'Doctor Who: The First Doctor Adventures Volume 2' Review
David Bradley returns as the First Doctor in a second set of adventures from Big Finish.
The end of 2017 saw the release of the first volume of The First Doctor Adventures, a set that reunited the members of the case who played the original TARDIS crew in the docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time. Perhaps aided by David Bradley having also just played the First Doctor on television via the Christmas special "Twice Upon A Time," the set was well-received. So it was no surprise that a second set soon followed in its footsteps, recorded at roughly the same time. How would this second set work out as it tried, once more, to recreate the feel of those ambitious early years of Doctor Who?
Like with Volume 1, the set opens with a science fiction tale. John Dorney's "The Invention of Death" sees the TARDIS effectively crash land on an alien world, inhabited by a species about as strange as one can imagine: Androgynous, amoeba-like humanoids who are seemingly immortal. That seeming immortality and its effect on the culture leads to some fascinating scenes and jaw-dropping cliffhangers across its four episodes. Dorney channels First Doctor stories from "The Web Planet" to "The Ark," stories whose ambitions often outran both the budget and sometimes the plot, in writing this opening story. Thankfully, being on audio and perhaps also because of having four episodes instead of six, he avoids the pitfalls of those TV stories. Instead, "The Invention of Death" is a gripping tale that finds space to tell a science fiction story while exploring some big ideas. It's everything the First Doctor era aspired to on TV realized magnificently, becoming perhaps the best Big Finish story of 2018 in the process.
Following the lineup of both the previous set, as well as the TV era it emulates, the second story is a historical one. "The Barbarians and the Samurai" sees the TARDIS crew traveling to early 19th century Japan, a time when that island nation had still isolated itself from the rest of the world, with foreigners forbidden on pain of death. Captured by Lord Mamoru and his mysterious Red Samurai, they find themselves caught up in the politics involving daimyos, the shogun, and samurai as nothing is quite what it seems. Andrew Smith's four-parter is a gripping historical thriller brought nicely to life by its cast of Asian actors who lend authenticity to a strong script. It's a story that fits the brief from those early years for stories that were both engaging and educational, nicely capturing the era while expanding upon it.
And for the cast? The TARDIS crew goes from strength to strength, keeping up the energy of the first set. Bradley's First Doctor wonderfully captures the ethos of Hartnell's performance without being a slavish, unmoving imitation. Indeed, it's easy to tempting to close one's eyes at times and picture him clutching his lapels or holding his hands in Hartnell fashion. Jemma Powell's Barbara Wright gets plenty to do across both stories, but especially shines in the second set where her historical knowledge helps place her front and center. Jamie Glover's Ian Chesterton still doesn't sound much like William Russell, but like with Bradley he nicely captures the spirit of the character and gets to shine as the series' original "action man." Last, but not least, is Claudia Grant as Susan who feels sidelined in the manner of the original TV character, but has some good moments, especially with Powell's Barbara or Susan Hingley's Keiko. As a way of honoring and continuing the era, all four do a solid job.
The performances are only one part of it. The sound design and music of Howard Carter is a big part of what makes this set so good. "The Invention of Death" sees him channeling the pioneering work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, creating a soundscape that sounds at once both retro and yet timeless as well. For the second tale, Carter channels the more down to Earth stories from the era, something no less impressive than his work on the previous story. Tasked with both recreating an era and bringing everything from alien crystals to samurai sword fights to listeners ears, Carter shows once more why he's one of Big Finish's most underrated figures.
In the final analysis, the second set of First Doctor Adventures is as much a triumph as the first. It proves that the first set was neither a fluke nor a one-hit wonder and that there is indeed more stories to tell with this new take on an old TARDIS crew. With a third volume set for release in summer 2019, the First Doctor seems set to have new adventures for a while yet.