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Audio Drama Review
The legend dates back to Roman times, at least: a great White Worm, as wide as a man, slithers out of the rocks of the Dark Peak Gap to take animals, and sometimes even children, for its food. When the Doctor and Leela arrive in the wilds of Derbyshire, only to get caught up in the hunt for a missing girl, they soon discover that the legend of the Worm is very much alive - even now, in 1979. Worse still, it seems that the Doctor is not the only renegade Time Lord who is on the trail of this deadly and mysterious creature...
The Master is back - and about time too! This is the evil Time Lord’s first appearance in an audio drama since 2003’s Master. Again he is played by Geoffrey Beevers. This is only the fourth time in performed Who that the Fourth Doctor has encountered this villain (though chronologically it is the second, occurring between The Deadly Assassin and The Keeper of Traken). The “crozzled” Master, as played by Peter Pratt in The Deadly Assassin and Beevers in The Keeper of Traken, always seemed to me the version best suited to the Tom Baker era, especially the body horror of Philip Hinchcliffe’s three seasons as producer, so it’s a shame that Beevers did not get more screen time before regenerating into Anthony Ainley at the end of Traken. He begins to make up for lost time in this release, his beautifully sinister tones providing a perfect foil to Baker.
The Fourth Doctor seems somewhat blasé about his arch enemy’s return, but then he always did send out mixed signals regarding this particular foe. He described the Master as insane but “brilliant, absolutely brilliant - almost up to my standards” in The Deadly Assassin, and “the most evil genius in the universe” in Logopolis, a story in which the Doctor shows real fear and horror at the villain’s presence. Yet just one story earlier, on Traken, he greeted his adversary’s first appearance in years with a laidback “Of course, the Master.”
It’s not just the Master that returns in Trail of the White Worm. Four-parters are back - and about time too! Throughout my reviews of Big Finish’s monthly Fourth Doctor releases I have commented on their single-disc, two-episode format, which is simply too short to truly reflect the style of Tom Baker’s television stories. Fortunately this release leads directly into next month’s The Oseidon Adventure, providing what is essentially a four-part encounter with the Master. In some ways, these are a couple of linked two-parters rather than an actual four-parter, and the pace still feels more like that of the new television series, but it’s a step in the right direction - let’s have more please.
Not every aspect of Alan Barnes’s hasty plot makes perfect sense, but he papers over the cracks with humour. Despite the horrific aspects of his story (including the Master, the Worm and its slime trail), which recall the Hammer-inspired Hinchcliffe era, Barnes is also aware that the more light-hearted Graham Williams era lies just around the corner. The opening scene with the Doctor and Leela (Louise Jameson) foreshadows the Time Lord’s warning to his companion to watch out for cowpats in Image of the Fendahl.
The most comedic cast of characters heard in this range to date includes the eccentrically posh Demesne Furze (Tipping the Velvet’s Rachael Stirling), who would not have seemed at all out of place in one of AudioGO’s Fourth Doctor adventures. Having played the brother of an insane aristocratic explorer in Black Orchid and an actual insane aristocratic explorer in Ghost Light, Michael Cochrane does what he does best as the bonkers big-game hunter Colonel Spindleton. Meanwhile, free-spirited country girl Julie (Land Girl Becci Gemmell) is reminiscent of Charlotte “from the village” in the Lost Story The Foe from the Future, and sounds eerily like Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller, though her use of the term “duh, obviously” seems far too modern for a story set in 1979.
Trail of the White Worm builds to an exciting cliffhanger, with the Master’s latest allies just about to arrive. Who could they possibly be? This is not revealed, but given the fact that their planet’s name forms part of the title of the next release, on the cover of which a Kraal can be seen, I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be the Kraals... Duh, obviously.