Written By: Martin Day, Ian Potter, Simon Guerrier
Starring: Carole Ann Ford, Maureen O'Brien, Peter Purves, Alix Dunmore, Alice Haig, Darren Strange
Producers: David Richardson & Ian Atkins ("The Sleeping Blood")
Script Editor: Jacqueline Rayner
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Released by Big Finish Productions - June 2015
Of all of the eras of Doctor Who to select as the basis for a dedicated Companion Chronicles box-set, William Hartnell’s tenure as the eponymous “wanderer in the fourth dimension” mightn’t immediately strike fans as the most obvious choice. After all, for every fan favourite or show-defining serial like An Unearthly Child, The War Machines and The Tenth Planet, there were at least two stories which failed to capture what was to be the series’ essence, with The Rescue and The Space Museum amongst the most commonly referenced offenders.
At the same time, though, there remains an inherent charm and refreshing innocence about those first twenty nine adventures whenever one re-watches them, both qualities which Big Finish clearly sought to capitalize on with The First Doctor Volume One. Taking its listenership from alien offices to intergalactic research facilities and from 18th century London to the dying days of one Steven Taylor, none of the four contributory serials come up lacking in terms of overall scope, but each boasts a surprising level of creative minimalism in terms of its premise and narrative structure, perhaps so as to echo the storylines of the 1963-66 runs.
Yet when viewed as a collective whole, does Volume One match the studio’s strongest output to date – not least their stunning 50th anniversary First Doctor tale, The Beginning – or join the ranks of the studio’s promising but ultimately unsuccessful works of audio which didn’t quite manage to fulfil their potential? To find out, let’s examine each serial in isolation before this reviewer delivers his final verdict on the set:
“The Sleeping Blood”:
Confining the First Doctor to the TARDIS after an encounter with poisonous alien fauna leaves him almost critically wounded, this opening instalment initially centres on his granddaughter Susan’s quest to obtain the necessary medicine to heal her ancestor in an extraterrestrial research facility. Events soon take a turn for the unexpected, however, as she becomes embroiled in a pseudo-civil war between the resident colonists over contrasting medical approaches, leading to a fascinatingly morally ambiguous tale with some engaging commentary regarding our race’s tendency to interweave modern technologies with healing practices without a second thought.
Offering up as confident a performance as ever, Carole Ann Ford once again seems to relish taking the helm here, rendering Susan as innocent yet as intelligent as ever as she matches wits with the sinister Butcher, a character whose seemingly antagonistic motivations get cast in a surprisingly sympathetic light thanks to the nuanced performance provided by co-star Darren Strange. Indeed, Strange deserves just as much credit as Ann Ford for keeping proceedings engaging, not least by ensuring that we’re never quite certain whether or not his construct is necessarily as malevolent as his foes would initially have Susan believe, with the dialogue afforded to him by scribe Martin Day only serving to strengthen his case as one of Big Finish’s more compelling ‘villains’ of recent times.
If there’s one criticism that needs laying at Day’s feet, it’s perhaps that the Butcher’s narrative turn from seemingly by-the-numbers adversary to a far more philosophically layered beast comes rather abruptly in the piece’s second half, but that aside, “The Sleeping Blood” serves as a stunning opening outing which will leave virtually all of its listenership desperate to see what’s next from Volume One.
“The Unwinding World”:
Unfortunately, though, what’s next doesn’t exactly whet the audience’s appetites to nearly the same level as its predecessor. To some extent, “The Unwinding World” marks a refreshing departure from “Sleeping Blood” thanks to its inspired implementation of a narrative framing device in the form of Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki finding herself subjected to an interrogation by her new employer at a factory hiding secrets galore, an approach which yields flashbacks aplenty. It’s a great starting point to be sure, and one which writer Ian Potter could easily have developed into a story every inch as memorable as both “Sleeping Blood” and the First Doctor’s finest televised hours of television.
Yet the core plot itself doesn’t do nearly enough to support this innovative structural flourish, instead presenting us with a fairly mundane caper-style adventure which separates the Doctor, Vicki, Ian and Barbara, only to then pair each of them with a relatively forgettable band of supporting characters such as rebels without much in the way of a compelling cause or the employer who doesn’t have much to offer beyond underlying malice. O’Brien’s enthusiastic performance benefits the overall serial to some extent, particularly when she’s voicing her own character from the TV series, but her renditions of the voices of Hartnell’s Doctor, Jacqueline Hill’s Barbara and particularly William Russell’s Ian Chesterton don’t seem nearly as accurate in comparison to those actors’ televised portrayals, leaving this reviewer curious as to why the studio didn’t bring Russell back into the fray so as to allow the pair to re-establish their compelling on-screen dynamic in this instance.
Whereas “Sleeping Blood” kicked off Volume One with a bang, then, its immediate successor fails to maintain that momentum, instead coming off as a colossal missed opportunity to take an instantly intriguing premise and turn it into an unmissable addition to the First Doctor’s audio adventures in its own right.
“The Founding Fathers”:
Like “Unwinding World” before it, one can’t fault Volume One’s penultimate storyline in terms of its conceptual ambition from the outset. “The Founding Fathers” not only transports its listeners – and the TARDIS crew, now comprising the Doctor, Steven and Vicki once again – back to 1760s England for a chance meeting with iconic American politician Benjamin Franklin, but in addition forms only the first half of a two-parter centring on Steven’s post-TARDIS, post-kingly exploits as he attempts to resolve the mystery of how the Doctor’s consciousness has come to be trapped in a mysterious jar before his very eyes on the planet first glimpsed in 1966’s The Savages.
Better yet, rather than stumbling in its execution as was the case with the previous instalment, “Fathers” sports a cracking opening episode steeped with intrigue, temporal manipulation and deft characterisation, delving into how a Time Meddler-esque wanderer in the fourth dimension has come to impact upon Franklin’s life in potentially catastrophic ways, much to the predictable ire of Hartnell’s ever-cautious Time Lord, whilst equally making ample use of the rare opportunity to bring the First Doctor face to face with arguably one of the greatest minds of the 18th century. The problem is, once we enter Part 2, Simon Guerrier – who takes on playwright duties for both “Fathers” and the boxset’s finale – doesn’t seem totally assured when it comes to resolving his undoubtedly audacious narrative, prompting a disappointingly low-key denouement that neither makes great use of Peter Purves nor does the exciting premise justice.
Unsurprisingly, this leaves a rather sour taste in the listener’s mouth come the credits, yet if nothing else, “Fathers” deserves a try for its accomplished first half, compelling – if limited given the source material’s conclusion – work from Purves on voicing duties as well as its admittedly tantalising lead-in to Guerrier’s second story of the set.
“The Locked Room”:
Rather than using an elderly Steven’s recollections of the past as a framing device for the second time in a row, “The Locked Room” puts Mr Taylor’s campaign to solve the aforementioned dilemma surrounding the Doctor’s latest plight front and centre, with Alice Haig joining Purves as the second granddaughter of the collection, Sida, better known as the president of Steven’s new home-world. The premise here is a simple but instantly engaging one – hot on the heels of the events of “The Founding Fathers”, Steven and Sida must work to reunite the Doctor’s consciousness with his body in time for him to put a stop to an intergalactic conflict kicking off on Earth.
Much of this series finale’s supposed appeal lies in its re-introduction of a classic Doctor Who adversary taken from Tom Baker’s era, yet this places a lot of pressure on Guerrier to ensure that the recurring antagonist’s first appearance makes a considerable impact. It’s a challenge to which he struggles to rise, as he attempts to reveal the monster in question right at Part 1’s end in a vein similar to the TV show’s classic days – think how we first met the titular foes at the end of 1975's Terror of the Zygons Part 1 in terrifying style and you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect here – only to evidently realize how flawed an approach this seems when the listener can’t actually see the monster in question, at least until the script describes it in further detail or offers up its fan-appeasing name.
This isn’t to say “Locked Room” falls wholly flat as a work of audio drama, since Purves and Haig undoubtedly strike up a great rapport which more than keeps the storyline alive, yet as anthology denouements go, one can’t help but think that actually ending with the far superior “Sleeping Blood”, thereby taking us back to the First Doctor’s beginnings as the compilation neared its end, would have been a wiser choice.
In contrast to this year’s by-and-large compelling Companion Chronicles collection, The Second Doctor Volume One, this Hartnell-oriented anthology doesn’t so much pack a captivating first half that’s let down by the remaining two instalments as start out spectacularly with “The Sleeping Blood”, which ranks without any hesitation as one of Big Finish’s strongest First Doctor-driven audio dramas to date, then sadly start to notably peter out from “The Unwinding World” onwards.
As such, whilst true enthusiasts of the show’s freshman era will surely find plenty to like at first and enough to like later on to make this flawed compilation worth their while, anyone who’s struggled to see the appeal of the First Doctor won’t likely have their minds changed by any instalment but the first, making the prospect of them shelling out £20 for that lone great feel implausible at best. By all means take a look at The First Doctor Volume One if the studio slashes its price in a future sale or promotion, yet until then, suffice to say that there’s far more satisfying content to be found in their main range, New Series or Worlds of Doctor Who releases than what’s on offer here.