Mark Donaldson finds Sydney Newman’s vision of Doctor Who harnessed to great effect in the latest volume of Big Finish’s The First Doctor Adventures.
Once David Bradley was canonised, Hurndall-like, as the modern version of the First Doctor in Twice Upon a Time, the first volume of a new set of adventures appeared online minutes after Jodie Whittaker fell towards Sheffield. The First Doctor Adventures was an interesting experiment slightly let down by an inauthentic feeling appearance by a new, earlier incarnation of the Master revealed to us as if we’ve known the character for 47 years rather than meeting him for the very first time.
Aside from an allusion to a beautiful bit of poetry penned by Russell T Davies, The First Doctor Adventures Volume 2 strives for tone and authenticity rather than references to the show’s future, harking back to a time when, perhaps, Doctor Who was at its most odd, inventive and indeed, brutal.
The first story, John Dorney’s The Invention of Death is exactly the sort of grounded-in-reality sci-fi story Newman wanted the show to achieve, whilst also featuring the most out-there alien culture since The Web Planet (Which, given the chronology, hasn’t happened yet).
Following a rather lengthy TARDIS scene which feels more at home in the Colin Baker era, the TARDIS materialises on the planet of Ashtallah where the Doctor and his friends encounter a race of androgynous, unicellular amoebas. These strange lifeforms, potentially difficult to realise with modern CGI, let alone a 1960s BBC budget exemplify where Big Finish’s strengths lie. The audio medium allows them to create such strange, strange creatures and Dorney really unleashes his imagination here. Due to their unique biology, the Ashtallans do not fear death and spend their lives in idle play and one of their games proves dangerous for a member of the TARDIS team in a particularly grizzly cliffhanger. There are two outliers, Sharlan and Brenna, who have evolved beyond this idleness and instead embrace science and discovery, a historic moment which provides a sublimely Doctorish moment of wonder played to perfection by David Bradley. He sometimes struggles to capture the First Doctor’s more mischievous side but does a terrific job of conveying his scientific and inquisitive nature, strengths which are called upon throughout this adventure.
The Invention of Death, therefore, is about scientific discovery and of the price paid in pursuit of progress. It is a story that talks about genetics and debates big existentialist ideas such as the purpose of death. If this had aired in the 1960s, you could imagine it inspiring formative and educational discussions between parents and children about loss and bereavement. Although, a Saturday teatime slot may have denied us the hilarious and wonderful scene of Ian and Barbara giving Sharlan and Brenna a crash course in sex education, which would have been a great shame indeed.
The other key aspect of Newman’s original vision of Doctor Who was the historical adventure serial and, on the surface, Andrew Smith’s The Barbarians and the Samurai seems like it sits alongside such classics as The Aztecs or Marco Polo. Separated from the TARDIS and each other in a country that forbids Westerners, the Doctor and Barbara are captured and held prisoner by the local daimyo, who is plotting a power grab with his mysterious red samurai. Ian and Susan, meanwhile, are rescued by a local peasant who’s rather handy with a sword.
And yet, exciting as Japan in the seclusionist Tokugawa period is, there is a sense that Smith’s script is ticking off various tropes associated with the 60s historical; Barbara delivers reams of expository historical facts? Check. The Doctor survives by ingratiating himself into the court? Check. Ian is called upon to dress in local garb and have a bit of a scrap? Check. Barbara is forced to put up with sexually threatening advances? Check. Ultimately, the only new thing about this historical story is the setting. Which is no criticism, feudal Japan allows for some quite extraordinary set pieces which will certainly blow the cobwebs out on your morning commute. The daring raid on an arms shipment and the climactic battle sequences are realised in a way that evokes not only 1960s Doctor Who but a Loose Cannon reconstruction of a lost classic.
Of course, it’s impossible to fully recreate the Hartnell era for obvious reasons, The First Doctor Adventures is an approximation which, for the most part, succeeds. It’s churlish to point out that the actors were originally cast as the actors playing Ian, Barbara, Susan and Dr Who rather than the other way around, but it works because those actors had to inhabit these fictional characters too. David Bradley and Jamie Glover perfectly capture the mutual, if slightly grudging, respect that the Doctor and Ian have for each other whilst Glover and Jemma Powell capture the tender friendship between Ian and Barbara even if it is written more as a will-they-won’t-they romance in The Invention of Death than it ever was in the show itself.
Overall, this is an entertaining boxed set which evokes what was so unique and captivating about those early years of the show. It’s impossible to get William Hartnell, Carole Ann Ford, William Russell and Jacqueline Hill into a recording studio together to relive their glory days, but with a cast as talented and up to the task as this and scripts that provide a fresh spin on an old format like The Invention of Death, then it’s good to know that the First Doctor’s future is in safe hands.