Big Finish occasionally come up with some nice ideas for subscriber bonuses. Okay, Return of the Krotons wasn't one of them but Company of Friends was at least a good idea, even if it was poorly executed. However, every time they do it, they say it's going to be exclusive to subscribers, don't manage to get many people to subscribe on the strength of it (what? I get three Sylvester McCoy plays and the Key2Time season? Whoopee), so end up releasing them anyway.
So it is with An Earthly Child, a potentially very good idea, which is already available to pre-order, having been sent to subscribers in December. In it, Paul McGann journeys to the now defunct future in which the Daleks mined out the Earth's core to turn it into a spaceship, so he can visit Susan, his granddaughter.
Yes, the Doctor not only has kids, a wife and probably a mum, he also had a granddaughter – the very first companion to the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, in the very first story, An Unearthly Child (which you can watch all of on YouTube). Played by Carole Anne Ford, she stayed behind on Earth to help rebuild the planet and married a man called David Campbell.
Ford is back as Susan for this story, set 30 years after the invasion, and she's accompanied by Paul McGann's son, Jake McGann, who appropriately enough plays Susan's son, Alex – the Doctor's great-grandson.
Thirty years on from the Daleks' invasion of Earth, the scars still haven't healed. The survivors inhabit a world thrown back two hundred years, a world of crop shortages and civil unrest. A world where the brightest and best of its young people are drawn to the xenophobic Earth United group.
A world sliding into a new Dark Age, believes Susan Campbell, widow of one of the heroes of the Occupation. A world in need of alien intervention. A world in need of hope.
But as Susan takes drastic action to secure the planet's future, she's oblivious to the fact that her student son, Alex, ensnared by Earth United, is in need of alien intervention too. Or so Alex's great-grandfather thinks.
Is it any good?
It feels like another of those lost opportunities, but not as severe as Company of Friends. It does have a reasonably intriguing and appropriate atmosphere, with the Earth having regressed to 1960s style technology, complete with typewriters, so it feels almost like a story that could have been written in the 60s. Okay, there are some sound production issues – police sirens from c1990 rather than of the era – but it mostly works, even if there's no really good reason for it.
But the Doctor doesn't meet Susan for a good long while and Susan's actions aren't that bright for someone who's seen some freaky stuff out there. Her call for help in reconstructing the Earth to another alien race isn't that smart and she's way too trusting.
When the Doctor and Susan do meet, there's a reasonably good amount of interaction between the two, but it feels a little lightweight, with not much emotional depth. No real explanation is provided about how Susan manages to have a child with David or why she's aged as quickly as a human being, rather than at Gallifreyan speeds. The conclusion also shuts down a few interesting possibilities, but I won't discuss that here for obvious non-spoiling reasons.
The main plot of the story is a combination of unconvincing (the Earth council and the rebuilding efforts) and the interesting (everything involving Hope), although its resolution is too quick and too easy. It doesn't feel like it's a story worth telling, although minor details are intriguing: there are potentially much more interesting tales about reconstructing a society after such a cataclysm, and this one feels too easy and too much like something that should have happened a lot sooner after the event rather than 30 years.
Performances are variable. McGann turns in one of his better performances, while Ford is pretty much the same as she was in the 60s/The Five Doctors. Jake McGann is a little unconvincing, while Leslie Ash is actually very good and I didn't even notice it was her until I looked at the cast list.
But this feels like something that for once should have had a longer run so that the emotional issues could have been addressed more clearly and a better story told – either that, or less attention should have been given to the main story. It's nice to have the play, but it could have been a stronger effort.
The CD Extras
Not brilliant, but not very self-congratulatory for once. Indeed, it's interesting that McGann didn't know the Doctor had a granddaughter until the play turned up – and that he didn't know Ford had played her until the recording of these extras. It also shows something about the attitude he has to Big Finish that he assumed the details about Alex Campbell had been stalkeringly lifted from Jake McGann's life.
Big Finish: £10.99 (free to subscribers)
Paul McGann (The Doctor)
Carole Ann Ford (Susan Campbell)
Jake McGann (Alex Campbell)
Sheryl Gannaway (Holly Barrett)
Leslie Ash (Marion Fleming/Hope)
Matt Addis (Faisal Jensen/Reporter)
Ian Hallard (Duncan)
Ian Brooker (President of the Earth Council/Policeman/Air Control/Helicopter Pilot/Reporter)
Writer: Marc Platt
Director: Nicholas Briggs