Produced by Big Finish
Written by Ian Potter
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Released: July 2013
Or at least, almost unknowable. Every now and again, Doctor Who’s various spin-off media has treated us to a glimpse at the Doctor’s earliest days wandering all of space and time, and that includes The Alchemists. Part of Big Finish’s The Companion Chronicles range, the adventure is set prior to Doctor Who’s first televised adventure, and is performed primarily by Carole Ann Ford. Obviously, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are absent from the story, although writer Ian Potter manages to reference them by employing a clever framing device to introduce us to the tale.
One of the most successful things about this story is how well it establishes the setting. Almost immediately after the TARDIS materialises (not as a 1960s Earth police box, although there are signs that the Chameleon Circuit might already be on the blink), the script, sound design and music come together to form a wonderfully evocative production. This is 1930s Berlin, and there is certainly a sense of atmosphere about the opening scenes. The music (by Jim Hamilton and Toby Hrycek-Robinson) is a perfect match for the tone that the script is trying to achieve, and the pacing is also very well balanced. The Alchemists does not rush into things – it spends some time setting up the location and characters, before the story really gets into full swing. Not only does this reflect the style of early 1960s Doctor Who, but it also makes the story incredibly effective. From very early on, we get an overwhelming sense that something really isn’t right – and indeed, this turns out to be the case.
One of the earliest principles of time travel to be established by the TV series was that “You can’t rewrite history, not one line”, so it’s great that this rule plays a huge part in the story. Indeed, Potter truly pays homage to the original intention of the series, with a script which educates about science and history in equal measure. The absence of Ian and Barbara means that we get a fascinating insight into the relationship between the Doctor and Susan prior to An Unearthly Child, and we also see more of the volatile First Doctor, before he was mellowed somewhat by regularly being in the company of humans. Ford’s ‘Doctor’ voice takes a bit of getting used to if you aren’t familiar with it, but once you’ve been listening to it for a while, it becomes quite easy to envisage the First Doctor – in a loose sense, the Doctor’s mannerisms and inflections are there, and Ford captures these without attempting to ‘impersonate’ William Hartnell. In this play, Ford is joined by Wayne Forester as Pollitt (and various other characters). Forester brings great subtlety to his dialogue, and works well alongside Ford. Together, they do an admirable job at bringing 1930s Berlin to life.
Throughout The Alchemists, darkness constantly lurks just beneath the surface. There are times when things become rather sinister, such as Susan recognising what the symbol on a young man’s sleeve would come to represent. But at the same time, there is a great sense of mystery about the whole thing. While the plot itself may not be the most substantial, this is compensated for by the quality of the production – the characters are well-portrayed, and the music and sound design works brilliantly in the context of what the story sets out to do, building up to a tense and thought-provoking finale. The Alchemists is a solid and enjoyable entry in The Companion Chronicles, and a fascinating hint at the adventures that the Doctor and Susan had already experienced before we first met them, nearly fifty years ago.