Review: Doctor Who The Early Adventures – The Bounty of Ceres

the_bounty_of_ceres_cover_largeBlurb: Ceres. A tiny, unforgiving ball of ice and rock hanging between Mars and Jupiter. It’s no place to live, and it takes a special kind of person to work there.

The crew of the Cobalt Corporation mining base know exactly how deadly the world outside their complex is, but the danger isn’t just outside anymore. The systems they rely on to keep them safe are failing and the planet is breaking in.

When the TARDIS strands Steven, Vicki and the Doctor on the base, they have to fight a foe they can barely comprehend to survive.

Review:The Early Adventures were created to tell as near as possible to full cast stories with the first two Doctors. The first two adventures in the range following the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara with Susan and Vicki respectively. In those, William Russell reprized Ian as well as playing the part of the Doctor and Carole Ann Ford or Maureen O’Brien reprized their own roles as well as that of Barbara. The Bounty of Ceres, the third story in the series, follows The Doctor, Vicki, and Steven as they arrive on a mining installation on the dwarf planet Ceres. This TARDIS team only had three outings onscreen and while Big Finish had expanded that number with their Companion Chronicles range this still remains a grouping with untapped potential for storytelling. Author Ian Potter decided to take advantage of the fact that both companions come from the future to break from the usual 60’s format of historical or science fiction stories. Instead, he sets the story in the late 21st century, which is history for Steven and Vicki but is the future for the audience. The story is very accessible and even if no one has ever seen a TV story with the first Doctor, Steven, or Vicki and if they haven’t heard any of their Big Finish audio adventures it’s an easy story to pick up and listen to and completely understand everything that’s going on.

The story is very topical. The news is full of stories about the efforts of NASA and various private ventures to go into space. Both NASA and private corporations are looking to asteroids for resources. Studies are being done to assess the psychological effects of long term exposure to space. The near future setting for The Bounty of Ceres makes ample use of all of this. It is set in the future but one quite near to our own time, when space travel within the solar system is still somewhat novel. The technology is limited and communication is sporadic. There is no artificial gravity except in one portion of the base, which is designed to spin and simulate gravity so that the crew can exercise. The crew are on edge from the pressures of living one’s life knowing that there is nothing but vacuum outside of the walls, and that help is too far away to ever get there if you encounter trouble. Potter deftly interweaves the character story and the plot story in this story, constantly subverting the listener’s expectations at each step and creating a story that feels tense and claustrophobic as well as mysterious and compelling.

There are some traditional science-fiction tropes:  maintenance robots gone amok; a cryo-tube for freezing people; a computer that has gone rogue from malfunctioning; energy weapons that can be used to stun or kill. It all could feel very samey to a story from any other science fiction series. Yet Potter makes sure that these tropes are used in ways that go against the norm and he manages to keep things fresh. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any problems. One major portion of the plot revolves around a character suggesting something that he should know doesn’t make sense only to have him say much later in the story “you know this doesn’t make sense because…”. No explanation is given for why he suggested it in the first place and it seems odd for him to believe in something that he knew from the beginning couldn’t possibly be true. Other than that one basic flaw, though, the plot hangs together very well. Potter keeps things interesting enough that the one plot hole doesn’t drag down the rest of the story.

The cast is on fire this time. The longer story segments don’t seem to have hurt Peter Purves’ performance at all. He masterfully jumps between playing Steven, the Doctor, and the narrator of the story. He maintains a high energy throughout. The scene at the end where the Doctor confronts the menace behind everything feels so much like a scene from an actual episode of the TV series. Steven, meanwhile, is given a lot to do this time. He recognizes the technology and he’s kept busy explaining things for Vicki and the listener as well as playing the man of action and the sarcastic wit for the story. Maureen O’Brien, liberated from the Companion Chronicles and no longer having to play multiple roles, really comes into her own this time. She’s allowed to concentrate solely on Vicki and she does a fantastic job bringing the young orphan back to life. True to form, she starts trying to name the service robots as soon as she meets them and it’s a nice character touch that really helps to feel like it’s the same person from the television series. This is also the first time that Steven and Vicki have worked together in the same studio since their Doctor Who days in the 60’s and their chemistry is instantly obvious as the two play off of each other and have that wonderful banter from their few TV stories together.

The direction this time is spot on. Domain of the Voord suffered from an overuse of music and narration and The Doctor’s Tale seemed to have missed the tone. Veteran director Lisa Bowerman is used to smaller casts from having specialized with the Companion Chronicles, and the claustrophobic atmosphere of The Bounty of Ceres suits her well. The narration is kept to a minimum and only used for those scenes where something needs to be described that would be almost impossible to convey via sound only without narration. She also keeps the musical score far more authentic to the 60’s style. It not only sounds like something that might have been on Doctor Who in the 60’s but she also makes sure that it’s only used sparingly when it helps the scene. There’s no wall-to-wall music that drowns the tone by overpowering it. The guest cast is also very good. Julia Hill is sympathetic as base commander Qureshi who is only in space to help her family financially. Richard Hope conveys the stress and anxiety of being in space too long with Moreland. Peter Forbes’ somewhat calculating Thorne is tempered by a friendly and congenial attitude and a pleasant Scottish accent. Bowerman brings together all the elements of the production to make it an excellent example of how to make an audio story into an exciting and interesting adventure.

Recommendation: The Early Adventures have finally arrived. The Bounty of Ceres pays off on the promise of these being audio stories told “in black and white”. It’s an old fashioned Hartnell tale that any fan of 60’s Doctor Who will relish. Yet, it’s also easily accessible to new listeners and has twists and turns that make it unlike any Doctor Who story before it. The regulars are on fire and it’s wonderful to hear them recreate their iconic characters and Purves’ still gives chills every time he does his wonderful impression of Hartnell. I highly recommend it.



Audio Drama

Big Finish Productions

Directed by Lisa Bowerman

Produced by David Richardson

Written by Ian Potter

Runtime Approx 120 min.

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