Released April 2017
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW
Legendary producer Philip Hinchcliffe once more returns to Big Finish with another character-driven story intended to recapture the core essence of his televised era featuring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. Given the positive response for this small collection so far, it’s clear that the popularity and love for this era is as strong as ever, and the trickling of releases manages to maintain an air of spectacle and novelty even as they compete against Big Finish’s own The Fourth Doctor Adventures.
With the fourth story across three volumes of Philip Hinchcliffe Presents, Hinchcliffe grounds his story on the Shetland Isle of Bothness as the locals prepare to celebrate the Norse fire festival of Up Helly Ya. Yet amidst the intensified blending of Scottish and Scandinavian roots, the Doctor and Leela find themselves tracking an ancient artifact of unimaginable power. Hinchcliffe and adapter Marc Platt brilliantly and perfectly incorporate elements of true Norse mythology to both drive the plot forward and to flesh out the superb environment and tightly-knit community, avoiding the pitfall of sacrificing pacing in order to explain the facts while doing so. The dichotomy between elements of 1970s modern life and the Norse elements is particularly fascinating with regard to Leela who is clearly still much more comfortable with the latter than the former, allowing Jameson to reference and to better explore the more fierce and audacious nature of her character’s Sevateem past.
It’s a testament to just how intriguing the setting and supporting characters are that the true alien menace can be shrouded in secrecy for so long without making it seem as though an essential part of the plot is being withheld. Instead, the story allows plenty of time for Bothness and Up Helly Ya to breathe to create an immersive atmosphere into which the mystery of the artifact can naturally gain precedence. Accordingly, the introduction of the robotic alien beings parading as Vikings that tie so intrinsically into Joanna’s family’s history feels like a natural plot progression rather than a completely disparate thread waiting to be addressed. Of course, with a mystery spanning generations, it’s also natural that a show built upon travel in time and space would directly explore that facet of the plot, and the resulting World War II scenes that draw upon the real-life Shetland Bus are some of the strongest and most powerful of the story, showcasing the titular Helm of Awe’s power and sparking a great moral debate about the fate of the Nazi survivors.
Events come full circle in the final part as the events of the past decidedly explain what has been happening in the present, and the danger the Doctor and Leela again find themselves in as the villagers turn against them works wonderfully in the audio medium. As Joanna and her father confront their legacy, ‘The Helm of Awe’ never strays far from the intensely personal narrative it presents from the start, creating for an emotionally satisfying resolution that hits all of the right notes. While ‘The Helm of Awe’ may not be a truly revolutionary story, it perfectly draws upon historical mythology and events to craft a superb tale buoyed by strong acting and chemistry, sound design, and direction. Although it’s clear that the scope and spectacle here could never have been achieved on screen in the 1970s, this story perfectly encapsulates everything that makes the era so beloved.