By Matthew Kresal
The mid-1980s is not remembered fondly by fans of the BBC's Doctor Who. The series began a downward trajectory after Peter Davison left the series, leaving his successor Colin Baker to bear the brunt of much criticism as the long-running series fell out of favor both within the corporation and with the wider viewing public. Yet, in a different world, it might also have seen one of the writers who would define the series this century make his debut writing for the series on-screen nearly twenty years early. That writer was Russell T Davies, and his script Mind of the Hodiac has found new life this year thanks to audio drama makers Big Finish's Lost Stories range.
While released as part of the Lost Stories output, Mind of the Hodiac isn't quite in the same category as, say, the Masters of Luxor or even Return of the Cybermen. As revealed on Twitter during the Lockdown tweetalong event for the 2006 Christmas special The Runaway Bride, the man who brought Doctor Who back to BBC television in 2005 (and will be doing so again) wrote the script on spec in 1986 for the then current team of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor and Bonnie Langford’s Mel. Though the opening episode was scripted by incoming script editor Andrew Cartmel (who oversaw the scripts for Baker’s successor Sylvester McCoy), the back-half of the story remained in storyline form until fleshed out by Davies' friend (and Big Finish writer/director) Scott Hancock. Not that you'd know listening to it, of course, as Hancock perfectly channels Davies' writing and ear for dialogue to round off the adventure.
Listening to this Big Finish version, released in the spring, reveals how ahead of its time 1986 Davies was. Written in the 45-minute format of Classic Who's 1985 season (and the revival Davies oversaw), featuring the Sixth Doctor traveling with Bonnie Langford's Mel, and the subplot around intergalactic financing and stockbrokers all firmly root Mind of the Hodiac in the mid-1980s, fitting it in nicely alongside the two Sil stories and the post-Trial of a Time Lord era. Yet the Earth-based portions of the plot, ranging from a working-class family experiencing the extraordinary and a mysterious government agency they come into contact with, all offer pre-echoes of what Davies would do with the series two decades later, as well as his 1997 Doctor Who novel Damaged Goods. It's can be a slightly surreal experience at times, especially realizing how well everything dovetails into one another.
Not that Mind of the Hodiac avoids some of the pitfalls of any of those aforementioned eras of Doctor Who’s long history. The first half suffers from the same issue as the Sixth Doctor serial Revelation of the Daleks, with the Doctor and Mel essentially guest stars in their own series at the expense of setting up everything and everyone else. The finale, meanwhile, suffers from the threat of a battle that could consume and destroy all of Earth, yet seems very contained to a single building where it isn't doing much damage. The story's ultimate resolution, in keeping with a criticism of Davies TV Who scripts, involves a bit of Deus ex machina to end the story how and when it does. How many of these would have remained in a 1987 TV production isn’t entirely clear, and it’s worth noting that none of these are fatal flaws, though they may dampen one’s enjoyment of the story.
As this reviewer noted during reviews of Big Finish's Doctor Who Unbound range, their productions tend to be solid and Mind of the Hodiac is no exception. Owing to the story’s pedigree, Big Finish has pulled out all the stops for this production including a larger than your typical cast, led by Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford. Both of whom, it must be said, clearly relish the writing given to them by Davies, with Baker especially getting plenty of good material (often head and shoulders above what the actual TV writers of the era gave him). Surrounding them is a cast featuring several of Big Finish's past performers and those with ties to Davies's past work. They include Annette Badland as the delightfully batty and malevolent Mrs. Chinn, Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo as the right-hand woman of the Hodiac (with the villain wonderfully performed by Laurie Kynaston), and Sutara Gayle as the Nan of the family caught up in events. It's a cast full of strong female characters, in particular, and a showcase for all of the actresses involved. It's to the credit of both Hancock as director and Emily Cook as producer that they assembled the caliber of a cast that they did.
It also sounds fantastic. Rob Harvey's sound design and music work sees him creating soundscapes that take listeners from a group of galactic stockbrokers to spaceships and 1980s London, sometimes in consecutive scenes. It's the music where Harvey outdoes himself, with his music pulling the same trick as Davies's script: combining different Doctor Who eras. There are both the synthesizer elements from the TV scores of eighties Who you'd expect, but there are also hints of the orchestral work that became a hallmark of the series' 21st-century incarnation. The result is a story that almost certainly sounds better than it would have in an alternate 1987.
But what an alternate 1987 Doctor Who this would have been. One spared the likes of Time and the Rani and the sometimes campy mess that all but doomed Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor before he’d had a chance. What Mind of the Hodiac offers is a glimpse into that intriguing alternate season that might have been if Davies' spec script and the series casting had gone another way. Not a perfect story, of course, but one far better than any viewers got on BBC One all the same.
A version of this review was first published on Warped Factor on the 4th of April, 2022.