The Second Doctor Volume One (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 22 July 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Second Doctor Volume 01 (Credit: Big Finish / Simon Holub)
Written By: John Pritchard, Ian Atkins, David Bartlett, Rob Nisbet
Starring: Frazer Hines (Jamie), Anneke Wills (Polly), Deborah Watling (Victoria), Wendy Padbury (Zoe), Elliot Chapman (Ben), Robert Whitelock (Curtis)
Producer: Ian Atkins
Script Editor: Jacqueline Rayner
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Released by Big Finish Productions - June 2016

If Big Finish’s latest quartet of Companion Chronicles tales confirm only one long-assumed truth, then it’s how essential a component Jamie McCrimmon was to the sweeping success of the Second Doctor era. More than anything else, The Second Doctor – Volume One serves as a rich four-hour showcase of the psychological, philosophical and emotional depths of Frazer Hines’ occasionally naïve, occasionally ill-tempered but ceaselessly lovable Scotsman, revealing new facets to the character that Doctor Who could never have broached back in the 1960s while simultaneously keeping those endearing elements of his personality completely intact along the way.

For Hines himself, restoring the defining aspects of a construct he first portrayed on-screen over almost half a century ago might well have seemed like enough of a challenge in and of itself, yet far from simply asking this of their leading man this time around, the production team task him with reprising his almost uncanny portrayal of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor throughout the box-set given the original thespian’s tragic absence from our mortal plane these days. It’s an immense relief, then, to assert that far from crumbling under the enhanced pressure, Hines excels all the more at resurrecting the second incarnation of the eternal Time Lord, instantly reminding us of the warmth, madcap wit and unyielding passion for the unknown that made Hartnell’s successor such an undisputed hit with his viewership both at the time of broadcast and, indeed ever since.

Unlike boxsets such as UNIT: Shutdown or the various Doom Coalition releases, though, the four serials comprising Volume One don’t share much in the way of direct connections, their underlying aforementioned character study being the only true element which loosely connects each standalone narrative. With that in mind, join us as we tackle these four stories in three stages, investigating each instalment’s merits and shortcomings in their own right before we deliver an overall verdict on the compilation:

  1. “The Mouthless Dead” – On the basis of this phenomenal opening chapter, one would have forgiven Big Finish if they’d chosen to delay Volume One’s launch by a month to July, since “The Mouthless Dead” presents the audience with a poignant, captivating tribute to the fallen soldiers of the so-called ‘Great’ War. Taking place in 1920s Kent, the narrative depicts the Doctor, Jamie, Ben and Polly’s haunting – both from a literal and dramatic perspective – encounter with ghosts of England’s recent past, enabling writer John Pritchard to delve deep into the consequences of the aforementioned global conflict from an immensely stirring personal perspective as a wandering young lady searches desperately for her allegedly fallen spouse nearby an isolated railway line. In the wrong hands, this could’ve come off as a contrived, borderline insensitive ploy to draw in listeners simply wishing to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, but the cast do Pritchard’s script a world of justice, with Anneke Wills and Elliot Chapman – both of whom reprise their respective roles as if Doctor Who had never left the airwaves – in particular bringing a compelling sincerity to their performances both when it comes to interacting with Jamie despite their qualms with his personality traits and facing the war’s immediate ramifications. Throw in an equally engaging sub-plot surrounding Jamie’s touching attempts to demonstrate his intellectual adequacy despite the rest of the TARDIS team often eclipsing his in this regard, and the result’s without a doubt the finest serial of the four presented here, an unquestionable masterpiece of which everyone involved should be immensely proud.
  2. “The Story of Extinction” – To its substantial credit, for all of its faults, Ian Atkins’ “The Story of Extinction” certainly tries to take a markedly different tact to its predecessors, framing its storyline via an elderly Victoria Waterfield’s distant recollections of a trip she, Jamie and the Doctor took to the planet Amyrndaa at some point between her entry onto the TARDIS in The Evil of the Daleks and her subsequent departure in Fury from the Deep. Yet whilst such inspired storytelling devices are all well and good in terms of shaking up a short story collection’s tonal status quo, they’re normally not enough to wholly redeem a lacklustre narrative, a trend which rings unfortunately true in the case of Volume One’s decent but far from spectacular sophomore effort. For all its delightfully metatextual discussion of the power of words, not least via a completely unexpected form of antagonist along with a series of brief sequences involving Victoria’s attempts – rendered with appropriate compassion by the returning Deborah Watling – to educate her Scottish companion in the ways of the English language, “Extinction” packs a disappointingly mundane core plot, one which comes up so lacking in overall ambition that such compelling contributory elements can scarcely serve as fitting compensation. There’s nothing wrong with opting for a more action-orientated narrative, but when the protagonists of that narrative rarely seem to be any real danger, not least since one of them is already relating the events to us decades later while alive, nor where the antagonists have much of an impact or voice beyond robbing a few voiceless supporting characters of their lives, and well, much of the suspense can’t help but find itself dissipated as an inevitable by-product of that approach.
  3. “The Integral” and “The Edge” – Strange as it might seem, it’s worth taking a look at the second pair of serials forming Volume One in unison. Whereas the first two instalments took place in wholly disparate settings, conveyed completely isolated storylines and featured different sets of companions aside from Mr. McCrimmon, the David Bartlett and Rob Nisbet-penned “The Integral” and “The Edge” not only share their TARDIS crews – with the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe banding together for the entirety of the two hours, albeit with Hines strangely taking on voicing duties for Wendy Padbury’s character in the latter despite Padbury starring in the former – but also fairly similar scientific facilities, complacent quasi-antagonists and moments of Jamie having to once again prove himself from an educational standpoint, to the point where listeners might almost find themselves struggling to differentiate the pair were they to listen from a random track out of the 16-17 clips forming the latter two serials. That’s not to say fans of Jamie or indeed the wider Second Doctor era won’t find elements to like in the boxset’s second half; both tales raise some intriguing concepts – such as mining intelligence from the “secret source of the galaxy’s acumen” or how the eponymous Highlander’s understanding of the supposedly universally adversarial intentions of extra-terrestrial species may well be misplaced – and always ensure that their leading stars at least have a fair number of exchanges with corrupt experimenters, benevolent aliens or each other to keep proceedings interesting, plus "The Edge"'s score constantly impresses whether it's backing a vivid description of a galactic labaratory's beautiful surroundings with whimsical beats or action-led chase sequences with darker, fast-paced melodies. On the whole, however, neither “The Integral” nor “The Edge” would warrant anything close to a hearty endorsement were they released as individual Companion Chronicles titles, making their comprising half of this otherwise largely compelling box-set all the more unfortunate a turn of events.

We’re thus left looking at something of a mixed bag in The Second Doctor Volume One, with the opening hour providing some of Big Finish’s most heartbreaking dramatic content to date, which is saying something given how much of an emotional punch Torchwood: Broken, easily one of the studio’s strongest works to date, packed in the same month as this collection’s debut; its immediate successor employing a largely engaging framing device only for the core narrative it’s framing to come up seriously lacking in terms of its scope or suspense and the two remaining instalments lacking narrative inspiration to the extent that many may struggle to tell them apart. Most devotees of this particular era of Who should find Hines’ stellar work as both Jamie and Troughton’s incarnation - along with the writing team's in-depth character study of the Second Doctor's most faithful ally - compelling enough to see them through and warrant their £15-20 – depending on the format they purchase – but if they’re to be tempted to purchase a second volume, then Pritchard, Atkins et al seriously need to up their game when it comes to ensuring their scripts consistently match the calibre of their cast ensemble.