Other than the slightly clunky pun on Dale Carnagey’s seminal 1936 business teaching guide in the title – although it’s hard to offer up a better alternative – James Goss has an absolute riot in this thirty-minute or so Short Trip. It’s ostensibly a fourth Doctor story, but really the Doctor is almost irrelevant and it is Rufus Hound’s “Mystic” Monk (a spoiler that might have been better left out of the publicity material, as the play works equally well if the listener is unaware of the revelation) who takes centre stage.
Written in the form of a motivational lecture, How to Win Planets plays completely to Hound’s strengths by putting him right where he belongs: in front of a “live” audience. It’s the kind of conceit that might have worked nicely with other actors, but which absolutely sings in the hands of an experienced, adept and adaptable stand-up comedian. Because he knows his Doctor Who, Hound totally owns the material, wringing every comic and canonic possibility from every last line and syllable. It’s possibly the most charismatic performance in Big Finish’s near two-decade history, a tour de force of acting – and yes, in spite of the comedy this is properly an acting role – to match Peter Butterworth’s original; this is a villain who thinks of himself a hero, and whom the audience can warm to far more than they probably can the series’ eponymous character. The Meddling Monk is a genius creation, a morally ambivalent Time Lord who is naughty rather than nasty, and elicits our sympathy accordingly. When his comeuppance comes, as of course it must, we almost jeer the Doctor’s spoiling of the Monk’s sport.
This would be nothing if James Goss’ words didn’t match Hound’s delivery of them however. There is, it almost goes without saying, a huge debt to Douglas Adams both in the concepts and their irreverential construction. Adams’ disdain for bureaucracy is taken to its nth degree, with Goss weaving alien invasion ideas around the perceived pettiness of humankind’s obsessions, its almost religious reverence for business and its deference to even the most impenetrably supercilious systems of governance. In Goss’ hands and in Hound’s voice, the poking at politicking is light and frothy, a soufflé of subversive notions to match Adams at his most pointed.
We can imagine producer Ian Atkins and director Lisa Bowerman sitting back and simply watching the magic create itself here. Hound’s delight at Goss’ script is palpable, the fun he has in imparting it infectious and inclusive. It’s the perfect match between actor and writer, a glorious, fun synergy that begs to be enjoyed. It’s not your standard Doctor Who, that’s for sure. And it’s all the better for it.
DOCTOR WHO SHORT TRIPS: HOW TO WIN PLANETS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / DIRECTOR: LISA BOWERMAN / WRITTEN BY: JAMES GOSS / STARRING: RUFUS HOUND / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW FROM BIG FINISH