Comedian and impressionist Jon Culshaw is well-known as a man of a thousand voices. He is particularly known for his unnervingly accurate impersonation of the singular Tom Baker in his most famous role as the Fourth incarnation of The Doctor from Doctor Who, going out into the street in Baker’s trademark hat, scarf and curls, asking the public for assistance from invading Daleks – and more often than not, getting it.
But having since doubled for Baker (recently reading several audiobook adaptations of classic 1970s Doctor Who adventures), the release of audio drama boxset DOCTOR WHO – PHILIP HINCHCLIFFE PRESENTS: THE GENESIS CHAMBER from audio company Big Finish Productions finally sees Culshaw make his way into Doctor Who proper, acting in a straight dramatic role alongside Tom Baker as The Doctor (with original actor Louise Jameson as the leather bikini-wearing companion Leela of the classic era), playing the president of a space colony whose daughter falls in love with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
The Genesis Chamber is the second boxset where Big Finish have chosen to work with classic era Doctor Who television producer Philip Hinchcliffe. During his time on the show, Hinchcliffe created what many fans consider to be the show’s finest period, bringing a richness of characterisation, a vividness to the monsters and a dramatic weight that the show that had not been seen before (or arguably since!). This sophomore set is an epic six-part adventure, written Hinchcliffe and adapted by longstanding Who writer and fan-favourite Marc Platt, which blends Huxley’s “Brave New World”, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and a pinch of Wells’ “War of the Worlds” to deliver some properly authentic seventies thrills, combined with literary heft and the fast pace and textured layering of modern-day Doctor Who.
Echoing the Capulets and the Montagues from Verona, the story follows the Doctor and Leela getting caught up in the affairs of two groups ready for conflict: the leaders of a colony dome in the far future, against a group of dissidents whose ancestors left the dome, and who now live a ‘savage’ life, eschewing technology, and working the forest lands as best they can.
The story of The Genesis Chamber embraces questions of modern life: the people of the dome live a life of relative ease, their every action governed and their every thought guided by Inscape, a talking internet that connects all their technologies. The question of willing slavery to a benevolent, all-knowing electronic system resonates with those who today are forever tied to their laptops, tablets and smartphones, and who get genuinely anxious if forced to forego their connection to social media. There are even riffs on the place of religion in a rational world, some of the dome-dwellers treating Inscape as a god and erecting shrines to it – especially when the lights go out and the people hit the streets in panic and turmoil. When a benevolent ‘god’ abandons its people, how will they find a way to live without it?
When the “Brave New World” elements raise their heads – the dome-dwellers lead ultra-sanitised lives, to the point of having replaced ‘natural’ pregnancy with pre-ordered template-babies created by the Genesis Chamber of the title, whereas the ‘dirty’ savages continue to procreate in the most energy-efficient way they know – the story also addresses the degree to which modern society can and does sublimate evolutionary processes to technological alternatives, which for instance free women from the burden of biological time-clocks, and might well in the future enable us to have ‘designer babies.’
If this all sounds a bit ‘heavy’ for Doctor Who, don’t worry. In a hallmark of Hinchcliffe’s story-style, it never feelsheavy. Indeed it rarely ever has time – there’s always something going on in the foreground, with treachery, romance, killing… and then of course there’s the alien invasion! The first four episodes grab you right by the collar and drag you firmly into the lives, the personalities and the problems of the colony’s people. You’ll be at the two-hour mark (out of three) before you really breathe out or look up, Hinchcliffe, Platt, Baker, Jameson, Culshaw and the cast delivering curiosity-hook after curiosity-hook to keep you gripped.
Performance-wise, Baker and Jameson sound no different to how they did 40 years ago, recreating the roles as if no time had passed, with Platt’s sharp writing allowing Jameson to add new layers to her character. At one point, forced to explain character of the Doctor, she utters just six words: “he drives the dark before him.’ Classic, primitive and perfect, Jameson punches it out, like a shield against the mad universe. Baker too gets the chance to show us more than the typical ‘hero’ side to his character, spitting furious anger at times. Highlighting these normally untapped dimensions to these well-known characters is what Big Finish do so incredibly well.
Culshaw, meanwhile, is particularly impressive as the ruthless President DeRosa, with Hannah Genesius excellent and natural as his daughter Ana, delivering a sheltered fragility that burns away under the necessity of her times. Arthur Hughes, as Shown, brings a youthful exuberance and a strength of purpose to his role, while Gyuri Sarossy, as Volor, plays an especially interesting character who seems to have wandered in from an entirely different Shakespeare play to the one the majority of the story has been inspired by. Sarossy gives him a gutsy brio that more than once acts as an engine for the plot, and makes you want to hear more from him.
If you’re a fan of Doctor Who in any sense of the word, then you need to listen to The Genesis Chamber, because whatever period of the show is “your era”, you’ll find enough quintessential Doctor Who here to keep you more than contented for the three-hour running time. If you’re not especially a fan of Doctor Who, but you enjoy solid speculative fiction, you can still get your money’s worth out of The Genesis Chamber, with its contemplations on thoroughly modern subjects woven through an intriguing, pacey science fiction narrative of adventure. Add the excellent Baker, Jameson and Culshaw to the party and The Genesis Chamber is worth £30 of anybody’s money.
DOCTOR WHO – PHILIP HINCHCLIFFE PRESENTS: THE GENESIS CHAMBER is available to buy now exclusively from Big Finish until October 31st 2016, after which date it will be available from Amazon.co.uk and other leading audiobook retailers.