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Audio Book Review


Doctor Who
Hornets’ Nest
The Complete Series


Author: Paul Magrs
Starring: Tom Baker
BBC Audio
RRP: £50.00, US $74.95
ISBN: 978 1 60283 826 0
Available 02 September 2010

Wanted: retired army captain. Must tolerate mild eccentricity and strong scientific advice. Knowledge of giant maggots, super-intelligent spiders and prehistoric monsters a positive boon.” Responding to a strangely worded advertisement, Captain Mike Yates (retired) is reunited with a ghost from the past. Why has the Doctor, that mysterious traveller in time and space, sent for his former UNIT acquaintance? Beset by vicious creatures in an English country cottage, the Doctor tells Mike about his recent adventures, travelling through the centuries right back to the Middle Ages. In each location he has battled a powerful race of alien insects intent on global domination. Now they are here, in the 21st century, and it’s up to the Doctor and Mike to defeat them...

There was something of a backlash against this five-disc mini-series when it began one year ago, partly because the anticipation surrounding it had been so intense as to be almost impossible to live up to, and partly because the pre-publicity had given fans the impression that this would be full-cast audio drama. In fact, most of these linked stories are more akin to Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles, audio books with supplementary voices - though actually there are more voices at work than there are in the audio drama Doctor Who and the Pescatons. Hopefully by now the hysteria has calmed down. Certainly the saga must have proven a financial success - hence this box set containing all five instalments, which is being released to coincide with the start of the follow-up series, Demon Quest.

Tom Baker, returning to the role of the Fourth Doctor for the first time in nearly 30 years (unless you count his on-screen first-person narrator in the VHS release of the incomplete Shada or his bizarre cameo in Dimensions in Time), does the lion’s share of the talking. Perhaps this very fact is what persuaded him to come back. He had previously declined to star in any audio dramas for Big Finish, though he had recorded several Doctor Who audio books for the BBC, and this mini-series is not such a great leap from that. The strategy seems to have worked, because negotiations between Baker and Big Finish have since resumed. The actor sounds older now, of course, but not that much older, and he appears to relish the opportunity to revisit the role. He has a whale of a time rolling names such as Percy Noggins (Daniel Hill) and Ernestina Stott (Clare Corbett), and words like “circus of dooooom” around his mouth!

The offbeat writing style of Paul Magrs is a good match for Baker’s wacky nature. These curious clashes with intelligent hornets, animated stuffed animals and dolls, a sinister dwarf ringmaster (Stephen Thorne) and a truly bizarre Mother Superior are more akin to the Fourth Doctor’s Annual adventures than his television stories. The voice effect applied to the hornets sounds similar to that of another insect race he has encountered, the Wirrn, who get a name check.

Baker and Magrs bring something of the real Tom Baker to the actor’s performance - aspects of his personality that Baker had always been keen to avoid during his time on the TV show. For instance, in the first story, The Stuff of Nightmares, it is implied that the Doctor likes a drink, which is truer of Tom than it is of the Time Lord. Similarly, a hint of Baker’s sexuality creeps into the second tale, The Dead Shoes, when he describes Ernestina’s feet as “delectable” (which is a far cry from “You’re a beautiful woman... probably,” in City of Death), and he comes across as decidedly lecherous when he asks her to remove her stockings (to aid him in an escape plan).

Supporting Baker are Richard Franklin as Mike Yates and Susan Jameson as the wonderfully gloomy housekeeper Mrs Wibbsey. Some have questioned the involvement of Franklin, since he never appeared alongside Baker’s Doctor on TV - but he has already proven himself as a compelling voice artist for both BBV and Big Finish, and his inclusion here is no stranger than certain recent Big Finish Doctor / companion combinations, such as the Sixth Doctor and Charley, the Sixth Doctor and Jamie, or the Seventh Doctor and Klein. Mike has in fact met the Fourth Doctor before, in the BBV audio book The Killing Stone (written by Franklin himself), though that adventure is not specifically acknowledged here. Though largely absent from the middle three instalments, the retired UNIT officer comes into his own during the final one, Hive of Horror. Having previously fallen foul of BOSS in The Green Death and Operation Golden Age in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, he would seem to be easy prey for the mind-controlling hornet queen (Rula Lenska). This tale could not have been told in quite the same way with any other companion.

First-person past-tense narration, which accounts for about half the running time of the first four stories, lacks the immediacy of full-cast audio drama. We know that the Doctor is never really in danger as he describes to Mike his recent encounters with the hornets and their servants - but then the same is true of The Companion Chronicles, and we all know that the Doctor won’t die anyway! By contrast, the final instalment is pretty much a full-blown, full-cast drama, with only a few bits of the story narrated in the past tense, as the Doctor, Mike and Mrs Wibbsey make their last stand against the hornets.

Provided you’re aware of and won’t get a bee (or indeed hornet) in your bonnet about the fact that four out of five of these discs are audio books rather than audio dramas, then you should enjoy this mini-series, now collected into one handy nest.


Richard McGinlay

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