The Plot: 1983: as the country goes to the polls, two ‘Urban Explorers’, together with a freelance journalist, break into the long-defunct Cadogan Tunnels, once a secret wartime facility… and later, so rumour has it, the site of an experimental laboratory with a nasty sideline in vivisection. What they find, in its twisting underground corridors, is something the most cynical conspiracy theorist could never have imagined: a highly evolved society of questing, intelligent creatures, living right under humanity’s nose for decades. But there’s no way out of the tunnels – as the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough are about to discover when the TARDIS brings them, too, into the complex. It’s a rat trap – and they’ve all been caught!
“Something tells me he’s not talking about Elvis.” – Tegan
This is the last part of the new trilogy of Big Finish stories featuring the Fifth Doctor and companions Nyssa, Turlough and Tegan. In the first, Heroes of Sontar, we got a glimpse of Nyssa’s later life while Kiss of Death showed us what Turlough’s life was like before he met the Doctor. In this story Nyssa is centre stage again as she continues her search for ‘Richter’s Sydrome’. The Doctor decides to give them all a holiday in a castle in the 12th century but the TARDIS overshoots dramatically – predictably to Tegan’s disdain – and they arrive during the 1983 General Election in which Thatcher rode to a landslide re-election on a wave of jingoistic fervour following the Falklands incursion. In this story the Doctor and his companions are all split up very early on and they pursue four independent adventures in the catacombs beneath said old castle, which is apparently the location for an old plague pit. But they are not alone – along with members of the armed forces there are also environmental campaigners and something very furry, and it’s not just the Rodents Of Unusual Size either…
Terry Molloy, better known in TV and audio Doctor Who circles for playing Davros of course, leads a strong supporting cast as the Scottish Cold War scientist who has created a breed of super-rats who can now communicate telepathically and who are driven by a murderous desire for revenge. I did moan a bit in my review of Kiss of Death last month about the realisation of the monsters, especially the fact that they are often hard to understand as the actors are encouraged to speak too close to the mic with the result that what they say is often indistict. Here the villains’ communication is largely heard through telepathy and is intriguingly achieved by the use of several voices at once – thankfully this is much easier to understand that it might have been and the Big Finish team definitely deserves a big pat on the back for this. A lot of this would never have worked on TV (one need only think of the mice at the end of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for instance) but is great for audio while Malloy stands as he makes the old scientist immediately sympathetic; just as good is Alison Thea-Skot as Sally Lucas, a young woman from lower class origins trying to get ahead in the world and sporting a chip on her shoulder the size of, well, a small Argentinian island.
There is a strongly and, for the most part, pleasingly retro feeling to this production. It is very easy to visualise the claustrophobic settings – entirely in the honeycombs beneath an ancient castle – and how they probably would have looked like as taped entirely in the studio back in 1983. The genetically augmented rats probably would have been vaguely risible on-screen then but are perfectly creepy on audio and make for an excellent sonic adversary. However in other respects the story feels like it belongs from an even earlier era, like the TARDIS being blocked off by falling masonry which is the kind of device that used to recur most frequently in the early years starring William Hartnell. And as is so often the case in those earlier stories, there is a clear moral to be learned here in which we see humans reaping what they sowed as the lab rats turns the tables on their tormentors, who eventually, and predictably, all get their just deserts. This is taken perhaps a step too far when we discover that the electricity is derived from forcing captured human prisoners run inside a gigantic treadmill!
“50 years and we’re still where we left off.” – Nyssa
The main area where this works a little less well perhaps, which isn’t really the fault of the story at all in fact, is as a conclusion to the latest series. In last year’s trilogy the ‘Richter’s Syndrome’ subplot was smartly introduced so that the older Nyssa could rejoin the crew that would otherwise be just as it was when she left it half a century earlier – this provided a bit of perspective on the team’s adventures so managing to keep it essentially together as it was in the 80s but simultaneously provide a sense that things have in fact moved on just a bit and acknowledge that thirty years have in reality gone by. As a device it has hitherto worked admirably well, but as used here the ‘Richter’s Syndrome’ storyline appears through the most gigantic and utterly implausible of coincidences when without further explanation we learn that conveniently the scientist rats happen to know about the virus too. Having unconvincingly shoehorned this element into this story however, it then proceeds to do very little with it. After six four-part adventures Nyssa is nowhere nearer to finding a cure, which is perhaps just a bit too long – there is in fact a real sense of things being left in the air at the conclusion of this story – but rather than have a cliffhanger to make us desperate to hear what happens next, one is more likely to shrug and wonder why the set-up just isn’t paying off.
This is only a minor irritant thought in another small-scale, well produced and highly entertaining production.