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Time Machine, The cover

I seem to be in something of a minority, at least among the Newvian community, in preferring by far the Matt Smith Doctor to that of the surprisingly feted and seemingly universally beloved David Tennant version.

Smith’s impatient, often addled mad scientist and genius professor, marked by brevity and speed of (oft fragmented) conversation and rapid fire leaps of logic from one tangenitally related topic to the next, speaks equal portions Jon Pertwee (in the impatience, frustration with others’ slowness to catch up and decided assuredness at having all the answers at the tip of his fingers), Tom Baker (in the manic insanity and generally comic brusqueness) and even Pat Troughton (in his general goofiness and poor dress sense, serving to set opponents at a misleading ease). 

One could even make an argument for a bit of Hartnell, in his obvious “old man-ness” (which is played quite amusingly against his obvious comparative youth).  His uniform of tacky seersucker and mohair jacket, messy hair and generations-outdated bowtie and vest provides a visual shortcut to his dotty professorial nature and his apparent natural demeanor defuses much of the nastiness of both Pertwee and Baker’s takes, retaining more than a bit of the gentleness of the Tennant version (which bore lineage to Davison, who took his cues from Hartnell) along the way. 

Why he is routinely disparaged among the community as the “hipster Who” remains beyond comprehension, in fact coming off more as the grousing of spoiled children lamenting the departure of their favorite son than any merits or lack thereof of the man and iteration of the Doctor himself.

Now let’s back up a bit, because there are two stories under discussion herein.  Let’s chat.

After numerous surprises in the Companion Chronicles (and the related Destiny of the Doctor) lines of late, this month’s releases find things returning to more of where I recalled them being from the early days. 

While still featuring and focusing on a given Doctor as filtered through the voice and viewpoint of an associated companion of their era, recollections of the first season or so (from which the bulk of my own experience dates) kept the end result less in the realm of fully acted audio drama and more to the standard audiobook recitation so ubiquitous since the dawn of the medium, back in those hoary days where the cassette was still king.

Certainly, most of the Companion Chronicles (and all of the Destiny of the Doctor) series did revolve mainly around the companion du jour acting multiple roles with some support and seldom an appearance from the actual Doctor under discussion (Peri and the Piscon Paradox being one of the rare exceptions to this rule).  

But even so, most of the stories were written and performed in such a way that, if the actor or actress in question were up to the task, a forgiving listener could easily give in to the illusion of a more fully staffed affair and even get a few knowing laughs along the way courtesy of their familiar takes and impressions of their Doctor (Maureen O’Brien’s recent take on Hartnell being a particular standout in this respect).

Well…not so much this month.

First and most to my surprise, we get the final Destiny of the Doctor offering, The Time Machine.  Rumored to have been in limbo due to certain difficulties in relation to financial concerns at co-production partner AudioGo, it was therefore a bit eyebrow raising and welcome to get a take on the likeably mad Matt Smith iteration of the Doctor by the cute and sassy Clara (Jenna Coleman).

The story itself, by Matt Fitton (of the previously reviewed the Wrong Doctors and the Dark Planet) revolves around a Professor Chivers (Michael Cochrane) and his coldly logical assistant Alice Watson in their attempt to assemble a time machine. 

The Doctor arrives in time to stop their experiments and the menace of an insectoid race from the future (voiced by Big Finish head honcho Nick Briggs), and teach Alice a lesson about the importance of dreams and imagination along the way.  We even get a Bob Dylan reference to tag this one in to the whole 50th anniversary/1963 thing Big Finish has been working throughout the Who lines of late.

OK, so let’s get down to brass tacks.  There are two main issues with this one, that mark it as quite different from its predecessor last month.

First, the companion in question (i.e. Clara Oswald herself) is in no way present here, despite the actress behind the character handling narration duties. 

The second is in the performance itself. 

Where the better Companion Chronicles (and last month’s Destiny of the Doctor, which got me to discover a new respect towards a companion and era I heretofore had utterly dismissed) excel is in giving an actor or actress the spotlight and run of the floorboards and letting them strut their stuff. 

What I’ve been discovering of late after revisiting the line(s) in question is that many of these folks have proved even more talented, likeable and amusing than even a nigh-lifelong Whovian like myself had given them credit for. 

Now it has certainly become apparent from longstanding experience that the folks at Big Finish play no small part in the often radically revisionist approach to Who’s televised legacy in terms of quality scripting, direction, sound and music. 

That said, the fact remains that without the actor or actress themselves stepping up to the plate and delivering, we have little if anything to celebrate – or in other words, all the stage setting in the world can’t save a middling performance.

While Coleman does show some decided familiarity with the mannerisms and nature of her Doctor, one never gets the impression of any acting taking place.  Not in the positive sense of a subtle take on a role, where one “doesn’t even know they’re acting”, but in the sense that it feels like an hourlong recitation from Clara’s diary.

There’s little variation, outside a hint of additional speed and a dash of inflection, between Coleman’s omniscient narrator voice and her take on Smith’s Doctor, with only the rarest alterations between her natural delivery and her performance as Alice. 

While Coleman has a pleasant vocal rhythm and tonality, making this all too forgivable, the fact remains that her recitation of The Time Machine pulls matters well back into the realm of the standard audiobook reading, far from where at least more recent Companion Chronicles (and Destiny of the Doctor) offerings seemed to be taking things.

Not terrible, just nothing to get excited about.  With the absence of her likeable Clara and concentration on random one-off characters in its place, not to mention its New Who-appropriate “power of myth” fairy tale approach to the material, The Time Machine becomes more of a treat for Jenna Coleman fans (and arguably those of Matt Smith as well) only.

Beginning, The cover

Along similar lines comes this month’s Companion Chronicles offering The Beginning, which revolves around The Doctor’s granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford).  The effective idea behind Marc Platt’s story is to provide a bit of backstory from the Hartnell Doctor’s effective theft of the outmoded Type 40 Tardis to the first televised episode in November of 1963.  Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

While Platt is a veteran of both televised Who (the interesting if somewhat confusedly muddled McCoy era Ghost Light) and Big Finish (the early Davison/Turlough tale Loups-Garoux, Eighth Doctor Adventure Skull of Sobek and “full Tardis” standouts Cradle of the Snake and Butcher of Brisbane) and the story features direction by Bernice Summerfield and Ellie Higson herself, Lisa Bowerman (herself a longstanding director with the excellent Jago & Litefoot line), the adventure itself proves somewhat lacking.

First and most glaring is the fact that we never actually get the backstory the tale would seem to promise!  We kick into high gear mid-narrative, with the Doctor and Susan on the run and being shot at (!), before just wandering right into the Tardis and taking off. 

Wait a minute…hold on a second…that’s it? 

So…what’s the point of this story?  Shouldn’t it have just been advertised as another Companion Chronicles story, albeit one taking place immediately prior to the introduction of Ian and Barbara and the materialization at Totter’s Lane?  Given the lack of an effective opening chapter, this would hardly seem to be “the beginning”…more like an “early middle”, or a “fits in the cracks”.  Misleading advertising, that…

Secondly, we have the chronologically earliest of companions on hand, none other than Susan (Carole Ann Ford).  For those whose last acquaintance with the lady took place in the televised Dalek Invasion of Earth from 1964 (or perhaps her brief appearance in the busy 20th anniversary special the Five Doctors), there’s something that should be noted.

Much like the late Sarah Jane Smith (Liz Sladen), Ford comes to us with a posh, high pitched and quavering RADA-esque accent and intonation.  While this was quite common for the era, for listeners raised in the post-80’s revolution that gave us regional accents from Ace to Jackie Tyler to Gwen Cooper, this can easily come off as being a tad affected (however true or false the assessment may be).

That noted, at least she doesn’t punctuate phrases with a piercing squeak like someone was goosing her at the end of each line like Sarah Jane was prone to…

Ford also has a somewhat unusual take on the Hartnell Doctor, which seems a bit crazed and even elicited an audible giggle or two in its sheer bizarreness.  Not everyone’s a keen impressionist, admittedly, but it does come off a bit strident.

In any case, there’s a third party aboard the newly acquired Tardis, played by none other than Terry Molloy (the John Nathan Turner era Davros, albeit here under quite a different role), which leads to the duo’s first adventure in time and space (and thus presumably justifying the intent with which Platt titled this as “the Beginning”, however incomplete the resulting tale may be in any true respect of the term).

Regardless, regular readers of Third Eye are doubtless all too aware of the general affection felt towards the folks at Big Finish and their efforts as a whole, with the great majority of their productions proving not only equal to, but in fact better than any number of their televised progenitors in Classic Who. 

Naturally, we all came in through those and there are stories, writers and producers whose runs may never be paralleled.  But the fact remains that it was not the aired serials of the JNT era that brought me around to appreciation, much less love, of the Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy takes on the Doctor, to say nothing of the odd American coproduction that served as the sole appearance of Paul McGann Doctor in the classic era, nor the Hartnell era before them – this all came entirely due to Big Finish productions and bled backwards.

As such, it’s hard to point at releases that fall short of such an admittedly lofty watermark and attribute whatever measure of insufficiency thereto.  It’s much akin to comparing gold to emeralds to diamonds – one is clearly worth more on the common market, but is any of them worthless?  And what of those who prefer one stone or metal to the other for purely aesthetic or personal reasons? 

That noted, taken purely on the level of the last few Companion Chronicles and Destiny of the Doctors reviewed, both The Time Machine and The Beginning cannot help but come up wanting – respectable and passably interesting to be sure, but nothing to write home about either.