Thursday, 7 March 2013

WHO REVIEW: Destiny of the Doctor releases 1-3

Destiny of the Doctor is another of the ‘Doctor-a-month series’ that have been thought up for this anniversary year, and, so far, it seems to be the most successful. It’s a co-production between Big Finish and the BBC AudioGo, with eleven stories released from January to November. The style of the pieces is similar to BF’s Companion Chronicles range, with two performers per play, one as the main storyteller and another as a guest star. Like the Chronicles, the main performer here is a companion actor from the series (at least, so far, whether we get any read by Doctors remains to be seen). However, unlike the Chronicles, these new releases are third-person tellings, rather than being told in the first person by the companion. This gives them a little more leeway in their storytelling, allowing them to spend time alone with other characters and get into their heads in a way the Companion Chronicles are unable to utilise.

It being March, we now have three releases to enjoy, one for each of the first three Doctors – the late, lost heroes. Each release makes a good attempt to bring to life a particular era of the series, although they also make some moves to tying in to a larger plot that threads throughout the series. This element is quite low-key for the moment, but it seems its significance will gradually develop as the series progresses. Plus, there are some cute nods and winks to the ‘future’ of the series in these retrospective releases – Magpie Electricals gets a cheeky nod in the first story, for example.

It’s a peculiar thing, but since Kim Newman’s 2002 novella Time and Relative, the time before An Unearthly Child has gradually become more and more explored. At one point, this period was out of bounds for Doctor Who authors, but over the last few years several releases have been set therein. This year, both the opening instalments of Destiny of the Doctor and the Puffin e-book range take place in this ‘Season Zero’ period, and Big Finish are planning at least one more excursion back there before the year is out.

Said opening story, Hunters of Earth, comes from the pen of Nigel Robinson, an author with some experience in writing for the early years of the show; he novelised several of the earliest serials for Target. Carole Ann Ford reads this story; she’s still able to give a convincing turn as the fifteen-year-old Susan, and although her other characters don’t stand out terribly well, she gives a good narration. Her co-star Tam Williams plays posh schoolboy Cedric, who essentially acts as Susan’s companion in this story. They form quite an effective little team. The story itself is very straightforward, and is mostly concerned with developing an effective period atmosphere. Sixties nostalgia is rather lost on me, being born in the eighties and all, but I can’t deny that the story has a tangible atmosphere. The central threat – a hypersonic wave that stimulates the xenophobic tendencies of human beings – is a canny choice. Racism and mob violence are potent problems of the modern world, but they were an even more present issue in the sixties. Utilising this to put Susan and the Doctor at risk, as aliens on Earth, is a clever idea, and the tenuous nature of their existence in Shoreditch is struck home. Still, for all its ideas, the story itself is told in a very simple fashion and never really takes off and reaches its potential.

Shadow of Death is the most successful of these first three releases. Frazer Hines is the narrator, and is the clear, correct and obvious choice. As always, he provides a note perfect recreation of Jamie and a spookily convincing portrayal of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. Evie Dawney is also impressive as the scientist Dr. Sophie Topolovic, who is this story’s obligatory suspicious authority figure who later learns to trust the Doctor. Yes, this is a good, old-fashioned, by-the-book base-under-siege story. As such, is doesn’t offer anything fresh, but Simon Guerrier’s storytelling and spot-on characterisation makes it work beautifully. There’s a great spooky atmosphere here, helped by some retro-style music that fits the piece perfectly. It’s an interesting story, dealing with a planet orbiting a pulsar – particularly apt, since the phenomenon was only discovered in 1967, right in the middle of the Troughton era – and the time-dilation effects that this brings. Add a mysterious race of alien beings to the mix, and the Doctor’s attempts to communicate with them, and you’ve got a fascinating story. The only weak point is the conclusion, which rather abruptly shuts down the story rather than bringing to a satisfactory climax.

The third and latest release is Vengeance of the Stones, a third Doctor story from Andrew Smith. Richard Franklin is the narrator, so naturally this is a Mike Yates story. Interestingly, Smith has chosen to explore Mike’s very first encounter with UNIT, when he was still a lieutenant in the regular army. I don’t think we’ve actually had a ‘Mike joins UNIT’ story before – surely not an unplugged gap in Doctor Who continuity? Correct me if I’m wrong. In any case, Franklin gives a decent reading of the story of how Mike distinguished himself in his first encounter with extraterrestrial life; his Brigadier is pretty spot-on too. Joining him is Trevor Littledale as Garlin, leader of the aliens, who came to Earth from the planet Faris thousands of years earlier. Littledale gives a performance that come across measured and reasonable early on, becoming aggressive and desperate as events spiral out of his control. The story itself is, again, nothing spectacular, giving us nothing we haven’t really seen before. Wronged aliens out for vengeance, with an affinity for a certain substance (igneous rock in this case); standing stones; psychic interrogations; it’s all reliable Doctor Who stuff. Still, it’s mixed together into an enjoyable tale, with surprisingly effective action sequences for an audio production. Altogether, it’s a good fun adventure, solidly told.

I’m keen to see what the future releases in the range will bring. While each story is designed to reflect the era in which it is set, the ongoing thread is slowly gaining in prominence. So far, each story has included a communication from the Doctor’s future. In Hunters of Earth there is a mysterious radio broadcast, but the link to the future becomes far more overt in Shadow of Death in which the eleventh Doctor actually appears, communicating to the second via his psychic paper. In Vengeance of the Stones, the third Doctor receives a verbal message from his future self; Richard Franklin gives a spirited version of Matt Smith’s breathless delivery. It’s an intriguing extra running through the series, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in future instalments. However, some more radical stories featuring the earlier Doctors would be welcome too.

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