Series 9 of the “Fourth Doctor Adventures” continues onwards, but after the all-out classic of “Chase The Night”, what chance does “The Planet of Witches” have to stand out? Well, to be fair, it goes in a completely different direction and is perfectly fine. I guess the month in between listening sessions helps! So let’s take a closer look at the next Doctor-Romana-Adric-K9 four parter, shall we?
Whilst attempting a detailed scan of E-Space, K9 detects the trail of a large spacecraft. Seeking a lead for their escape, the Doctor sets out on its trail towards a misty yellow planet.
Arriving just in time to witness a crash-landing in the planet’s swamps, the Doctor and his crew discover a number of escaping prisoners fleeing from someone claiming to be a Witchfinder… whilst terrifying ‘familiars’ float around them.
For this is the planet of the witches… and the witches may just know the way home.
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
A good cover, and always nice to see some guest characters on the cover along with the regulars.
This story feels very similar to “State of Decay”, the TV story that this “series” of Fourth Doctor stories are set after, so it makes sense. Rather than blend vampires with science fiction, this, as the title suggests, blends the idea of witches and Witchfinders with science fiction. Basically a “Witchfinder” goes out across the nearby stars to find people who other civilization have classed as being witches, though not because someone wants to gather people together with magic powers, but because they know people who are often called witches are people with higher knowledge that the more simple minded can’t understand. Yes, it all comes down to a man from N-Space called Tiresias (Samuel Clemens) and his search for brilliant minds to add to an ever-increasing collection of them, all walking around in the same robot bodies called “Moirai”. So a fun twist on the witches thing, though they do go a bit too far with some of it early on…
Before that big revelation though there was plenty of “slowly peeling back the layers”. The Doctor and Adric soon encounter literal straw and wood, talking and flying wicker men who kidnap Adric because of his higher intelligence (The Doctor’s Time Lord brain doesn’t register correctly on their scanner), meanwhile Romana and K9 run into two would-be witch runaways from a crashed ship and an old crone called… Crone (Abigail McKern), all of whom were picked up by Witchfinder Raxil (Michael Simkins). Crone turns out to be “undercover” so to speak, and rather ruthless, while the two younger runaways Tanhar and Anjlis (Samuel Blenkin and Lauren Cornelius) are fine in their “wish to escape persecution due to their intelligence and be free to think, so screw these adults and their old fashioned ways” sort of way. They often feel like they’re straight out of a YA novel, but it works.
In the end Adric is nearly transformed into a Moirai by Tiresias, but The Doctor and co soon arrive in the nick of time. A bit of mental chess and a gruesome reveal of how Tiresias kept himself alive for so long and we reach our conclusion. The Doctor, Romana, Adric and K9 leave, no closer to a CVE to escape with than when they came, but at least intelligent people will no longer be harvested, which always a plus no matter which Universe you’re in! It was a good story that had plenty of room to breathe, and give Adric more time to shine (which is still weird to put in the good section…)
In the first half of the story, before revealing her true nature, Crone acts like a stereotypical cartoon Witch, all cackling and talking in rhymes, and not only was that annoying, but it made no sense as she wasn’t from N-Space, so why was she acting so close to our idea of a witch? Coincidence, I guess…
There was also a slow-witted henchman character called Yggra who once again made it feel like I was listening to a unimaginative 90s cartoon, which would be fine is the story was intentionally like that, but it was at odds with the more grim stuff they were also presenting as the core of the story. I did like that his intelligence was intentionally being lowered as a precautionary measure “against the Witches powers to control minds” (but actually so they obey without question) but him combined with Crone made the first half feel very tonally mixed.
They really liked that CG wicker man, didn’t they?
As per usual, beyond being in E-Space, nothing much. I mean, don’t get me wrong, most incarnations of The Doctor have stumbled across witches in one form or another, so much so that listening them would take too much effort, but in terms of direct links, there isn’t anything to mention.
The Planet of Witches sounded really boring when I heard the title, and the synopsis didn’t do much better to convince me otherwise, so I was happy that the story was actually enjoyable for the most part. It is amazing how Series 9 has really rammed home that two hours / four parts is far better a method to tell interesting stories given how many average or below stories appeared in the FDAs before it. Planet of Witches has a fun sci-fi plot mixed with traditional Witchcraft stuff, and gives the lead cast plenty to do. A good listen.