Review: The Companion Chronicles – The First Doctor (Vol 3)

Review by Michael Goleniewski

The Companion Chronicles range returns to the era of the First Doctor with the latest Companion Chronicles release, The First Doctor Volume Three. It’s a series that has presented some of the earliest examples of great Doctor Who storytelling with 2017’s Volume 2 containing two of my personal favourite First Doctor adventures in Across the Darkened City and The Plague of Dreams. I’m always glad to see these releases continuing and this particular volume is no exception with a strong theme around the concept of heroes and how they are perceived and seen by those around them. How does it stand up compared its predecessors? Let’s take a look:

E is for… Julian Richards

The set begins with the oddly titled “E is for…..” which places the earliest TARDIS team on a futuristic world in the middle of a restricted police state. Susan’s begun feeling a little bit more empowered than usual but her telepathy has also somehow become stronger due to some strange influence surrounding the planet. And she’s not the only one; people all across the world are exhibiting powers of sorts and becoming a force for change. And one, in particular, might be the key to saving Susan and reuniting her with her grandfather…..

Julian Richards’ script presents an interesting idea combining a Doctor Who adventure with a weird X-Men-like narrative that’s predictable in structure but certainly different. The plot gives Susan an inadvertent Jean Grey role of sorts and pairs her with a modified Wolverine character aka Mark Edel-Hunt playing the titular Weapon E. Hunt and Carole Ann Ford work very well together with good chemistry that carries the majority of the tale as they run from Lisa Bowerman as a nasty colonel bent on exterminating all special beings on the world. But said colonel has some interesting secrets of her own and while Weapon E gets the most development over the course of the story, Bowerman’s is by far the strongest in terms of performance.

While the audio presents a lot of interesting ideas and creativity, the execution and everything else around it is very much on the lacklustre side. The rest of the TARDIS team do get a mention here and there but really this is very much a three-way story between these three characters with very little involvement from anyone else. The pacing in the first half goes through things way too fast, the soundscape is minimal enough to where it’s often hard to keep track of what’s going on, and the ultimate revelation teased by the title is a little too obvious though it leads to a fun and relatively explosive climax. As a start to the set though, “E is for….” is a decent one that’s notable for trying something new even if it doesn’t quite succeed in doing it. 6 / 10 

Daybreak by John Pritchard

In a prison cell in the distant future, Vicki is being questioned by a strange man called the Judge about the actions of a group of rebels looking to bring down the government. Not only has she recently met them with the rest of the TARDIS team in an abandoned factory; but being from the future, Vicki knows all about them and they’re admirable history. But in particular, she knows the dark truth that though they’ll ultimately find victory they are doomed to betrayal and death by the time their goal is accomplished. Will she and her friends be able to help the cause while keeping history intact?

This sets up the premise for ‘Daybreak’, a well-intentioned but fairly lacklustre tale for Vicki and this TARDIS team. Granted there are some good ideas here based around time explained in a nice little analogy by the Doctor akin to how he eventually explains how the TARDIS works to Leela in the future. Vicki’s situation is also a rather interesting; both in the primary one of the interrogation setting that sets up the structure of the story but also who she ends up paired with at the beginning of the second half that causes even more tension for her.

Some of the cast are also relatively good, mainly the two leads we end up hearing for the majority of the runtime. Maureen O’Brien is still a great performer as Vicki in both voice and narration though it isn’t one of her stronger stories in that you can more or less guess where she’s going with her character and thread right from the get-go. Clive Hayward as the Judge thankfully picks up a bit of the slack as a great morally neutral character compared to the stereotypical evil personas that could’ve easily fit this role. He’s not necessarily a bad person despite the logical role he’s in; he just happens to be on the wrong side of things in a way that Vicki at times struggles to understand with her naive idealism. It’s a great dynamic and the two together are a fantastic audio combination that makes the whole situation much greyer than it should be.

But even despite all of that, the rest of the adventure is dull as tar. Outside of the narrative framing of O’Brien and Hayward’s dialogue, everything comes off exceedingly dreary and even empty in some of it’s quieter moments. The pacing is extremely slow even at the best of times and it’s hard to care about what’s going on especially given the lack of any real sort of tension or soundscape. It’s obvious that John Pritchard’s script is more interested in tackling themes and the notions surrounding them rather than the details needed to make something like this one work in an engaging fashion. It’s like taking the conversations of something like ‘The Dark Knight’ and listening to them without the intense action, fantastic situation, and great story-telling that makes it such a heart-pounding thriller. It’s interesting sure but it shouldn’t be all that’s carrying a story and if everything else around those themes isn’t strong enough to support it, then it’s still most likely going to be forgotten.

‘Daybreak’ is a pitch-perfect example of that kind of thinking; an interesting idea with some good themes and performances that have the potential to be powerful. But it’s a tale that’s not well supported by the sum of its parts and it sadly fails to be a truly worthwhile listen in the grand scheme of the era of this companion and her associated Doctor. 5 / 10

 The Vardan Invasion of Mirth by Paul Morris and Ian Atkins

The penultimate story of this third volume of First Doctor Companion Chronicle sees the Doctor and Steven thinking they’ve landed in 1950’s London. Everything looks normal but according to the console readings the gravity, pressure and atmosphere seem to be entirely missing. When he steps out into the street, Steven finds that he’s stepped into a TV studio with the TARDIS being disassembled as a prop on a set. With the Doctor and Steven separated through peculiar circumstances, it seems that a struggling television comedian with a passion for astronomy might the key to what’s going on. But some dark experiments are going on and the TARDIS team might have just played into the hands of something nasty that’s found a weakness in the human race…..

‘Vardan Invasion of Mirth’ is a weird story that holds its cards very close to its chest. The script by Paul Morris and Ian Atkins really throws you into the deep end; not giving anything away with its mysterious happenings until long after the second half of the tale has started and it ends up turning into an amusing but rather unsettling hour of audio listening. One moment, in particular, surrounding a violent death turns the whole audio on its head while still connecting all of the threads together and while it’s obvious from the title who’s behind what’s going on, it’s the hows in particular that are especially clever and horrifying in this case.

The minimal soundscape typical of Companion Chronicle stories also really works to this tale’s advantage given where the plot ends up going. The whole narrative is encompassed in a wholly serene and quiet atmosphere to where you can almost picture this story happening in monochrome with yellow arcs and showers for when things get electric and explosive.

The cast is fairly good though this is really a two-parter at its core with minimal dialogue and interaction with anyone else. Peter Purves as his character Steven and as the narrator is good per the norm with nothing much to say about his performance that hasn’t been said a dozen times before. Steven Critchlow however as comedian Teddy Baxter is a very relatable and extremely strong presence whose character arc ties nicely into what’s going on in general. You almost get a Richard Pryor vibe off of him as you listen and he gets not only the best dialogue but also the emotional heart of the tale.

While the is climax full of a lot of dull technobabble in a way that does detract from the drama of the final moments, ‘Vardan Invasion of Earth’ for the most part finally delivers a story that surpasses the level of good. With some clever tricks up its sleeve and a strong narrative that doesn’t let the cat out of the bag too quickly, it really manages to deliver a satisfyingly clever mystery in all the right ways while still being a good Companion Chronicle story in its own right. 8 / 10

The Crumbling Magician by Guy Adams

The final story of the set is another one that plays around with the TARDIS team near the end of the First Doctor’s life. A devastating time crash has occurred sending the Doctor into a coma and Ben into unconsciousness in a futuristic health clinic. Polly is there too but she’s suffering in a strange state of temporal contamination that’s causing her to jump back and forth in time while being taken care of by a rather forceful and protective AI. Whilst Ben is waking up and interacting with another tragic victim of the crash and Polly’s condition continues to worsen, a dark mystery begins to come to light. But most of all, where is the Doctor and should the overseeing AI be trying to heal him?…..

‘Crumbling Magician’ is a slow burn of a finale but a fascinating one; focusing on the connections between the Doctor and Polly in more ways than one. It’s a hard one to talk about as it mainly centered around one big twist backed by continuity. But needless to say, its premise takes full advantage of the nature of the Companion Chronicles format in a very clever way while all of the other elements around it sadly struggle a little bit more.

When you get right down to it, the script by Guy Adams is still a standard misguided AI plot that just happens to have some interesting trappings around it. While the big twist comes off as a great surprise and some of the character interactions are incredibly strong, the soundscape is once again fairly droll and all of the action is fairly character-driven. It’s another story that’s really saved by the cast and their work as this could’ve been easily been a dull affair had it not been for the performances involved.

Speaking of which, this one represents some of Anneke Wills‘ best work in any audio so far as she really gets to extend her skills in terms of the roles she plays over the course of the audio. Her portrayal of the Doctor is especially relevant here getting some strong dialogue and finally giving the First Doctor more of a voice in his own set. The writing actually poses this Doctor a bit of a moral quandary that puts what he wants to a strong test of loyalty and what’s right. Elliot Chapman’s Ben is fine if unremarkable though his interactions with David Warner’s Allie are genuinely heart-breaking as a tragic side thread to the main plot. Warner ends up being another highlight of the set giving a very affecting performance that again places the theme of the story and in fact the entire set into sharp focus.

There’s not too much else that can be said about ‘Crumbling Magician’ without giving the game away but it does come to a fairly predictable but emotional climax as things have to proceed in a specific way for the future to play out as it needs to. It’s a fitting end to the entire set and a decent one for this cast and team but it doesn’t have quite the same level of imagination or the power of previous stories in other volumes of this series. 6 / 10

All in all, The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor Volume 3 is a bit of a disappointment and a downgrade from other installments in this series. Whilst some stories work much better than others, none of them feel like absolute standouts or anything impressive that you 100% have to hear despite the usual standard of quality from all involved. If you’ve been following along with this series all the way through so far, then it’s obvious a must-listen but if not and you haven’t heard other stories from Volumes 1 or 2, you’d probably be best served tackling those first before coming to this one and even then it’s not necessarily a requirement. Not the worst or even bad per se but unless you absolutely need some new First Doctor audios right this second, probably not one that you’d feel bad missing out on. 6 / 10

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Check out our Big Finish reviews!
Review: Doctor Who – The First Doctor Companion Chronicles Vol 2.

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