Doctor Who: The First Doctor Adventures Volume Four – Starring David Bradley, Claudia Grant, Jamie Glover & Jemma Powell Written by Andrew Smith & Jonathan Barnes & Directed by Ken Bentley – CD / Download (Big Finish)
The First Doctor Adventures were at first a somewhat questionable enterprise, taking the Tardis cast from An Adventure In Space And Time – who it’s probably fair to say were cast mostly as lookalikes rather than soundalikes – and putting them in a set of audio adventures.
That all seems quite a while ago now.
While it seems oddly the case that Claudia Grant sounds more like TV-Susan when she’s just being interviewed as Claudia Grant than when she’s aiming for the higher pitched RP of her audio-Susan, the four stars of the First Doctor Adventures have really gelled into an entirely coherent original Tardis team. David Bradley’s First Doctor is a believable version of the character and Jamie Glover and Jemma Powell as Ian and Barbara have eased into their roles over the course of the first three box sets, which is just as well, because in terms of scripts, the two stories in this fourth volume are biggies. There are no training wheels attached any more – the cast have to nail their parts to the wall, or the nature of the scripts will show the cracks, the joins and any hasty paste-overs in the performances.
Because quite apart from anything else, we’re about to go back…to Skaro! (annnd cue end credits. No, really, there should be end credits there. Oh fine, see how you are, no sense of drama…)
Return To Skaro by Andrew Smith really is a big deal. It’s a retrospective second shot at a Skaro-based Dalek story, set before the Tardis team deal with The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, at the end of which, as we know, Susan leaves the ship.
The script itself has some gorgeously period moments – the Dalek city they visited previously is there, but ruined, and with new additions. A couple of seeming lightning conductor towers are actually emitting a form of lightning into the sky, for complex reasons that take a while to fully uncover.
The adventurers meet a happy band of Thals, who explain that their chief scientist (and that’s where you get your first shudder) has been working to make use of Dalek technology for Thal purposes. There are tours taken, questions asked, and the Doctor gets to be both open-mindedly curious and later, deeply finger-on-chin sceptical. I so badly want to tell you about the Episode 1 cliffhanger it’s burning a hole in my brain, but suffice it to say it’s word perfect for early Who cliffhangers, and would absolutely have been how any return to Skaro ended its first episode, so as to ensure kids remembered the art of playing at being Daleks all week long and then tuned in ravenously the following Saturday.
There’s deception, deceit, fun with tunnels, and as would have been absolutely demanded back in the day, there’s a Dalek massacre of the Thals. This time, as the first time, it’s a stark warning against taking people with bad intent at their word, only this time, there is perhaps the first inkling that the Thals play a part in their own extermination, trusting in the words of a traitor and believing, as humans would do later in Power Of The Daleks and Victory of the Daleks that a Dalek that doesn’t or cannot kill you immediately will not or cannot kill you when it decides it needs to.
Besides all of which, Smith does the thing any writer tasked with writing a First Doctor return to Skaro story would be honour-bound by their young fan’s heart to do. He adds previously unknown detail to the Daleks we met in The Dead Planet, and he takes them forward to a new, momentous evolution which we in 2020 understand, but which in 1963-4 would have blown our little Dalek-loving minds.
Alongside all the treats of this story – tunnel-fun, earnest Thals revering the Doctor and friends as legends, Thal scientists trying to make head, tail or bumps out of Dalek technology, Andrew Smith captures the sense of sheer scale of those early First Doctor stories here – which is tricky to keep natural when all the scenery’s in your head and has to be pointed out by one character or another. It feels like a true nod of acknowledgement to Terry Nation, without necessarily subscribing to his ‘fill an episode with a quest’ scriptwriting philosophy. There is some questing in this story, but it feels natural and to a point, and Smith repays the listener’s patience later with a really fast-paced ‘Get the hell out of here now or the Daleks will kill you’ chase.
All in all, it takes some world-class chutzpah to even imagine telling this story.
It takes some serious class to write it, to make it real, and to perform it so it sounds like an entirely believable sequel to The Dead Planet. That it works at all is testament to everyone involved. That it works this well shows some god-level skills. Big Finish is already having a big year. This story’s right up there among the crown jewels of 2020 so far.
Follow that, Jonathan Barnes!
To be fair, asking that of Barnes is absurd. His story, Last of the Romanovs is as different in tone as could be imagined from Return To Skaro. Much more in line with The Aztecs or The Reign Of Terror, this is a story over which uncertainty and death hang from the very first moments, when the Tardis arrives in Ekaterinburg, Russia, observed by only one man through a window across the street.
Tsar Nicholas II. Last of the Romanovs – at least, as far as we know for sure.
The premise of this story is dark, and grey, and cold and all-round horrifying. There’s a ticking clock in our head, because Tsar Nicholas is still alive in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and we know, from our vantage point in history, that he doesn’t stay alive much longer. At some point soon, soldiers will come into the room where Nicholas, his wife Alexandria, and all their children are staying. And they will be shot until they are dead.
History says so. And as the First Doctor was fond of saying, we cannot re-write history. No, not one line.
Before that though, there’s plenty of time for some hapless time travellers to get involved in plots, counter-plots, disguises, mistakes and everything in between. The Doctor gets brought in to see to the health of Nicholas’ young haemophiliac son. Barbara and Susan are dressed as nuns to make contact with Alexandria and Anastasia, her daughter. And there’s a case of an identity if not mistaken then at least misunderstood as events move ever more implacably to the conclusion we know they must reach.
Of special note in this story is Dan ‘Dan, Dan, the Sontaran’ Starkey, gloriously far from his usual stomping ground as an officious and yet philosophically engaged Russian officer, Yakov Yurovsky. In one particularly chilling sequence he takes the Doctor to the pit where, in due course, the bodies of the final Romanovs will be dumped and buried, and offers him one chance. A game of ‘Change My Mind,’ probably the ultimate temptation for an interfering time traveller. It’s a cleft stick situation for the First Doctor, who as yet is not experienced enough in time and space to determine fixed points and flexible ones, and so has to stick to the rules of not changing anything – at least not intentionally. He knows that the rule of the Soviets will be brutal, will be massively homicidal, will be horrible. But there’s little if anything he can say to change the mind of one man who might yet change the course of history.
While the pure historicals often had elements of romp about them, while educating the viewer and delivering on the potential of getting caught up in history, this nevertheless feels like a historical they could have and would have commissioned back in the day – its history was still only half a century behind the viewers in 1963-4, and the lesson of the rigidity of thinking and how it leads only ever to death would have been one worth instilling in the nation’s children. Whether it would have been quite this bleak on broadcast is a different matter, but then the inevitability of death is leavened here at least briefly by the likes of Barbara and Susan dressed as nuns, and there’s compassion here too, as they pray with the Tsar’s family, not out of any specific religious observance, but because it brings them comfort in their troubles. There’s also a very neat moment between Susan and Anastasia which allows for a little up-tick of hope just at the end, just a maybe, just a thread out of the ghastly cloud of death that stains that day.
It’s a thread to which we cling as listeners, needing it to be able to wipe the screen of our brains and head off to the next adventure with this increasingly seasoned Tardis crew.
At the beginning of this review, I said there were no training wheels any more for this team.
Backed with writing and sound design and supporting actors like this, they don’t need them. They just need the team, and the writing, and the powerful dream that was early Doctor Who.
Long may they sail. Tony Fyler