved because the animals in question are 89 ‘overgrown artichokes’ (doubtless a reference to the carrot joke from the 1951 version of The Thing). These are carnivorous plants recovered from a crashed spaceship that are something halfway between a Triffid and a Krynoid from the Fourth Doctor adventure The Seeds of Doom (which also began with an extended homage to The Thing). Indeed there are more than a few connection to the latter adventure as the plot has at its core the polarising debates over conservation, animal welfare, environmentalism and vegetarians versus meat eaters. One of the great things about the TV show in the late 80s under Andrew Cartmel’s editorship was its desire to deal with ‘right on’ issues and this is certainly reflected here as the plot at times feels like a veritable shopping list of hot topics.
“Is this some new form of interrogation, Brigadier – torture by flattery?”
Angela Bruce was great as Brigadier Winifred Bambera on TV in Ben Aaronovich’s Battlefield and once again is great value – she is slightly older and wiser perhaps but still likes to shoot first and ask questions later if she possibly can, even though she is constantly let down by some spectacularly stupid and cowardly subalterns – no wonder she is so relieved when the Doctor and Ace show up. But, as Bruce notes in the extras, she is a little savvier when handling the Doctor. This is just as well because although there is that early indication that he is up to his old trick of planning and manipulating events with an eye very far ahead to the endgame, a lot of his scheming goes for nought here as he deals with fanatical animal rights activists and equally fanatical aliens. His occasionally failed planning leads perhaps too many times to comedy relief ‘Uh oh’ moments from Ace, but the tone here, as with the rest of the series, is infectiously light. On the other hand the alien species encountered here seem to have no sense of humour.
“Now we are a race of cheerfully serene herbivores.”
Indeed the Numlock, the inhabitants of the gigantic spaceship that arrives at the cliffhanger climax to episode two, prove to be particularly deadpan bunch of aliens and are voiced with lugubrious solemnity by John Banks in a hilarious performance which nicely conceals a lurking menace (albeit one that it turns out relies on a Damon Knight-style pun for its raison d’être). Not everything works here and some will definitely find the pace slow, though the conclusion makes up for this slightly by being surprisingly bloodthirsty (if entirely off-stage).
This is a story that would have worked well on TV in 1990 and Cartmel has resisted the temptation to ‘open it out’ too far beyond what they would have tried to achieve at the time – the number of locations is fairly restricted, as is the cast list, and the scenes at the university, both in the labs with the very hungry plants and in tunnels below, would clearly have worked very well and pleased a lot of younger viewers at the time. This is both the achievement of this play and perhaps its limitation – of the three so far it is perhaps the closest to the era of the show from which it springs and its possible that many won’t see this as a great advantage. It’s great fun though.