In 2015, Big Finish Productions took a bit of a gamble when they released the first set of Third Doctor Adventures with actor Tim Trealor stepping into the shoes of Jon Pertwee's legendary incarnation of the Time Lord. The result was a success that has spawned a range of stories with Trealor acting alongside Katy Manning, herself reprising her role of companion Jo Grant from the early 1970s. And yet, for fans of this era of Doctor Who, there has perhaps been a sense of something missing without the inclusion of the fuller UNIT team. So it is that Big Finish once again has rolled the dice to an extent with two more characters from the era finding themselves portrayed by new performers in this, the fifth volume of the series, as well as the addition of another figure making their debut in the range. It's a lot, to be sure, but does it work?
To answer that, let's start with the two pieces of recasting. Perhaps no character's presence has been more sorely missed in the Third Doctor Adventures then that of UNIT's leader Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart played by the late, great Nicholas Courtney who passed away in 2011. Stepping into some rather large boots is Jon Culshaw, Dead Ringers'impeccable Fourth Doctor impressionist and reader of numerous Target book novelizations. Indeed, "impeccable" also describes his take on the Brigadier which wonderfully captures the voice and tones that helped make Courtney a fan favorite for generations of Who fans. It's easy to close one's eyes and see Courtney's Brigadier, decked out in 1970s UNIT uniform, performing scenes once more, something which is a high compliment indeed.
Culshaw's Brig isn't alone, however. Returning for the first story is original Third Doctor era companion Liz Shaw, who was portrayed on TV in 1970 by the late Caroline John. Taking up the role is her daughter Daisy Ashford (fun fact: her father is actor Geoffrey Beevers who has played the Doctor's archfoe the Master both on screen and for Big Finish). While Ashford's Liz doesn't match the perfection of Culshaw's Lethbridge-Stewart, she successfully captures her mother's character well from the cadences of her voice to the forthrightness of her delivery. It's perhaps better to equate her with William Russell or Peter Purves when they take on the role of William Hartnell's First Doctor, capturing the spirit of the character and the performance rather than being an imitation.
The set also features a supporting character from the era making their debut to the range. John Levene returns to the role of Sargent Benton, playing the role for only the third time in the Big Finish audios. Known on the convention circuit as a somewhat eccentric figure (which colored his Big Finish debut in the Companion Chronicle release Council of War), Levene's performance in the story sees him adeptly reprising his role in a return to early 1970s glory. His presence, as well as the presence of the aforementioned players, gives this set an air of authenticity that enhances an already excellent range even further.
It also helps that both stories in the set are as equally up to the task as the cast. The opening tale, "Primord" by John Dorney, brings back Liz Shaw for a sequel to what proved to be her final TV story: "Inferno." How do you write a sequel to a story that involved (spoiler alert for 1970) a drilling project that was shut down and which saw a parallel Earth destroyed? Dorney's answer is to build a thriller on the ideas from that story and take them in a different direction. The themes of "Inferno" of clashing egos and good people turned monstrous are all present and correct in the story. The result is a compelling sequel to a genuine Doctor Who classic which doesn't involve eyepatches or parallel universes.
The second story is perhaps the more traditional of the pair and, for the first time in the range, offers us a second Earthbound tale in the same set. Guy Adams' "The Scream of Ghosts" is a sort-of return to roots for this era, very much evoking the work of Nigel Kneale while also putting it into a Doctor Who context. It also works in a technology that was still in the prototype stage in the 1970s but we take for granted today, offering a wonderful juxtaposition in a story written now but set then (something which Adams discusses in the extras). It's an alien invasion tale that plays well in the audio medium thanks to some solid story choices and a well-chosen villain. That Adams works all of that around a cracking four-parter that is a particular showcase for the lead duo of Trealor and Manning is the icing on the proverbial cake.
As with the previous releases in the Third Doctor Adventures (and much of Big Finish's output in general), it would be remiss not to speak to the quality of the music and sound design. The scores from Nicholas Briggs (who also directs both stories) wonderfully captures the experimental electronic music of the era but does so without falling into the trap of overwhelming the story as sometimes happened on screen. Elsewhere, the sound design nicely brings the varying locations to life ranging from the English countryside to Cambridge or the odd scientific laboratory. It's everything one might have expected from previous releases and more.
Looking at the range as a whole, The Third Doctor Adventures has gone from strength to strength across four releases and eight stories. In this latest set, Big Finish builds upon its previous success with those tales and takes it up a notch further. The result is, hands down, the best release in the range to date and another jewel in Big Finish's crown of fine audio storytelling.
Now how about a set of stories set during that first Third Doctor season?