As we all know, the Companion Chronicles is Big Finish’s attempts at filling in the gaps in its Doctor Who range. With Doctors one to three now in the great big TARDIS in the sky, Doctor four fruitier than a wine gum and Doctor nine more likely to toast his manhood on an open fire than have anything to do with Doctor Who again, the chances of getting full cast productions of audio plays starring these particular Doctors is very small. Fortunately, many of the companions of these Doctors are alive and well and ready to get paid a reasonable sum of money for a day’s work reading a short book into a microphone.
The first series of Companion Chronicles featured Vicki, Zoe, Liz Shaw and Romana II, to varying effect. Some were good, some weren’t. Series two isn’t too different and I’ll be looking at some of the others over the next few days (the fourth’s not out until January, unfortunately). The first, though, I’ll be looking at right now. Ooh.
Plot (captured from the Big Finish web site after a long, wintery campaign)
It’s 1812 and the Doctor, Steven and Dodo get ready to spend their winter in a Russian village. The French are on their way, but that’s not the only invasion the travellers will have to deal with.
Is it any good?
Marc Platt clearly has a thing for the Hartnell era since he wrote last year’s above-average Vicki tale, Frostfire. This is pretty good as well, although by no means perfect.
The result is a sparky intro, a sparky end but a monotone middle.
It’s an historical for the most part, with Steven, Dodo and the Doctor landing in Russia and deciding to have a ridiculously long holiday in the icy countryside. For some reason, Steven decides he’s found a new home and is busy hunting, shooting and fishing with the locals. But all’s not well, once a spaceship crashlands and shakes up the new status quo.
Steven’s not a particularly well remembered companion. Seriously, I had to look him up on the good old Internet to find out which story he’d left in, because I’d completely forgotten. Admittedly, that’s because most of his episodes are missing (he appeared in about 44 once upon a time, apparently), but he also wasn’t one of the best defined companions, with no official date of origin, place he grew up in, hobbies, interests, etc.
In common with his efforts for the slightly more interesting Vicki in Frostfire, Marc Platt has done his best to give Steven a background (he harks back to some of the Missing Adventures’ extra Steven background such as the Hive buildings) and some motivation. He’s also tried to stay faithful to the on-screen depiction of Steven as basically being a shouty fight-picker who’s as thick as sh*t. If you don’t know what’s going on with the Doctor’s strange behaviour within about 30 seconds, I’ve this great friend in Nigeria who needs to liberate a few million quid who I’d like to introduce you to. However, it’s almost the Russian Revolution by the time Steven works it out – I’m sure you could argue this is in keeping with the more naive, less complicated, less sci-fi literate Hartnell years.
Platt does similarly well, although to a much less extent (series three of the Companion Chronicles, anyone?) with the too-cool-for-school Dodo. Hartnell’s Doctor is pretty faithful to the original, although I’m sure Hartnell was still calling it “the ship” rather than “my TARDIS” by that point in the show – but maybe I’m misremembering.
He also avoids the mistakes that most authors of historicals seem to make, which is turning the characters into history teachers, ready to impart useful background and cultural values at the drop of a hat. Thankfully, most of the necessary nuggets of information emerge from the story, although Platt slips up occasionally. I’m also slightly unconvinced by his depiction of Napoleon.
Peter Purves, though. Blue Peter. Junior Kick Start. Crufts. International Darts. Jumpers for goalposts…. Mmm. Fond memories, hey? Purves is probably a better reader of books than he is an actor, but he’s still pretty good judging by the evidence of this book (and he seems sad that no one’s offering him parts any more, judging by the interview at the end of the CD). He does quite a nifty Hartnell impression, albeit one that deteriorates over time, and his recreation of Steven is note-perfect. Very little should be said about his attempts at French and Russian accents (Purves himself admits they’re bad), although I’m willing to bet Steven Taylor wouldn’t be able to do good accents either, so that’s actually quite an authentic touch of characterisation. Maybe.
However, although it says play on the cover, Mother Russia is indeed a book. The metaphor of this Chronicle (and the next) is that Steven is relating a tale to someone – in quite a poorly defined situation that’s not very well worked out – and we’re listening in to the monologue/conversation. The trouble is that Platt forgets somewhere in the middle that he’s not writing a book and Purves forgets he’s not reading one, so the metaphor gets thrown to one side. Even when Steven should be saying “that’s when you…”, since the other person in this two-hander also features in the story and is supposedly interrogating him for information, he still talks as though his listener doesn’t know what he’s on about. These are the points where Purves enters “narrator mode” and you feel, despite the occasional incidental music, that you’re listening to an audio book, as any variation in Purves’ voice disappears. The result is a sparky intro, a sparky end but a monotone middle.
On the whole then, a good effort, but one that could have done with a bit more rehearsal, a bit of rigourous editing, stronger direction and some more time. Whether you’ll want to spend good money listening to a near-forgotten companion of a near-forgotten Doctor is up to you, but if you’re completist enough or old enough to enjoy the thrill of Peter Purves doing his first acting and Doctor Who appearance in nearly forty years, Mother Russia is a good way of parting with your cash.
How much should I have to pay for it?
Actual price: £8.99
Actual worth: £5.99 or you could barter a space panda for it
Listen to the trailer (Windows Media Format)
Peter Purves (Steven Taylor)
Writer: Marc Platt
Director: Nigel Fairs
Buy it from Amazon.co.uk or the really inept Big Finish web site