Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Audio Review 17: The Ghosts of N-Space, written by Barry Letts (1996)

Released/Broadcast: January-February 1996


The Doctor – Jon Pertwee
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart – Nicholas Courtney
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Max Vilmio – Stephen Thorne
Mario – Harry Towb
Jeremy Fitzoliver – Richard Pearce
Nico – David Holt
Maggie – Sandra Dickinson
Louisa – Deborah Berlin
Paolo – Paul Brooke
Barone – Gavin Muir
Guido – Jim Sweeney
Roberto – Jonathan Keeble
Umberto – Peter Yapp
Baronessa/Marcella – Jillie Meers
Don Fabrizzio – Don McCorkindale
Clemenza – Jonathan Tafler

Main Production Credits

Writer – Barry Letts
Producer & Director – Phil Clarke
Incidental Music & Sound Design – Peter Howell
Title Music – Composed by Ron Grainer, Arranged and Edited by Peter Howell
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The Brigadier invites the Doctor up to the Sicilian island of San Stefano Minore, where the local Castello (Castle), owned by his distant Italian Uncle Mario, seems to be beset by demonic ghosts and apparitions, as well as the more earthly hostile takeover by American-Italian gangster, Max Vilmio. However, the Doctor discovers that there is a lot more to Max than meets the eye...

The Doctor realises that the outbreak of ghosts in the area is due to a large rupture along the barrier between our reality and that of another called N-Space, where the consciousness of every dead person moves on to, to become an N-form and be at peace. However, for those N-forms that cannot accept the passing of their physical lives on Earth, they remain trapped between the two realities, haunting ours in the shape of ghosts. The N-forms that do successfully pass on, leave all their negative emotions behind, which festers in the void between realities in the form of fiends.

The rupture in the N-Space barrier though, is in great danger of bursting. To find out how to stop it as well as its cause, the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith travel back in time to the eighteenth and early sixteenth centuries on the island. Once there, they discover that Max is in reality a medieval alchemist who succeeds in achieving immortality through the legendary potion of the elixir of life. The rupture in the N-Space barrier is created when the Doctor tries to prevent him from doing so, and Max becomes trapped within the barrier itself. In the present, Max clearly has escaped and has far bigger ambitions. He seeks to take over and rule the World by destroying the N-Space barrier and using all the evil and fiends within N-Space to invade the Earth and bring it under his immortal control.

The Doctor sets up a space-time warp trap, with help from the TARDIS, and tricks Max Vilmio into concentrating and taking on all of the power of the N-Space fiends within himself. At the right moment, the Doctor springs the trap and activates the device, which implodes Max and the evil of N-Space in upon itself, dissipating it into outer space, and re-sealing the N-Space barrier for the foreseeable future.

Story Placement

Between Death to the Daleks (TV Serial) and The Monster of Peladon (TV Serial).

Favourite Lines

Jeremy – “Breakfast isn’t breakfast without Marmalade”.
Brigadier – “You have a point, but it’s got to be the right sort of Marmalade. The bitter sort...”
The Doctor – “Yeah, thick and dark...”
Sarah Jane Smith – “...with chunks”.
Jeremy – “I prefer the jelly stuff myself”.

The Doctor – “Young man, a lot of nonsense is talked to a lot of people about the fourth dimension”.

Brigadier – “He’s not at home to you sir”.

The Doctor – “It’s a Latin translation of a Spanish version of an Arabic extract, from a Greek alchemist text, taken from an Egyptian esoteric original of immense power”.
Sarah Jane Smith – “You missed out the Babylonians”.
The Doctor – “That’s not a joke. They probably had a hand in it too”.

The Doctor – “If you want to know the time, ask a Time Lord”.

The Doctor – “I was once travelling through the mountains on Gallifrey with my old teacher. We’d been going for days, and it had been pretty hairy at times, what with blizzards and scorching sun and plungbolls and all...”
“Anyway, in one of these high valleys, we came to a river that had burst its banks. You could just see the other shore if you looked really hard. My teacher took one look, dropped his bag, pulled off his robes and plunged in, to swim across. Then he realised I wasn’t following, I was just standing there with my backpack and my climbing irons and my ice pick and sleeping bag and food sack – the lot. “Just leave it all”, he said. “Yeah, but what about the other side?” I asked, and he just said, “Trust me”. So, I stripped to the buff and followed him...” “Oh, the old rogue knew all the time. He lived just the other side, you see. We landed in his front garden.”

The Doctor – “Maximilian Vilmius, this is not the end!” (Too right, Doc. There’s another episode left to go yet.)


I get quite nostalgic about The Ghosts of N-Space, because it was not only the first ever Doctor Who audio I listened to, but also one of the first Doctor Who stories I ever experienced, after Planet of the Daleks (my first ever episode), The Time Warrior (my first owned WHO Video), The Green Death, The Android Invasion, The Invisible Enemy, Earthshock, The Five Doctors, The Trial of a Time Lord and Remembrance of the Daleks (my favourite story as a kid). I still fondly remember listening to the audio on its first broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 1996, and at the time, my nine-year old self lapped it up. Now somewhat older, hopefully wiser, and significantly more cultured, I’m much more perceptive to the production’s flaws, but deep down, I can’t help but love it. Well, most of it.

Barry Letts’ audio follow-up to The Paradise of Death shows the writer (and director) returning back to his love of magic and the supernatural, which originally inspired him to write The Daemons back in 1971 for Television. Although both the inclusion of magic and ghosts seem to go against the somewhat scientific reasoning that Doctor Who has frequently used in the past, it has just as frequently railed against the use of strict logic, and even outside of Barry Letts’ influence has often dipped into magic and fantasy over the years, most obviously in Silver Nemesis and Battlefield. The main difference though is that Doctor Who always gives an added and loosely credible explanation that, in theory, should make it easier for the audience to suspend its disbelief. The Ghosts of N-Space is no exception.

The whole idea of N-Space is a fascinating one. An alternate reality, in which a deceased person’s conscious personality or N-form as the story labels it, travels into to both live and be at peace. In-between our reality and N-Space is a void in which N-forms abandon and leave all evil and hatred behind as they move on to their new life. The N-forms that don’t want to leave, or cannot accept the death of their mortal bodies, remain trapped between the two realities, and are visible in our world as ghosts. In other words, this is a Doctor Who explanation and metaphor for both ghosts and the mythologies of most of the World’s religions, with particular reference to Christianity, showing us depictions of heaven, hell and purgatory throughout the story. As interesting and metaphysical as this all is though, I’m not sure I like it. Sure, I like the idea of ghosts being the transformation of a person’s consciousness into a non-physical life form that exists purely in another dimension, but I don’t like the way N-Space is used as a way to include the concepts and ideology of real-world religions in the Doctor Who universe. What I mean by that is that the script suggests that these concepts and ideologies are real, and exist in the Doctor Who universe. Now before anyone picks me up on it, yes I know this is all fiction that I’m talking about here, but perhaps as a strong agnostic, this feels a little too much to me like, at best the overly-passionate writing of Barry’s own views, or at worst, Barry pushing his own views onto the audience (I imagine an atheist would feel even more strongly about this). And I never really like much of anything that tries to tell me what to think, as opposed to suggestion and constructive advice.

The premise, into which these ideas are woven, is a bit more traditional in Doctor Who terms, albeit written in a very original way. Maximilian, a medieval sorcerer, attempts and succeeds in achieving immortality through the fabled elixir of life. However this is only part of a larger personal quest to take over the Earth, as Max seeks to take control of all the evil in N-Space, and use it to try and break down the dimensional barrier that surrounds it in order to invade our reality. Ultimately this still breaks down to a mad man wanting to take over the world, but even with an old chestnut of a narrative though, Doctor Who delights once again by giving it yet another unique twist.

Firstly, it’s great to be in such a different and fresh location as Sicily. Doctor Who on Television, even today, rarely reaches out to other world locations to tell its stories, so when it does, even on audio, makes the story in question feel quite special, particularly with such a specific part of the world such as Sicily. I also love the Italian atmosphere that it conjures up in the imagination. Actually, I’ve noticed that Barry Letts seems to have an affinity for the Mediterranean, and the ancient world in general, as demonstrated in his writing of The Time Monster. In The Ghosts of N-Space he tries to continue this trend by adding mysticism to the mythical elixir of life, which he tries to date back through all the big ancient civilisations of the world, so much so that it nearly feels a bit silly. However, it is essential in giving much needed weight and significance to the elixir as it plays a key part in the overall story. The reintroduction of subjects such as alchemy and the supernatural back into Doctor Who also lend The Ghosts of N-Space an extra layer of atmosphere and mystery throughout parts two to four, which when added to the time travelling in history in those episodes, makes for exciting and intriguing, as well as fascinating listening.

The central part of this twist is a fabulously inventive, multi-layered and dynamic plot, that takes time to let the story and characters breathe and develop, while itself also jumping back-and-forth through time in a way that is highly reminiscent of Steven Moffat’s then future time-travelling tales that have become the fashion in new Doctor Who on Television today. The truth and history behind Max Vilmio, as well as his importance to the ongoing story is intelligently held back till halfway in the overall plot. The story is introduced to us via the ghosts, and the initial impending catastrophe of N-Space breaking open, which the Doctor seeks to investigate. Parts two and three see the Doctor and Sarah travel back and forth between the nineteenth and early sixteenth centuries, in order to discover the potential cause of this impending disaster as the story gradually reveals its secrets to us. This may seem like padding, but in truth it is a cunning way of maintaining the mystery and suspense of the story, while also making us wonder how the Doctor will resolve it, as well as building up to the first major confrontation between the Doctor and Max Vilmio at the end of part three. This is textbook story writing, pulling us in deeper and deeper into the intrigue created by the plot, before finally giving us what we want, a climatic confrontation between the Doctor and the main villain in part four. The time we have to wait for this not only maintains the menace of the Max Vilmio character over the course of the story, but also makes him a much more impressive villain overall, because no time is wasted in endless theatrical banter. When Max identifies the Doctor as a threat, he acts without hesitation and they both prove quite a match for each other. The result of this more complex and wily plot is a story that feels very modern, flowing with a great pace that only lets up in part five, and juggles multiple subplots with ease. In fact, you have to admire the expert timing in which the plot climaxes at just the right point to meet the various cliff-hangers. Barry Letts’ narrative writing is clearly as sharp as ever...which is why its huge decline in part five comes as such a real disappointment.

Barry Letts seemed to be having an off-day when writing part five of The Ghosts of N-Space. The gap in quality between it and the earlier episodes is so huge it’s astonishing. The Doctor and Sarah rather fruitlessly return to the early eighteenth century to see if they can stop Max from returning back into our reality, and fail spectacularly, as they have to in order to help the story make sense, and thus is the first big portion of padding in the script. Furthermore, Max Vilmio’s present day siege of the Castello turns into a cross between a bad Hollywood action movie and a farce. Unlike the more restrained and believable UNIT action sequences of old, the action goes way over the top with a mixture of all guns blazing, lasers firing, fireballs bellowing, and monstrous fiends screeching overhead, including surreal scenes of demonic possession. Before you know it there are bad puns and stilted dialogue abound that sound as if they were written for Arnold Schwarzenegger. This could have been a horrifically scary or even thrilling sequence, but as it is, it comes across as something of an overblown mess. Sadly Barry Letts also lapses into the trap of writing expositional dialogue to describe every little action that’s taking place on audio during the siege sequence, making even the better parts of it feel nauseating and tiring to listen to. It’s such a shame that after all the good work done on those earlier episodes, the production seems to almost utterly derail itself here. Even the cliff-hanger feels superfluous and overly melodramatic. However, there is fortunately one big redeeming sequence in part five that we can enjoy. The Doctor comforts a distraught Sarah, who is mourning the death of Louisa, with a brilliantly amusing and beautiful tale about how he once went swimming with his old tutor back on Gallifrey. It’s a such a great little story, told wonderfully by Jon Pertwee, that rather paradoxically, is certainly the best piece of dialogue in the whole audio, and indeed one of the best pieces of dialogue the Third Doctor has ever been given. In fact, it’s highly reminiscent of the nice tale that the Doctor related to Jo in The Time Monster, which of course Barry also wrote, and is just as wonderful to hear.

An additional minor criticism of Barry Letts’ narrative would be the use of quite a few convenient plot devices as well as a couple of occasional contrivances in the script. However, I can overlook most of these as Barry is clearly trying to avoid several minutes of probably quite dull exposition that would slow down the story too much, and I can often forgive small convenient plot devices if they keep the story going and as long as the script isn’t full of them. Although, the only thing that would’ve been worth explaining is how N-forms can travel through time by sheer will alone. Of course, there is the usual technobabble and super gadget resolution that is very prevalent in pre-1980s Doctor Who, but as these aren’t too contrived either, it doesn’t really spoil the story at all, even if including such things as a boiled egg as part of a functioning gadget did make me raise an eyebrow or two. Barry though, does notably contrive Sarah and Jeremy to be on holiday in Sicily at the exact time and area as the Brigadier; one coincidence I certainly couldn’t swallow. Barry’s incredulous explanation in the script doesn’t make it any better either. Synchronicity indeed! Sarah and Jeremy could quite easily have just tagged along with the Doctor in the TARDIS, and saved us what was quite clearly ten minutes of early padding. Maybe it took a while for Barry Letts to get a grip on the story he wanted to tell. However, I certainly wouldn’t say that Barry Letts’ writing is at all lazy. For instance, the scenes in the past are completely convincing. They feel very authentic and truthful to the period that they are set in, particularly with some great subtle details that Barry writes about and uses in the script, such as the Battle of Granada in 1492, and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794).

Moving on, the quality of the characters in The Ghosts of N-Space are sadly rather more hit and miss in comparison to The Paradise of Death. The returning regulars are even better than before, but some of the original characters leave a lot to be desired. Max Vilmio, for instance, may have substantial menace and presence, as a result of the clever plot work, but outside of that, he really is quite transparent as a character. His original medieval self is an ambitious, power-hungry and very melodramatic villain that has little personality beyond his devious and cunning plotting, his obsession with being immortal and all-powerful as well as cackling loudly and metaphorically twirling his moustache as all theatrical villains seem to do. The fact that his only true ally is a slave (albeit a monk too) says a lot about his view on the World as well as other people. His older present day self is even less engaging to listen to. An American gangster who has seemingly taken over Sicily from the power of the Italian Mafia, and with all the bad clichés that go with the typical gangster stereotype. I had big issues with the stereotype gangsters in Invaders from Mars too, but at least Max is easier to enjoy, being a colourful villain as well as a cartoonish gangster. Fortunately though, Max is at least colourful enough to satisfy listeners when he confronts or thwarts the Doctor, but outside of these moments there is a distinct absence of depth to his character. However, the time travel aspect of the story gives him enough development for most listeners to care about the threat that he poses to both the Doctor and the fictional world of Sicily that features.

Whereas at least Max Vilmio was on some levels enjoyable, his present day American companion, Maggie, is far from it, and frequently irritating. Dumb, blonde, simple, and giggly, the mind boggles as to what Barry Letts was thinking when he came up with this most maddening of characters. Even Jeremy is less annoying. Apart from helping out Jeremy and giving him a companion of sorts to befriend throughout the story, Maggie is mainly just a spare part, window dressing to the more prominent characters. The sad thing is, the character is so plain and clichéd, particularly in dialogue, that when Maggie does come into her own and take on Max, her death is only shocking because of how violently graphic it is, rather than because we care for the character, which the script gives us no reason to.

Gladly the same cannot be said of Mario, Barone of the Castello of San Stefano Minore, and distant Uncle of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Many commentators and Doctor Who fans have remarked that the Brigadier having an Italian Uncle is ridiculous and risible, but I would suggest that it is entirely believable an idea. Due to Terror of the Zygons, we now know that Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart is mainly of Scottish descent, but it is entirely plausible that he could also be part-Italian. In fact, the actor Nicholas Courtney’s own appearance doesn’t counter this, having been born in Egypt himself, and then there’s the Brigadier’s own famous moustache, which if doesn’t say Italian to you, I don’t know what does! Mario is certainly the comic relief of the story, the silly blustering old man who rambles and often seems clumsy, but he is so warm and gentle a character that I couldn’t help but take to him. In fact at times he comes across as somewhat adorable. Furthermore, Mario is a wonderfully well-rounded and individual a character who is very far from being a spare part. Spirited and stubborn, proactive and reckless, Mario confronts his dangers and troubles without a thought to his own safety, and always with such enthusiasm and positivity, never letting anything get him down. Mario’s also quite funny. From his witty put-downs to the quaint old-fashioned phrases that he comes out with to help rationalise both everyday life and the weird happenings of the story to himself, the character is a joy to listen to, and almost steals every scene that he’s in. There is also a brilliant and entertaining double act between the characters of Mario and the Brigadier that produces many priceless and hilarious moments that really make the story such a delight for me, along with the sequence where Doctor reminisces about his old tutor. Mario is quite downtrodden by the Brigadier, but only because he is at heart trying to be protective of his old uncle. Meanwhile, Mario teases the Brigadier about his optimistically ambitious plans as a witty way of getting his own back.

A fair few of the lesser and smaller supporting character roles are also quite impressive, particularly Guido and Paolo, who despite only featuring in the audio for about 15 minutes, are really well sketched out into convincing personas, who communicate everything you could want to know about them in just a few lines. Sadly, there are exceptions, the most notable being Louisa, who is so wet, naive and childish, even for a young adult, that she can be occasionally annoying. It also doesn’t help that Louisa is such a transparent and predictable character, making a lot of the scenes in the eighteenth century fairly tedious, signposting simple plot developments rather unnecessarily.

Meanwhile, the characters of the Third Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart are as strong as ever, in one of their best ever written portrayals by Barry Letts. The Third Doctor is as wily, charming, determined, dynamic and heroic as ever. I find it quite amusing that in part one, the Doctor seems to approach cooking in the same way as conducting an experiment, which is even more amusing when you realise he’s just cooking Welsh rarebit. Maybe cooking is one of the few things that the Doctor has still yet to master, considering that he’s even struggling to cook cheese on toast! Mind you, haven’t we all burnt a piece of toast now and then? More importantly, the Doctor is always one step ahead of Max Vilmio, even when it seems that all is lost. However, it’s quite reassuring that the Doctor isn’t able to anticipate everything correctly, which makes the plot feel a lot more convincing. Being the Doctor though, he often has a handy trick up his sleeve, like deliberately getting himself and Sarah soaked to the skin in order to convince Paolo that they arrived on San Stefano by accident, rather than in the TARDIS. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is still the proud, unflappable soldier of old, and endearingly very British in an old-fashioned, ‘stiff upper-lipped’ way. Despite the few people at hand to help him, he faces the ever-growing crisis with courage, resolve, and perhaps some of the old ‘Dunkirk spirit’ too, surviving under terrible odds. As we’ve always known though, the Brigadier is a redoubtable leader, and a formidable opponent, even when he’s out of his depth. He’s Nelson and Churchill, rolled into one, only with a heart and hidden sensitivity that makes him one of the best of companions. In my view, he is the best. The best of British, if there were such a thing. The only criticism I’d make about the Brigadier, is that in one moment during part 5, he seems to relish the prospect of killing Max Vilmio. Fortunately though, this is only a momentary lapse in character. Overall, Barry Letts has both of the characters’ personalities word-for-word perfect, and knows them better than anyone (I would argue even better than Terrance Dicks).

Sadly the characterisation of Sarah Jane Smith, while much improved and closer to her true self than in The Paradise of Death is still a bit amiss at times. Barry Letts can’t seem to quite shake off the Jo Grant type of companion in his head as Sarah is frequently turned into a damsel of distress throughout the story. However, Barry does make up for this by giving Sarah some great moments too. Like all jobbing journalists, who once in a while write a book to get a bit of extra cash, Sarah is using her time away from the Doctor to write a romantic novel, albeit not a very good one by the sound of it, which struck me as a knowing commentary by Barry Letts on the quality of most fiction written by journalists. It’s a shame then, that Barry’s witty observation using Sarah’s own ‘Mills and Boon’ type novel is then ruined by Barry himself contriving the coincidence of Sarah and Brigadier being on holiday in the same place. I also loved the fact that during the sixteenth century segment, it is Sarah’s supportive and honest advice, as well as small friendship with Guido that helps to save the Doctor’s bacon, allowing him to escape and finally take on Max Vilmio for the first time. It’s a lovely touch that not only allows the Doctor and Sarah to escape their immediate troubles in a refreshingly believable way, but more importantly shows us how essential Sarah is to the Doctor, and the huge positive contribution that she makes to his efforts and plans, even when he doesn’t know of it directly. In other words, it’s another delightful reaffirmation as to how great a companion Sarah Jane Smith truly is, and that can only be a good thing. Also, the way that it takes place behind the scenes of the main plot in a beautifully subtle way, demonstrates again how skilled a writer Barry Letts is in character-based drama, and certainly shows up his friend and colleague Terrance Dicks, who is often very far from subtle.

Jeremy Fitzoliver is also slightly improved from his original appearance in The Paradise of Death. He’s still incredibly annoying and tedious, and still one of the worst companions ever created, but at least he becomes a bit more proactive from part two onwards, getting things to do like hiding away on Max Vilmio’s ship to see if he can discover anything useful, and slightly uncharacteristically coming up with the brilliant idea of tricking Max Vilmio’s gangster forces into fighting amongst themselves and wiping each other out. I just wish he had something good to say every time he opens his mouth. He frequently moans and talks snobbishly and childishly throughout part one, gets quite conceited and cocky in later episodes just because he was a good shooter at a fun fair, and then gets lucky with the Parakon laser weapon. When it comes to a character who we are supposed to root for, there’s only so much vanity a person can take before it quickly becomes nauseating. Also I find it difficult to believe that someone as posh as Jeremy doesn’t know something as basic as which way North, South, East and West are, or in other words the four basic directions on a compass. Thankfully, Jeremy only appears in Doctor Who a few more times, and even then it’s in print (mainly Island of Death).

However, while looking through the earlier novel version of The Ghosts of N-Space, written by Barry Letts for the Virgin Missing Adventure book range, it is clear that some significant script editing has been done. This was probably done under supervision from Phil Clarke the director, but nevertheless, this is a very wise move by Barry as it helps to give the audio its much needed pace and momentum, as all superfluous dialogue has mostly been taken out. It’s also clear that several passages of dialogue from the original novel have been completely rewritten and are enormous improvements upon some scenes, particularly considering just how terrible some of the dialogue is in the book, even for the regular characters. The audio script in comparison is much punchier, concise, and very witty. Bizarrely the audio was recorded in 1994, about a year before the novel version was published. According to an interview with Barry Letts in Doctor Who Magazine 222, the book version of The Ghosts of N-Space was indeed developed first, and was half-completed at the time the audio version was given the go ahead by BBC Radio. The rest of the book was finished concurrently to the audio script. Although, it’s still a surprise at just how bad, plodding and lacklustre a lot of the story and characterisation is in the book compared to the audio. Maybe Barry was very inexperienced with book writing compared to his large experience of scriptwriting at this time. However, we can definitely be thankful that Barry took the time and effort to correct and finesse the story, characters and dialogue of The Ghosts of N-Space for audio, helping to produce a much greater script and production as a result.

Just like The Paradise of Death, The Ghosts of N-Space has an impressively large cast. Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen are still on as fine form as ever, always the consummate professionals that we remember them as, and even on bad days they are often on par, if not better than their peers. Jon Pertwee is particularly magnificent and inspiring, given that this was his last official performance as the Doctor, and for someone at the age of 74 at the time of recording, his continued enthusiasm for the part is not only humbling, but also infectious and really sells the drama in the story to the listener. Nicholas Courtney delights us with one his most assured and confident performances for Doctor Who ever. However, Elisabeth Sladen occasionally has to emotionally overact in places due to the more melodramatic character Sarah is saddled with in the script, although Sladen successfully reins in her performance from time to time, allowing for some really poignant moments, particularly during Sarah’s reunion with Louisa in part six. Meanwhile, Richard Pearce seems to finally get a chance to develop his performance as Jeremy Fitzoliver, as the character gets room to breathe as well as more to do from part two onwards. Ultimately, the character is still a failure, and a trial to listen to, so Pearce had his work greatly cut out, fighting to make the character likeable. However, Pearce can certainly claim part of the credit for Jeremy becoming a more bearable character by the end of the story than he was at the beginning.

The quality of performances for the original characters though, are a lot more variable. Stephen Thorne, one of Doctor Who’s ever dependable occasional supporting actors, who played a series of villainous roles throughout the show during the 1970s, turns in another solid performance as Max Vilmio. He helps to emphasise the sinister and malevolent aspects of the character, revelling in his wickedness, playing up the melodrama and getting in the spirit of the story. However, when subtlety and quiet menace is called for, Thorne struggles to come across well, becoming rather hammy and too theatrical. It also doesn’t help that his American gangster accent is very cartoonish and clichéd. However, this is nothing compared to Sandra Dickinson as Maggie, who is sadly very typecast in the stereotype role of dumb American blonde, a stereotype that is even more irritating than that of the upper class twit role, which was represented by the character of Jeremy. Sandra’s high-pitched vocals, also sadly don’t help break away from that image.

Harry Towb though, thankfully bucks the trend, by finding the perfect balance in his performance as Mario, between the stereotypical comedy Italian accent and the quiet, incomprehensible mumblings of an eccentric old man. Mario still has a clichéd Italian element to the character, which Harry Towb does play up to, but he is careful to vary his performance subtly, as to create a more four-dimensional and believable character, and not venture too much into the Italian stereotype, as to sound dumb or offensive. The result is very rewarding for the listener, as Towb hits just the right notes and clearly has great comic timing, which is why I found some the jokes written around Mario so hilarious, even after multiple listens (I’ve lost count, definitely more than 10). Another delight in the supporting cast was the appearance of Paul Brooke as Paolo. Paul Brooke is one my all-time favourite British supporting actors. He may feature for less than 10 minutes of the whole audio, but his performances are always full of such character and gravitas, that he sells the part to you in mere moments, and certainly helps to support the story in some of its less dynamic and important scenes throughout parts two, three and five.

The audio production of The Ghosts of N-Space is generally quite well directed, with some tight editing in the middle episodes that helps the story just fly by at a thrilling pace, despite the amount of exposition and discussion that takes place as opposed to action, which mainly occurs in the later episodes. However, there seems to be a worrying tendency for many of the actors to perform too theatrically, and overact the melodrama, and I can’t help thinking that this was as much down to an artistic decision by the director, as it was to individual performances. Maybe direction for radio is too much like direction for theatre, something which Big Finish has mostly avoided during their audios.

One aspect in the production of The Ghosts of N-Space that has certainly raised its game since The Paradise of Death though is the post-production, which was itself very impressive last time. Peter Howell has definitely surpassed himself with a great stereo soundtrack, made of various creepy, ghostly and ethereal atmospheres, various types of guns, a symphony of explosions and destruction, a range of boat and water-related sounds, and I even noticed the canny use of white noise to represent the ghosts themselves. However, my favourite was the sound of travelling through the cracks in the N-Space barrier, which seems suspiciously like a slowed down and distorted sound of a sink of water being emptied as it quickly flows and swirls into the drainpipe. Once again Peter Howell creates sound design that is way ahead of its time, giving the BBC Radiophonic Workshop its last Doctor Who hurrah before it was sadly and short-sightedly closed down two years later in 1998, in yet another self-inflicted act of artistic vandalism by the BBC (even if it was not as obtuse as to wipe countless classic television episodes from various series across the 1960s and 1970s). While there are a few reused/re-recorded cues, Peter Howell’s original music is also brilliant, setting the tone of events and scenes in the story perfectly. Once again it’s a noted improvement on Howell’s music for The Paradise of Death, being more complex and developed in both melody and production, and also at times beautifully subtle in execution. In fact, some pieces are positively Dudley Simpson-esque, and are certainly reminiscent of the Jon Pertwee era on Television. Peter Howell’s music mostly consists of cues that help smooth over the transition between scenes and underscore dramatic moments, but there are longer pieces that help raise the tension, and make the sinister atmosphere palpable, or make the drama more exciting (or both). My favourite piece does just that, a slow, subtle and minimalist ghostly chant, sometimes accentuated with the single knell of a large solitary bell (like a church bell) that’s used most in parts two to four. It’s beautifully simple, and yet utterly chilling, while also signifying and reinforcing the importance and size of the threat posed by Max Vilmio. The piece is used best during the medieval scenes, which is very appropriate, considering how old the chanting style of music is. There’s also a lovely more upbeat minimalist piece which underscores the N-Space segments in the later section of part six, suitably giving a peaceful and heavenly vibe, considering that the area of N-Space bathed in light is a metaphor for heaven. Once again, Peter Howell’s arrangement of the Doctor Who theme is once again used to play over the titles, but oddly enough, I think it suits the more urgent and action-filled Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who, even if the Delia Derbyshire 1970s (remixed) theme does too. However, as the Peter Howell version of the Doctor Who theme has and always will be my favourite arrangement, you won’t hear me complaining.

While The Ghosts of N-Space may have been one of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s last big successes (the last was probably The Demon Headmaster), it was sadly Jon Pertwee’s last hurrah as the Doctor too. Despite the occasional padding and over-the-top sequences towards the end, and the mostly clichéd supporting characters, Barry Letts creates a real cracker of a story that I found fascinating, thrilling and fun in equal measure. The complex script and fast-paced plot engrossed me throughout, and the perfectly written and played comic relief between the Brigadier and Mario kept a smile on my face during most of the slower parts of the story.  A lot of commentators that listen to The Ghosts of N-Space often say that it’s too complicated and difficult to follow. Well, in the words of the Third Doctor – complete and utter balderdash! I prefer my stories to be complex, with its fair share of ideas and/or layers and themes, and great character development where possible too. As fun and enjoyable simple run-around stories are, I just find them far too disposable to get much satisfaction or continued pleasure from them over repeated viewings. This is ultimately why I will only be watching The Sunmakers and The Creature from the Pit once every five to ten years, while (if I had the time) I might watch something like Inferno or The Curse of Fenric once every one to three years. Sadly the faults that suddenly appear in the second-half of The Ghosts of N-Space, like the padding, silly/poor dialogue, annoying characters like Maggie and Jeremy, and the odd cliché and contrivance in the script stop the audio from being a classic, but the expert post-production, high quality of the story, and great performances from the seasoned regulars Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen, as well as Harry Towb, help to make the production a fantastic listening experience overall. The Ghosts of N-Space also left a great impression on me as a kid, so after all this time I’m still very fond of it, as I am of Jon Pertwee. He may not have been my favourite Doctor as a child (that being Sylvester McCoy), but there was a lot I loved about his portrayal, even then. The kind, avuncular, almost paternal-like compassion, the steely serious resolve, the daring and quietly brave heroism, his gentlemanly manner, and charming eccentricity all won me over back in 1996. Now, as an adult, he’s my all-time favourite, and I love his interpretation even more. I may still regret never getting to meet Jon Pertwee, but at least with his two audio adventures, he still finished his career on a high. Plus with such great and enjoyable Television and audio material of his left for us to enjoy and revisit, he’s never really gone forever.

Score: 8/10