Doctor Who – ‘The First Doctor Adventures Volume One’ reviewed

❉ David Bradley’s First Doctor – Not just for Christmas?

For a programme whose endurance hinges on ongoing cast changes, it’s somewhat ironic that recasting of existing characters is such a contentious issue in Doctor Who. Then again very few series have such a broad precedent for literally revisiting their own history with the original characters in their original setting. As Big Finish Productions has expanded their Doctor Who line to encompass its earliest years, this embrace of the past has  inevitably collided with the sad  reality that so many of the original actors have passed away.

For several years, Big Finish sidestepped the issue with audiobook/drama hybrids like The Companion Chronicles and Early Adventures. Though not quite as dynamic as the full-cast releases, these stories have generally been inventive and enjoyable homages to their era. Many of them also benefited from William Russell and Frazer Hines’ recreations of their respective Doctors. That these performances were so obviously a reflection of their own affection for former co-stars made the substitution more acceptable, though, one wonders if this would have held true if they’d been widely used in full-cast productions. Tim Treloar’s appearance as The Third Doctor in an upcoming UNIT release will certainly be an interesting test case.

This backdrop makes it difficult to assess the recently released First Doctor Adventures purely on its own merits. David Bradley and his co-stars from the docudrama An Adventure In Space And Time were an understandable choice for what was bound to be a controversial move. Unfortunately, a safe choice isn’t necessarily the same as a good choice, and the uneven lead performances hamper the set, as does a gratuitous bit of retconning.

David Bradley’s performance as the Doctor is still a work in progress, though, as in his onscreen appearance opposite Peter Capaldi at Christmas, he’s clearly approaching the role in a good spirit. Likewise, Jamie Glover seems in touch with the heart of Ian’s character, even if his take is quite different. Jemma Powell as Barbara and Claudia Grant as Susan, however, are both disappointing. Powell, who’s previously appeared as Barbara in some Early Adventures releases, fulfills the plot functions well enough but lacks the spark that made the original character stand out while Grant alternates between bland and cloyingly juvenile from one moment to another.

Admittedly Carole Ann Ford’s own portrayal in the early years was itself inconsistent, but recasting should be a chance to address old concerns more so than creating new ones. In that vein, the first of these two stories, The Destination Wars, presents a further problem in the form of James Dreyfus playing a previously unseen incarnation of the Master. While Dreyfus’ performance is fine, albeit a touch derivative of Derek Jacobi’s portrayal, he seems out of place here.

Matt Fitton’s script is a solid if not especially remarkable take on the Hartnell era’s more traditional science-fiction adventures, but the Master feels grafted on and his identity is telegraphed too obviously to generate much excitement. The Doctor’s first post-Gallifrey encounter with his arch-enemy should feel momentous, along similar lines as their meeting in Utopia. David McIntee’s Missing Adventures novel The Dark Path demonstrated the dramatic potential of a pre-Pertwee meeting with the Master, but this encounter feels perfunctory.

The second story in this release, The Great White Hurricane by Guy Adams, is much more satisfying. Set around a natural disaster that paralyzed New York City (and much of the Eastern United States) in 1888, it successfully evokes the approach of the 1960s historical stories while effectively using the broader scope audio allows. The impact of the storm on the city’s physical environment nicely complements the personal dramas in which the TARDIS travelers find themselves enmeshed. The performances of the guest cast don’t always come off, but overall these episodes are a reminder of why so many fans remain fond of the historicals – and why it would be nice to see a visit to Earth’s that doesn’t involve an alien menace in the TV program itself.

At least one more set of First Doctor stories with this team is already planned, which raises some interesting questions. If there are releases beyond the second, will they continue to feature this cast or team David Bradley with other companions. If it’s the latter, will they be played by surviving original actors or newly cast ones? Above all, is this an approach worth continuing over the long-term or better as a finite experiment? On the basis of the initial release, the evidence is inconclusive.

The First Doctor Adventures Volume One is available to download now. You can get Volume One and Volume Two individually at £23 on CD or £20 on download, or save money with a bundle and get Volumes One and Two together at £45 on CD or £40 on download.

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