Knowledge Is Power (A review of the Big Finish Doctor Who  audio play The Renaissance Man )

Posted: February 9, 2012 by Brian in Audio Review, Doctor Who
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In January, Big Finish Productions kicked off its long-awaited series of Fourth Doctor Adventures with Destination: Nerva, a flawed but listenable audio drama that overcame its shortcomings through the novelty and excitement of hearing Tom Baker and Louise Jameson back in the Doctor Who saddle.

In light of that admittedly underwhelming debut, I feared its follow-up would suffer a “sophomore slump” and be truly awful. Now I have heard February’s offering, the newly-released The Renaissance Man by veteran Doctor Who novelist and audio scriptwriter Justin Richards, and I’m pleased to say my fears have been laid definitively to rest.

Or, to put it another way: Ahh, that’s more like it.

Richards’ script is, far and away, the most noticeable improvement over its predecessor. Where Destination: Nerva was at its core an unremarkable runaround with a purely physical threat, The Renaissance Man is a much more quintessentially Doctor Who kind of story, with an intellectual but accessable premise and a threat whose nature requires the Doctor to be the Doctor—clever and creative, defeating a credible menace with his knowledge and intelligence.

It begins in a truly classic Doctor Who manner: Still seeking to educate his bright but primitive companion Leela, the Doctor attempts to visit the famous Morovanian Museum on Morovania Minor. But the TARDIS appears to land instead on the grounds of a pleasant English country manor. I say “appears” because once the Doctor and Leela meet the lord of the manor, Reginald Harcourt, and his various relatives, servants, and visitors, it quickly becomes apparent that everything (as usual) is probably not as it seems, especially when the Doctor gets a look at Harcourt’s impressive “collection.” Collection of what, you may ask?

Well, you’ll have to listen to find out.

In addition to a properly intelligent story and a villain whose nature makes an appropriate foil for the Doctor, Richard’s script for The Renaissance Man is sharply witty. The dialogue captures perfectly the personalities of the Fourth Doctor and Leela—they get plenty of good lines to sink their actorly teeth into, lines that not only make the audio captivating to listen to, but that also sound absolutely right coming out of the mouths of Baker and Jameson.

Ian McNeice—now a Doctor Who veteran after his recurring role as Winston Churchill in the Matt Smith seasons of the new series—does a fine job as the main baddie Harcourt. He has one of those rich, interesting voices that is a joy to listen to in and of itself, so when he and Tom get to their verbal sparring… well, that, my friends, is what an audio drama is for, in my not-so-humble opinion.

The rest of the supporting cast can best be described as serviceable but innocuous, although Laura Molyneux’s double turn as Beryl and the lepidopterist Professor Lutterthwaite is effective and worth mentioning.

Oh, The Renaissance Man isn’t without its flaws. On a couple of occasions, Richards tries to hard to play up Leela’s primitiveness with jarring results—her repeated inability to pronounce “renaissance” as anything other than “runny science”, for instance, rings false given how intelligent and teachable she seems otherwise, especially when it happens towards the end of the drama. Speaking of the end, this audio’s climax gets a bit sloppy. In light of the high-quality stuff that comes before, hearing the concept and plot collapse under their own weight a bit towards the end is a tad disappointing.

But only a tad. Overall, The Renaissance Man delivers quality performances in service of a (mostly) fantastic script that, finally, really and truly feels like proper Doctor Who, especially Doctor Who featuring the Fourth Doctor. With this second Fourth Doctor release, it truly is “Saturday night tea-time in 1977 all over again” (in the promotional words of Tom Baker) in a way it just wasn’t quite in Destination: Nerva.

At last, the Doctor is well and truly back.

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