Released September 2014
Philip Hinchcliffe, producer of Doctor Who from 1975 through 1977 during Tom Baker’s first three years in the titular role, returns to the world of Doctor Who with ideas for a pair of new stories from Big Finish that were then fleshed out by veteran writer Marc Platt, ‘The Ghosts of Gralstead’ being the first. With those three years commonly being held as some of the best and certainly as some of the most popular as Doctor Who forged into darker and more horror-laden territory, the Philip Hinchcliffe Presents set created an incredible amount of excitement and anticipation even before its release.
It’s clear from the outset that ‘The Ghosts of Gralstead’ looks to the popular ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ for inspiration. Set once more in Victorian London, the Doctor and Leela come upon people from colonial Africa and traverse overt themes of racism and colonialism along the way. Despite a script that does tread a lot of familiar territory with its famous predecessor, in itself perhaps a deterrent for some fans, Big Finish’s allowance for a massive six-parter truly enhances the overall experience. Unlike the two-episode structure of the main range of The Fourth Doctor Adventures, this longer format allows for a much larger cast of characters as well as time and space for said characters and the world itself to breathe and come to life. The resulting layering of intrigue and depth of characters is gratifying in a style that only a lengthier tale can achieve.
Six-part stories, however, are unfortunately a rarity for Big Finish, and there are couple of issues with the format in this particular release, particularly with the final two episodes. It is not unfamiliar for the lengthier classic stories to have the plot divided into distinct parts, often a two-part section and a four-part section; though that very format is used here as well, the overall result is somewhat disjointed. Perhaps because the African aspect isn’t essentially central to the plot for the vast majority of the story, episode five in particular ends up feeling more like a disjointed diversion when it suddenly gains temporary relevance. When the story returns to its basics for the concluding episode, the ultimate climax and denouement also fail to live up to the sheer brilliance of the first four parts, not making the Doctor a central figure in the resolution while featuring a bit of padding and redundancy to fill out the running time.
As mentioned previously, ‘The Ghosts of Gralstead’ undoubtedly benefits from its extended running time, and yet the strange use of significant portions of the final two episodes leaves some aspects unexplained. The Corona of Alcyon is a fascinating artefact in concept, one that draws anyone in the vicinity near it to determine if they are worthy of retaining it. Its ability to bring back to life anyone that dies in its vicinity diminishes its sense of danger, however, and the story’s unwillingness to definitively settle on technology or magic at the Corona’s root is rather glaring. Likewise, the character of Edward has glaringly unexplained motivations. Wanting to study Mordrega whom he understandably believes is simply a deformed human being rather than alien, it is puzzling why he would wish to so ostentatiously be in the presence of someone who wants to feed off of human brains with nothing in return other than notoriety. Why exactly the adult Clementine has the mind of a child, unaffected by the alien presence, is also an unexplained aspect and, along with the mystery of Pajito’s presence, adds more to the questions than to the answers.
However, in the grand scheme of things these are rather minor quibbles as the overall experience is a richly rewarding one. Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are clearly taking pleasure in reprising their famous roles in this more extended and fleshed-out format under the tutelage of their former producer. The Fourth Doctor, known more for his wit and cunning, shows flashes of anger and determination that the classic series only briefly touched upon, and Baker delivers the added emotion effortlessly. Leela, similarly, gets to show off rather new emotions for her as fear and even hints of love threaten to overwhelm her. At the same time, the guest characters are suitably remarkable and exciting enough to keep events from beginning stale. As the predominant villain, aside from the captivating warlord Obingo in the disparate fifth episode, Mordrega is a seemingly innocuous but totally unscrupulous being who has no qualms killing anyone in order to satisfy her insatiable hunger, and Carolyn Seymour brings this duality to life exceptionally. Gethin Andrews plays the unprincipled medic Edward Scrivener and Martin Hudson his African game hunter Cedric, both bringing their characters’ differing viewpoints on life to the forefront realistically. As Leela’s love interest, Abasi is played by Ivanno Jeremiah with a fierce sense of loyalty that pays incredible emotional dividends at story’s end. With the larger cast, Alan Cox, Jonas Bulmer, Ned Davey, and Mandy Symonds all perform admirably to flesh out this strange world.
Despite any reservations about mimicking the successes of ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang,’ ‘The Ghosts of Gralstead’ still manages to create a very unique experience in its own right. The final two episodes do end up faltering after superb setup work in the first four, but performances and brilliant sound design create an engrossing experience that feels right at home with the Hinchcliffe era.