The Renaissance Man is the second story in Big Finish’s first season of Fourth Doctor Adventures, in which Tom Baker was finally lured out of retirement to reprise his most famous role for the company. The series partners him with Louise Jameson’s Leela (his companion for a year and a half of television stories) and puts them under a loose narrative umbrella of the Doctor attempting to teach Leela about life, the universe, and everything.
And indeed, The Renaissance Man deals directly with the idea of whether it is possible for someone to learn all there is to know. The Doctor and Leela show up at the house of Sir Reginald Harcourt, who enjoys showing off his collection. His collection of what?, the Doctor asks. His collection of everything, comes the chilling reply. It turns out that there are different guests attending who are experts in their various fields, who suddenly find themselves without any of their knowledge. And if the Doctor points out a gap in Harcourt’s collection, the missing item is quickly found and inserted in its place.
Of course, there is something nefarious going on, as the story’s threat is determined to have all the knowledge in the universe no matter what the cost. A large group of scientific experts are about to show up and the Doctor knows that they are all doomed if he can’t do something about it first. This gathering is a pretty thinly developed motivation for the action, but it gets us where we want to.
Naturally, if you throw the Doctor into a situation like this it’s obvious that he is going to be the Holy Grail of information for a guy like Harcourt–but fortunately for our story the Doctor’s mind cannot be emptied by the same means the villain uses on others. And so we get an effective and gripping cat-and-mouse chase between the Doctor and his enemy as they attempt to outdo each other both physically and mentally. It makes for an enjoyable ride, and there are some engaging philosophical comments about the differences between knowledge and understanding that come through.
Tom Baker does a great job playing both the Doctor’s disarming light-heartedness and deadly seriousness in the face of the story’s menace. He is ably supported by the whole cast, including Louise Jameson as Leela and Ian McNeice (from lots of things, like Doc Martin and the modern Doctor Who series as Winston Churchill) as Harcourt. The script by Justin Richards is fairly spot-on and allows for a lot of amusing turns of phrase, and was overall preferable to me than The Time of the Daleks, which he also wrote and which I also just reviewed.
On the whole The Renaissance Man is a strong piece of work and far sight better than the first episode of this first season of Tom Baker audios, and overall one of the two best adventures of the entire series (the other being The Wrath of the Iceni, which came next).