Return to the Web Planet, by Daniel O’Mahoney
As we approach the end of my self-proclaimed “second season” of 5th Doctor audios, it’s time for a quick bout of 60s nostalgia. The Web Planet… Vortis… home of the Zarbi… in fact, I’ve never seen The Web Planet episodes, so my encounter with the Zarbi and the Menoptra comes with no baggage at all. Having genned up on the continuity however, I’m pleased to note that the cover for this audio adventure fits in very nicely with the old Target novelisation. Time for some old-school adventure then, methinks. And indeed this play cracks along at a fair old pace, with no breaks. Drawn – again – by some mysterious force to Vortis, the Doctor and Nyssa are separated by a horde of stampeding Zarbi and rescued – eventually – by the Menoptra scientist Acheron and his wingless daughter Hedyla. The remainder of the rather short 70 minutes is spent investigating the source of the mysterious force that is pulling starships from the skies to crash on Vortis…
So far, so good. In hindsight the set-up looks very similar to the original Hartnell-era serial, but from my point of view, that’s no bad thing. The Zarbi are portrayed as cattle-like rather than hive-mind creatures, and refreshingly there are no real “bad guys” as such. This is problem-solving Who; the negotiating, scientific side of the Doctor and Nyssa that works very well in their partnership. As such the episode is just about the right length for the problem-investigation-crisis-solution formula to lie nicely. The only thing that doesn’t really work for me is the Xanthi-Yanesh plot device that seems to be almost a deus ex machina (though one that could be developed in other ways in the future – what if the seeds interacted with other, more aggressive species? And what reprecussions does humanity face from sending out these seeds?).
Bonus review – Bernice Summerfield & the Stone’s Lament, by Mike Tucker
Settling into a one-hour format has helped the Benny plays no end. Freed from the confines of a dubious timey-wimey arc, this series has placed her in a role as archaeologist-at-large, or “troubleshooter with a trowel”. There aren’t so many demands placed on the plot, and Bernice herself is allowed room to finally become herself again. This tale sees her jaunting off to visit the reclusive multi-billionaire Bratheen Tralor, who lives on a deserted world with only an AI for company. While having his enormous house extended, the work crews have found an artefact that Tralor cannot explain, and he reckons Benny could have the answers. The Killoran worker transporting Benny, Adrian, has concerns of his own – why have all the work crews suddenly disappeared? And exactly what is Tralor’s interest in Ms Summerfield?
There’s plenty going on in this play, and some of the action gets a bit lost – sometimes the director forgets that we can’t actually see what’s happening, and we have to make educated guesses…by which time, of course, things have already moved on apace again. But, like Secret of Cassandra before it, Stone’s Lament has a few very good set pieces to deal with. The big reveal of House’s master template – as well as Tralor’s “bedroom posters” – adds a creepy dimension to the plot, and so does the fate of Adrian’s erstwhile co-workers. The chemistry between Benny and Adrian is realistically uncomfortable – though their past history is one of those things that you just have to take for granted. ¹
And, as seems to be the case in a good number of the plays I’ve listened to thus far (not just the Benny ones either), the act of winning and saving the day isn’t as cut & dried as it should be. Winning hurts. This point will be made again in the next play in the series….
¹The overall continuity of season 2 of Bernice’s adventures alternated between book and audio formats, buggering it up for those of us who don’t actually have the books…