Episode Title: The Stuff of Nightmares (Hornet's Nest Part One)
Released: September 2009 by BBC Audiobooks
Rarely in my life has anything seemed so totally custom-built for my particular tastes. It's like someone saw a laundry list of everything I'd want in an audio adventure and checked them off. Favorite science fiction show? Doctor Who, Check! Favorite Doctor, long absent from the role? Tom Baker, check! Favorite Doctor Who author? Paul Magrs, check! (though Lawrence Miles, Robert Holmes, Peter Ling and John Lucarotti are all up there as well) Could something so custom to my taste possibly live up to expectations? Yes it could and did!
The story opens with Captain Mike Yates, an occasional companion of the 3rd Doctor's. He's reading an ad in the paper that seems to have been written for him and him alone. We follow Mike's journey to a small house in Sussex where he meets the Doctor, now in his 4th incarnation. The Doctor is embroiled in a drawn out conflict with a legion of hideously re-animated taxidermist's stuffed animals. The Doctor must nightly mesmerize wolves, bats, badgers and other beasts to hold them at bay. But can he keep it up?
Doctor Who has been appearing on audio for 10 years through the Big Finish company. Those familiar with Big Finish's output may be a tad confused about what to make of the delivery of this story. Rather than having every scene acting out amidst a storm of sound effects, we have a series of monologs punctuated with the occasional acted out moment. This is a style that would be radically out of place if Sylvester McCoy's Doctor were the lead, but this isn't McCoy, this is Tom Baker, a man whose voice is the most recognized in England, and whose voice is full of such passion, delight and obvious joy, that many in England paid simply to have his voice read their text messages. Like the animals in the story I was mesmerized by his delivery and cannot imagine a better fitting format for Baker than monolog. Especially when this monolog is written by Paul Magrs whose style is perfectly suited to darkly surrealistic material, steeped in a brooding sense of the macabre. You could listen to an acted-out, sound effects-laden battle between The Doctor and an animated stuffed Badger, or you could hear Tom Baker tear into delicious dialog and prose, describing every moment in horrific detail. I know which method I prefer, and it's to my delight that the production team chose the same route.
One of my favorite aspects of the writing, is the genuine love for the characters and the source material that Magrs displays. Also I appreciate his childlike sense of animism. Children have innately warm feelings toward objects such as cars, toys and certainly taxidermists' stuffed animals. In "The Stuff of Nightmares" the Doctor shares this trait, feeling terrible that he must battle these beautiful and ancient beasts. In a "tough guy" approach, the Doctor would tear unfeelingly through the animals, and the story would have been the sorrier for it.
Special note must also be made of Richard Franklin who does an excellent job reprising the role of Mike Yates. Frankly, Franklin's an actor that never impressed me one way or the other on TV, but here he's fantastic! He moves through a variety of emotions, starting the play as an aged and slightly world weary man, but you hear amazement and joy sneak into his performance as the story continues and he becomes more enmeshed in the Doctor's world.
There are a few flaws here and there but nothing that detracts to any real degree. Baker takes a few minutes to fully get into it, and the housekeeper's delivery is a little flat. Also some of the dialog has been obviously changed from Nick Courtney's Brigadier character who was originally slated to appear instead of Yates. Bits like the Doctor naming his dog "Captain" and calling Yates by his title rather than his name would have worked more naturally with the Brigadier.
In "The Stuff of Nightmares" the positive vastly outweighs any minor nitpicks and the story comes out as obvious 5/5 Golden Masks quality.