Well, it was a good thing I listened to this before doing the Christmas stories list, because this sort of counts! At least in the same way “Flip-Flop” counts, as it’s set at Christmas with a few mentions of the holiday, but it’s otherwise a standalone story that isn’t itself “festive”. It also features Jon Culshaw’s always crazily accurate Brigadier, though the character’s involvement does raise a few confusing questions…
Something haunts the peak of Ben MacDui.
Something with heavy footsteps, striking terror in the hearts of those who sense it. With climbers going missing, retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart visits Scotland to investigate.
But when some old friends join his ascent, he worries that they will make things even more dangerous. As the snows blow in, and mists surround them, the Doctor, Ace and the Brigadier will face the Grey Man of the Mountain…
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
The story in a slow-burner, that’s for sure. The Doctor and Ace arrive in Scotland for the New Year’s party but are a week or two out (and in the wrong part of the country) so end up staying in a small inn at the base of Ben MacDui. There they meet Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who is investigating reports of the “Grey Man of the Mountain” and several disappearances, as well as a man who has seemingly gone insane from fear. Ace meets a young girl named Kirsty (Lucy Goldie) and ends up heading up the mountain with her ahead of The Doctor and The Brig, who are waiting for the latter’s arranged guide to show up. Eventually the guide arrives, a man named Thaddeus Kanner (Youssef Kerkour) and a female expert on unknown species (as much as one can be) called Niamh Godec (Vivien Reid), and the four of them head up the mountain themselves.
This is pretty much the plot for the first three episodes, with some perilous mountain near-misses, hiding in caves out of the cold, and all the while they’re all stalked by the titular “Grey Man”, who as soon as someone looks at it, they are driven slightly mad by fear… or completely mad. Thaddeus sees it and has to be restrained (the Brig luckily having confiscated his gun earlier) and Kirsty sees it, though she is kept from going completely insane thanks to a quickly-developed (and somewhat romantic) relationship with Ace. I have to say actually that Ace is the highlight here. She’s like her Hex era self, dropping the child-like strops and “cool” lingo and acting like a big sister character.
Eventually The Doctor goes a little loopy as well, after seeing the beast, but soon figures out that it has come from an alternate Earth, an invisible portal to which up on the mountain. Ace and a frost-bitten Kirsty end up on this alternate Earth and see that the Grey Man is actually a race of large, hairy primitives who have ended up just wandering into “our” Earth, but are soon captured by them. The Doctor’s quartet end up there as well, but a still-insane-with-fear Thaddeus steals his gun back from the Brig and starts shooting at the creatures, an act that gets him killed. The Doctor, Brigadier, Godec, Ace and Kirsty soon make a run for it, eventually able to make it back home after The Brigadier of all people showed the “Grey Men” that they mean no harm by giving them his revolver (without ammo, obviously!). Godec decides to study the men until the portal naturally closes, and everyone else make plans to have a nice Christmas dinner and eventually go to the New Year’s party…
A well constructed cover, especially the “Doctor peering over a small mound of rocks” shot!
I think the main point that will upset some people is not only the slow pace, but the ending, which thanks to some rare diplomacy doesn’t feel like it has much impact. There are definite moments where just as something interesting happens we’re back to people speculating around a campfire or in a tent. It can work as a slow-burn, but others may find their attention drifting during parts of the story. I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if I’ll ever want to sit through it again…
I also have to say that The Brigadier mentions the at least somewhat recent events of the Seventh Doctor TV story “Battlefield”, which took place in the late 80s, yet Kirsty talks about Wi-Fi issues and describes herself as a “content creator”, all very modern things. The Brig is dead by the early 2010s, so it doesn’t add up, it should either be the early 90s so this version of Lethbridge-Stewart can exist, or it’s modern times so being a content creator with a smartphone makes sense, but the Brigadier is either dead, a Cyberman, or a dead Cyberman. Ah well, honestly if this was a 5-star amazing story it wouldn’t bother me, but I had a lot of time for it to enter my head while this was on…
Beyond The Brigadier referencing “Battlefield”, as mentioned above, there isn’t any continuity to speak of, really.
The Grey Man of the Mountain is a decent enough story, Ace and her relationship with Kirsty is well developed and a definite highlight, and Culshaw’s Brig is still freakily accurate (though admittedly he sounds like Third Doctor era Brig here still, rather than the older one, but then most Doctors sound older on audio, so I guess I’m alright with the opposite!) but it has to be said that this is slow going at times, and the ending may disappoint. I enjoyed my time with it, though.