Well this one was certainly a huge surprise and one that I did not initially see coming. Getting new First Doctor stories with a new cast and team is something I could’ve only imagined in my wildest dreams and yet here we are. With the reappearance of the First Doctor in the most recent Christmas special played by David Bradley returning from his portrayal of One / William Hartnell in 2013’s ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’, there has been a strong focus on this older Doctor and recapturing some of that initial magic and performance of the 60’s. However since before Bradley was set to appear this Christmas, Big Finish had of course grabbed him and roped him into new audio adventures with not only Bradley returning as the First Doctor but also Claudia Grant, Jemma Powell, and Jamie Glover all reprising their roles as Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) from the same story. It’s a daring and perhaps risky move replacing the original roles with new actors in new stories but one that I think could very much work if it was done well and hearts were in the right place. Given that Big Finish always has their hearts in the right place for these kinds of innovations, now it’s just a matter to see how well it works. And how well does it work? Does “The First Doctor Adventures” capture the magic of feel of the Hartnell era or is something lost in translation? Well let’s begin our new year and take a dive in. *SPOILERS AHEAD*
Story 1 – The Destination Wars by Matt Fitton: The TARDIS team land in the ‘Space Year 2003’ in a Utopian city that appears to be somewhere on Earth. Hover cars flood the streets, tall skyscrapers fill the landscape, and all seems prosperous thanks to the development of new technologies by a mysterious and legendary scientist simply known as the Inventor. But all is of course not as it seems and it isn’t long before dark secrets in the city’s underbelly come up for all to see. Ian and Barbara are forced to handle the realities of a futuristic world at war while the Doctor and Susan are brought to face a old figure from the Doctor’s past with long-lasting repercussions for the future. It’s an interesting premise and one that seems perfect for what it’s trying to do in bringing an encounter with the First Master into canon. It almost feels like an introduction story for the character along the same lines of “Terror of the Autons” (though it’s thankfully not an origin story) except even farther back in the timelines than we’ve ever seen before. But it also works as a good story without that baggage and it still follows what’s been established thus far in that no mention of Gallifrey or the Time Lords occurs even with the Master on hand. There are many big twists and turns to shock long time Whovians and Big Finish listeners but on the whole it is a tad predictable especially in the beginning. It’s quite apparent that the travelers aren’t where they think they are but it plays around with time travel, suspicious settings, and details aplenty in unique ways for all to chew on. The cast is a little bit more hit and miss than I had anticipated. David Bradley as the First Doctor as portrayed by William Hartnell is perfect. While I liked his onscreen portrayal in “Twice Upon A Time”, I will admit that some of his eccentricities weren’t perfect or even really accurate. Listening to this story with Matt Fitton’s script (who has had experience writing for this incarnation before), these flaws with the character are now gone and it truly feels like like we have the First Doctor back again in audio form. James Dreyfus as the new (or should I say old) Master is also brilliantly good in a very different way compared to what we’ve seen so far. There’s a quieter subtlety to his evil compared to the outwardly psychotic edge of Simm or Gomez and he very much reminds me of a combination of Jacobi and Delgado with his tone of voice and manner. Dreyfus is charming and manipulative never once raising his voice and feeling much more restrained with less of a direct scheme and willingness to kill than usual but it makes sense considering how far back it is for this character. It doesn’t make this Master any less threatening especially to our main leads in how he coerces and manipulates them against the Doctor and his most prominent traits are still here and recognizable even this early in his life. In short, it’s the perfect precursor to the Delgado incarnation and I really hope we get to see more of him in future stories. When Bradley and Dreyfus finally meet as Doctor and Master about halfway through, it’s an electrifying moment for both of them and a real treat to hear. Their sparring is strong in a Pertwee / Delgado sort of way and the fact that it’s this far back really allows the history that we don’t know to speak for itself rather than it being said outright. Jamie Glover works fine as Ian Chesterton / William Russell. The personality is definitely there with his character even if his voice isn’t quite at least not in this first story. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say Jemma Powell is a good Barbara Wright and Claudia Grant is definitely no Susan Foreman at least from what I heard here. Powell’s demeanor and traits for Barbara are there but it’s hard to distinguish her from the other female voices in this set which Jacqueline Hill was always so good at. Grant’s voice for Susan feels entirely too high and too valley girl and her personality feels much more like a pretty face most of the time as opposed to the true alien naivete and personality brought by Carole Ann Ford. We’ll see if they get better in story 2 but right off the bat I wasn’t impressed. There are a ton of other things to like and dislike about this story. There is a fantastic musical score in this one and the soundscape feels like it was appropriately ripped straight out of the 60’s time period for this team. The pacing is brisk and it keeps and holds your focus the whole way through even with the extended length. But it is a little slow and boring whenever the focus isn’t on the Master and certain voices are a little hard to get used and distinguish at first listen. But it does work fine and none of it brings the story down too badly compared to other stories where these flaws were a major hindrance. In short, ‘Destination’ has problems that do detract at times but is still a fine story for the First Doctor especially for its place in canon in bringing the First Master into the Whoniverse. We’ll see if the problems it has are better handled in the second story or if they will remain a major problem for this series as a whole.
— 8 / 10
Story 2 – The Great White Hurricane by Guy Adams: The second half of this set takes us into the recent past and gives us a pure historical that the show used to be so good at back in the day. This time, the TARDIS team has landed during the Great Blizzard of 1888 that hit and froze the East Coast of America and Canada. Almost immediately, things go wrong as Ian is shot, Susan kidnapped, and the Doctor taken and put into prison by the local cops. With everyone seperated and in trouble to some degree, it’s up to Barbara to save and reunite everyone but of course it’s not going to be easy with the intense cold and weather bringing everything to a literal stand still. In the end, it becomes a search for each character to find each other and survive before they all freeze to death in the storm. ‘Hurricane’ ends up being a much more dramatic and personal story than ‘Destination’ with intense rivalries, gang violence, searches for family members, and struggles for survival in the extreme weather. This could so easily have been done in a boring manner but Guy Adam’s script keeps things surprisingly engaging for the most part even if the pacing does drag a little bit in the middle. There aren’t too many surprises here but it’s enjoyable and engaging the whole way through. All of this is exemplified by a soundscape that’s simply simply chilling and perfect for the story. You really feel the atmosphere of New York in the best way and it’s a triumph of the story that you really feel the wind and the setting where all of this is taking place. However where this story really excels is in the relationships between each member of the main cast and the side cast. The caring and lovable side of David Bradley’s rascally First Doctor is on display from the beginning which is a wonderful thing to see in him. We get to see some genuine concern from his character in this one and Bradley plays it beautifully straight in conjunction with all of the First Doctor’s other traits. While Powell and Grant aren’t too much better as Barbara and Susan compared to the previous story, they do both get a lot more to do especially while Glover’s Ian is put out of commission for the first little while and they do begin to grow on you by the end to the point where I could see them being much improved in Series 2 of this line. Each of the main leads get to interact with an extremely strong side cast in some form with gang members, mothers, and policemen all adding a great flavor that a lot of stories don’t have. Without giving too much away, none of them are purely good or bad with lots of grey areas in between that make each one interesting to listen to and each relationship is given time to develop and shine. Even the American accents are surprisingly good from the mostly international cast (though they aren’t quite perfect or entirely believable) and it makes this cast very strong. It’s not a perfect story in that (as I mentioned) the pacing is a little bit slower, some of the main cast still don’t quite have their voices down yet, and there aren’t too many big moments that stand out. There were many points where shocks that were supposed to be bigger ended up being fairly obvious or are spoiled way in advance and the story does suffer for it. But the passion of the story is still there when it needs to be and it definitely ends up a lot better than other Hartnell historicals out there even ones produced by the TV show itself. In short, ‘Great White Hurricane’ is a fantastic story for the First Doctor and his team and a great little historical to chill you for the winter season.
— 8 / 10
FINAL VERDICT: “Doctor Who: The First Doctor Adventures Volume One” is a great release to start the New Year off with. While it’s certainly not perfect in that it does replicate every part of the William Hartnell era including some of the flaws in pacing and story-telling and some of the cast aren’t quite perfect in their respective roles yet, it’s still a great listen and worth it for David Bradley as the Hartnell First Doctor and the appearance of the First Master played brilliantly by James Dreyfus. If you want to take a journey back into the days of the 60’s with a re-imagined team for new and exciting adventures, you can’t go wrong with this set and these two stories and I’m curious to see how July’s Series 2 plays out.
— 8 / 10
Coming soon from my Big Finish reviews will be another Series with River Song, another Back Catalog, and a series of adventures with the Fourth Doctor and Leela. Until next time, ~Geronimo!!