Doctor Who – “Psychodrome”

Shortly after surviving the perils of Logopolis, Castrovalva and the machinations of the Master, the new Doctor and his new crew could be forgiven for wanting to take a breather from their tour of the galaxy. But when the TARDIS lands in a strange and unsettling environment, the urge to explore is irresistible… and trouble is only a few steps away.

The world they have found themselves in is populated by a wide variety of the strangest people imaginable – a crashed spacecraft here, a monastery there, even a regal court. And not everyone they meet has their best interests at heart.

With the TARDIS stolen, and the very environment itself out to get them, the travellers face an extremely personal threat. They’ll have to work as a team if they want to get out alive… but can you really trust someone you barely know?

Peter Davison is the Doctor in Psychodrome.

X X X X X

Cast
Peter Davison (The Doctor)
Janet Fielding (Tegan)
Sarah Sutton (Nyssa)
Matthew Waterhouse (Adric)
Robert Whitelock (Rickett)
Phil Mulryne (Magpie)
Camilla Power (Perditia)
Bethan Walker (Javon)

Written by: Jonathan Morris
Directed by: Ken Bentley

Trailer – http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-fifth-doctor-box-set-1014

X X X X X

One of the strengths of Big Finish’s time with the Doctor Who license has been its knack for breathing new life into the Doctor’s companions.

While I stand by the saying “there are no bad Doctors or companions, just bad writers and producers,” the truth of the matter is that some companions stand out over others. Let’s be honest. Sometimes, the Doctor’s companions were given short shrift, either by the writers, by the producers, or just not being able to “click” with the Doctor over a long period of time. What Big Finish has done is taken these companions and given the actors and actresses who played them a chance to spread their proverbial wings a little more via the audio format. Someone like Peri, who on television was known for being choked by the Doctor and…well, let’s just say there was a reason the dad’s really liked her…has been given a chance to shine alongside the Fifth and Sixth Doctors, actually showing off her academic skills and allowing listeners to focus more on Nicola Bryant’s acting than assets. And then there’s Mel, who was a shrieking computer expert who did a lot more screaming than hacking. Big Finish has allowed to calm down, mellow a bit, and show Bonnie Langford’s dramatic chops with Seven as well as indulging in her panto background with Six. On a personal level, the journey of ass-kicking companion Ace into ass-kicking companion Dorothy McShane has also been great to watch as Big Finish has laid out a long-term story where Sophie Aldred has brought her character from teenage delinquent to possible Time Lord recruit.

With their track record of success…can Big Finish rehabilitate a character who is quite possibly the least liked companion of all time?

Psychodrome is set very early in the travels of the Fifth Doctor. With Adric, Tegan, and Nyssa by his side, the Doctor finds himself on a strange planetoid, where nightmarish creatures skitter through the tunnels and various groups of humans struggle to survive. Reuniting the four actors for the first time in over 30 years, Psychodrome itself sports a very basic and rudimentary plot that calls back to the Fifth Doctor era through its use of music and sound effects. The focus is more on the interactions between the characters as they attempt to establish their relationships and friendships, especially in the final episode. It works on a level that listeners familiar with the characters can enjoy, but might leave any newcomers scratching their heads at the callbacks and references to previous television serials.

The TARDIS is pulled into the heart of a hollow planetoid orbiting a red dwarf. Upon further inspection by the Doctor, he and his companions realize that the planetoid is actually a space station, inhabited by the enlightened and the savage who call it home, those who have come to explore, and those who have been brought there due to a crashed colony ship. As night falls, the Doctor, Adric, Tegan, and Nyssa find themselves separated from each other. In the dark, all four are confronted with their unconscious fears and doubts. They just don’t know they’re being confronted yet…

Matthew Waterhouse’s character, Adric, was a young, brash, cocky, and very, very brilliant mathematician from a negative universe called E-Space. He stowed away in the TARDIS at the end of the Fourth Doctor serial Full Circle and was present when the Fourth Doctor regenerated into the Fifth Doctor in Logopolis. His shocking death at the end of Earthshock was an event that either traumatized the children of Britain or caused them to break out into spontaneous cheers. Anyone familiar with the character Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation would immediately find the same faults with Adric. Both were teenage geniuses who often tried to surpass the wisdom of their older peers, coming off as smug and arrogant in the process. Adric in particular tended to treated Nyssa and Tegan, his companions in the TARDIS, as “only women” who couldn’t hold a candle to his mathematical genius. More often than not, he would try to prove himself just as brilliant and as clever as the Doctor, which would backfire in spectacular fashion. And every now and then, he would turn traitor to the Doctor, often “as part of his plan,” and work for the story’s villain in some capacity.
In defense of Waterhouse, at the time he was cast as Adric he had very little on-screen acting experience, had undergone a family tragedy with the suicide of his older brother, and also had to deal with the BBC culture. Waterhouse had always been a fan of Doctor Who, and going from a huge fan to actually working on the show…it’s like seeing how sausage is actually made. It’s enough to make one consider becoming a vegetarian. After this departure from the show, Waterhouse kept a low profile, performing more and more on stage and becoming a published author. He had separated himself from Doctor Who so much that a 2010 interview with Doctor Who Magazine was given as much press and promotion as the upcoming wedding of Amy and Rory in The Big Bang! After, he began to contribute to DVD commentaries, reuniting with his fellow actors along the way. For years, Waterhouse had been asked by Big Finish to return to the role of Adric, but he always politely declined. It wasn’t until 2013 that the 52-year old Waterhouse finally agreed to return to the role of the 18’ish year old Adric. When asked about it in Vortex magazine, Waterhouse said he had always been worried about trying to voice a teenaged boy as an adult, but instead of viewing it as a concern, he took it upon himself to see it as a challenge.

Upon the announcement that Waterhouse would be joining Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, and Sarah Sutton for two audio adventures, released together in the officially titled bundle The Fifth Doctor Box Set, fans were left to wonder in anticipation. Adric was the last of the still-alive “classic” companions not to work with Big Finish, and landing Matthew Waterhouse was a major coup. But could the Big Finish magic work on a companion more polarizing than an Ice Warrior?
First things first…the story opens with Adric showing Tegan to her room, which is Romana’s old room. And yes, Waterhouse’s voice has changed. A LOT. There’s a deeper resonance and a higher inflection in his tone. It really threw me off for the first episode as I struggled to see Adric the character in the story and not Matthew Waterhouse the actor reading the lines. It was a problem I also had with Janet Fielding’s delivery as Tegan; the passage of time and the changing of the voice meant the Australian accent was off JUST enough to be noticed. As Psychodrome progressed, I found myself focusing less on the voices of Adric and Tegan, and more in the delivery and inflection of their dialogue. The Adric everyone knows and loves/loathes is easily present, and that’s a good thing, as writer Jonathan Morris (who’s done a bevy of Doctor Who novels and a few Big Finish pieces such as the classic Protect and Survive as well as the solid-but-divisive pieces Bloodtide and Flip-Flop) doesn’t set up to “rehabilitate” Adric or attempt to “fix” the character. What Morris and Waterhouse do is instead lay the character of Adric out exactly as he was in Season Ninenteen – young, brash, cocky, haughty, but deeply insecure and afraid of failure as well, trying to both prove himself to “the girls” while also seeking their praise and acceptance. Maybe it’s the maturing of the actor that helps Waterhouse present Adric as seeking the Doctor’s praise and attempting to do the “right” thing without coming off as “punch him the face” arrogant, instead being more along the lines of “oh, Adric, grow up.” It’s enough for me, as someone who had only seen The Visitation from Adric’s time on the show by the time of listening to the audio (full disclosure, I have seen Castrovalva since) to go “Adric’s not THAT bad.” But that’s based on one audio and one television serial alone, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

As I mentioned, Janet Fielding’s Tegan is just a bit off. And her performance here was a bit of a shock to me. I knew that Tegan was sarcastic, acidic, and mouthy (to the point where she called herself “just a mouth with legs”) but I was a bit taken aback by just HOW much so she was in Psychodrome. It’ll take a listener a bit to realize that this is a Tegan who had missed her first day of work thanks to the Doctor, who found out that the Master killed her beloved aunt simply to be a dick, and had been whisked away by a madman with a box alongside an arrogant mathematician and an ice queen of a bio-scientist. Tegan has every right to be as rude and as caustic as she is in Psychodrome; she’s out of her comfort zone and scared out of her wits! Once I realized that, her performance made much more sense. Fielding plays “scared, so putting up a front” very well. There’s no doubt Tegan doesn’t want to be in the TARDIS and wants to get the hell out of there and back to Heathrow Airport, but when push comes to shove and she has to be brave and step up, she does. She still thinks the Doctor is completely mad, and spends much more time with Nyssa than Adric, of course. But there’s warmth and humanity when Tegan had to take care of a sick man and keep him safe from a group of savages, and stands up for the Doctor and herself at the end, even while admitting just how insane everything it.

This is Waterhouse’s first Big Finish audio, and Fielding has starred in several. Sarah Sutton, however, is a Big Finish veteran going ALL the way to January 2000 and the company’s fourth monthly range release, The Land of the Dead. Nyssa’s time in Psychodrome is torn between two themes; trying to help the inhabitants of the Psychodrome with a rapidly-spreading plague and coming to grips with the death of her father at the hands of the Master and destruction of her home planet in Logopolis. With Waterhouse and Fielding’s performances at center stage, Sutton takes a bit of a back seat here; which is fine considering how much focus has been given to Nyssa over the years by Big Finish. I hope that Nyssa’s coping with her father’s passing is touched upon in future audios with a little more depth. It’s given little more than lip service here by the dialogue, though it turns out to play a bigger part with the set-up and climax to the audio. Sutton has always played Nyssa with her emotions turned down to about a ‘3’ on the dial, so a subdued performance is expected. It’s just lost in the shuffle with Adric and Tegan’s return to the TARDIS, though one can sense Nyssa’s “eagerness” when she tries to help the plague victims. It’s in her wheelhouse, a way to truly help someone and distract her from her grief.

“Who are all these people, and what are they doing in MY TARDIS?” “Who the hell is the Doctor and what are we doing in HIS TARDIS?” The Big Finish audio adventures of the Fifth Doctor have seen him travelling with companions who know him and trust in him. Psychodrome goes the other direction; the Doctor doesn’t truly know the people who are travelling with him, and the companion traveling with him are still dealing with a post-regeneration Doctor. Peter Davison, as always, is smashing, playing up the Doctor’s personal insecurities while boldly taking charge of the larger situation. He tries to comfort his companions, but shoots right back when they respond in a biting manner. The need to keep them safe it there, but he finds it “a bit insulting” when he realizes just how Tegan views him; as a throwback to the age of British colonial explorers! Davison plays a Doctor still trying to find himself, but the hints of Time Lord are just under the surface. He has faith in his companions, but he doesn’t know if he quite trusts them yet. Those fears and insecurities play a vital role in the story’s climax, reminding me of the Eleventh Doctor story Amy’s Choice.

Even if the characters aren’t quite united yet, the chemistry between the actors is right there on the proverbial screen. Morris’ script sets the story squarely between the first Fifth Doctor serials Castrovalva and Four to Doomsday. It sees the four characters bicker and argue amongst themselves as they truly don’t know one another yet, but are required to trust each other with their lives in this dangerous place. It comes off a little bit as a family arguing around the dinner table with hints of “you’re not my real Doctor” and “send Adric to his room” thrown in. The plot itself is almost secondary, as we never find out who built the Psychodrome or what its’ true purpose it. Instead, the focus is on the Doctor, Nyssa, Adric, and Tegan. All four have strong feelings towards each other, initial opinions and focus on certain negative character traits, which become reflected among the setting and the supporting cast. There are so many characters, but they’re all played by the same actors; Phil Mulryne, Camilla Power, Bethan Walker, and the closest thing to a “villain” for the story, Robert Whitelock, aka the villain’s lackey from The Bells of Saint John. All four play three parts and play them well, varying enough in delivery and tone that I was prepared for a long list of cast members before glancing at the credits. Whitelock’s King Magus is the last man standing, and he plays on the Doctor’s insecurities and the fears of the companions during his moment of triumph, pulling all the narrative threads together and explaining just who all these characters and why they’re in the Psychodrome in the first place. This does lead to an “everyone shouts at the villain” climax. But the climax to Psychodrome isn’t meant to be physical. It’s purely psychological and emotional, allowing the four characters (and their actors) to express themselves and their feelings towards in a way the “previous” story Castrovalva and the “next” story Four to Doomsday failed to do, and it WORKS, with a hint of over-the-top acting that comes about solely because the story is being told in an audio format.

Where Morris’ script falters, however, are the callbacks and past references. Morris mentions Adric’s time in E-Space and on the Starliner, the murder of Nyssa’s father at the Master’s hands and the fate of her planet, and adds in a deep seeded fear for Tegan. References are made to the E-Space Trilogy of serials, The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis, and Castrovalva. On one hand, these references appeal to long-time viewers who are familiar with the stories and the events within. On the other hand, while reference things such as Adric’s old universe and Nyssa’s father are fine and dandy, dropping the name “Castrovalva” without any other context, or a line about Tegan’s lipstick drying on the TARDIS well, might throw listeners for a loop. Now granted, we’re not talking Ian Levine levels of continuity here or a densely layered story where knowledge of previous stories is essential. The callbacks directly tie in to the story and the concerns and fears of the TARDIS crew. But I felt that in order to get Psychodrome’s full effect, I would need to go back and watch those mentioned stories. Granted, they’re actually GOOD stories and worth a look, but it’s risky for listener to feel like they’re missing something because they don’t know a particular episode of television. Yes, the story focuses on the early days and it’s important to have narrative anchors, but the anchors were just a bit too heavy not to be noticed.

Also, there’s few “nudge nudge” moments towards things that viewers know will happen; Tegan’s exclamation of “rabbits,” the Doctor saying “brave heart, Tegan” and Tegan telling him to never say it again, and the villain of the story wondering what will happen when Adric dies during his time with the Doctor. “Rabbits,” that’s fine, but the other two are heavy-handed and standout in the otherwise fine dialogue.

Other than that, Psychodrome is a very solid and very good Fifth Doctor story, all the way down to the frequent cuts between scenes (kudos to director Ken Bentley for keeping the pace quick and not letting a scene bog down before moving on to the next one) and the sound effects and music. Good lord, the sound effects by Fool Circle Productions. Having watched Castrovalva after listening to Psychodrome, it was eerie just HOW alike the two stories sounded, all the way down to the sounds of nature and the echo of footsteps on stone and marble floors and the music referencing some of the incidental music from Logopolis and Castrovalva, about as early 80’s as background themes could get! All they needed was some audio wobbling of the TARDIS console and the BBC should have slapped some animation on this story and call it a recreation of a “lost” Fifth Doctor story!

The big story with Psychodrome, of course, is Matthew Waterhouse’s return to the role of Adric, and a triumphant return it is. But the importance of the event hopefully won’t overshadow what is a damn fine early Fifth Doctor story, with strong performances and production values that echo that heady time when a dashing young man, a brilliant scientist, a mouthy Australian, and an arrogant mathematician roamed the galaxy in a beat up blue box.

Synopsis – Adric is back, as Psychodrome sees Matthew Waterhouse slide right back into the controversial role with a script that highlights the fears, concerns, and insecurities of not only the companions, but those of the Fifth Doctor. 4/5

Next up – The house on Fleming’s Island had been left to rot. It is empty again. A cult found something in its corridors… and then vanished…

Peter Davison is the Doctor in…Iterations of I.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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