Review: Doctor Who The Early Adventures – An Ordinary Life

an_ordinary_life_cover_largeBlurb: 1950s London: newcomers arrive daily on British shores seeking a fresh start, new opportunities, or simply the chance of a different life. However, some are from much further afield than India or Jamaica…

After an emergency landing, the TARDIS crew must make the best of it, and look to their new neighbours for help. But the Newman family has more than the prejudices of the time to contend with. A sinister force grows in strength amid the pubs, docks and backstreets of London…

And without the Doctor, marooned in a time and place as alien as anything they’ve ever encountered, Steven and Sara may well face their greatest challenge yet. To live an ordinary life.

Review: The first season of The Early Adventures concludes with An Ordinary Life. As the final story of the season it features the latest “cast” of companions from the first Doctor’s era with Peter Purves and Jean Marsh reprising their roles as Steven Taylor and Sara Kingdom respectively. It’s an unusual pairing because they had so little screen time together and there is only one gap in the TV series where any audio stories could be set. The Companion Chronicles that Marsh had recorded were some of the most popular of the range, so it created a lot of positive buzz about this story prior to its coming out.

Producer David Richardson provided the initial nugget of a storyline idea. He wanted a story where the Doctor’s futuristic companions had to deal with the racism and living conditions of urban London in the 1950’s. The basic story idea works well, especially with these characters. Steven and Sara are both from a future time when skin color prejudice and national boundaries between humans just doesn’t exist. They’re disgusted by the way that the Newmans, a family who initially takes them in and assists them, are treated by others. There’s an ugly magnifying glass turned on society as even more subtle forms of racism are put on display. We’re told that one woman wouldn’t let the Newmans anywhere near, her not because she’s racist, but because the neighbors are. It’s a message that resonates just as much today as it would have fifty years ago. There’s also Steven and Sara’s struggle to fit in with a time that’s comparable to a modern listener being thrown back to the Middle Ages. They’re scared and feel alone. It gives them a chance to develop their characters as they contemplate staying in one place and one time. It also creates a little humor such as when Sara wonders what a draught ale will be like when they get to the final version. As long as the story stays in this area it remains on really firm ground and creates an engrossing story with an interesting situation.

The problem is that the story doesn’t stay there. The main plot is mostly relegated to the first two episodes. By episode three a science fiction element that remained mostly behind-the-scenes in the first two parts emerges. The plot feels intrusive because it basically halts the previous story and makes it somewhat irrelevant. If anything it seems like the writer was at a loss as to how to resolve things, so decided to throw in the science-fiction element to change the story into one that he could solve. This was then put in to fill time as well as to create an easy resolution. Episodes three and four tend to drag the overall story down because the science fiction plot isn’t very interesting or original. It seems almost like this is done intentionally so as not to overpower the main plot, yet it does this anyway by basically halting the discussion. It also runs counter to the theme of egalitarianism by presenting an alien race espousing the same desire to live an ordinary life that the Newmans do, but who are driven off. There’s a line made by the Doctor that “if a parasite doesn’t know that it’s a parasite, does it make it any less culpable?” While it’s applied to the aliens it could just as easily be applied to the Newmans or immigrants in general, which seems to ruin the entire thrust of the story in the first two episodes. The Hartnell era certainly had plenty of stories that were just about experiencing the life and struggles in a particular time and history and it’s unfortunate that the modern feeling that every Doctor Who story requires a science fiction element to work came in here. It really seems like an extra revision on this story to take out the science fiction element would have helped to make something poignant and somewhat unique in the history of Doctor Who.

Unfortunately, this story also falls prey to the same issue that plagued two of the previous Early Adventures. The Doctor is almost a non-presence in the story. He has a couple of lines in the first episode and then does not turn up again until the fourth. While this story probably has more of a reason to sideline the Doctor than any of the previous ones, it does make one wonder why Big Finish wants to do “full cast” first Doctor stories. While there are some definite stylistic advantages to the “full cast” approach, the constant sidelining of the Doctor makes them feel just like double-length stories in the old Companion Chronicles format. Peter Purves and William Russell have both proven themselves capable of doing remarkable performances as the first Doctor as well as narrating an entire play where they do all of the voices except one. It seems odd that Big Finish thinks that they would not be able to do just as well now that they only have to worry about performing as their respective companions and the Doctor only. Done occasionally, sidelining the Doctor can make for an interesting artistic choice to allow the companions to get more of a chance to shine. When it affects almost the entire season, it almost seems a misnomer to call it Doctor Who.

This story does allow some character development for the regulars and many of the guest cast feel like they’re fully fleshed out individuals. The story focuses on the struggles of Steven and Sara to fit in to this strange time. Steven is given the role of the calm, anchor while Sara wants to be useful. She busies herself on tasks such as helping to fix the Newman’s home and even tries to get a job. While the attempt at joining the police devolves a bit into petty comedy that makes Sara seem a little dim rather than the professional we’re usually shown, the overall impression of the strong woman chafing at a time when women were regarded as the weaker sex is well-realized. Her friendship and overall protectiveness of Audrey and her baby and what she’s able to say and not say about her own past also helps to round out Sara and show that she’s not completely the emotionless woman presented in the TV series. Writer, Mark Fitton, had already shown that he understood Steven’s character in Return of the Rocket Men. Here Steven is given to taking care of the practical matters and thinking through the logic of how to proceed. He’s shown to be kind and brave and uses his past experiences with the Doctor to inform his choices. For any fan of Steven, it’s a great story. There’s a little added between Sara and Steven that builds upon the ideas started in The Anachronauts but as in that story, it feels forced. It’s not clear whether it’s the characters or the actors but Jean Marsh and Peter Purves have absolutely zero chemistry between each other. It’s sad to say because they’re both in top form. Marsh in particular gives a better performance here than she has for the past several stories that she’s been in. However, if there’s any situation that would start a relationship between these two, it’s the shared experience of being marooned together in a time not their own, so at least this story makes better use of it than would normally be the case. This just needs to be a plot element that’s dropped from future stories with Steven and Sara.

Steven and Sara are taken in by Audrey and Michael Newman and Audrey’s uncle, Joseph Roberts. They’re immigrants from Jamaica who are just trying to live comfortable lives in England. Joseph is a war veteran who is able to live in England on a soldier’s pension and Ram John Holder does a fantastic job of bringing this man to life. He’s kindly but also world wise. He’s keen to help total strangers and keeps the local youth from harassing other immigrants in the neighborhood. Yet, when he’s the subject of harassment he turns the other cheek if he feels that it will keep the situation from escalating. Despite his age he’s full of energy and he’s the type of kindly uncle that anyone would want. Audrey Newman is a new mother who only just arrived in the country with her daughter being born on the boat. Sara Powell does a fine job conveying Audrey’s uncertainty about the country and her life and place in it, but also gives her a kindness and a manner with Sara that helps the two to really bond. Her accent seems to be a bit overdone in places, but otherwise it’s a good, solid performance. Her husband, Michael is played by Damian Lynch. Lynch does a fine job not only with the accent, but also in giving Michael an understated performance that hints at some trouble, but keeps it from being completely obvious. When Michael starts talking a bit more he gives him a sort of creepy tone that’s hard to point down and even gives him a laugh that sounds off and makes him feel like a very sinister personality. The whole effect is really well done and Lynch deserves some praise for pulling it off, since for most of the story Michael is an uninteresting, one-tone character. Stephen Crithlow rounds out the group playing Billy Flint and several other minor characters. He’s the common bully and he pulls it off capably although there’s nothing really remarkable about his performance either.

The sound design is something of a mixed bag. The sound effects themselves are nice. There’s a crying baby, Sara’s blaster going off, cooking sounds, crates being broken open, trucks driving, disintegrating creatures, and the squelching from walking in a damp and slimy environment. The story is full of a rich texture of sound effects that help fully realize the world. The music on the other hand tends to have very little variation and just alternates between a few pieces of canned music. There are some bongo drums seemingly to reference the Newmans’ origins but seem really out of place within the narrative as the story doesn’t revolve around their Jamaican culture. They’re trying to blend in and the presence of the bongo drums seems to run counter to that. Thankfully, the music isn’t overpowering and although there could be more variety it doesn’t really detract from the overall piece.

Recommendation: It’s really a mixed bag. There’s a wonderful message about the stupidity of bigotry that’s then undermined by the second half. There’s some nice characterization and character development for Steven and Sara that’s then undermined by Sara acting like an idiot and the Doctor being gone for about 70% of the story. The performances aside from a shoddy accent are solid and there are some nice production values. In the end, the good outweighs the bad, so I do recommend giving it a listen, but I hope that Big Finish learns from these mistakes to improve the next season of Early Adventures.



Audio Drama

Big Finish Productions

Directed by Ken Bentley

Produced by David Richardson

Written by Matt Fitton

Runtime Approx 120 min.

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