The Screaming Skull is the third of four parts that makes up The Worlds of Doctor Who from Big Finish Productions. Whilst the first part gave us Jago & Litefoot in Mind Games, and the second involved Counter-Measures in The Reesinger Process, The Screaming Skull involves UNIT Captain Ruth Matheson (Daphne Ashbrook) and Warrant Officer Charlie Sato (Yee Jee Tso).
It’s the 1990s and retired, but recalled, UNIT Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) visits Matheson and Sato who are current residing under the “protection” of UNIT security due to a recent incident in which they were apparently under the influence of the Master. Having been misguidedly swayed by a more powerful calling isn’t something that’s unfamiliar to Yates.
Yates discusses with them more recent events that have been happening at UNIT’s “Vault”. Something inside is stirring. They’ve sent in UNIT soldiers, but none have returned, so they’ve turned to both retired and disgraced UNIT members who have more knowledge of strange and alien events, and those that know more about the Vault. Yates knows little of the Vault, but that’s why he has the authority to release Matheson and Sato, if they agree to accompany him inside.
They go into the Vault, with the instruction that if they’ve not returned within the hour, everything inside is to be destroyed.
Once inside, Matheson and Sato give Yates a guided tour of items that may be responsible for the strange goings on. Mike recognises some of them from his own adventures and reveals that he’s spearheading this mission because one of the missing soldiers is a close personal friend.
They find the missing soldiers, each searching the Vault like zombies. Their minds have been controlled. Mike is trapped by the mind-controlled form of his friend, and is taken to a strange glowing skull.
Meanwhile, Matheson and Sato hear the twinkling melody of a musical box. On investigating, they find a message from Sir Toby Kinsella instructing anyone who finds the box to listen to an old recording from the late 19th Century. The record features the voices of Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot revealing a little about the musical box, in between their typical banter.
Mike quicky learns that the skull houses the mind of Mr Rees, and it’s that mind that’s reached out to control the soldiers. He intends to extract all thoughts from Yates’ mind before controlling him, too. Rees is exalted when he experiences Mike’s thoughts, especially the more alien ones.
Having no prior knowledge of the Vault before this adventure, I found it remarkably similar to TV’s Warehouse 13 – a warehouse of indeterminate size designed to house items of mystical and magical properties. As a series it was a bit like a more light-hearted and lively version of The Lost Room. This is in its favour, as it incentivises me to listen to the other “Vault” related releases from Big Finish that I have in my collection.
It’s a little disconcerting to be listening to two actors that I’m familiar with from the Doctor Who TVM with Paul McGann (Daphne Ashbrook was Dr Grace Holloway, and Yee Je Tso was Chang Lee) as characters that I’m not familiar with in an environment I know nothing about. It takes the longest time to stop asking yourself “Why aren’t they playing their original characters?” Presumably there’s some kind of rights issue that prevents them from doing so, but it’s still off-putting.
The hastily potted backstory of the two characters regarding an encounter with the Master is, presumably, in reference to some prior adventure that I’ve yet to hear.
Nevertheless, the relative simplicity of this story – Yates takes two people into a mysterious environment where they discover Rees’ mind – is sufficient to not distract from telling us enough about the characters and the Vault with which we can enjoy the story. Perhaps to those listeners who already know of such things, this adventure would appear slow and uninteresting as a simple link between the second and fourth parts of this adventure, but to first-timers it’s an adequate set-up to not cause any alienation. The inclusion of Mike Yates, together with a potted history of familiar past adventures (and name-dropping others like Nest Cottage) helps keep up a level of interest until we get to face Mr Rees once again and the over-reaching adventure can continue.
I’m about two-thirds into this story so far and not expecting too much revelation to come out from the remainder, but I am intrigued to hear how it links through to the final part. Now that Rees knows of other-worldly situations and characters, I’m sure we’re in for a impactful finale.