What’s it about: The TARDIS has landed on Platform Five, a floating city in the sky of the planet Jobis, and for a time the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki get the chance to enjoy this idyllic place. And then the Rocket Men arrive, led by the sadistic Ashman. When the only other option to certain death is suicide, Ian Chesterton takes the gamble of his life
Schoolteachers in Love: Finally, marvellously, somebody has written the tale where Ian confesses his love for Barbara. Its an entirely original concept because the books touched upon the subject several times (notably in David A. McIntee’s The Eleventh Tiger and Simon Guerrier’s The Time Travellers – both excellent books so check them out) but there is something spellbinding about William Russell actually saying the words that makes it less than a possibility and more of a certainty. They were our guides through the first two wonderful years of Doctor Who and it was glorious to watch these friends go from scared, unwilling adventurers to falling in love with both the lifestyle and each other. Its around The Rescue/The Romans where its clear that the two teachers are more involved with each other than they were before, particularly the latter story as they lounge about in Roman apparel, blissed out on wine, playing jokes and flirting madly. By the time they leave the Doctor of course they leave together, seduced by the idea of going home, having a rest and being together. As we see them larking about in London and embracing each other in their last shot there is no doubt in my mind that these two went on to enjoy a fantastic marriage and life together. Massive kudos to John Dorney for taking the idea of the two of them in love and bringing it to life so vividly in his story. This is the point where Ian realises that he has strong feelings for Barbara and as is typical to human nature it only dawns upon him when he might lose her forever…
Ian ponders on when you realise that you have fallen in love. Is it the shy smile or the furtive glance of first meeting or later when the roots have grown down and far beyond the giddy joys of the early days. There’s a wonderful moment where Ian says that he backs Barbara up – its almost as if the Doctor feels as though he can combat the opinion of one of them but cannot take on their combined strength of will. One thing that seemed to fall by the wayside in the second season of Doctor Who was that Ian was a scientist, by that point he was used in a far more active, protective role. Dorney corrects this by having Ian put out that the Doctor should be allowed to study the research institute of the Jovis. It had been so long since he had been able to study even the most basic science and he would love to have the chance to examine the flora and fauna of a different world. When Ian leaps from the ship and finds himself at the mercy of a battering, screaming wind he focuses on nothing but Barbara, saving her makes a mockery of the punishment from the elements. How triumphant is the scene when Ian realise he has gotten the hang of flying the rocket pack and Barbara is getting closer? Russell performs that scenes as if Ian’s very life depends on it. Ian gets to prove what an action hero he is by tussling with Ashman in the air, awkwardly at first but viciously attempting to bring down the man who tried to kill Barbara. He fears that the last words that he’ll hear from her are her screaming out his name in alarm.
Diplomatic as ever, Barbara steps in when things get heated between Ian and the Doctor and calms her friend down and tells him not to spoil their time in such a beautiful place. Ian finds Barbara all heart and so free with her emotions. He often wished he could be the same as her. Ian finds that when Barbara’s eyes light up in wonder her face contains a beatific joy. She had such enthusiasm that you couldn’t help but warn for her. Barbara refuses to let Vicki shoulder the blame for her association with the Doctor and puts herself into danger as soon as her friend makes the decision. Its when she chooses to top out of the tour that Ian realises it is deeply dull experiencing these wonders without her sense of joy. Barbara genuinely thought she was going to die when she was tossed from the airlock and clutches hold of Ian once he has saved her as if she would never let him go. She is genuinely traumatised by these events and Ian wants to give her time to recover before knocking her over with his confession that he loves her.
Hmm: The Doctor attempts to convince his friends that for once he was able to direct the TARDIS and bring them to Jovis deliberately but nobody is buying it. He revels in Ian’s jealousy and feels compelled to mention his superior scientific qualifications when it comes to his invite to the research institute! He shows his keen scientific knowledge by concocting a forcefield on the spot that keeps Ashman and his Rocket Men out of the research institute. He gave the scientists ‘a little nudge’ so they could protect themselves. He comforts Ian at the climax and Ian ponders to think that they had been enemies when they first met. I love the description of his chuckles as ‘faintly evil.’
Alien Orphan: Its astonishing that it is Vicki who steps forward as a sacrificial lamb when somebody else’s life is in danger, without a thought for her own safety she cannot let somebody else die for her. Just like in The Romans, Vicki is restless and wants to explore new things and meet new people.
Standout Performance: By all accounts a modest man, William Russell is one of our few links back to the original conception of Doctor Who and a superb actor to boot. The fact that he is willing to perform these Big Finish audio plays is a marvel in itself and he attacks every script with passion and skill. Clearly older but still carrying that same Ian Chesterton charm, he makes all these innovations seem like the most natural thing in the world and with Russell so committed these events really did take place in the 60s. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki did visit Jovis and Ian did realise his feelings for Barbara in a moment of jeopardy. William Russell makes it happen.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Billowing gaseous forms bloomed around us, huge and dominating pastel shaded in pink and purple. Dotted throughout little pin pricks of light glistened and dazzled, reflecting their luminescence back at us like stars’ – audible poetry.
‘You see it torn from your hands when its never coming back. That’s when you know. The moment you risk losing it forever, you know.’
‘I don’t think I’ll ever get used to travelling with you, Doctor. There’s always some remarkable new thing to see’ ‘The moment when you get used to it is the moment to stop.’
‘Don’t wait too long, my boy. These things can fade. We all have opportunities we let slide. You don’t want to live your life regretting chances missed’ – the Doctor says this soulfully as though he is talking through experience. What a magical moment.
Great Ideas: As well as being a stunning character drama Dorney also employs an unusual technique of setting the story in two different points in the story as well as the narrated moments which allows him all manner of clever moments of tension, revealing things that would happen later and then explaining how we got to that point. It took me a little while to get used to this technique (at first I thought it spoilt the shock value of experiencing the moments ‘at the time’ but I soon realised it allowed him to create more suspense because I was constantly thinking ‘how do we get there?’) but ultimately it made the audio a more interesting experience than a linear narrative would have and it really worked in such an exciting tale. The story initially hops between Ian recalling their landing on Jovis and hours later when they are all being held hostage and the Doctor is being hunted down – what could possibly gulf these two disparate events? He also uses the intriguing trick of similar phrases to bridge the gap between the two periods, ending one scene in the future with the same phrase as the one starting in the past. I love the idea of the TARDIS landing on Platform Five because it gives me images of when the ninth Doctor and Rose landed on Platform One in The End of the World, linking the classic and the new series. Plus…a floating city! How exciting is that? Its one of those gloriously over ambitious ideas that would never have stopped Verity Lambert from trying to pull off with a bit of shoestring and a few flats! On audio we can let our imaginations go wild but it feels utterly authentic to the era. Glass walls that look out on the beautiful atmosphere of the planet and tours with glass floors so you can look down on the spectacular scenery of the world. Vast undulating jelly fish and crystalline insects flying past the windows. Giant manta rays float through the atmosphere of myriad colours – what a vivid, emotive image. The very idea of Rocket Men with jet packs swarming onto the decks of a ship is deliriously enjoyable, retro to the point of nostalgia and yet a visual you could still get excited about today. Its beautifully depicted on the cover. The Rocket Men wish to ‘steal the jewels from the sky’, a frightening prospect of capturing the crystal insects and trying to get them to breed. They are worth five times their weight in gold. They are an elite bunch of space pirates that have been raiding the space lanes for years. Ian being saved by one of the manta’s has a certain poetic beauty to it, swooping down and catching him as he falls. Ashman is finally killed by the wildlife his greed threatened.
Audio Landscape: The TARDIS dematerialisation noise, the cry of the manta, footsteps on metal grating, the people jostling and cooing at the views, Ashman on the intercom, the ship rocking as gunshots are fired, people screaming and panicking, buffeting cold air, Ashman’s shots, the crying victims.
Musical Cues: I still get a shiver every time I hear the original theme music, you know. Especially in 2012 when it’s a brand new story featuring one of the original cast. I bet Billy Hartnell would be thrilled to know that his legacy still lives on. Howard Carter’s score is extremely strong, especially in the moments of excitement but he also manages to score moments of real beauty too, especially the first sighting of the mantra. Ian gliding through the air is greeted with a triumphant theme that makes you want to punch the air with delight.
Standout Scene: The cliffhanger is a moment of astonishing emotion as Barbara is thrown from the airlock to her death with a horrible scream and Ian realises in moment gut wrenching, anxious terror how much he loves her. In a moment of reckless abandon Ian dives out of the airlock after her, determined to save her. It’s an exceptional cliffhanger because it plays wonderful games with the listener, a moment of extreme shock followed by the elating feeling that nothing will stop Ian from protecting the woman he loves. My other favourite moment came at the conclusion when the Doctor in that quiet, understated way of his tells Ian to let Barbara know how he really feels. It reminds me of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, he’s all bluster until it comes to real emotion where he is far more observant than people give him credit.
Result: This is an example of the companion chronicles at their very best. John Dorney seems to have the Midas touch, his script for this story is bursting with romantic ideas, gorgeous character development, a superbly sketched setting and an authentic tone for the period. His descriptions of the regulars shows that he has made some great observations watching the actors in their televised stories as he gets all their quirks and characteristics spot on. The dialogue is memorable and dramatic and the unconventional story structure gives the story another boost. Lisa Bowerman steps in with some of her best ever direction (those who know how good she can be will know that is high praise indeed) and she fills the exciting story with some real moments of triumph and beauty. I hope we get another sixties story from this writer/director team because they clearly both have an authentic flair for the era and for an hour this morning I was whisked away to the most exciting time in Doctor Who’s long run. I never thought we would get a story where Ian confesses his love for Barbara but it is something I have always wanted to happen and thanks to The Rocket Men I am left blissfully happy at their romance. Performed with real passion by William Russell who makes these companion chronicles come alive so vibrantly, The Rocket Men is a standout adventure that manages to capture its era and do something innovative with it: 10/10