However, The Fourth Wall, his first full story for the main range, happened to come out around the same time as a little spurt of work from him that wound up in my CD player, including a very good Lost Story for the fifth Doctor, a very good Lost Story for the forth Doctor and a decent in flawed historical for the Fourth Doctor Adventures. Anyone who posts on Gallifrey Base will have run across him in the audio sub forum as well, his posts, though not always ones I agree with, show someone who is clearly overflowing for enthusiasm for his work, and that clearly shows in most of his output. And unlike the otherwise usually equally excellent Morris he's much stronger at “Real” sounding characters, meaning Flip stood a much better chance of not being a one dimensional cipher this time round.
Past that though, and there's something very interesting on the inside. Not a perfect story, and, perhaps surprisingly considering the, ahem, off the wall subject matter, one with ideas and themes other Doctor Who stories have done better, but still an extremely solid, fun production.
The basic idea around which this play was based was actually first done in Who all the way back in the '60's on TV in The Mind Robber (the one with the great cliffhanger of a lingering close up of Zoe's catsuit clad arse), fictional characters come to life. Though the most obvious precedent in Big Finish terms in The Holy Terror, in which what turns out to be a false world has a lead villain acting in an evil way because that's what he was created for and revelling in it. Those are two of my personal favourite Who stories in any medium, so The Fourth Wall was unlikely to ever equal them, but in moments it comes close.
The Doctor and Flip are alerted to something strange going on by a fault in the space time visualiser (the space TV from The Chase) which leads them to the planet Transmission, owned by media tycoon Augustus Scullop, who is about to unveil his amazing new holodeck style Reel Life technology that's been used to make the TV show Laser. Thanks to technobabble Flip is sucked out of the Tardis and into the program where she interacts with the heroic Jack Laser, his wet as a leaky tap sidekick Jancey and the Evil Lord Krarn.
The Doctor meanwhile sneaks into the PR suit of all the guests invited along and gets to interact with the various lead actors and the useless wannabe evil aliens the pig like Porcions who play Krarn's Warmonger grunts in the show. Realising Flip is in real danger whilst in the show the Doctor attempts to get her out but is thwarted after being knocked out by the Porcions. When he comes to a vital component of the machinery is missing, and Flip, who thinks she's caught up in some sort of bizarre role-playing game, is shot and killed after giving Krarn lip. And worse than that, thanks to whoever has performed the sabotage the characters from the episode can now escape out into the real world.
This first half is the weakest part of the play, mainly because the Laser set scenes are a rather weak spoof of Doctor Who itself, often in a nonsensical way (there are people who could actually film on a desolate alien planet, so why is the ravished future Earth setting represented by a quarry?). We're also clearly supposed to find Jancey, as the clichéd screaming style companion, an amusing contrast to Flip. Except Flip herself is very much a one dimensional cliché at this point (she starts the story wanting excitement like she just had with the Daleks. That's the Daleks who killed all her work friends) so the joke doesn't work. It's just two ciphers being equally as annoying as one another.
There is something cleverer going on here with an analogy of the current attempts to prop up the film industry with 3D, but if nothing else something like Avatar looks amazing so the cheap as chips stuff on display in Laser does feel like a flawed metaphor.
Out in the real world, it initially looks as if we're going to get a lot of actor jokes (hey look, the guy who plays the hero is really a coward!). Thankfully this doesn't last much more than a scene as only people in the industry think jokes about the industry are especially funny. What's actually nice is that there's real effort put into making the actors, bar the one who plays Laser, feel like real people in contrast to their characters. With props especially going to Tilly Gaunt who manages to sound completely different as actress Olivia than she does as Jancey. Something that's especially impressive when the two are sharing scenes in the second half of the play.
Things really pick up with Flip's death. Not because of my apathy towards the character, but because it's where the play really kicks up a gear. Strangely enough the brief time between her first being shot and being finished off is also where she feels like a real person for the first time, no glibness or stupidity, just straightforward relatable terror. The fact this isn't quite the cliffhanger is a smart move as well, if the music had crashed in I'd have been expecting an instant fix at the start of part 3, there being a bit more to go means it actually feels like it might be permanent (Flip had been advertised as being in the next adventure, but this is hardly the first time Big Finish have pulled a double bluff over advanced information).
To balance the comedy, the second half of the play sees things continue to get extremely dark and violent. In a way that would make Eric Saward go “Ohhh, that's a bit dark and violent”. Despite virtually all of the supporting cast being killed off it's not gratuitous though, there's a nice understated point being made about how the camp OTT villains we love to hate would actually be complete monsters in a real world setting, it's hard not to see traces of The Master (who we're usually meant to see as a lovable scamp despite the fact he's the biggest mass murderer in the program's history) in Krarn.
Once out in the real world Krarn and his Warmongers go on a killing spree, with the former confronting his creator Scullop (who it turns out is responsible for the disaster, the Porcions only knocked the Doctor out as part of an espionage mission for his competitors) in the single best scene of the play. Realising he's evil because he's written that way Krarn decides to embrace it, and uses the Reel Life machine's abilities to replay and alter the plot multiple time starts to bring double of himself out of the episode to begin spreading out amongst the Universe.
The Doctor however, is able to use this same technique against him, using Krarn actor Matthew as a distraction he goes into the show himself and adds a new scene where he arrives with a device that will effectively reverse the whole problem. At this point the astute listener will have worked out how Flip will be coming back, and indeed the Doctor adds a brief coda that Krarn's gun isn't actually lethal after all. Though it could be argued that both this things are a cheap cop out, it actually works perfectly well within the context of only being made possible within the context of a badly written TV show.
And though Flip is back, there's no cheating on the other deaths (all of which happened outside the program and are therefore outside the Doctor's ability to fix), and even the “good” fictional characters are wiped out along with the Krarns.
What's really surprising is how nice it is to see Flip again at the end. It's still slightly worrying that her character has been improved immensely by her absence for most of the play, but that one moment of real humanity as she died has done wonders for her. Lets hope next month continues this trend to really solidify her character.
There's only one major niggle for me in how the play ends, and that's the Doctor's dismissive attitude towards the fictional characters. The same Doctor's attitude in the aforementioned Holy Terror where a large part of the point of the story is teaching Frobisher that if these constructs think they're real then to all intents and purposes they are and misusing them is wrong. You have to wonder if he'd been so keen if Laser had been a better written more likeable part.
Other than that, just two minor “Wouldn't it have been nice” thoughts. First, whilst the Porcions are mostly good fun (even if the resemblance to pigs thing is a tad overplayed), the idea that the characters they played in Laser are basically exactly the sort of super hard space bastards they want to be isn't really developed, there could well have been some comedy/pathos in the scenes where they're face to face with the brought to life Warmongers.
And secondly, considering he's an actor with a good range who has played some major roles in Big Finish plays, wouldn't it have been wonderfully meta if Dorney himself had played Scullop, confronted by his own creation demanding to know why he's so one dimensional?
Despite taking some time to get going The Fourth Wall manages to end up extremely enjoyable, and though other stories may have explored these ideas more thoroughly it's still well thought out, has some good gags, great acting (Colin Baker is, as ever, on top form) and manages to begin to rehabilitate Flip. An extremely strong main range début from one of the companies stalwarts.
Four Space Time Visualisers Out of Five.
[You'll never know how hard it was not to go for a big screen grab of Zoe's arse from The Mind Robber instead of rather meh cover]