'Doctor Who Unbound: A Storm Of Angels' Review
Geoffrey Bayldon's Unbound First Doctor returned in this 2005 audio drama from Big Finish.
Back in 2003, when the idea of Doctor Who coming back on television seemed unlikely, Big Finish engaged in a rather interesting experiment. They created a series of audio dramas "unbound" from the constraints of the show's regular continuity, asking "what if?" a fair number of scenarios had taken place. The first of which, penned by Marc Platt and titled Auld Mortality, explored what might have happened if the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan had never left Gallifrey. Then, in early 2005 just as New Who was getting ready to air, Big Finish returned to that Doctor and Susan with a sequel, one that took the tropes of the First Doctor era, and turned them on their head.
Auld Mortality was as much a celebration of Doctor Who as it was a "what if?" story, something I noted in my review of it, which might make a sequel to it all the odder given the ambiguous nature of its conclusion. Platt, returning to pen the sequel, uses that ambiguity as part of his starting point. If Auld Mortality asked the question of what might have happened if the Doctor never left Gallifrey, then A Storm of Angels asks what might happen if the Doctor changed history, even just one line. It's a premise the Unbound series had explored in a way with the victorious Valeyard in He Jests At Scars... but what Platt does goes above and beyond the continuity fest of that story.
Both on TV and in spin-off media subsequently, the early years of Doctor Who have been defined by two story archetypes: purely historical adventures, and high concept science fiction tales. Platt's story is equally high concept, almost Space: 1889 like in its notions of taking a moment of Britain's historical past, and extending it out into the stars. The Doctor and Susan get to meet historical figures such as Sir Francis Drake, John Dee, and Elizabeth I, and Platt works details about them into the plot (indeed, having watched a documentary on Drake and the Golden Hind before listening to the audio again gave me a whole new appreciation for how much he put into the story). What he does is take them well and truly beyond the sceptred isle of Britain, taking imperial ambitions and folly out into the stars. A Storm of Angels takes the tropes of the First Doctor era and mashes them together, creating something epic in scope that only the Unbound range could accomplish.
There's also a story to go along with that high concept. If Auld Mortality was about possibilities, A Storm of Angels is about consequences. What might happen if the First Doctor, let loose upon the universe after a long delay, wasn't the cautious traveler of the TV series, reluctant to get involved at times, but a willing participant in the altering of history? Platt goes further than that, using his world-building and meshing of tropes to make this version of the First Doctor confront something that New Series Doctors, in particular, have had to face: one's past catching up with you. Platt's imagery, and even use of characters echo much of what was to come in New Who from the titular angels to Elizabeth I, a conclusion that brings to mind the imagery of the Toclafane descending in "Sound of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords," and the references of things out of time along the lines of "The Wedding of River Song." Plus, Platt has returned to the Elizabethan era at Big Finish with stories such as The Flames of Cadiz for the Companion Chronicles range, and "The Devil's Armada" in the first Philip Hinchcliffe Presents box-set. In many ways, it's a story that was ahead of its time in 2005, something which has only become apparent in the fifteen years since its release.
Doctor Who's history though is full of well-written scripts that were, shall we say, less than well realized. Thankfully, this does not fall into that category. That's partly down to the performances starting with Geoffrey Bayldon's alternate First Doctor. Bayldon channeled Hartnell nicely in Auld Mortality, and, just a couple of years later, he's doing so again with a take on the character that captures Hartnell’s spirit while also bringing something else to the part. For all of the grandfatherly figure present, there's also that sense of unpredictable danger that was in those early Hartnell outings here as well. For all the friendliness that Bayldon's Doctor puts on, there's a man who is capable of being quite dark and ruthless should he need to be underneath.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Carole Ann Ford returns once again as Susan, and, like with Bayldon, her performance builds on the earlier tale to do new things with the character as she faces a new slew of situations, and even gets to be at the center of a couple of plot twists. Indeed, it might well be Ford's best performance as the Doctor's granddaughter. Beyond her is a slew of historical figures re-imagined from Cameron Stewart's swashbuckling Drake to Ivor Danvers’ Dee, and Kate Brown as Elizabeth I. Rounding out the cast are Ian Hallard as the Doctor's Time Lord pursuer, Shiv Grewal as Elizabeth's Indian secretary Mr. Raju, and Big Finish stalwart, Ian Brooker (who appeared as Surus in Auld Mortality) in a number of roles. Combined with the sound design and music score (which apparently delayed its release back in the day), the result is a well-written story superbly brought to life.
With hindsight, the Unbound range feels like one of the last great flourishings of the Wilderness Years. Once New Who came onto the scene, Cardiff would need to sign off on their output as the focus returned to family-friendly storytelling, and putting what was airing on TV at the forefront. A Storm of Angels is as select an example of that as I can think of, an overlooked gem even amongst one of the best series that Big Finish has ever produced.