Released February 2012
After an ambitious story that made excellent use of the Doctor and Davros- even managing to make the latter a character deserving of empathy- but failed to truly capitalize on the introduction of new companion Flip, writer John Dorney attempts to rectify this oversight while offering a uniquely off-kilter tale that showcases the extremely variable format that Doctor Who affords.
Led to the planet Transmission owned by media mogul Augustus Scullop when they notice strange goings-on on the time and space visualizer, the Doctor and Flip find themselves present as the new Reel Life holographic technology used for the television programme Laser is unveiled. Through a technical malfunction, Flip is somehow transported out of the TARDIS and into the programme where she quickly begins interaction with the heroic Jack Laser, his assistant Jancey, and the malevolent Lord Krarn. These scenes in a way serve as a parody of Doctor Who itself, and even as Flip thinks she is in some sort of role-playing game, the Doctor realizes that she is in deadly peril, one that ultimately results in her death after she talks back to Krarn.
The Doctor, meanwhile, spends his time gathering information by sneaking into the suites of the invited guests and getting to know the lead actors and piglike Porcians who serve as Krarn’s brutes in the show. He quickly discovers the sabotage to the machine, finding that the fictional characters from within can now escape into the real world as well. Fortunately, while many productions may have made the actors simply cardboard cutouts or one-dimensional fillers, each of the personalities comes off as distinct and real, and this especially pays off when Tilly Gaunt is tasked with acting against herself as both actress Olivia and show companion Jancey.
Even after Flip’s apparent death which is wisely not used as a cliffhanger in order to let its effect linger, the story continues to delve into darker territory. As most of the supporting cast is killed, Dorney seems to delight in showcasing how monstrous a campy villain would be in the real world given the chance to put his obscene plans of grandeur into action. This ultimately leads to a brilliant scene where Krarn confronts his creator and accepts that he is evil simply because he was written to be evil, exacerbating his malicious intent as he uses the Reel Life technology to replay the programme and alter the plot to brings multiple copies of himself into existence.
Of course, the Doctor is able to use the concept of altering the plot against Krarn and, using Krarn’s actor as a distraction, he enters the programme himself and adds an entirely new scene where he arrives with a device that allows him to undo everything, in the process making Krarn’s weapon nonlethal. This feels perfectly natural within the context of the false programme; importantly, even though it allows for the return of Flip, it does not undo any of the multitudes of death that took place outside of the programme in the real world, leaving a lasting impression and emotional weight that could have been undone just as easily in less brave hands.
‘The Fourth Wall’ traverses comedy and pathos in equal measure, creating a memorable villain and showcasing the Procians who so badly want to become memorable villains. The near brush with death has certainly made an impact on Flip, and hopefully this more subdued version who understands the consequences of courting danger will continue onwards in the next story as it makes her a much more realistic and well-rounded person. It may take a little bit of time to find its stride, but ‘The Fourth Wall’ ends up being an immensely enjoyable tale that revels in the surreal without forgetting reality.