Strap on a pack and come play, says Tony Fyler.
The Rocket Men is one of those ideas that’s so obvious you wonder a) if it’s been done before, and b) whether it’s legal under copyright to do it at all. Men with rocket-packs have been a core figment of the collective science fiction imagination since at least the 50s, when the King of the Rocket Men serial thrilled Saturday morning cinemagoers of a certain youth and impressionability, in between Batman and Flash Gordon serials. Even as late as the 80s, The Rocketeer was able to reinvent the idea with an equally heroic slant. But it’s actually not an idea that’s ever taken mainstream on screen root in Doctor Who. When you realise that, it’s more than a little mystifying, but possibly BBC budgets and the idea of not being able to do the concept justice have played their parts.
Step forward Big Finish and the particular advantages of the audio medium. Especially in this case, the advantages of the Companion Chronicle format, which puts most of the heavy lifting work onto the shoulders of particular companion-actors, and allows them to mostly read and partly perform stories that add to the weight of adventures for their Doctors, without the necessity of having those Doctor-actors present.
Writer John Dorney immediately latches on to the idea that this is a Companion Chronicle first, and a rollicking space adventure second, by giving Ian Chesterton – very much the Companion whose Chronicle this is – a central question to explain to lead us into the action.
‘When do you know?’ he asks, William Russell doing a more than creditable job of stripping away some, if intentionally not all of the fifty years that separate him from the character as he was seen on screen. In Ian’s case, it’s a question from a man consciously looking back on his life, and the meaning of the question is fundamental to the life he’s lived – ‘When do you know?’ in this case translating as ‘When do you know that the person you’re with is the person you can’t be without?’
It’s a well written central idea from John Dorney – that Ian liked Barbara when they were teachers back at Coal Hill, but that through their adventures together, she grew to be the person on whom he depended, the person for whom, really, he kept going, kept fighting – to keep her safe and to see her smile once more.
It’s also a question that leads naturally into the storytelling in The Rocket Men, as Ian unfolds the moment for us when he realized the truth about his feelings. Holidaying on a floating city in the sky above the planet Jobis, the Tardis travelers are disturbed when the rocket men attack. It’s a gentle inversion of the usual role of rocket pack-enhanced men that here they are very definitely the villains, a marauding gang of space pirates with all the foibles and fallibility of humans, but the power of angels - the ability to launch attacks from space or from the sky. In particular, their leader Ashman, played by Gus Brown as the only other voice in the play, impresses with the sadistic, brutal culture that we assume in endemic in rocket man society – they take hostages and threaten all manner of jack-booted thuggery in order to get their way. It would be a spoiler to reveal the moment when Ian realizes how important his feelings for Barbara are to him, but suffice it to say that it’s a proper 50s serial cliffhanger moment, rather than a proper 60s Doctor Who cliffhanger moment.
The sound design and the pacing of this story are all tuned to deliver that Saturday morning serial feeling too – there’s plenty of breathless description, mid-air action, grunting fights between the hero and the villain and very little in the way of moral ambiguity – rocket men bad, boo hiss. Ian Chesterton, saviour of the floating city and part-time undercover rocket man, good, yay, woohoo. It would be a mistake to describe the storytelling as simple – there’s plenty going on, and Dorney’s canny decision to root the story in the companion’s dilemma first and the rocketeering action second means there’s plenty of emotional weight to the piece, but in terms of the moral landscape, The Rocket Men delivers a straightforward choice, as many Classic Who stories did. Ian’s lack of moral relativism, seen as early as The Dead Planet when convincing the Thals that some things were worth fighting for, is strongly embedded in the tone of this story. Some things, as Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor would later say, must be fought in Ian’s world. And if there’s fighting to do and no-one else to do it, then Ian will never shirk the responsibilities of defeating an aggressor. The Rocket Men, as much as it celebrates 50s adventure serials, and is rooted in Ian’s emotional core, is also a tribute to a kind of human being that may actually no longer exist – the kind who, when faced with the Second World War, did what was necessary because if they didn’t, they couldn’t look themselves in the eye. Ian of course would probably not have been of fighting age in WWII, but he would have been formed and informed by the example of those who were, and those who did what was necessary. The Rocket Men, as much as it’s a space adventure or a discovery of feelings he doesn’t openly acknowledge till they can’t be set aside, is Ian Chesterton’s War.
The multi-level writing in this play – the emotional heart, the whizz-bang action and pace, and the sense of doing what’s right no matter what the cost, is a compelling cocktail of ingredients. Russell’s narration and performance are always well prepared and period naturalistic, but they’ve rarely been better than they are in this release. And the combination of Dorney’s writing and Brown’s performance as Ashman establish the rocket men as the kind of enemy that you want to hear more from in future releases, a gang of leather-clad rocket-powered pirate punks it would be interesting to explore in more detail.
The Rocket Men is a release that’s definitely worth the relatively small price to pick up, where emotional depth and space adventure meet in mid-air.
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