Tony’s counting minutes.
Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten – Eleven.
That’s how many listens it took to get all the way through The Age of Endurance – an audio story named with a staggering aptness. It took that many listens because every single time I tried to get through it, The Age of Endurance defeated me. Defeated consciousness at any rate – ten whole times it sent me to sleep.
This does not bode well.
Let’s get down to brass tacks here. The Age of Endurance has been called a true Hartnell story, not least in Doctor Who Magazine, because, as in some other Early Adventures like The Bounty of Ceres, writer Nick Wallace takes up a good twenty minutes with Simply Faffing About before the Tardis crew actually meet anyone.
Then they meet some people, and in fairly short order, you start to long for those early minutes when they were Simply Faffing About.
The Lastborn are the people they encounter, and they almost immediately set about making you wish they were the Unborn – stomping about, issuing orders and splitting up the Tardis crew, more or less because they read it in the script and Wallace needs to divide the crew to give us an equality of peril on the two main ‘sets’ across which The Age of Endurance plays out – two ships, the Endurance and the Vanguard. There’s a third ship which is crucial to the plot, but there’s actually so little differentiation between any of them, what you end up with is a game of Find The Peril, with our viewpoint shifting from one ship to the other and back again more or less as necessary to tell the story, trying in vain to sustain your interest enough to remember which ship is which.
The ship on which the Tardis originally materialises is the Vanguard, and there’s a decent enough mystery on board – it’s drifting in space, the crew have vanished, and there’s a dead man behind a locked door. The mystery rather evaporates though as soon as we meet The Shifts, a race of shapeshifting vampire alien lizard (yes, really), who apparently have enslaved the Lastborn for a millennium. These Lastborn, far from being the stompy angry humanoids they at first appear are actually stompy angry victims, with character backgrounds and everything.
Except for the most part, they’re interchangeable, as though Wallace watched The Dead Planet, with its similarly named, similar looking Thal contingent, borrowed the idea, and then vampire-sucked anything interesting out of them that might either let us tell them apart, or, really, have any interest in doing so. They do start getting vaguely interesting when we meet their Mother, if that’s any consolation, and Rachel Atkins as Myla does inject some character into proceedings. Beyond her though, The Age of Endurance is supposed to be a tense, Das Boot affair that really has all the tension of the Battleship movie. There are two factions, the Lastborn and the Shifts, there’s an impenetrable spatial barrier which, naturally enough, one faction has managed to penetrate and the other faction wants to. There’s a vampire theme and there are badly hidden and regularly alluded-to secrets on which the destiny of everyone in the story will of course ultimately hinge. There’s some running around, some coming back from the dead, and an awful lot of exposition to try and add flesh and colour to the bones of the story, but really, without that most crucial of things – a storytelling hook – it feels distinctly flat on the ear.
And this is where the issue with The Age of Endurance really lies – yes, plenty of genuine, on-screen Hartnell stories were as predictable as this, as genuinely, unfortunately dull as this, but you can take slavish replication too far when you’re fifty years down the line and working without the same constraints of budget and lead actor. Yes, these are meant to be the Early Stories, but if you’re going to try and summon the spirit of Das Boot in space, you need to engage us in the characters and the drama – and sadly, The Age of Endurance does neither. It took eleven attempts to get through this story simply because every time I tried, it sent me to actual, literal sleep. You shouldn’t be able to sleep through a tense space stand-off – you simply shouldn’t, and indeed, you probably wouldn’t if that’s what The Age of Endurance offered. It conclusively misses the mark in terms of tension and prefers vague nostalgia to audience engagement – for instance, this is the story in which we welcome Jemma Powell as the new incarnation of Barbara Wright. But if you’re going to go to the trouble of recasting so iconic a companion, it would really do her a service to forego the honest reflection of the Hartnell era that sees her carted off to a cryo-chamber halfway through and playing no more than a silent role as ‘bargaining chip’ for much of the second half. It’s unusual of Big Finish to bungle something like this – Elliot Chapman’s introduction as the new Ben Jackson in The Yes Men was a triumph, as was Tim Treloar’s (real) introduction as the new Third Doctor. So it does a disservice to Powell to have her disappear from this story so ignominiously halfway through her first chance to convince us that the new Barbara is worth casting. Would the original Barbara have been cryo-chambered halfway through? Yes, probably – but again, even when creating the Early Adventures, you can take nostalgic accuracy too far for your own good. The Age of Endurance serves as only a lukewarm launch story for Powell as the Big Finish Barbara because it sticks too strictly to what the original Hartnell-era writers would have done with her. Given the great strides Big Finish has made in enriching and developing some less well-served Hartnell companions, like Ian and Steven, The Age of Endurance feels like a missed opportunity to serve up a story that allows the new Barbara to take much more of a centre stage position, and begin developing her too.
All in all, The Age of Endurance is a disengaging start to the third series of the Early Adventures, aiming for gradually building tension, and missing spectacularly by not really giving the listener anything on which to hang their interest. It misses the chance to make the arrival of the new Barbara a celebration of character, and it slavishly sticks to sixties precepts, designed to evoke nostalgia for the cheapness of the early show, to the detriment of the listening experience.
Here’s hoping for better as Series 3 goes on.
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