Intermission: Farewell Great Macedon

Farewell Great Macedon was a story commissioned for the first season of Doctor Who, but it was later withdrawn by author Moris Farhi when he felt asked to make too many changes that would compromise the historical accuracy of the script.  At least, that’s what I read on The TARDIS Index File Wiki.  This story has seen publication as a script, and Big Finish Productions has recorded it as the premiere story in the second series of Lost Stories. Sadly, William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill are no longer alive and cannot reprise the parts of The Doctor and Barbara.  Thus, the story is narrated and performed by surviving cast members William Russell and Carol Ann Ford.  Rounding out the cast is John Dorney as Alexander the Great.  Farewell Great Macedon is an interesting mix of audio book and radio drama.

The TARDIS materializes in Babylon in the hanging gardens near the Ishtar Gate.  The travelers discover wires woven among the plants.  These wires have been carefully hung and tuned to create music as the wind blows the plants.  This is a rather fascinating scene and concept.  They soon meet Alexander the Great and his four generals.  We also learn of a plot by several high-ranking Babylonian officials who wish to assassinate Alexander and the generals while installing one of their own as the new king.  These assassins wish to return to their homelands.  The arrival of the four time travelers is thought to be fortuitous as Iola, Priest of Apollo and fellow conspirator, had just cooked up a dire prophecy about a four headed danger.  Four men to be assassinated, four strangers to take the fall.  Very convenient.

This story is very good if you are a fan of the Hartnell-era historicals.  There is a lot of history and detail.  The characters stay fairly close to who they would have been in history, and there is much to learn from this story.  I do have a few quibbles with the format, however.  First, the names are quite foreign to the modern listener.  I think this hurdle would have been easier to overcome had the story gone into full production.  It is easier to associate names with faces than with voices.  This problem doesn’t last, however.  As the story progresses (and characters die), it becomes easier to remember who is who.  Second,  Since William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill are deceased what we have is an expanded Companion Chronicle, expanded both in length and cast.  Three actors provide all the voices and narration.  In truth, John Dorney only portrays Alexander, thus all other parts fall to William Russell and Carole Ann Ford.  So we don’t even get different voices for the different characters.  Neither of the returning actors attempt to differentiate the characters apart from a few choices with inflection.  This is basically a souped-up audio book, which is fine, but the story would aches for a full cast.  I understand Big Finish’s decision on this.  First, a full cast would make the missing cast members all the more noticeable, and second, there are a lot of characters.  This would require many actors and more money to fund the production.  As much as I would prefer a full cast for Farewell Great Macedon, I do not fault Big Finish for going that route.

While it can be difficult to differentiate the conspirators in the beginning, the generals are another matter.  As they are targeted for assassination, each general is given a memorable scene or two for characterization.  For example, Ian and Cleitus have a debate over slavery and Calanus is portrayed as wise.  Calanus in particular has a beautiful death scene in which he asks Alexander for a dying wish of a funeral pyre upon which he can self-immolate rather than die from the slow-acting poison that is killing him.  Gruesome, yes, but William Russell narrates this scene with particular strength and emotion.

Of particular note in this story is the slight switch in roles that the characters play as history unfolds.  Indeed, according to various things I have read on the internet, this was the reason for Morris Farhi withdrawing his script in the first place.  Typically in the first season historicals (where this episode would have fallen), The Doctor and companions either don’t participate in major events, or witness major events without actively participating in them.  Even The Reign of Terror has Ian and Barbara witnessing a meeting between Barras and Napoleon, but not influencing it in the least.  Farewell Great Macedon has the characters among Alexander and his generals as they are being assassinated.  They try to help, they try to heal, but they fail because history is immutable.  This is quite the contrast from The Doctor as portrayed in The Aztecs where we “cannot re-write history.  Not one line!”  According to the stories surrounding the production, Farhi was asked to change the role of the leads in the story, which would have compromised some of the history or what he was attempting to do.  I’m not entirely clear on the details, but from what I understand there is an essay in the script book Farewell Great Macedon (available from Nothing at the End of the Lane) to this effect.  This contrast in the view of storytelling and time itself is interesting, but I don’t think it detracts from the story.  Indeed, in the end the perspective of history as immutable is maintained.  The final episode has a lengthy discussion of time and history being set.  So, while The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan become involved with the history, they do not change it.  History unfolds as it always has, just the characters change.  I mentioned this in my review of Prisoners of Concierge, but there is so much storytelling potential from these concepts.  Doctor Who has changed its philosophy regarding history depending on who was running the show, but I wish this view of time and history had remained static.  Ah, well.  Such is the nature of long-running shows.

Sadly, Farewell Great Macedon is not cheap.  Big Finish is releasing a lot of material each month, and it can be hard to pick and choose what you get.  Sure, we would all like to be completists, but finances are tight.  Is Farewell Great Macedon worth the expense?  That depends.  I think it is a beautiful story, the primary weakness being in the first episode.  It is slow and just about every character is introduced, which can make it a bit confusing.  However, it becomes a well-told, well-paced epic of history and political intrigue.  Had Morris Farhi’s script been produced, he would have rivaled John Lucarotti as Doctor Who’s resident historical master.  I really enjoyed it.  However, Hartnell-era historicals (and the Hartnell era in general) are not everyone’s cup of tea.  If you are a fan of this era or The Companion Chronicles of this era.  You will like it.  If you love the historicals, especially those of John Lucarotti, you will like Farewell Great Macedon.  It is beautiful.  It is tragic.  It is drama, and Doctor Who at its finest.

The Big Finish version of Farewell Great Macedon can be purchased here.

The script version can be purchased from Nothing at the End of the Lane.

4 thoughts on “Intermission: Farewell Great Macedon

  1. I am glad you are reviewing the Big Finish stuff as well as the t.v. serials.

    Big Finish do put out a lot of stuff, but Doctor Who is so diverse. Most fans are keen on particular eras of the show and particular mediums. I would rather listen to a full cast drama, than a companion chronicle, but I imagine somebody whose main interest is the Pertwee or black and white era would be foremost interested in the companion chronicles from their favoured period.

    A lot of fans want to listen to the Paul McGann stuff because that is uncharted territory, whearas I have little interest in the Paul McGann material.

    1. While the main focus of this blog is to review the show in order (more for my sake), I do hope to cover Big Finish and novels where they would feel appropriate. In the case of Farewell, Great Macedon, I wanted to review it before Susan left. I find myself torn between wanting to cover as many novels and Big Finish along the way, and to get through the show as soon as possible. It is rather daunting to know how much more of the show is left. I have only scratched the surface.

      Hopefully, one day, I will cover some of the McGann “seasons”, more of The Lost Stories, and “seasons” from the main Big Finish range (The Doctor and Evelyn, The Doctor with Ace and Hex, etc).

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