Review by Jacob Licklider
It is always a special day when Big Finish Productions revives a range previously thought ended. The Lost Stories easily come to mind over the past few years having two series of previously unseen stories released over the last three years, and after another near two year break The Early Adventures returns for a seventh series of two releases celebrating the William Hartnell era of the show. This year also perhaps went in a different direction in connecting both stories as a sequel and a prequel to 1960s stories, the first giving the audience an idea of what happened to Susan immediately after The Dalek Invasion of Earth while the other shows just how the Doctor acquired the Holy Ghanta seen in The Abominable Snowmen. Like Series 6 of The Early Adventures each story is told at different ends of the First Doctor’s life, the first being right near the beginning of his travels while the second being right near the end with his last regular TARDIS team, both focusing deeply on the companions and their time with the Doctor and just what it means to be a companion in these early days of Doctor Who and how that role has changed over the years.
The first release is After the Daleks by Roland Moore and is odd for a release in that it doesn’t feature the Doctor. Set in the immediate aftermath of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, just as the TARDIS has dematerialised and Susan has dropped her key to the TARDIS. As the title implies it’s all about how humanity can pick up the pieces after the Dalek forces have all been defeated, and despite having a Dalek emblazoned on the cover, they don’t actually play an active role in the plot. The entire story is focused directly on humanity and what the Daleks have left behind: Susan is finding her equilibrium in the decision that her grandfather made for her, Jenny Chaplin has found her robotised brother and is attempting to save his life, and David is trying to get some sort of government. The Daleks are a threat which could always be coming back and there is a single Dalek left alive, immobilised, planning and scheming to find a way to retake the Earth.
Moore’s script is one which does an excellent job of giving Susan some actual agency in her decisions. Her exit in The Dalek Invasion of Earth is one that the Doctor made for her, and opening the story right with the TARDIS dematerialising sets the tone of this story with something missing, that being a home. This is essentially the story of how Susan makes Earth with David her home. There is a brilliant scene in the fourth episode where everything comes together and Susan is essentially allowed to make her own decision to stay on the Earth with David or leave and find the Doctor again. Carole Ann Ford gives a carefully crafted performance around the uncertainty of her position, Susan being a character who at this point is still uncertain of herself. Throughout her television run there isn’t any sort of certainty as to what Susan wants as a character, she’s just in the granddaughter role, while in other Big Finish audios there’s plenty of material of Susan as the confident woman, rebuilding the Earth and eventually going on missions for the Time Lords. This story starts to bridge the gap, doing essentially all that it needs to do to give Susan a plot where she can be the centre of the story. David, played here by Sean Biggerstaff, makes an excellent foil for Susan as he is already familiar with a lot of the world and what life should be becoming, but has his own journey as he has to deal with the fact that Susan is an alien. The audience doesn’t get a lot from David’s perspective so his actual emotions aren’t really revealed until the end with Moore’s script giving him just enough to have the audience question if he is going to be pushing away Susan.
The rest of the supporting cast consists of Lucy Briers’ Jenny Chaplin, taking the role from her mother, and introducing Jenny’s brother Oliver, played by Oli Higginson. This is Moore doing your classic loved one trying to save their family from the brink of disaster, and it is a slow burn through the first half which is done beautifully. There’s just enough to keep the audience guessing again and again if the robotisation process is one which can be undone or if Oliver will be completely stuck. When he eventually gets his voice back in the second half of the story, there is still the Roboman headgear and the ability to hear signals. There is also the very human threat of Jonathan Guy Lewis’ Marcus Bray who is the perfect example of the human villain, played delightfully in a very suave way. He is a politician, grabbing power and even betraying humanity during the invasion to save his own skin and that of his family’s, yet it isn’t done to cartoonish levels. The humanity is there: he was trying to save his family and keep the world going, at least until the very end of the story where he goes a bit cartoonish. A lot of his actions in the fourth episode is the one point where things really fall flat, though Lisa Bowerman’s direction still manages to ground it back in reality to round out After the Daleks as the brilliant story that it is. 9/10.
The Secrets of Det-Sen on the other hand is a more traditional approach to Doctor Who, giving a classic style William Hartnell story with Peter Purves in the role of the Doctor and Steven Taylor, and Lauren Cornelius making her debut as the recast Dodo Chaplet. The story, first and foremost, is dedicated to Jackie Lane who sadly passed away shortly after this story was announced. The story is one which is traditional but in a very odd sense, despite an Abominable Snowman being featured on the cover and the title of the first episode, The Secrets of Det-Sen is a pure historical, set in the Himalayas fifty years before the events of The Abominable Snowmen. It is not dealing with the Great Intelligence or the Yeti as the Doctor Who audience would know them, instead specifically seeing some of the history of this monastery with a conflict straight out of Marco Polo. Andy Frankham-Allen’s script, like After the Daleks, is a slow burn, with the first two episodes really taking its time to build up the small cast of monks before the actual threat of the story reveals itself. The threat is also a very human one, bandits who often beset the monastery while some of the pilgrims the Doctor, Steven, and Dodo encounter turn out to be traitors.
Frankham-Allen takes the time to really get things correct in the setting and characters with much of the philosophy of the story being where the intrigue is. This is a story that takes a look at Buddhism and Buddhist teachings which the monks have the time to explore and its place in history at this time. This is a time before Christianity would really have taken over a lot of Tibet while there is still political turmoil in the surrounding country, something that cleverly plays into why the bandits do what they do. There is a preying on the weak and none of the religious ideas here are presented as laughable or imply that say Christianity (as the dominant religion in the Western world) is somehow right. Reincarnation is a big theme and is something which harkens forward to The Tenth Planet where the Doctor is going to regenerate, and that reincarnation is very much paralleled to a lot of the ideas of Doctor Who. Doctor Who is a show which has taken a lot of ideas from Buddhism throughout its nearly 60 year history, most obviously with Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ run on the show, which gets a lot of name drops here with the Doctor looking at his teacher and integrating himself with the monastery here.
Peter Purves is great, carrying the script as Steven is essentially the action hero trying to essentially enjoy himself with the Doctor and Dodo before things start to go wrong. A lot of the first episode’s drive involves Steven suffering from altitude sickness while Dodo really enjoys herself. It’s Dodo who is really important here as she is essentially exploring her place with the Doctor and Steven, set fairly early in her run with the Doctor. Lauren Cornelius gives this layered performance where Dodo is essentially exploring the fact that she was a very lonely child and while she has found the Doctor and Steven, she is still lonely in travelling. She hasn’t really found her place among the TARDIS team and this is a story where she kind of discovers that. It doesn’t end with a setup for a sequel story, but unlike say Katarina in Daughter of the Gods, this cannot be the last we see of Dodo as played by Cornelius. Honestly The Secrets of Det-Sen is a perfect Hartnell historical and is not over-reliant on referencing other stories to tell some great character pieces. 10/10.
Overall, The Early Adventures Series 7 was one that could easily have fallen down a rabbit hole of references of Daleks and Yeti, instead giving the listener two brilliant character pieces which explore two companions who on television were perhaps less developed, giving them their own agency. 9.5/10.
You can get it on download/CD from Big Finish.
Review: Doctor Who – Early Adventures (Series 6)
Interview: Peter Purves (Doctor Who)
Check out the rest of our Big Finish reviews!