A few weeks back, the Daily Torygraph had a week of giveaways of Doctor Who CDs. I didn’t get them because I refuse to buy that wretched snotrag of a paper, but they have recently announced an offer to get rid of their back stock, and are selling all seven CDs for ‘P&P only’ – although thirteen quid seems a lot for P&P.
However, less than two quid per CD is a great deal, and so I picked these up.
Mission To The Unknown (by Terry Nation, narrated by Peter Purves ) is a Dalek story from the first Doctor’s era. I won’t go into great detail about it here, as I plan to review the story in full when I get to it in a few months, but this was a single-episode story which was the only Doctor Who story not to feature the Doctor – though it set up a later story, The Daleks’ Master Plan.
As the story was burned, the only way to experience it is to listen to off-air audio-tape recordings made at the time, with linking narration by Peter Purves, who does a decent job. The story itself, intended by Nation as a backdoor pilot for a Dalek spin-off series, is genial hokum about Agent Marc Cory of the Special Space Service fighting deadly Varga plants. Taken for what it is – 45-year-old children’s adventure TV – it’s fun, though hardly at the same level as the first couple of Dalek stories. But before listening, forget everything you know about astronomy, as neither Nation nor David Whittaker (the script editor) knew the difference between a galaxy, a solar system and a constellation, so at one point you get several galaxies teaming up to try to take over the Earth.
Genesis Of The Daleks (by Terry Nation, starring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter, Michael Wisher, Peter Miles et al)
This was the first Doctor Who story to get any kind of repeatable home release. In the days before videos, this, an album containing a one-hour abridgement of the two-and-a-half-hour TV story’s soundtrack, with linking narration by Tom Baker, was the first time people could buy a Doctor Who story that had been on TV.
It’s obviously less necessary now that you can buy the whole thing on a double-DVD set with documentaries, commentaries, outtakes and so on, but it still has a nostalgic appeal to many Who fans, which is why it’s still available on CD.
Listening to the abridgement, a few things become clear.
Firstly, the TV show depended hugely on David Maloney’s visual sense. Without his Bergman rip-offs and the sense of oppression his visuals give, the story is much more the Typical Terry Nation script than it appears when watching it. And the abridgement does the plot few favours. It cuts out all the nonsense ‘perils’ that Nation stuck in more or less at random – the landmines, the giant clams and so on – but without those distractions, you can see that the plot makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
But everything changes whenever Michael Wisher and Tom Baker get to do their thing (either together or separately). There’s a rumour that Baker and Wisher substantially rewrote their dialogue together in rehearsals, recasting some of it into iambic pentameter to make it more Shakespearean . Certainly, at crucial moments, this is *NOT* Terry Nation dialogue – this is a script that has been worked on by diverse hands, including Terrance Dicks and, most crucially, Robert Holmes.
Even in this cut-down form, then, the set pieces (“to hold in my hand…” , “Have I the right?”) still have an immense power, and this is still a fantastic story. In what should have been a fairly conventional Dalek story, someone (presumably Holmes) managed to sneak in a morality play straight out of Dostoevsky, but written for eight year-olds. And even without the Bergmanisms and gas masks, that’s pretty special.
Exploration Earth (by Bernard Venables, starring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and John Westbrook)
This is a trifle, a little over twenty minutes long, that doesn’t really deserve its own CD. Originally broadcast for schools’ radio, it’s an educational programme trying to tell the story of the Earth’s creation, using the Doctor Who characters to provide a dramatic framework. Sarah Jane is completely out of chaacter as Generic Companion (“Doctor, I’m scared”) though Lis Sladen still does wonders with some awful dialogue. A historical curio, not really made for repeat listening.
Slipback (by Eric Saward, starring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant)
Or the Blitch-Blikers Buide to the Balaxy. During the show’s ‘gap year’ in 1985, BBC Radio4 commissioned a serial in six fifteen-minute parts for their children’s strand, Pirate Radio 4, starring the then-current Doctor/companion team and written by the show’s then-script editor Eric Saward.
While in his scripts for TV Saward seems obsessed with trying to be like Robert Holmes but with more violence, when writing for the radio he seems instinctively to have turned to another former Who writer/script-editor, Douglas Adams, and as a result you could play any of the scenes in this that don’t feature the Doctor to anyone and they’d think it was a bit they’d forgotten from the second Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio series.
Saward’s attempts at humour aren’t great – he’s someone who’s clearly more at home writing action-movie wisecracking than actual wit – but the cast is fantastic, featuring voices that anyone who has ever listened to Radio 4 will recognise instantly, like Valentine Dyall and Nick Revell. And while the plot makes no sense, the fifteen-minute-episode format means it keeps moving quickly.
Incidentally, the computer voice in this, which is supposed to sound like an ‘airheaded bimbo’, sounds suspiciously like an impersonation of Sandra Dickinson, who played Trillian in the TV (but not the radio) version of Hitch-Hiker’s. Dickinson was then married to Peter Davison, and had apparently not been hugely popular among the production staff of Doctor Who. I wonder if this was a slight dig at her…
Pest Control (by Peter Anghelides, read by David Tennant)
This is a two-disc audiobook (as opposed to radio play), and is *much* better than I expected. I loathe Tennant’s Doctor, but here, reading in his own accent, he gives a masterful performance. I still find his Doctor irritating (and from the voice and characterisation of Donna Noble I was very correct to not watch the fourth RTD series, or I would have smashed whatever I was watching it on), but he does more and better acting in the two-and-a-half hours of this audiobook than in the entirety of his TV career as the Doctor, providing a range of distinctively-voiced, subtly-characterised characters.
The story itself is a fairly standard Doctor Who plot – in fact as a plot it’s far more the kind of thing one would expect from Saward than Saward’s own story is – about a war between the Earth and a bunch of aliens, but then the Earth soldiers are being turned into giant insects, and then a killer robot turns up… you know the kind of thing.
It’s a routine, formula story, but it’s an *extremely well executed* routine, formula story, and as such would fit far better with the Moffat series than the Davies series to which it is a coda. And I’ll give it a lot more leeway for being formulaic than the TV series, because as an audiobook the production costs of this consist of little more than the cost of a microphone and a cup of tea, while the TV series cost several million quid. The expectations are correspondingly lower.
This was actually the big surprise for me, and easily the most enjoyable of these as a pure listening experience, and that’s coming from someone who loathes Tennant as the Doctor.
And I will love Anghelides forever, because unlike the people at Big Finish, he uses the word DISORIENT! NOT DISORIENTATE! DISORIENT! THE PROPER ACTUAL WORD! NOT THE ILLITERATE NEOLOGISM. I know disorientate is now in dictionaries, and I hate linguistic prescriptivism as much as anyone, but that’s always been one of my bugbears. Mr Anghelides repeatedly using the proper word made me very happy.
The Runaway Train by Oli Smith, read by Matt Smith
I only listened to this today, and I remember nearly nothing about it, except that Matt Smith can’t do American or Scottish accents, and Smith’s voice is a lot less tolerable than Tennant’s when doing a dramatic reading. There’s some stuff about the future-Doctor setting things up in the past to happen to him in the present, but other than that I couldn’t tell you anything about it. It all just turned into “bleh bleh bleh bleh” between the headphones and my eardrums.
Overall, this is a very mixed bag, but for thirteen quid it’s worth it for Genesis and Pest Control alone. Then you’ve got a couple of fun-but-silly children’s programmes (Slipback and Mission) and a couple of duds, but everything is at least worth a listen. Possibly even The Runaway Train…