The Fourth Doctor is back, and this time, it’s slightly different. Instead of having a monthly range that spans eight or nine months, Big Finish have decided to release the Fourth Doctor stories in two batches a year, containing four stories each. With the release of Series 7A, it’s time to review the second story in the set, The Crowmarsh Experiment by David Llewellyn.
When attacked on an alien world, Leela falls unconscious… only to wake in another time, another place.
She is in the Crowmarsh Institute on Earth, in London, in 1978, and everyone is calling her Doctor Marshall. They tell her the world she has known is but a fantasy, a delusion, and that this place is the one that is real.
Surrounded by familiar faces on unfamiliar people, Leela knows what is true and what is false. But how long can she believe when everyone around her says it’s a dream? What’s really happening here?
The Crowmarsh Experiment starts with the Doctor and Leela on the trail of a distress signal, but it appears that not all is as it seems. Some could consider the events of the opening scene a sabotage. It’s incredibly disorienting and it’s a great piece of audio.
There’s something rare in a Big Finish story early on in this release too; silence. It’s not too long, maybe only two or three seconds, but it really works in the context of the story. The idea that it’s almost like a reset on everything you’ve heard before. Sometimes, the absence of sound speaks volumes, and Jamie Robertson’s sound design uses this silence phenomenally well.
Leela wakes up somewhere else, and it turns out that she’s not quite the Leela she thought she was; she’s Dr Leela Marshall. Obviously, Leela is rather confused and anxious to escape this place, wherever it is, and it’s not long before she crosses paths with a familiar sounding Doctor. A Doctor who sedates her and them promptly decides to interrogate her.
It appears that Dr Marshall, who works at the Crowmarsh Institute, had been forced into a dream which simulated the adventure we heard at the beginning of the story. I have to give it to David Llewellyn, he knows how to plant seeds of doubt in your mind. What if everything we thought we knew about Leela, and to that extent, the Doctor, was a simulated dream?
There’s something about the performances of everyone besides Leela that somehow manages to fall in the uncanny valley of performances. I put it down to both Briggs’ great directing along with the talent of the actors, that every line seems ever so slightly disingenuous or a fraction off and it helps to amplify the effect of Leela’s confusion.
The cliffhanger at the end of the first episode of The Crowmarsh Experiment isn’t the most exhilarating cliffhanger that Big Finish has ever done, but in a story like this, it doesn’t need to be. We learn a bit about the truth, just enough to make us want more in the second episode.
During the second episode, Leela is not only fighting with the fact she’s trapped in a predetermined reality, but she has to fight to make the other inhabitants of the Crowmarsh Institute believe her. Hearing Tom Baker play Doctor Stewart is really disconcerting, as Doctor Stewart, even though you know he’s playing mind games with Leela, is so kind, compassionate and gentle; it’s almost like if Tom Baker played a really emotionally manipulative and sadistic version of the Master at times.
The conclusion of The Crowmarsh Experiment is utterly heartbreaking, and reminded me somewhat of some recentish series finales (or thereabouts), and it is played beautifully. Again, the silence is used incredibly well, and makes the story seem almost circular in nature, yet there are still a few mysteries that are left unsolved.
The Crowmarsh Experiment is one of those releases that I find incredibly hard to review, mainly because at it’s core it’s a character piece, and I don’t want to give too much away for you if you’ve not listened to the release yet.
Easily, my favourite aspect of The Crowmarsh Experiment is Louise Jameson’s performance without a shadow of a doubt; it’s arguably her best performance as Leela to date and David Llewellyn’s script really puts Leela through the ringer, allowing Jameson to flex those incredibly acting muscles that she possesses.
Overall, The Crowmarsh Experiment is the type of story that Big Finish rarely does, but when it does it, it does it right. It’s more of a philosophical think piece set in the Doctor Who universe than a traditional Doctor Who story. Sure, there are elements of traditional Doctor Who there; there’s the Doctor, the TARDIS, the companion, a mystery to be solved, but The Crowmarsh Experiment is so much more than that. If you’re looking for an existential rollercoaster ride, this is the release for you.
Should you want to purchase The Crowmarsh Experiment, it’s currently available from Big Finish as a single download here for £8.99 or here if you wish to purchase all four releases in Series 7A of the Fourth Doctor Adventures for £25 on CD or £20 as a download.