A trap woven across time and a plan centuries in the making awaits the Doctor, Romana and K9 as they once again face the Conglomerate, with its mysterious head, Cuthbert. Time itself is under threat from the company’s business tactics and strange distortions in the Vortex are only the start of the Doctor’s troubles. Someone has been playing a long game, and it may already be too late to stop Cuthbert from embracing his destiny. But is he destined to run the universe… or destroy it?
While many of the 4th Doctor’s tales are light weight fun this shows how well Baker, Ward and Leeson can handle something much more complex. With its sprawling locations, spanning both time and space, and complex timey-wimey plot, this story is reminiscent in many ways of the much loved TV story City of Death. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of that classic, it gets close, which is actually no easy feat. Further compounding the comparison, it also channels some very Adamsian qualities: gob loads of science, for example, that serve the story rather than being merely a scene setting back drop; and beautiful use of whimsey.
Like City of Death this story benefits from a strong protagonist. David Warner’s Cuthbert is a delightful mix of charm, cunning and occasional menace. His motives are never easy to guess and he keeps the listener on their toes just as much as he does the Doctor. It’s the first time I’ve encountered him, but two episodes feels way too brief for such an interesting character. I’ll be checking out his past Big Finish appearances.
While Warner is there to steal scenes the regulars don’t let them go without a fight. Lalla Ward and Baker have really grown on me as a team this season. Romana’s dry wit is an excellent balance for the Doctor’s self-deprecating humour. And John Leeson works well with both: it’s nice to see K9 getting so much action in a story, plus the odd wry comment that always makes me laugh.
My only, minor, complaint is the story demands your full attention. It rewards you for it but with so much going on and paradoxes and scenes jumping around in time it can make your head spin. Romana and the Doctor spend much of it separated but heavily involved in the plot as well just to add an extra layer of complexity to constantly keep you on your toes. This is one two parter where jumping in at part two is not recommended!
That said Nic Briggs manages to keep both the complex plot manageable (for those paying attention) and fast moving. This could have become very messy with all the to-ing and fro-ing, but his direction ensures scenes get the time they need but don’t outstay their welcome. It’s probably a benefit to this tale that Nicholas Briggs is both the writer and director.