Review by Jacob Licklider
Six-part Doctor Who serials are often particular favourites of mine, simply because in storytelling there is quite a lot you can do in six episodes. The 1970s revolutionised the six-parter by essentially dividing them into a four part story and a two part story which I have discussed at length on the Internet before because it allows for more exploration of characters and a plot that needs to be able to go through the length with at least one big twist at a point in the story to send things off in a different direction. Big Finish Productions have done six-part stories before, ‘The Next Life‘ and ‘The Game‘ were the earliest, and several of the Lost Stories range were allotted six episodes as that is how those scripts were pitched and often written which worked especially well for stories like ‘Farewell, Great Macedon‘ and ‘Lords of the Red Planet‘. This year they’ve dipped their toes into a single seven part story with The Annihilators which I enjoyed and reviewed, but as the rest of the Doctors got two box sets, the second set for the Third Doctor continues the trend of longer stories with a single six part adventure set during the middle of Season 11 dealing with some of that season’s major themes written with a more modern sensibility from Alan Barnes. Kaleidoscope at one point directly references similarities to ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs‘ and while there isn’t Malcolm Hulke’s ecological message, it does deal heavily with governmental conspiracy and how the 1970s Cold War mixed with pop culture.
Kaleidoscope deals with a young man, played by Gerran Howell, becomes an interest of UNIT due to the claim of psychic powers. He appears on Hampstead Heath and is discovered by a journalist, Jenny Nettles played by Jasmin Hinds, who begins to market him to 1970s television programs to display these psychic powers. Barnes clearly deals with the twist that Sarah Jane and UNIT are not the ones to discover Kaleidoscope where we get to see Barnes’ commentary on tabloid journalism and the obsession with pseudoscientific snake oil salesmen is, presenting them as legitimate to the masses. Uri Gellar, psychic fraud, is mentioned several times throughout the story to describe Kaleidoscope’s power and much of the first half of the story plays it straight by having the Doctor and company question the powers of Kaleidoscope. Sarah Jane and the Doctor especially get to play off each other in interesting ways, contrasting serials like The Daemons which had companion Jo Grant was firmly on the side of magic being real. Sarah Jane is positioned in the logical and proactive role of getting to the bottom. Jenny Nettles parallels Sarah Jane, someone Sarah doesn’t respect due to the sensationalist nature of her stories and the poor journalistic integrity. Sadie Miller does an excellent job as Sarah Jane here, in her seventh outing in the role, giving the character life and seeing the Season 11 characterization of the companion in full force. Sarah is feisty, clever, and able to handle herself when the second half separates her and the Doctor from the rest of UNIT as this season often would on television.
The second half of Kaleidoscope is interesting as the Doctor and Sarah Jane are captured by Soviet Union soldiers and taken to Siberia. Here is where I am going to be going deeper into spoilers so you should take a moment to go and purchase this story as it is an excellent reflection on the time while straddling a line between drama and comedy incredibly well. Early on there is a camp of anti-war protesters, with indications that it is the Vietnam War that is being protested, but this camp is all women and they are led by Helen Goldwyn’s Daphne Green, a woman from the Brigadier’s past who is revealed to be a double agent and part of Soviet experimentation which has created Kaleidoscope to infiltrate the other side of the Iron Curtain and UNIT due to their extra terrestrial connections, but it went wrong. Jenny Nettles discovered him instead of Sarah Jane and the Doctor as was intended, and the back half is an escape thriller for the TARDIS team which Tim Trelor excels at. This is split with the UNIT plot unravelling the mystery in tandem, these reveals are given piecemeal incredibly well throughout the back half, so the Brigadier (Jon Culshaw), Kaleidoscope, Jenny, and new UNIT recruit Harry Sullivan (Christopher Naylor) are attempting to continue the UNIT investigations. Naylor as Harry is wonderful but slightly underused, getting wrapped up in the parody of other science fiction shows of the period while Jon Culshaw gives an incredibly emotional turn as the Brigadier, being put in the spotlight in a way not done on screen, and barely done on audio to this point. The climax is especially emotional even when the denouement with Kaleidoscope and Jenny Nettles gets a little on the cheesy side.
Kaleidoscope is honestly a treat from Big Finish Production. It is not reliant on returning elements for its drama, setting up a scenario where Alan Barnes can take the characters where they were and elaborates on the skeleton of the Season 11 character arcs while including some interesting character development for the Brigadier in a time which was often made his character the buffoon. Fans of 1970s television will get a lot of homages in the middle episodes that sadly went over my head (I am not familiar with many of them outside of Doctor Who Twitter occasionally referencing them). It’s another shot towards showing why longer Doctor Who stories work and some of what Big Finish does at its best. 9/10.
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Review: Doctor Who Third Doctor Adventures – The Annihilators
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