Doctor Who: The Early Adventures : An Ideal World – Starring Maureen O’Brien, Peter Purves, Angela McHal, Alex Jordan, Tom Stourton, Carolyn Pickles, Oliver Mason & Lisa Bowerman. Written by Ian Potter & Directed by Lisa Bowerman – 2xCD /Download (Big Finish)
Half the trick in writing a truly memorable audio Doctor Who story in in the evocation of a period, with the conventions, the speech patterns, the feel of episodes from a particular window in the show’s history. If it feels right, you’re halfway home before you get to the monsters, and the philosophy, and the politics of a story.
An Ideal World initially feels very right. It’s a script of the kind that the William Hartnell era rendered very well – the Tardis crew arrives on a world, wanders about a bit, gets into previously unsuspected trouble, and meet a bunch of people to whom they represent little but an unconscionable headache. Then things get more complicated and the time travellers help to solve the problems the planet reveals itself to have. So far, so Galaxy Four.
In a way though, this is just the way in to a story that’s more complex, more broad-minded and more downbeat than anything the Hartnell world knew or understood. And, with both Vicki and Steven coming from our ‘future,’ it’s an example of a story where the Doctor can be far more a citizen of the wider, more all-encompassing universe than perhaps he would ever have felt able to be when he was accompanied by two schoolteachers from 1960s Earth.
The ‘ideal world’ of the title, known as T-19, looks like it could be an Eden, which is extremely good news for the crew of the Magellan, a colony ship fifty years out from Earth and getting increasingly desperate to find a place like home to put down roots.
There’s always a but when people are looking for Paradise. Here, the but is initially found in politics and ethics: for once, humanity is determined to expand its frontiers only if it can do so without the wholesale extermination of indigenous species of flora and fauna, setting the crew of the Magellan into factions supporting either Captain Traherne (played with a convincing determination to do the best for her people by Carolyn Pickles) or the ship’s leading Ethicist, Kay, played by Angela McHale. Kay was ultimately defeated in the election for the Captaincy (Yes, in a delicious sardonic note, leadership on the Magellan is an elected position, rather than one based in any particular proof of competency for the role). The conflicting interests of a captain whose position depends on T-19 being fit for colonisation, and therefore free of any intelligent life, and an ethicist with an axe to grind and a point to prove gives the life of the Magellan crew a twist of deep human reality.
When the Tardis crew are separated, Steven falling immediately in among the Magellan exploratory team on T-19 and the Doctor and Vicki hiding out from organic peril in a cave, Potter gives us a solidly evocative late-Hartnell era trope – the Doctor falling dangerously ill, and spending the mid-section of the story coughing up a lung, falling into a fever, and being helped slowly back to life and fitness. Meanwhile, planet T-19 has surprises in store for any would-be colonists.
Those surprises, on the face of it, could have been ridiculous. But Ian Potter, Lisa Bowerman on directing duties, and the cast do their best to show the dark potential that lies behind the secret of T-19. There’s life on that there planet, but probably (to coin a phrase) not as we know it. Where then does the ethical line get drawn? How far does the self-interest of the Magellan crew override any ethical concerns? And, come to that, does the life of T-19 propose to let its destiny be decided by the newcomers?
While the Doctor’s medical worries are addressed (by the medical and scientific nous of none other than space pilot Steven Taylor no less), the ethical and political questions, and the tensions between the two leading women on board the Magellan rage, with a bit of almost incidental stompy monster action thrown in, culminating in the proposed colonisation coming to the brink of an inter-species war for possession of the planet. The cunning thing in all this is that you can genuinely see the validity of both positions, Traherne acting for the constituency she’s sworn to represent and Kay, despite an increasingly vivid personal stake in removing the captain from office, showing a much broader, more inclusive view of what life is and why it deserves respect. As the story draws to its climax, there’s a touch of Animal Farm at play – you can ‘look’ from one of these women to the other and find it hard to tell the fundamental difference between their entirely human blend of ethical intentions and savage self-interest.
The end of An Ideal World is a kind of Romeo And Juliet In Space, inasmuch as it could so easily have gone a different way and finished with smiles and laughter and everything being alright.
It doesn’t go that way.
Everything’s not alright.
There’s murder and missiles before teatime, and the Doctor, who let’s not forget has spent much of the story on his sickbed, has the chutzpah to disapprove of everyone – a plague on both your planets! – and pull his companions away from what feels to them like an instinctively right desire to stay and help the crew of the Magellan in their future endeavours.
The evocation of the later Hartnell era in An Ideal World lulls you into a false sense of black and white security. The story itself is a highly nuanced modern political and ethical commentary, with some gloriously detailed hard sci-fi twined through it. After The Dalek Occupation Of Winter, this feels like a busier story with a fuller, more detailed world in the Magellan crew. Like Winter before it, An Ideal World gives us a First Doctor story in which there’s more oomph, more impact than almost any of the televised Hartnell adventures, while playing out its drama with a darker edge than all but a few of those stories dared to deliver. Tony Fyler