We’re back, with another Doctor Who audio drama review! We’re continuing our look at the eleven-volume Fiftieth Anniversary series, Destiny of the Doctor, produced by Big Finish in conjunction with AudioGO. Today we’re listening to the Fourth Doctor’s contribution to the series: Babblesphere, read by Lalla Ward and Roger Parrott. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio!
The date is unknown, but stated by the Prolocutor to be sometime in the Earth Empire period, which is usually considered to be between 2500 and 3000 AD. (For this I had to pull out my copy of A History of the Universe, by Lance Parkin; it’s been a while—I used it extensively in my classic series rewatch, but not much in regard to the audios so far.) The Doctor and Romana II—and K9, though he is not seen—land on the world of Hephastos, which has a small human colony of about ten thousand people. Immediately before they materialize, a man staggers into the street, spouting trivia about his day…then dies suddenly, smoke pouring from his ears. Visible on his head is an electronic interface chip, wired into his brain.
Accused of murder, the Doctor and Romana are taken into custody by a hostile robot (the name of which I was completely unable to spell, so I won’t try it here). It is surprised to discover they lack interface devices, and takes the Doctor away to be fitted with one, promising Romana that she is next. While he is gone, Romana meets another prisoner, Aurelius, who explains the situation. The devices are brain links that connect every person on the colony to a central computer network, called the Babble network. At one time they were voluntary, but now they are compulsory; the central computer, the Prolocutor, controls the planet, and private thought (“clandestination”) is a crime, of which Aurelius is guilty. He has found ways to hide his thoughts from the network, and must suffer for it.
The duo escape the cell, and meet a most unlikely group of rebels: a crowd of elderly women who have managed to remove the devices, and now live beneath the notice of the Prolocutor—or so they believe, at least. Together they rescue the Doctor, who has just completed testing prior to the implantation procedure. They make their way to a subterranean control room, where they find more of the Babble network’s history—and the skeletons of its original controllers, sitting where they were when the Prolocutor killed them and seized control. They are just about to end the machine’s reign, when Aurelius turns on them.
Speaking with the voice of the Prolocutor, he tells them that he was planted in the cell by the computer to engage and then betray the Doctor and Romana, and bring them into the Babble network’s control. Although Aurelius had believed he had free thoughts, he was mistaken; his implant was only temporarily disabled, and now had been reactivated. The computer forces the Doctor and Romana to join the network, not via implant—which they will eventually have, once incorporated—but via the more primitive headsets the original operators had used.
Once connected, they find themselves inside the virtual Babblesphere, a digital world populated by the minds of everyone on the planet, endlessly spewing their thoughts to each other. The Prolocutor reveals its plan: The rebels had previously sent a distress signal, and the Empire will not ignore it. Once help is sent, they will be absorbed into the sphere, and their ships will be used to reach other worlds, until the Prolocutor controls the Empire. Unfortunately, it reveals its weakness as well: It cannot deal with the vast amounts of trivia flowing through it. What people eat, what they wear, how they feel…these things are driving it insane. To lighten the burden, it has begun to kill off the worst offenders, like the body beside the TARDIS.
This gives the Doctor a plan. While he distracts the computer, Romana rouses the masses inside the sphere and leads them to ramp up the trivia they are pouring out. Still, this is not enough to stop the computer—until the Doctor and Romana join in. With the weight of all the minutiae that a Time Lord’s long life accumulates, they begin to overcome the machine.
In the midst of this, a new voice arises—that of the Eleventh Doctor. The Fourth Doctor quickly deduces that it is a future incarnation of himself (and takes a moment to insult his relative physical youth, of course). The Eleventh Doctor tells him to save a copy of the Prolocutor’s program and send it to an artificial intelligence museum on a hard drive—and then he adds a burst of trivia of his own, driving the Prolocutor to self-destruction.
As the Babblesphere collapses, the Doctor and Romana free themselves, and the Doctor moves to save the program as requested. He gets it, and adds a little something extra—a copy of his own psyche, to keep the program company in its exile. After all, it’s not an evil mind, just lonely. Then, twenty-four hours later, with the colony experiencing a remarkable turnaround, they return to the TARDIS and go on their way.
This entry in the series is fairly simple and straightforward; but it doesn’t suffer for that. Unlike Shadow of Death, it does have a villain in the Prolocutor, but it’s a sympathetic villain; the Prolocutor isn’t motivated by evil, just loneliness and efficiency. Of course that doesn’t excuse its murders; but as it’s a program, it perhaps can be remediated. The real star of this story is the dialogue. Although Lalla Ward is a great reader, she doesn’t capture the tone of the Doctors in the way that previous readers have done; but that is more than made up for by the dialogue, which is spot on for all the major characters, including the Eleventh Doctor. You can just picture him spouting the nonsense he uses against the Prolocutor; and the Fourth Doctor’s wit is exactly right. Romana herself isn’t bad either; she’s still a great foil for the Doctor, with perfect timing and almost telepathic sync with him.
Also unlike Shadow of Death, this entry name-drops some things which would not have been known to the Fourth Doctor, by way of the Eleventh Doctor’s trivia, such as the Ood (in his list of top five enemies). Romana also references the Krafayis (from Vincent and the Doctor) and the Shakri (from The Power of Three), though this is understandable, as they are also names from Gallifreyan nursery rhymes. The Doctor also mentions that he’s familiar with meeting future incarnations of himself, a probable reference to The Five Doctors (which, if we accept the existence of the Fourth Doctor version of Shada as the point that he was kidnapped from in The Five Doctors, would have been very recent for him) or other audios which I haven’t heard yet. In fact, he oddly seems to know that the Eleventh Doctor is physically young, despite not being able to see him here—only the voice is heard.
Chronologically, this story must occur in the early part of Season 18 of the classic series. The Doctor knows Romana has a sonic screwdriver, which originated in The Horns of Nimon, the Season 17 finale (unless we count Shada, which, as I mentioned, also fits in here without any issues). The story occurs in the regular universe, and doesn’t include Adric, Tegan or Nyssa, only Romana and (by reference) K9, making it prior to Full Circle; and the Doctor says he is repairing K9, putting it close to The Leisure Hive.
I enjoyed this story more than the previous entries, though for different reasons. It felt very much like a short serial from Season 18; it was mostly isolated from any continuity issues, in that it doesn’t deal with any story arc elements other than the Eleventh Doctor’s cameo. The writing was superb, and I give credit to Jonathan Morris, the writer. It is worth a listen even apart from the rest of the series, and listening to it in context only adds depth.
Next time: We return to the main range for The Holy Terror; and the Fifth Doctor and Tegan confront the Master—with a little help from Harry Houdini—in Smoke and Mirrors! See you there.
All audios featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.