Saturday 15 October 2011

Who Review: Tsar Wars by Paul Magrs

Tsar Wars is the first instalment in Serpent Crest, the third series of BBC/Tom Baker/Paul Magrs audio Doctor Who. The first run, Hornets' Nest, went for an unusual style, somewhere between a narrated audiobook and a Big Finish-styled audio drama. It was an approach that took some getting used to, but was ultimately successful, primarily because Magrs's lyrical prose so suits Baker's distinctive voice and eccentric performance. Demon Quest followed a similar route, but Tsar Wars takes a more traditional tack and opts for a full-cast audio play. It makes for an easier listening experience, but does rob the story of much of the uniqueness of previous episodes.

Fortunately, Magrs's trademark whimsy is still present and correct. The story is based on a series of dreadful puns - the Tsar Wars are fought by the Robotov Empire, a galactic imperium ruled by androids who have overthrown their human masters. It's more of a standard sci-fi setting than the walking, stuffed badgers of Hornets' Nest, but it's early days - there's plenty of time for further absurdity in later instalments. Really, the pseudo-Tsarist trappings are an excuse for Tom Baker, and guest star Michael Jayston, to essentially reprise their roles from Nicholas and Alexandra. While Jayston - already a major figure in Who, thanks to his role as the Valeyard - plays the Robotov Tsar, Baker plays not only the Doctor but also Father Gregory, basically space Rasputin. To me, Baker's return to the role of the Doctor has previously sounded more like a channelling of his own eccentric self. A peculiar old man living in a Sussex cottage who used to play an alien Time Lord, and now returning to be play a peculiar old man living in a Sussex cottage who happens to be an alien Time Lord. Here, he sounds somewhat more like the Doctor, but still an older, more avuncular, less abrasive version (not unlike Peter Davison more seasoned performances in his audio plays). He's completely different as Father Gregory, the only human trusted by the Robotov aristocracy, hamming it up magnificently and evidently having a wonderful time.

Susan Jameson shines as Mrs Wibbsey, the Doctor's housekeeper/companion. She provides a flash of normality and a sensible point of view in a barmy universe. She and the Doctor have a friendship that sounds wonderfully genuine. The supporting cast all do their jobs perfectly well, but this production belongs to Baker, Jameson and Jayston. The story skips along nicely, and while it's odd that Wibbs and the Doctor are pulled to the Robotov sector through a wormhole - what's wrong with the TARDIS, eh? - it does leave them at the mercy of the human-robot conflict. It all sounds marvellous, with straightforward and subtle sound design effectively complementing the vocal work. Baker and Jayston have two of the most gorgeous voices in the acting world, and I could listen to them for hours. Tsar Wars is a comfortably gripping way to spend seventy minutes, with just enough of the mystery of the Serpent's Crest to encourage listening on for the remaining episodes.

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