Serpent Crest

Posted in Audio by - May 22, 2022
Serpent Crest

Released September – December 2011

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Picking up the events seen at the end of Demon Quest, the Fourth Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey are thrust into another five-story adventure penned by Paul Magrs, this time under the banner of Serpent Crest.

‘Tsar Wars’ begins with the Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey taken by robots through a wormhole to a futuristic civilization in a distant galaxy. There they discover the Tsar and Tsarina as part of a robotic elite ruling over their Robotov Empire while humans work on satellite moons. Unfortunately for the Doctor, he bears an uncanny visual and vocal resemblance to the Tsarina’s former ally, Father Gregory, and he automatically comes under suspicion when the palace is attacked. Far more than a human rebellion is on hand, however, and it soon becomes clear that Gregory is not working alone and that a far more nefarious force is lurking and looking to gain a foothold. Transposing historical events into science fiction settings has long been a dynamic means of creating a familiarity and weightiness within more fantastic settings, and the Romanov and Rasputin figures certainly provide an interesting backdrop replete with a discontented working class filled here by the human population. Unfortunately, the tone veers between serious and parody with little warning, creating an odd discordance at times that a peculiar accent choice by Tom Baker as Gregory only further accentuates; not fully delving into the discord and turmoil rising between the robotic and human classes that have apparently coexisted peacefully for so long is also a tremendous missed opportunity to really develop this world. At the very least, the decision to drop the narrated segments that were so prominent throughout Hornets’ Nest and Demon Quest allows the expanded cast to more fully realize and develop the supporting characters, giving a greater sense of immediacy and emotion to this affair as a mysterious egg and a peculiar android hybrid child come to feature and set much more far-reaching events in motion. ‘Tsar Wars’ ultimately is a serviceable if unmemorable entry to Serpent Crest, and while Magrs once again maximizes Tom Baker’s effortless energy and roguishness as the Fourth Doctor as well as the more practical and discerning nature of Susan Jameson’s Mrs Wibbsey, the narrative doesn’t fully commit to exploring its setting or maintaining a singular tone and very much feels like an incomplete prelude to something hopefully much more substantial.

The Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey land in 1861 in ‘The Broken Crown,’ encountering the ill-tempered Reverend Dobbs and his young ward, Andrew, whose paper faces hide whatever may lie beneath. This is a story that relies heavily on a young cast to bring the story of Andrew, Jake, and Sally to life, and while there are the occasional missteps in tone and timing of certain lines, Guy Harvey, Charlie Mitchell, and Elinor Coleman are quite strong and provide the requisite range of childhood wonder and emotions to make these roles believable. Unfortunately, the script itself does these actors few favours, slowing the pacing down immensely compared to the previous story while the Skishtari egg that holds such power is treated as a hidden treasure and repeatedly called ‘the precious thing.’ Even without knowing the egg’s true name or power, so constantly referring to it as such feels completely unnatural and repeatedly distracts from the narrative at hand. Still, the power that the egg in Andrew’s control allows is impressively realized with some immense visuals, and the thought of such power in an imaginative child’s hands is justifiably something to be wary of, culminating in a strong cliffhanger with the Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey trapped within the universe of the egg itself. ‘The Broken Crown’ doesn’t attempt to really make use of its Victorian setting in any meaningful way which is a bit surprising given how often this era and Doctor Who have meshed so well, but Terrence Hardiman is suitably imposing as Revered Dobbs and Simon Shepherd is engaging as Andrew’s caretaker, Mr Bewley, who like Andrew cannot remember who he truly is. This is an interesting facet that allows the Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey to know more about the overarching plot than these two integral characters, but there isn’t necessarily all that much done with it given the larger mystery of the Skishtari egg at hand in the present. This could very much be listened to without any knowledge of the preceding story, but it ultimately only serves to highlight the power of this alien object that will clearly continue to be a focal point, something that could have been done far more succinctly with a more intriguing and consequential plot to support it.

For better or worse, Magrs decides that ‘Aladdin Time’ as the third installment of Serpent Crest is the time to really toy with his storytelling format, amplifying the fairy tale quality of this saga and liberally bending the fourth wall to the point of breaking completely. Sadly, the title instantly takes away any pretense of mystery regarding what this realm of imagination in which the Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey are trapped is as well as who the young boy looking for a lamp who then joins the two on a quest for a power source is. Indeed, despite an impressive number of obstacles and dangers present on this quest, staggeringly little actually happens to advance the overall plot, and it will be up to the individual listener to determine the effectiveness of a spiteful toad and of having the Doctor’s scarf take on a life of its own while tying together the fabled genie plot point. Magrs is never one to shy away from whimsy in his stories, and ‘Aladdin Time’ is certainly the most whimsical of Serpent Crest to this point. It’s also the story to most heavily rely on narration after reintroducing that format to some extent in the previous story, Scheherazade recounting a story that comes to take on a life of its own is certainly an intriguing decision that allows for plenty of self-referential remarks from the Doctor, in particular, who seems to sense that his actions are being narrated. Discussions of the child and egg firmly entwine this story with the preceding two, but this is a story that could just as easily be repurposed to be completely standalone since there isn’t a tremendous amount accomplished here except to eventually get Mrs Wibbsey back to Hexford and Nest Cottage in the present after the egg that serves as a Skishtari gene bank is buried there in the past. The unique narrative format and strong visuals aren’t enough to elevate ‘Aladdin Time’ beyond strictly mediocre levels, however, and two ultimately superfluous stories whose key elements could have been integrated into another story with just a few minutes of allotted time has created a more arduous beginning to this saga than is necessary.

It’s been many months since Mrs Wibbsey has seen the Doctor as ‘The Hexford Invasion’ begins, and she is in danger of becoming ostracized from village life during his absence as her suspicions about her new neighbour grow. When Mike Yates turns up with UNIT orders and a strange man in a bow tie who has a propensity to play the recorder and who also calls himself the Doctor, however, her life is further thrown into chaos. UNIT has been watching the skies above Hexford for some time, and when a giant spaceship appears and dominates the skyline, Mrs Wibbsey must deal with two Doctors and her own having no memory of his previous self’s actions. Naturally, this story’s biggest draw is the Second Doctor as voiced by Patrick Troughton’s son, David, and while he can’t quite match his father’s vocal intonations, especially in the higher ranges, he provides an immense amount of energy and enthusiasm that prove to be captivating nonetheless. Indeed, at many times he sounds closer to Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, but this disparity actually works to the story’s advantage given the suspicions that both Mrs Wibbsey and eventually the Fourth Doctor cast upon him. The Fourth Doctor is the first to admit that the Time Lords have erased some memories of this earlier incarnation, but the lack of any entry about this episode in his diary and the air of congeniality he puts on in public compared to when he is alone with Mrs Wibbsey are certainly niggling points that Yates’s assured trust make circumspect. The Fourth Doctor has featured a little less prominently than usual in the previous two stories, and he is absent for a large portion of this affair as the uneasy relationship between the Second Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey develop, but Tom Baker is on top form once his Doctor must try to understand and reconcile his previous self’s apparent actions here as the growing forest becomes all the more important to the fate of Hexford during the aggressive search for the Skishtari gene pool. Serpent Crest has very much been a disjointed affair to this point, but the first half of this two-part finale is a suitably strong story in its own right that makes the most of its two Doctors under strange circumstances and that brilliantly highlights Susan Jameson and Richard Franklin within this familiar setting that is now under siege from all sides.

Serpent Crest comes to a conclusion with ‘Survivors in Space,’ three months on from the Hexford catastrophe as Mike Yates tries to help lead the group of English villagers as supplies and morale run low. When the TARDIS finally materializes on the village green, it seems assured that the two Doctors will be able to rectify the situation, but time has run out for the keepers of the Skishtari egg as Hexford comes under siege once again. For the most part, ‘Survivors in Space’ does a good job continuing the narrative thread of the previous installment and tying together earlier events in this series, especially regarding the actions and motivations of the Second Doctor who has seemingly been acting so against character. In fact, the truth behind the Second Doctor here adds a significant amount of credibility and menace to the Skishtari overall, and implicitly showing these two incarnations as the exact same person despite the obvious characterization and visual differences is a clever means of bringing these two together without breaking any established continuity. For his part, David Troughton seems much more comfortable in the role that his father made famous, and though he doesn’t really attempt to include many of the Second Doctor’s mannerisms, he certainly captures the unique energy and typical tones of the character that is flooded with such emotions as truths become known and the threat increases. Naturally, Tom Baker is as strong as ever, highlighting a Doctor that can be seemingly carefree at the prospect of finally finding the time to come back to Hexford but who is deadly serious about saving those within once he learns of the true danger present. With few exceptions, Magrs has consistently offered a strong characterization of the Fourth Doctor across all of the Nest Cottage stories, and he is a commanding presence here that is able to stand up to and alongside his former incarnation as required to bring about a satisfying conclusion to this Skishtari affair. It does seem as though this will be the end of these extended adventures in Nest Cottage with Baker moving on to a regular stint for Big Finish, but ‘Survivors in Space’ is a suitably strong end point for his extended adventures with Susan Jameson and Richard Franklin that wisely stays away from the Hornets that featured in the first two sets of adventures to offer a more developed, tense, and emotional narrative by sticking exclusively to its own established plotline.

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