“He’s achieved nothing! Except a glorfied encyclopedia masquerading as a theme park!”
Now this is more like it. After the somewhat average but still enjoyable “Destination Nerva”, “The Renaissance Man” supplies the listener with a much more interesting story, and one that again reflects some of the “losing one’s humanity” themes of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era of Doctor Who. In this case, people aren’t turning into aliens, but rather losing themselves as the knowledge in their minds is stolen from them. It’s a suitably frightening concept to build a story around. Who would we be if we had no sense of self, no memory of our past or what we had learned over the years? The story also steps away from aliens and gives the Doctor a more human opponent in the form of Harcourt, a collector who takes more than he should, and who is not quite what he seems.
The Doctor responds to Leela’s challenge to teach her by taking her to the Moravian Museum, a vast repository of artifacts from human history. He does this in order to inform her about her past and ancestry, a theme that was explored to some extent on the television series. Tom Baker and Louise Jameson seem much more like their old selves in this story. The dialogue feels more authentic, and the performances resemble those of the television series more than those in “Destination Nerva” did. That alone elevates this second play above the first.
This is a story built around knowledge and the acquisition of it, and so there’s quite a bit of trivia sprinkled throughout the episodes. I’d certainly never heard of cow parsley, for example. And it does seem like a very Fourth Doctor trait, to pull random trivia out of some corner of his mind and use it to stump an enemy. This is very much a literal case of the Doctor “matching wits” with his opponent, and it’s entertaining to listen to. A discussion of facts and trivia suits the audio medium since a good many scenes involve the discussion of information rather than action, meaning that description is much less forced than it sometimes feels in an audio story. And there’s always something satisfying about a good debate, particularly when half the debate consists of dialogue spoken by Tom Baker and his familiar rich voice.
The artificial nature of the environment (and the people!) isn’t readily apparent at first. In retrospect it makes perfect sense of Leela’s feeling that the place is wrong, and it makes sense of the way in which paintings, cabinets of butterflies and books all appear where there was nothing before. The objects are virtual, not actual physical items. The entire museum is a sort of TNG-style holodeck complete with malfunctions, though the malfunctions turn out to be deliberately caused by the Doctor. It’s a nice idea for a museum, though it does mean that visitors would be viewing replicas of items rather than actual relics. But throughout the first episode, the mystery persists, right up until the final scenes when the Doctor figures out what the museum is and what is happening to the people who visit it. And with a parade of learned dignitaries set to arrive soon, the danger to them is readily apparent.
The second episode is a bit of a time-filler, all things considered. We find out most of the answers at the end of episode one, so part two consists of “running down corridors” as the Doctor and Leela get separated and make their way through the various environments. All it serves is to put off the final confrontation with Harcourt and fill running time. Like all padding, the success or failure depends on how interesting the filler material is. It’s reasonably interesting and doesn’t last too long, and it illustrates the patchwork nature of the museum, so it serves some purpose. And once the final confrontation between the Doctor and Harcourt takes place, it’s well worth the wait. In a nice story twist, the butler Jephson turns out to be the curator of the museum and the real villain of the piece. His artificial world collapses thanks to the false data the Doctor let him steal from his mind, and the Doctor and Leela go on their way.
Overall: The concept is interesting, and though even this short two part story contains some padding, it still holds up well. The story doesn’t feel like it belongs in either the Hinchcliffe era or the Graham Williams era, but the Doctor and Leela themselves feel much more like they could have stepped right out of the latter. They bicker and discuss and get along well and speak as they should.