In a rare treat, we're getting two Tom Baker Big Finish audios this month. The other is the latest 'Philip Hinchcliffe Presents' The Helm Of Awe (you can read my review of this excellent audio here). Dethras is the fourth tale in the sixth series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, starring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward as Romana II, in a story that sits at the very start of the 1980s adventures of series 18.
It's the twelfth audio with these two, Baker and Ward having already recorded an eight-story series five last year. We've got another five audios to come by September before Baker returns for more stories with earlier companion Leela (Louise Jameson), who coincidentally stars with him in The Helm Of Awe. Like other Fourth Doctor Adventures, this is a two-part tale, on audio and CD. It's available for Big Finish customers now and goes on general release on the 31st May. Here's the synopsis...
In the control room of a World War 2 submarine something strange has started to happen. As the ship runs out of control, its crew begin to fall unconscious...
Finding the submarine in the last place they'd have expected, the Doctor and Romana are confronted by a mystery. Once fully populated, there are now only three men on board. And there's now also a chimpanzee.
What has happened to the rest of the crew? What are the strange noises they can hear outside the hull?
And most importantly, who, or what, is Dethras?
This will be a review with a difference. Not only will I be giving my thoughts on the last Big Finish entry, but I'll be joined by my eleven year-old son Ben, whose knowledge of Doctor Who on television and audio is extensive...perhaps more than my own...
Baz Greenland (age 35)
Dethras is a simple tale but one that fits the two-episode format. While there was certainly room to explore more of the story, the script by Adrian Poynton and directed by Nicholas Briggs, is a sleek, focused affair that sets up an intriguing mystery for the Doctor and Romana in part one. It pays up with a moral debate about war, genocide and a threat of an alien army that puts the lives of everyone at risk; it's solid Doctor Who fodder delivered with gusto and flair by Tom Baker and some interesting supporting characters.
I found part one the stronger of the two. There is a great sense of adventure and mystery as they arrive on an abandoned British World War II submarine with just three survivors and a chimpanzee. The story keeps the listener on their toes as it quickly transpires that the submarine is actually floating in an alien junkyard in the farthest reaches of space, surrounded by swarms of strange alien creatures that can survive without an atmosphere. The submarine adds a sense of claustrophobia and the setting feels like a surprising twist on the base under siege trope Doctor Who has done so well.
Like the Doctor, you're guessing to the very end with one twist after another; one of the survivors is somehow able to recognise an alien spaceship belonging to a humanoid alien race called the Xankari. When they start to predict what the Doctor and Romana are going to say and the chimpanzee Franklin develops the power of speech, things get weirder. By the time two of the men, Philip and Robert, transform into the creatures, Romana and Franklin are transported onto a Xankari ship and arrested and the Doctor confronts the other man, revealing himself as Dethras, you're well and truly hooked, ready for part two.
The themes of genocide and war in the concluding part have been done in Doctor Who (and sci-fi in general) many times before, but that didn't stop Dethras from being an enjoyable tale. It transpires that Romana and Franklin's captor Flague (a strong performance from Shelia Ruskin) was the victim of an invasion of her planet and has turned to the creation of a super soldier race to destroy the galaxy before her surviving people can be harmed again. It created a powerful debate; is it right to inflict harm on others because they hurt you? The fact that her family were killed adds a certain amount of sympathy, but Flague in this story is broken and ruthless and hard to like; by the time she threatens the Doctor and appears to shoot Romana dead there is no sympathy for her at all.
The Doctor meanwhile finds himself face to face with the brilliant, renowned scientist who genetically created the super soldiers for Flague. Alistair Petrie is a more sympathetic character in Dethras, who realising that Flague had plucked a submarine of soldiers from World War II Earth to experiment on,fled with the men he had harmed. The idea that these captors have evolved to the point that they can adapt to any situation is both terrifying and fascinating; the humans have transformed into space faring creatures to survive the vacuum of space and if not stopped, could destroy the universe. There's a little bit of Davros and Daleks in this idea.
The concluding part is largely a stand off between the Doctor and Flague. The Doctor enhancing his telepathic abilities with the alien soldiers to fake deaths of everyone - Romana included - pay off on a nice little fake-out moment, leaving Flague to leave empty handed. With the soldiers and Dethras resettled, the talking chimpanzee Franklin sets off in his own spaceship. I would love to see talking chimpanzee return at some point!
Dethras is a good tale full of moral debate, intriguing mystery and plenty of surprises. It's not the strongest tale I have heard or watched in Doctor Who, but it is hard to fault its gusto. Baker and Ward are excellent as always, Baker allowing some of the Doctor's mischievousness to play through , while Ward captures the introspective nature of Romana down well, while still having time to banter with the Doctor as his equal. It's another welcome addition to the Fourth Doctor Adventures for Big Finish.
Ben Greenland (age 11)
For the fourth release in the sixth series of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, the writers still are fresh on stories. Dethras is a superbly chilling mystery story full of excitement and adventure and Tom Baker is once again on top form, especially when confronting Dethras at the start of episode two. There is also some humour to be found in Franklin, the talking chimpanzee.
Sadly K9 is absent from Dethras, but the plot makes up for that. It is a bit surprising to find out who the real villain is, but you can tell that Flage is determined to get her super soldier army. Dethras is a tale of peace, regret and war. The creatures are quite menacing but should have been a bit more involved in the story.
There is a great piece of humour in the TARDIS with the Doctor and Romana's bickering about the randomiser to.o It is quite mysterious when they land on the submarine. Dethras, as you can tell, is desperately trying to make up for his mistake in the best way possible. It is also fitting he stays with the creatures at the end to help the sick.
"But what if they can't get sick?" queries Romana, making a good point.
To round off, my thoughts on Dethras. I found it very exciting and intriguing, but I think children might enjoy it a bit more than adults. But I could be wrong. I am looking forward to The Haunting of Malkin Place though!
A trailer for the tongue-in-cheek ghost story The Haunting of Malkin Place and a series of interviews with the cast and crew. The final two tracks on the extras are the most fun as Josh Bolt and Brian Vernel discuss their love of Doctor Who and Tom Baker gushes about how it does it all for the fans.