|Winter For the Adept by Andrew Cartmell|
"Winter for the Adept" is great in context. It's interesting to look over Big Finish as the series furthers a rather long past, and to note that there are just as many peaks and troughs, and more importantly microcosmic learning curves, than we observed on TV. How did we get through the post-"Spare Parts" era, for example, when they dished up "Ish...", "The Rapture" and "The Sandman" in consecutive months? Well, actually, I have some secret love to share for the latter, but that's another story...
Even more brow-furrowing now is the beginning of the range. Whilst it's obviously natural to observe that they got better at it as time went on, there are some quite shaky footsteps in that initial batch of releases. Although fan confidence perhaps contradicts this (did we really love "Whispers of Terror" that much?), of the first ten releases only a handful are of interest to me now. Of the experimental stories, only setting Colin Baker within a historical works completely, and elsewhere there is much traditionalism to varying degrees of success. Most notably, "The Land of the Dead" and "Phantasmagoria" had started to raise concern that we were still waiting, a year in, for Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor to fulfil the promise he showed in the curate's egg that was "The Sirens of Time".
Finally, in "Winter for the Adept", he does. I actually didn't want to like this on re-listening to it, largely because Andrew Cartmel seems like such a wretch in real life. But this is excellent stuff - an atmospheric setting, done convincingly, a handful of well-played characters, and a bit of a mystery, all grounding the story firmly in pleasurable "afternoon play" territory. It's no wonder they gave India the companion job - Peril Bellamy is more immature and frankly silly than Charlie, but she rises above almost everyone else to steal the show. The other characters are easily memorable, although Helen Dickenson's Mademoiselle Maupassant falls into the 'early bad accents' category.
The meat of the story is the 'hauntings' that arise from the various combined powers of Peril, Alison and the ghost of Harding Wellman... but let's not dwell on that too much, because the build-up to this revelation is far more satisfying. Essentially a Davison ghost story, the Doctors attempts to unravel the mystery, which he does gradually while playing the role of scientific detective, are kept lively by the interference of various of the other characters - Leutenant Sandoz's bull-like protection of Peril and Alison; Sandoz's somewhat dubious romance with Peril, and the wasted Miss Tremayne's amusing religious extremism. After a promising start, the character isn't in one episode then is pointlessly shot in the next, almost as if Cartmel simply needs to eliminate one more suspect in the mystery.
Alas, things go slightly downhill in Episode 4. The Spillagers scheme is somewhat convoluted, and there is some faff about them manipulating the school to search for psychically gifted girls. That an invasion of Earth depends on the fact that the school just happens to be haunted is ridiculous in the extreme. Ah yes, the ghost. Cartmel's sudden decision to make ghosts 'fair game' in the Doctor Who Universe jars intensely, if only because once Wellman has been unveiled, he essentially becomes another character, except invisible, jauntily chatting away with everyone else and leaving with Peril at the end! If he's so amiable (he's apparently been there 50 years, yet he hasn't even worked out that the do he remembers where everyone wore black was his funeral), why hasn't he tried talking to one of the girls before? Along with Sandoz turning out to be a slimy monster in disguise, it's as if the writer has decided to turn "Winter for the Adept" into a different, more jokey, kind of Doctor Who right at the end.
There's one other point of complaint with the story: Nyssa. Put simply, the listener is moved to ask just what on Earth is up with her in this story. She continually argues with everything the Doctor says, picks his every utterance to shreds, and never stops going on about the accident at the start when she ended up in the snow. In fact she positively loathes him! Was Auntie Flo visiting during this adventure?
Luckily the shortcomings are smoothed over by the relatively simply nature of the story and the freshness of the setting. Along with a superb score, this has become a rare gem in the early part of the Big Finish crown.
Part 1 - Tracks 1-7
Part 2 - Tracks 8-13
Part 3 - Tracks 1-5
Part 4 - Tracks 6-9