Delving into Romana's past also allows Gary Russell to bring back Mary Tamm as Romana I, another welcome move. The more laid-back Lalla Ward incarnation of, say, City of Death is one we have seen grow into the powerful, all-responsible President she is by the time of these audios, but going right back to Romana from before she even met the Doctor is a great way of paralleling how far she's come. The 'Ice Queen', as she was nicknamed then (not to be confused with "RISE MY ICE WARRIORS"), is a formidable intellect, a brilliant student who alienates others by how intelligent she is - but who therefore ends up lonely herself (there's an absolutely lovely beat between Braxiatel and Romana at this stage, as he admits he's helping her out because she reminds him of himself when he had to suffer the rites and rituals of the Academy).
As we segue into the meat of the story-line, thoughts of the young Romana at the forefront of our minds, it's not hard to spot common strands shared by both: a certain idealism, a certain gutsy determination to keep trying to make things better, even at the expense of close friendship or convenient alliances. Deeply laudable in many ways if you ask me - and you're reading this, so you probably do - but exactly the sort of thing that would get a more conservative Time Lord's goat. Combine the above qualities with President version of Romana's tendency towards hubris and arrogance ("President Know-It-All", "Imperiatrix"), the steely edge she displays when interrogating Andred in a cell, and the fact that someone in such a high position is "not allowed friends", and you have a potentially explosive combination on your hands (even more so once the two Romanas meet and clash). It's gratifying to see Romana so front and centre in these audios, to the extent that travels with the Doctor feel like a brief sideshow in her long life; various TV stories - most particularly The Horns of Nimon, in my view - make her more appealing and interesting a hero to follow than he is, and so I'm pleased indeed that we now get the chance to follow such a Romana-centric story-line. That glimpse of Brax in the past - a glimpse of his dominant position over the young Romana - also colours how we perceive him in the present, as the roles are reversed and he behaves "obsequiously" towards his former pupil, now the president; the relationship between the two is well spotlighted in an ambiguous closing scene (we never know whether to trust Brax or not, and Richardson delivers that final line - "my President flatters me" perfectly).
The ongoing process of making underdeveloped characters feel more alive and three-dimensional - such as Narvin and Inquisitor Darkel - continues here. What helps is Gary Russell's solid grip on how individuals react to events. President Romana was positioned in the first series as at the more liberal end of the Time Lord political spectrum (not something we can say for many of the others). As the story begins, her liberalising agenda - a plot device which arises organically out of her character - is in full swing, what with the Time Lord Academy now accepting non-Gallifreyan species as its students ("alien children"). This gives Sean Carlsen interesting stuff to play as Narvin, angry at the sweeping changes but irritated at being labelled "xenophobic" (and it's always great to hear the CIA called out for its xenophobia, of course), not to mention the subplot about his increasing stress and sleeplessness being due to Pandora's influence. Lynda Bellingham, in turn, gets good material as Inquisitor Darkel, who is shown here as being a politician of vast cunning and Machiavellian ability, one who is ready to bring Romana down if she has to just because she fears just how much change the notoriously conservative Gallifreyan political structure can take; Bellingham has a strong line in fork-tongued menace.
Louise Jameson remains on top form as Leela; Russell gives her and John Leeson great material with which to play off one another. Their first scene together, in which she asks K9 if he's happy, is particularly good; Leela wishing that she has databanks just like her robot dog, because then "with a flick of a switch I could turn myself off, become unaware of all that has happened", rings emotionally true. Her unease and isolation on Gallifrey seems yet more distinct since Gallifrey I, particularly in light of the revelations that Andred has become an entirely different person (and how neatly this is twinned with her learning that Romana was once a different person, too). These audios would be seriously weaker without Jameson, who anchors things perfectly with a grounded, always-believable performance. And kudos to Russell, who writes all the regulars well, even managing to juggle two Romanas and two K9s without missing a beat.
The arc plot continues to blossom here, most notably in that enigmatic word 'Imperiatrix', also how Arkadian first addressed Romana in Weapon of Choice and even, in a nod to Zagreus, a vision of Romana herself as Imperiatrix of Gallifrey. The truth that emerges - it was a title taken by Pandora, first female President of Gallifrey, when she tried to overthrow the planet's ancient laws but was overthrown by the High Council - is pleasingly rooted in mythology, a part of that sense of scale and ambition that I mentioned was lacking in Gallifrey I. Like all the best ventures into myth, it illumines the present, as if Romana is an embodiment of Pandora and Leela an echo of Pandora's primordial bodyguard, as if it were always meant to be this way and Romana's claims to have free will are all spurious. Better still, it taps into Greek mythology too, as it's stated that Pandora was scattered throughout legend and that tales of 'Pandora's Box' and the like are vestiges of a real, hubristic ruler who unlocked that which should have remained hidden. With the Pandora and Imperiatrix additions, this is clearly becoming a story about ambition and the will to power: how far will Romana go? Colour me suitably intrigued and keen to hear more, which for my money more or less says that this ambitious, complex debut instalment has done its job.
Darlington's sound design and score are a definite step-up in quality, more choral and foreboding.
"Everybody hates the Academy. It's part of the education process. You're not supposed to enjoy it."
"Because you can't."/"What kind of answer is that?"/"A Gallifreyan one."
"She's the wretched President. They'd approve of painting the Panopticon cerise if she asked them to."
Of course we're getting Maxil name-drops, tie-ins to the Killorans from Arrangements for War and nods to The Ribos Operation, The Armageddon Factor and Destiny of the Daleks in a Gary Russell script. Though in all fairness, none of it is too intrusive or unnecessary, and the explanation for what is already a pretty daft scene in Destiny works for me.
"You don't understand. No one does. You all believe the CIA to be some kind of secret police, or a covert group of spies plotting and scheming ... At the heart of it all, we do some good. We pick up the pieces you politicians leave behind. We smooth over the holes you create. Without our work over the aeons, the universe would be in a pretty poor state."
"I control your future. I control whether you have one."
"Shush, metal one! Do not excite yourself so."/"This unit does not get excited!"
The idea that Brax maintains his Collection by keeping in contact with his time-travelling past and future selves is a lovely, very Adamsian idea, and it'll be great to see this explored in future stories.
There's only one dreadfully clumsy scene here, and it's the bit where Andred addresses his rescuer by saying every tiny bit of exposition so that we don't get to hear his rescuer talk and give away their identity.
"The House of Heartshaven"? That's a lovely, lyrical flourish.
"You should not be afraid of your feelings, K9."
"So you're what I'll become one day, are you?...how homely."/"And you're what I was... how gauche."
"Poor K9. So many mistresses, all at once!"
"I do not know what shocks me most, Romana: that you had a previous life or that Narvin is considered one of the most intelligent Time Lords!"