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The Hartnell Factor

People have all sorts of theories about why Doctor Who became a successful show. The concept, the range, the introduction of the Daleks, much against the will of the show’s creator, Sydney Newman.

What people rarely seem to mention is the Hartnell Factor.

If you go right back to episode 1, to An Unearthly Child, there are elements of interest right from the beginning, certainly – there’s that trippy interference pattern passing muster as an opening sequence, and the theme tune sounding like nothing on earth. There’s the close-up on an incongruous police box, coupled to a strange hum that draws you in.

But then, with the best will in the world, it becomes just a little humdrum. Two teachers discuss a girl who’s odd. Certainly she’s odd in interesting ways, she has interesting disconnects to Earth in the 1960s, but it’s little more than a domestic drama apart from the deer-in-the-headlights panic that Carole Ann Ford gives to Susan when stumped by the stupidity of her teachers.

You could be tempted to turn over by the point when the teachers are stumbling around in a dimly-lit junk yard, but then-

An Unearthly Child – The Doctor Laughs

But then, there he is. A strange, coughing old man, with eyes that dart about, looking for strangers. And when confronted, he’s amiable but mutters to himself, making deductions, his eyes sharp, his face constantly moving as he tries to persuade the busybody teachers that they’ve made a mistake, they’re imagining things, ‘Oh go away.’

He eats up the screen, this chortling old man with the shock of white hair and the energetic eyes. And when the teachers push their way into the police box, all pretence falls away from him. He’s intensely clever, in control, still laughing at their arrogance and their ignorance both. And there, within that first half hour, William Hartnell turns what could have been a humdrum ‘mysterious child’ drama into something utterly magical. Magical in a scientific sense, but filled with the wonder not only of its concept but of his embodiment of it.

Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Hmm? Have you? To be exiles. Susan and I are cut off from our own planet and our own time, with no help or protection. But one day, we shall get back. Yes…one day.

Hartnell’s arrival in An Unearthly Child is utterly transformative, and from the moment he arrives on screen, he will not let you go. There are great speeches, certainly – ‘Ship? Yes, ship. This doesn’t roll around on wheels, you know.’ But it’s Hartnell’s embodiment of the character of, as he’s credited, Dr Who, that turns An Unearthly Child into something that must be watched next week. He is quite simply the ultimate curiosity-hook.

Hartnell

Of course, An Unearthly Child is famous for having had two pilots, because the first was pretty much a disaster on every level. Hartnell’s original portrayal of the First Doctor is often thought to be the more ‘interesting’ by people with fifty years of hindsight, the Doctor being more spiky, suspicious, sharp, and altogether less likeable.

But that’s a part of the Hartnell Factor too. Despite being notably opinionated and occasionally cantankerous, when he took on the role of the Doctor, he did so because he believed in the work. He believed it could be a good role, not just for him to star in, but for children to watch and aspire to. Given the unusual second chance, he grabbed it with both hands, and without ever sacrificing the integrity of the character’s mystery – his alien nature, his towering intellect, his distrust and borderline contempt for the people of the 20th century – he lightened the Doctor on our initial meeting with him, made him this animated, intelligent, chortling character, laughing at the foolishness of ‘children’ who were really grown-ups, inviting the audience of children to join him in the secret that the gronw-ups didn’t know about the magic that he understood, and that children everywhere accepted as perfectly reasonable.

William Hartnell in 1966, shortly before he stood down as Doctor Who.

William Hartnell was a good actor who’d had a few career highlights by the time the Doctor came along. Believing in the value of the role, putting the work in to creating a layered character, and embodying the central mysteries of the show in himself, he gave children everywhere a brand new kind of hero. And we are still the beneficiaries of his legacy to this day, still reaping the rewards of the Hartnell Factor in 2016 – and beyond.

An Ordinary Life – Big Finish, The Early Adventures, Series 1

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.

The Bounty of Ceres – Big Finish, The Early Adventures, Series 1

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?

dr-who-steven-taylor-then

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.

Vicki

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.

First Doctor

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.

Return of the Classics, Part 1 – The First Doctor Years

Part of the fun about being a fan of Classic Who and New Who is imagining what old enemies could be revamped, updated and brought back, and how they’d work in the New Who world. The joy of the William Hartnell era of course is that without it, nothing else in the history of Who matters. The story’s long been told of how the arrival of the Daleks took Doctor Who from a quirky show to a national phenomenon as soon as they arrived. Tony had some fun imagining how some distinctly Hartnell villains could make their glorious comeback in New Who.

 

Mask of the Voord

Yes, I know – the Voord are those deeply dodgy rubber-clad numpties from The Keys of Marinus. I would never have advocated for their return either – before we’d heard the Big Finish re-invention of them in Domain of the Voord, by Andrew Smith. That was a revelation in terms of what makes the Voord tick – their mask establishing a kind of physical, mental uniformity, while allowing their organic nature to retain a degree of brutality that just doesn’t cut it with a Cyber-mask (at least not in the latest, slightly cherubic version).

Smith’s Voord deserve a shot at 21st century TV Who – armies of black-uniformed shock troops, taking planet after planet, turning the inhabitants into more and more Voord, with a strict but twisted honour code and an indefatigable ingenuity. Go listen to Domain of the Voord and imagine the Doctor facing an army of these rubber-suited badasses, fighting the power of the mask and desperately acting as the champion of individuality against the analogue of State-power that is the Voord. Doctor Who as parable would never be stronger.

 

The Rise of The Zarbi

Zarbi

The Zarbi are giant, intelligent, malevolent ants. Let that sink in for a second and creep you right the hell out. In the original Web Planet, Sixties budgets meant they were realized as men bending over a bit while covered in what looked like hard plastic carapaces. Which, however you slice it, and however much Vaseline you smear on the camera lens to soften the focus, is not nearly so scary. But here’s the thing – we’re not in the Sixties any more. Imagine giant intelligent ants, moving fast, thinking like a colony, and perhaps, having broken free from the control of the Animus and undoubtedly killed all but a handful of the Menoptera (that’s butterfly-men, for the youngsters), colonizing whole planets. Imagine the solar system Malvincius, where planets are being suddenly, inexplicably struck by ‘terrorists,’ whole cities mysteriously crumbling to dust, governments falling to their death.

From the rubble and the giant holes in the ground emerge the Zarbi, rendered in a combination live action and CGI, fast, scuttling, mouth-parts quivering as they head towards the camera to overrun worlds and take their place as rulers of the system, subduing populations and building their empire of colonies, with indigenous life-forms reduced to lives of slavery – or grub-food.

Tell me you wouldn’t watch that with open-mouthed wonder and a sense of what-the-hell?

 

Playtime

ToymakerWith the launch of Who spin-off Class, there are likely to be children in whom to invest our attention for the foreseeable future of Who. What better excuse could there be to bring back the Celestial Toymaker, immortal game-player, setting hideous traps and challenges for the unwary and hoping always for some diversion? The Toymaker, originally played by Michael Gough and more recently in Big Finish audio stories by David Baillie, met the First Doctor once, and was scheduled to meet the Sixth on-screen in a cancelled season. Typically aristocratic, tall and weary of the universe of space-time, he’d be a great foil for Capaldi’s Doctor. Sour at his original defeat, he captures a bunch of Coal Hill pupils and makes them play his games as a way of luring the Doctor back for a rematch. The Coal Hill Caretaker is forced out of retirement to play the Toymaker one last time – double or quits: staking his Tardis to rescue his charges. The Toymaker, with his immortal boredom and his long view of the universe, could push the Doctor into uncomfortable areas – when it comes right down to it, which is more important to him: the people he claims to care about, or the machine that’s been his constant companion?

 

The Burning Thread

Meddling Monk

There’s a moment in The Time Meddler that must have truly blown the socks off anyone watching. Steven and Vicki discover a sarcophagus. Looking inside it, they hear a familiar hum, and see a familiar spectacle. It’s bigger on the inside! That first intimation that the Doctor is not the only time traveler in the universe, that there might be a race of people like him – and not all of them might have his lofty principles about not changing history – was stunning. The Meddling Monk, whose Tardis it was, is a renegade Time Lord (meaning it’s tricky to bring him back, but easier now that it would have been a few years ago), who believes in actively changing history, sometimes for its own benefit, sometimes for tidiness, but mostly because he damn well feels like it. There’s less in the way of over-complicated plotting with the Monk than the Master, and less in terms of monomania too, but imagine a Doctor who’s seen as much as Capaldi’s has – who’s been the man who cheated the Daleks out of destroying Gallifrey in the biggest alteration of history ever – and the debate between the Doctor and the Monk about the sanctity of the web of time becomes a whole different, and a much more interesting prospect. Imagine the Monk and the Doctor on a race – the Monk changing history all across the cosmos, including on Earth, the Doctor trying to stop him. That’s a series arc just waiting to happen – especially if you bring in someone like the Black Guardian as the Monk’s ‘sponsor’ in creating a new reality, in burning the threads of established history away. The Monk has been gleefully played on relatively recent audio by Graeme Garden and by Rufus Hound, and it would be fantastic to see either incarnation matched against the Twelfth Doctor. There again, for multi-Moffatt fans looking for a way to crowbar Andrew Scott into the show, giving him his own Tardis might make for a delicious, venom-spitting, playful take on the dilettante time meddler.

 

The Day of the Savage

The Savages

OK, call me crazy, but I want to pay a return visit to the planet of The Savages. To some extent, this has already been done on Big Finish audio, but I’d love to see the Twelfth Doctor go back to check on former companion Steven Taylor, years after he stayed behind to unite a planet of two factions. Perhaps Steven succeeded in establishing a joint community, where the Elders and the Savages are able to live in peace. But Steven’s an older man now, a more vulnerable man, perhaps embattled by political enemies. Perhaps the machinery that allowed the Elders to suck the life force from the Savages is uncovered by a young Savage, who begins to use it to suck not life but knowledge from some of the chief Elders, for himself and his fellows, becoming more and more powerful and basing an insurrection on his borrowed power. When the Doctor arrives, he and Steven fight one more battle together for the future of the planet against an increasingly unstable, increasingly aggressive rebellion as it becomes clear that knowledge is not all that’s been stolen.

 

Replacements

Tenth Planet Cyberman

And finally, one straight from the fan-fiction vaults. Modern Cybermen versus the original, cloth-faced Tenth Planet Cybermen. On the planet Perseverance, the population are ravaged by disease and die in agony (or by judicial homicide). Then cloth-faced giants arrive from the skies, promising eternal life, as well as freedom from pain and suffering. The Doctor is determined to stop the advance of the Cybermen – but then the modern Cybermen arrive, promising nothing, but determined that the populace will be upgraded to swell their armies. The original Cybermen resist, not recognizing the new metal monsters and their quest for ever-increasing technological upgrading as the same creatures as themselves. The Doctor is forced to pick a side, and finds himself leading an army of cloth-faced Cybermen (of course on a Cyber-horse!) into battle against their ultimate destiny – their own, eventual replacements.

The main top tier villains of the Classic era may have had their upgrades and redesigns and be occasionally recurring parts of the New Who world. But there are still plenty of great ideas, going right back to the early days of the show, that could be ripe for a return. What do you think? Which Hartnell-era villains would you like to see take another shot at TV glory?

 

The Doctor’s Tale – Big Finish, The Early Adventures, Series 1

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).

If there’s a marker that sets the Hartnell era apart from every other in the history of Doctor Who, it’s the storytelling duality of its nature. As envisioned by Sydney Newman, it would be a science-fiction show, absolutely, but it also had two teaching remits – it would teach the children in the audience about science, but it would also teach them, as well as it could, about history.

Hence the existence, only really within the Hartnell universe, of the pure historical, a story where history itself provided the danger, the thrill, the puzzle. The Troughton team tried it only once (although it was an important once, the Highlanders introducing us to longstanding companion Jamie McCrimmon), before abandoning the pure historical due to significant ratings dips for stories that lacked what Newman called BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters).

The pure historical has never really made a comeback on screen, though there have been plenty of historical-plus-alien-shenanigans stories, right up to Series 9 of New Who with The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived.

But for pure history in on-screen Who, you’re looking at William Hartnell, from the admittedly ropey Tribe of Gum through stories with much greater complexity and teaching power, like The Aztecs, Marco Polo, The Crusaders, The Reign of Terror, The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve and The Smugglers.

Big Finish has never had any of the qualms of the TV show when it comes to reviving the pure historical, and getting any number of Doctors involved in real world history. But for the second of the Early Adventures, what it delivers is absolutely classic, by the books Hartnellian history in The Doctor’s Tale, by Marc Platt.

The crucial elements of a great pure historical include a turbulent time, with factions that are plotting against each other, conspiracies, traitors for whom the Doctor and his companions can be mistaken, people prepared to take sides and people prepared to kill. They also depend on there being some kind of pivot point, a moment where ‘if this all goes wrong, the world as we know it will never be the same again!’

Henry IV

Welcome to England in 1400. A turbulent time? Check. The events of this time would sew a blood-soaked seed in the history of England and the world. Henry IV was the first king in at least two hundred years to usurp the throne of England, in his case from the lavish, whimsical and cruel Richard II. It was a reminder to an England that had forgotten that kings could be usurped, that the will to power and a sanity in governance was more important than any divine ordination – the will of the Almighty being deemed to favour the victor, whoever they were. From Henry IV’s usurpation came the seed, two kings later, when England was once again faced with an ineffective king, of the Wars of the Roses, when Henry VI was deposed by Edward IV, himself deposed in favour of Henry again, and back to Edward during the course of the increasingly interminable battle between the so-called Yorkists and Lancastrians. It was the example that finally ended the Wars of the Roses with the usurpation of the crown by yet another Henry, Henry VII, which in turn set the seal on the Tudor dynasty, on Henry VIII, on Mary and Elizabeth and on everything that followed them. Historical pivot point – check.

Marc ‘Ghost Light’ Platt might seem an unusual choice to write a pure historical – his scripts have a tendency towards the esoteric, the thematic and metaphorical, rather than anything quite as gritty and straightforward and human as the pure historical demands, but as it turns out, Platt knows the mechanics of the Hartnell historical exceptionally well. It could be seen as a slight perversity, given the freedom of the audio medium, that he clings firmly to the structural requirements of the TV medium to get his story across – lots of people hiding behind pillars, overhearing things, whispering treacherous plans, and building the tension like a spiderweb until the moment when giant, potentially history-altering traps are sprung or moves are made and everything goes totally tonto with dramatic punch. But the point of doing all that here is to evoke that very familiar, very particular sense of Hartnell history stories, but with an energy that’s distinctly 21st century.

First Doctor crew

With the Tardis travellers caught up in royal life-or-death drama in what is essentially a palatial prison as the questions of Henry IV’s security on the throne and the idea of Richard’s re-instatement raised, there are whispers round every buttress, a murderous archbishop on the loose and a great historical celebrity appearance from none other than Geoffrey Chaucer. Platt fills his two hours with incident and turns his taste for mind-boggling complexity to the genuine fabric of history – human interaction. He also evokes the Hartnell historicals by giving each of the characters a particular strand of the problem to solve, a particular level of involvement with particular characters. The Doctor and Barbara stick rather closer together here than in some of the on-screen historicals, seeming to have reached an accord on the immutability of history after their previous adventures, while Vicki, in typical fashion, hob-nobs with royalty, and Ian gets entangled in a web of intrigue alongside Chaucer – which includes daring rescues, dungeon plots and unbridled derring-do from Sir Ian of Jaffa. What’s more, Platt delivers a Hartnell Doctor with some of the Sixties episodic blether stripped away. A Doctor who realises the dangers of their situation, assesses real human psychology and uses a range of techniques and tactics, tricks and twinkles to get everyone where he needs them to be. Platt’s script takes the essence of everything you remember about the Hartnell Doctor, and then compresses is into a polished Doctor-diamond, meaning the Hartnell character shines through with a modern sharpness.

William Russell again does double duty as Ian Chesterton (and incidentally, considering Russell’s age when the story was recorded, it’s amazing he delivers a Chesterton as close to the fifty-years-ago version as he does) and the First Doctor, and Maureen O’Brien doubles as Vicki (honestly, you’d barely know time had passed when she drops into squeaky teenager mode) and Barbara, so the story gives the sense of a much fuller Tardis crew than are actually still with us. Gareth Armstrong turns in a rugged Chaucer, while differentiating him from the likes of Paul Bettany’s interpretation in A Knight’s Tale, and John Banks delivers an unusually intense turn as Thomas Arundel, the chief driver of the drama, meaning The Doctor’s Tale is rich with both period atmosphere and human drama.

Is it perfect? That depends on your definition, because what Platt also gets into this audio is the sense of real-time, long-term hanging about that was sometimes responsible for the dip in viewing figures in the mid-section of stories like Marco Polo. Here, the Doctor takes a job as a tutor for a while and you get that sense of the drama stalling, waiting to break. Whether that works for you in the audio medium depends on your familiarity with the original Hartnell historicals, but it would be difficult to argue that that sense of real passing time wasn’t a fundamental part of their charm to Classic fans, so the period of languor in The Doctor’s Tale helps deliver the evocation of the Hartnell historicals even down to the elements that weren’t so popular. Fifty years on, most listeners will regard the pauses as elements of authenticity, rather than the screen-filler they were back in the Sixties.

All told then, The Doctor’s Tale is highly polished Hartnell historical, with all the complication, treachery, double-dealing and derring-do you could wish for, and William Russell’s take on the First Doctor shining through a script that takes everything you remember about the Hartnell incarnation and delivers it in spades.

Domain of the Voord – Big Finish Early Adventures Series 1

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).

Domain of the Voord was the story that kicked off a new range from Big Finish audio to replace the longstanding and highly successful Companion Chronicles – the refocused, longer and more full-scope ‘Early Adventures.’ Given that the Companion Chronicles had been much-beloved and had been free to use companions from across the Classic era, it would need to pack a punch and a half to establish the new range, which by definition seems locked into the realms of, at most, the first two Doctors.

So…erm…

You have to ask – who thought it would be a good idea to use the Voord for such a big initial release?

VoordIf you’ve ever sat through the paid-by-the-episode puzzlefest that is The Keys of Marinus, you’ll know that the Voord cut quite a… well, let’s say, quite a 60s-budget early Who figure. Dressed in black rubber wetsuits, they come complete with flipper-feet and a helmet that’s half-Batman, half-Teletubby. Frightening, they are not, not really. A bit naff – yes.

Welcome to the joy of the audio medium.

In the audio medium, the Voord are not remotely naff. They’ve been re-imagined in a way that’s entirely faithful to the original, but with backstory, purpose, motivations and above all, a psychological and philosophical position from which to become, potentially, a great audio monster.

The man who looked at the Keys of Marinus Voord and thought ‘time to bring those bad boys in from the cold’ was Big Finish Producer David Richardson, but when it came to choosing a writer to accept this poisoned chalice, he handed it to Andrew Smith of Full Circle fame, a man already familiar with the notion that a well-written threat could sometimes look a bit like a bloke in a naff rubber costume on screen.

There was once a comic strip which had the Voord evolving over time to become the Cybermen. While it’s unclear whether Smith ever read that strip, you could be forgiven for thinking he had when you listen to Domain of the Voord, because, while he stops short of making the same Cyber-claim, what he does here is explain the culture of the Voord, the nature of their conquest and their unanimity in a Cyber-like way. And like some of the greatest Who villains, it’s all to do with the mask – you can be born and raised in any culture, but if you take on the mask of the Voord, it will re-write you, and make you part of the Voord consciousness, ruthless, calculating, and indomitable. The twist which separates the Voord from the Cybermen here is that if you don’t absolutely want to become a Voord, the mask will reject you as impure, leaving you horribly scarred, your mind broken, a slave unfit to stand among the Voord.

Voord_Cybermen

The running time of Domain of the Voord is over two hours, and it begins in typically Hartnellian fashion with the Tardis travellers landing on a ship. A ship, as it turns out, in a flotilla trying to evade an initially unknown enemy on the seas of the planet Hydra (a neat touch there, reminiscent of Terry Nation’s planets, being named after their chief characteristic. Aridius, we salute you). When the enemy is revealed as the Voord, the Tardis crew, while hardly relaxing, realise they could be of use to the locals in their battle against subjugation. But it quickly becomes clear that Yartek and the Marinus Voord were, as we the viewer sort of suspected, a bit of an embarrassment to Voordkind. The travellers are separated, with Ian and Susan saying with the flotilla after a Voord is captured, and Susan in particular trying to understand it. As the flotilla aims to reach Predora City – capital of the only landmass on the otherwise watery world of Hydra, a shocking truth becomes evident – with cunning like this, you could pit the Voord against the Daleks any day of the week.

Be warned – some scenes in Domain of the Voord are shocking in their power, their brutality and the sheer visual – yes, visual – scope they deliver. The Voord en masse easily subjugating the populace of Hydra, the apparent evidence of the torture of prisoners, but most of all – very much most of all, the image and the explanation of the mask of the Voord, like the Evil Twin of Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat, coming down on hapless Hydrans, being used as a weapon in and of itself to enforce unanimity of thought or destroy those who would dare to stand against the Voord – including Susan herself – all punch hard and leave you breathless. If you have any fingernails when you start listening to Domain of the Voord, that’s your own look-out – they’re not likely to survive the journey.

The plot develops beyond the threat of the mask though – in true First Doctor style, there’s an enormous engine being constructed, which will render the subjugation of Hydra complete. The Doctor leads the attack on this engine, while to some extent, the Voord are allowed to take care of themselves – almost like the Ice Warriors, ‘true-blood’ Voord, original Voord if you like, are the commanders of the armies, and they have their own very moral code as to who gets to wear the mask and who doesn’t. When events on Hydra violate that code, the invasion force is fundamentally split, forcing a very 60s moral dilemma on the audience – victory at any cost, or victory while maintaining a hold on your own moral core?

It’s a question that’s left uncomfortably unanswered by the end of the story, and it’s important to note that the Tardis crew here only lend a hand – the war for Hydra is still ongoing when they get back in their blue box and disappear, leaving the onward march of the Voord entirely ripe for future audio stories with a thoroughly redefined race of arch-villains from which, after this, it would be a pleasure to hear more.

To launch The Early Stories, with their new long format and small but more substantial cast than the Companion Chronicles, Big Finish needed a belter. In Domain of the Voord, Andrew Smith delivered exactly that, going far above even the expectations of even longstanding fans. With William Russell doubling up as Ian Chesterton and an effective early Hartnell Doctor, Carole Ann Ford bringing Susan vividly to life, and a scope of storytelling breadth entirely reminiscent of the Hartnell era, Domain of the Voord set the Early Adventures off on a solid footing, and delivered something special in its own right.

Hartnell

In fact, Domain of the Voord was one of the two most powerful Big Finish releases of 2014 (Survivors, Series 1 being the other). Above anything else, it proved what Hartnell fans have known for five decades – the spirit of his seasons was absolutely seminal to what Doctor Who has always been, and what it remains today. There’s no reason whatsoever that modern fans shouldn’t fall in love with Hartnell’s original Doctor if the scripts are this good, and if they get an introduction to him in a coherent way.

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