The world of Doctor Who has frequently been mined for Extended Universe stories. Whether they’re stories of the adventures the Doctor never had on screen – which have been the stuff of annuals and comic strips for decades – or stories of friends and companions of the travelling Time Lord, which have really come into their own on audio, there seems to be an endless supply of imagination out there to add to the richness of the world of Doctor Who.
So in some ways, it’s remarkable that this audiobook is the first of its kind. The first to tell the story of Bessie, the Third Doctor’s faithful souped-up Edwardian roadster, so much a feature of Jon Pertwee’s time in the Tardis.
Then again, the mind of writer Paul Magrs is not so much the first of its kind as very probably the only one of its kind, so the fact that he should be responsible for delivering this joyously unique look into the life and times of the Doctor’s car comes as no real surprise.
Getting Stephanie Cole (of Tenko, Open All Hours, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and a whole lot more) to read the first-person account of Bessie’s life is a stroke of staggering genius – but then, getting Stephanie Cole to do almost anything is going to massively enhance the attraction of your work.
In Bessie Come Home, we get bold invention, as we hear of Bessie’s initial adventures with her first gentleman racer and some other pre-Doctor owners. We hear of the ups and downs of a roadster’s life – from love and polish and a coat of daffodil yellow, to years under a tarp, succumbing, like Marvin from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, to rust and ennui in almost equal measure.
But we also get a lot of detail about Bessie’s post-Doctor years, when her beloved owner simply ran off into time and space without so much as a by-your-leave, and UNIT, with budget cuts to face and no likelihood of the Doctor’s return, sold her on. Yes, for those fans who were just about to point it out, there’s a work-around to explain her appearance in Battlefield, so many years after her UNIT days, despite being sold.
But when we join Bessie in this story, she’s once again in a state of disrepair. She’s the prize possession of a Mr Foreman, who owns what is little more than a junkyard (though not, like his grandfather, one in Shoreditch). And though she’s dilapidated and in need of a new paint job, in the care the ‘Young’ Mr Foreman shows her, Bessie feels a kind of late-life love and contentment, a sense that she is where she now belongs.
But people are coming for Bessie.
People who know more than Mr Foreman about her past, and her potential.
People with big wallets, bigger lies, and still bigger henchmen. People offering Mr Foreman a six-figure sum for the broken-down old roadster in the corner of his yard. And while the money would be an enormous help to Mr Foreman and his ailing business, Bessie senses trouble, the darkness of her would-be buyers’ intentions oozing out of them on some psychic wavelength that the roadster can feel.
And so, Bessie speaks – to us, directly, and to Mr Foreman through visions of her past and her adventures, explaining, in the only language they share, exactly why the villains might come calling, offering such fantastic sums for her. She begs him for the chance to take him to see her friends at UNIT HQ – to see the Brigadier and the gang, so she can prove that the visions in his head are all true, are all the memories she’s shared with him.
And how, exactly, is Bessie able to do any of that?
Ah, that’s one of the chief joys of the story – it’s thanks to the Doctor. Many cars may have a kind of primitive intelligence, to be sure, and Bessie remembers her earlier owners with some fondness. But her time with the Doctor, taking the Earthbound, yearning traveller where he needed to be, and where the world needed him to stand as its champion – those are the times when both Magrs’ writing and Cole’s performance sing with happiness, with pride, with the sheer, unbridled joy of a companion who did her utmost to help save the world.
If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, it’s an absolutely wonderful ride to hear Cole give voice to Bessie’s delight during her peak UNIT days, not just at the important job she did and the relationship she had with her Doctor, but the almost maternal care and affection with which she remembers her adventures with Professor Shaw, with Sarah-Jane Smith, and most especially with Jo Grant – “the only one, apart from the Doctor, who treated me as though I were a person.”
And it’s during that section that we learn where Bessie’s consciousness and sentience comes from. As well as the overhauling of her drive systems, her engines, her brakes, during his time on Earth, the Doctor…connected Bessie to the Tardis. And that connection gave her a greater sense of self than any Edwardian roadster would ordinarily have.
From the moment you understand that, the whole drama becomes more poignant – the joy she takes in the memories of her UNIT time, the contentment she’s found as an ‘old lady’ with Mr Foreman, and even the annoyance and contempt with which she regards the ‘Whomobile.’ It also makes her current predicament, with sinister forces who know of her past willing to do anything to get their nefarious paws on her, more sharply urgent.
We won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s as unusual as you’d expect from Paul Magrs, and has a satisfying moral to tie it up in a storytelling bow for you.
All round then, Bessie Come Home is a unique, funny, poignant story that goes literally ‘beyond’ the Doctor and Bessie’s time with him. It gives some rich background on Bessie’s history, celebrates her time with the Doctor and her other friends, and delivers a contemporary threat and a cross-country chase, of the kind that will prod your memories of Bessie at her best.
Ultimately, it delivers a message that memories of a ‘best’ relationship are wonderful and perfect in themselves, but if time moves on and you find a place that’s right for you NOW, you can embrace that without it diminishing anything you’ve been or anyone you’ve loved.
Bessie Come Home is a fantastic addition to the extended universe of Doctor Who, and you can’t listen to it without it growing a broad, broad, satisfied smile on your face.
You need a broad, broad, satisfied smile – you know you do. Let Bessie take you on her journey today. Tony Fyler