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, Series 1 touched on some core ‘types’ of Hartnell story, to give a rounded whole to the experience, and take fans of the First Doctor both back into their fond memories and forward to how the First Doctor is perceived at five decades’ distance. In terms of type, The Bounty of Ceres, by Ian Potter, is pretty much a standard Sixties Who base under siege story, with one or two creepy elements to heighten its worth.
Ceres is a frozen ball of unpleasantness stuck between Mars and Jupiter with little in the way of cosmic purpose but to kill anything idiotic enough to set foot on it, so naturally, human beings go and set up a mining base on it, because anywhere that inimical to life is probably hiding some really good stuff underneath all that attitude. Instantly, in a technique that was still being effectively used in New Who in stories like The Waters of Mars, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and Midnight to scare the socks off Who fans, you have your premise: outside bad. Inside good. If the outside gets inside, you probably go bye-bye. In essence, the base under siege premise is usually dependent on the idea that if you open the door, you die, and that’s very much a premise recycled here for The Bounty of Ceres.
All you actually need, in a situation like that, is one person to not be what they claim to be, one person to have treacherous or greedy intent, one single weak link in the quest to survive and go home, because of course the base under siege is essentially the science-fiction version of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, most particularly And Then There Were None. X number of people, trapped indoors because the outdoors is deadly…and one of them’s a traitor/killer/something else that’s very very not-good-at-all.
The unusual thing, when you look at it objectively, is how rare a device that was in the Hartnell days. Whereas Domain of the Voord represented the ‘monster invasion’ story-type of everything from The Dalek Invasion of Earth to The Keys of Marinus and Galaxy Four, and The Doctor’s Tale represented the pure historical, like Marco Polo and The Aztecs, the base under siege is very much more a feature of the Troughton era than the Hartnell years, and even stories that could be classed as bases under siege (such as, stretching a point, The Sensorites and The Ark), don’t really fit the brief or the pattern of storytelling that we think of as classic base under siege territory.
It’s only when you realise that that you fully understand what Potter has delivered in The Bounty of Ceres – an expansion of the First Doctor’s range. Since he never really did it in the Hartnell years, but was repeatedly trapped in sweaty, encroaching situations with traitors or killers in his future lives, we’ve never really asked how, for instance, the Second Doctor gained the mental resources to handle such situations. Ian Potter has the answer – of course the First Doctor got himself stuck in bases under siege! That we never really saw them on screen (at least until The Tenth Planet) is hardly his fault, now is it?
So we’re off to the races with the crew of the Cobalt Corporation mining base, and a new Tardis crew, Peter Purves stepping in as Steven Taylor alongside Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki in the wake of Ian and Barbara’s departure. Purves also gives us his take on the First Doctor, and it’s fascinating to hear the differences between the Purves version and the First Doctor delivered by William Russell. Purves’ First Doctor is more squeaky, more impish, more able to laugh at the universe and its absurdities, so when he drops into seriousness, it’s a more noticeable change of gear that brings a change of mood with it, like a Classic Who version of the Tenth Doctor when he stopped being cheeky and started staring at things.
As a story, The County of Ceres is a solid mix-and-match of two kinds of threat – the stompy monster-cum-HAL threat personified here by service droids that decide the humans are not to be protected and computer systems that turn unfriendly, and the psychological game of whispers and nerve-shredding of a small number of people locked together in an untenable situation as their technology malfunctions and trust becomes increasingly impossible.
The miracle of Potter’s script is that with a cast of three Tardis crew and three Cobalt Corporation crew (Qureshi, Thorn and Moreland), he manages to spin the increasing tension through quite as many iterations as he does here. The skilled direction from Lisa Bowerman is an undoubted help, but it’s interesting to hear quite how many kinds of peril Potter can cram into those two hours without ever entirely giving the game away.
It’s true that towards the end, decades of experience of the base under siege format in Doctor Who mean we guess what’s about to happen, and probably why, which robs The Bounty of Ceres of perhaps the final twist it was hoping for. But along the way, what we get is an object lesson in how the First Doctor – not one for running down corridors – could have delivered an effective, taut base under siege tale that would certainly have kept a nation’s children on tenterhooks for a month.
Potter also does something distinctly First Doctor in terms of his story structure, using Purves’ Steven for much of the action work, and allowing Maureen O’Brien as the naturally curious Vicki, able to instinctively get under people’s skin and find out their true feelings about things.
Overall, of the four releases in the Early Adventures, Series 1, Bounty of Ceres is likely to be the one to which you re-listen least – while there’s good First Doctoring all the way through it, there’s a sense that one of the things replicated from the Hartnell era here is the ‘egg-carton walls,’ budget space opera vibe. There are certainly corridors to run down, but the claustrophobic atmosphere, married to the mining base scenario, means what comes across is an authentically Sixties sense of limited budget, where there wasn’t on audio any real need for that sense. Certainly it evokes the Hartnell era, but the budget constraints of that time are one thing that perhaps the audio version of the First Doctor would be better for escaping. Added to that, the small cast means the danger can have only a limited number of causes, and as the story unfolds, you guess the real one a little earlier than would be ideal.
That said, for at least one listen, there are enough fresh ideas in The Bounty of Ceres to invigorate the listener, leaving us with a solid First Doctor base under siege story with enough psychologically disturbing elements to let it stand its ground for modern listeners.