When Big Finish first announced their licensed Doctor Who range in 1999, fans were thrilled, though no doubt disappointed by the absence of two names from the project. The first, Paul McGann, star of the 1996 TV Movie and for all intents and purposes, the “current” Doctor of the time. McGann would join them shortly after and would be, for some time at least, the beneficiary of Big Finish’s most groundbreaking, forward thinking stories. The other name was Tom Baker.S
Baker was known to be a prickly, and unpredictable figure when it came to Doctor Who so it probably wasn’t too surprising when he didn’t return to the role and not particularly surprising when he announced over ten years later that he wouldn’t mind giving it a go after all. Besides, he’s just done the Hornet’s Nest series for BBC audio and he does love to maintain his unpredictable reputation.
Rather than filtering in to the usual monthly range, Baker is granted his own series, similar to the 8th Doctor series that began on radio. While this story is third in the run, it was the first recorded, and given the inclusion of the Daleks and Leela for the first time, the one I was most looking forward to. Leela herself is an old Big Finish stalwart, but reuniting her with her Doctor was a long time coming.
Still I went into this story with mixed feelings because, quite frankly, I have mixed feelings about Baker. I find him amusing and entertaining both as The Doctor and as his convention persona, but I find his entitlement about the role a little frustrating. Baker should always have been welcome at Big Finish, of course, but the fawning and bending over backwards to seemed necessary to make it happen turns my stomach a bit. I enjoy his Doctor on TV, though not so much after his third year, but I find his audio performance a bit mixed. This is partly due to age, his performance in Hornet’s next was jarring at first, but mostly because we were listening to a much older man. It grew on me, but there’s no denying Tom Baker sounds the least like he did on TV of any of the cast Big Finish have signed.
So… On to the story.
Energy of the Daleks opens with the Doctor and Leela heading to earth in 2015. After a little vintage back and forth in the TARDIS about Leela’s clothes, they step out into what is essentially 21st Century London. All is not well, however, as the two are soon roped into an Occupy style protest against energy poverty. The target of the protest is a MegaCorp called GlobeSphere, which claims it has the power to provide free energy to the entire world and yet keeps putting off the big switch on date.
It isn’t long before GlobeSphere send their private security forces into to break up the process, Leela and the Doctor are separated. Leela is arrested, while the Doctor ends up on the run with Coulson, one of GlobeSphere’s major critics. Leela is taken in to the GlobeSphere Headquarters and interrogated, here they discover readings that indicate she is a time traveller. This alerts the masterminds behind GlobeSphere, The Daleks.
The Doctor and Coulson cover the history of GlobeSphere, Coulson was once business partners with GlobeSphere’s founder Damien Stephens. Coulson tells the Doctor that Damien suddenly changed one day and he doesn’t understand. The Doctor smells a rat, he also reveals they GlobeSphere’s security forces aren’t just thugs, they’re Robomen.
Together, the Doctor and Coulson, with the help of a bit of gadgetry and a mobile phone, break into GlobeSphere and rescue Leela just before she’s robotised. They also manage to track the source of GlobeSphere’s energy generation (it’s on the Moon, of course) and pretty much torture a Dalek to tell them how to get there. Once there our heroes discover the partially robotised and brainwashed Damien, and his staff, the Dalek Masterminds, and the Energy Transmitter. They manage to deprogram Damien, the Doctor defeats the Daleks through technical wizardry, and the day is saved. The Doctor asks the Daleks what they’re doing all this, and they reveal the idea was to make the world dependent on GlobeSphere energy, drip feed the supply, and gradually starve the human population off so they’re no longer a threat to the Daleks in the future.
There are a few major problems with this story that aren’t helped by one big one.
Firstly, the story starts off at a slight disadvantage because it’s one of the few past Doctor stories that really tries to set itself in a topical present day situation, and it’s doing it with the Doctor whose tenure is currently the furthest away. The idea of the Fourth Doctor making gags about 2015 society, wearing trainers, mobile phones, and protest politics is silly enough on paper, but when the story actually does it, it’s insufferable. As we settle in, it improves dramatically because the concepts being explored are meaningful and absolutely the Doctor’s area of expertise. The Doctor at one point describes energy poverty as the latest battle in mankind’s struggle between wealth and compassion. And it’s wonderful. What starts off feeling like a weird anachronism gradually becomes a strength.
The other problem is that this is a simple story that would like to be complicated, possibly because The Fourth Doctor adventures cap at an hour long. By the time things start to get intricate, the story needs to wrap up.
The other little problem is the Daleks, their involvement in this story seems largely arbitrary. The moment it is revealed that the Daleks are behind it all struck me as an interruption to a much better story, rather than a satisfying and transformative turn in the plot.
But these all pale in comparison that what it probably the biggest issue with this story. Baker just doesn’t carry the story, he never really reaches a point where he sounds like his classic Doctor. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, Baker managed to form a new kind of Fourth Doctor in Hornet’s Nest, but that doesn’t happen here. It genuinely feels like the deal for getting Baker on board was that he wouldn’t be required to put in any effort. And so this is a story starring Tom Baker, the funny old man who turns up at signings, not the Fourth Doctor.
This is a story with a few good ideas and separated from the Daleks, might have been something special. Tom Baker is there, but it never really feels like you’re listening to the Doctor. The end result is something that feels constrained by its need to nod to the past, even while it pushed into the modern and the topical.