Tony Fyler flies again.
The first outing with the rocket men from Big Finish focused firmly on the character of Ian Chesterton, and in particular his asking of the question ‘When do you know?’ In Ian’s case, the question referred to Barbara, and when you know a person is indispensable to your happiness.
For the second rocket man story, still set firmly in the Hartnell era, it’s space pilot Steven Taylor who faces off against the flying pirates, this time personified in the heartless Van Cleef. Steven too asks ‘When do you know?’ as our way into the story, but the joy about Big Finish and in particular the Companion Chronicles range is that the company has worked tirelessly to add flesh to the characterization of companions who in the TV show were really only there for the purposes of complicating the plot. Ian Chesterton was given an emotional centre in The Rocket Men, and in The Return of the Rocket Men, Steven, one of the most chronically underwritten companions on TV, continues to develop a history and a skillset that make him much more believable than he ever was on screen. His asking ‘When do you know?’ is not about a question of romantic involvement, but about his own sense of personal maturity. He’s always been keen to be on the move, from home to the freighter service, to pilot school, to his period of mind-numbing imprisonment by the Mechanoids, to his travels with the Doctor – Steven has been a happy wanderer. But now, he begins to ask ‘When do you know it’s time to leave? To stay somewhere and make a life? To settle down?’
It’s a brave addition to the character’s previously unspoken life from writer Matt Fitton, and we get the sense that this adventure is very close to Steven’s involvement with The Savages, where he finally answers that question and settles down on a divided world that needs a figure to bring the people together.
The rocket man story thread in this adventure is rather less spacefaring derring-do than their first outing was, and rather more cleverly cyclical – Steven has run into the rocket men before, while working the freight routes, and he barely escaped with his life thanks to a bizarre event that he’s never quite understood. A miracle, if you like. Now as part of the time-travelling Tardis crew, he gets a whole new, sobering perspective on those events that helps him towards an answer to his question, without actually convincing him completely that the time is right to leave the Doctor behind.
The beauty of the Companion Chronicles format was that they laid most of the storytelling burden on the shoulders of whichever companion was featuring in the chronicle, meaning that both William Russell and Peter Purves got a chance to show off their William Hartnell impersonations. In this outing Purves shows versatility in bringing his Tardis companions to life, then sinks into the reminiscence of the story.
As with the original rocket men adventure, it’s Steven’s encounter with the rocket men that leads him both to contemplate the question that drives his character on, and helps deliver its answer. The writing here aims to advance the scope of the rocket men and personalize them rather more – Tim Treloar as Van Cleef is not a carbon copy of the first story’s rocket man leader, Ashman, with a more down-the-ranks feeling to the characterization, while maintaining a degree of cultural brutality that feels like a defining characteristic of what it takes to be a rocket man. There’s a great sense here too of the actual threat they embody to peaceful systems – while Ashman was a troublesome officer, we’re led to imagine a squadron of Van Cleefs and the damage they could do, which is a rather more visceral threat to the peace of mind.
There’s a sense in this story too that all the River Song time travel spoilers malarkey of New Who is not just something that’s been invented or come into force in later regenerations, but that travelling with the Doctor was always enough to endanger your own personal timelines and the state of your mental health, as Steven’s new take on the events which helped define him as a young man now helps define the older, cleverer but less enthusiastic man he will be going forward.
The sound design of this story is less whizz-bang 50s space serial than the original rocket men story’s was, but it still absolutely suits the kind of story being told, and this is the point – Fitton follows John Dorney’s original lead of making the spacefaring adventure secondary to the character journey in the rocket men stories.
Ultimately then, The Return of the Rocket Men takes the original rocket men story forward, while also delivering a different emotional and intellectual tone, fitted to the character of Steven. It’s a strong entry in the Companion Chronicles range, and one that earns its place in your Big Finish collection.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk