Hornets’ Nest

Posted in Audio by - April 21, 2022
Hornets’ Nest

Released September – December 2009


In the closing months of 2009, the seemingly impossible became true as Tom Baker at last reprised his role of the Fourth Doctor. Having to that point been the only surviving Doctor to not join Big Finish, the five collected stories written by Paul Magrs and released under the Hornets’ Nest banner also marked Baker’s first performance in an original Doctor Who audio production since 1976. At the saga’s start, retired Captain Mike Yates has responded to an advert seemingly worded specifically for him, and he finds the Doctor staying in a home infested by a swarm of hornets, creatures he comes to realize are far more powerful than they might seem as the Doctor begins to recount his recent adventures.

Hornets’ Nest begins with ‘The Stuff of Nightmares’ and quickly highlights the sort of enhanced audiobook style that this series features, the majority of events being narrated with some others receiving full dramatization. This is an approach that ultimately has something of a mixed result here given that some of the more intriguing elements end up being told rather than shown while some of the less interesting moments become more prominently featured, but it nonetheless proves to a very effective means of allowing Baker all the more time in the limelight. These stories clearly take place in some gap in the Doctor’s life that has otherwise not been explored, and so slight inconsistencies in characterization are easily overlooked. Indeed, this whole setup of a Doctor confined and with a former UNIT member is something more suited for the Third Doctor; while there is no previous knowledge needed of either lead character since the script does particularly well hinting at Yates’s troubled past, these two develop an instant chemistry during their brief time together that likewise hints at a long relationship together. The story initially unfolds through Yates’s eyes to build an eerie tone and scene, and although Yates is reduced to mostly interjecting as the Doctor comes to recount his tale about stuffed animals coming to life and killing those around them, Baker quite successfully evokes a melancholy and morose tone even as the script itself frequently wavers between serious and whimsical. The resolution is quite abrupt and convenient after some rather surprising body horror shown, but this is obviously an introductory story that has to spend significant portions of its time setting up both the present at Nest Cottage with the Doctor’s housekeeper Mrs Wibbsey as well as the Doctor’s previous adventure and the fact that the Hornets have had encounters with the Doctor previously that remain in his future. Still, Baker is as charismatic and dynamic as ever, and the stellar characterization of Yates and delivery of Richard Franklin help to compensate for an uneven tone and the severely over-the-top Percy Noggins to deliver an opening story that is ultimately more engaging than it should be but that still fails to live up to the immense hype around its release.

Strangely, the second instalment of Hornets’ Nest, ‘The Dead Shoes,’ decides to all but eliminate Yates from affairs, having him only sporadically interject and doing little to further the impressive characterization afforded this character who has gone through so much in the previous tale. As such, the weight squarely falls on Baker to bring this instalment to life, a task he proves more than up to and one that is again all the more impressive given the more whimsical stylings that the prose continues to take. However, as the Doctor travels to 1932 and happens upon the strange Cromer Palace of Curios, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a story filled more with set pieces and conveniences in order to show the original meeting between the Doctor and Mrs Whibbsey. It must be said that Susan Jameson is superb in this no-nonsense role within these strange confines, and likewise Clare Corbett puts in a strong performance as the ill-fated ballerina Ernestina Scott who serves as the Doctor’s companion of sorts here, but ‘The Dead Shoes’ as a whole suffers from simply showing some of the Hornets’ power and not actually explaining anything about them or their motivations. Sadly, the Doctor having to twice rescue someone from the same danger in the same fashion becomes somewhat tedious, and simply using the sonic screwdriver to somehow return to normal size after being shrunken is a rather flimsy resolution that is devoid of any true drama. Still, this story does feature a much more robust sound design than the previous instalment, and Baker is once more fully captivating no matter the words or events he is asked to relay, but the immense imagery on display here ultimately amounts to padding given the comparatively small scale of the threat here, the lack of information about the Hornets as a whole, and the promise of further adventures in the Hornets’ past and Doctor’s future yet to come. Except for explaining how Mrs Wissbey came to be with the Doctor in the present, ‘The Dead Shoes’ is very much a story that could be skipped with little of the overarching narrative missed.

‘The Circus of Doom’ finally moves the plot of Hornets’ Nest beyond simple set pieces, showcasing a far greater intelligence and malevolence for the insects than has been seen to point and revealing a terrible truth about how they came to be in this time and place that will clearly have an effect on future stories. To this point the Hornets have been acting with an incidental and even accidental purpose, but as the Doctor visits the Circus of Delights and uncovers a sinister plot to kill the entire town, they are seen to have a deep understanding of human nature as they gain others’ servitude in exchange for offering everything those individuals could want. Antonio is a man who desires revenge on those who previously ridiculed him and Francesca simply craves power with no compunction about who will get hurt during her quest, showcasing a darker shade of human nature that compares well with the very visual threat of the Hornets driving circus performers to death by forcing them to perform far greater feats than their bodies can endure. The Doctor logically assumes that the focal feet in ‘The Dead Shoes’ are those of Francesca as he continues to go further back in time to discover more about these Hornets, and that experience in the future serving to handcuff his actions here is another element that further strengthens this story compared to the previous two. The supporting performances are all effective and help to capture the spirit of 1832, especially as Antonio reveals what drove him to seek a job performing magic and as Dr Farrow desperately seeks to save his sister from this mad life, but ‘The Circus of Doom’ does suffer by again all but completely sidelining Yates. This is a story that requires quite a bit of narration to fully develop its imagery and atmosphere, meaning that Yates’s time in the present is almost nonexistent and certainly not meaningfully relevant to these events at all. However, and as expected, Tom Baker is again at the top of his game and continues to exhibit the utmost conviction as the Doctor fully immerses himself in the deepening mystery that he knows will continue onward. The entire experience is a far more well-rounded one than the previous two, and the Hornets finally seem like a legitimately frightening and powerful presence, setting a much clearer and more cohesively developed course for the final two instalments to follow.

In ‘A Sting in the Tale,’ the Doctor arrives in the bleak midwinter of the Dark Ages and learns that wild dogs besiege the local Tilling Abbey on a nightly basis. The sisters of the abbey offer shelter to the Doctor, but as he seeks an audience with the Mother Superior, he is sure that these strange events are related to his recent encounters with the Hornets. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the story in which the unique premise of the Doctor and the Hornets crossing paths in conflicting chronological order presents the greatest hindrance to the plot since ‘The Circus of Doom’ already revealed that the TARDIS brought the Hornets to 1768 Venice and so takes away any of the potential drama surrounding the Doctor’s apparent possession here. The curious story of a pig being honoured as the Mother Superior is a bit too strange even for this series that has often delved too far into bizarre and whimsical territory, but there are some strong moments along the way to unquestionably the strongest cliffhanger of the set as events steadfastly shift to the present. ‘A Sting in the Tale’ quite naturally explains why the Hornets have chosen the hosts that they have along the way, and explaining how the Doctor came to acquire his dog and other items are moments that slot in nicely alongside his meeting with Mrs Wibbsey that was previously shown. While Yates and Mrs Wibbsey are hardly essential to the story, their scenes in the present are amongst the strongest, especially with the dark suggestion that the Hornets’ influence may never truly be broken. Of course, with the Doctor’s plethora of companions, friends, and acquaintances throughout the years, Hornets’ Nest has to this point avoided answering why the Doctor so explicitly called for Yates to join him for this adventure, and the revelation that the story behind that newspaper advertisement is not quite so straightforward is another intriguing element heading into the series finale. Again, Tom Baker is outstanding and absolutely sells the confidence and fear of the Doctor in this story even with the ultimate outcome known, and Rula Lenska offers a commanding performance as the Hornet Queen to give this menace a genuinely terrifying voice. The sound design and music of this story are the strongest of the story yet and certainly serve to heighten the intrigue and terror, and so while this story by itself is by no means essential listening and mostly serves to fill in a couple of gaps without explicitly advancing the tale, there are enough components to ensure it remains engaging at all points.

After glaringly and inexplicably skipping ahead from the cliffhanger with little discussion about its resolution, ‘Hive of Horror’ brings Hornets’ Nest to a close with a dynamic shift back to characterization that has been this saga’s strongest point so far. Of course, Mike Yates has a long history with the Doctor and UNIT, and it’s refreshing to see his previous betrayal addressed so directly as the Hornets offer him immense power if he simply chooses to betray once again. Yates is clearly still affected and driven by those events that occurred so long ago and has done his best to reconcile and make amends, but he is still tempted to consider the offer before him. Richard Franklin is an undisputed highlight of this story, and the incredible range of emotions he displays as Yates confronts his own inner demons and expresses suspicions about Mrs Whibbsey who likewise become a much more human character as she must confront Yates’s accusations is superb. The plot does manage to fairly seamlessly integrate aspects of the previous stories into its own progression and resolution to help add a further sense of cohesion to this whole affair, and the switch to Nest Cottage with all of the leads involved rather than having the Doctor recount another earlier tale significantly escalates the sense of drama and tension. Unfortunately, the decision to have Yates pick up narration from some unspecified point in the future frequently serves to detract from the overall momentum this plot otherwise builds, and there are some instances where the plot seems to move ahead simply by a contrived convenience rather than by what is actually shown to occur. And while the Hornets don’t necessarily provide the most imposing threat for the Doctor overall, Rula Lenska gives a strong performance as the Queen that is both menacing and persuasive to drive the plot’s multiple levels forward. Of course, Tom Baker demands the attention of the listener in each scene, and his Doctor’s belief in his friends and determination to find a positive outcome no matter the hurdles in his way remain a testament to the character and provide a strong foundation upon which this story’s twists can build. However, a suitably strong finale that wisely focuses on its leads isn’t enough to overcome the many odd choices and missteps of this series as a whole, and aside from the incredible importance of having Tom Baker return to his famed titular role after so long, Hornets’ Nest never really capitalizes on its premise to become a truly standout collection of tales.

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