on 21 December 2010
Like its predecessor, Hornets' Nest, the Demon Quest sequence (Relice of Time, 3/5; Demon of Paris, 3/5; Shard of Ice, 5/5; Starfall, 3/5; Sepulchre, 3/5) is a rummy old thing: beautifully packaged, with stunning cover artwork; gorgeous, immersive sound design; and a trump card in the return of Sir Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor (a feat even the estimable Big Finish hasn't yet wangled). Even the price - some used models were hovering around the three-guinea mark at the time of writing - is right. So what's not to like?
Well, it's like this... the plot, narrative, story-arc, call it what you will, is slender to the point of non-existence, and it makes the six-hour journey (12 if you pop Hornet's Nest on the mp3-player) somewhat unsatisfactory upon arrival at your ultimate destination.
Now, that's not to say it isn't fun getting there, because it is: Baker is in larky mode, the fourth Doctor no longer the implacable, alien odd-bod of old but an avuncular (lustier?) force of nature, a character mapped somewhat on to the actor's current public persona (they have, finally, become each other), and there is fine support from Susan Jameson as Mrs Wibbsey (a figure seemingly plucked from Baker's relentless imagination by author Paul Magrs) and Richard Franklin as Mike Yates (no, we don't know what Yates is doing here, either, but Franklin provides sterling support all the same).
Pleasingly, it's almost impossible to place within standard Who lore, and seems to exist in a little fun bubble of its own, where, perhaps, the fourth Doctor didn't fall to his doom from the Pharos Project radio telescope, but instead discovered the attractions of women (let's put it like that; cf, City of Death) and a spot of sherry, and bought a nice little cottage in Sussex where it's nearly-always Christmas. That world is wonderfully realised, and is a pleasure to visit, Magrs recasting Who as a freewheeling, time-travelling romp somewhere between the comic-strip adventures of the Seventies and Eighties and the Douglas Adams era, though without the insistent nudge-nudge `humour' of the latter. The author here has a reputation for good-natured shakings up of the show's established order (see "Verdigris", and anything featuring Iris Wildthyme), but he never quite goes over the top.
No, there's no problem with the set-up here, and the tone is perfect and consistent; it's just that too little happens... or rather, plenty happens, in many colourful times and places, but it doesn't amount to much. The quest structure supplies a sort of imperative, but crises seem to get resolved perhaps a bit too conveniently, even for a goose-chase of this sort. This might be missing the point, of course: it's in the journey, not the conclusion, that the real adventure lies (the Doctor would surely agree), and the medium is the message, or something. After all, we do get to revel for hours in Magrs' ripe language, and no one enjoys it more than the lead; Baker even makes the end credits sound fun. Audio imbibers won't lack for sheer sensation, distraction and delight on the commute; that has something of the show's original ambition about it, and on its own terms is refreshing.
It's perhaps for these reasons that episode three, Shard of Ice - a story about the telling of stories - is the most satisfactory entry, thrilling to the narrator's last utterance. And these tales do stand alone (sort of), so if you're plumping for one, plump there; you won't, of course: the packaging, if nothing else, makes all five irresistibly collectible, even in these straitened times.
Yarns, then, knitted up into a long, multi-coloured and eccentric trail... remind you of anyone? Grab your scarf and hat then, and come along; just don't say you weren't told ....