After having a lot of fun with the previous Demon Records release of Doctor Who: Demon Quest, the second from the series of Nest Cottage audio adventures with Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor (reviewed here), this time we’re in the third and final part; Doctor Who: Serpent Crest!
Demon Records themselves have been developing a hugely impressive back catalogue and selection of limited vinyl audio-book titles including the likes of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Neil Gaiman’s outstanding Neverwhere (reviewed here), and much like their previous Doctor Who release, this is another impressive multi-vinyl boxset that’s smartly curated, that comes complete in a heavy boxset that features superb artistry and select extras to make it a striking Collectors Set.
Written by Paul Magrs, Doctor Who: Serpent Crest drops us right into (what I believe is) early Christmas Eve and Mrs Wibbsey (Susan Jameson) and the Doctor (Baker) are robot-nabbed by a clink of SERVO Robotov soldiers but, as with any Who opening, why? While we don’t initially know, it’s very much a classic Doctor Who opening, full of normality before quickly falling into chaos as our lead characters are transported through a wormhole to a distant galaxy somewhere unknown in the cosmos by some new antagonists and it’s not long before they’re entangled in a war between humans and the deadly, snake-like Skishtari.
With Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor leading the way, and this set limited to 1200 copies, it comes as a 10 x 140g alternating black and green vinyl LPs and each set of two records is also a two-part story. Kicking off with Tsar Wars, this initial setup of narrative isn’t exactly as it first seems, with the SERVO Robots clearly doing another job for possible human masters. This is suggested upon delivering The Doctor to person’s first unknown, because the woman in charge, named Tsarina (played by Suzy Aitchison), is calling our Doctor ‘Father Gregory’ instead and so it’s another ‘why’ thrown into the mix, which is also fascinating because who is he?
Gradually, we learn that we’re now in a colony of humanoid robots who’ve overthrown their creators and created their own empire but with the original humans threatening to overthrow their Robotov Tsars, this Tsarina has created Alex ( who is a cyborg infant and he’s extremely sick. Because of their need for a doctor, our Timelord is setup in the perfect place to find out more than he probably would have without the mistaken identity, and it’s also not long before we discover the reason over why he’s so ill, it’s because his heart isn’t one at all, it’s actually a seriously dangerous Skishtari Egg – which contains a world-swallowing creature who might be close to hatching.
“The Doctor oftens turns up at more or less the right moment.”
Whilst in this new world, everyone plays it straight and serious and with that level of commitment, in a cyborg/human Sci-fi sense, the smart scripting works and keeps the reveals intriguing. Our Fourth Doctor is that usual clever balance of incisive and quick-witted, under the breath, and Tom Baker gives his expected brilliance to everything in the questioning and idea sharing. As with the previous Nest Cottage outings, Susan Jameson’s Wibbsey is that equal measure of nosey but also on the money quite often. She could come across as a bit badgering, and she does come dangerously close to blowing their early cover (so much so I literally shouted ‘Quiet, Wibbsey!’ in a faux Tom Baker voice), but her overall insight and knowledge of the world after her experienced travels with the Doctor mean she’s often correct with her instinct.
In these early days, we get a few hints and suggestions from various conversations including the words ‘serpent’ and the odd ‘human scum’ – which obviously sounds familiar – and this whole narrative is packed with little titbits of information, and even the emergence of a Skishtari Mothership… who might just want their egg back. The only downside to this story is Tom Baker’s Father Gregory distraction, as the alternate/confused character setup. His accent works for the purpose but leans on the ‘Allo ‘Allo a little and is forgivable, as the character is a necessity and not beyond the purpose, for which we’re all thankful.
By the end of Parts 1 and 2, there’s plenty here to setup what’s on the way – and a bit finale of time statues, wormholes, portal generation and some absolutely beautiful BBC Radiophonic Workshop sound effects travelling through (and lost in) space and time, with additional sound design from Simon Hunt and Neil Gardner, which throughout the story brings that life to the story – perfectly.
“Galumph. I don’t galumph!”
After the big opener, there’s a further four stories that flesh out both the individual adventures and the over-arching story, and over time featuring the voice talents of the likes of David Troughton, Michael Jayston, Simon Shepherd, Terrence Hardiman, Joanna David, Sophie Ward, Andrew Sachs (as an awesome Scarf come-to-life), Nerys Hughes, and the returning Richard Franklin.
I particularly enjoyed the second story, The Broken Crown, which revolves around an orphan named Andrew, who lives in a censored and enclosed world, who’s near books but never allowed to read them if they’re too exciting and he’s wishing for an escape from the ordinary.
His day-to-day is under the heavy eyes of Mrs Audley, who won’t even allow his imagination to be free, with Mr Bewley being a counteract to that and a little less strict. But he’s not just some poor kid at home, although he does stare out of the window to people watch, because he also appears to where a brown paper bag on his head, and on that bag draws a new face each time he gets a new one to wear because, for reasons initially unknown, he’s not allowed to show his real face to the outside world.
And then, of course, there’s the Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey, who after escaping the end of Tsar Wars at the very last second, head home to have a rest and try to re-find normality. Although they do make it ‘home’ to Hexford, they’re a little early (in time) because it’s actually 1861. Keep an ear out for some lovely foreshadowing regarding the name of the local pub, plus general comments on changing society and how women were treated/considered not even that long ago – thankfully, time itself has changed since then.
But this boy? He’s got a favourite precious thing that only he and his friends are aware about, and alongside stories of people being eaten or disappearing, makes the Doctor very curious until he discovers that Andrew actually has something he shouldn’t – a Skishtari Egg! Maybe this is why the child is locked up? To either hide him or to keep them away from the villagers? Well, you’ll have to discover for yourself but with the TARDIS in the future, the Doctor isn’t as powerful as he might be and it’s also not long before he’s captured by the reality of what the Egg does, and the literal appearance of a dragon!
As with sagas, all these big moments only lead up to the third story: Aladdin Time – and I love a play on words. And that title is subtle enough. So, with a dragon unleashed, and hell ensued, Andrew, the Doctor and Wibbsey are actually pulled inside the egg and the world of Arabian Nights. This story is a re-telling of that classic story but wasn’t really my favourite and does tend to drag a little in places.
While it’s essentially a storyteller telling you what happen, it’s down to the Doctor and Wibbsey to help them realise what’s going on, as well as finding their own way out after being trapped inside a story, and the main thing keeping it ticking over is Tom Baker. It’s a nice idea, but it’s a bit lingering and knowing I had two stories ahead, just wanted to get through this one and onto those – and thankfully the fourth story, The Hexford Invasion, brings it all back down to Earth and onto a more in-depth vision.
In The Hexford Invasion, Wibbsey is back at modern day Nest Cottage, watching a woman named Tish Madoc, who she doesn’t like and she’s suspicious of her behaviour. Beneath the cottage is the Skishtari Egg, where they buried it in the past, and the Doctor isn’t seen for some time – and life almost seems to return to normal until… Mike Yates returns, with UNIT in tow and him in Uniform but also one more thing… the Second Doctor (voiced by David Troughton)?! It seems so…
Much of this tale runs between the Second Doctor, Mike Yates trying to keep the village in check and UNIT’s suspicions of mysterious space signals in and around the village itself. And then there’s Private Investigator Wibbsey keeping the narrative ticking over, as she’s not convinced the Second Doctor is exactly who he says, or thinks, he is. You discover with her that he’s up to something in the woods, and it’s not until the TARDIS sound kicks in and the Fourth Doctor arrives after some time away to start raising the right questions, and ask the question: Who’s been sleeping in my bed?
With memories erased, removed and distant, the Fourth Doctor can’t completely dismiss the existence of Doctor Two in this situation but there’s a slow build of a WandaVision-type situation, and there are also strange dark saplings being planted around the village in the faint light of the moon. Then, before it can even slightly stopped, the sky is on fire and Hexford itself is being literally dragged out of the Earth and has left its terrestrial moorings, through a wormhole and into another dimension… this is huge, ambitious storytelling and it really works as a spectacle especially because this time? The Doctor can’t save what he’s trying to, and he’s failed at the task – an unexpected twist but also deeply welcome as a cliff-hanger.
“One final chase, across time and space!”
And then, here we are with parts one and two of Survivors in Space, the final story within the Doctor Who: Serpent Crest saga! Arriving with a welcome recap of everything, as there’s a lot to resolve, we’re reminded that after the impressive Skishtari spaceship failed to find their Gene Egg and thrown Hexford into a random galaxy, and now we join the villagers a few months later surviving on rations, led by Captain Mike Yates and the still curious Second Doctor character.
But now, with the Robotovs’ guards on the way, and the Skishtari still after their vital Egg for their existence, it’s the TARDIS which helps to track down the spot in the Universe that Hexford has ended up in… and with it, of course, the Doctor and Mrs Wibbsey to offer the survivors some hope. But there’s one little thing happening and still an issue – that literal-world-breaking Skishtari Egg which should never fall into the wrong hands or be dropped… might be about to hatch.
“Your thinking is nearly as woolly as your scarf!”
The key element to this episode isn’t just the conclusion of everything so far, but we’re still lingering between the reality behind Doctor Two, and Tom Baker’s Doctor, and wanting to discover what the heck is actually going on. This definitely comes to a head, and a highly amusing scuffle between the pair, with two egos finding for supremacy – who’ll come out on top, and how are they both here but neither really remembering the moment in time? Truth shall unravel.
No heavy spoilers but one of our two Doctor’s has a few other things going on, whether they know about it or not will also be shared. The episode also contains wonderfully descriptive Skishtari visual setups, it gives a proper sense of menace and uncontrollable fear from the power they possess, you end up feeling that essence of grandeur in the realms of Smaug smothered in all his gold.
And, completely thankfully and welcomingly, the wider Doctor Who: Serpent Crest story we’re promised throughout completely reveals and uncoils from a very satisfying build. Paul Magrs script offers a logical conclusion from where we’ve been, and there’s a welcome turn in the situation – and no spoilers – for you to enjoy the connections. It’s bloody, it’s unwieldy, but it’s necessary and brings down the final curtain on an enjoyable huge trilogy that not only celebrates the world of Doctor Who itself, but the unique excellence of Tom Baker – and how he can bring to life any level of story – and how Magrs can successfully weave a story from start to finish. Produced and Directed by Kate Thomas, it’s also littered with Doctor Who Easter Eggs from the lore, and I love that side of the world they create, and how people involved before always want to be involved again.
As a quick and deserved extra note, once again the artwork here is stunningly and stylishly accompanying the boxset. As well as the weight of the set, it comes with a die-cut, removable outer sleeve that when removed shows a Skishtari-infested box lid. Inside the box, with your 10 green and black vinyl LPs, there are 10 unique exquisitely illustrated LP sleeves that all feature cast and credits for each of the five stories. Like the previous releases, you also get a 16-page full-colour booklet with Doctor’s unique notes and illustrations, with SPOILERS of course, as they’re presented as being created during these five adventures – not forgetting your hand-signed Tom Baker Fourth Doctor print!