Hornets Nest was billed as a five part series featuring Tom Baker reprising his role as the fourth Doctor. To say the return of Tom to the role was long awaited would be putting it very mildly indeed! The timing of the release was serendipitous falling as it did in a Doctor light year.
Sadly the stories themselves prove to be something of a missed opportunity and it is to be hoped that Tom will have another go soon. The project suffered an early set back with Nick Courtney being too unwell to feature as the brigadier. To be fair Richard Franklin as an older Mike Yates actually works really well as a replacement. But the concern is that Tom was apparently persuaded to reprise the role on the back of Nick Courtney's involvement and these plays may prove to be the last gasp of the fourth Doctor.
The marketing guys at the Beeb really need to have their head examined. These plays were billed as Tom's first performance as the Doctor in a full cast audio. This is misleading. The stories are actually much closer to talking books with the Doctor narrating his past experiences with the Hornets to Mike Yates. There are passages of "full cast audio" where the Doctor is in character as it were, but over the whole of the 5 stories I doubt if they are as much as 50% of the running time. What makes this worse is that there are a few dire performances that weight those sections down. The first part in particular suffers from this problem. The sound design is not a patch on what we have come to expect after years of Big Finish productions. Apparently this was a deliberate choice on the part of the writer. However, the execution of this, again particularly in the first story, is that it is not always readily apparent when the Doctor is "speaking" and when he is "narrating".
The individual stories themselves are a mixed bag. The first one, The Stuff of Nightmares, starts with Mike Yates rather whimsical introduction to events and his reunion with the Doctor. However, things rapidly deteriorate and what we end up with is a 30 minute story dragged out to over 70 minutes with a pretty dire guest performance from the normally reliable Daniel Hill as Percy Noggins.
Things pick up and improve big time for the second story, The Dead Shoes, which sees the Doctor beginning his backward trek through time. This is a terrific little story of the possession of a small time ballerina being possessed. It has some great little set pieces with the Doctor being shrunk and using his scarf as a rescue device. The performances are largely excellent, the only downside being the occasional bit of overemphasis that is often a product of radio plays anyway. If your not a completist this is the one to start off with.
So good was the second story that Margs, obviously decided to simply re-write it for the third outing, The Circus of Doom. Seriously the basic story is essentially the same, an acrobat gets possessed (same shoes too!). We learn a little more about the Hornets, but you could virtually remove this story from the overall series without really noticing at all. Its better than the first story in terms of execution, but actually has even less substance.
A Sting in the Tale is the best story of the Bunch. The performances are perfect all the way through, the sound design seemed better to me, although it may just be that the locations described naturally suited the minimalist production better. The balance between narration and performance is balanced better and there are some real moments of jeopardy and excitement. There is also a terrifically funny and macabre reveal of a Mother Superior which I won't spoil here. The cliffhanger at the end is absolutely brilliant too. This is one that Big Finish would have been proud to put out and is definitely the best of the five.
The concluding part, Hive of Horror is a respectable conclusion. It doesn't hit the heights of A Sting in the Tale and as with most of these plays it feels somewhat padded. Rula Lenska makes a pretty good Queen of the Hive and gives probably the best guest performance of the series.
There is an argument that any return of the fourth Doctor would have been a disappointment and that may well be true. However, it is also true that this return could easily have been much better than it was. The choice of Paul Margs as writer is questionable. He has the zany imagination that is suited to the fourth Doctor and some of the prose in these stories is exceptional. On the other hand he tends to write towards the more frivolous end of the spectrum and has never demonstrated the chops to pull off a five story epic. Frankly Hornets nest is a fantastic trilogy stuck in a bloated five-parter. Bear in mind also that in terms of running length this would have been something in the region of 15 episodes of 70s Who! There is simply not enough story to justify that length! Given that stories were produced by the Beeb it seems strange that they did not use Gareth Roberts the master of the 4th Doctor story and one who has written for the modern series too.
And so we come to the other main point of debate, Tom himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly reaction to his performance has ranged from adoring adulation to "worst performance ever". A common comment on the interwebs is that Tom is basically just playing himself and that its difficult to place his style of performance here within the TV continuity. I am somewhere towards the positive end of the spectrum. Whilst it is true that Tom seems to be playing himself at times (and channelling his Little Britain persona) this to me is not a problem. Tom's performance was always largely informed by his own persona and its only natural that he continued to do so. I don't really give a toss about the continuity aspect of it as such and can happily imaging this as a post logopolis Dark Dimension stylie fourth Doctor. But really this performance would fit in fine between The Deadly Assassin and the Face of Evil (seriously watch the first few minutes of the Face of Evil, the fourth Doctor is off his head even by his own standards!).
So overall what we have is an interesting experiment that is occasionally brilliant but ultimately flawed. Lets hope it doesn't have to bear the weight of being Tom's one and only return to the role of the fourth Doctor.