Tom Baker is dead. No, not really – breathe out, death has yet to touch the man who will always be Doctor Who. His latest character is a heightened version of himself, in Baker’s End new series by Paul Magrs for Bafflegab Productions – and it’s this heightened version of himself who has died, prompting generations of stars of stage, screen and rubber monster costumes to flock to the fictional village of Happenstance (twinned with the Twilight Zone) to pay tribute to the great, grinning force of nature that he was.
The village of Happenstance is stone barking mad, including most of its inhabitants, as indeed is the plot of the series’ first episode The King of Cats. It appears that Tom, before dying, started wittering about fans who weren’t fans, and TV licence detector vans with x-ray beams that could see inside your house, and the postmistress being in contact with the aliens through an aerial on her roof. Most of all, he was worried about people being replaced by doppelgangers.
Tom’s ex-companion actress, Suzy Goshawk (played by Katy Manning, genuine companion to Tom’s predecessor in TARDIS, Jon Pertwee) has come down for the funeral just before Christmas… but something quickly starts to smell rotten in the state of Happenstance – and it’s not the corpse of our beloved Baker. People have been giving varying accounts of how he actually died, and nobody, when pressed, is able to confirm that they actually saw it happen.
When all the rest of the London crowd apparently get the last train out of Weirdsville, Suzy is left alone, trapped with Mrs Frimbly (Susan Jameson), the housekeeper from Hell, as the snow descends. Then the vicar, the Reverend Ailing (David Benson) begins to notice flashes of odd things happening out of the corner of his eye. Was that a giant cat?
Are the people of Happenstance all doppelgangers? Who or what is the King of Cats? Why must Clacky the Dragon be appeased by the twerking of ageing buttocks? Which is the best saint to drop on an advancing enemy from a great height? And most importantly, is Tom Baker really dead? All these questions and more are answered across the length of this deliciously bonkers story. None of the answers make more than a passing pretence at sense, but they do at least appear…
Stylistically, this is Alice in Wonderland meets Willy Wonka in Tom Baker’s brain, and beats the living daylights out of him. There’s that tone – familiar from both the Alice stories and some of Dahl’s darker, more fun adventures – of something really quite creepy and unpleasant going on beneath the surface of what is otherwise a dementedly silly, very funny, bouncing-off-the walls storyline. Linguistically, too, it’s Carroll meets Dahl meets Baker, as Magrs sees him. The tales are tall, the language fruity, with plenty of nonsense that sounds like much more fun to say than any of your boring, normal, human words. You half expect a Bandersnatch or a Jabberwock to come trolling through the borogoves pretty much throughout, and when the mystery of the King of Cats finds its solution, there’s a sense of the absurdity escalating to a whole other level of whoa.
Imagine everything you know about Tom Baker – the voice, the mad eyes, the still fairly alien grin, the talking of impressive, expansive, glorious nonsense – then hit it with one of those sixties radioactive enlarging rays, and you are only part the way there. Add Katy Manning as your reasonable anchor in a world gone mad, Susan Jameson playing gruesome and funny on a knife-edge, and a story with its roots in Doctor Who, but its sensibilities in Carroll, Dahl and Magrs, and you know you have something that’s worth taking a chance on. And once you’ve listened to The King Of Cats, you’ll be back to Baker’s End for more episodes before you know it.