Big Finish Review - The First Doctor Adventures Volume 4

Big Finish Review - The First Doctor Adventures Volume 4

David Bradley’s turn as the First Doctor has proven highly popular and a real treat. Since his initial appearance on-screen as William Hartnell seven years ago, Bradley has starred in three volumes of audio adventures from Big Finish, which see era-authentic science fiction and historical drama imbued with a revitalising freshness.

The six stories that comprised the first, second and third volumes truly captured the magic of the original TARDIS team and were some of the best Doctor Who releases of the past three years at Big Finish. Delve into the next two tales in this review of volume four – with another set to follow in 2021!

The First Doctor Adventures range is produced by David Richardson, with music and sound design by Howard Carter. The fourth volume is available on the Big Finish website exclusively before general release after 31 May 2020. Here's the synopsis...

Return to Skaro by Andrew Smith

A new plan to return to Earth actually returns the TARDIS to another place its crew have recently visited - Skaro, home world of the Daleks.

But it is some time after their previous visit. The Thals have moved on with developing their species... Yet the shadow of the Dalek city always looms large over them.

Venturing into the abandoned metropolis, the Doctor and his friends discover the Daleks aren’t as dead as they might have thought... and it isn’t only their enemies who have secrets.

Last of the Romanovs by Jonathan Barnes

The TARDIS lands on Earth near to an eerie and familiar house... with the only witness a regal man watching from inside through a broken window.

Leaving the ship the crew immediately find themselves in trouble - because they have landed in Ekaterinburg early in the twentieth century.

The man inside the house is Nicholas, the last Tsar of Russia, imprisoned with his family... and one of the most notorious crimes in history is just about to happen.

Review

Return to Skaro

The first story is not a reimagining of The Daleks or The Dalek Invasion of Earth, but instead something of an ‘unseen sequel’ to the original Dalek serial. There is much about Return to Skaro to delight in: an atmospheric setting, exuberant performances, Nicholas Briggs’ varied Dalek voices, three classic-style cliffhangers, and a twist at the halfway point that propels the story is a different direction from the expected.

Befitting of a sequel, Andrew Smith goes beyond the rote or pedestrian, choosing to exploring the details of a developing Thal society, and introducing a twist for Dalek motivations (apparently), while still retaining many of the sought-after tropes that typify a story such as this – longer scenes lengths, a Dalek laboratory, and a calamitous Thal-Dalek conflict, for example.

The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara have made their (rather traumatic) initial foray into the Dalek city and survived, and now return to Skaro with that original experience fresh in their minds. This gives the story given a different dynamic to the conventional exploration of an alien world – the TARDIS crew finds themselves armed with foreknowledge of the threat awaiting them rather than being wholly unprepared and in the dark.

Speaking of the dark, however, Return to Skaro is intensely atmospheric and realised with immersive sound design and imagery. Look no further than lightning arcing through the night-time air, rows of underground electrostatic generators, the derelict ruins of a destroyed Dalek city, or bubbling vats in a Dalek laboratory. Just as there are hidden levels to the city that conceal a concealed Dalek faction, there are levels to the story, which examines not only the consequences of resistance to control but also the ideological standpoints of Thals who contemplate ideas of Thal-Dalek harmony.

As the occasionally irascible but warm-hearted First Doctor, David Bradley excels again, conveying a magic and trustworthiness depicted so well in An Adventure in Space and Time and in the 1960s. Claudia Grant, Jemma Powell and Jamie Glover make clear their increasingly nuanced comprehension of the beloved characters they are reinventing and their passion for playing those roles.

Last of the Romanovs

With this story being written by Jonathan Barnes, the primary writer of Big Finish’s Sherlock Holmes range, Last of the Romanovs in good hands. It ranks highly among David Bradley First Doctor serials with an old-school feel of revolutionary Russia and a strongly tragic story that explores the nasty fate of the ill-fated deposed royal Romanov family.

Things kick off with dissent among the ranks, as a frustrated Ian (“I’m not sure … we absolutely have to step outside the ship every time it lands. I don’t believe it to be compulsory.”) triggering the Doctor’s crankier side (“Poppycock and balderdash, Chesterton”). This is the kind of gently abrasive yet humorous dynamic you look for with this iteration of TARDIS crew, and nicely counterbalances the foreboding plot to follow.

Claudia Grant, Jemma Powell and Jamie Glover get the chance to show off different sides to their respective characters, who diverge on two separate plot strands – Ian fighting in a skirmish and meeting a counter-revolutionary, Barbara and Susan going undercover as nuns after meeting a sympathetic British ally. Further fleshing out the characters are hints at Ian and Barbara’s budding relationship – still no more than hints – and allusions to Susan’s psychic abilities, such as her ability to sense the TARDIS from afar.

This is very much a human story. The proud and regal Nicholas, once the tsar of Russia, and his family have been detained by the new Bolshevik rulers, who are presented as the antagonists for the violence they deal out. It is not only the inevitable fate of the Romanovs that gets attention, but also the plight of the normal people of Russia: “One bunch of murderous lunatics carving up another bunch of murderous lunatics, with ordinary blokes … trapped smack bang in the middle of it all.”

The writing is heavy with atmosphere and the directing is to be commended, with the Russian accents not being overdone. The crux of the story revolves around the possibility of attempts to save the Romanov family, the moral repercussions of not doing so in order to keep events in line with established history. This makes the resultant tensions between members of the TARDIS crew who take disparate positions on the issue all the more fascinating.

Extras

Sound designer and composer Howard Carter adds to the menace and foreboding of Return to Skaro with an unsettling and eerie score. He then flavours twentieth century Russia with the kind of bombastic, marching-band score for Last of the Romanovs, as to be expected from a historical tale set in revolutionary Russia.

In the cast and crew interviews, David Bradley fondly remembers the black-and-white days of Doctor Who – “where you can paint in your own colours” – whereas Andrew Smith has similarly strong memories of anticipating the return of the Doctor’s foes in Destiny of the Daleks. Nicholas Briggs also explains the subtleties of recreating Dalek voices of the era, while Jonathan Barnes expresses his admiration of Bradley’s range in channelling the energy of William Hartnell in the recording booth.

Further insights from actors and production staff about both stories are available in the February edition of Big Finish’s free Vortex magazine, which is well worth the read for extra First Doctor content – especially considering the interviews attached to this release amount only to fifteen minutes per story.

Conclusion

The First Doctor Adventures have gone from strength to strength. From pairing truly engaging and contemplative science fiction with rich and immersive historical drama, to bringing back classic elements such as the Daleks or Susan in volume three, the series has earned its listening weight in gold.

This whole range is compulsory listening and consistently a true delight. The two stories on offer here kick the ball out the park in terms of tone, character, plotting and creativity. The writing is tight, the cast are in top form and relish the material, and the First Doctor’s era has never felt more exciting.

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