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Audio Drama Review
Today should be much like every other day for Hargreaves, the computer consciousness that co-ordinates life aboard the spaceship Aquitaine, stationed on the outer fringes of a black hole. Water the plants, run the diagnostics, cook the Captain’s breakfast; then tidy the plates away, rotate the ship, clean the windows of the observation deck. When at last the day’s work is done, Hargreaves will dim the lights in the sleeping quarters. But no-one will sleep aboard the Aquitaine tonight. Because the Aquitaine’s crew is missing. But today will be different. Today, a space/time ship called the TARDIS will materialise in the botanical section, bringing the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan aboard. Together, they’ll seek to discover the truth of what happened to Hargreaves’ crew… if only the ghosts will let them…
As I sat down to listen to this audio adventure, I was immediately reminded of the Red Dwarf episode Kryten, in which Rimmer, Lister and the Cat find the eponymous service mechanoid attempting to look after a group of people who are long since dead. “Are you a doctor?” says the incredulous Kryten, when Rimmer breaks the news to him.
Like Kryten, the artificial intelligence in this story is a sort of space-age Jeeves – a nickname that Tegan quickly confers upon him. Hargreaves is charmingly portrayed by Matthew Cottle. Prim, proper and slightly melancholic, he appears in almost every scene and remains a welcome presence throughout. However, the fate of Hargreaves’ crew is a lot more complicated than what became of Kryten’s, involving apparent ghosts, time warps and rapacious vegetation.
It’s a story that might have been commissioned by the early 1980s script editor Christopher H Bidmead (the time-distorting ergosphere that surrounds the nearby black hole is a real scientific concept) and then given a more fanciful spin (not dissimilar to Enlightenment) for Season 20. In common with the whole of the Black Guardian trilogy from that season, Aquitaine is all about a spaceship.
Coincidentally, the name of the vessel retroactively builds an in-joke into The King’s Demons from later in the season. When Sir Geoffrey de Lacy asks Lord Ranulf Fitzwilliam where the mysterious Doctor has come from, Ranulf speculates, “Aquitaine?”, referring to a region of France.
There’s some top-quality banter among the TARDIS crew here, especially in terms of sniping between Tegan (Janet Fielding) and the Doctor (Peter Davison). “We didn’t have to grab on to the console for support or anything,” remarks Tegan, sarcastically, when the TARDIS makes an unusually smooth landing. “That must be a new record,” sighs the Doctor, when Tegan beats her personal best time for wandering off. Meanwhile, Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) puts her scientific knowledge to good use and – not for the first time – falls victim to a nasty illness.
Writers Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, director Ken Bentley, and sound designer Andy Hardwick build up the levels of mystery and threat with great skill, though I’m not entirely convinced that all of the ideas fit together comfortably. The infectious plants feel a little tacked on to the ghosts / timeslip side of the story – the 15 minutes of interviews at the end of Disc Two confirm that this started out as a more basic “haunted house in space” plot. Harry Myers (better known as Adrian Wall in the Bernice Summerfield series) sounds completely different as the Russian Dr Sergei Akunin, but his character’s actions and motivations are rather blunt instruments.
For the most part, though, Aquitaine acquits itself well.
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