Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles range was my gateaway drug into Doctor Who on audio – I started with 2009’s The Glorious Revolution and basically never looked back. It’s still my favourite BF range (and the one I’d most like to write for).
The monthly Companion Chronicles came to an end in June 2014, but the series has continued in the form of annual boxsets. I’m not sure how I feel about this change, to be honest – aside from anything else, so far it seems they’re only going to be making Firsst and Second Doctor era chronicles, which is a bit disappointing.
I also find the boxset approach a little samey – it makes it harder to appreciate each story as a work in and of itself.
That said, I really did enjoy last month’s First Doctor boxset. It’s a really surprising mix of stories – not only are Susan, Ian and Barbara (William Hartnell’s most iconic companions) entirely absent, a full two of the four stories are devoted to Polly Wright and Ben Jackson.
I’m more of a Second Doctor fan and Ben and Polly are more Second Doctor companions, so I was really excited to see them getting so much ‘screentime’ – they’re two of my favourite companions and sadly all bar one of their serials is wholly or partially missing from the BBC archives, so they don’t get the love they deserve.
Big Finish has done a lot to revive both characters, but as Frazer Hines – Patrick Troughton era companion Jamie Mccrimmon – generally plays the Doctor in Second Doctor releases, it’s rare to see them get an outing without Jamie and vanishingly rare to see them together with the First Doctor.
Anyway, that little fan-squee aside, here’s what I thought of the stories:
Fields of Terror by John Pritchard, starring Maureen O’Brien as Vicki:
One of my favourite things about Big Finish is the way it’s inherited Doctor Who’s educational bent. Their historical stories more often than not delve into lesser-known periods of history, and Fields of Terror takes the Doctor and friends to the War in the Vendée, one of the darkest and bloodiest chapters in the French Revolution.
The story stands as a kind of spiritual sequel to the 1960s story The Reign of Terror, the events of which the Doctor refers to directly in episode one. However, I’m not sure it’s as successful as its predecessor: a big part of what makes The Reign of Terror successful is the way it challenges the Doctor’s character.
It’s stated early on that the Reign of Terror it’s the Doctor’s favourite historical period and he’s excited to be able to see it for himself. He and his friends are promptly mistaken for counter-revolutionaries and very nearly sent to the guillotine. In my opinion, it’s an important step in the First Doctor’s character arc, part of an ongoing realisation that he can’t be a mere observer in history.
Fields of Terror, while it’s a very exciting story, doesn’t have that character-driven backbone – which is a pity, because Big Finish have dealt really well with similar themes in the past.
That aside, it’s one of the creepiest Doctor Who stories I’ve experienced in a while. The events take place in a single night, moving from bloody battlefields to the claustrophobic setting of a manor house as the Doctor, Vicki and Steven are held captive by a group of French soldiers who are being pursued by something sinister.
There’s some great atmosphere and the tension doesn’t let up until the very end. I was a bit disappointed by the ultimate conclusion – I do think that not having a conventional monster was the right move here, but it still struck me as a little weak. Otherwise, though, good, scary stuff.
Across the Darkened City by David Bartlett, starring Peter Purves as Steven:
This one was absolutely the highlight of the boxset. Across the Darkened City is one of those stories that throws you in right at the deep end: Steven, separated from the Doctor and Vicki, held captive by a group of Daleks. He and his fellow prisoners attempt to escape but it goes horribly wrong, and soon Steven finds himself stranded on an especially nasty planet, with his only hope of salvation a critically wounded Dalek.
As with Fields of Terror this one does not let up until the end and Steven’s fear and exhaustion are palpable as he goes to increasingly desperate lengths to save himself and his unlikely companion.
Across the Darkened City is the newest iteration in a line of stories that ask the question: could a Dalek ever become good? The Dalek in this story is revealed early on to be a mutant, and it certainly acts strangely, allying itself with Steven and seemingly at times genuinely touched by his attempts to protect it.
Steven goes from protecting the Dalek for his own sake – it can operate the transmat that’s his only hope of getting back to the Doctor – but he can’t help but bond with it through their shared adversity. Once he starts thinking of the Dalek as an ally, he wants to protect it – it’s human nature.
Like the audience, Steven knows enough about the Daleks to know how unlikely it is, but he wants to believe it could be on his side. Listening to the story, you want to believe the Dalek could be on the cusp of real change.
As a result, when the Dalek inevitably turns on him it’s gut-wrenching. The story as a whole is, in some respects, a sobering reflection on the dangers of anthropomorphism: Steven’s mistake is projecting human feelings onto a creature that is fundamentally alien. It’s inevitable that the Dalek will want him dead, just as it’s inevitable that he’ll come to want to keep it alive. Both of them act in accordance with their natures.
The final post-credits twist ties these themes into the Second Doctor serial Evil of the Daleks, with a reveal that’s both shocking and, looking back, somehow blindingly obvious.
Well, this post went on longer than expected, so I’m going to split it in half! See you next week for The Bonfires of Vanities and Plague of Dreams.