'The Ghosts of N-Space' is a sequel to 'The Paradise of Death' in several ways. It followed on the heels of its predecessor, features the same cast including the woeful Jeremy Fitzoliver, is written by Barry Letts, and features several references to Parakon. It is also, like 'The Paradise of Death, feeble at best.
As in 'The Paradise of Death', it is nice to hear Pertwee, Sladen and Courtney reunited, all three of them once more seemingly approaching the project with enthusiasm, and this goes someway to carrying the story. As with 'The Paradise of Death', the character of Sarah Jane suffers somewhat from stupidity, this intelligent investigative journalist somehow surprised by her editor's failure to publish an article about Daleks on another planet. In addition, she is engaged in writing what sounds like a truly dreadful novel, which she mercifully abandons at the end of Episode Six. Despite this, Sarah comes over rather well, her distress over Louisa's fate well acted and touching. The Doctor and the Brigadier both get decent shares of the action, the Doctor instrumental in saving the world, and the Brigadier getting to play soldier even whilst on holiday, as he coordinates the defense of his uncle's castle.
Sadly, very little else works. Jeremy is still as irritating here as he was in 'The Paradise of Death', although to be fair he does benefit from actually doing something useful here, during the defense of the castle. His torture scene is quite effective, showing that Richard Pearce can at least act, and emphasizing just how unpleasant Max is. However, and I can't stress this enough, he's still thoroughly annoying. Teaming him up with Sandra Dickinson, an actress whose voice could etch glass, does not improve matters.
The plot is at best strange. Doctor Who's version of Hell isn't uninteresting, but having decided on the N-Space plot, Letts goes to great lengths to explain it in pseudo-scientific terms, resulting in a level of utterly meaningless technobabble that puts even Douglas Adams to shame. He might just as well have dismissed it as magic. The villain's aims are very straightforward; Max wants to harness the power of N-Space to conquer the Earth and spends centuries working to achieve this. Exactly how he became immortal in the first place is unclear; it seems to involve magic, which is rather ironic given Letts' aforementioned insistence on explaining N-Space pseudo-scientifically. Villains who want power simply for power's sake are commonplace in Doctor Who, and Max utterly fails to stand out, despite Stephen Thorne's third bellowing performance in the series to date. He's actually more restrained than he was in 'The Three Doctors', and gives a fairly good performance during the scenes set in the past, as he and the Doctor engage in a battle of wits which results in Max being entombed in a wall. However, in his scenes set in the present he is initially hampered by a dreadful cod-Italian accent and later descends into pure melodrama as he enters N-Space and starts laughing maniacally in a way that conjures up images of twirling moustaches and women tied to railway lines. In addition, his bombastic glee at escaping from the wall three hundred years after he was trapped inside suggests that he has been trapped in a five star hotel for three weeks rather than entombed in solid rock completely unable to move for three centuries, which lets face it should reduce anyone to a gibbering wreck.
One way in which 'The Ghosts of N-Space' shows improvement over 'The Paradise of Death' is in the pacing of the plot. Despite being one episode longer, 'The Ghosts of N-Space' feels less padded due to being set in three distinct time zones and exploiting the complexities of time travel rather well. Unfortunately, the plot also starts and ends with two coincidences that strain credibility, the first being that Sarah and Jeremy's holiday just happens to be in the same place as the Brigadier's Italian uncle's castle, and the second being that Elvis Impersonator Roberto just happens to be a long-lost heir. In addition, having for the most part managed to avoid expository dialogue in 'The Paradise of Death', here Letts seems to decide that he can't be bothered and has both the Doctor and Sarah talking to themselves extensively so as to explain the plot.
The supporting characters are rubbish. The Brigadier's uncle Mario has one of the stupidest accents of any Doctor Who story ever, and the concept of him having learned to speak English from children's books results in a comic device even less successful than Jeremy. The decision to portray Roberto as a habitual Elvis impersonator is equally under whelming. As with Hartnell in 'The Three Doctors', I'm glad that Jon Pertwee was given a final opportunity to reprise his most famous role before his death, I just wish that he had been given a better vehicle in which to do so.
Look again, out of the corner of your mind... - The Doctor
To celebrate Doctor Who's thirtieth anniversary, the BBC commissioned a radio serial entitled 'The Paradise of Death'. In the hubbub surrounding this, things seemed to go to the BBC's collective heads and they commissioned a follow-up, 'The Ghosts of N-Space'. It features the Third Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and the Brigadier. Where 'The Paradise of Death' missed the mark, it did a far better job than this serial!
However, there is a very special aspect to this story: it is the last time that Jon Pertwee played the Doctor - the story was recorded in 1995 and broadcast in January and February 1996, with Pertwee sadly passing away in May 1996. (It is possible that he may have recorded readings of the abridged novelisations of 'The Curse of Peladon' and 'Planet of the Daleks' after this, but this is his last time truly playing the role.)
As with 'The Paradise of Death', Jon Pertwee fits very easily into the role, however his voice is even older-sounding than the last story. Now, while the Third Doctor is often portrayed as rather arrogant, he is given to compassion and wise insights. It is good to see that these latter aspects are on display in this story.
Lis Sladen is back as Sarah Jane Smith, but this isn't necessarily a great Sarah story. Sladen plays the part fairly well, but she is given a significant number of very wet lines to deliver, and cannot completely overcome the poor lines.
Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier is also not badly portrayed, but also has some poor lines. He also seems to vacillate between an eccentric uncle and a Colonel Blimp style character. One wishes he was given a better role to play!
If Sarah and the Brigadier aren't well served by this story, the supporting characters are worse off. Usually quite flat and clichéd, there is very little to recommend them. Even the villain, Max Vilmio (Stephen Thorne), leaves a lot to be desired!
'The Ghosts of N-Space' suffers from a fairly simple plot rendered unduly complicated, where the Doctor and Sarah travel back through time to a couple of past times to try to discover where the threat to the present and prevent it from coming to pass. At the same time, the Brigadier and the diverse supporting cast (including the feckless Jeremy Fitzoliver, returning from 'The Paradise of Death') defend the Brigadier's Italian uncle from the attentions of a particularly vicious Mafia don. (I mean, the Brigadier's Italian uncle - what were they thinking of?)
Even using the term "N-Space" is problematic - this term was used during the shows seventeenth season to describe our normal space (N-Space) as opposed to this stories null space. However, this usage has gone forward, and the N-Space concepts originated in this story are used in the novels 'Damaged Goods' and 'So Vile a Sin'.
The incidental music is usually used to mark the change of scenes rather than adding to the mood of the story, and is therefore a little wasted.
I can only imagine that people listening to this over six weeks on the radio would have been horribly confused. Being able to listen to the almost three hours in one sitting (if you wish!) and to check back on details will assist in bridging the excessive interlacing of story elements.
However, with Jon Pertwee's last performance as the Doctor, you should probably get this one anyway!