Review by Michael Goleniewski
Return to Skaro by Andrew Smith
‘Return to Skaro’ is a more or less a direct sequel to the TV story ‘The Daleks’ following up on how the planet and its inhabitants have changed in the aftermath of said adventure. It’s a strong enough revisitation that’s just as bleak as its onscreen predecessor with a gorgeous soundscape that revels in an all-encompassing atmosphere. The pacing is slow in a way that’s perfect for a story of the era and the narrative is certainly bigger with some of the new elements it introduces and plays around with. But the core plot is on the weaker side feeling more like a greatest hits album rather than a necessary and worthy plot extension. It does more or less the same trick that ‘Aliens’ pulled over ‘Alien’ and with about the same result, sacrificing a subtle plot and much of the horror for larger revelations left unseen from the past and some admittedly fun but fairly predictable action set-pieces. Many plot points then feel extremely forced particularly in the idiotic way that the main crux of the narrative comes into the picture and much of the enjoyment comes not from great writing but from the novelty of revisiting a well-loved story with a reinvented cast.
Thankfully, that novelty is really where this story succeeds and the majority of the cast is outstanding in that regard. David Bradley’s First Doctor is again wonderful, confronting his greatest enemies for the quote ‘first time’ in a powerfully fun way. But at the same time, it’s always interesting to hear what newer elements Bradley is able to infuse this incarnation with, in this case a surprising love for the spotlight that even Jamie Glover’s Ian and Jemma Powell’s Barbara take notice of. Nicholas Briggs is as outstanding as usual as the Daleks and the way they’re tied into the narrative from the past feels completely natural and right for future encounters to come. On the other hand, James Camp’s Jyden is the most egregious example of a badly acted young man character we’ve had in a story in a long while and his influence on Claudia Grant’s Susan is fairly obnoxious in the first half of the story. There’s also a big betrayal hiding in the Thal ranks that’s revealed early on but doesn’t feel like it amounts to much beyond the shock value despite the stronger performance of the actress involved.
‘Return to Skaro’ is a dedicated love letter to the past that delivers a strong tribute and installment into these ‘First Doctor Adventures’. But compared to the power and subtlety of its predecessor or even other adventures in this series, it’s a bit of a disappointment. It tries to be bigger and better with all of the smaller elements of its precursor without realising that the more subtle nature of how it was all executed is what made it all great in the first place. Thus while it looks and feels like a great Dalek adventure and for many Whovians it will certainly scratch the right itch, it doesn’t do much more than that beyond incorporating a newly realised First Doctor cast and team in its production. Definitely worth a listen but far from the best story for either this range or the Whoniverse’s most influential villains. – 7 / 10
Last of the Romanovs by Jonathan Barnes
‘Last of the Romanovs‘ is an intriguing little historical, skill-fully replicating Russia rather nicely with an atmosphere that’s harsh and gritty. Jonathan Barnes’ premise inserts the TARDIS team into the desperate sequence of events incredibly seamlessly which is especially worth admiring given how complicated this country’s history can be. But the real tension comes from the plot which, though fairly typical for the era, hinges powerfully around a time-bomb teased at in the synopsis but well-known to those who are familiar with the history of the time. This makes every moment tick by slowly with the tone and energy of a funeral bell, constantly bringing hope that things might turn out differently even though we know in the back of our mind that history has to stay on course. It brings to mind other stories such as ‘The Massacre of St. Bartholemew’s Eve‘ or ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ in that the drama comes not from the surprise of what’s coming but how it happens and why. It’s always a great angle to pursue and it lends itself to an easily followable narrative with some chilling moments and a heart-breaking ending.
The cast is all rather exceptional as well adding much to the gravitas of the audio itself. David Bradley’s Doctor is fantastic sticking to his guns as the cranky but loving old man growing and getting used to adventure. But once he realises what events he’s become involved with and who exactly he ends up talking to, he infuses every line with a sense of quiet awe and dreadful despair. Jemma Powell as Barbara and Claudia Grant as Susan are perhaps the most compelling members of the main cast given plenty of time to face up to incredible odds while still connecting where they need to with certain members of the cast. Jamie Glover’s Ian has the least interesting plot of the whole affair especially once he and the Doctor are split up yet again and he’s paired with a Russian revolutionary for the last half of the tale. But his acting is decent and it’s hard not to deny that he’s not a strong presence when he is focused on. Much of the rest of the side cast don’t exactly stand out but Dan Starkey returns in perhaps the most serious role he’s ever been in as soldier and executioner Yakov Yurovsky who is given a surprising amount of depth even given the horrendous actions he’s about to commit. Leighton Pugh is also good as Tsar Nicholas and Alex Tregear’s Anastasia Romanov is warm and relatable even if the way they are performed doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to what side we’re supposed to be on.
In that regard, the writing and script are probably not quite as accurate as it thinks it is and there is a fairly obvious bias present in the way characters are treated that makes the whole adventure somewhat less objective than it should be. Some of the accents also land fairly poorly and there are also some weird moments that feel like they only exist to move the plot forward such as Susan and Barbara’s pointless recruitment by the British presence in the area. But it’s all saved by a driving sense of purpose and intention that the other story in the set, ‘Return to Skaro‘, rather lacked. Instead of simply existing as a tribute to the era, another story, or a simple time period, it does actively try something different; telling a simplified but still very engaging version of history that isn’t afraid to go to the places that such a poignant event necessitates. It also plants some surprising seeds for the future in both real-life history and the series in general that are worth the wait to get to and are a wonderful flourish to end this volume on.
With all that in mind, if you are willing to forgive some of its problems and let several issues fall by the wayside, then “Last of the Romanovs” is a major win and by far the most interesting pure historical that the range has had so far. Expertly crafted in atmosphere and performance with writing that struggles at times but manages it when it needs to, it works as a spotlight into one of the darkest chapters of Russian history as well as an intentionally powerful piece of Doctor Who drama in its own right. While it may not be as fun or as stimulating as other adventures of the like, this is a very worthwhile addition to the range and a great ending to another wonderful volume of First Doctor Adventures. – 9 / 10