Written By: Dale Smith
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Starring: Peter Purves (Narrator)
Producer: Michael Stevens
Script Editor: Michael Stevens
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Released By Big Finish Productions - January 2015
“And you, Doctor – you are called “the monster”. The robots are afraid you even exist…”
Somewhere in the depths of outer space lies a nameless planet, and somewhere on that stellar body’s surface lies a desolate wasteland known as the Scrapheap, a seemingly endless junkyard where the time never changes. Sound familiar? On the basis of that premise, listeners who hadn’t read the plot synopsis for Flywheel Revolution – the freshman instalment in Big Finish’s 2015 run of Doctor Who: Short Trips releases – might justifiably expect a tale akin to 2011’s televised Who serial The Wedding of River Song. Quite to the contrary, though, this standalone First Doctor outing from Dale Smith couldn’t stay truer to the era from which William Hartnell’s incarnation derived, paying homage to the 1963-1966 seasons from the outset via key iconography like the An Unearthly Child-esque setting as well as with the point at which time freezes – 23 seconds past 5.15pm – to deliciously nostalgic effect.
Far from simply crafting an ode to the First Doctor’s time aboard the TARDIS, however, Smith deserves credit aplenty for creating a unique, tangible capitalist society-turned-dystopian setting with an endearingly flawed protagonist – namely Frankie, a courageous robot confined to the Scrapheap by intergalactic colonists whose rampant curiosity soon lands him in the Time Lord’s metaphorical crosshairs – which combine to ensure that his allocated 30-minute running time passes faster than a Weeping Angel moves. Better yet, he finds the time to integrate an especially intriguing concept never touched upon in the Hartnell years, as Frankie reveals his robotic cohorts to view the Doctor as a “monster” with little to no regard for the machinery he co-opts in order to escape his latest stint of imprisonment. It’s a notion which works brilliantly in casting a remarkably brasher version of Theta Sigma than his successors in a darker but equally believable new light - somewhat akin to that of the "predator of the Daleks" conceit raised in 2012's Eleventh Doctor blockbuster Asylum of the Daleks, in fact - not to mention allowing the scribe to essentially pitch our usual hero as a makeshift antagonist for the first 15 minutes, thereby lending a truly fresh tone to proceedings that most won’t have anticipated.
Admittedly, without the right voice actor signed up to narrate Flywheel Revolution, all of Smith’s efforts to broaden his listeners’ perspectives on what to expect from First Doctor tales might have been for nought, hence why Peter Purves’ agreement to step up to the podium comes as a wholly welcome relief. Rather than struggling to confidently distinguish the three-strong ensemble of constructs’ individual voices in the absence of his TV character, Steven Taylor, from the storyline – we’re firmly in Foreman, Chesterton and Wright territory here, although only the Doctor himself makes a physical appearance – Purves clearly relishes the opportunity to branch out into a wave of new roles, instantly setting his take on Hartnell’s aged, oft-cold but ultimately compassionate time traveller apart from the far more innocent, frightened tones of Frankie and his comrade Toby as if he’d been voicing each of these key players for years on end. Indeed, if anything, this reviewer left Flywheel behind eager to discover whether Purves had lent his talents to further Short Trips vignettes aside from this one, since judging by his stellar contribution here, Big Finish would be utter fools to let such opportunities past them by.
In case it wasn’t already obvious, this captivating premiere tale’s shortcomings are far and few between, paling when juxtaposed with the myriad strengths of Smith’s occasionally haunting, occasionally effortlessly sweet script as well as Purves’ similarly creditworthy verbal contribution. Were we to ascertain those contributory elements which – as with virtually any work of literature, printed, televised or broadcast over the radio airwaves – hold Flywheel ever so slightly back from the realms of perfection, then there’s an argument that in only having 30 minutes to convey his protagonists’ struggle for liberation from capitalist tyranny, the playwright has to draw limits on the amount of character and setting development he includes. Meanwhile, for all its haunting undertones, the accompanying soundtrack doesn’t exactly inspire the same sense of chilling paranoia during Frankie’s initial encounter one would have hoped for if Smith was aiming to almost fully invert the Doctor’s traditionally calming personality, although given the understandably short-lived nature of this perception-orientated plot thread, this slight technical hiccup can’t be said to in any way represent enough of a deal-breaker to warrant giving the piece a miss.
Indeed, to dwell on such miniscule chinks in the armour of an otherwise impeccable audio drama such as this would be nothing less than a prime example of one missing the forest for the trees, since whenever Flywheel Revolution comes even within inches of making a noteworthy slip-up, its admirably intelligent script, gracefully developed world or accomplished narration can’t help but draw the listener back into the action moments later, to the extent that come the end credits, the vast majority of the audience will have a tough time recalling such insignificant shortcomings anyway. Expect to see further verdicts on last year’s Short Trips releases – as well as those gracing the Big Finish website over the course of 2016 and beyond – in the coming months, but suffice to say that if other contributors to the series’ array of scripts take Smith’s lead in crafting richly detailed, consistently engaging minisodes, then the range has an incredibly bright future ahead. Sure to entertain hard-core followers of Who’s off-screen output and those dipping their feet into show’s aural spin-offs for the first time, this captivating short story is, above all, a magnificent showcase of the programme’s merits all but guaranteed to keep the faith among fans until the still-distant 2016 Christmas Special rears its eyebrows on our screens in five months’ time.
Next up on stage? Little Doctors, which this reviewer can only assume will see all fourteen incarnations of the titular eternal protagonist – not to mention his big-screen and Unbound alternative selves – portrayed by David Walliams and Matt Lucas, landing one another in an all manner of satirical situations with the help of Tom Baker’s ever-hilarious bookending narration. Or not - only time and Frazer Hines will tell.