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“Great…I get to find out what it’s like to be Sleeping Beauty.”

The Sylvester McCoy Doctor and Ace are still lugging that weird alternate universe Hex from Afterlife along with them.  Being something of a street thug and hustler along similar lines to erstwhile Colin Baker “companion” Thomas Brewster, he decides to take advantage of their temporary absence to reprogram the Tardis for new coordinates.

But he later claims ignorance of the deed, or how exactly to do such…

How did the Doctor and Ace wind up trapped amidst a futuristic analogue of the internet?

What is the source of the strange Saturnian plague infecting Ace?

And what does all this have to do with The Invisible Enemy?

“Oh, my…there’s no way.  I looked through the microscope at the nucleus…and it looked back!”

It’s always a real pleasure to hear Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred reprising their late 80’s double act.

Moreso than most Doctor/companion relationships, there was an obvious affection and strong paternal dynamic in play throughout their all too brief televised run together – Pertwee with Jo Grant and the post-hiatus Colin Baker and Peri among the few bearing such a palpable connection both on and offscreen.

Even beyond crediting the man for saving her life*, Aldred and McCoy have always been quite open and voluble about their mutual respect and affections towards each other.

*For those who don’t know the oft repeated story, I highly recommend Aldred’s excellent semi-autobiography Ace.

With some work for Bill Baggs’ audio ventures as the nameless Time Travelers displaying much the same dynamic as their televised Who and bridging the gap between Survival and their return to the roles for Big Finish starting with 2000’s The Fearmonger, the two have retained an uncanny ability to revisit and reprise the same role and relations as they essayed a quarter century agone.  No mean feat, considering Aldred’s rather youthful age at the time!

“Emergency exit…E double G SIT.  Can’t anyone spell in the future?”
“I’m afraid orthographical standards have lapsed a little since your day.  It’s all phonetic now…I blame text messaging.”

With a similar claustrophobic atmosphere to the Troughton era The Moonbase, McCoy and Ace’s arrival on the plague stricken Titan Base is further marked by a Borg-esque assimilative/possessionlike alien invasion (of a sort).

“When I visited the Bi-Al Foundation again in the year 5000, it was a model of efficiency and dedicated to medicine, rather than genetic research.”
“They saw the error of their ways!”

Tag in some pertinent asides and thematic warnings against the dangers of genetic modification (whether in foodstuffs or in terms of a more direct biological intervention), stem cell research and cloning and the surrender of individuality and intelligence to technological shortcuts and “strides of progress”, and you have a Big Finish Who-worthy story that transcends its pulpish SF origins, working as both a gripping piece of character-driven drama and as a fairly pertinent warning against dangerous trends in modern society and the widespread misuse and impending long term consequences of technological “advances”.  It’s no linchpin episode, admittedly, but a damn good ride nonetheless.

“You’re not a naturally occuring organism, are you?  You are the product of genetic modification.”

While the “Nucleus of the Swarm” is hardly one of the most memorable of the Who rogues gallery, author Jonathan Morris manages to pull together a fairly cracking spacebound adventure despite Ace literally being put on ice for a reasonable portion thereof.  Philip Olivier delivers an appropriate touch of nasty behavior as the first victim cum aide of the baddie of the piece* and the guest cast does their level best as the scientific expedition sent to investigate and synthesize a cure for the virus.

* He later returns to more of a traditionally Hexlike behavioral paradigm, thanks to the intervention of The Doctor, albeit without the occasionally offputting highly moral sensibilities the original character was prone to.

In point of fact, while bits and bobs have been shuffled about, this is all rather familiar to Classic Whovians.  So closely do many of the particulars adhere to the overall template of The Moonbase, in fact, that I was fully expecting Aldred to start yelling about visions of “The Piper” coming to usher her off to an early demise…

“Ace will help you.”
“Oh, will I?  I was at death’s door ten minutes ago.”
“And you will be again, if you don’t secure that door!”

One thing that strikes the listener as odd is that this would appear to have been written as a two part story, artificially extended to a sort of a repetitious round robin of a second act.  There is a deliberate false cadence at the end of episode two that wraps things up so tidily that the entirety of episodes three and four appears wholly extraneous, as if the effort of a paid-by-the-word pulp author to drag things out well beyond the obvious conclusion, Varney the Vampire style.*

*This also allows Morris to shift source material from The Moonbase to the Fantastic Voyage inspired The Invisible Enemy, with the Doctor and company’s travels and travails amidst the “hypernet” substituting for Tom Baker and Leela’s microscopic travels through The Doctor’s body therein.

Whether this was in fact the case or no is open to debate, but seldom have we encountered such a conclusive ending, only to be thrust into an apparent full reboot starting the entire affair up all over again.  At the very least, it’s an odd literary choice, defying established convention in such a manner as to be positively head scratching for the listener.

Then again, this is the author responsible for 2003’s Flip-Flop, so this sort of unusual repetition of events isn’t entirely without precedent…

That aside, I refer the interested reader to the earlier part of this review and will in aggregate chalk this one up to the recommended column – odd structural concerns aside.