A daringly creative narrative format takes advantage of Elliot Chapman’s vocal versatility and Anneke Wills’ lovable charisma to do something as unusual as Edge of Destruction or The Mind Robber. As with a lot of early Who, the technical limitations of the medium (in this case audio) are embraced head-on rather than plastered over. The result is a clever First Doctor era story rooted solidly in the Hartnell era that nevertheless links it— obliquely and unobtrusively— with the new.
Let me back up. Polly abruptly finds herself in a play within a play, where Shakespeare and 16th-century stage dressing become a matter of life and death. Her fellow performer seems to know what’s going on, but can she trust him? What’s happened to Ben and the Doctor? Where’s the village that they entered a short time ago? The only way Polly can find out is by acting out the story. But for whom?
“’Ere, where have you taken us now, Doctor? Middle of nowhere by the looks of it.”
“You sound just like Ben!”
“’Course I do, Duchess!”
Quite a lot of this audio is playful, funny, and slightly meta, giving Anneke Wills and Elliot Chapman a chance to indulge in Shakespearean overacting in a good cause. I’m once again impressed with how comfortably Chapman fits in with classic Who mainstays, as easily as Maggie Stables and Philip Olivier before him. Some of the Adventures in Time and Space actors are a little timid about throwing themselves into the shoes of their 60s predecessors, but Chapman dives in with all the bravado of the “real” Ben Jackson. It pays off handsomely in this.
And of course, Anneke Wills is there to keep the torch alive for Michael Craze and Bill Hartnell, adding her own warmth to Polly Wright’s pluck, compassion, and affection for the plainspoken sailor and the strange old man they’ve just begun to know.
If anyone has ever felt that the First Doctor’s exit was a little anticlimactic in The Tenth Planet compared to later regenerations, this audio and the lovely Short Trip Falling apply a subtle grace note of nobility to his departure. It’s quite a balancing act to tiptoe near such a critical and important moment in Who history without disrespecting William Hartnell or distorting continuity, but I think Guy Adams managed it. I hope this year’s Christmas special handles that moment with as much delicacy.
I highly recommend listening to this boxset (especially stories 3 & 4) and the Short Trip Falling between now and December. All three spotlight Ben, Polly, and the First Doctor shortly before his own regeneration.
Final note: I hadn’t listened to the trailer for the First Doctor CCs Volume 2, because boxset previews usually include minor spoilers. It does, but the spoilers are so enigmatic it probably doesn’t matter. If you don’t listen to that trailer beforehand, I recommend hearing it afterwards (it’s included at the end of Interviews). It serves as a prologue or prequel to The Plague of Dreams.
There’s a couple quotes I recognise, but I can’t place one of them. “Not today, thank you!” sounds very Davison to me. I’m certain of the Five Doctors quote, paraphrased: “I knew you were going to make this difficult, Doctor, but I didn’t think even you would be so [pig-headed] as to make it impossible!”
So I kept wondering if The Player was actually the Master, or a new Who character I missed seeing, or a Time War character I haven’t encountered yet. I think he’s new, but I wouldn’t be surprise if he pops up in one of the Time War series.
I’m not 100% comfortable with invoking the Time War in a First Doctor story arc, even obliquely, but this is a lot less overt and revisionist than (say) Clara telling him which TARDIS to steal. It’s no more intrusive than the Time Scoop in The Five Doctors or the Fifth Doctor’s extended hallucination as he’s dying in Circular Time. As with those tales, the payoff to this minor bit of timeline tinkering is that it provides space for a unique story one couldn’t justify otherwise. And it doesn’t diminish or sideline Hartnell’s Doctor at all; if anything, it respects him. So I give it a pass.