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Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Not quite Fiendishly Good, but heading there (Review: 'Doctor Who', "The Ghosts of N-Space", 1996)



Unlike in the US, the tradition of audio drama continues in the UK, with large numbers of them produced every year by the BBC, mostly airing on BBC Radio 4. Colin Baker did a Doctor Who audio in 1986 called “Slipback” (which I’m going to review) and Jon Pertwee did two before his death in 1996.


I’m reviewing the second one, “The Ghosts of N-Space” (broadcast in January and February 1996) as part of my Eleven Faces of Who series, being the first of my two Pertwee works. This was written by former producer Barry Letts and directed by Phil Clarke.


It’s a lot better than the Argo Tom Baker one that's for sure.




The Brigadier’s Sicilian uncle is concerned about ghosts in his ancient castle off the south of Italy and asks his nephew over to take a look. The Brig calls in the Doctor. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane Smith is in Sicily with inept photographer Jeremy Fitzoliver, on holiday (no not that kind of holiday) to try and write a novel as no-one is accepting her stories about travelling with the Doctor. She sees the Brig and follows him to Mario’s island. As they investigate, they discover a history-spanning plot by an evil sorcerer to access a mysterious spectral dimension called N-Space, while a metal-armed Mafia boss is trying to acquire the property from Mario with menaces.




This is a 6x25 minute tale i.e. a six-parter classic Who story, with cliff-hangers and so-on. There don’t appear to be any reprises, but these might have been edited out of the CD release – this story probably needed to have them kept to be fully understandable. Some of the resolutions to the cliff-hangers are a bit poor all in all.


This is a multi-setting story, set on the same island in 1504, 1818 and 1975, with the Doctor and SJS travelling between the times (and N-space) as the story goes on. There’s more TARDIS scenes here than in some whole seasons and the whole concept is one that DW does too rarely in my humble opinion.


The plot involving “ghosts” and alchemy takes a while to get going, while the Mafia side-plot actually is relevant. Ultimately it all comes together in the final part, but there is quite a bit of unnecessary padding and Sarah Jane pretends to be a boy, which is frankly unbelievable [Bob. – Ed]. Some distinctive pseudo-science turns up here and my notes reflect my wondering if the method of entering N-Space wasn’t in fact The Rite of AskhEnte. There’s also a strong Catholic air to this tale – N-space is Purgatory to a great extent – and we even have the Inquisition turn up. I wasn’t expecting them… [You’re this close to being fired – Ed.]


I would make a further note here that there is no watershed on BBC radio and some strong language features in this.


Sound design


Superb – the BBC have a long history of radio drama and there is very little to fault with it. It’s clear from  the plot that the BBC would never be able to do many key parts of this tale on television (even now you’d have problems with the budget), but you’re brought into it. The commentary by the characters that is a requirement for this medium isn’t too forced.


One noticeable oddity here. Peter Howell does the incidental music for this one – and this has his theme arrangement in it. This is a bit odd to begin with, but it grows on you and there’s not too much of the music in here.


The regulars


In a way, there’s a certain sadness to this tale – all three stars are now in the next world.


·         The Third Doctor: This is Jon Pertwee’s final appearance as the Third Doctor (final released one at any rate) and he does the job wonderfully, carrying the role off with just the right combination of haughtiness, flair and alien behaviour. Sarah Jane even is regaled with her own version of the “flower story” from “Frontier in Space”.

·         Sarah Jane Smith: Lis Sladen here is playing an earlier version of the character, not the more mature one of later years. While she does a good job, her material isn’t as good as it could be and she at times comes across a bit ineffectual.

·         The Brigadier: Nick Courtney turns in another fine performance as the UNIT commander (although the rest of UNIT doesn’t appear). He demonstrates fine leadership, a distinct unflappability and a general “Oh, really Doctor?” attitude that makes his character so well-loved.


The guest cast


This is a full cast audio drama. Main villainy duty goes to Stephen Thorne, who has experience in powerful and demonic for this ‘verse and turns in a reasonable performance here, in more than one role. Even if the Mafia boss is straight out of Central Casting.


The rest of the guest cast are a bit more uneven. Mario is stereotyped and hard to understand, the Mafia guys are just as stereotyped and the gangster’s girlfriend character Maggie not only sounds like Trillian from the TV version of THHGTTG, she’s actually played by Sandra Dickinson (who did that role, was born in the USA and is also Georgia Moffett’s mother). One guest character is ultimately not necessary to the plot.


Jeremy Fitzoliver deserves special mention. The character is deliberately clumsy and ineffectual, only doing two actually good things on his own. If the aim was to get me to dislike him, it clearly worked.




Well above average, but this would have been even better in five parts and with some less clichéd guest characters.



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