Doctor Who – The Beginning (The Companion Chronicles)

Where Can I Find It?

Big Finish

Written by

Marc Platt

Directed by

Lisa Bowerman

What’s It About?

Ad copy: When the First Doctor and his grand-daughter Susan escape through the cloisters of Gallifrey to an old Type 40 Time Travel capsule, little do they realize the adventures that lie ahead… And little do they know, as the TARDIS dematerializes and they leave their home world behind, there is someone else aboard the ship. He is Quadrigger Stoyn, and he is very unhappy…

Cover for The Beginning

I was playing with a chair which should have been housebroken

Marc Platt seems to be Big Finish’s go to writer for major revisitations of classic series stories. He wrote the origin of the Cybermen (Spare Parts), the return of the Mara (The Cradle of the Snake), the origin of Magnus Greel (The Butcher of Brisbane), and with The Beginning he visits a pre-Unearthly Child time period for the second time (the first being Quinnis). And while Big Finish has many excellent writers, Platt is one of my favorites. I enjoy the way he layers concepts in his stories, weaving together ideas that reflect one another. The Beginning is no different as the title is a clever play on words and expectations.

On one level, the most obvious one, The Beginning refers to the Doctor and Susan’s flee from Gallifrey. The audio hits the ground running, with the Doctor, Susan, and a mysterious trunk making their way through the bowels of the Citadel. They arrive at a bank of time capsules and pick one in haste. While I didn’t particularly care for The Name of the Doctor, there is a nice reference to that story, and then the adventure begins in earnest. With the stolen TARDIS, however, comes Quadrigger Stoyn (played by Terry Molloy), a TARDIS mechanic who was doing repairs on the damaged ship. Stoyn has never left Gallifrey, and he is horrified at his predicament. And so, The Beginning refers to where all this started, but graciously leaves certain details—such as the reason for the Doctor and Susan’s escape—in mystery. I appreciate this discretion.

On another level, The Beginning refers to beginnings in a more cosmological sense. The Doctor, Susan, and Stoyn arrive on Earth before the emergence of human life. It is here where Platt’s layering becomes truly fascinating to the Religious Studies side of my interests. At the beginning of human life is the ancient cosmological idea of Order and Chaos. Many ancient near eastern texts have this duality at the core of their worldview. Even passages of the Old Testament are probably best understood as Order and Chaos rather than retro-fitting Platonic or Enlightenment ideas onto the interpretation of texts. And these ancient texts are clear in the view that Order is benevolent and Chaos is malicious. Order is embodied in divine beings who keep the weather clear and the crops growing (order in nature) and society at peace (order in humans). Chaos, on the other hand, is embodied in divine beings who create storms and natural disasters (disorder in nature) and society at war or ridden with crime (disorder in humans). And at the heart of The Beginning is an alien race seeding order into the cosmos, taking the disorder of creation and bringing it into a peaceful alignment. But as this function is somewhat mechanistic (for what is more orderly than pure logic and no emotions), the ordered existence of life has no growth, no struggles and perseverance, no free will.

Into this ordering process steps our chaotic-good-aligned Doctor. The experiment by which the alien race attempts to bring order is interrupted and humanity is created. Disordered life rises on Earth. The aliens decide the experiment has failed and the only option left is to destroy the Earth. The Doctor and Susan intervene. In a way, Marc Platt upends the ancient near east duality by making our hero a god of chaos who, with the best of intentions, introduces chaos into humanity before they emerge. Put another way, he puts an aspect of himself into humanity which subsumes the aspect of Order. By doing so, the Doctor has created, in this moment, every human-involved battle he has ever fought. He has bound himself up with the destiny of humanity. He has created humanity, not in a physical sense, but in a psychological/spiritual sense. The price of free will becomes the ability to choose evil. The price of struggle and perseverance is pain and suffering. The Doctor, then, is god but also Satan. And the great irony of this act of creation is that the First Doctor, at this point in his career, is probably the most selfish, least moral of all his incarnations (until the Sixth).

Quadrigger Stoyn becomes the other villain of this piece. He wants to get home and he realizes the Doctor has no intention of returning him there. Thus, Stoyn is willing to use whatever methods necessary to get control of the TARDIS, to get home. Stoyn is memorably played by Terry Molloy, but I don’t think we get enough of him in this story to really understand his motivations. All we know is that he is a mechanic who is experiencing his first trip off Gallifrey, and that it is against his will. And the other threat Stoyn brings is his willingness to turn the Doctor in to the authorities, to the Fetches. Since this story is also the first in a trilogy involving Stoyn, these details may be fleshed out later.

It is probably good to go in to this story knowing that the reasons the Doctor and Susan left Gallifrey are not revealed. Apart from Stoyn, the Gallifreyan elements are minimal and The Beginning could just be another pre-series adventure. But by tying the beginning of the Doctor’s life to the origin of human life, Marc Platt has given us something we never knew we wanted (or at least I never knew that I wanted): a reason why the Doctor’s life is tied up with humanity.

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Doctor Who – Shadow of Death (Destiny of the Doctor)

Where Can I Find It?

Big Finish

Written by

Simon Guerrier

Directed by

John Ainsworth

What’s It About?

Ad copy: Following an emergency landing, the TARDIS arrives on a remote world orbiting a peculiar star – a pulsar which exerts an enormous gravitational force, strong enough to warp time.

On further exploration the Doctor and his friends, Jamie and Zoe, discover a human outpost on the planet surface, inhabited by scientists who are there to study an ancient city. The city is apparently abandoned, but the scientists are at a loss to explain what happened to its sophisticated alien architects.

The Doctor discovers that something dark, silent and deadly is also present on the world – and it is slowly closing in on the human intruders…

Shadow of Death cover
Size Isn’t Everything, Zoe

Shadow of Death is set in the sixth season of Doctor Who. Frazer Hines is always a great narrator of Second Doctor stories. His Patrick Troughton impersonation is astounding. The story is a nice mixture of Second Doctor tropes, from a base under siege (somewhat), to white foam, to mild innuendo, to space-age adventure. Honestly, the latter is one of my favorite things about the Troughton Era: the space age. In a way, the Troughton Era is a type historical preservation of what writer in the 1960s thought space travel would be like. It captures a perspective that has changed significantly, and yet the attitude and charm still exist. I love these details in old Doctor Who. I love mining stories for contextual meaning. And it is fascinating how current writers attempt to reproduce those types of stories, but filtered through a contemporary context. Hence, in Shadow of Death we get parallel time streams due to a pulsar. But at its core, Shadows of Death is straight out of a space-age, Second Doctor playbook.

I love how this story reproduces its Doctor’s era (something I felt Hunters of Earth didn’t quite accomplish), but at the same time, I never quite engaged with it. Sure, there was an interesting core concept. The appearance of the Eleventh Doctor encouraged the Second Doctor to solve the problem, but he didn’t provide the answer. I think my main disconnect was with the aliens in the story. They didn’t quite become real to me. I think this is due, in part, to not having anything from their perspective. Sure, the Doctor relayed a message from them, but they never really became an autonomous entity in their own right. This is admittedly difficult to portray due to the core concept, but I still want to know more about them. They never rose above generic alien threat to me.

That said, it’s not a bad story by any means. It is enjoyable and Frazer Hines is always a treat to listen to. But in the end, this second entry into Destiny of the Doctor is still somewhat forgettable.

An Adventure in Space and Time

Written by

Mark Gatiss

What’s It About?

BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman has hired Verity Lambert to produce a family-oriented sci-fi drama called Doctor Who. Actor William Harnell, hoping this part would break him out of type-casting and put him on the road to more legitimate artistic work, is cast in the title role. This is the origin of Doctor Who before it was a world-wide phenomenon, when it was just a tiny show fighting against the odds to become a success.

I Don’t Want to Go

Doctor_Who_-_An_Adventure_in_Space_and_Time_PosterThat was the point where I lost it completely. These words which caused inward groaning when uttered by the incumbent Doctor in 2010 caused out-and-out bawling when uttered by David Bradley as William Hartnell in 2013. “I don’t want to go.” And the emotion still floats behind my eyes.

This wasn’t the only tear-inducing moment for me. I estimate that I cried by varying degrees every ten minutes or so. I blame this blog for that. If I had never set out to watch and write about every Doctor Who serial, I would have never spent the time to go beyond passively viewing Doctor Who. I never would have tried to understand context. I never would have searched for information about the people behind the characters. In short, I never would have developed an appreciation for the Hartnell Era of Doctor Who. I love this era, particularly the years Verity Lambert ran the show. The stories produced during her tenure were diverse, ambitious, and surprising. They were intelligent and compelling. They succeeded beyond any expectation when one learns what they were working with. And if An Adventure in Space and Time is accurate in this capacity, they were successful because they were industry outsiders fighting to prove themselves. Lambert was a woman fighting for respect and success in a male-dominated BBC. Waris Hussein was of Middle Eastern descent fighting for respect in a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant [although I cannot entirely verify the “Protestant” aspect in this case]) culture. William Hartnell was fighting to show he, and elderly actor, could be successful despite being type-cast as grumpy, humorless sergeant majors or gangsters in an industry that would be increasingly driven by youth (although that may not have been as much of a hindrance in 1963). The struggle of the outsider is encoded into Doctor Who’s DNA, and it started here, in 1963, driven by a group of creative people who needed to prove themselves to the insiders.

And this is what became clear in Gatiss’s telling of this story. Doctor Who became the success story whereby the outsiders won and gained victory.

It is funny to me that when it comes to his Doctor Who stories, Mark Gatiss is very hit or miss for me. But I have seen stories he has done for Marple and Sherlock and I have loved them. An Adventure in Space and Time is at once a Doctor Who story and not a Doctor Who story. Symbolically, there is a struggle, albeit a real-world struggle. The Doctor, as represented by the show rather than the character, helps them to succeed and overcome. But it is also a docu-drama, part documentary, part fiction. And Gatiss masterfully teases out the insider/outsider story to great effect. At its core, An Adventure in Space and Time is William Hartnell’s story, but it intersects with Verity Lambert’s story and Waris Hussein’s story. And while I would have liked to see David Whitaker (my favorite of the early writers and a down-right influential script editor), I understand the need to focus on the people who best bring out the theme of the story. Gatiss does this beautifully. This is probably my favorite of his work.

I can’t say enough about David Bradley. This man is amazing. In recent performances he has played grumpy or down-right villainous characters (Red Wedding anyone?). In Adventure he performs wonderfully as William Hartnell, showing the cantankerousness of the man, but also the sensitivity, the brokenness, the spark of hope, and the humanity. By all accounts Hartnell could be difficult to work with, but he could also be sensitive and caring. Humans are hard to peg down; we are contradictions. Hartnell was no different, and while he may have been polished up a bit nicer in Adventure (depending on which accounts you read), the complexity of the man comes through. I love that they portrayed the story of Hartnell’s apology to Carol Ann Ford after chastising her.

While it was never likely to happen, I wish William Hartnell could have seen his legacy. In a way, he saw a glimpse of it. He died in 1975, at which time Tom Baker was at the beginning of his tenure. But to me, a fifty-year celebration needs to acknowledge the role of this man who became the first embodiment of the Doctor. William Hartnell founded this character. He provided the grumpiness. He played the trickster. He out-smarted the villains. He struggled with the loss of companions. Every Doctor since him has been an exaggeration of one or more of the traits established in this first era of the show. And while visiting past Doctors is fun, I wish we could see him one last time, providing the voice of authority on what it means to be the Doctor.

Thanks to Mark Gatiss and David Bradley for recognizing and sounding that voice.

My Rating

5/5

bradley-hartnell

Doctor Who: Hunters of Earth (Destiny of the Doctor)

Written by Nigel Robinson

Directed by John Ainsworth

Susan Foreman is finding her place at Coal Hill School. She is growing close to a young man named Cedric. But suspicion falls on Susan and her grandfather as teenagers begin hunting anyone different . . .or alien.

Cover for Hunters of Earth

“It’s all in the beat.”

Note: Even though this is a First Doctor story, this review contains spoilers for series seven’s “The Name of the Doctor.” If you don’t want to be spoiled, read until the paragraph with the 50th anniversary logo next to it.

I go in to pre-“An Unearthly Child” stories with a large amount of skepticism. The inherent logic involved in story telling is that the story begins at the most-interesting starting point. Anything prior to this point may be relevant to the plot, but if it were essential to it, the story would have started earlier. Based on the basic premise of Doctor Who, we aren’t supposed to start with his origin. There would be no mystery if we did. As a result, any story taking place prior to the show’s beginning is filtered through 50 years of mythology, and these stories must walk a fine line, holding in tension the mystery of the character at this point without revealing too much later mythology that developed.

And it needs to be good, something special. I am personally in favor of visiting this period as little as possible and reserving such visits for writers who can tell exceptional stories. Many of the stories from this period of the show do not really contribute much to the Doctor Who mythology, nor are they distinctly Hartnell in feel. So far, “Quinnis” is my favorite because Marc Platt is able to capture the feel of the First Doctor while providing some great world-building and character moments.

“Hunters of Earth” is set during the Coal Hill days of Doctor Who—a period of the Doctor’s life that the show only covers in one episode. The problem with setting a story here is that it gives the Doctor too much to do, risks him exposing his presence when he is explicitly trying to remain anonymous. And so, in order to give us a story in which the Doctor keeps a low profile but still has a mystery to solve, Nigel Robinson gives us a story that isn’t terribly compelling. I tend to find Robinson hit or miss, but I admit I haven’t read anything of his work in over ten years. Of recent experience I have this story and “Farewell Great Macedon,” which was an adaptation he did for Big Finish of Moris Farhi’s unfilmed script. That story was excellent, but how much can be attributed to Farhi and how much to Robinson?

the Coal Hill announcement board“Hunters of Earth” is in the style of The Companion Chronicles line, but it is in the third person rather than the first. It is narrated by Carole Ann Ford (Susan Foreman), and deals with her attempts to integrate into Coal Hill. We are given nice moments between her and the Doctor in which she is able to influence him to be more considerate. I especially appreciate that the story is has a couple of science fiction elements, but is largely historical. We don’t have an alien invasion at Coal Hill or anything like that. Everything is kept low key, and even the characters who suspect Susan and the Doctor are not of Earth are few and willing to keep the secret. It is an interesting story which attempts to not overshadow the beginning of Doctor Who. It keeps things quiet. Unfortunately, it is this unassuming nature which is both a blessing and a curse. It doesn’t insist that the Doctor’s story begins here, but neither does it capture you and make you think it was a great experience.

Of course, I suppose the same could be said of any of Doctor Who’s secondary canon. Why bother? If it was so important, we would have got it already. Fair enough. Many Doctor Who fans only want to look forward, not back. They don’t want or need new stories with previous Doctors. They are happy with what the show gave them. For my part, I like the Companion Chronicles, and I am particularly drawn to the First Doctor stories because this era gives me something no other era does—straight historicals. It is a part of the First Doctor era, one that I would love to see brought back just because I love history and love learning about “real history” (i.e. aliens were not behind historical events). But I also like the different approach to science fiction in the 1960s. It was a time of optimism and anything could happen. In the First Doctor’s era you truly didn’t know where you would be transported to from story to story (in some cases, from week to week). And so, while “Hunters of Earth” isn’t a particularly compelling story, I’m happy it was made and I will listen to it again.

Two more points of contention. First, I didn’t particularly enjoy the in-jokes, primarily the “my dear Doctor, you have been naïve” joke. This line is particularly associated with the Master, and having a character utter this completely misleads the plot development. For a moment I was ecstatic as I contemplated a confrontation between the First Doctor and the Master. (And really, how awesome would that be? Harnell’s crotchety, irritable Doctor against a Delgado-style Master would have been wonderful. Think of the insults! The witticisms!) When I discovered this was merely a joke, I was completely taken out of the story.

50th Anniversary LogoSecond, “Hunters of Earth” is part of the larger Destiny of the Doctor line, which is a series of eleven audiobooks commissioned for the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. As such, they attempt to weave an arc through the eleven stories that will pay off with the Eleventh Doctor. I like this idea. I think it is an interesting opportunity. I can’t speak for whether or not it works because I haven’t listened to all of them yet (indeed, I only have the first three), but so far the extent seems to be the Eleventh Doctor contacting his former selves and offering a clue for their current crisis. I’m not sure this is the opportunity I wanted to see. I think what I wanted, but never saw, was what Steven Moffat implied (and failed to deliver in a satisfying way) in “The Name of the Doctor,” namely an Eleventh Doctor villain who is attempting to destroy the Doctor in different time periods. Sure, this would be difficult to accomplish in eleven stories, but I think it could be done by coming up with a compelling villain with a distinct method for operating, then placing symbols or symbolic plots throughout the different stories (which also serve to fill in the back story), culminating with the Eleventh Doctor being victorious. It would be complex; it would need a lot of coordination, but it would be a lot of fun.

Instead, I fear these will turn out to be standalone stories that may be loosely connected rather than essentially connected. Granted, anyone who has kept current with the releases may see if I am completely wrong.

On another note, how cool would it have been if Destiny of the Doctor set up something in The Day of the Doctor? Or of Clara’s splintering through time happened in these stories and the Great Intelligence took different guises in the Doctor’s past as Clara did. Missed opportunities.

Bottom line, “Hunters of Earth” may prove forgettable, but if you are a First Doctor nut (as I am) it is a perfectly average story. Nothing amazing, but nothing horrible. Since there are a lot of 50th anniversary releases to get this year, pick it up through digital download to save yourself some money.