Doctor Who: The Early Adventures: The Crash of the UK-201 – Starring Maureen O’Brien, Peter Purves, Michael Lumsden, Carol Starks, Jemma Churchill, Arthur Hughes, Stephen Fewell, Eve Webster & David Cooke. Written by Jonathan Morris & Directed by Lisa Bowerman – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Stories like The Crash of the UK-201 live in the imagination of every Doctor Who fan. Everywhere there are cracks in the chronology of the show, or unknown beginnings, middles or after-lives beyond the Tardis, the fans’ imagination will flourish. That means the likes of The Crash of the UK-201, which shows us, or seems to show us, Vicki’s life before she met up with the First Doctor, and how that life might have gone on to be entirely different had she not met him, will have fans slavering to listen to it.
Not, as it turns out, slavering without reason. Jonathan Morris has a solid way with technobabble, meaning there’s a reason why, within moments of the start of the story, Vicki is catapulted back down her own timeline, knowing everything she knows from her time with the Doctor and Steven, but waking up on board the UK-201, the ship on which she was travelling to Astra with her father when it was sabotaged and forced to land on Dido – where she would later be rescued by the Doctor, Ian and Barbara.
Initially, the story acts as a drama of the heart versus the head, and Vicki acts impulsively to save the people on the ship, including the father she loves, from the disaster she knows will soon engulf them. For completists and curious fans alike, this glimpse into the pre-Doctor Vicki’s world is enchanting and heartwarming, as well as grounding the Vicki we know in a people and a society she never had on screen. But when Steven pops up out of nowhere, Vicki’s initial success in avoiding the crash of the UK-201 is put into a darker context. If the crash doesn’t happen, she’ll never meet the Doctor, and none of the things she does with him (including the rescue of Steven from Mechanus, their thwarting of the Meddling Monk and so on) will have the opportunity to happen.
Paradoxes abound, and for a while, The Crash of the UK-201 indulges in a little temporal theory, as it
becomes apparent that Vicki gets ‘do-overs’ – what happens if there’s a dashing
space pilot on board the UK-201 who can avoid the crash, or let it happen, but
happen relatively safely? Does the world still change? Does the original
saboteur escape, or is he carted off to jail? If the crew of the ship survive
the ditching on Dido, do they set up a community? Do they make peace with
native Didoans? Wage war? What?
The potential ends of Vicki’s timeline are explored like a Groundhog Day or Sliding Doors version of Doctor Who. In some, Vicki’s father lives. In others, he dies, and Vicki meets a dishy paramedic. In some they have two daughters, in others, a son. In some, there are tragedies, in others, triumphs. As Steven seems to step along the quick path down her timeline, dipping out and popping up again fifteen years, decades, even a century later, we see the potential of Vicki’s many possible lives and outcomes play out. But Morris isn’t content to let the episode ‘sit’ at that. Where there are paradoxes, there are creatures that feed on paradox energy, and when such creatures come looking, all hunger and probable confusion for Vicki and the reappearing Steven, the companions start to get some idea of how their lives are going to go – pursued by the paradox-parasites (a touch of new Who creeping in in the similarity of concept to the Reapers of 2005’s Father’s Day), what we then have is a trans-temporal race to sync back up with the Doctor, who is trying to reach them and pluck them out, like meatballs in what has become a spaghetti-bowl of causality and lifetimes.
By the end of The Crash of the UK-201, Vicki’s timeline has been scrambled and re-assembled, but she’s left with the memories of various versions of it – the father who loved her and died, the father who lived and turned cold to her, the husband she had, the gap where he should be, the two daughters, the loss, the progress, the life of Steven, the death of Steven, the difference her life could have made a hundred ways, and she remembers them. For a story that starts off from the simple powerful and heartbreaking and wonderful – just as any life, just as every life can do. Once you’re born, you get the chance to be anything and everything along the pathway down which you travel, and the roads not travelled hardly make themselves felt that often. The Crash of the UK-201 is almost like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where Vicki, and sometimes Steven, take every possible pathway, and where Vicki gets to live the life through which those pathways lead.
The Crash of the UK-201 is, it may be needless to say, a powerhouse performance from Maureen O’Brien as all the possible Vickis there are – at 15, at 30something, at 170, the child, the bride, the mother, the writer, the everything-else-she-is. Presumably the script is not without impact on the actress herself, who still plays the young Vicki with the required teenage energy some five decades after she began to play her on screen. O’Brien shines and really punches the light and the emotional weight into the story here, letting you revel in a tale that’s all about Vicki and her potential. Peter Purves, while in this story very certainly a secondary focus, gives Steven the right level of screen-accurate problem-solving ability and drive, and gives his rendering of the First Doctor quite enough higher-pitched expositional fluttering to convince as late-stage Hartnell, both jolly, irascible and tutting at the irritating things that happen to threaten or endanger himself and his friends.
The Crash of the UK-201 is a script that’s bold as a bell, clever in its concepts, and exhaustive – not to say occasionally exhausting – in its treatment of timelines and how their abstract nature translates to the lives we actually lead and the choices we get to make. It’s almost a hymn to the character of Vicki, and Maureen O’Brien sings it loud and with the right intensity. It’s a cracking end to the Fifth series of Early Adventures, and if you’re a Vicki-fan – and frankly, who isn’t a Vicki-fan? – it’s a must-listen. Tony Fyler