Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The First Doctor Adventures Volume 3
Last month, Big Finish's packed Doctor Who range saw the release of the third (and currently final) volume of The First Doctor Adventures, starring David Bradley as the First Doctor, Claudia Grant as Susan, Jemma Powell as Barbara Wright and Jamie Glover as Ian Chesterton.
The First Doctor Adventures Volume 3 has been written by Marc Platt and Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 31st March. Here are the synopses.
The Phoenicians by Marc Platt
In ancient Tyre, the Phoenician civilisation commands the oceans. But times are turbulent - the young King's quarrel with his sister threatens to divide the nation.
On perilous seas, Ian becomes Princess Elissa's favourite, while Susan and Barbara face losing their freedom. In the city, the Doctor falls foul of King Pygmalion.
As they reach dangerous shores, the travellers fight to survive as legend becomes history.
Tick-Tock World by Guy Adams
When disaster befalls the TARDIS, its occupants find themselves in a bizarre location, somewhere between space and time.
Desperate survivors hide among ruins, greedy scavenging creatures hunt new prey, and ghosts scream out warnings across time.
All the while, a mysterious woman watches the TARDIS crew, knowing, as sure as tock follows tick, that a terrible fate awaits them.
You can check out our reviews of previous volume below.
Spoilers of course as we delve into the details of both stories...
The third volume of The First Doctor Adventures really makes the use of the audio medium to tell stories that could never have been created back in the 60s, while still keeping the tone and flavour of the early Hartnell era. It's a bold and ambitious pair of stories that make this the most successful of the three volumes.
The actors in particular have really found their groove playing versions of these iconic characters and it's particularly gratifying to see the character of Susan get more to do again, compared to her onscreen episodes, which often failed to live up to her potential as a fellow Time Lord.
This is a gourgeous historical episode that sees the Doctor and his companions arrive in the ancient trading city of Tyre and become caught up in the legendary tale of Dido and the founding of Carthage. Of all the historical stories told across the three volumes, The Phoenicians is bar far the most successful, perhaps because the grandeur of the tale, traversing the Mediterranean seas, feels more realised than what could have been depicted on television at the time.
It's an absorbing drama that sees the Doctor and his companions caught up in the mysticism and political intrigue between brattish young King Pygmalion of Tyre (Jo Ben Ayed) and his sister Princess Elissa (Ajjaz Awad). Marc Platt's intricate script and Ken Bentley's vivid direction bring this bustling city to life in the first episode, to create a rich, vibrant and dangerous city, delivering a terrible cliff-hanger in Ian about to be crushed in a bloody ritual of slaves' blood christening Pygmalion's new ship.
The intrigue and drama of Tyre would have been enough to sustain a four-part story, but Platt's script is much grander than that, seeing the Doctor abandoned and forced to play a much more invested role as emissary of the Gods while Ian, Barbara and Susan escape onboard Pygmalion's vessel with Elissa, leading to a dramatic pursuit across the seas. Elissa herself is an intriguing character, portrayed initially as a victim before emerging as just as ruthless as her brother. Her real strength emerges as she begins to fulfil her destiny as the mythical Dido who would found Carthage, leading Susan and Barbara into dangerous territory as her slaves while Ian finds himself playing another mythical figure, towing the line between saving his friends and a possible romance with the princess.
There is a lot packed into these four parts, not just in the journey of the ship to Africa but also the pursuit of Pygmalion, the Doctor's attempts to stay alive and the emerges of dangerous characters like Orion Ben's Sithian bounty hunter Aiyaruc and Raad Rawi's mighty King Hiarbas of Tunis. This is a rich, bountiful historical, mixing in myth and intrigue and giving meaty performances to every member of the main cast as well as absorbing performances by the guest actors too. Had The Phoenicians been made during Hartnell's run it would have been regarded as a classic, and rightly so.
Tick Tock World
The second story certainly sits in what has been coined in modern Doctor who as 'timey wimey'. Tick Tock World doesn't quite have the grandeur of The Phoenicians but is just as special in its own right; it's a story that would have been impossible to tell in the 60s. The giant devourers would have been impossible to create, ravaging the desolate landscape of eclectic buildings while the presence of lesbian coupe Horl and Katta would have been unthinkable at the time. The story too, with shifting timeframes, overlapping dimensions and multiple versions of the same characters feel like something Steven Moffat could have imagined, translated into the somewhat simpler feel of the show's original run.
Of course, the joy of audio and of telling a story with these characters over five decades later is that you can do things that would not have been possible on screen, and Guy Adams really embraces the opportunity. With Horl and Katta, Adams allows these classic characters to reflect on their relationship - Barbara is open while Ian, perhaps as a reflection of the time he is in, has a slightly more awkward reaction. The scale of the story, both in the overlapping time frames and the location out of space and time is something rather bold and different too; it feels as if the first two volumes of The First Doctor Adventures, sticking closer in tone to the feel of the 60s series have paved the way for a story like this to be told.
Mina Anwar no stranger to the world of Doctor Who, with appearances on the show and spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, and makes a strong impression as Horl, who soon suffers grief as partner Katta dies, working with Ian and Barbara to navigate the dangers of this strange world.
Belinda Lang is equally as engaging as ruthless villain Nocta, who revels in the stupidity of others as she fights to survive in her own zero cabinet, something first introduced in Fifth Doctor opening story Castrovalva.
But mostly, Tick Tock World is Susan's story. The shocking 'death' of the Doctor mid-way through forces her to use her Time lord ingenuity to try and save everyone as the Doctor himself finds himself confronted out of time by various versions of himself (allowing David Bradley's Doctor to play off himself) and a mysterious woman. Claudia Grant really makes the most of her role to show Susan fighting self doubt to find a solution, while Doctor Who's original Susan, Carol Ann Ford acts as the voice of reason for Bradley's Doctor, convincing him to let his grand daughter step out of his shadow and find a way home. The twist, that she is an older Susan trapped in this place for years, is a wonderful moment and it's a joy to see Ford play the older, wiser Susan again.
The First Doctor Adventures Volume 3 is packed with in depth interviews with the cast and crew. While the presence of a music suite is noticeably absent, it is more than made up with passionate, engaging insights into the production of this release. As with previous volumes, the main cast discuss their approaches to the characters; Jamie Glover and Jemma Powell find motivation in the characters of Ian and Barbara rather than focus on the established performances of William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, while Claudia Grant takes direct inspiration for Carole Ann Ford herself. David Bradley continues to feel great pride for the role, particularly the ability to say he is the Doctor after his onscreen role as the First in Twice Upon A Time.
There are lots of great insights from the cast and crew; actress Ajjaz Awad comments on the show's ability to educate audiences about the past and how The Phoenicians follows this tradition, while actors Youssef Kerkour and Raad Rawi offer a wonderful discussion about approaching the different voices to each of the characters they are playing.
Particularly delightful are Jamie Glover talking about his own sci-fi fandom and the legacy of his father Julian Glover who played Scaroth in Tom Baker's The City of Death while Caroline Ann Ford talks about her fondness for William Hartwell, the strangeness of seeing Susan's lines and not playing her and rediscovering Doctor Who by watching Eddie Izzard perform a sketch about Daleks on stage. These snippets of interviews are just as enjoyable as the stories themselves.
Some Final Thoughts
The First Doctor Adventures Volume 3 is the best of these set of releases. While previous volumes had plenty of greatness to offer, it really feels as if these two stories fulfil the potential of telling new First Doctor stories.
The Phoenicians is a superb historical story, packed with rich characters, high drama and a lovely blending of historical events, myths and how these characters play into them. Tick Tock World is something altogether unexpected, telling a story that could never have been realised in the 60s and the presence of Carol Ann Ford as an older Susan in the icing on the cake.
Another superb set from Big Finish that starts the year off in style.