Doctor Who: The Early Adventures: The Wreck of the World – Starring Wendy Padbury, Frazer Hines, Judith Roddy, Adam Newington, Don McCorkindale & Richenda Carey. Written by Timothy X Atack & Directed by Lisa Bowerman – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)
The Early Adventures are an inherently risky prospect. Four series ago, they were launched with an audio story that brought back the Voord – those weird blokes in flippers and wetsuits that turned up half way through the Keys of Marinus for reasons no-one ever really understood. And it could have gone so dreadfully wrong if Andrew Smith’s script for that episode had stuck rigidly to the constraints of the Sixties budget and thinking. Happily then, that original Early Adventures script blew the doors off that budget and expanded the Voord into a villain that could really be taken seriously, which meant the series was off to the races.
Since then, the range has more often than not shown us worlds that had a Sixties vibe, but with an expanded reality, a deeper emotional core and a greater storytelling richness than those TV pioneers had the time or the reliable adult audience to deliver. Every now and then though, you get an Early Adventure that evokes the Sixties a little too hard for a modern audience to properly sink its teeth into.
The Bounty of Ceres from Series 1 for instance, while full of interesting, inventive tech, evoked the egg-box walls, spit-and-sawdust feel of Sixties set design a little too hard, and ended up breaking the listener’s belief in its reality. The Age of Endurance from Series 3 spent most of its first episode with the Tardis crew wandering around a single room and trying to decide whether or not to open a door. Very Classic, very Sixties padding, and so very evocative – just not a great deal of fun for a listener in the 21st century.
We mention this because long before the first episode of The Wreck of the World is over, you’ll be wondering if you’ve stumbled across another story that’s all evocation and no action – writer Timothy X Atack sets his story after the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe have escaped the Land of Fiction. There’s repair work to do to the Tardis, and the three of them…erm…do it. For what probably isn’t, but which certainly feels like a solid fifteen minutes.
That’s not actually what you’ve stumbled across, and it gets more interesting in a hurry after a deep space collision with ‘The World’ – you don’t want us to tell you what that is ahead of time, right? The Tardis crew face a whole new sequence of annoying engineering problems on ‘The World,’ Zoe in the company of a solidly comical robot that goes by the enigmatic name of Gnostic and appears to have a loud, irritating nervous breakdown when asked particular questions, while the Doctor and Jamie join forces with a motley crew of treasure-hunters who’ve come to The World with a mission to loot its historical artefacts and stock their museums to the gills.
But there’s a sense of The Wreck of The World being little more than ‘one damned thing after another’ in terms of the problems the crew face, which can test even an ardent fan’s patience – Zoe has to rebuild a whole roomful of technological equipment just to turn the lights on. Jamie has to run on a treadmill to deliver motive power. The Doctor spends quite some time in a tunnel with tools, doing some properly complicated jiggery-pokery. The crew spend more time wandering through an archive of Earth historical artefacts looking for a thing they’re fairly sure they won’t recognise when they see it…
These set pieces seem to exist to allow the crew to be Doing Something to burn minutes of run time, but for all that, The Wreck of The World has more going on underneath its skin – and if you can tear yourself away from what amounts to Doctor Who Does Scrapheap Challenge, that’s an interesting dimension, which breaks it out of slavish adherence to the Sixties vibe and puts it squarely in Fifth Doctor Series Three territory, with a dark secret behind the ‘wreck,’ a touch of arch social commentary, quite a bit of comedy (if you’ve ever wanted to hear Jamie punched clean across a corridor, you’re in luck here), a conceptually interesting alien threat, a very large number of zombies, and a body-count that would never have been allowed in 1968, when this story is theoretically supposed to have ‘aired.’
In other words, The Wreck of The World is a good story, overly consumed with annoying physical problems. There’s an entirely decent alien story in here, explaining the wreck and delivering quite a solid and troubling lesson for our society. But it’s all rather buried beneath the mechanical and engineering challenges that Atack throws in the way so we don’t guess the solution ahead of time, leaving The Wreck of The World much harder work to listen to than it should have been. By the end of it, you’ll feel like a member of the Tardis crew, having had to mine for the nuggets of gold that are certainly there, through miles and miles of steel, encountering mechanical problems every inch of the way. Tony Fyler