BIG Big Finish Week: Doctor Who FAREWELL, GREAT MACEDON Review

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Andrew East finds his Babylon...


Wow! I have been looking forward to listening to Farewell, Great Macedon for a long time. Originally released in November 2010 as part of The First Doctor Box Set, I didn’t manage to get hold of it until recently but I am so glad that I did as it is simply wonderful!

Big Finish have done an amazing job at recreating a Hartnell historical. Even though it is merely three actors – William Russell, Carole Ann Ford and John Dorney (as Alexander) – they evoke the atmosphere of the first season of Who effortlessly. The script has echoes of Marco Polo, The Aztecs and The Crusade with the TARDIS crew fulfilling similar roles as they do in those stories – the clearest being Barbara’s position as the ‘expert’ stemming from her history teacher background. Indeed, Alexander himself is reminiscent of characters like Marco Polo and King Richard – a real person with shades of grey; neither good nor evil.
The story plays as a real tragedy with the unavoidable death of Alexander at the close of the story but also with the systematic dispatching of Alexander’s nearest and dearest, the blame – unsurprisingly – being placed on the strangers in Alexander’s camp.

The main plot of the conspiracy to murder Alexander and take power seems based on actual theories that Alexander was poisoned in real life, and the majority of characters in this adventure are based on real people: Antipater, Ptolemy, Hepheastion, Cleitus. The setting of the Babylon, and the TARDIS’s landing place of the Hanging Gardens allows the series to tick off another of the ‘famous’ landmarks of history – as only Bernice Summerfield had visited Babylon prior to this point.

There is much philosophy in the script, including a discussion of Socrates statement that ‘I know that I don’t know’ and how the world is full of mysteries – nicely foreshadowing when Alexander realises that the TARDIS crew have knowledge beyond the bounds of his world and time’s experience. There is also a reasoned discussion from Ian of the rights and wrongs of slavery (which contrasts with the over-emotive one argued by Jason Kane in Walking to Babylon).

The stock scenes of historical ‘epics’ such as this are present and correct – feasts, whispering conspiracy behind pillars, gardens, ‘gladiatorial’ games and aspects of Greek life are dropped in here and there. There is quite an emphasis too on Alexander’s dream of a united world, reflected in the diversity of characters – Indians and Africans for example, and highlighted by Alexander’s toast to the Greek, Egyptian and Persian gods.

I wonder how much of the original script made it through to the Big Finish version. There is such an overwhelming feel of Season 1 in the production – Susan mentions the 57th century; the Doctor gets Ian’s surname wrong. The latter of these feels like a modern inclusion, the first a hangover from the early days of the series (the pilot episode included a line about the Doctor and Susan originating in the 57th century).
There is also a fascinating discussion at the beginning of the first episode about Heaven. Susan believes the TARDIS to have landed there but the Doctor dismisses her. Not, however, because he doesn’t believe in such a place, but because he doesn’t yet know the way. He ponders that one day the Almighty will take him to the afterlife and there is no question that the Doctor and Susan’s culture believes in an afterlife and indeed the implication is that is a Christian idealogy. I wonder if, had this been made for television, this section would have been removed as not tying in with the educational aspect of the series. I cannot think of a single Hartnell story where there is any suggestion the Doctor is religious at all, let alone a Christian.

There are also subtle hints towards the relationship between Alexander and Hepheastion. It is not described as love in the sexual or romantic way but Alexander’s reaction to his death is far more extreme than to any of the other deaths. This is something that probably could have made it to screen – especially seeing as the early series did not shy away from sexually implicit situation – Vasor’s treatment of Barbara or the domestic violence hinted at in The Keys of Marinus, for example – and these were relatively explicit compared to the restraint shown in the script for this story.

The story does take time to tell a tale which could comfortably fitted into four episodes, but in reflecting the era Farewell, Great Macedon was originally written for, the extended length is another echo. At no point does it feel padded but there are times when the pace slows to a leisurely stroll.

The final episodes include the entertaining image of the Doctor firewalking to prove his integrity to Alexander, followed by Ian besting various athletes at wrestling. Ian as the action man is, again, very reminiscent of the early series but I do wonder how many other talents he has hidden under his bushel.

The last part of the story also includes some interesting discussion as to whether history can be changed. Barbara believes they can do nothing but it is the Doctor who decides he will do all in his power to save Alexander’s life. Even after Susan points out that his death at this time is historical fact, the Doctor holds to his Hippocratic oath taken when he briefly studied medicine. This is a contrast to the positions Barbara and the Doctor take in The Aztecs. Apparently Farewell, Great Macedon was being written whilst Marco Polo was airing on television, meaning The Aztecs had yet to go into production. Maybe these roles would have been reversed in light of that story’s central theme.

Farewell, Great Macedon is simply marvellous and a jewel in Big Finish’s crown. It is a historical story as valid as anything transmitted on television and should stand shoulder to shoulder with the greats of that era.

A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the chance.

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