Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: The Perpetual Bond/The Cold Equations/The First Wave

Jean Marsh is awesome. Did you know that? You should; it's a scientific fact. Anyway, a semi-recent thing in which she was awesome was a trilogy of Companion Chronicles audios written by Simon Guerrier, in which she played Sara Kingdom from that really long 60s Dalek story. I reviewed two of them for Unreality SF, which used to have a lot of tie-in reviewers and now has the very prolific Steve Mollmann. I'm not going to link to those reviews, because I'm sure they're pretty bad, unlike this review, which is going to be almost as awesome as Jean Marsh. Who is, by the way, not actually in the audios I'm going to be reviewing here. They are by Simon Guerrier, though, and they focus on another neglected companion of the first Doctor: Steven Taylor.

Indeed, the first of this trilogy picks up after Sara Kingdom's death at the end of "The Daleks' Master Plan," with Steven and the Doctor shocked and mournful in a way they never got to be onscreen. Classic Doctor Who was not very good at letting characters respond to trauma (one recalls Tegan saying "Auntie Vanessa" exactly once, and Nyssa looking a bit mournful for fifteen seconds after her planet blows up), so it's good that The Perpetual Bond, and indeed this whole trilogy, can make all the deaths from that epic battle with the Daleks feel like they meant something. It's not that these adventures are all doom and gloom, but there's a melancholy to them that would have been out of place in the action-serial goofiness of season three.

Steven and the Doctor land back in the 1960s, in Totter's Lane in fact, and, on their way to visit Ian and Barbara they get embroiled in an alien scheme involving the stock exchange. The storyline is not enormously interesting, to be honest; if you're in the Companion Chronicles for elaborate and surprising plots, you're going to be disappointed a good percentage of the time. Atmosphere and character are the high points of the range, and that's where The Perpetual Bond delivers. There's a nice 1960s men-of-business vibe to the setting, and Steven, who is from the far future, has a charmingly offbeat angle on all of it.

Then there's Oliver Harper, a young trader whose time as a companion is one of the thrulines for this trilogy. Tom Allen plays Oliver with a youthful charm that feels period-appropriate without descending into caricature, and makes for a nice contrast with the weary, battle-worn Doctor and Steven. Oliver has a secret that is not revealed in this story but is also not very difficult to guess if you think about the time period and the ways a modern drama might comment on it. It's not much more than a narrative question mark in this first story, anyway.

The Perpetual Bond by itself is a slightly above-average Companion Chronicle, not a patch on the Sara Kingdom stories. It's in the follow-up, The Cold Equations, that things really begin to cook... or freeze. Again, the plot is not the point. All you need to know is that there's a space station in Earth orbit in the far future, and that Oliver's first trip in the TARDIS takes a pretty grim turn. What's interesting about this story is the way it turns its predecessor on its head: again it's about aliens and their business dealings, but here we have Oliver providing a charming perspective on Steven's milieu, rather than the other way around. Steven's time as a fighter pilot is vital to how things develop here, using the character's origins and history in a way that didn't often happen for classic companions. The logistics of space travel matter here, which allows Steven to play the hero in a subtler fashion than he did onscreen.

The centerpiece of this story is a long conversation between Steven and Oliver aboard a chunk of the station that's rapidly losing oxygen. They think they're dying, and Steven convinces Oliver to reveal his secret. I have mixed feelings about this secret. It seems to have been done with good intentions but with little sense of how to make it fit into the main matter of the trilogy, which is disappointing given how well Steven's characterization is integrated. But this scene, taken in isolation, is perfect. Steven's reaction is not one he would have had in other circumstances, but it allows the script to avoid some obvious and over-earnest beats that might otherwise have been felt necessary and cut to the emotional truth. The sound design and the performances really sell the idea that these characters are dying, even though you know they're not.

The Cold Equations is probably the strongest link in the trilogy, but The First Wave comes pretty close. It's another space-based story with a largely inconsequential plot. I just listened to it last night, and I've already forgotten a lot of the details. It has Vardans in it, if you like those. What makes it brilliant is how it ties together a lot of the trilogy's themes, about mortality and the value of struggling onward rather than giving up or running away. Steven and Oliver think the Doctor is dead, and for once a misunderstanding like this isn't milked for cheap sentiment or dramatic irony. The cliffhanger to Part One does something very unusual in Doctor Who that slots right into the key themes. And the last scene of the story is a gorgeous emotional grace note that really sells a plot development that might otherwise feel rushed and less meaningful than it wants to be.

Someone once observed that characterization reached such a low point around season three of Doctor Who that the show seemed to hold the companions in outright contempt. Minimal personality, immediate abandonment of personal history, Dodo not getting a departure scene, that kind of thing. This trilogy goes a long way to correcting that by building stories around Steven's stated background and extrapolating an emotional arc from the serials he's in. Peter Purves does a great job of selling it all. The fact that he's much older than he was in 1966 lets him tap into the melancholy wisdom the character has taken on by the end of The First Wave. They also help him give a decent performance as the first Doctor. It's not an especially proficient impression on a technical level, but it's enormously entertaining, conveying a gleeful good nature that contrasts nicely with the devious scheming that the Doctor gets up to at a couple points in the trilogy.

What's hardest to capture about the success of these stories is how they fit together in a lot of small ways, in points of theme and tone and characterization that are all the more effective for not being hammered home. It feels elegant in a way that's a far cry from "The Daleks' Master Plan," which looks like the kind of sci-fi melodrama they would have torn apart on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Guerrier achieved the same thing with Sara Kingdom in his trilogy about her; he's clearly the go-to guy for building on the late Hartnell era. Which is why I'm looking forward to another trilogy of his Companion Chronicles, which also focused on Steven Taylor, using a frame story involving his life after the Doctor. I know just enough about how it plays out to be thoroughly tantalized. I'm sure there'll be a review here in a couple weeks, full of similar outsize praise for tie-in audio dramas. But seriously, if you both love 1960s Doctor Who and are aware of its limitations, you want to give these stories a listen.

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