Review: Doctor Who the Companion Chronicles – The First Wave

Blurb: Caught in the inevitable path of its own history, the TARDIS arrives on the planetoid Grace Alone, where the Doctor, Steven and Oliver expect to face their fate. What they don’t expect to find is a massacred crew – and a race of alien invaders known as the Vardans.

When the Doctor is apparently killed, his companions attempt to survive against the odds. But those odds are narrowing. Their borrowed time has expired.

Review: Of all the eras of Doctor Who that Big Finish has explored; the mid-season 3 gap with either the Doctor, Sara and Steven or just the Doctor and Steven has been one of the most beloved. The series was going through a huge creative explosion at the time while producer John Wiles and script editor Donald Tosh tried to take the series in new directions and darken the tone of the series to a degree that wouldn’t be seen again until Tom Baker played the title role. There was a lot of drama and character development in the series at that time, but the unstable situation behind-the-scenes meant that it wasn’t always capitalized on screen. It’s fertile ground that writer Simon Guerrier wanted to take advantage of first with The Sara Kingdom Trilogy and later with The Oliver Harper Trilogy. The first installment of the trilogy established Oliver’s character while the second explained his secret and forged a deep friendship between himself and Steven. The ground was set for the final installment of the arc as the TARDIS crew go in search of answers to why they have the criminal records that they saw in the future.

One of the really nice things about this story is that it takes an old Doctor Who creation and makes it interesting again. The Vardans are one of those creatures from the original series that most fans would prefer to leave forgotten. Poorly written and horribly realized onscreen, the Vardans come off as incredibly uninteresting in The Invasion of Time. Guerrier was wise enough to see their potential on audio, and they’re realized really well in the story. The crackling sound evokes images of sparkling energy rather than the shaking, translucent tinfoil of the TV series. Guerrier plays a little fast and loose with their capabilities (the versions on TV were not naturally composed of pure energy), but there’s certainly no question that making them into immortal beings that can travel down any wavelength at the speed of thought makes them far more intimidating. It’s also nice how he ties their invasion to the fact that humanity has been sending signals into space since the late 19th century and that eventually some race would interpret them and follow them back to Earth. The science of it gives the story that 60’s educational aspect that was such a part of early Doctor Who and helps set the anticipation for the story to come.

The sad part is that the promised story never really comes. The listener is treated to a string of bait and switch story tactics in favor of retreads of the previous stories, poor continuity, delaying tactics, and some tenuous ties to other stories. Some parts are nice; Guerrier shines as ever when dealing with character. Steven’s insight into the traitorous guard is one of those moments. He empathizes with a man who’s been ground down by the monotony of his life and would sell out the human race just for a chance to do something different. It’s a powerful moment, and it’s handled effectively.

Yet, there’s so much more in this story that just doesn’t work. After being promised a story about the Doctor, Steven, and Oliver getting captured in the middle of an adventure, the whole thing is short-circuited by the Doctor putting fake data in the records, so that they’ll discover it in the future. It doesn’t help that The Doctor also steers the TARDIS directly to the location that they need to be, something that the first Doctor could never do and a completely unnecessary act since format of The Companion Chronicles means that the story could easily skip forwards in time through narration. Then, there’s the promise of the Vardan invasion of The Earth Empire. The idea of a future society where electronics are even more integrated into daily life than they are today attacked by aliens that can move via any form of electricity is a fascinating concept and one that would have been fascinating to explore. Instead, it’s completely ignored in favor of the Vardans wanting to get into the TARDIS, apparently just because they want to take over Gallifrey in The Invasion of Time. Unfortunately, it’s a far less interesting story and again an unnecessary one. Because it’s so spartan in its potential it forces Guerrier to have Steven and Oliver run back and forth between two locations in a way that may evoke some aspects of the original series, but certainly isn’t helpful on audio. It gives Steven and Oliver more time to talk, but even there it’s a retread of so many of their conversations in the rest of the trilogy. Steven is fatalistic and believes it’s only a matter of time before this life kills them all. Spunky Oliver is having none of it and rallies his friend to have hope. There’s even a moment when the two have almost the exact same conversation under the exact same circumstance that they did ten minutes before in the story, only with the roles reversed. It’s simple padding, and it’s unfortunate that the end of this trilogy seems to be so full of it instead of living up to the potential that the characters give it.

There isn’t much that can be said about the ending without giving it away, but it feels forced. It relies on The Doctor acting out of character just so that Oliver’s bravery can be highlighted. It feels like so much of this story tries to elevate Oliver as if it were necessary to make him a “true” companion as beloved as any of the ones on TV but without giving any substance as to why that’s the case. The final moment between Oliver and the Doctor is particularly forced, although thankfully it’s left a little ambiguous. It feels out of place because there are later stories where the Doctor never mentions Oliver again. If anything his role in this series should have been understated to explain why he’s apparently forgotten so quickly.

Thankfully, the quality of the performances does not disappoint. There’s just nothing left to say about Peter Purves. He’s fantastic as Steven. So many of the 60’s actors’ voices have noticeably aged and require a hefty suspension of disbelief to imagine them as their younger selves. Purves is one of the exceptions. His Steven sounds like he’s speaking from any TV series story that you can name. His Doctor continues to be fantastic as well. You can always tell that it isn’t William Hartnell, but the mannerisms are all there. Purves also puts in a wonderful performance as the narrator. The man has a gift for narrating in an exciting way. The introduction where he speaks about the signals traveling outwards into space is well written, but it wouldn’t necessarily be interesting to listen to. In lesser hands it may have been a chore. With Purves it puts you at the edge of your seat.

Tom Allen also puts in a fine performance as Oliver. It may be just because he’s had two outings already, but in this one Oliver comes across as slightly weak. He seems to lack a bit of the zest and forthrightness that he had in the first two stories until the very end. It could be a deliberate move to highlight his choice or it could just be Allen getting comfortable in the role and not needing to emphasize it as much. Either way it’s just a matter of degrees and it’s still very fun to listen to him.

Lisa Bowerman puts in a performance as well as leader of the Vardans. Bowerman has such a strong presence in The Companion Chronicles as one of the principle directors of the range. It’s nice for her to step out in front of the microphone every once in a while. While she does this quite often to deliver a line or two, it’s rare for her to get a part as large as she has in this one. Her Vardan give the feeling of chilly ruthlessness and along with the crackling sound effects help to elevate them above the silly monsters that they are in their origin.

The music and sounds are great as usual. There’s an exciting background tune to the pre-credits sequence that heightens the drama and increases the anticipation for the story to come. The final scenes are marked with a slow, somber tune that’s beautifully touching. The Vardans sound great and there are plenty of sounds of space station doors opening, space suits walking on dust, howling wind, screams, and steam hissing. One standout is the sound of a phone ringing, which is used to a remarkably emotional effect. If there’s one sound that stands out as awful, it’s the sound of typing on the keyboard, which sounds more like a child’s toy being used than anything that anyone would want to hear on a daily basis. Overall, though, the music and sound effects are as strong as they normally are from Big Finish.

Recommendation: After two strong outings The Oliver Harper Trilogy sputters out in its final chapter. It’s a paint-by-numbers that rehashes the previous two stories while avoiding the far more interesting stories promised by the concept. There are some fantastic ideas on display, and old series villains, The Vardans, are elevated to a major threat. That, combined with some fantastic performances and excellent production values, keep this story above average, but only just. I wouldn’t recommend listening to this unless you’ve listened to the other two stories in the arc.



Audio Drama

Big Finish Productions

Directed by Lisa Bowerman

Produced by David Richardson

Written by Simon Guerrier

Runtime Approx 60 min.

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