What’s it about: Before Totter’s Yard, before Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, before the Chameleon Circuit was broken… the Doctor and Susan travelled alone. The planet Quinnis in the Fourth Universe appears, at first glance, to be an agreeable, exotic refuge for the two travellers. But the world is experiencing a terrible drought, and the Doctor becomes its unwilling rainmaker. Meanwhile, Susan makes an ally in a young girl called Meedla. But friends are not always what they appear, and the long-awaited rain isn’t necessarily good news…
An Unearthly Child: Told from the point of view of Susan jailed on Earth with her son Alex, Susan keeps looking back at her childhood and remembering what happened when she was his age and had the chance to travel the stars. However much her Grandfather made the choice for her he was right, travel can broaden the mind but it can also lead to danger and trouble too. Interestingly it would appear that Susan was far more independent and less pathetic before Ian and Barbara fell into their lives to act all paternal to her – the boundless enthusiasm for travelling is still there but she also feels more resourceful and less of a teenage whiner than she would become. Perhaps its because her Grandfather wont put up with that nonsense whereas the teachers from Coal Hill are willing to humour her. The Doctor really used to treat Susan like a child and wont let her have more trinkets from Quinnis because he thinks that she already has far too much stuff cluttering up her room in the TARDIS! When the rain and sea lash the Doctor and the TARDIS away Susan is numb with shock at the fact that she has lost her home and her only family. The fortune maker comments that the young are always the easiest to beguile, revealing Susan’s naiveté in being hoodwinked by the Shrazer. Susan has the impossible decision to make; take the Shrazer with them in the TARDIS or watch her grandfather die – after she makes her choice I was dreading the Doctor’s reaction. Susan might just wish she was dead herself than face his blazing fury! She is awkward with her grandfather for ages, embarrassed that because of her they so nearly lost the TARDIS.
Hmm: The Doctor was full of bluster in these days but he sounded as though he knew what he was talking about and Susan was naïve enough to believe him. When the Doctor sifts through his pockets Susan couldn’t believe the delights within, various coinery and notes and a seemingly bottomless paper bag of Turkish delight! The Doctor’s penchant for overestimating his own abilities gets him into terrible trouble when he suggests it would be easy to make it rain and improve their crops and within a day they want to see it happen. The Doctor refuses to listen to superstitious twaddle which shows great impatience and disrespect on his part and of course leads to him having egg on his face! The Doctor wants Susan to have proper supervision and friends of her own age and thinks about an appropriate time period and planet to send her to school.
Standout Performance: There a handful of actors that take on the role of their respective Doctors where it just feels right for them to do so because the connection between them and the deceased actors was clearly so strong. When Frazer Hines reads a Troughton story my toes positively tingle and when Katy Manning reads for the third Doctor my heart melts. And finally when Carole Ann Ford reads for the first Doctor, getting his grumpiness and charm so perfect, it feels like a touching remembrance of the original incarnation.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You come from the dark and there is dark ahead of you too…’
‘And I couldn’t tell my tears from the rain.’
Great Ideas: The Doctor talks about portals leading to other universe if you know where to look – CVEs? The planets sun overhead, the TARDIS landing in a market town parked under an arch that bridged the busy main street – it’s a nice bustling location that accentuates the feeling that the Doctor is setting off into an exotic universe full of wonders to explore. The whole town is built on a rising crisscross of viaducts that go nowhere, half finished. Nice to see the TARDISes chameleon circuit was working at this point, disguised as a market kiosk. The Shrazers sense a disaster before they happen; they smell blood and tears before they are shed like carrion birds with a second sight. When their portents of disaster come true they feed on the misery they have been waiting for. Meedla fed on Susan’s grief when she thought her grandfather and the ship were lost. The vegetation attacks the town and starts tearing the supports of the bridges apart. The Doctor’s uncompleted plan as the towns rainmaker was to seed the clouds with ice and adopts that plan to attack the weed.
Audio Landscape: Suddenly those adventures that the Doctor and Susan had before they met Ian and Barbara are magicked up with some exotic spice by director Lisa Bowerman and sound engineer Nigel Fairs and Quinnis represents the sort of uproarious, striking world I would imagine them excitedly exploring. Birdsong, chickens clucking, Bridge town market is a loud bustling place of chatter and laughter, cheering, dancing and chanting as the Doctor promises to make it rain, a crackling, burning house, clawed footsteps, thunder rumbling, a flood of rain, oinking little piglet, flapping wings, rubble falling into the water, thunder splitting across the sky, the squawking bird trying to escape the winds.
Musical Cues: As ever the music for the companion chronicles is vital in setting the mood of the piece and the unusual woodwind instruments lend the planet a glorious mythological quality. I enjoyed the sudden dramatic violin strings.
Standout Scene: Basically any moment where the Doctor blusters his way out of trouble and charms the local populace. It reminds me of the loss of William Hartnell and the wonderful character he brought to life in the 1960s. This was a Doctor so full of quirks and colour and Marc Platt really pulls that off in his script.
Notes: Susan mentions the planet Quinnis in The Edge of Destruction so it is nice to finally get to experience their adventure on that planet.
Result: David Richardson and the companion chronicle team must always be looking for inspiration in various eras to set these tales in and I’m surprised it has taken this long to set a story before An Unearthly Child before the series began because that was the first slot that came to mind when I first heard the idea. It’s a risky business for sure but this series can pride itself on taking risks and succeeding (a story with Jago & Litefoot, King Peladon) and Marc Platt has already proven himself to be a the master of the first Doctor tale (Frostfire, Mother Russia) but also the best writer for Susan (An Earthly Child, Relative Dimensions) and he has already dipped his toes in these waters in a very different universe (his superlative unbound tales Auld Mortality & A Storm of Angels). We’re in safe hands and the atmosphere that Platt conjures through his writing is definitely one of unbridled joy for the Doctor and Susan to have shaken free the chains of Gallifrey and the chance to explore exotic new worlds but also an unpredictable danger that they are new at this and finding their feet in exploring new cultures. Quinnis is an intriguing planet to visit and I love the fact that it is Susan’s humanity that gets them into trouble this time, its one time she falters that you can’t really blame her for at all. The imagery is startling; screaming birds feeding on tears and blood and mutant weed dragging the city into the waters and at the heart of it all the Doctor, more charismatic and intelligent than ever, clutching his lapels in the face of these problems and thinking through solutions. This is a very enjoyable, quirky piece which manages to juggle nostalgia and quench your thirst for imaginative storytelling in one confident swoop: 8/10