Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - An Ideal World

The second release of the fifth series of The Early Adventures features the First Doctor, Vicki and Steven. Maureen O’Brien and Peter Purves juggle their original characters, narration and (for the latter) a First Doctor impression in An Ideal World. Read a review of last month’s The Dalek Occupation of Winter here.

An Ideal World, directed by Lisa Bowerman and written by Ian Potter, is available for download on the Big Finish website prior to its general release on November 30th 2018. Here is the synopsis:

Light years from Earth, a vast human spaceship hangs in orbit over a cloudy alien planet. The crew have been travelling in cryosleep for many years, looking for a habitable world to settle, and have at last located one with potential.

However, they’re not the only people to have arrived in this place. The TARDIS has landed on the planet’s surface. The Doctor, Steven and Vicki explore and quickly find themselves separated.

But it isn’t merely the hostile environment and rogue terraforming drones they’ll have to deal with. Something else is living on this world. Something deadly and waiting to consume.

It’s an ideal world. But ideal for whom?

The Review

An Ideal World is a hard science fiction story about colonising a new world, imbued with questions of ethics and human fallibility, all wrapped up with the tone of a 1960s Doctor Who tale. A colony ship from Earth is terraforming a planet known as T-19, expecting it to be devoid of intelligent life or previous inhabitants. On the surface the Doctor, Vicki and Stephen arrive and become embroiled in a fight for survival as well as an ethical debate.
“I’ve been promoted from test subject to doctor. It’s gone to my head.”

An Ideal World is light on humour, preoccupied instead with a considerably serious moral debate and the threat of ‘alien’ life on a newfound planet. Concepts of encountering new life, colonisation and self-preservation vs destruction are explored thoroughly across the two hours of story. This means that the pace sometimes slows right down, action set-pieces replaced by characters discussing the ethics of their actions.

Reflecting the creative decision to have these stories emulate 1960s Doctor Who as much as possible, a plethora of tropes are ticked off, including: the trio being split up, the Doctor getting sick, an unknown alien menace, and conflict between the human characters. As per convention, the plot progresses at a moderate pace, full of questions and mysteries while the travellers explore their surroundings.

The Doctor and his companions are characterised very separately from one another, and no one lets their side down when it comes to moving the story forward and responding to events that occur. The Doctor in particular – although at this stage in his life still old, white-haired and irascible (a far cry from 2018) – exhibits the traits of likeable arrogance and vanity shared by all subsequent incarnations. (55 years this November… time flies!)

Having a string of 16 episodes solely featuring this TARDIS team across this newest series of The Early Adventures means that we become especially invested in knowing what these characters are like and how they interact (which is a mix of playful jibes and tetchy repartee.

The supporting cast, which notably includes Carolyn Pickles as Captain Traherne, completes the task set out for them comfortably. Half of them are doubling up on roles, and the highlight is probably the computer interface Factotum, a stylised human head humorously devoid of emotion (and which would probably cross into the uncanny valley if shown onscreen!)

The most thought-provoking part of the story is the questions about what constitutes life (and who has the right to end it). The most thrilling aspect though is the discovery of mutated life on the planet fighting back against the colonists. I felt myself hoping An Ideal World would veer more in this direction and go full horror, but writer Ian Potter resists the urge to resort to pulpy sci-fi and stays focused on the questions he wants to pose about the nature of space exploration and the ethics of destruction.
“Aggression begets aggression.”

Yet despite the company politics, ethical lessons and morally-ambiguous ending, at the end of the day there is always someone who wants to blow everything up…

The Extras

Designer Tom Webster produces more colourful, engaging cover art. I completely understand his decision to utilise graphics from recent televised episodes of Doctor Who in Big Finish covers. (In this case, it looks like he has used the spacesuit design from series 10’s Oxygen.) There is a wealth of high-quality and colour imagery to draw on, and when Big Finish is producing hundreds of new releases, each of which requires a different cover… it makes sense.

The musical score is minimalist and simple, and the suite at the end of disc one is short and succinct. The trailer for November’s Entanglement by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky follows the story, as does a quarter-hour of cast interviews and production insights.

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