Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The First Doctor Adventures Volume 2
Last December saw David Bradley reprise the role of William Hartnell's First Doctor, for the Doctor Who Christmas special Twice Upon A Time. But this wasn't the only time Bradley brought the First Doctor to life; Big Finish cunningly tapped Bradley for a series of First Doctor adventures with the actors who played the original companions (Claudia Grant as Carole Anne-Ford, Jemma Powell as Jacqueline Hill and Jamie Glover as William Russell) from 50th anniversary special An Adventure In Time And Space.
Doctor Who - The First Doctor Adventures Volume 1 brought to life the magic of the original TARDIS team, introducing an earlier incarnation of the Master and delving into a pure historical adventure (you can read our review here) and now Doctor Who - The First Doctor Adventures Volume 2 picks up where that box set left off, with two more tales of adventure.
The two stories making up this set have been written by John Dorney and Andrew Smith and directed by Nicholas Briggs. It is available to download on the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 30th September. Here are the synopses...
2.1 The Invention of Death by John Dorney
After an experimental flight, the TARDIS crew find themselves on one of the strangest worlds they have ever encountered.
Alien life takes many forms, and on Ashtallah the travellers find all their preconceptions tested.
But this world is about to make a discovery – and it could mean the end of everything.
2.2 The Barbarians and the Samurai by Andrew Smith
In 19th Century Japan, Westerners are forbidden. So when the TARDIS arrives near Lord Mamoru’s castle, the daimyo’s Samurai are soon on their trail.
Uncovering secrets at court and treachery in the ranks, the Doctor and his friends are drawn into intrigue. And, as a battle begins, they are caught in the middle.
For this review, I'll be joined by my own regular Doctor Who The Big Finish reviewer companion Ben, possibly the show's biggest fan this side of Gallifrey...
What is really clear, listening to these stories, is how much the performances, scripts and direction capture the magic of the original TARDIS team. They really feel like they belong in 1963-64. The only real difference (besides new actors in familiar roles) is that the audios enable stories to be told that would have been restrained by budget in the original run. And that leads us nicely into the first story...
The Invention of Death
Baz Greenland (Aged 37)
The Invention of Death is a superb little tale and one that makes wonderful use of the audio medium. The Doctor and his companions arrive on an alien world that could never have been imagined in the 60s, full of transparent aliens with light-refracting bodies, who can remove and regrow limbs at will. Immortal and curious in nature, what starts as a the meeting of a child-like race soon descends into something a little darker.
It's something that Star Trek tackled numerous times with its Prime directive; just how much influence can humanity (and in this case Timelords) have on a race that has developed outside of alien influence; the ideas of mortality, evolution and scientific growth are as alien a concept as they come and the very meeting of the TARDIS crew with the Ashtallah soon become a contamination on their world.
While the physical portrayal of the Ashtallah in the 1960s would have been incredibly difficult, the moral ideas at play are pure Doctor Who. There is a sense of marvel in the meeting of two very different species, tainted by something quite darker. The cliff-hanger to the first part sees Barbara impaled in a game that the Ashtallah would never have experienced, their bodies able to regrow instantly. And it is Tracy Wiles' Sharlan healing Barbara with her own body that sets the course for something even darker as she attempts to explore her awakened scientific mind by experimenting with the contamination and death of her own species.
It is a classic case of bad things happening from the best intentions; the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara only want to teach the Ashtallah their own ways, but these every day concepts of love and death alter the course of the alien species in unexpected ways. Love is another important aspect here, Doctor Who being inadvertently progressive with exploring the concept of romantic love between two androgynous beings. Their child, the first born to the Ashtallah is a wonder and its infection with Sharlan's purpose mad infection adds some added drama to the climax of the story, ended with the self sacrifice of a key character and the heart-breaking mourning of another.
This isn't a tale of high adventure but an introspective tale that does what Doctor Who - particularly in that era - did so well. It is something quite magical and an improvement on an already strong first couple of stories in volume one.
Ben Greenland (aged 12)
The Invention Of Death would never have been possible in the sixties. Many of the things in the story like the Ashtallans and Barbara being impaled at the end of part one, could never have been done. The second part is the weakest, basically being an episode of Ian and Barbara trying to teach concepts of life to Brenna. The first episode feels more like the sixties, in terms of the TARDIS crew exploring the unusual place they have landed. The story really gets going in part three, where the Ashtallans start dying from an unknown cause.
When it is revealed to be Sharlan with the Doctor's syringe full of Barbara's blood, you know that the Doctor shouldn't trust her. When she pushes Ian out of a window at the end of part three, you know she means business. The story comes to a sad conclusion with Brenna and Sharlan having the child, and Sharlan dying. And Brenna sits waiting forever ends the story on a very sad note...
The Barbarians And The Samurai
Baz Greenland (aged 37)
The Aztecs is my absolutely favourite episode of the Hartnell era, making great use of the historical setting, exploring the culture, adding life and death drama and giving companion Barbara something great to get her teeth into. There were some real vibes from that story of The Barbarians and the Samurai, a tale that is probably my favourite of the First Doctor Adventures with this cast to date.
Writer Andrew Smith has created a rich world in his script through of power plays tragic heroes doomed romance and a time period - the exclusion of all foreigners from Japan that adds some real peril for the TARDIS crew. The supporting characters are all rich and mesmerising in their own right and there is a real sense in the character observations and taught direction from Nicholas Briggs that we are being transported into a place full of cherry blossom, ornately armoured samurai, castles and tea ceremonies.
The villains in this story are as worthy a threat as any alien; the machinations of Lord Takagi Mamoru (Sadao Ueda) provide a great foil for the Doctor, portrayed first as a tyrant, then ally to the Doctor and Barbara before revealing his plan to use foreign weapons to overthrow the Shogun and take Barbara as his consort. Even more interesting is Andrew Wincott's Casper Knox, a foreigner and mercenary that has found himself on Mamoru's employ masked as a fearsome red samurai. Again, it is hard to ascertain his real motives until the horrific slaughter of the British travellers at the end of part two.
And while the Doctor and Barbara find themselves prisoners of Mamoru, Ian and Susan follow the usual multi-companion route of encountering their own allies and story. Jozef Aoki's Yoshita Hirosh is an interesting character, a former samurai turned peasant who was forced out of Mamoru's service for daring to love the lord's daughter Keiko (Susan Hingley). She too proves to be a noble ally, aiding Barbara and the Doctor in their escape from her ruthless father.
There is a real sense of drama and intrigue culminating in the thrilling siege of Marmou's castle by the Shogun's armies in retribution for his rebellion. There is never a sense of this feeling fake; despite the limited cast Briggs is able to bring the full weight of warring samurai as the battle begins in part four. It's also a story with a happy ending for lovers Yoshita and Keiko, while the TARDS crew make their escape, capping a rich and beautiful tale and one of the finest historicals on TV or audio.
Ben Greenland (aged 12)
I am not a big fan of pure historical adventures (unpopular opinion probably, I dislike The Aztecs), but this story seems to be an exception for me. I found this tale really exciting and really wanted to know what happened next. The main feel of the sixties here, is the splitting up of the TARDIS crew. The first split up, leads to the Doctor and Barbara together, which doesn't usually happen a lot.
Lord Mamaru is a great villain who really fits the story. Meanwhile, Ian and Susan get some great moments together as well. The best part of the story comes in part four, with the castle under siege and the Doctor and Ian preparing some defences but also trying to escape. This was honestly my favourite pure historical in Doctor Who.
The release is packed with interviews with the cast and crew, full of insight and passion from all involved. Like volume one, it is interesting to hear how the core cast attempt to get the balance between natural performances and honouring that of the original actors from the 1960s.
There is some lovely insights from the writers; John Dorney talks about his influences and quieter character moments he incorporated into The Invention of Death while Andrew Smith and actress Jemma Powell share their own rich knowledge of this period of Japan's history with the Japanese actors involved in The Barbarians and the Samurai.
Some Final Thoughts...
Doctor Who - The First Doctor Adventures Volume 2 is a real treat, capturing the magic of the Hartnell era in its performances and storytelling. The Invention of Death is a fascinating, beautiful sci-fi tale, giving room to breathe with a pace that would only have worked in that era of Doctor Who while The Barbarians And The Samurai is an exciting, dramatic historical that transports the listener back to Feudal Japan. The cast are on fine form, the scripts rich and absorbing and the direction is gorgeous throughout. Quite possibly the finest Doctor Who Big Finish release of the year so far...