“We are at the mercy of that bloodthirsty tyrant, Thomas Arundel. And he cannot be defeated…he is part of history. And we cannot change a thing.”
Arriving at the Bishop’s palace on the Thames, The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and young Vicki find themselves amidst a regicidal conspiracy…and very much on the losing side.
With both The Doctor and Barbara quickly running afoul of the fanatical Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel, they soon find themselves in the hands of Henry Plantagenet, the nigh-inquisitional persecutor of the Lollards, responsible for not only cousin (and former king) Richard’s death but a wave of immolation of suspected “heretics”…
“It’s not much of a shrine, is it? Just an old leg bone in a box. Honestly, some people will believe anything.”
In short order, the group splits into three factions and concurrent storylines, Vicki quickly bonding with deposed and plucky Frenchwoman Queen Isabella (here depicted with an incongrously quite British accent), the oft-ailing Doctor wandering off with Barbara and Ian siding and travelling with Isabella’s erstwhile defender Sir Robert and joining forces with none other than Geoffrey Chaucer himself in the rebellion.
But history shows Richard II is fated to die of starvation, imprisoned…
The Doctor and company would appear to be uncharacteristically powerless in this situation, trapped by the predestined web of recorded history…a foul situation indeed!
“…and The Doctor cracked a heavy chamberpot over his head.”
“But would she listen? No. She would rather hurl bedpans at my royal head.”
With an odd propensity towards backhanded toilet humor, author Marc Platt (Butcher of Brisbane, The Beginning, Ghosts of Gralstead) and director Ken Bentley (Daleks Among Us, 1963: the Assassination Games, Afterlife, Moonflesh, Tomb Ship, Masquerade, Revenge of the Swarm, Mask of Tragedy and Signs and Wonders…whew!) join forces to deliver a well-scripted, nicely fleshed out historical positively suffused with personality and a strong attention to characterization over any measure of ‘action’ proper.
In other words, while on one hand not a hell of a lot actually happens, it’s certainly one of the better Who historicals…
“Barbara sighed. If only they’d arrived ten years earlier. Under Richard, music and the arts were flowering, and Chaucer had been a favorite…but Henry’s reign was much grimmer, like going backwards.”
Bearing a strong cautionary undercurrent against the rise of conservatism and regressive thinking, the lessons of history are presented in a direct yet (should one choose to overlook same) inobtrusive fashion, with points being clearly made, but never hammered home in an overbearing manner. Being far less heavy handed than, say, The War to End All Wars, this leaves The Doctor’s Tale as comparatively subtle, and thus far less of a slog to listen to.
In fact, Isabella’s (relative) feminism and sheer force of will offset and complemented by a clear girlish coquettry if not likeablity leaves the story as a rare repeatable listen among the generally turgid lineage of historicals.
“The Doctor? And who might that be? I am the lord of misrule, who presides over these festivities!”
With my personal favorite First Doctor audio companions Maureen O’Brien and William Russell in tow and the lighter, more mischievous iteration of the Hartnell Doctor on hand, the listener is given one of the better of the non-science fiction oriented Early Adventures cum Companion Chronicles to date.
Russell once again delivers an uncanny impersonation of the most curmudgeonly of Doctors, O’Brien brings her now-standard eternally youthful pluckiness and verve and newcomer Alice Haig’s Queen Isabella is a sheer delight, with Gareth Armstrong and Joseph Kloska delivering the required bits of menace and political scheming the subject demands.
While it’s no secret that I bear no small measure of distaste for Who historicals as a rule, The Doctors Tale is certainly situated in the upper echelon of said subgenre, and given the strong emphasis on characterization and development on display herein, leaves this adventure far less likely to be shuffled off the iPod with the same measure of haste as similarly minded ventures to date.
For those who love the historicals, dig in without reservations. For those like myself who tend to crinkle the nose a bit at the intrinsic dustiness and weight of record implicit thereto, be assured that if curious enough to consider dipping a hesitant toe into these murky waters, you could do far worse than this particular Tale.
A comparative thumbs up.