Doctor Who – The First Doctor Adventures Volume 5 (Big Finish Review)

A return to the First Doctor Adventures also means the return of the beloved David Bradley, perhaps now able to play the First Doctor in his sleep. Since portraying Doctor Who actor William Hartnell in 2013’s An Adventure in Time and Space, he’s reprised the role of the First Doctor in two TV episodes, and will soon appear in the live production Time Fracture.

But it’s in four volumes of Big Finish adventures where Bradley has really had the opportunity to spread his wings. Even if his trademark gravelly voice has never been a perfect fit to replace the mellifluous, singsong tones of Hartnell, he captures something more important: the Doctor’s wit, imperiousness, and occasional glimmer of affection for humankind. It’s Bradley’s conjuring of the spirit of the First Doctor, rather than a mere vocal impersonation, that makes each of his Big Finish adventures such a delight. 

In this latest volume, The First Doctor’s iconic theme music welcomes us like a warm, electronic bath, taking us back to the early sixties. The first of two adventures, For the Glory of Urthkicks off as the Doctor makes another precarious landing after a few mechanical problems. Immediately, things aren’t looking good for he and his companions – Ian (Jamie Glover), Barbara (Jemma Powell) and his granddaughter Susan (Claudia Grant). Their destination seems to be some kind of parallel Earth: an authoritarian, Big Brother-like dystopia with a zeal for capital punishment. Susan heads off looking for the source of a terrifying scream, and the rest of the team split up to find her. 

“Besides, I don’t hear a single one of you congratulating me for landing somewhere circumspect”

We learn that Urth, as the locals have it (“It would seem their spelling has become as barbaric as their politics”) is also violently xenophobic, with “Aliens Out” signs on the necks of bodies discovered by the Doctor and Barbara – and proof of genetic purity required by each citizen. 

The power on Urth, the Doctor soon discovers, rests with a small ‘family’ council: Daddy Dominus (Clive Wood), Mummy Martial (Amanda Hurwitz), Sissy Cruciatu (Susie Emmett) and Bruddle Medicus (Phil Mulryne). They’re all as vividly nasty as their Mad Max-inspired names suggest: Daddy Dominus, whose brainwashing propaganda and proclamations to his people alternately inspire love and fear, is a truly memorable villain. We learn that the family are also trying to deal with a deadly pandemic: recorded pre-COVID, For the Glory of Urth nonetheless hits very close to home. 

The Doctor isn’t alone in trying to overthrow the family. In a jail cell, he meets another prisoner, Brooskin (Phyllidda Nash), an amorphous blob-like alien who is technically a gestalt species – one of several Brooskins. Of course that isn’t their real name, Brooskin points out, “You humans would need a second throat to pronounce my actual name.” Nash’s sensitive performance as Brooskin is a real highlight here: their relationship with the Doctor is touching and well-observed. They’re intellectual peers, as well as alien outsiders.

“The only thing I deserve is a violent death and a well earned rest”

Writer Guy Adams perfectly captures the First Doctor’s cryptic, circular conversation style, as well as his rigid focus on logic and deduction as a means of interpreting the world around him. The script zeroes in on what makes him a unique character, distinct from his later incarnations. Adams’ zeal for delicious dialogue is also evident: lines like “a paradise hanging in the filthy firmament” are flashes of poetry.  The quest to find out true nature of Urth and their quest for genetic purity leads to a final confrontation between the Doctor and Daddy Dominus, while also giving us plenty of time with Susan, Barbara and Ian: Grant, Powell and Glover’s takes on the original characters are still remarkable to hear.

For The Glory of Urth is a perfectly good adventure, which arguably could have been paired with any Doctor: the story certainly revisits a number of Doctor Who tropes we’ve seen and heard before, including a dystopian future Earth, resource wars and alien xenophobia. But Adams brings enough original ideas and mordant humour to the table to make this worth a listen – and as always, it’s the joy of seeing a particular Doctor and his friends dropped into each set of circumstances which provides the novelty. 

The Hollow Crown, meanwhile, seems to consciously borrow from the best of the First Doctor’s era: like The Aztecs, Marco Polo or The Gunfighters, we’re taken to a historical setting which largely keeps the science fiction elements offstage. Here, the team arrives at a pivotal moment in history: Elizabethan England, with revolution in the air. 

We join the story as Susan finds a literal bug in the TARDIS, and an error in the Doctor’s calculations leads them astray, again. They arrive on the outskirts of London, finding an inauspicious gravestone – that of Hamnet Shakespeare. They’re nearly beaten up in a riot, and quickly find that the TARDIS has been confiscated. From there, they’re picked up by Shakespeare himself – interpreted by Nicholas Asbury as a harried family man rather than the roguish wit of other depictions. 

We meet Shakespeare’s other son, Jude, an agitator for political change who accuses his father of pandering to the Queen. Jude quickly tries to enlist Susan and the rest of the team in a plot to have the Globe’s players perform Richard II: featuring a provocative scene where the monarch abdicates. Yes, the play’s the thing – the Earl of Essex and his sister, Lady Rich, are hoping that the scene will incite the spectators to rise up against the Queen, who has supposedly deserted her responsibilities. 

A high-stakes battle for England’s destiny follows, filled with references to the Shakespeare canon: one character is revealed to have more than a little in common with Lady Macbeth, male drag plays an important part, and one of the cast even plays a dual role (Ian Conningham as both the Earl of Essex and Lord Cecil, his rival for the throne). But that intertextuality extends to the history of Doctor Who, too: writer Sarah Grochala’s script acknowledges both The Shakespeare Code and The Day of the Doctor from New Doctor Who, in ways which actually impact the narrative to an extent. It’s an exciting bit of storytelling. 

Barbara in particular gets a few good moments in this story. Being a history teacher, she’s all in favour of maintaining the status quo, leading her to butt heads with strong-willed Susan. The First Doctor’s era often focused on the moral quandary of meddling with the past: reviving that framework gives the narrative a surprising urgency. 

There’s more of a sense of space here than For the Glory of Urth: writer Sarah Grochala lovingly details the sights and smells of London at the time (the hygiene habits of Elizabethan London are called into question), taking us from Whitehall Palace to the Globe Theatre, where a fanfare announces each performance. Listeners won’t have to work hard to determine what’s happening at any given time. It all leads to a climactic final act in which Shakespeare and the Doctor are both locked up in the Tower of London, and the TARDIS team are forced to attempt a breakout. Meanwhile, Susan meets a mysterious figure who’s pivotal to the narrative. After that, we’re swiftly on to an excellent cliff-hanger, setting up the next instalment in this particularly enjoyable series. 

“I can see I’ll get no peace at all unless I capitulate to your demands”

For any Doctor Who fan with even a passing familiarity of where it all began, The First Doctor Adventures Volume 5 is a worthwhile investment: a chance to dive back into the good old days, made with love and affection by fans so many decades later. 

Doctor Who – The First Doctor Adventures Volume 5 was released in April 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until the 30th June 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Extras

As usual, each of the stories is paired with a short music suite highlighting the original compositions. Howard Carter’s tunes for The Hollow Crown employ period-appropriate instruments (do I hear a lute?), shifting gears to match the dramatic and sombre tone of the latter part of the adventure. For the Glory of Urth captures the creeping menace of Urth with waves of minor-key synths, and adds brass and drum rolls to illustrate the militaristic pomp of its ruling class. It’s a great showcase for one of the more prolific composers in the Big Finish stable.

Interviews with the cast and crew follow each story, too. The star David Bradley remarks that For the Glory of Urth is “a wonderful, wacky, weird story” and compares its tone to the esoteric work of Guillermo Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh. Of The Hollow Crown, Bradley notes that he mentioned at a convention that, given the power of time travel, he’d love to see a performance at the Globe Theatre. This seems to be the next best thing. 

We hear from all of the voice actors involved, but it’s particularly enjoyable to hear from some of the supporting cast and their particular relationships to the material. Phil Mulryne, who plays Bruddle in Urth, talks about how he started as a voice actor for Big Finish, progressed to writing for various series, but now finds himself back in the recording studio. We also learn that Sarah Grochala, writer of The Hollow Crown, is actually a theatre academic! She humbly claims that she’s not an expert on William Shakespeare, but it puts a new spin on her vividly realised work here. 

Synopsis

5.1  For the Glory of Urth by Guy Adams

The TARDIS has barely landed in an alien sewer when a distant scream sends Susan racing to give aid, and the crew split up.
Trying to reunite, the travellers find themselves in something resembling a monastery led by a man half-way between an Abbot and a warlord. They discover that they are in Urth, a barbaric place clinging on to its former glory.
It’s somewhere its populace are never allowed to leave, somewhere keeping many secrets from its people.
And today those secrets will be revealed…

5.2 The Hollow Crown by Sarah Grochala

When the TARDIS lands in Shoreditch, 1601, the Doctor suggests going to see a play at the Globe Theatre and his friends readily agree.
But this is a turbulent time. There is violence in the street, plots against the Queen, and rebellion is in the air. At the centre of it all stands the most famous playwright in British history – William Shakespeare – who is having troubles of his own.
As tensions mount and wheels turn within wheels, the travellers are about to discover if the play really is the thing…

Cast

David Bradley (The Doctor)
Claudia Grant (Susan)
Jemma Powell (Barbara Wright)
Jamie Glover (Ian Chesterton)
Nicholas Asbury (William Shakespeare)
Liane-Rose Bunce (Lady Penelope Rich / Hawker)
Ian Conningham (Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex / Lord Cecil)
Lauren Cornelius (Judith Shakespeare)
Wendy Craig (Queen Elizabeth I)
Susie Emmett (Sissy Cruciatu)
Amanda Hurwitz (Mummy Martial / Computer Voice)
Phil Mulryne (Bruddle Medicus / Guard 2)
Phyllida Nash (Brooskin)
Clive Wood (Daddy Dominus / Clubwell / Guard 1)

Credits

Written by Guy Adams, Sarah Grochala
Cover Art by Tom Webster
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Music by Howard Carter
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor John Dorney
Sound Design Howard Carter

Suggested Listening

Doctor Who: The First Doctor Adventures Volume 04
Susan’s War
The Marian Conspiracy

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