Audio Drama Review: Sepulchre

We’re back, with another BBC Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re looking at Demon Quest part five, Sepulchre, starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, Richard Franklin as Mike Yates, Susan Jameson as Mrs. Wibbsey, and Nigel Anthony as the Demon. It’s the conclusion of the Demon story arc…let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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At Nest Cottage, the Doctor continues to search for a way to recover the missing Mrs. Wibbsey, who was taken by the Demon at the end of Starfall.  Mike Yates makes dinner, oblivious to the two messages on the Doctor’s modified (and temporal) answering machine.  One of the messages is Mrs. Wibbsey; she claims she is in an old mansion with obscured windows, and she asks the Doctor to use the TARDIS to home in on her.  She has a confession to make; there was a fifth trinket in the bag from the church sale, which she never told the Doctor.  The trinket is a golden half-heart pendant, the mate to the one found inside the meteor (Starfall), and it is in her room.  It’s stamped with “CHRE”, the mate to the other’s “SEPUL”.  Joining the two activates it as a device; it displays time-space coordinates.

The coordinates take them in the TARDIS (which is now fully repaired) to the drawing room of a large, old mansion: Sepulchre.  It’s located somewhere other than England; the paintings on the wall are of another dimension.  Mrs. Wibbsey finds them, and is annoyed; she’s been there three weeks, due to time slippage (or so the Doctor says).  She points out that the TARDIS is gone, which it is.  Oddly, she seems to be working in the house, just as she does for the Doctor at Nest Cottage.  The Doctor expresses some regret for removing her from her original life (Hornet’s Nest).  She returns and says that she will show them to their rooms; the Doctor offers her the completed pendant back, and subtly hypnotizes her with it.  She admits that she doesn’t know why she hid the pendant, or what is going on; but she shakes off the trance, and leads them through the house.  She says they will meet the owner, but not tonight.

In his room, Yates notes that there is complete darkness outside, with not even stars visible.  He finds himself locked in.  The Doctor comes in, using his sonic screwdriver to unlock the door, and breaks the window; they are in space, but with some type of protective layer of nothingness.  He concludes that no one would be able to see in from outside, either—something is being concealed.  They explore the house, and find a door with green light coming from beneath.  The Doctor goes in alone for a time; when he comes out, he has a collection of components in his pockets.  The room is the dematerialization chamber as seen in previous installments; and for the Doctor, it has deepened the mystery.  They return to the parlor, and the Doctor says they are right on the edge of the universe.

The Doctor has his messaging machine with him; he remembers the second message and checks it.  It’s from a former dancer named Ernestina Stott [note: a prominent character from the preceding arc, Hornet’s Nest], and she has done some research for him.  She says the Cromer Palace of Curios—Mrs. Wibbsey’s former place of employment in the 1930s—suddenly burned down at 2:00 AM on April 14, 1940.  Mike leaves him brooding in the parlor, and goes to find the TARDIS.  He encounters Mrs. Wibbsey, who is quite despairing; she suddenly changes her demeanour, and declares that the Demon is with the Doctor.  Mike rushes her back to the parlor, where he finds the Demon facing the Doctor.

It seems it’s not a dangerous situation, however, and the Doctor is enthusiastic, calling the Demon their host.  They discuss their previous encounters; the Demon calls it a long game to get the Doctor there.  He admits that he is serving someone else.  The Doctor gives the TARDIS key to Mike before returning to the Demon.  The Demon says the Doctor will soon transcend and become a new order of being.

The Demon transforms the room into a flaming pit, and tells the Doctor he is headed for his own tomb.  Mike objects; he is aware of future regenerations, and says the Doctor can’t die here, but the Doctor says that those things haven’t happened for him.  The Demon says the Doctor will give up the secrets of time and space before he dies.  He beckons the Doctor into the flames; and to Mike’s shock, the Doctor steps in, and vanishes, with the Demon.

Mrs. Wibbsey acts strangely, trying to get the TARDIS key from Mike; she claims to know where the TARDIS is, and has to get away.  She nearly overpowers him, until green flames burst from her; she denies it’s her doing it, but the flames engulf them both, and carry them away.  They find themselves in a cavern of green stone, with the flames on the ceiling.  Ahead, they can see the Doctor, high on a ledge, entombed in an open, coffinlike structure, and covered with electronic connections.  Mike climbs up, but is beset by a fear of heights.  They are interrupted by the buzz of hornets approaching.

Mrs. Wibbsey is possessed, and has been for some time.  She is under the control of the powerful Hornets that the Doctor, Mike Yates, and Mrs. Wibbsey fought a year prior at Nest Cottage (Hornet’s Nest), and whose queen was banished in their last encounter.  They have used Mrs. Wibbsey and the Demon to bring the Doctor here.  They intend to turn him into the Atlas of All Time and Space, drawing out the Doctor’s mind—with all its knowledge and secrets—and turning it to their own ends, destroying his body in the process.  Time Lords have an innate ability to see all of time and space at once; they require this ability to recover their lost queen, and then nothing will stop them.  They begin the process, causing the Doctor to suffer.

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Mike tries to get through to Mrs. Wibbsey and get her to fight the Hornets.  She recalls the moment when they gained access to her after the Doctor’s last battle with them.  The Demon transforms the chamber into a backdrop for the Atlas, which begins to form around them.  While the Hornets and the Demon are distracted by the Atlas, Mike climbs the rest of the way to the Doctor, and yanks the Doctor out of the machine.  Mrs. Wibbsey, still under Hornet control, climbs up to stop him.  Mike, with the Doctor’s help, tries again to talk her back to sanity, but unsuccessfully.  Desperate, Mike grabs her and pushes her into the sarcophagus.  As it seizes on her instead, the Atlas blinks out.  The Doctor announces that while the machine had started to copy his mind, it hadn’t started to erase the original yet. One screen shows Mrs. Wibbsey’s perception of time and space—small, but vibrant for her, with all the places she has been.

Soon the Hornets will overcome the sarcophagus’s influence.  The Doctor confronts the Demon, and tries to persuade him to betray the Hornets.  He admits the value in it, but denies that escape is possible.  The Doctor promises him liberty if he helps, despite the Demon’s past havoc at the behest of the Hornets.  Finally he agrees; and the two of them dismantle and adapt the sarcophagus’s control console, using the components the Doctor pocketed earlier.  Meanwhile, the Hornets are starting to emerge from Mrs. Wibbsey.  Finally, the two of them are ready to begin; and vefore the Hornets can escape, they switch on the console.

The modified machine is a sort of transmat; it can send the occupants of the sarcophagus to any point in the Atlas.  However, the current Atlas is small; it’s only Mrs. Wibbsey’s perception, and limited to Earth.  The Doctor sends the Hornets—and the Sarcophagus—to a specific date and time:  April 14, 1940, 2:00 AM, in the Cromer Palace of Curios.

Mrs. Wibbsey, however, was not transported.  The Doctor rigged the machine to transport everything except sources of human DNA; therefore, she was left behind, free of the hornets.  She only remembers the recent events as a terrible dream.  They can return home; but first, the Doctor has a promise to keep: he must free the Demon.  However, the Demon is gone, with the components from the demat chamber.  The room collapses; but the trio vanishes and appears in a blank room.  With them are the demat chamber, and the TARDIS.  The Demon intends to escape, although he requires life energy to persist in this dimension.  As the chamber dematerializes, the Doctor admits that he miscalculated; they hurry into the TARDIS and head home, as the asteroid crumbles around them.

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For the most part, this conclusion to the Demon Quest arc was satisfying. My biggest complaint isn’t really a complaint; it’s more a reflection of my own listening, as I haven’t had opportunity to listen to the preceding arc, Hornet’s Nest. The reveal at the midpoint of this entry—that the hornets are the true villains—depends heavily upon that story arc. The story explains its own backstory well enough to get a basic grasp on events, but it would definitely help to have listened to Hornet’s Nest first. Likewise, I imagine the third series, Serpent Crest, follows up on the Demon’s escape and minor betrayal at the end of this story, though I haven’t listened to that arc to confirm.

This story plants us firmly back in customary Doctor Who territory. Mike Yates is the narrator this time, and he is a much better choice than the previous entry’s Buddy Hudson; Mike as a character is familiar enough with the events of the Doctor’s life to give us a decent framework. As well, we’ve had any number of stories about the Doctor being cannibalized in some way for his powers/regenerations/knowledge/etc., and this one fits right in. Once again he eludes death through the efforts of his companion(s), and once again he saves the day at the last minute with technological wizardry. It’s great stuff, if not exactly revolutionary. But then, as I’ve said many times, it’s hard to be brand-new in a series with a fifty-year history. Sometimes old favorites are a good thing.

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While it’s not exactly suspenseful, the story does have some surprises. Having read the cover blurb, I very much expected the Demon to turn out to be a reasonable character, under the control of the Hornets. Instead, he betrays the Doctor’s trust at the end, and sets himself up to be a future villain (we know he will have to kill again, at least). In that regard, he’s much like the Master, circa the Third Doctor era. I was caught off guard by Mrs. Wibbsey’s turn at mind control under the hornets; I expected she was under the minor control of the Demon, but her role turned out to be much larger. I still pity her, though; she’s at the forefront of the Doctor’s tendency to cause suffering for those around him.

Once again, we are lacking in references to stories outside this arc. It’s a very different take when compared to Big Finish’s audios, which tend to be laden with links to television episodes, novels, other audios, and even the comics. This is doubly surprising to me, as Paul Magrs has written for Doctor Who in other media and ranges, and is no stranger to such references. Still, perhaps his writing here was constrained by the publisher. There is no shortage of references within this series, however, including several references back to Hornet’s Nest. I listened and wrote the first draft of this review several weeks ago, and since then I have had opportunity to work through some of the Big Finish Fourth Doctor Adventures; there are some definite parallels between this series and a few of those, most notably Trail of the White Worm, and we’ll look into that when we get there (I don’t want it to be a spoiler at this point).

As for the series as a whole: I enjoyed it. It’s a take on the Doctor that we don’t often get to see, one in which he’s almost domestic. He keeps a house, and looks on Mrs. Wibbsey as a family member of sorts. As much as it’s possible to be so, this series is cozy and informal; one feels that Nest Cottage is a nice place to live (if only things wouldn’t keep going haywire). The Doctor is informal and relaxed, but he can’t really stop himself from working anyway; he’s reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes in that regard, impulsive and not quite entirely sane, but still brilliant. I don’t know if I’ll have opportunity to review the first and third arcs in this series; I seized on an opportunity to get it for free in this case; but if so, I look forward to it. If these reviews have lacked a bit of context, well, maybe I can make up for that in the future.

I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue posting on Wednesdays, as I’ve been reserving that day for unusual items like this series. In the meantime, thanks for reading!

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All BBC audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased on CD at Book Depository; this story’s purchase page is linked below.  If anyone has a link to a purchase page directly from BBC, please let me know in the comments!  I would be happy to support the producing company, but have been unable to locate this or related audios for sale on the BBC website.

Sepulchre

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