Oh, this is a hidden gem! For the 40th anniversary, Big Finish offered several “road not taken” stories, asking “What if X had happened differently?” In this case, what if the Doctor and Susan had never left Gallifrey?
Have a trailer. (It’s better than this trailer seems to suggest.)
This drama contains meta about the nature of Doctor Who itself, concerning imagination and possibilities and stories, but it works as a regular story too. It also refuses to stick to one “what if,” cleverly embedding a story inside the story and offering alternate strands of the web of time. The Doctor travels with Hannibal crossing the Alps in a classic Who historical with a bit of whimsy. The Doctor is a reclusive hermit buried in the depths of the Capitol. The Doctor is Gallifrey’s most beloved author, a veritable J.R.R. Tolkien (why did I never notice the resemblance before?), his books scorned by snobs but loved by the masses. And Susan?
Dear Susan. She’s worth waiting for. It’s a great role for Carole Ann Ford. She comes sweeping in as if she never left Susan’s role, despite it being twenty years since The Five Doctors. This audio came out before the Companions Chronicles and Early Adventures, so classic Who fans must have found her return magical when they first heard this. Her entrance certainly pleased me.
“Do you know who I am?! I’m his granddaughter!”
There’s some clever echoes of the “real” timeline, but they’re unobtrusive rather than forced. The Doctor’s adventures feel like 1963 Who only a bit more whimsical, more like a children’s show. The presentation of Gallifrey is slightly askew (like Lungbarrow), not quite the Gallifrey of The War Games or Deadly Assassin or Arc, but luckily the audio doesn’t dwell too much on Platt’s fanon.
The only thing that didn’t quite work for me was the villain. He seems to have parachuted in from left field, imposing a fairly significant new twist on Gallifrey as a whole. Again, Marc Platt is not afraid to fiddle with Gallifrey, which works fine in an AU.
The dynamic between this alternate first Doctor and Susan is the warm relationship they had in the original series, yet there’s a fresh spin on it. It helps that Susan is older, a more confident and experienced person. It works because Carole Ann Ford is fantastic when given a meaty role to play, and because Geoffrey Bayldon captures Hartnell’s mannerisms— not quite his voice, the spirit of him— well enough to give her a good foil.
The story is a little muddled in spots, but the ending makes up for it. The final scene is a fantastic, magical, bittersweet celebration of 40 years of Doctor Who: what might have been, what was, and what’s still to come. It’s Doctor Who during the wilderness years, triumphantly refusing to be relegated to books and memories, insisting on possibilities yet to come.
“That’s not right!” The echo of Susan’s line from Unearthly Child 50 years ago made me grin.
And good heavens, Lady President Susan is a road not travelled that I can get behind. I’d vote for her! This story came out when Gallifrey was in the planning stages (I think?), and it’s fascinating to me to hear how differently but how convincingly both Carole Ann Ford and Lalla Ward assume the role.
The only problem is that I don’t entirely accept (or understand) the villain. But honestly, he’s irrelevant: it’s the Doctor as JRR Tolkien, and Susan as the gun-wielding, determined president-to-be who make most of the magic.
Also… talking elephants? There’s a certain Feast of Steven farcical element to this drama, slyly referenced with “Merry Othermas to all of you at home, too!”