Audio Drama Review: The Renaissance Man

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re continuing series one of the Fourth Doctor Adventures, starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. Today we’re listening to the second installment, The Renaissance Man, written by Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley. Let’s get started!

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

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A medieval history scholar is showing a fellow scholar around a castle.  He is struck down suddenly by a severe headache.

The Doctor is talking to Leela about the TARDIS’s gravitic drift compensator when they arrive at the Morovanian Museum on Morovania Minor, for the opening of the Renaissance exhibit—but they land in the wrong place, at a medieval-styled village near the museum.  They meet a dog, and the woman chasing it off—Professor Hilda Lutterthwaite, a renowned lepidopterist.  After mystifying Leela with her intellectual area of interest, she departs abruptly to the nearby museum.

The Doctor and Leela proceed to the museum, where they meet Reginald Harcout, his daughter Lizzie Harcourt, Christopher Manners, the maid, Beryl, and the butler, Jephson.  Reginald invites them to join in for tea, then to view the collection—“a collection of…everything”, as Reginald puts it.  Viewing the collection, Leela thinks something is wrong; she and the Doctor note spaces where things seem to have been removed.  Leela goes to see the armory, while Reginald takes the Doctor to view paintings.  From the paintings, they proceed to the library.

Manners and Lizzie take note of Leela’s proficiency and knowledge of weapons.  They are interrupted by Lutterthwaite, who is talking about her life’s work being gone.  Leela goes to find the Doctor, and Manners and Lizzie go to find Jephson.  The Doctor is in the library, where he is left alone; he notes that none of the books are older than fifty years.  Leela finds him and takes him to help Lutterthwaite; along the way, he is struck with a severe toothache.  He pushes the pain away, but they hear a gunshot from the armory; they find that Lutterthwaite has shot herself.  Christopher and Lizzie arrive, and the Doctor suggests checking the cameras; but Christopher and Lizzie cannot see the camera on the wall.

Paintings which were missing are now present.  Also, in the library, other items have appeared, including text in books which previously wasn’t there.  The Doctor notes that some of the information is incorrect, based on statements he himself made which were misunderstood.  At that time, the police arrive to view the body.

The officer that arrives…is *Inspector* Reginald Harcourt, accompanied by Sergeant Jephson.  The Doctor and Leela are stunned; why are these people now appearing in a different identity than that which they’ve already displayed, and acting as though they don’t recognize the Doctor and Leela?

The officers state that this is the third such incident this week.  However, Leela notices a door that wasn’t there before, and she and the Doctor take it.  Inside is a brand new room, filled with butterfly samples, including the one that Lutterthwaite was following.  Harcourt comes in, and claims ownership of the room; when the Doctor asks him about being a policeman, he calls it a hobby.  After some tense discussion, he calls for Jephson to arrest them; Leela knocks him down, and they escape.  Jephson chases them through the grounds and into the wood, accompanied by Manners, who is now a constable.  The Doctor and Leela elude the officers, who comment that they are heading toward ‘the castle”, but Leela slips away from the Doctor.

Leela finds a man in distress, who begs her for help.  (His voice identifies him as the afflicted man from the opening teaser.)  He says that if the others catch her, they will “take everything”.  He claims to be the doctor—but not the same Doctor—and is disoriented.  Meanwhile, he Doctor finds the castle, and meets Beryl there.  He doubles back and finds Leela and the other doctor, whom he recognizes as medieval scholar Dr. Henry Carnforth.  As they compare notes, the Doctor realizes that Harcourt and his associates are stealing the knowledge from the minds of those around them, including Lutterthwaite and Carnforth.  Suddenly, Leela realizes she is losing her memory of how to track their location—she too is being affected.  The Doctor realizes that calling this section a “Renaissance” section is a misnomer; “Renaissance” represents a new era of knowledge, and the museum’s systems are creating just that, by taking the knowledge from those on site.  However, where it should be making copies, it is taking the original data from the minds of those affected…and any number of scholars, great minds who can change the course of history, will soon be here.  The man who could control this system would become supremely knowledgeable—a true “Renaissance Man”.  However, he would also be extremely dangerous.  The Doctor assures Carnforth that his own mind is protected, and he leads them to the TARDIS.

At the TARDIS, he plans to tap into the museum systems and reverse the effects.  However, they are ambushed by Harcourt and Jephson.  Jephson assures him that nothing has gone wrong with the systems, however; and Harcourt says they will be arrested for the murder of Carnforth.  Carnforth is still alive…but Harcourt shoots him immediately, and arrests them.

Leela draws a knife, but the Doctor makes her give it up to Jephson.  Harcourt takes them back to his office at a local police station, where Lizzie is typing a report, and Beryl is serving as well.  Harcourt says that here, they collect people; he displays a book full of life stories of thousands of people.  Leela notes that the book seems to go on no matter how many pages you turn.  Jephson insists that the book includes everyone from this period, but the Doctor gives him another name, which is not in the book, causing consternation; the Doctor feeds them a long and colorful story about the unknown man.  Elsewhere, Manning and Lizzie now seem to have morphed into a surgeon and nurse; Manning comments that the Doctor is uncooperative, and orders preparation for surgery.

The Doctor gets a phone call from the dog they encountered upon arrival.  It makes no sense, but the Doctor concludes that this artificial reality is unraveling.  He argues that they should not take the knowledge from the arriving scholars, when they can have a copy instead.  Harcourt insists it doesn’t work as well as anticipated.  He states that they intend to continue accumulating knowledge, for the sake of what he can accomplish with it.  Manning arrives and takes the Doctor for surgery, as his knowledge can’t be removed the normal way.  Leela attacks Manning and frees the Doctor, and they run.

In a new room, they encounter a room full of bottled drinks; outside are a number of Spitfire planes.  Manners and Lizzie arrives, now having morphed into a pilot and a plane deliverywoman.  The Doctor discovers that despite appearances, they do remember their other identities, but they are not supposed to show it.  Harcourt arrives outside as the squadron’s wing commander, and the Doctor and Leela exit, leaving Manners and Lizzie to fret over what is happening to them; but their memories are beginning to clear.

Outside, the Doctor and Leela must run from a group of Messerschmidts; it seems Harcourt would rather kill the Doctor than let him escape.  They escape into another building, where Leela finds herself alone; Beryl—now appearing as a secretary—meets her and identifies the place as Harcourt International.  She refers her to the twelfth floor for a meeting with the Doctor.  On the twelfth floor, Beryl appears again, and this time indicates that the Doctor in question is Harcourt.  Leela grapples with her, and pushes her through a window; she tries to pull Beryl back up, but the woman falls, apparently to her death.  However, Leela goes down and finds that she is alive, though badly damaged.

The Doctor has found himself in a Western saloon.  He is confronted by Manners and Lizzie, now in Western guise; they claim not to know him, but they call him Doctor.  He calls them on it.  He insists they are not real, but are based on archetypes through history.  With his sonic screwdriver, he demonstrates that they are just empty shells.  Harcourt arrives in the guise of a marshal, and orders Manners to arrest him; but Manners won’t, now that he knows the truth.  Harcourt summons Jephson instead, but Leela arrives instead; she has incapacitated Jephson and taken his gun, as well as her knife.

The Doctor says they are heading for the TARDIS, and leaves with Leela.  Outside, he changes course, and they head for the manor house instead.  Harcourt and Jephson are going there themselves, with Lizzie , Manning, and the damaged Beryl.  When the Doctor and Leela arrive, Harcourt tells the Doctor he is already taking the Doctor’s knowledge, bit by bit; but the Doctor assures him he has bitten off more than he can chew. [There is a break in the audio here, with static?] The Doctor assures Harcourt that the human brain cannot absorb the scale of information in question here; a separate storage system is needed—a library.  To prove his point, he quizzes Harcourt on random facts.  Harcourt gets the questions right, but the Doctor uses this to reveal that Harcourt isn’t the real “Renaissance Man”…he is the library.  The Doctor makes the point that love, emotion, experience—these are just as important as knowledge.  He is contradicted, however, by Jephson—who is the Renaissance Man.  The Doctor reveals that he had planted the information for one of his questions, which wasn’t real at all; when Harcourt was able to produce an answer, it was a clue to the truth about him.  Other statements he has made have also been false.  These errors in the data have had a “butterfly effect” in the database—and now the projections around them, the library and the rest of the building, the entire world of the museum—are coming apart.  Harcourt rejects Jephson’s plea for help as the manor begins to collapse.

Leela has recovered her tracking skills; and amid the destruction, she flees with the Doctor back to the TARDIS.  It’s just in time; the academics will be arriving soon.

In the TARDIS, the Doctor and Leela discuss the value of knowledge, and how it is not worth more than even one life.  He assures her that the museum’s systems will have fully reset, returning everyone to their original condition—but as the academics arrive, the Renaissance section is empty.  The scholars are not put off; they decide it is a metaphor for learning, which no one can fully grasp.

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With every audio involving the Fourth Doctor and Leela, I feel a little more conflicted, and this entry is no exception. The Fourth Doctor is excellent, and Leela has the potential to be—I’ve always liked her as a companion. Still, with every additional story, the My Fair Lady vibe becomes a little stronger, and it’s reaching awkward proportions here. I realize that I’m projecting real-world values onto a fictional story, but it’s difficult to stop, apparently. In this story, Leela fawns over the Doctor to a point of near-worship. The Doctor isn’t much better, as he continues to be condescending; he comments on his own “impeccable style”, then says about Leela: “I’m still working on HER style.” I tried to justify it in my mind by reasoning that this story is still very early in their relationship—just four stories after her first appearance in The Face of Evil–but it’s still awkward.

With that out of the way, it’s an otherwise entertaining story. The rapid changes in setting and in the identity of the characters makes it reminiscent of stories such as The Mind Robber, and that’s not a bad thing. The twist—that the victims’ memories and knowledge are being stolen out of their minds—was not well hidden; I picked up on it right away; but that’s not a hindrance, because the real question here is, what are they going to DO about it? The Fourth Doctor always represented a good balance of action and debate, and this story uses both. He and Leela spend a good deal of time running and fighting, but then the story is resolved through debate, as the Doctor uses verbal trickery to confound Harcourt and Jephson and put an end to the scheme. There’s a good amount of humor, as well (Leela: “He has the eyes of a killer!” Doctor: “As well as the gun.”), even if it tends to the absurd, e.g. when the dog makes a phone call. The absurd is perfectly appropriate here, as it represents the failure of the environment the villains have created—when reality breaks down, of COURSE a dog can call you on the telephone, why not? That’s really the beauty of this story: It’s fast-paced, and (like so many equally fast-paced Eighth Doctor stories) sometimes that means letting the details fall apart; but here, it’s okay if the details fall apart. You EXPECT that they will do that, because you establish early that you’re in the realm of the absurd.

This is another short adventure, not in running time, but with regard to in-universe time. The Doctor and Leela are at the museum for perhaps two or three hours, certainly no more. The same was true in the preceding story, Destination: Nerva, and it’s very possible that the Doctor and Leela have been going non-stop since The Talons of Weng-Chiang. I wonder sometimes about the passage of time within the TARDIS, and between adventures—do the characters sleep? Do they take time out for meals? Of course they do—the classic series established very early that the characters at least sleep and eat on board—but sometimes it’s interesting to think about how long they carry on at one time, when adventures run together, as in this case. Being a companion of the Doctor is a hard life in more ways than one.

The voice acting is on point here. It’s difficult enough for one actor to play multiple characters, as happens in a few instances here; it’s so much more difficult when actors also have to play multiple versions of the same character. Ian McNeice (Harcourt), Gareth Armstrong (Jephson), Anthony Howell (Manners), and Daisy Ashford (Lizzie) all do this very successfully here, while Laura Molyneux plays the dual roles of Beryl and Lutterthwaite. I had a little trouble identifying characters early on, but it wasn’t because the acting was inferior, so much as that the dialogue didn’t identify the characters very well at first. Soon, though, that oversight is corrected, and the cast put in fantastic performances.

References here are mostly to other Leela stories. She mentions visiting London in 1889, and firing a revolver at a dragon (both from The Talons of Weng-Chiang), and mentions that Xoanon (The Face of Evil) used cameras to watch the Tesh. She also mentions crushing baby Hordas (Horda? Not sure of the correct plural) with her hands, another Face of Evil reference. She calls policemen “Blue Guards”, as she does in several stories (Talons again, also The Foe from the Future). The Doctor says he has felt the pain of having a tooth pulled, but “not with these teeth”, which is a reference to The Gunfighters, where the first Doctor had a tooth pulled (by Doc Holliday, no less!). He also comments that he needs to “reverse the polarity* on the museum’s knowledge-stealing system, a reference to too many stories to count, but especially in the Third Doctor era.

So: A great story, if a bit awkward at points, and a fantastic way to continue the season! If the series continues in this vein, we’ll be in good hands. As this story is (as of the time of writing) available for free on Spotify, there’s no good reason not to check it out.

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Next time: I have previously reviewed the next entry, The Wrath of the Iceni; but as it was a very early attempt for me–only the second audio drama I reviewed here–I hadn’t yet found a format I like, and so I’m going to cover it again. With quite a few audios behind me now, I expect some changed opinions; but we’ll see. You can read the previous review here if you like. See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below.  This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

The Renaissance Man

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