Well, I know it’s been a little more than a week… in fact some pedants might say it’s been closer to a month… since I did one of these (just as some might say that I still owe a proper Final Crisis summing up) but to make up for that I am going to review (albeit in less detail than usual) three newish Big Finish adventures.
Last year, Big Finish decided to produce audio adaptations of the three official Dalek stage plays that had been produced over the years, sticking as closely to the original scripts as possible and, where possible, using original cast members. As two of these were by Terrance DIcks, and the third by Terry Nation and David Whittaker, you would be forgiven for not going in with the highest expectations. But as you can currently download all three for twenty pounds, I thought I’d give them a go.
The first to be released, and by far the worst, is Dicks’ The Ultimate Adventure from 1989. This was originally staged with Jon Pertwee in the lead, with Colin Baker taking over in the later versions, and here Baker reprises the part, along with a companion with a rrreedeeculuz Frrrainch eczent. Unfortunately, the part doesn’t seem to sit right with him here – possibly because the show was originally written for Pertwee’s very different Doctor, or possibly because Dicks had never written for Baker (the sixth Doctor was the first one never to have a TV story written by Dicks (he never wrote for Hartnell, either, but did write the First Doctor in The Five Doctors)).
The story itself is a pantomime rather than a serious story, with several terrible songs (“Business Is Business” being the least-worst, but it should have been cut to roughly a fifth of its present length), a plot involving Daleks and Cybermen teaming up with mercenaries to take over the earth for what I’m sure must be good and adequate reasons, and the Doctor working for Mrs Thatcher. I imagine it must have been great fun for any young children in the audience at the time, but it’s inessential at best. Baker does his best, but this is quite weak stuff.
Doctor Who And The Daleks In Seven Keys To Doomsday, another DIcks story, this time from 1974, is much better. Written at a time when Dicks was the script editor for the show, it very much has the feel of late Pertwee about it (the original stage show was on during the gap between Pertwee’s last episode and Tom Baker’s first, and starts with a regeneration sequence), though both stage show and audio release starred Trevor Martin as the Doctor. If you listen to this and The Ultimate Adventure back-to-back you may get a sense of deja vu, as a couple of plot points (notably a companion getting into a Dalek travel-machine and using a handy ‘make your voice sound Dalekky’ machine that the Doctor just happens to have on him) are reused. But the difference is that here there *is* a plot. Not a hugely interesting or original one – the Doctor and his companions turn up on an alien world where they have to recover the Seven MacGuffins Of Doom before the Daleks can, aided by some locals (one of whom is a traitor!) and hindered by some spiderlike creatures called Clawrentulars.
It’s a thin plot, and its not helped by one of the companions (Jimmy, the other being called Jenny) being absolutely insufferable. Some of this is intentional – the Doctor gets exasperated at him on a regular basis – but some of it is down to actor Joe Thompson’s utterly horrible Mockney (it may be his real accent, in which case I feel sorry for the poor man, but I doubt it…). However, the plot suffices, and the play is made enjoyable by Trevor Martin’s frankly wonderful performance. At times he sounds scarily like Patrick Troughton, and while his Doctor is written like Pertwee’s, Martin plays it much more like the first two Doctors. He inhabits the role in a way that few others have (I’d put him behind Hartnell, Troughton and the Bakers, but ahead of Pertwee, Davison, McCoy and McGann). I’d be very interested in hearing more of Martin as the Doctor – maybe in Big Finish’s Unbound series?
The final one, though the first to be staged, is 1965’s Curse Of The Daleks by Terry Nation and David Whittaker. As you would expect from those writers at that date, the science is wrong, it’s laughably sexist, it makes no sense if you examine it for a moment – and it’s absolutely great. Even though this story doesn’t feature the Doctor at all, being the first of Nation’s increasingly desperate attempts to cash in on Dalekmania separately from the show, it has much of the feeling of the early series.
This is possibly explainable by the fact that while Terrance Dicks said he had to learn to write for the stage after having written for the TV, early-60s Doctor Who was essentially done as live, at a time when the medium was essentially broadcast theatre rather than the miniature cinema it later attempted to be (and Dicks’ vision of the Doctor was always more cinematic than his predecessors and successors on the original series). Nation in particular had started out as a writer of stage shows, and the character of Rocket Smith (a name which now makes me think of Computer Jones or Synthesiser Patel) has a lot of the speech rhythms of Tony Hancock, for whose stage show Nation was a writer before writing The Daleks.
Curse of the Daleks is also helped by the fact that, due to its writers’ deaths, it has not been updated for the audio release, so Nicholas Briggs reads the stage directions for purely visual events. This gives it the feel of a partly-dramatised audiobook of a Target novelisation, which again makes it feel more like ‘proper Doctor Who’ to me than the other stories which actually have the Doctor in them. As a return trip to Skaro, it’s well worth a listen, even though it’s just good pulpy adventure in an early-60’s Eagle manner.
None of these are up to even Big Finish’s slightly diminished recent standards, let alone their best work, but given that you can download all three for not much more than the cost of a single download of one of their other audios, they’re definitely worth a shot – even the worst has fun moments in it.
early-60s Doctor Who was essentially done as live, at a time when the medium was essentially broadcast theatre rather than the miniature cinema it later attempted to be
Indeed yes. When people scoff over those alleged “wobbly sets”, I suspect they are merely subconsciously applying the wrong set of conventions. Of course it is natural to compare the Hartnell era to later Who, rather than the TV of its time. But it’s still wrong!
Yeah, that’s something I’ve argued for a long while – though even later on ‘classic’ Who still had more of that theatrical influence left in it in a way that nuWho doesn’t (most British TV up to about the mid-80s looks more theatrical than filmic, looking back at it – it’s far easier to imagine a stage adaptation of, say, The Beiderbecke Affair than a film version). I suppose Doctor Who gets this worse than other shows because to the casual viewer it’s ‘sci fi’ and therefore much the same sort of thing as Star Wars or Terminator, and should look the same. I saw a production of Waiting For Godot at the Library Theatre a while back, and the tree and rocks looked rubbish, like they were cardboard or something. What do they take us for? Idiots?
(Although I did actually see my first moment of scenery wobble the other day, rewatching City Of Death of all things…)