❉ Russell T Davies’ first Doctor Who story is a glimpse into one of the most exciting talents the series has ever had from before the legend got started.
“You know when you see a photograph of someone you know, but it’s from years before you knew them. and it’s like they’re not quite finished. They’re not done yet.” – River Song, Forest of the Dead
To Doctor Who fans, Russell T Davies needs no introduction. I mean, really, he shouldn’t to anyone who’s paid the slightest bit of attention to TV in the past two plus decades. This is the man who created Queer as Folk, for God’s sake, and just blew the world away with the hard truths of It’s A Sin. But for Doctor Who fans, he’s not just a TV juggernaut, he’s the legend that brought the show back and made it bigger and better than ever, so much so we’re still getting it all these years later (and he’s coming back for more)! And Big Finish, in one of the most exciting coups they’ve ever pulled off, just got their hands on his earliest ever Doctor Who works, a half-written story pitch for an unmade serial called Mind of the Hodiac back in the 80s. Of course they immediately made it. Of course everyone in their audience wants to buy it. But is it good?
And does that matter?
Mind of the Hodiac, as a story, is in some ways classic Russell, and in some ways not. The plot essentially consists of two strands, set up in the first half to collide in the second. One is the space adventure that gives the story its title, about an alien manipulating the galactic economy from a base with walls made of gold. The other is a domestic drama about psychic paranormal phenomena plaguing a single mother and her family, bringing them into the crosshairs of a malicious research institute. It’s hard to say which half would have been more radical for the Colin Baker era of Doctor Who this was pitched for, which was about as afraid of grounded emotional drama as it was acknowledging politics and class exist. But 2022 isn’t 1986, and keen-eyed Doctor Who fans might notice that we do have these stories already: this is in essence an early draft of Davies’ debut Doctor Who novel Damaged Goods mashed with some ideas that linger in The Long Game from his first series.
We can’t, of course, go back in time to get the full impact of these ideas when new. They’re not new, and time has moved on. That leaves Mind of the Hodiac to exist on its own merits as a story, which is a complicated proposition. There are elements here that are beautiful. We’ve seen better family drama from Davies in Doctor Who since, but this is still a good one, especially with the likes of T’Nia Miller and Annette Badland on hand to ground it all. And the capitalism satire of the Hodiac’s world is a riot, skewering the cartoonish, vapid logic and small, misogynistic egos of some of the most evil people in the universe.
Typical of an early writer, Hodiac swings big with its themes, everything from atheistic critique of religious fundamentalism to a climax I’ve seen fans already reading queer themes into. But it also shows an early writer’s lack of discipline, with a loose structure and plotting. Far too little happens until far too late, and many of the rich ideas never quite come together.
But then, that’s kinda what Big Finish’s Lost Stories are for. When you’re looking at a line that recreates outright 60s misogyny played for laughs in something like Prison in Space, you accept this isn’t just about the merits of storytelling, it’s about alternate history. Fans who are buying something like Mind of the Hodiac will probably want to see the rough draft bits, get the sense of a story that isn’t quite there yet from a genius still in the earliest steps of the making. And for the most part, as a production, Big Finish’s rendition delivers that itch. I have but two niggles on that front. The first of the two episodes, being adapted straight from a television script written by Davies, makes few concessions to audio, so there are moments when the action becomes less clear than ideal. The other is that the second episode consists entirely of original scripting by Scott Handcock based on Davies’ notes, and it tips its hand early by chucking in continuity references to new series Doctor Who mythos. The TV history geek in me wishes that instead of this adaptation, we could have just gotten a book published with the script and notes and left me to devour and dream. This isn’t the past as it was, but the past as Big Finish imagine it could have been.
But the truth is, I’m absolutely fine with that. Mind of the Hodiac isn’t a top shelf Russell T Davies Doctor Who, but an adaptation of a pale first draft of his ideas is still a glimpse into one of the most exciting talents the series has ever had. You’d better believe this is better than any script Colin Baker was given to do on TV, and his Doctor and Bonnie Langford’s Mel, despite some lovely wistful scenes together, don’t even get anywhere near the most exciting material going! Hearing Annette Badland spout off about science as the revelation of God before meeting her maker is worth the price of admission in of itself. If I sound ungrateful about this story, it’s not because it’s done much wrong. It’s just because we’ve seen so much more of what it can be since. This is a footnote from before the legend ever got started, told with the benefit of hindsight to make it seem so much bigger. But if you love what Russell T Davies has done with Doctor Who as much as I have, you’re still gonna have to take a step to the side to look at that footnote. How can you not? Go in with measured expectations, but still, you’ve just gotta go in. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
DOCTOR WHO – THE LOST STORIES: MIND OF THE HODIAC
Writers: Russell T. Davies, Scott Handcock
Director/Script Editor: Scott Handcock
Producer: Emily Cook
Senior Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
Duration: 141 minutes.
Released: 30 March 2022, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ ‘Doctor Who — The Lost Stories: Mind of the Hodiac’ is now available to own for just £14.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £12.99 (download only), exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ Kevin Burnard is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He can usually be found watching TV and tie-in media, tweeting about TV and tie-in media at @scribblesscript, or frequently, both simultaneously. Backflips are sometimes involved.
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