It’s William Hartnell Weekend here at Blogopolis. To celebrate, Tony dug out his copies of the Big Finish Early Adventures, Series 1 (on sale this weekend at www.bigfinish.com).
The Early Adventures range of stories from Big Finish produced some mind-blowing sci-fi drama (Domain of the Voord), a strong if authentically ponderous pure historical (The Doctor’s Tale), some truly faithful ‘egg-carton walls’ sixties sci-fi (The Bounty of Ceres) and finally An Ordinary Life, which is an example of the mostly-historical-with-alien-shenanigans stories that survived the demise of the pure historical, and which we’re still enjoying to this day.
The first thing to say about An Ordinary Life is that it would never have worked on TV in the mid-Hartnell era. Not only would the domestic settings of Fifties London have been too familiar to have worked as a Doctor Who story, but the Sixties in Britain weren’t that far removed socio-politically, so the idea of the Tardis crew rooming with a newly arrived black family and experiencing the prejudice to which they were subject would have been too near the knuckle certainly for BBC bosses of the day. But writer Matt Fitton represents the Fifties through the long lens of history, and shows us that the period has lessons to teach in our own day and age.
Landing in Fifties Britain with Steven Taylor and Sara Kingdom en route to battle Daleks and their Master Plan, the Tardis is drawn off course by something or someone, and when both the Doctor and the Tardis quickly disappear, stuck with nowhere to go and nothing to do but try and adapt to the rigours of Fifties living.
Without papers, Steven’s forced to work as a manual labourer at the docks alongside Michael Newman, the newly arrived ‘man of the house,’ who seems distant, as though, according to his wife Audrey, he’s a different person to the man she married. Meanwhile Sara, ace space policewoman from the future, is somewhat reduced to housewifery, with hilarious, if predictably framed, results. But when Steven unwittingly loses both his own job and Michael’s by standing up to the kind of bullying that we find monstrous today (or did at least before the ascendancy of Farage and Trump), the tables are turned and Sara decides the best way to ‘enlist’ with the local constabulary is to go down to the local station and beat the living daylights out of Dixon of Dock Green. Cue a night in the cells, at which point things back home start to get really weird. Michael’s distant nature since he arrived in Britain is spreading, with a peculiar form of not-exactly-bodysnatching changing minds across East London. The monster here is very effective, a kind of creepily believable gestalt. It’s exactly the sort of monster that would have worked extremely well and relatively cost-effectively in the Hartnell years. Its plan too is believably grounded – it’s not out to conquer the world per se… that just happens to be necessary for it to achieve its otherwise modest aims. Indeed, the Doctor, when he pops back up unexpectedly, frames the philosophical question very well – if a parasite doesn’t know it’s a parasite, is it still possible to actively advocate for its destruction (though of course this reasoning falls down on a daily basis when it comes to antibacterial or antiviral preparations). There’s quite a Quatermass feel about the threat in this story, which is no bad thing as it gives it a kind of sword-edge of pseudo-scientific possibility to the parasite that puts it on a footing with villains like the Great Intelligence or the Swarm. Like those two, the creepiest ability it has is to reason through the minds and faces of your loved ones, to plead with you through their eyes not to destroy it. Shudder-making stuff.
Overall, An Ordinary Life is a rewarding story, especially if you happen to be unaware of the socio-political climate of the Fifties in Britain. While the parallels are never drawn in any obvious way, the dilemmas faced by the Newman family are still being felt in Britain today – though by a new generation of immigrants. For Jamaicans in the Fifties, read Eastern Europeans today, as political parties spout anti-immigrant rhetoric and blame the incomers for the ills of society, their ideas taking root among the thinking-impoverished stone-throwers and the people next door. Seeing Steven and Sara, both from times far beyond our own, come to terms with such arbitrary and wrong-headed division is instructive – the stone-throwers are on the wrong side of history. The sense of isolation too is well delivered, the time travelers feeling as lost and alone as the new arrivals, if not in some instances moreso. There’s beautiful work from Ram John Holder as Joseph, the old patriarch who stands as an example of good, hospitable humanity throughout the tale, and the alien threat, while eventually dealt with swiftly, builds up its presence in a number of creepy set pieces and in particular some Faceless Ones-style emotional wrangling that succeeds in conveying the moral dilemma of killing it.
There’s just one scene where the strings of the storytelling start to show, and it’s unusual enough to be noteworthy. Normally, Big Finish is expert when it comes to disguising the ‘expository talking to myself’ stuff that is necessary but which, if not handled carefully, makes you wonder why the characters don’t just stop talking, given the situation they’re in. There’s an instance, far into the story, where Sara Kingdom breaks this audio wall and seems to be simply narrating for the sake of narrating, and while the production quickly picks up and carries on, it’s an occasion so odd by virtue of its rarity that it becomes a definite ‘thing’ that you remember about the disc.
Overall though, there are more positive things to remember about An Ordinary Life – the tender hand-holding moment between Steven and Sara, the contemplation of just giving up the fight and settling down, the Doctor’s first musings on using his ring as a back-up entry system to the Tardis (neatly implanted before it’s used later on in The Daleks’ Masterplan), the credible alien and the philosophical musings it inspires, and more than anything, the lesson of the piece, summarized in a late, short speech by the Doctor, about the hard, pioneering life the incoming family have chosen to live, but the positive impact they and other immigrant families will have both personally and on society over time. It’s a little hammered home perhaps, but Fitton’s blending of the Hartnell period with the grimmer realities of Fifties life and a modern moralistic sensibility is a heady mixture that ultimately works both in terms of nostalgia for the Hartnell Doctor and his companions, and as an analogy
An Ordinary Life is a real ‘grower,’ one that you’ll enjoy on first listening but will come to appreciate more and more as time goes on, meaning it’s one that will repay your investment several times over, with its themes, its characters and its well-polished storytelling. Try living An Ordinary Life today and you won’t, for the most part, be disappointed.