February 21, 2012

Doctor Who: "The Renaissance Man"

Tom Baker and Louise Jameson return as the Doctor and Leela in this second release in Big Finish's new Fourth Doctor Adventures range of Doctor Who audio dramas. In this adventure the Doctor tries to take Leela to an intergalactic museum, only to find the TARDIS has arrived in the English countryside instead - or has it?

It's certainly easier to engage with "The Renaissance Man" than it was the preceding story, "Destination: Nerva". I've grown used to the different sound of Baker and Jameson's voices, for one thing. I also knew in advance that the story would only be two episodes long, something that caught me off-guard the last time and left me feeling a tiny bit cheated. The other advantage that "The Renaissance Man" has is that writer Justin Richards absolutely nails the dialogue for the Doctor and Leela. Baker in particular seems to relish the script, which is filled with the sort of amiable nonsense he's so adept at performing. There's also a good supporting cast here, including Ian McNiece as the villainous Harcourt.

I have to admit, however, I'm a little thrown by the story itself. The marketing for these Fourth Doctor Adventures has pushed the nostalgia element very aggressively, with its tagline of "It's Saturday night teatime in 1977 all over again" and the re-use of so many villains and monsters over the course of this season (a full two-thirds of the season are effectively sequels). Other touches such as the slightly retro incidental music and sound effects have really pushed this effort home, and certainly "Destination: Nerva" with its 'base under siege' and body horror elements felt very much at home wedged between "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" and "Horror of Fang Rock". By contrast, I'm not sure that "The Renaissance Man" feels like its from the 1970s at all.

There is a tradition in Doctor Who of slightly odd, surreal episodes, led by "The Mind Robber" - which remains one of the series' all-time best serials in my opinion - but also including "Warrior's Gate", "Ghost Light" and even contemporary episodes such as "The God Complex". "The Renaissance Man" absolutely fits in line with these kinds of stories, and it also seems perfectly constructed for Tom Baker's tastes as a performer, but I'm still not convinced a story like, if written, would have been produced in 1977. Justin Richards first wrote for Doctor Who via Virgin Publishing's range of New Adventures novels, and that range of books seems a clear influence here. It's very much a post-1990s adventure masquerading as a mid-1970s one.

With that in mind, the question remaining is: should we care? This is a solid, inventive audio drama, barring one extremely clumsy bit of writing during the climax, and while it doesn't feel like Season 14 Doctor Who in the slightest it does feel like Doctor Who in general. I think the answer to that question will depend very much on the taste of the listener. I enjoyed it very much, but never could fully shake off the feeling that by being so aggressively post-1990s it also felt a bit inauthentic. I'm not sure I would have felt this way had it not been for Big Finish's own advertising.

In short: this is a good audio drama, and it's good Doctor Who. It's just not great Tom Baker Doctor Who.

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