Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor Volume 3 – Starring: Carol Ann Ford, Anneke Wills, Peter Purves, Elliot Chapman, Lisa Bowerman and David Warner & Written by Ian Atkins, Paul Morris, John Pritchard, Julian Richards, and Guy Adams. Directed by Lisa Bowerman – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
For the third concentrated box set of Companion Chronicles starring those who travelled with the First Doctor, the first thing to note is that you get your money’s worth in terms of time span and companion-spread. Susan, Vicki, Steven, and the Ben and Polly double-act each get a story in which to shine and show their mettle, so whoever are your favourites, you’re well served here.
The second thing to note is that the set rotates, sometimes loosely and sometimes tight, around the theme of heroism and heroes.
Carol Ann Ford kicks us off in E Is For… by Julian Richards, a dark take on the likes of the X-Men, dealing with people who are ‘Gifted’ spread throughout a populace, and the public response to them.
As in the Marvel universe, so in E Is For… – people are uncomfortable, unsettled, even plain scared by the ‘Gifted.’ And if little green mystic frogs have taught us anything in this life, it’s that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.
It certainly does on the planet Malkus, where Susan, separated from the Doctor, Ian and Barbara, finds her telepathic senses unusually enhanced. She finds her way into what is essentially a prison-cum-experimentation complex for the Gifted, and – because, let’s remember, she’s Susan – she sets all the prisoners free. All the prisoners, including a man known at least initially only as ‘Weapon E.’
Weapon E has particular problems. He’s trapped forever in a suit that shields him from outside energy sources, because when he isn’t in that suit, bad things happen. Susan’s kindness, and her initial lack of interest in why he might be locked in the highest security cell on the planet – we did mention she was Susan, right? – builds a bond between the two and they go on the run while trying to find information that will lead Susan back to her grandfather, her friends, and her home on board the Tardis.
It was never going to be that easy, was it?
Weapon E has been precisely that in the past, a weapon, used as a tool of order by nefarious forces, embodied here by the fabulously comic-book-named Colonel Maria Rage, played by Big Finish all-round superstar, Lisa Bowerman. As she chases Weapon E and Susan down, you might think the drama would plateau and simplify. Of course it doesn’t, this is Big Finish we’re talking about – the mysteries perhaps don’t deepen as mysteries, but they do begin to matter more as we learn Weapon E’s backstory, and find out why Malkus has been inundated with increasing numbers of the Gifted in recent years. The drama builds to moments of self-realisation, self-acceptance, and – again, Susan being Susan, and among the most primally, down-to-the-bone kind companions in Doctor Who history, with the giving of a gift that Weapon E would be unable to get any other way.
No really, shurrup, your eyes are leaking!
To kick off a set of stories about heroes, E Is For… takes the brash, bright, kapow! notion of comic-book superheroes and applies a down-to-earth realism to them, with intense and emotionally engaging results. While the underlying point of superheroes is to speak up for and defend the disenfranchised, the dark reality is that if they existed in our world, they’d be co-opted, coerced, imprisoned and used as tools of state aggression. Susan, our window on the world of the Gifted, helps start a revolution not with violence and pitchforks, but by listening, understanding, and standing up against the forces of fear. That makes E Is For… a cracking start to this set, showing us why the old man with the time-travelling box needs his more intuitive, his more inherently compassionate and in-the-moment friends and relations.
‘It takes courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.’ So Albus Dumbledore taught a generation. What, then, does it take to stand up to your history?
That’s a question at the core of John Pritchard’s Daybreak. While Ian and Barbara visit their future, for Vicki, the story takes her into her society’s past, to a glorious act of rebellion that began the dismantling of an oppressive regime. A band of heroes staged an attack against the forces of oppression, but were betrayed by one among their number – a ‘Judas’ figure, known and reviled ever after, so their attack cost the lives of all the heroes.
But what if history is not what you think it is?
To be fair, history rarely is what we think it is, because humans have a greater affinity for story and narrative than we do for fact. But when Vicki finds herself torn between ‘The Judge,’ symbol of the anti-democratic authorities, and Markus, the rebel leader (both played, in a neatly satirical touch, by Clive Hawyard), she discovers that history…welllll, history hates time travellers, pure and simple. That’s why you’re never supposed to get involved in it. Or…are you?
Pritchard’s story makes you question everything you think you know about time travel stories, and the ending, while it begins to feel inevitable and crushing as you move towards it, delivers a face-slapping wake-up call that applies to all of our historical heroes too.
People are human, and humans are complex. The likelihood that any white knight is as white as they’re painted by a history that likes them is virtually nil. Daybreak is a hardcore history lesson both for Vicki and for us, and it’s particularly appropriate as a First Doctor story, because for all his crotchety moments, there was never any doubt in viewers’ minds that the First Doctor represented an absolute, a seemingly pure sense of good. Compare and contrast that with 2019, after the somewhat scary early moments of the Troughton incarnation, the companion-throttling Sixth, the increasingly desperate Eighth, the self-abandoning War Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor’s morbid self-questioning over whether he’s a good man. Accumulate enough history, and the certainties of the white knights of your past become significantly less certain, and significantly more complicated. Using Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki – young, engaged, enthusiastic, history-believing Vicki at the centre of the action allows the story to act as an avatar of all our hopes and dreams of a simple, good-and-evil past and a similarly straightforward future. That she learns the complexity of these things in this story means we are forced to confront them ourselves, and temper our hopes of perfection with a touch of political and personal pragmatism.
The Vardan Invasion Of Mirth by Paul Morris and Ian Atkins is a homage to the comic heroes of the Fifties and Sixties, as comedy itself was changing in nature, from a thing where one tight set could see a comic survive for decades going round the summer seasons and club circuits in a Britain still in recovery after the war, to a thing where one hour and a half televised special at the London Palladium could kill that decade’s worth of material by fixing it forever in people’s minds.
The First Doctor and Steven stop off in 1950s London when they notice some deeply anomalous atmospheric readings, and they’re immediately separated, the Doctor seeming to vanish, and Steven being left behind on the set of a comedy TV show.
There’s something absolutely fundamentally right about this story for its period. Something that’s both scientifically interesting, socially commentating, and visually unusual, in a way they’d absolutely have gone for in the Sixties TV version. Naturally, given the spoilers in the title, there’s never a mystery over who the baddies are, but the ways in which their schemes are unfolded in this story are clever, evolving them again, as Big Finish has been careful to do a few times. Also of course to some extent, the story is set in familiar territory for Steven – in a previous Big Finish adventure, Steven and Sara spent months living and working in 1950s Britain, and Steven had also battled the Vardans alongside the Doctor and Oliver Harper. There’s both an intelligence and a forgivable sentimental streak in this story, the sentiment coming through more strongly if you happen to also be a fan of vintage comedy (there’s even what sounds like a one-line cameo from Kenneth Williams’ signature ‘Snide’ character in here), but ultimately, this performs a similar magic trick to The Time Meddler – seeming to be true to a particular period, but with pure science-fiction Doctor Who bones working underneath. Of the stories in this particular set, it’s probably the one you’ll most readily return to for a re-listen, Peter Purves giving his exceptional First Doctor to add to the richness of the mix.
The Crumbling Magician, by Guy Adams is both the most straightforward elegy to heroism of the lot and perversely, the most tangential, in that the heroism here is immediate, and personal, and wonderfully ordinary, rather than the exceptional comic-book heroism of E Is For…, the historical hero worship of Daybreak or the heroic status of those who make a culture laugh in The Vardan Invasion Of Mirth. Here, the heroism is mostly the personal courage it takes to hold a child’s hand when they’re scared, to reassure them that, whatever comes, you’re with them and you’ll protect them. Everyday heroism of the best kind. Who else would you go to that for but Able Seaman Ben Jackson and Polly Wright? Young and scared, old and scared, Ben and Polly are there for you, inserting their fundamental decency between you and the universe of monsters.
The actual storyline of The Crumbling Magician (a rather unflattering, if occasionally accurate description of the First Doctor) is somewhat temporally convoluted – there’s a time crash, meaning time is a little disjointed, and things happen out of sequence, which when you’re on a facility with a medical computer that doesn’t entirely know what it’s doing or why it’s doing it becomes a positively 2001: A Space Odyssey chillfest. Machines with the power to kill you and a significantly scrambled understanding of cause, effect and desirable outcomes are always going to be a dark prospect. Add in a little mind-swapping, the occasional random fatal wound, and a young boy who…should probably avoid mirrors for a while, and you’ve got something complicated enough to both pay homage to the ambition of the early years of Doctor Who and to deliver a story that’s utterly 21st century in its plotting complexity and emotional beats. Ultimately though, the emotional heart is that notion of a child in trouble, and the Doctor’s companions being the ones to do the nuts-and-bolts caring for them, putting their minds at relative ease about the horrifying world in which they find themselves. As with the other stories, The Crumbling Magician genuinely pushes the narrative of the strengths and compassion of those who travel with the First Doctor, rather than necessarily his own ability to feel for those around him – they’re genuine, strong, companion stories from an era which first established the importance not only of the central character, but also of those who were our window into his unusual, amazing life.
The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor Volume 3 is rich fare – complex, layered stories of companion heroism that bring the era sharply to life and reward every moment you listen. The heaviness of some of the concepts with which the stories deal is leavened and illuminated by the starring companions, each of whom show their own unique strengths, and prove some of the reasons why Doctor Who became too good and important a show to simply drop at the end of William Hartnell’s time. Have a listen, let the quality sink in, and raise a glass of something thankful to all the companions who first made our show unmissable. Tony Fyler