Christmas, 2009: retired UNIT Captain Mike Yates spots a classified ad seeking a retired Army captain with experience in dealing with alien threats. With an uneasy feeling that the ad was written specifically to catch his attention, Mike responds, visiting an isolated country cottage called the Nest. Here he finds a stern housekeeper, Mrs. Wibbsey, and the Doctor. The house is filled to the brim with examples of the art of taxidermy, but Mike is startled to learn that the dead animals return to life at night, ready to kill. Demanding an explanation from the Doctor, he learns that some force has reanimated the creatures to use them as pawns for a sinister plan. The Doctor, at great personal risk, has isolated all of the dead creatures in his cottage, using the TARDIS’ dimensional stabilizer to surround the house with a force field and using his own psychic abilities to keep the undead animals docile. But this has also trapped the mind behind the evil plan – a hive-mind swarm of alien hornets – near the house with him. And now Yates is trapped there as well…
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Richard Franklin (Mike Yates), Susan Jameson (Mrs. Wibbsey), Daniel Hill (Percy Noggins)
Notes: Early plans for the Hornets’ Nest stories apparently called for the team of the fourth Doctor and the retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a part that Nicholas Courtney had reprised just a year prior to this story’s release in The Sarah Jane Adventures and in a short bonus featurette, “Liberty Hall”, filmed for the 2009 DVD release of Mawdryn Undead. Before production began, however, Courtney suffered a mild stroke in early 2009, and though he made a recovery, he was unavailable to reprise the role of the Brigadier for either Hornets’ Nest or for Sarah Jane Adventures (in which there were plans for him to become a recurring guest character). He died in February 2011.
LogBook entry and TheatEar review by Earl Green
Review: To put it mildly, the anticipation was off the scale for Tom Baker’s return to the role of the Doctor for a short series of new audio adventures. For many years, Baker had ducked questions about returning to the role for Big Finish, preferring to make snarky comments about the company’s output instead. When Baker finally did return, however, it wasn’t for Big Finish, but for the BBC itself. When I learned this, I was somewhat worried that Big Finish’s days with the Doctor Who audio license might be numbered.
It turns out that anyone with similar concerns need not have worried. Despite the much-heralded return of Tom Baker, and a script by Paul Magrs (popular with fandom, but admittedly not a personal favorite of mine), Hornets’ Nest 1: The Stuff Of Nightmares isn’t a threat to the full-cast dramatizations released by Big Finish; despite boasting a cast of four, Stuff isn’t much more than a glorified version of Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles range, audio books in which a familiar character recounts an adventure in the past tense with an assist from another actor (in that regard, it’s not a huge departure from Baker’s last audio story, Doctor Who and the Pescatons). Much of Stuff is handled this way as well: either the Doctor or Mike Yates (retired) (played ably, as always, by Richard Franklin) tells the story in the past tense. The only “present tense” conversation is between the Doctor and Yates (who never met on screen, but apparently did meet off-screen); “dialogue” with the other two actors is sparse, and is always part of a past-tense recollection.
This isn’t always a game-killer either; some of the Companion Chronicles are quite enjoyable. Everything rests on the performance and the story. The story here isn’t bad, but it’s obviously not complete. The only problem with relating a Doctor Who tale in the past tense is that, obviously, whoever is doing the storytelling has survived. When the two characters recalling the story are the heroes of the piece, the tension level more or less drops to zero. That phenomenon is further exacerbated by the fact that Tom Baker talks almost non-stop for what seems like ages in The Stuff Of Nightmares. Fans will have bought this CD for the opportunity to hear a new story starring Tom Baker, and if listening to the man tell a story in the past tense at great length meets that description, then there’ll be no disappointment. If you buy this CD wanting to hear Tom Baker, then Tom Baker you shall hear.
The performance is a little bizarre, however; this is Tom Baker, now, playing the part in the way he wants to play it now. There’s a disconnect with the Doctor circa 1977/78 – one gets the impression that it’s Tom Baker being himself more than anything. We’re not getting the eccentricity of the Doctor, but of the somewhat batty Baker. At times this results in great fun (his attempts to talk his housekeeper into becoming his new traveling companion, or a deadpan mention of being attacked by the cast of The Wind In The Willows). At other times, it’s wildly out of character. There’s more than a hint that the Doctor may not quite be in his right mind due to an outside influence; if later parts of the Hornets’ Nest story pay that off, than I suppose it’s salvageable. I don’t mind Baker expanding the character’s parameters just a bit, but at times he pushes the envelope a bit far. How much of that is the script and how much is the performer, I have no idea; given that one of Baker’s sticking points with Big Finish was script approval, it’s just possible that both parties are indulging one another a little too much.
And yet, in the story’s quieter, more macabre moments, when Baker waxes serious, it’s possible to sit back and close your eyes and marvel at the surprising fact that he’s not only back, but capable of being staggeringly good at being the Doctor, after all these years. If you can handle a few instances of out-of-character silliness, The Stuff Of Nightmares fits the bill.
It still isn’t a threat to Big Finish (whose license to produce audio Doctor Who was renewed shortly after the Hornets’ Nest project was made public, incidentally). So much of Stuff is rambling, past-tense storytelling with absolutely no sound design going on in the background to support the story whatsoever, that it would be amazingly easy to dismiss if not for its star.