The history of Doctor Who is littered with lost stories – adventures that were pitched, outlined or even scripted but somehow never saw production.
The aborted twenty-third season of Doctor Who has six prime examples of lost stories. By 1985, the production team was gearing up for the next season – the second with Colin Baker in the title role. Writers had been commissioned and were putting the finishing touches on their scripts. However, machinations at the BBC put the show on an eighteen-month hiatus and the scripts were abandoned. When Doctor Who returned, the team had a different direction for the show and brand new scripts were required. So these writers put their stories away, seemingly lost to time.
One of these writers – Wally K Daly – saw potential in his script as a novel and worked with Target Books to adapt it in 1989. Since then, Daly has had a prolific career writing for the screen and radio including Casualty and Byker Grove. One of his earlier radio plays – a sci-fi trilogy called Before The Screaming Begins in 1978 – starred the Second Doctor himself Patrick Troughton.
Since then, The Ultimate Evil existed only as a novel. That is, until Big Finish Productions invited Daly to turn his television script into an audio play. In 2019, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant finally get the script they’ve waited 33 years to perform in Doctor Who: The Lost Stories – The Ultimate Evil.
With the TARDIS working perfectly, the Doctor and Peri decide to take a holiday. But where? A long-forgotten piece of equipment in the TARDIS storage locker sends them to the peaceful and idyllic continent of Tranquela – home of the Doctor’s old friend Ravlos.The Ultimate Evil – Synopsis (Big Finish)
But the land where they emerge is far from peaceful. A hate ray is regularly sweeping Tranquela, turning its inhabitants into savage beasts, and there is only one place it can originate – the planet’s other continent, home of Tranquela’s old enemies, the Amelierans.
Or is that the only place? Because somewhere far above the planet events are watched by the slimy super-salesman, Mordant, who has his own unscrupulous plans.
But what does it take to adapt one story into three different mediums? I’ve looked at every version to see how the adventure differs in each iteration.
Unfortunately, the original shooting script is unavailable. But in a conversation with the other would-be season 23 writers on the blu-ray release for The Trial of a Time Lord, Daly spoke about crafting the script. Having never seen an episode of Doctor Who before, his wife drafted a half-page storyline based on Daly’s idea. That formed the basis of what would become a four-episode script.
Perhaps hearing about the show’s (somewhat exaggerated) reputation for violent imagery, Daly imagined the Doctor under the influence of Mordant’s hate-ray bearing down on somebody brandishing two shards of glass. In 2019, Daly mused that this image, while striking, would probably be a bit too much for TV audiences.
In the novel and audio, the Tranquelans and Amelierans share a planet but are separated by continents. In the original script, however, Daly wrote the formerly-warring civilizations as different planets. While it’s hard to see what this changes in the story, the prospect of large space battles à la Star Wars was probably tantalising even if there’s no sign of that happening in the other versions.
Released in 1989 under the Target Books range, the novel clocks in at a slender 144 pages. The brevity seems to be, at least in part, down to the lack of descriptions and atmosphere. It often reads like a scene outline for a production designer to fill in the blanks. This being Daly’s second book, it appears that his talent for writing prose is still developing.
It’s definitely paced like a scene outline, carefully structured to fill four episodes. The Doctor and Peri don’t really enter the action until a third of the way into the book, just in time for a moment that was almost certainly designed to be the episode one cliffhanger. However, Daly reshuffled the scenes around these so the resolution is delayed and tension has time to grow. If this were shown on TV, the opening minutes of the next episode would, by necessity, have to recap and resolve the cliffhanger in short order. While the settings lack descriptive texture, Daly has clearly latched on to one major advantage of the new medium.
Evidently, part of Daly’s brief for the episode was to introduce the warmer side of the Doctor and Peri’s relationship. There are still plenty of barbed words and the Doctor’s personality is consistent with his earlier appearances. But it’s clear his regard for Peri has grown enormously and he recognises when he slips up. For her own part, Peri seems to appreciate that the Doctor is at least trying.
The style of Daly’s dialogue took me a long time to get to grips with since, at times, it’s very flowery and unnatural. But by the halfway point it clicked with me that The Ultimate Evil borrows elements of a fairytale and the inhabitants of Tranquela are designed to speak like that. With it’s talk of “goodness” and “badness” as concrete things, the undiluted avarice of the villains, the princes and castles and two people being identical through sheer coincidence. Occasionally the Doctor or Peri will say something weird and uncharacteristic but, once you come at it from the fairytale mindset, the dialogue from native Tranquelans becomes much easier to parse.
Though The Ultimate Evil makes for a decent novel, it’s clear the story works best when performed by a strong cast. That’s where the audio adaptation gets its edge. The grandiose dialogue scans more comfortably when read aloud. While the audio was written by Daly, adapted from the TV script, John Dorney’s fingerprints as script editor are unmistakable particularly in the way Peri’s dialogue is more natural. While the script takes Colin Baker back to the early days of his Doctor, Nicola Bryant performs Peri as the more developed character that she and Big Finish have crafted over the years. The only place this disappoints is downplaying Mordant’s more cowardly moments. Robin Sebastian does an excellent job selling the villain’s slimier salesman side but the descriptions of Mordant’s blind panics are presented as more calculated steps of concealment. It might have added a little more comic relief into the very dense and grand conversations.
Crafted as a pair of hour-long episodes, the story gently reshuffles and merges a few scenes of the Doctor and Peri in the TARDIS. Without taking away any dialogue, the pair arrive on Tranquela a quarter into the release. This goes a long way to making the duo feel more integrated into the story and ups the pace dramatically.
Nothing major has changed in the plot and the script matches the novelisation’s dialogue pretty closely. But while it may be matching Daly’s original vision it fails to take advantage of the audio medium. The limited number of locations (possibly a budget consideration in Daly’s TV script) goes unchanged despite opportunities to move the action to new locations. Moreover, in every version of the story, the concept of Thought Balloons is established early but only ever mentioned to explain why they’re no longer used. Given the opening of the armory in episode two, where the Thought Balloons are stored, I thought they’d be put to work. It would’ve been fun to have one of the other Tranquelans, like Abatan or Shankel, use them to keep up with Escoval and Locas during the final confrontation. But these are all nitpicks of the adaptation process.
Although, they cut out the giant robot. I like giant robots.
Big Finish’s adaptation of The Ultimate Evil is a manic, unpredictable adventure that gives Wally K Daly’s story back the cast and audience it was always meant to have.
The Target Books novelization is currently out of print but copies are often available from second-hand retailers.