Before there was Facebook, there was Friends Reunited. Before there was Friends Reunited, you could go decades – often whole lifetimes – without bumping into the collection of people with whom you went to school, before randomly bump into one of them one day while out buying potatoes, and your life would change forever. Ah, those were glorious, unpredictable days.
In Doctor Who: The Skin of the Sleek, the first in a two-part Fourth Doctor audio adventure from Big Finish Productions, writer Marc Platt brings back the sense of those accidental meetings, when the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his fellow Time Lord Romana (Lalla Ward) land the TARDIS on the mysterious planet Funderell, where they stumble across Romana’s oldest friend from her Academy days, Sartia (Joannah Tincey).
Back in the day, Romana was a bold move in terms of having a companion who was the Doctor’s academic and intellectual equal, and while the Doctor’s classmates at the Academy seem to have included quite a number of rebel Time Lords – The Master being the most famous among them – we’ve never heard much about Romana’s student days – until now. The effect is rather magical.
Lalla Ward’s incarnation of Romana was less of a straight-laced ice maiden than Mary Tamm’s original, but she balanced her sense of fun with an increasing irritation at the Doctor’s dilettante lifestyle, so hearing her suddenly reverting to a rebellious schoolgirl is such an obviously great idea, one wonders why it hasn’t happened before.
But before you run away with the notion that The Skin of the Sleek is all Time Lord Facebook friend requests, let’s be clear – there’s plenty of old-style Classic Who storytelling here too, matched with a certain depth of theatrical and dramatic lore, courtesy of Platt’s absurdly broad knowledge-base.
Funderell itself is a textbook Weird Planet, with a surface that only holds you up if you keep moving. Anyone who stands still starts to sink beneath its boggy, bouncy castle surface – not a great idea, as beneath the surface is where the writhing schools of sleeks – that’s eels to you and me – live. There’s only one village on the entire planet, and there only ever has been. It’s evident to anyone listening that the villagers absolutely have to be more than simple sleek-fishermen they appear to be; if you didn’t get a sense of that from the illogicality of their uniqueness, there’s the helpful hint that they have a seer, chained to a book – a book which writes itself, and which writes the future. Oh, and of course there’s the matter of their god. Their god is of the hungry, garbage-disposal-for-sacrifices kind which any ancient lonely tribe in Doctor Who is grateful to have, so that curious or uppity strangers can be fed to it for at least one of the episode’s cliffhangers.
And then, more or less for the pleasure of culture-clash and commentary on the nature of TV, there’s a documentary film crew from Mars, initially there to observe the locals in action, but forced to take a rather more active part in the planet’s events when their ship crashes. It’s as part of this crew that Sartia runs into Romana, before things start going seriously wrong on Funderell.
The village community on Funderell is delivered with plenty of vim, its life and interaction feeling true to real human pressures, but with the added thrill of the seer reciting the future very much (and very deliberately) in the style of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, which adds a welcome dimension of high drama to what would otherwise be village soap opera.
The Skin of the Sleek then is a multi-layered story that’s as slippery as the planet on which it’s built: levels of Time Lord fun, but with the human resonance of meeting old friends who know you as you used to be, after you yourself have moved on; ethnic tourism and mystery journalism; and a genuine conundrum at the heart of Funderell’s existence, with more yet to uncover, as the story ends on a moment that changes the game of all that’s come before it.
While there are plenty of high concepts here, this is a fast-feeling hour that gets you deeply engaged in its characters and their dilemma, and leaves you wanting answers to the questions it poses, meaning you’re likely to want to listen to the next Fourth Doctor release, The Thief Who Stole Time, to see how the dynamics of this instalment play out.
Doctor Who: The Skin of the Sleek is available to buy now exclusively from Big Finish until September 30th 2017, after which date it will be available from Amazon.co.uk and other leading audiobook retailers.