For some reason, Big Finish’s Fourth Doctor range seems to generally have stories that are only two episodes long. This is in spite of the fact that the most popular length for stories in that era (and for much of classic Doctor Who) was four episodes. Oddly, the first Fourth Doctor series had two two-part adventures that flowed directly from one to the other, thus basically making a four part story. Now we’re here in the second series of Fourth Doctor Adventures, and we find something similar.
(Click here for the previous adventure in this Big Finish series, The Auntie Matter)
All that to say that The Sands of Life and War Against the Laan make up one extended adventure. Except that in this case, it’s a total of five episodes long, with Sands being made up of three and Laan having two. But dividing it up seems to be nothing more than a formatting decision, as both stories are part of one continuous plot with pretty much the same guest cast, and there’s nothing really that makes the end of The Sands of Life any more of a narrative break than at any other cliffhanger in the story. The only real difference is that K9 is in the first story, but not the second.
And sadly for a story that so much of the season is devoted to, the result is real mixed bag.
The story, by Nicholas Briggs, features the Fourth Doctor played by Tom Baker, paired with First Romana played by Mary Tamm. They have an encounter with a telepathic time-faring colony of alien manta rays who are drawn to slightly futuristic earth by strange time travel experiments. These creatures wrongly believe that the Sahara Desert is their spawning grounds and have returned to continue their life cycle, but it turns out that their giving birth releases a devastating temporal explosion, and if enough of them do it they will destroy the planet. The Doctor and Romana try to understand what is going on, and must help the Laan (the time traveling space manta rays) to understand that they are mistaken about earth being their ancestral spawning grounds, while also preventing the humans from reacting to their perceived attack with a violent reprisal. Complicating this is the fact that earth is under the de facto control of a mysterious businessman named Cuthbert, who has no qualms about wiping the Laan out.
All this sounds pretty cool when I type it out, and in fact the story has a lot going for it. Most notably is the guest cast, which features David Warner as Cuthbert. Not surprisingly, the guy is pretty amazing. The character is very distinct vocally and actually didn’t bring to mind David Warner at all as I was listening to him. The story also features Hayley Atwell, who of course is well known to all of us nerds as Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger and a bunch of other Marvel stuff. She does a good job playing earth president Sheridan Moorkurk, a relatively inexperienced politician still coming into her own as a leader. She doesn’t have much to do in the first part but becomes a major player in War Against the Laan.
However, where I didn’t like The Sands of Life and its follow-on was in the production itself–there were a bunch of audio choices made that I’d say really made the story a chore to get through. The story is full of annoying sound effects and irritating sound design–high pitch screeches and strange sound effects that were became very tiresome. The Laan speak to Romana telepathically, and to simulate this there’s a barrage of ethereal “cries of desperation” that sound terribly hokey (no fault to the actress, though). It just becomes tedious listening to “The sands! The sands of life!” over and over again, especially when it’s gone through some annoying vocal processing in an attempt to make the voice “alien”, but really just sounds like someone is just play-acting with their kids. Note to all Doctor Who writers: having your alien threat just chant the same phrase repeatedly has never been good storytelling (“Are you my Mummy?” is maybe the main exception), and it’s even worse in an audio-drama.
The air of pretentiousness that this exudes is even worse when the Laan give birth. Whenever this happens there is a crazy explosion which the story has decided to render in a strange cacophony of sound effects that drags on for a bizarre amount of time before it gets around to explaining what in the world is going on. Big Finish normally knows how to write for audio, but there are times in this when some of that skill seems lost.
Also oddly for Big Finish, the lead voices somehow sounds a bit unnatural–like there’s an odd tinny edge to their recordings that make it hard to forget that they are in a studio. This is especially true for Mary Tamm and especially when she’s supposed to be outdoors. I’ve never noticed this in Big Finish’s work before so it was disappointing to find it here.
In the end, The Sands of Life and War Against the Laan make an ambitious story that has things to commend about it, but not enough to overcome its weaknesses, and to keep it from being one of my more disappointing Big Finish outings thus far. The next story in the series features the return of Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot from Talons of Weng-Chiang–I’m looking forward to it with high hopes that I’ll enjoy it better.