Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Companion Chronicles Box set - The First Doctor: The Sleeping Blood by Martin Day and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: When the Doctor falls ill, Susan is forced to leave the safety of the TARDIS behind. Exploring a disused research centre in search of medical supplies, she becomes embroiled in the deadly plans of a terrorist holding an entire world to ransom – and the soldier sent to stop him.

Hmm: If the Doctor falls seriously ill, what would happen to Susan? This is before the time of Ian and Barbara and you can almost see why the Doctor might like some adult company after this adventure just so he is sure that she would be taken care of if anything severe should befall him.

Alien Orphan: It hadn't taken them long to think of the TARDIS as home. It took them to many strange and wonderful places, this Ship. Not just a craft or a means of conveyance but their safety and refuge. But sometimes the walls would close in and Susan would be desperate to be anywhere else. I suppose after becoming accustomed to the wide open spaces and epic architecture on Gallifrey the claustrophobia of the TARDIS would stifle, despite its infinite dimensions. Forcing Susan out of the TARDIS into an adventure of her own affords her the sort of development and material she rarely enjoyed on television, the companion chronicles tapping into her intelligence and bravery rather than just turning her into a screaming violet. She objects to being called a kid.

Standout Performance: I've made no secret of the fact that Carole Ann Ford is not on my list of favourite Doctor Who performers. She's an adequate actress who can acquit herself well when the material is up to scratch. Fortunately she is given the opportunity here to truly carry the story and I was quite surprised at how well she carried it off. The last time she impressed me this much was Here There Be Monsters, another CC thick with atmosphere and a first episode that featured Susan wandering a spooky, desolate environment. I really enjoyed her turn as the computer.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'These days I prefer the term bio hacker...'

Great Ideas: A planet where civilisation had never arisen is an intriguing idea, simply because it has never been attempted before. There wouldn't be much of a story if they had landed on a planet with no people or aliens or monsters in Susan's tenure on TV. Life has not involved beyond insects stages and the planet is one of lush rainforests. Martin Day figures a smart reason for Susan to narrate this story alone, having the Doctor incapacitated and Susan needing to find medical aid that would help him. It means he gets to tap into that same feeling of dread when Susan ventured out into the dead forest on Skaro alone, the feeling that she is literally on her own and quite helpless but having to head out regardless to help her Grandfather. An abandoned medical research centre, abandoned and caked in dust. With a few lines there is a mystery and a story begging to be told. This is the colony planet Rua, thus named because of the extreme wind speeds when the first colonists arrived. Nobody uses antibiotics anymore, immunity due to overuse is prevalent. Nano-medicene is all the rage now. Over the years they have become completely reliant on nanotechnology and The Butcher has figured a way of using that technology against them. He's ended up with a kill switch for most of the population. The crew that are attempting to find the Butcher are unique insofar as they haven't needed nanotechnology at any point in their lives, so they should be immune to his manipulation. Which is what makes it such a shock when one of their number convulses and dies. The nano machines are described as a virus running through their systems, even Susan's. Utterly benign until the Butcher directs them otherwise. Why does a research centre need a secure bunker? The description of the Butcher as a blind rodent at home in the dark and scared of the day is vivid, festering in a technological cesspit. 

Audio Landscape: Wind, water flowing, alarms, Susan panicking and running, door falling away, technological clicking and humming. 

Musical Cues: Subtle, menacing and adding pace.

Isn't it Odd: I understand why the companion chronicles were halted from a business point of view, there were so many releases that the range was putting off potential new customers who had an enormous back catalogue to catch up with. Switching them to much more manageable box sets was a smart move because people can jump on board here as though the range was starting afresh. The biggest problem I have had with this approach is...I miss them so much. Without a doubt my favourite range that Big Finish has ever produced, the consistent quality of this range is apparent in the releases themselves. I miss the intimate nature of the narration, the ideal length of the stories, the clever sound design and atmospheric scores and the regular use of actors of the calibre of William Russell, Peter Purves and Anneke Wills. And given they ran for so many years I went into slight withdrawal when they were no longer being released every month and the main range simply couldn't pick up the slack. The idea of having four companion chronicles to listen to in one go might sound like a fantastic idea in theory but I know I will sate myself on them rather than pacing myself. I prefer to have one story a month as a reward rather than gorging myself on four  adventures in one go. I sound so ungrateful and most of this is my problem rather than anything that is wrong with this box set. Also, listen out for the least convincing chant of hooray ever to be recorded in episode two. Give it a bit more welly next time, folks.

Standout Scene: I had an uncomfortable feeling that things weren't quite as they appeared when the Butcher claimed that he wasn't a terrorist. I was chomping at the bit to listen to the recording and find out the disturbing truth about the situation on Rua. When the reveal comes, it is a like a slap in the face.

Result: 'I will kill you by one...' Intimate narration, a gripping setting, strong characterisation and a scenario that develops surprisingly and engagingly...the companion chronicles must be back! I would apologise for my overflowing love for this range but frankly the consistency of the quality storytelling is so apparent that for once there is a pretty general consensus this is the standout Doctor Who range from Big Finish. It's quite a hard-hitting tale and isn't one I could imagine taking place in season zero but that just makes it all the more exciting, a peek into another version of the genesis of the show. One where Susan is brave and intelligent and has adventures of her own, one where the base under siege adventure comes to fruition long before Patrick Troughton was even thought about for the central role, where technology is a terrifying and terminal prospect and one where conceptual threats become reality. When the danger is inside of you rather than an external can you fight back? That is what Susan has to try and think her way out of whilst all the time trying to find medical treatment to help her ailing grandfather. I really enjoyed how this story evolved from an atmospheric chiller to a technological horror, it's a story with a self-perpetuating narrative (Susan really doesn't have much of an impact on events beyond saving the Doctor) and a sting in the tale. I've really missed this range and Martin Day's smart little tale reminds me precisely why: 8/10

1 comment:

dark said...

I completely agree on this one, despite the fact Carole Ann Ford is not the most enspiring narrator, or the best able to bring to life the character she played all those years ago the shear atmosphere of the story with it's hard hitting point is astounding.

I do lots of reading (indeed pretty much all my reading), via talking books, which I tend to listen to on speakers when I'm at home sinse unlike with full cast audio dramas there really isn't much bennifit to just having a voice in the higher, more intimate quality that a set of headphones can give you. With the Companion Chronicles though I just found the amazing scores and how they're woven with the atmospheric descriptions of so many gorgious settings, setting which are often much more varied and strange than those in pure audio sinse your getting the full on the spot stream of conscienceness description was something I wanted in as sharp audio detail as possible.

This as a zseason zero adventure I also really like because it shows a little more of how Susan and the Doctor were before meeting Ian and Barbara (really landing in Forman's junkyard was as much a change for them as it was for the lost teachers). Susan putting into practice some of what on Gallifrey were obviously junior school science tricks to reprogram nanno machines, which did make her a little less useless than she might have been, and the first Doctor actually explaining that after his still mirky (and hopefully to remain so), stand on his home planet for some moral cause finding that once out in the universe his people's none interference credo was something he felt more necessary, indeed I hope there is a follow up with him and Susan on this one as it's a really interesting arc for the first Doctor and much more explains how the aloof, rather alien figure of Unearthly child turned into the Dalek's greatest enemy and champian of the downtrodden we see in Master plan.

I only really have two specific gripes. Firstly, what was with the reverb on the Doctor's voice when he appeared? It sounded like he was partially cyber converted. Secondly, the Butcher? great character, beautiful description, but why does he sound like a cockney gangster!

"the butcher's gonna nutchaa!"

Maybe it's that I've not long sinse listened to the novelization of Damaged goods, but really the Butcher sounded far more like crime boss of the east end than a miss understood bio researcher. Menacing certainly, but more someone I'd expect to send his boys around to sort out the competition than someone who's holding a hole planet to biological ransome.

Still, despite the niggles, this was an awsome story, actually it makes me want to do a relisten of the companion chronicles, sinse I've only heard them the once thus far and yet some I remember very fondly indeed.

Now we'll see what the next few stories have to offer (I'm looking forward to seeing how the cliff hanger with Steven gets sorted out).