What’s it about: The legend dates back to Roman times, at least: a great White Worm, as wide as a man, slithers out of the rocks of the Dark Peak Gap to take animals, sometimes even children, for its food. When the Doctor and Leela arrive in the wilds of Derbyshire, only to get caught up in the hunt for a missing girl, they soon discover that the legend of the Worm is very much alive – even now, in 1979. Worse still, it seems that the Doctor isn't the only renegade Time Lord on the trail of this deadly and mysterious Worm…
Teeth and Curls: ‘What have you got to worry about? I’m not the one with the bullet proof hide!’ From his experience England in summertime means rain and plenty of it and you should never step a foot on English soil without a good pair of Gum Boots! When Leela suggests that the Doctor might be slowing because he is tired he tells her that because of his two hearts he could outrun her if he wanted to! It worries him that his young friend against a chieftain tank is far from fair! When he reaches Spindleton’s house he declares in a loud voice ‘anyone at home? Anyone seen a savage?’ I have heard it commented that during his televisual reign Tom Baker alone could be held responsible for propping up some stories with his charismatic performances and the first episode of Trail of the White Worm was so slight I can only suggest he is doing the same thing on audio. He’s never been eaten by a quasi organic alien entity before (but he certainly would be again – The One Doctor!) and he is delighted to have finally experienced it! The Doctor doesn’t like moral blackmail and refuses to be forced into helping the worm against his will. He’d rather be digested! Eccentric’s one thing…bohemians quite another!
Noble Savage: There’s nothing to Leela here that hasn’t been done better elsewhere this season. She dashes about a bit in full on huntress mode, she makes some fatuous comments about the Doctor, she taunts the villain. Very much average fare for our favourite savage.
Scabby One: ‘I’m not here to exchange beauty tips…’ Astonishingly the Master barely appears in this story! It’s billed as his massive return but he is merely skulking about in rural England and mucking about with alien worms (one of his drearier plans if I’m honest). There’s no great fanfare for his return (he doesn’t even get a cliffhanger reveal which should have been a given in these nostalgic circumstances), the Doctor exhibits no surprise at his reveal and seems to shrug off any danger his presence on his favourite planet might involve and Leela tosses insults at him like he is a tupenny villain. Its such an underwhelming return that he’s not even given much air time! Lets hope for something a bit more substantial in The Oseiden Adventure. Compared to his phenomenal turn in Joe Lidster’s Master Geoffrey Beevers is given nothing in White Worm to get his teeth into. It feels as though his presence in the tale is supposed to be enough to get fans excited and give this one a pass. Not this fan. I’ve never been the biggest fan of the character anyway (loved Delgado but found him overused, Pratt was a phenomenal one off, Beevers wasn’t around long enough to make an impact, Ainley became the butt of the Davison’s eras joke and only gained any credibility in the shows declining final few years, Eric Roberts epitomised camp wrongdoing and Simm was so detached from what we recognised as the character he may have been a completely new villain) and have always loathed the pantomimic extremes that writers seem to indulge through his insane schemes. It takes something pretty special to impress me where the Master is concerned (embracing Bond villainy in The Mind of Evil or satanic worship in The Daemons, his savagery in Survival and his psychotic politicking in The Sound of Drums) and White Worm failed on that score. His plan is to create a wormhole to allow his alien allies to come through and claim the Earth…is that all? I remember the days when the Master set his sights on destroying the entire universe (or should that be would go on to set his sights on destroying the entire universe considering Logopolis is in the Doctor’s future?) and even succeed in blotting out half of it! Surely a Time Lord could knock up a wormhole in a heartbeat rather than have to concoct a plan involving a 2000 year old worm? Plus doesn’t it rather denigrate the Master’s return when his re-appearance is upstaged by his allies?
Standout Performance: Its always fun to listen to Michael Cochrane because he is one of those actors that throws himself wholeheartedly into every role he plays. Black Orchid and Ghost Light were certainly enriched by his presence (‘Smutty!’) and he made a chilling psychopath in the middle of the road but occasionally scary Big Finish play No Man’s Land. He always seems to be cast in the role of the gentry (in these three stories he plays a Lord, an explorer and a Lieutenant-Colonel) and here he is afforded the chance to play truly quirky upper class twit with Cochrane absolutely revels in. Colonel Spindleton is the sort of indulgent nut job that would see a savage woman prowling around his grounds and take the opportunity to have some target practice! There is a wonderful rant in episode two that is supposed to be justification for Spindleton’s bizarre union with the Master and his pet worm (‘He knows lots of chaps like me who’s had enough! Who want to raise Great Britain off its knees!’). Much like the rest of the story it fails to make any sense and comes out of nowhere (there is literally nothing before this to back up this insane political rant) but Cochrane is such a fine actor he almost manages to pull it off!
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Never mind your bloody tower!’ – a great line from Leela that had me chuckling minutes in!
‘Why what do you think is inside my stomach? Julie?’ – the Doctor is in a particularly facetious mood these days!
Dreadful Dialogue: ‘So worm! Your life story…bisected in space, fell to Earth, worshipped by Romans…’ – note to future writers, once you have failed to move the story on from the first couple of scenes don’t bullet point exposition in 30 seconds during the climax!
Great Ideas: When the Doctor and Leela step into mucus within seconds of leaving the TARDIS I thought this might be a retread of The Ark in Space when I realised they had already done that in Destination Nerva! I have to admit that I hadn’t realised that Demesne was he Worm but considering she wasn’t particularly well realised character to start with it was no great loss to the story. The worms original purpose was to dig tunnels through space time like wormholes, linking disconnected points in space time millions of centuries and billions of light years apart. There is some fun to be had with digestion humour in the second episode (‘Well it could be worse savage! We might have been processed and then…’ ‘Then what?’ ‘Then we wouldn’t have come out of the mouth parts!’).
Audio Landscape: Birdsong, flapping wings, crisp winds, Leela stepping in shite, dogs barking, running through bramble, talking through a megaphone, a tank growling into shot, bullets firing, the slavering worm, helicopter blades whipping up a storm, hissing, the creature swallowing sounds disturbingly like a plug hole draining, thunder cracking, rain sluicing,
Isn’t it Odd: A result of the shorter running time for these adventures has forced the writers to get to the point far quicker than they otherwise may have done (in the main range 50-100 period Big Finish was infamous for stretching a tale long beyond its ability to entertain with most adventures being two hours long plus!). Whilst dropping the audience straight into the heart of the story might seem like a good thing (and its certainly the work of contemporary storytelling) it’s a shame that none of these fourth Doctor adventures have afforded the Doctor and Leela some time to relax in each others company or to give the guest characters a chance to come to life at an u hurried pace. The opening episode of Image of the Fendhal is one of mounting tension and great character scenes and Cordo’s visit to the Collector at the beginning of The Sun Makers is essential in setting the story up. Had both stories simply opened with the Doctor and Leela being dumped in the middle of the action as they are here they would have lost something of their magic. If there is a second Doctor/Leela season I would certainly like to see slightly longer stories to give the narrative some time to breathe. I wouldn’t complain so much but the tag line for this series was ‘its 1977 all over again’ or something like that and transplanting your characters from that period into contemporary storytelling does rather seem to fight the tone you are hoping to adopt. When the Doctor declares that this is the work of a ‘something or other…’ I wondered if Alan Barnes knew what he was writing – we’ve been dumped into a story suddenly and then wander around in circles for 15 minutes! What is the point of having the Master arbitrarily turning up at the cliffhanger and not climaxing on the ‘I am the Master…’ line? Strangely the Doctor doesn’t seem to have any kind of reaction to the Master’s presence on the Earth as though he was expecting it all along. Then when we need to kick start the next story he suddenly reacts as though he is the greatest threat he has ever encountered. Calling in UNIT doesn’t seem quite the Doctor’s style at this stage of his fourth incarnation. I thought he was much cleverer than that. I’m not sure why the Kraals weren’t named as the Master’s allies at the end of this story when their ugly mugs are plastered over the cover for the next story (and the name of their planet is in the title!). Either its to maintain an air of mystery where there is none or because the writer is simply too embarrassed to suggest that the Master would team up with somebody as rubbish as the Kraals and wants to hold off as long as possible to admit it!
Notes: The stirring final few scenes of this story is where it finally wakes up and seems to suggest a big blockbusting UNIT adventure for the climax of the season. Let’s hope Barnes has pumped all the excitement that was missing here into that adventure! Take a listen to Becci Gemmell as Julie – she sounds just like Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller and makes me long for the days of the EDAs when these snappier sized adventures were knocking out crackers month in, month out.
Result: I take real issue with the first episode of Trail of the White Worm that consists of the audience being dropped into what appears to a chase sequence and then spends 20 minutes jogging on the spot only to lead to a cliffhanger that is spoiled on the cover. Its 25 minutes of the Doctor and Leela dashing about and all they manage to achieve is reaching the manor house where the actual story is going to take place – even the Doctor and Peri in season 22 got involved in the story with more speed than this! Its nicely performed but there is so little substance to it that a good sigh could blow it away. I don’t mean to be ingenuous to a range that is bringing together the Doctor, Leela and the Master but there seems to be little more to this adventure than that very purpose. The story that surrounds these three characters is just an excuse to have them all in the same vicinity rather than this being a narrative that had to be told. The Trail of the White Worm has all the elements of a traditional adventure; a country manor setting, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, the Master, a grotesque but misunderstood monster, an eccentric nutcase…but it brings nothing new to the mix that would have bound all these elements together and made it more than an exercise in nostalgia. It’s a brainless energetic run-around with a fantastic turn by Tom Baker (probably his best since The Renaissance Man) but ultimately there is no innovation or imagination to any of it. Its odd that seasoned Big Finish writers that have written amazing stories in the past (Alan Barnes was good enough to whip up Neverland, The Girl Who Never Was and Death in Blackpool which are three of my absolute favourites) are really faltering in this first fourth Doctor season. I was expecting something far more dramatic and considerable than this: 4/10