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“When this body is exhausted, I shall take others.  I shall endure until the skull of the last normal rests on a sea of viscera.”

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A search and rescue mission discovers their peers have come to a grim end.  A mining crewman finds himself sentenced to death for his drunken murder of a compatriot, though he insists he was framed.  The several time widowed Mrs. Blakemore (Jane Slavin) is having her portrait painted by fellow Decadent Menlove Erward Stokes (Michael Troughton), before she’s called off for execution…

When the Doctor and Romana arrive on the asteroid prison known as the Rock of Judgment, they find that things are hardly as straightforward as records might suggest.  Joining forces with Detective Inspector Frank Spiggot (Marcus Garvey), they discover that there are internal issues aplenty…

With an art gallery for the aficonados of the criminally insane run by catty rivals Stokes and Sy (James Joyce) and nervous breakdown recoveree warden Margo (Miranda Raison) finding herself strangely driven by homicidal impulses, there is more to this prison than one might expect. 

And with a murderous mutant long presumed deceased stalking its grim corridors, things are about to take a turn very much for the worse…

“Whereas I’ll…just sit here and quietly go insane, shall I?”

Enlivened mainly by the effete flightiness of the aforementioned ersatz artistes in residence, The Romance of Crime is a dark bit of business running along the lines of an 80’s sci-fi slasher film.  With its claustrophobic setting and body pulping antagonist skulking around the hallways, every exploitation film in the style from Alien and Saturn 3 to Forbidden World are obliquely referenced herein.  There’s even a prison “boss” holding court and a contingent of Ogrons to contend with…

Alternating between audial grue and the tropes of action/sci-fi horror entertainment (think anything from Aliens and Demolition Man to the Dolph Lundgren cheesefest I Come in Peace here), The Romance of Crime is a diverting if bizarre choice for a long awaited reunion pairing Tom Baker’s Doctor with the Lalla Ward Romana, particularly as they command what feels like such a comparatively small percentage of the airtime herein.*

* things do improve considerably in this respect late in the second half, but the general impression remains.

While enjoyable and enlivened by some quite welcome traces of wit, one can only scratch their heads at the choice of this particular tale as an opening salvo.  A fun tale for fans of the filmic genre noted herein?  Without question.  But a Doctor Who tale, particularly one intended to showcase such a well anticipated pairing?  Hmm…

Kudos also to guest cast member Jane Slavin for her dual role as Xais, who sounds uncannily like Dragon Age Inquisition’s haughtily cold Seeker Cassandra (!)

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“So we can expect more earthquakes?”
“Well, somebody can.  But in the meantime…time for bridge.”

Then return of an overdue library book leads to the discovery of some rather anachronistic use of a time corridor in the London of 1930 in The English Way of Death.

Wealthy biscuit maker Stackhouse is on health related holiday.  So why does he hire an assassin to escort Professor Heath Porteus, “the world’s leading authority on physical geography” to a private warehouse? 

He and his “twisted men” are building a “sonic stimulator”, whose purpose is to “increase pressure at selected points along the Earth’s crust”.  Under threat of losing his beloved rose garden (“it’s taken 30 years to build that!”), Porteus discovers he’s been drafted to pinpoint the exact target areas necessary to destroy the world…

“Nobody can resist Zoldar…surrender your brains!”

With stranded Timelords, cannibalistic alien fog, double crosses and even possessed zombies, this is a ripping Fourth Doctor adventure.  Set just after the Roaring Twenties at the dawn of the talkie, the tale is given some added likeability by a hearty injection of period manners and appropriately stodgy banter that leaves the lengthy passages sans Baker or Ward just as entertaining as those they feature in. 

“My deductive powers are far greater.  Nothing escapes my analytical prowess…what on Earth is that?”
“…the telephone.”

Filled with light comedic touches, wry asides and setting-appropriate bits of business, this is a bit of Jago & Litefoot-style fun for the Poirot set.  Don’t expect any subtext or depth, this is pure sci-fi fantasy entertainment, done Who style.  But it’s rather good, a cracking bit of fluff that would certainly rank among the more memorable of the post-Hinchcliffe Fourth Doctor serials were it televised during the Lalla Ward Romana era. 

In point of fact, much like the City of Death Baker references early in the dialogue, The English Way of Death marks one of the best of the Ward-era stories, however posthumous an addition it may be. 

“This room is rather more a mess…looks like the work of a madman.”
“Yes, reminds me of The Doctor’s lash-ups…”
“I spy pickle jars…A-HA!  But no pickles!”

With enjoyable performances all around, it’s hard to pick and choose, but Tim Bentinck’s delightfully blustery explorer Colonel Radlett and Richard Braine’s somewhat clueless Gallifreyan retiree Percy Closed do manage to stand out among a rather accomplished assemblage.  Baker is his usual loveably scatterbrained self and Ward offers the same wry persona she’s given her Romana since the debut of the Gallifrey series. 

“I have done this before, you know.”
“Well, I haven’t, and I don’t care for it!  As a pastime, walking into a crowd of zombies ranks behind hammering a nail up one’s nose!”

Once again, Baker and Ward (not to mention the occasional bit of business for John Leeson’s loveable K-9) don’t share as many scenes together as longtime fans may hope, with the story following the standard Who-style ‘parallel course of investigation’.  It’s arguable which tale features the pair, much less sharing sequences on mic, to more or less of a degree, but what there’s no question about is that The English Way of Death is a warmer, wittier offering, suitable for curling up for the evening with a cuppa to enjoy. 

And while neither tale quite meets the level of Doctor/companion centrality generally provided by a Big Finish audio, both are well written, atmospheric and witty enough to garner a hearty recommendation to the curious.  And did I mention they’re both fun?

Because in spite of their oft nigh-tangenital involvement in the better part of the proceedings herein, it’s still a pleasure to hear the former Mr. and Mrs. Baker reunited on audio, a welcome reunion all too long in the making.  

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-fourth-doctor-by-gareth-roberts-volume-1-limited-collector-s-edition-1001

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