Doctor Who: Fanfare for the Common Men
Doctor Who’s landmark 50th anniversary is fast approaching, and Big Finish are planning to celebrate this is through a number of ranges, including the multi-Doctor special adventure ‘The Light at the End’ in November. But for now, a new trilogy of stories set in 1963 has arrived. The first of these, ‘Fanfare for the Common Men’ kicks this trilogy off to a triumphant start:
The Doctor remembers the Sixties. That’s why he’s taking Nyssa on a trip back to November 1963. Back to the birth of the biggest band in the history of British music. Back to see those cheeky lads from Liverpool... Mark, James and Korky. The Common Men. The Doctor remembers the Sixties. And there’s something very wrong with the Sixties, if the Beatles no longer exist…
‘Fanfare for the Common Men’ is without doubt one of the most enjoyable Doctor Who stories I have experienced in any medium for a long, long time now. It is a hilarious and witty tribute to the time, and Beatlemania, complete with a couple of pot-shots at the nature of fame (and one X-Factor gag, which although not that funny, had me chuckling heartily). This said, the whimsical plot (and execution of, with the sixties inspired soundtrack) is likely to divide listeners.
Long term viewers of Doctor Who will recall that in ‘An Unearthly Child’, Susan was bopping along to John Smith and the Common Men. Author Eddie Robson has taken this as an inspiration and crafted a surprisingly pacy story that wallows in nostalgia. Yet he embeds his own brand of wit and humour with enough smart comments and Beatles in-jokes to satisfy everyone.
It feels odd, that although Matt Smith’s Doctor is younger, I feel he would look positivitely out of place at pop concerts (though one can imagine Capaldi as a rock fiend); the story seems to fit Davison’s Doctor like a glove. Indeed, Davison’s performance matches this him with clearly enjoying the earthbound story and imbuing the Doctor with his own passion for the music of the Beatles. Similarly, Sarah Sutton seems to relish the chance to have such an active role and gives a rarely seen spin on Nyssa’s alien heritage and the accompanying social faux pas Nyssa makes.
Of the guest stars, it is the Common Men themselves that leave the biggest impression. With great camaraderie and cod Scouse accents to boot, they make a believable group. Mitch Benn and Andrew Knott are especially worthy of note as Mark and James. Benn’s laconic performance as he slides into obscurity is well-handled especially when compared to the youthful hope seen from the Common Men in the first half of the story.
Arguably, this particular release more so than any other lives or dies on its soundscape, and Howard Carter’s music takes you back to the swinging sixties. Carter’s score is a highlight of the release, with the catchy, specially-recorded songs adding a whole new layer.
In fact, it’s listening to this that I am reminded of the BBC Four series Look at Life, a sparkling visual rendition of many of the aspects covered in the audio. I think it’s too far to say that 'Fanfare' is a thorough reflection of the Britain of the time, but it does try its hardest to show a bit of the post-war effects and rise of youth culture. Scenes of the female zombie-like horde of pop pickers eerily mirror the male hordes going to war mere years previously.
My only niggles are with the reliance 'Fanfare' has on its time travel elements. Some key moments are undermined by timey-wimey undoing. Additionally, once or twice I caught myself having to rewind to ensure I was fully following the plot. It seems churlish to criticise a time-travel plot in a show about a time traveller, but these are minor niggles in an otherwise wonderfully original concept.
It is a tremendous relief for Big Finish to have produced something so refreshingly different, and so unashamedly enjoyable to kick off their 50th anniversary celebrations. There has been nothing quite like this in Doctor Who's history before and luckily 'Fanfare for the Common Men' is an utter triumph.
'Fanfare for the Common Men' is available on CD or download from Big Finish now.