What’s it about: The present day: the Orkney ferry, where Ian Chesterton meets a stranger who he is able to confide in. Decades earlier: the TARDIS lands on Orkney, and Ian and Barbara are abandoned when the Doctor and his ship vanish in front of their eyes. As the pair head for civilisation, something is stirring in the sinister bog lands. And only the ancient Wissfornjarl can protect them…
Schoolteachers in Love: There is something indefinably magical about extra adventures being told during the inception of the television series, isn’t there? As phenomenal as the companion chronicles can be set in any period of the shows history (except oddly the fourth Doctor ones which always seem to fall wide of the mark) it’s the ones read by William Russell and Carole Anne Ford that give me an excited chill before I have even pressed play on my IPod. It was such an unpredictable, ambitious time for the show I genuinely think (the actors willing) they could fill the first two seasons to the brimful with adventures and still would want more. Perhaps it’s the insane notion that nearly 50 years on we are still enjoying stories being brought to life by the original actors. Maybe its simply because William Russell is such a terrific actor and it is too easy to swept away into the warm glow of nostalgia when I listen to him narrate. Or maybe its just because the first Doctor companion chronicles have such an incredible hit rate. To have given this story away free is a real gift from Big Finish and I really hope it enticed listeners who have never given audio Who a chance to explore their back catalogue further.
Ian really enjoys looking at the sea and has sailed on far choppier seas than the Orkneys. He’s been shipwrecked in the Med, thrown overboard in the Pacific and knocked unconscious in the mid-Atlantic! He is called Ian and that’s as Scottish as he comes. He is able to immediately strike up a pleasant rapport with Jeannie and has a relaxed, welcoming aura about him. That’s William Russell leaking into the character, you know. Ian has all sorts of tales about magic and monsters and creepy crawly beasts. One utterly ordinary day he left his car outside a junkyard in the fog and ended up catapulted through time and space. Yes, really. He calls Barbara a ‘colleague’ and says that he had been intrigued by a pupil by the name of Susan Foreman and followed her home. He is happy to admit that the science of the TARDIS was way beyond his understanding. The Doctor whisked them away and pretty much everywhere they went they found trouble. In gut wrenching terror Ian thinks that they have been locked out of the TARDIS like Susan and given his emotional state who knows what he is capable of? They had been so keen to leave the Doctor so often but an abrupt separation like this felt wrong. Ian and Barbara scaring each other silly and giggling at their silliness just feels very right. Ian was always the science teacher and Barbara always impressed with how well read she was. The Doctor had never brought them so agonisingly close to home before, it was merely a few hundred miles and a handful of years away. There’s an awesome decision to make at the end of this adventure when Ian and Barbara have to choose whether to sit out the next seven years until they reach 1963 and resume their lives or to keep travelling and hope the Doctor gets lucky. The Doctor understands that and gives them time to make their choice. Barbara makes the choice. She couldn’t bear knowing about all the disasters that were going to happen and not being able to do a thing about it. She really has learnt an awful lot of their travels.
Hmm: As time went by the Doctor learnt to trust Ian and Barbara and recognised that they wouldn’t share the secrets of the TARDIS. Steering the ship was a little beyond him and he never quite managed it. He has just made the agonising decision of trapping his granddaughter outside of the TARDIS and giving her a life of her own. He knew that she would sacrifice her happiness to him if he didn’t and Ian thinks it might be the bravest thing he ever saw the Doctor do. As soon as the Doctor starts talking about being able to control the TARDIS and taking Ian and Barbara home you know that there is going to be a whole world of trouble and disappointment. He gets a brilliant grump on when Ian doubts that they have landed where he has abducted them! When the Doctor shows up again his clothes look worn but he looks no older than he had earlier that day when he materialised without his friends. When he arrived back in time he waited for years to catch up with his friends, surrounding himself with books and good company. Handful of heartbeats to a traveller in time and space. Janet has quite a skill as a healer and the Doctor has been assisting her for many years. Another companion notched up then, except this time it is the Doctor who is in the role. Much of the second episode is given over to the Doctor deducting his way out of this latest crisis and he shows all the intelligent reasoning and scientific precision of Sherlock Holmes. He really is a force to be reckoned with. The Doctor takes the moral responsibility to make the dangerous marshwains safe despite pleas that they are just children that don’t understand their gruesome instincts.
Standout Performance: William Russell makes these economically cast companion chronicles sound as though there is a full cast in play. He can bring Ian back to life as though he was playing him on TV yesterday, adds a little more emotion to his rendition of Barbara and offers a suitably grouchy and inquisitive Doctor as well. There’s no point when you don’t feel that all three of these characters are in play. I love Scottish accents in these plays because they really tickle my taste buds (The Wormery was the last time I heard a Scots accent quite this gorgeous) and Sharon Small provides some ghostly chills and an engaging friend for Ian to talk to in her dual roles.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s a magical place Orkney and I’m not just telling you that to sell you shortbread!’
‘Stories last for only two reasons; if they are true or if they entertain.’
‘The lumps of slime on the floor followed us, congealing, thickening as they writhed forwards finally conjoining to create a single squat mound in front of us. As we watched in awe features began to extrude from the oozing mass. Fingers, hands, a mouth, a neck…’ – just one example of the awesome stomach turning imagery this story promotes.
Great Ideas: A strange, dancing violet light rising from the marsh like a pillar of fire – the spirits of the dead or marsh gas? Fingers oozing up out of the ground, arms, legs and heads…made entirely from dripping dark mud! The Doctor turning up when he does (at the superbly timed, surprising cliffhanger) makes for a great moment. How can he have been stationed at Orkney for as long as he has? When they first arrived in Orkney it hadn’t fully anchored in space and time when Ian and Barbara stepped out. The pull of some cataclysmic event in the past acted on the TARDIS and drew it back through time like a magnet. The Doctor couldn’t re-materialise in the same place because two sets of atoms occupying the same space would be ruinous. The creatures are made of mud with no skeletal structure at all, animated by the reactions in the flames. A certain amount of mass is required to trigger them so the mud splayed on their clothes isn’t a danger. However the mud can sludge through windows and reform. The creatures are made out of peat, concentrated organic matter on the very cusp of life and death. Full of energy and containing all the ingredients for life lacking only the influence to animate it and give it purpose. What have great musicians and seers and beauties have in common? Their effect on others. They have the glamour, their power is in the strength of their minds. The creatures find contact with other living (or potentially living) matter difficult. Two self repairing warships crashed but were damaged so badly that they could no longer remake themselves. They created the foundations of the bog that brought the marshwains into existence. Layer upon layer of the walking dead. Two armies kept alive in such a loathsome state in an unending, filthy war. Confused impulse with a wish to survive, drawing people with influence to them to give them a purpose. The conclusion that features mud slick versions of the travellers in the distance ends the story on a brilliantly disquieting note.
Audio Landscape: You are immediately transported to a windswept, seaside location of screaming gulls. There’s that lovely insane bleeping noise from when the TARDIS first materialised in An Unearthly Child! Plopping through water, noisy squelching steps, the terrible gurgling of the mud zombies as they claw from the ground, clattering in the kitchen, crackling flames, the bashing at the door, stabbing at the mud creatures, their ghastly screams.
Musical Cues: All credit to Toby Hrycek-Robinson (him of the Big Finish lunches!) for his invasive, all-encompassing score which drills fear into your brain as supernatural monstrosities are spoken of in hushed whispers. It really is startlingly effective.
Isn’t it Odd: The surprise of the Doctor having waited years for Ian and Barbara here is a good one in the moment but when you think about the surrounding stories, in particular The Rescue where he is still mooning over the loss of Susan, it doesn’t quite fit in to established continuity. Mind you I don’t think you should let that get in the way of telling a good story.
Standout Scene: The sequence of Ian and Barbara sinking into the mud is told in real time and isn’t hurried. It’s a great decision because things get more and more tense as the travellers are slowly eaten by the Earth and start to give up hope. The sounds effects are used to fantastic effect too – his heartbeat racing, his breathing quickening…the tension is quite unbearable as Ian is gripped by fear because we are too. As Ian’s imagination takes over it becomes a nightmarish scenario of fingers grasping at his legs and a hungry creature sucking him into its maw. Brrr…
Notes: Barbara mentions Salem which is the setting for the superb Steve Lyons novel, The Witch Hunters. A cracking read and well worth checking out.
Result: If Big Finish were going to give away a free story that showed the best of what they do then a William Russell companion chronicles is just about the wisest decision they could have made. The first 20 minutes or so is William Russell telling Ian’s story to that point and walking the listener through the first few seasons of Doctor Who – re-iterating stories that we already know should be tedious but instead it is bewitching, capturing that sense of mystery, adventure and excitement of those first days in the TARDIS. The story is ultimately a little simple but it scores very highly on atmosphere and chills and it is easy to find yourself as lost and abandoned as Ian and Barbara on the foggy marshland as slick creatures of mud terrorise them. Ian Potter has nailed the characters perfectly and found an enjoyable device for Ian to narrate the story and packs his script full of creepy, duvet-clutching imagery. The marshwains are impressively conceived and very scary and director Lisa Bowerman ensures that we are always aware of their slick, sludgy presence closing in. Potter doesn’t neglect the moral aspect of the story either and the Doctor’s decision to murder what is essentially a new race of children is given some consideration too. If you have never listened to Big Finish before (shame on you) then this intoxicatingly chilling freebie might just be enough to lure you in completely. Sedately paced but utterly absorbing: 8/10