Continuing from last week’s post, and with an excess of colons in the title: here are some thoughts on The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor: Volumer 2. Part two.
The Bonfires of the Vanities by Uma McCormack, starring Anneke Wills as Polly Wright:
I was really looking forward to The Bonfires of Vanities – it’s Big Finish’s first Hartnell-era Ben and Polly story and a rare Doctor Who story by a woman. But as it is, it’s been a couple of weeks since I listened to it and it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on me.
Though that said, I had a good time listening to it. Like Fields of Terror it delves into a lesser-known chapter of history, but this time it’s a more light-hearted affair. The Bonfires of Vanities is about the Lewes Bonfire, apparently the most famous bonfire night celebration in the country (I’d never heard of it).
Thinking about it, it’s sort of weird that there’s such a proliferation of creepy stories set during May Day festivities, but almost none that I know of about Guy Fawkes Night – it’s a celebration that literally celebrates burning people at the stakes (yes, Guy Fawkes wasn’t burned but the Lewes Bonfire also commemorates Protestants Martyrs who were burned alive), it takes places at night, in winter… the only thing I can think is that, unlike May Day, it doesn’t have any especially ‘sexy’ associations.
The Bonfires of Vanities has a palpable tension running through it. The initial reveal of the monster of the week – a Guy come to life – is suitably creepy, but the real threat ultimately comes from the townspeople of Lewes. They’re so unpleasant that the Doctor saving them from themselves doesn’t feel fully deserved. But that’s sometimes the case in Doctor Who.
Ultimately, I think the issue is it’s just less focused than the other stories in the boxset. It feels a bit like a four-parter crammed into a Companion Chronicle, which isn’t a good look – CCs are short-form stories and should, ideally, be very tight.
It also has this weirdly sexist tone at times, which I’m willing to give it a pass on because, firstly, it’s by a woman, and secondly it’s obviously trying to faithfully recreate the tone of sixties Who, but I could have done without it.
I do feel like The Bonfires of Vanities (I still don’t get that title) is the weakest story in the boxset, but given how strong the boxset is overall, that’s hardly an insult.
The Plague of Dreams by Guy Adams, starring Anneke Wills as Polly Wright
This was fantastic, in more ways than one.
The whole boxset has an unsubtle but low-key arc running through it: as established in the trailer, a mini-drama in and of itself, someone is messing with the First Doctor’s time line in order to prevent him fighting in the Time War. I didn’t listen to the trailer till afterwards, and honestly I’m glad I skipped it – the Time War stuff was a pleasant surprise, and I think I’d have been very apprehensive about how it’d be intergrated into a Hartnell-era story!
I can say with some certainty that Plague of Dreams is… not what I’d have expected. It has an entirely new twist on the Companion Chronicles format: Polly and an unnamed ‘Player’ are on a stage, performing the events of the story for a mysterious audience.
It’s unsettling, strange, and (as you’ve probably guessed) very meta. The Player, revealed over the course of the story to be a benevolet Time Lord, has been following the Doctor’s exploits and has an idea of how his adventures are usually constructed. In essence, he’s the author, a Doctor Who fan writing a story of his own.
When the true nature of their situation – I won’t spoil it – is revealed, it’s a tiny bit of a disappointment, but I don’t think anything would have lived up to the level of mystery established over the first episode.
My only real complaint isn’t really with Plague of Dreams but with the overall arc: it was written with the express purpose of accomodating more First Doctor, Ben and Polly stories, which I don’t think was necessary.
Strictly speaking, there’s no time in TV continuity for these stories to take place – they’re in three stories together, which are continuous – but who cares? If anything, more adventures with the First Doctor serve to strengthen and deepen Ben and Polly’s character arcs and it’s easy enough to handwave the continuity issue.
(Really, Big Finish? You inserted a whole arc of stories between Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani even though it’s heavily implied they take place on the same day with nary a handwave but you wrote this whole arc to explain… actually, never mind. It’s better not to think about it too much.)
I have to say, this is the strongest Companion Chronicle boxset to date. The First Doctor Volumer 1 was a little samey, the Second Doctor Volume 1 was patchy. This one was consistently strong.
The Darkened City and The Plague of Dreams are both, in my opinion, masterpieces, and I’m sure Darkened City is destined to be a classic of the Companion Chronicles range. I’d give the whole boxset a solid 8/10.