The latest instalment of Big Finish’s Fourth Doctor Adventures sees a return of a villain from the First Doctor Companion Chronicles, the titular Rocket Men. Recalling the jet pack Republic serials of the 1930s featuring the likes of Dr. Vulcan and Commando Cody, the Rocket Men sagas have been a similar mix of daring do, pulp era thrills and space-bourne danger, with a palpable cliff-hanger menace provided by the evil aerialists in each story. The First Doctor’s encounters with these adversaries saw Steven Taylor as the main focus of the adventures as the Doctor wasn’t quite the action hero he would become in later incarnations, and this suited Steven’s character well, allowing his astronaut training to come in useful controlling the rocket suits.
In Requiem for the Rocket Men, both the Fourth Doctor and Leela already have a reputation for entering the fray, so at the risk of spoiling the tale slightly, it’s a pleasure to hear both characters having a go flying the suits amongst the peril of asteroids and gunfire from the antagonists. As such this makes for a memorable story, along with John Dorney’s typically excellent scripting. This tale, however, even before its release, had a certain amount of anticipation for fans, as this is also the first encounter between the Master and K9, leading to amusing exchanges between the two and the joy of knowing there’s more to come.
In terms of all the aspects mentioned above, this is a hugely enjoyable release, let down slightly by the need for a certain amount of continuity and off-kilter characterisation. Regarding the latter, the Doctor’s actions in the script – in order to provide his route onto the Rocket Men’s base – seem out of character for the Fourth Doctor. Similarly, Leela appears just a little too confident and capable (bearing in mind there are stories set after this one on TV and in books and audio plays) even allowing for the development of the character. The combination of both Tom Baker and Louise Jameson’s performances in this manner – while as engaging and entertaining as ever – makes the story feel like it was one intended for the Seventh Doctor and Ace rather than the earlier incarnation and companion we have here.
Regarding continuity, the story can be appreciated on its own, but the antagonism between the Doctor and the Rocket Men does make the listener feel like they’ve missed out by not hearing the earlier stories if they haven’t done so. This is not to say that the two Rocket Men Companion Chronicles aren’t worth listening to – they certainly are – but it feels a little exploitative by Big Finish to not only actively encourage listeners to buy an extra two releases, but also two from a range that’s a somewhat different format, and one that not all fans of full cast audio dramas necessarily like. Personally I’d recommend all fans of Big Finish’s full cast dramas to give the CC range a go, but I understand they’re not to everyone’s taste.
That said, BF have started doing bundles on their site based on topic (following the success of doing this with the Dark Shadows range), so if you’re only a casual listener to BF but a big fan of Republic serials, the £28.97 collection they’re doing of all three Rocket Men releases is worth investing in…
Allowing for my caveats above, Requiem for the Rocket Men is a tremendously entertaining story with a great cliff-hanger that ends the second episode, meaning the next release (Death Match) can’t come too soon. This release is also the third excellent Fourth Doctor adventure in a row; however it’s a little too soon to say whether this fourth series will be the best year of FDAs yet. In comparison, the first half of last year’s series was great, but the second half was disappointing, so fingers crossed the same occurrence won’t happen in 2015. Also, the use of two pairs of CDs to create a larger story didn’t work enormously well in the first two years of the Fourth Doctor range, but the exquisite corpse relationship of John Dorney and Matt Fitton worked very well in the recent Dark Eyes 4. Because of this I’m quietly hopeful that Requiem for the Rocket Men and Death Match will prove to be the most satisfying Fourth Doctor Big Finish double bill yet…
Requiem for the Rocket Men is out not on CD and as download from Big Finish.