Blurb: ‘Wanted: retired army Captain for light household duties and fireside companionship. Must tolerate mild eccentricity and strong scientific advice. Knowledge of Giant Maggots, Super Intelligent Spiders and Prehistoric Monsters a positive boon.’
Responding to an advert apparently worded for him alone, Captain Mike Yates (retired) is reunited with a ghost from the past. But why has the Doctor, that mysterious traveler in Time and Space, sent for his former UNIT acquaintance?
Trapped by a horde of vicious creatures in an apparently innocuous English country cottage, the two old friends are on the brink of an enormous adventure. As the Doctor relates his recent escapades, it becomes clear to Mike that they – and the Earth at large – are facing an enemy of unimaginable power and horrific intent. The nightmare is only just beginning…
Review: Although Big Finish is normally the company associated with Doctor Who audios, BBC had its own audio wing that also produced Doctor Who audio stories. Mostly these were readings of the tie-in novels for the new series but in the late 2000’s they also started doing readings of the old Target novelizations of classic series stories. In 2009 they had a real coup by producing a new audio drama featuring Tom Baker. At this point Tom Baker was the only surviving Doctor not to work for Big Finish, so anticipation was very high on this project. Unlike a Big Finish drama, which tends to be like a standard TV episode just adapted for audio, BBC Audio decided to go with a hybrid format. Most of the time either Richard Franklin, reprising his role as Mike Yates, or Tom Baker narrates the story. Mike’s narration is projected at the listener as if this is a story that he’s telling to some friend sometime after this has all finished and that is simply recorded and played back for the audience. Tom Baker’s narration is actually within Yates’ story as the Doctor fills Mike in on “the story so far”. There is some interaction between the two characters and two of the minor characters get speaking parts when some of their interaction with the two leads is dramatized rather than narrated, but this is very sparse. As a result it takes on the feeling of an enhanced reading with multiple readers and a few dramatized scenes to spice things up.
The storyline is very accessible and doesn’t rely on any prior knowledge of the characters. Knowing a bit about Mike Yates’ history might help to understand the melancholy surrounding the character, but enough information is given so that the listener understands that he was someone who used to work for UNIT and then left under less than positive circumstances. It actually might help some to be completely unfamiliar with the fourth Doctor. Although Tom Baker is back, the characterization written for him is very different from how he appeared on screen. In many ways it feels like the story was written for the third Doctor and then rewritten by Baker himself with some the lines that he’d want to deliver, which means that more of Tom Baker the man comes out in the Doctor than the character of the Doctor familiar to any who watched his television stories. Still, even for fans of those stories this need not be a hindrance. This takes place during an as yet unexplored gap in the Doctor’s travels and there’s no telling what may have happened to him in that time. Additionally, he reveals in the story that he’s been under an extreme mental strain lately, which could account for any oddities of behavior. Baker’s characterization of the Doctor changes so much over his long tenure that one more iteration isn’t that hard to believe.
Some have said that the plot is simple, but as the beginning of the story that needs to set up the essential elements, it isn’t too bad. Yates and the Doctor are reunited and then the Doctor starts bringing him up to date with the adventures that he’s been having lately. By necessity since the early part of the story is conveyed through Mike’s eyes, the plotline for this first story is very short. Still, it’s a very 70’s Doctor Who story about stuffed animals coming to life and killing their owners. The nature of the threat comes as a bit of a surprise and there’s a decent bit of body horror involved in the reveal of just what these creatures are able to do to control others. If there’s one major issue, it’s that the story builds up so quickly and then just ends abruptly. The solution seems a little convenient and it seems odd that both sides agreed to it so amicably.
There’s a nice melancholy tone to the tale. Not much is said about Yates’ current circumstances but he’s alone near Christmas time and has nothing better to do than to answer a bizarre ad in a paper. His reservations and joy upon meeting the Doctor again is very well done. It’s also nice that the listener is introduced to the situation from Mike’s point of view. This keeps everything mysterious and therefore a little sinister. There are some wonderful initial moments when Mike is surprised by something strange taking him by surprise. Baker keeps up the mood but his tone keeps the story more in a somber, dangerous tone. It’s important that Baker conveys this with his voice, something that he does well because the script undercuts him at every turn. Magrs has a whimsical style that keeps trying to veer the story back into a very silly, wacky place.
The production really doesn’t help matters. There are so many times when interesting things are happening that are just narrated over but then there are dramatized sections of some of the least interesting parts seemingly just to keep people from getting too tired of just hearing Tom read. In fact, it seems odd that having access to both Richard Franklin and Tom Baker that the production veers away from having them really interact except towards the beginning. When the Doctor starts recounting his story to Mike, the former UNIT captain almost fades away. A couple of times he interjects something into Tom’s story, but it seems odd that he’d just sit and listen quietly for 20 minutes or so at a time and just not say anything about the story. Susan Jameson is fantastic as the Doctor’s housekeeper, Mrs. Wibbsey but she’s barely in it. She has maybe 3 or 4 lines. Daniel Hill plays a much larger role as Percy Noggins but gives a very over-the-top performance that doesn’t really help matters. The music and sound effects are almost so sparse as to be nonexistent, yet someone paid money to have a separate theme tune composed for this storyline. It plays at the beginning of each CD in the series. Then there’s a short segment for the story and then it goes into the actual Doctor Who theme music from the fourth Doctor’s era. The theme prior to the pre-credits sequence seems superfluous as a result. They easily could have just started with the pre-credits sequence and then launched into the fourth Doctor theme music and saved that money to include more music in the story itself. Without music or sounds the whole thing feels a bit slow and any immediacy to the situation is completely lost.
Recommendation: It’s a bit of a mixed bag. The Stuff of Nightmares has some good characterization for Mike Yates and you can’t beat Tom Baker’s performance. Unfortunately they’re undercut by a script that can’t decide if this is dark and serious or light whimsy and a production that seems to want to keep costs down as much as possible, giving it more of the appearance of a reading rather than a play. I recommend skipping it.
Directed by Kate Thomas
Produced by Michael Stevens
Written by Paul Magrs
Runtime Approx 70 min.