The early days of Big Finish’s Doctor Who range still vibrate with innovation and excitement even all these years later. Relics from a time before things settled down into a polished, professional operation with a large, regular company of actors to draw from, there’s a powerful sense here of true fanatics who can’t quite believe their luck that they’re getting to play in this universe. Whom are keenly aware that it might not last and so fire off all their best ideas into it. This extends as well to the guest cast, with big names grabbing with both hands what might have been their only chance to be in Doctor Who, when the announcement of its TV revival was still three years away. Where Spectre of Lanyon Moor's contemporary Phantasmagoria boasted Mark Gatiss and David Walliams, here James Bolam (JAMES BOLAM!) adds a touch of real class to proceedings and proves a great foil for Maggie Stables’ Evelyn in a series of verbal sparring matches between her and his Sir Archibald. There may never be any better putdown of a Doctor Who villain in mid monomaniacal monologue about ‘the little people’ and the divine right to rule than “Don’t let’s get above ourselves, old chum; you’re only a baronet you know.”
Written By: Nicholas Pegg
Directed By: Nicholas Pegg
Colin Baker (The Doctor), Maggie Stables (Evelyn Smythe), Nicholas Courtney (The Brigadier), Susan Jameson (Mrs Moynihan), Barnaby Edwards (Philip Ludgate/Scryfan), Toby Longworth (Professor Morgan/Sancreda/UNIT Sentry), James Bolam (Sir Archibald Flint), Helen Goldwyn (Nikki Hunter/Pelagia Stamatis/Corporal Croft), Nicholas Pegg (Captain Ashforde)
Cover by Clayton Hickman
Originally released: June 2000
Fantastically conceived by Nicholas Pegg (a man who perhaps doesn’t get his full due credit for all he’s contributed to Doctor Who in various ways down the years) Spectre of Lanyon Moor is, to an extent, a mash up of Terror of the Zygons, The Curse of Fenric and The Daemons. In its Cornish setting, there’s a corner of Britain possessed of a desolate beauty and a wealth of local myths and legend, while an archaeological investigation of an ancient structure, a legendary being of vast supernatural power which turns out to be an alien and a local lord who’s openly friendly but undoubtedly shady add to the sense of a greatest hits collection of, oddly enough, entirely the wrong era for Colin Baker’s Doctor to wander into.But it’s hard to complain about that.
Not only because this story is from the days long, long before Big Finish ensnared Tom Baker into its den of fabulous lunches, but because it gives an opportunity for the Sixth Doctor to finally adventure alongside the Brigadier. For the first episode and a half or so I had a rising fear that this was going to be a missed opportunity, with the semi-retired Brigadier simply used to ease the Doctor’s entry into the story and vouch for him with the other characters. Thankfully, as the story proceeds he moves beyond being a moustachioed Psychic Paper and instead this proves to be one of the Brig’s strongest, most heroic personal contributions to the action. In addition, it’s lovely, especially since his death, to hear Nicholas Courtney in such sparkling form. Courtney’s performance, as it often was, is a work of subtle genius – a tightrope rope between projecting unflappable decency that grounds the outrageousness around him and a twinkle in the voice to show he’s in on the joke.
UNIT are back too, in a small way, though low level UNIT troops seem as adorably incompetent as ever. With the name and description of a villain possessing a planet destroying device that must be kept apart from the ancient site at all costs distributed, one sentry still just ‘ums’ and ‘aws’ as said villain shows up, describes her disdain for lesser mortals and plans to revenge herself on them all, very slowly takes out her alien technology from her handbag and kills him.
The creature at the heart of the mystery is presented as an alien twist on the old idea that faeries are maybe a great deal more malignant than advertised in children’s books. Short but superhumanly strong, and given to cackling madly while messily and noisily tearing people limb from limb despite constant boasting about civilized and advanced his species are, Sancreda is a monster in the true sense. Doctor Who often treats villains and alien species as having a point of view, no matter how destructive their actions – even the first Dalek story circled the issue of whether the Daleks were actually evil or just driven by paranoia and fear of the previously war like Thals. But Sancreda is an out and out gibberingly sadistic maniac, if one driven mad by millennia of imprisonment. This leads to some nastily violent scenes but also helps sell the level of threat involved.It’s also a great showcase for Toby Longworth, who plays both the harsh voiced alien maniac, pompous old duffer Professor Morgan, and the aforementioned UNIT sentry, a fact which astonished me when I saw the cast list after. His ability to make all three totally distinct with such seemingly effortless ease is extraordinary. Elsewhere in the cast future Mrs. Wibbsey Susan Jameson is to be found as housekeeper Mrs. Monyhian, a kind of twised mirror of her later, more famous Doctor Who role.
The only possible criticism here is that the story unfolds in rather predictable fashion, with every strand evolving and climaxing pretty much exactly as you’d expect. However, that simply adds to the sense of being enveloped in a lovely, warm blanket of cosy familiarity. And, perhaps as a result of since seeing how the revived series handles such things, it would perhaps have been nice to see Evelyn still in a phase of learning the ropes or TARDIS travel. Instead there’s the sense of a number of adventures having being skipped over, with the unreliability of the TARDIS to get where its supposed to be going already a running joke between the Doctor and Evelyn.
As a rare opportunity to hear Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier swing into action once again, and as a fine homage to the Hinchcliffe Era of Doctor Who, The Spectre of Lanyon Moor is a must on any short list of early Big Finish plays for people to explore and discover.
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