25/02/2011

Lost & Found by Oliver Wake

The first and second Doctor boxed sets are welcome additions to Big Finish’s Lost Stories range, after last year’s mixed bag of sixth Doctor offerings. Unlike some of the well-known missing stories, like the original season 23, Moris Farhi’s first Doctor tale Farewell, Great Macedon was unknown to fandom until Richard Bignell learned of it in 1999, leading to a fascinating DWM feature about the story in 2000 (issue 294) and the amateur publication of the script last year. On reading this script, I was struck by how well it could be adapted for an audio recording in the style of Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles series. So, I was delighted when it was announced that BF were doing so for their Lost Stories series.


Farhi’s story, written in 1964, has the TARDIS land in the hanging gardens of Babylon as Alexander the Great and his army camp on the outskirts of the city. Farhi had recently watched Marco Polo and takes his lead from John Lucarotti’s story, with a number of similarities being obvious. The TARDIS crew attach themselves to Alexander and his retinue, as they had with Marco Polo, and develop a close but sometimes antagonistic relationship with him. Assassination is also key to the lot, with a party of conspirators planning to wrestle control of Alexander’s empire by first killing his heirs, then Alexander himself. Ultimately, however, they are successful, and the story ends sadly, unlike Marco Polo.

True to the education remit of the show in its earliest days, the script teaches us plenty of history and some science too, with impromptu blood transfusions and iron lungs featuring, and the secret to walking on hot coals being explained after a gleeful demonstration by the Doctor (it’s all about sweaty feet apparently).

The story is narrated by Carole Ann Ford and William Russell. It was initially a surprise to find the narration delivered from the third person perspective – ie an objective viewpoint, rather than the narrators speaking in character, as in the Companion Chronicles. But those stories were written from the characters’ perspectives, whereas the television scripts obviously were not, and the number of sequences which feature neither Ian nor Susan, such as the scenes of the plotters plotting, must have made subjective narration impossible. Given this, Nigel Robinson, who has adapted the script for audio, does well.

Robinson’s skilful adaptation deletes certain anachronistic sections of the script, but leaves more substantial ones which are integral to the plot. For example, the script had Ian calling the Doctor “sir” and opened with the TARDIS crew learning ancient languages via a hypnosis machine, both of which are cut. Unusually, and in a reversal of The Aztecs, it’s Barbara who insists that they cannot interfere and change history by preventing Alexander’s death, while the Doctor advocates this. This reminds us that Farhi was writing while the very basics of the series were still being finalised. Surprisingly, Robinson hasn’t deleted the Doctor’s uncharacteristic and reverentially references to God and heaven when Susan hysterically wonders whether they have died and arrived in the afterlife. Whilst this could have been easily cut, coming right at the beginning of the drama it’s a charming way of signalling that what follows is not Doctor Who quite as we know it.

It was, however, perhaps a mistake to present the story at the full length of the original script, in six episodes. I would have preferred some shortening, with a two (rather than three) disc version seeming more appealing. At times the story does drag and there’s no reason not to excise the sequences with least audio potential given that it’s an adaptation for three voices rather than a full-cast dramatisation. John Dorney provides the third voice, playing Alexander. He does a fantastic job, perfectly conveying the character’s charm and keen intellect, but also his hot-headed temperament.

The ostensible reason for the story’s ultimate rejection by David Whitaker - that it revolves around a real historical figure, which was now out of favour following criticisms of inaccuracies in similar previous stories - seems spurious given that further such adventures would follow, including Whitaker’s own The Crusade, which itself has a flavour of Macedon about it. It’s a terrible shame, as with only modest editing this could have been a wonderful television story.

Farewell, Great Macedon is supported by the one-parter The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance. It’s a fascinating story, featuring the TARDIS travellers enjoying themselves on a paradise planet. It transpires that unrequited love results in death, but only after a local falls for Barbara. She only find out when it’s too late and, acting true to his character in early serials, the Doctor dematerialises the TARDIS rather than let her go back outside – and presumably risk her choosing to stay behind with him. I’ve likened it elsewhere to a po-faced Star Trek episode, and it really is the best comparison. How accurate it is to call this a “lost” story is debatable, as it was only ever a calling-card script written as an example by Farhi at Whitaker’s encouragement and was never intended for production.

Prison is Space, the main feature of the second Doctor set, is a very different kettle of fish, being Carry On Doctor Who in all but name. Dick Sharples’ script was written for season six but unmade for reasons that remain unclear – perhaps because it was more sitcom than drama, or just too damned kinky. In an attempt to write “a tongue-in-cheek look at the possible progression of ultra-feminism”, Sharples has the TARDIS arrives on an Earth in which women oppress the men. The Doctor and Jamie are imprisoned and Zoe is brainwashed into becoming a guard. Naturally, the Doctor leads a revolution and the women are put back “in their place”. The comedy is broad, with Jamie cross-dressing at one point and the villainous Chairman Babs falling for the Doctor and chasing him around at the conclusion in a reversal of the Benny Hill routine.

Despite ruling the world and oppressing men, the guards dress in figure-hugging black rubber uniforms with micro-skirts and thigh boots. After Zoe is brainwashed into becoming a guard, she is cured by Jamie putting her across his knee and spanking her. Whilst Jamie comes from a very sexist age it’s a shame to have the Doctor also acting chauvinistically, although in adapting the script Simon Guerrier has minimised this to a large extent. Nevertheless, this is Doctor Who at its most sexist and misogynistic. Aside from these horrid battle-of-the-sexes elements, Prison is Space is an otherwise unremarkable capture/escape runabout with a revolution against an oppressor.

Apart from the Doctor and Jamie, the only male characters of any note are Albert and Les – hardly the most inspiring names for revolutionaries but this fits with Sharples’s naming conventions, painting up the absurdity of the situation with the humdrum names. On the female side, other than Chairman Babs there’s Captain Mavis, Sergeant Alice, Corporal Cynthia and Sisters Nora and Minnie, amongst others. Quite why the title ‘Chairman’ was chosen, despite the rejection of all things male, is unclear. Perhaps this was an oversight by Sharples, or another deliberate absurdity in an absurd story.

Running to four episodes, rather than Macedon’s six, Prison is Space does at least have brevity on its side and is very entertaining in places. It’s nice to have Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hines back together for a whole adventure and Hines’s Troughton impersonation is excellent, making for some effective scenes between the three TARDIS travellers.

Doctor Who was struggling in its sixth season and was at risk of cancellation. With it’s overt kinkiness, fanboys (well, some of them…) may regret that this story was left unmade, but it could only have hastened the show in the direction of cancellation. Season six may have ended up with some lacklustre tales, but we should be thankful that it didn’t include Prison in Space.

The story is accompanied by an audio version of Terry Nation’s pilot script for a US Dalek series, featuring Sara Kingdom. It’s narrated by Jean Marsh who at times seems so unimpressed with the script that she might as well be reading a telephone directory. She’s right to be less than enamoured. If you’ve ever read Nation’s earliest Dalek annual stories, with android Mark Seven and chums from the Special Space Security forces James Bonding away against the Daleks, you’ll know what to expect. The whole things is a bunch of hackneyed adventure-story clichés and boasts some terrible dialogue. To be fair, adaptors Nick Briggs and John Dorney should share the blame for rendering into narration huge wodges of stage directions and description which the listener could well do without.

Perhaps it could have worked on television, with impressive special effects, a larger-than-life production and plenty of colour and action, following the formula of the Dalek films. But I suspect not. It certainly doesn’t work as an audio play and its production as one was a poor bit of judgement by Big Finish. Optimistic, shall we say? It also hardly fits a second Doctor-themed set, with the link being apparently that it hails from around Troughton’s time as the Doctor. It’s a shame something else more relevant couldn’t have been found to round out the set.

So, Big Finish have made two effective productions based on scripts of wildly different qualities. The supporting episodes are less impressive, but the Farhi one does at least give us more season one material, which is welcome. I’ve given the two boxed sets slightly uneven coverage in this article, which can be taken as an indicative of the attention I think they warrant. If you can only afford one of the sets, go for the first Doctor one, you won’t regret it.


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