Doctor Who: The First Doctor Adventures Volume Two – Starring David Bradley, Claudia Grant, Jemma Powell, Jamie Glover, Tracy Wiles, Michelle Morris, Dan Li, Andrew Wincott, Sadao Ueda, Susan Hingley, Jozef Aoki & Christopher Naylor. Written by John Dorney & Andrew Smith & Directed by Nicholas Briggs – 5xCD /Download (Big Finish)
When you have a core cast of four people, two of whom have sadly passed away, and you’re making new stories for an entirely re-cast version of the original, tone matters.
Of course, tone always matters, but particularly when there are four new voices in the roles of four much-watched and highly-studied characters, tone reeeeally matters.
Tone is a thing the First Doctor Adventures, with David Bradley re-inventing the First Doctor, has been very particular to get right. Breathe. Relax. You’re very firmly in First doctor territory here.
What we mean by tone of course is that there’s a difference between First Doctor stories and Fourth Doctor stories, and a different difference between First Doctor stories and Twelfth Doctor stories. The kinds of stories that they told in the First Doctor’s era almost feel like a time capsule now. They did a lot of ‘evil aliens being mean to nice people, let’s defeat them’ stories, to be sure, but there was a distinct sense also that in the First Doctor’s time, the science fiction could twang off on an entirely random philosophical angle which later ages wouldn’t allow, because of all the running and shouting that had to be done. And of course the First Doctor’s time is the golden age of the ‘pure historical’ story, where there was no alien threat at all, merely the events of history themselves in which our heroes got mixed up.
There’s one of each kind of story in this set, and that’s what reinforces the absolutely unique First Doctor flavour of the set. Just as stories like The Aztecs, Marco Polo, The Web Planet and The Keys of Marinus could only be First Doctor stories, so too could The Invention Of Death and The Barbarians And The Samurai, by John Dorney and Andrew Smith respectively. All of which of course helps sell the reality of the re-voiced Tardis crew, who this time out (despite the recordings being close to the first set) seem to have stopped trying to be their TV counterparts, and started just being them, leading to a more convincing – and therefore involving experience all round.
The Invention of Death is an experimental mind-melter, which reminds us of The Fragile Yellow Arc Of Fragrance (Google it, or search for it on the Big Finish website), in that it’s sci-fi with a very strong sense of difference from everything that’s familiar to us. It’s like The Twilight Zone with aliens or Black Mirror with charm, and that means you listen hungrily to the full length of the story, event though if you dare to pause, you can sketch out where it goes. The point is it’s so very interesting, conceptually, that you want to find out how it gets where you think it’s going. The Tardis crew land on a planet where there are androgynous, semi-morphous people, whose life is mostly taken up with playing games. No sexes, no houses, no sickness, no want, no need…no death. No reproduction.
All could and should be well in such a world, of course, but they have their games – which they play by hurling razor-sharp javelins at each other. There are no consequences if any of them get hit – they self-repair quickly and go on with the game.
They like their games.
When there are strangers in their midst, they want to share their games with them.
See what I mean – you can sort of see where it’s going fairly early on, but it will still take a turn or two to surprise you. By bringing the very concept of ‘death’ to this world, and therefore the concept of healing, the Tardis crew set a miniature revolution in motion – things can be learned in a society where people die. Knowledge becomes a burning need in a society like that. But someone understand that all too well, and starts spreading death among the citizens. Can the Doctor and the fledgling scientists of Ashtallah find a cure for death, stop the killer, and introduce the notion of reproduction to a world on which it has never before been necessary?
Dorney’s script is classic and does the thing that’s most coherently the province of early Doctor Who – it dares to imagine the entirely unlike, not just extrapolating from life as we know it, but in the truest terms of science fiction, asking a big what-if – in this case, what if there was no death, and never had been?
Okay, let’s put this out there. David Bradley was a truly masterful William Hartnell in An Adventure In Space And Time. He was as good a First Doctor as he was allowed to be on screen in Twice Upon A Time.
David Bradley has found his home as the First Doctor at Big Finish.
What’s more, all three companions feel like viable alternative-dimension versions of the characters we know this time out, all helping to bolster the reality of what you’re listening to, and make it feel like part of the run of adventures you know. In story terms, it’s also true to the First Doctor era by giving almost everyone something to do, but leaving Susan something of a third wheel as Barbara’s injured, Ian’s on a quest and the Doctor’s involved with the scientific shenanigans of a world without death. It might not give Claudia Grant the best of deals in terms of story-threads, but The Invention Of Death is a solid slice of highly inventive, speculative and philosophically searching science fiction which holds true to the tone of the televised First Doctor.
Susan typically faired rather better in the ‘reasons for being in the drama’ stakes when the story was a pure historical, and so she does here in Andrew Smith’s gorgeously researched and sumptuously rendered The Barbarians And The Samurai. What we’ve got here is abbbbbsolutely nail-on-head perfect First Doctor historical, but with perhaps a pinch or two of modern spice to prick up your taste buds. Finding themselves in 19th century Japan, during a period when no Westerners were permitted in the country, our heroes have an immediate problem – and one where their apparent ethnicity is an issue (a rare one for pure historicals, to be sure, but still one that anchors the story in the reality and the nature of the times). Finding themselves split up, the Doctor and Barbara are taken to the palace of the local daimyo (a mayor or sheriff, but with a personal army of kickass Samurai to do his bidding), while Ian and Susan are forced to hide out, and are rescued from a vicious Samurai attack by a so-called ‘peasant’ who kicks way more ass than a simple peasant should be able to. On the road to getting the team back together there are palace intrigues, mysterious men in masks, double, and possibly triple-dealing plots to break the rules of exclusion between Japan and the West, a seemingly doomed love story and a massive ‘how the heck are we going to get out of this one?’ late-game cliffhanger that forces the Doctor and Ian to turn scientific sorcerer. Smith is a master at multi-stranded drama, and this might even be considered a jewel in his already intensely impressive crown, because he balances all the elements here on a Samurai blade – the pacing is fast, the action plentiful, the intrigue elements believable without requiring anyone to be stupid to make them work, and the tapestry he creates is rich and broad, meaning you feel like you’re listening to a proper Hartnell six-parter, without it ever feeling overstretched (because of course, it’s actually just a four-parter). It’s an immersive, full-on historical that really can hold its head up alongside the likes of Marco Polo, The Aztecs and The Crusade.
Bottom line, if you’re a fan of the kind of Doctor Who that really only existed within the first three years of the programme’s history, you need to listen to this – the cast are gelled well together, the scripts are highly polished, and the overall experience is of slipping in a DVD of one of the classic black-and-white adventures, but without the budget restraints that might have lessened their visual impact. Go back and travel with the first Tardis crew again, for adventures that are broad and beautiful in a less canon-cluttered, more anything-goes universe. Tony Fyler