Tony feels anything but forsaken.
How you define an ‘early adventure’ plays a role in your enjoyment of ‘The Early Adventures’ from Big Finish. The company previously had a broader temporal license with its Companion Chronicle stories, zipping up and down the Doctor’s timeline, adding substantively to the emotional depth and intellectual pondering of the companions who travelled with the Doctor. Replacing that range with ‘The Early Adventures’ restricts the company to…what? Just the black and white adventures? That would seem to be the case, given that Big Finish has developed its Third Doctor stories as a separate range, and its Fourth Doctor stories as another. But while it restricts the stories it can tell in a temporal sense, the scope and budget for The Early Adventures does allow them to tell broader, richer and often meatier stories than the usually two-voiced Companion Chronicles could.
Is that important as such? Well, it is when you have a full Tardis, as the first two Doctors habitually had, as it allows you to have much fuller casts, and so conjure worlds on a far greater canvas. It also plays a part here because the first handful of Patrick Troughton stories in the ‘Early Adventures’ range are, by definition of who’s in them, early Second Doctor adventures – starring the handover Tardis crew of Ben and Polly, along with the Second Doctor’s earliest (and most faithful) acquisition, Jamie McCrimmon. That means they have a particular tone to them, where the Doctor is new to his friends, and to some extent to himself. Indeed, in the first story, The Yes Men, there was much made of the fact that people didn’t recognize the short, mop-topped scruffbag as the same man as his previous, white-haired incarnation. Here too, there’s a vital moment where the events of Power of the Daleks are replayed to good – if slightly dangerous – effect. Fixing a turning point in the story on the fact that Ben and Polly didn’t believe he was the Doctor after his regeneration sounds good to us decades later, but in Power of the Daleks, they accept who he is with a staggering degree of ease. Of course, standing in a time machine that’s bigger on the inside than the out probably gives one a different perspective on what is believable.
The point is that that sense of friendships still being relatively new is threaded throughout The Forsaken – which works to the story’s advantage, given that it deals extensively with the nature of fear, and of not being able to trust that the people in front of you are who they say they are. It’s a timely release, in fact, with the Zygons just having reminded the mainstream Who audience of just how disturbing that simple premise can be. Add to it the idea of a group of World War II British soldiers stranded and waiting for evacuation from an island off Singapore, and there’s a delicious, clammy, jumping-at-shadows quality to the atmosphere here, as well as a claustrophobic base under siege vibe as the Big Bad, which it turns out could well be Death itself, picks off the islanders and the locals with a creepy precision, turning their minds inside-out with fear before it kills them.
These early adventures of course give Frazer Hines one hell of a lot to do, and most of the time, he faultlessly jumps from his Jamie to his Second Doctor persona to help conjure the personalities of both and push the story along. There’s a possibility that in The Forsaken, the workload is just slightly too much, as occasionally, his Second Doctor slips a little – but it’s pretty much the first occasion in a number of years that this has been at all noticeable, so it’s entirely permissible. Most of the time here, you actually forget it’s Frazer altogether, and get swept along with the fact that you’re in a Second Doctor story, far more than, say, the First Doctor stories are able to immerse you in the belief that William Hartnell’s in the studio. Frazer’s just that good. But just occasionally the note-perfection wobbles a little, not least when the Second Doctor is having rapid back-and-forth conversations with Jamie. A touch more mercy in the writing next time, Justin Richards?
There’s a verisimilitude in the first two Troughton Early Adventures of the most depressing kind, inasmuch as Anneke Wills’ Polly is kept for the most part firmly by the Doctor’s side as an adjunct to the action sequences (she would, later in Troughton’s time, get to do more in the way of monster-defeating herself – remember the Polly Cocktail?), but Richards does give a reason for that here – she’s the other thinker in this Tardis crew, whereas Jamie and Ben are more about the active, going out and clobbering someone end of the time travel game. It does mean that she’s on hand later on to be abandoned and threatened by the alien meanie, but the unfolding of that threat is more 21st century, and at least on audio there’s less of a requirement on Wills to scream, despite a villain that terrifies the life out of her.
Newcomer Elliot Chapman as Able Seaman Ben Jackson continues to impress with his enthusiasm and his relative mastery of the role. He’s also given something interesting within the plot here, as he runs into a relative of his who has yet to learn about his time-travelling adventures.
The expanded cast is actually crucial to delivering both the claustrophobic feel – with more people, you can feel like people are on top of one another, and it’s notable here that Chapman takes on three roles to help facilitate that – and the level of suspicion and increasing paranoia, as trust starts to break down and fear to grow on the island. Blackadder fans, listen out for Gabrielle Glaister as Maggie Bishop, and check out some subtle tonal shifts in several performances as the story progresses.
Overall, The Forsaken is a solid early Troughton story, with a very 21st century feel in its delivery – the nature of the alien and what it does, particularly. It delivers the sweaty intensity of a jungle under siege, along with plenty of red herrings as to who or what the baddie really is along the way. It gives Ben and Jamie enough to do, though it leaves Polly complaining a few times that she doesn’t want to stay by the Doctor’s side, which in itself feels true to the character and helps perhaps retroactively explain the eventual growth into more of the action that Polly is allowed in later Troughton tales. It would be great to see her grow more pro-actively into an action role as the Early Adventures progress, but that probably depends on how early Big Finish are determined to keep their Early Adventures. We know they took us at least to Steven Taylor and Sara Kingdom’s time in the First Doctor stories, so there’s no reason to assume we won’t hear stories with Victoria or Zoe later in the range, which means there should be plenty of scope to really expand Polly’s role and personality – after all, expanding the inner lives of the companions is one of the things at which the company has proved it excels.
The Forsaken, like most of the Early Adventures stories so far, is one to buy, and one that will repay periodic re-listening, not because you’ll have missed anything crucial the first time round, but just because it’s a great way to spend a couple of quality retro Who hours.
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