Reviewed By: thisoldcan
Review Date: 5/17/17 5:42 pm
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In Philip Hinchcliffe Presents, Volume 03: The Helm of Awe, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson), answering a call from the Brigadier, track an alien object that has landed on Bothness, a remote Shetland isle. But the Doctor and Leela soon discover that an ancient Norse fire festival is taking place on the isle, and the locals are getting too caught up in it for the Doctor's liking. With the alien artifact missing, and strange, anachronistic events occurring on the isle, the Doctor and Leela must fight against time to try and save the Earth. The third volume of Philip Hinchcliffe Presents, written by Marc Platt and based on an idea by the legendary Philip Hinchcliffe, is a strong entry into what has been an excellent range overall, thus far. Hinchcliffe and Platt captured the manic feel of the Fourth Doctor and the earnest, somewhat clueless, and fiery nature of Leela perfectly here, and the performances by Baker and Jameson excel with this excellent writing. The guest cast is filled with some excellent performances, especially by Joanna Vanderham and Ewan Bailey, and the plot of the story is a delight throughout. While there are some rather confusing, and unnecessary elements, the story itself ends up as a strong entry into the Fourth Doctor's body of work at Big Finish.
Tom Baker once again returns as the walker in eternity, the Fourth Doctor. Inevitably, a man now almost double the age he was when he first took on the role won't sound the exact same, and indeed, he sounds older here. But age hasn't dulled his performance, which stands out as a delightfully manic performance, recalling some of his best stories from the Classic Series. Baker has mastered the ability to change course at the drop of a penny, often multiple times in the same sentence, and here, that ability is on prominent display. Moments where he's talking about one thing with Joanna (Joanna Vanderham), and suddenly turns deadly serious happen so quickly and so effectively, one can be forgiven for missing it. Louise Jameson also returns as the savage warrior Leela of the Sevateem. Much like with Tom Baker, Jameson sounds older here, something that comes naturally with age. Her performance sags a little here and there, such as her scene giving the Sevateem's war cry, which comes off as a bit forced and awkward, but overall, Jameson is fiery and on rare form. Some of the best scenes of the story are when Leela is interacting with the villainous Davy (Ewan Bailey) throughout the story, as Jameson interacts with a thinly veiled disgust following their first encounter.
The guest cast was, as is typical for the Philip Hinchcliffe Presents series, is strong, with several actors displaying a surprising amount of depth. Leading the guest cast are the two members of the Renwick family, Joanna Renwick, played by Joanna Vanderham, and her father Professor Angus Renwick, played by David Rintoul. Vanderham is a delight throughout this story, taking on the role of secondary companion often, and acting well alongside Baker and Jameson. Her strong nature is extremely pleasant to hear, such as in her scenes chasing off Davy and Murdo (Kieran Bew), or her anger at the Doctor for sending her back to safety. She proves more than a match for the rest of the actors in the story, and stands out as one of the highlights of the guest cast. Rintoul, star of the English language version of The Sigmund Freud Files, also does a fine job, showing a surprising amount of range throughout the story. From his tenderness towards his daughter, to his cold calculating nature possessed by Nardos (Chris Porter), to his more bumbling academic side, Rintoul is able to ably play each of these roles with relish, giving his character a distinct flair throughout the story. Also, a special shoutout to Philip Hinchcliffe's young relative (granddaughter? I'm not quite sure, honestly, and I can't find anything discussing it really) Fleur Hinchcliffe, who ably played the young Angus Renwick. Big Finish said in Vortex, in the preview for this release, that they often don't write roles for children, as it tends to be difficult to find good child actors. But Big Finish acknowledged, and I concur, that Fleur Hinchcliffe did a fine job with the role she was given, portraying the young Angus well, and without the normal stiffness commonplace in many child actors.
The rest of the guest cast is rounded out by cast members Jane Slavin is the shopkeeper Peggy, Ewan Bailey as the villainous Davy McTavit, Kieran Bew as Davy's henchman Murdo Jamieson, and Chris Porter as the alien menace of the story, Nardos. Slavin plays the shopkeepr Peggy with relish, as a bit character to start, but one who turns into someone more important as time goes by. Big Finish tends to be rather one-dimensional with their 'landlady/shopkeeper/etc.' characters, so it's nice that Slavin, an excellent actress, was given a bit more depth in her character. Ewan Bailey is another standout from the guest cast, playing the evil Davy McTavit with relish. He's a smarmy asshole, and Bailey really sells the hell out of that. Bew and Porter both have smaller roles in this story, but both do alright. I wish that both had had a little more screentime, as their arcs felt a bit rushed, but what I heard, I liked.
The plot of the Helm of Awe was rather strong. It had an engaging plot to it that managed to draw bits from multiple stories to make a rather unique end result. While the story suffered from some pacing issues and a semi-pointless return to the past, the overall story was one of the strongest stories of the four Philip Hinchcliffe Presents releases yet. I quite liked the plot of the Doctor and Leela chasing after an alien threat to Earth, and, surprisingly, it felt rather like a Third Doctor story in many respects. But the telltale Hinchcliffe signs were all there; witty banter, an intimate knowledge of the Fourth Doctor and Leela, strong guest characters, and a creepy monstrous villain in Davy and Nardos. I also particularly liked the dialogue Hinchcliffe and Platt wrote for this story; the witty banter between the Doctor and others, the charming, funny ignorance of Leela, and the fiery lines characters like Joanna and Peggy were able to deliver came off extremely strong, and really gave this story a personal flair. However, the story did suffer by being just a bit too short. I feel this story would've had a better chance to breathe, if it had been given two more episodes, as certain plots that felt rather rushed, like the unnecessary return to the past, Peggy and Murdo's relationship, and the confrontation with Nardos, would've made a bit more sense. As it was, the story felt a bit rushed in the final part, as Hinchcliffe and Platt worked to resolve each plot point.
Overall, The Helm of Awe was a strong story. Written extremely well by Hinchcliffe and Platt, the story comes off as an excellently authentic Hinchcliffe-era Fourth Doctor story, featuring all the excellent elements from that era. In light of the strong script by Hinchcliffe and Platt, Baker and Jameson are on rare form, relishing in their respective roles in this story, in a way that is conspicuously absent from much of the Fourth Doctor Adventures. The guest cast, especially Vanderham and Bailey, stand out as one of the better guest casts to come out of this range. And the plot, while somewhat rushed towards the end, was an enjoyable, engaging affair, that felt like an interesting, unique blend of multiple story ideas. Overall, it was an enjoyable release, and, if they can't make any more, a strong release for the range to go out on.