Blurb: England, 1400. Winter. Blood in the snow. Henry IV has usurped the throne, and deposed King Richard II languishes in Pomfret Castle.
Meanwhile the Doctor and his companions preside over New Year revels at Sonning Palace.
But Sonning is a prison, treachery is in the air and murderous Archbishop Thomas Arundel will stop at nothing to crush the rebellion.
As the Doctor and Barbara take the road to Canterbury, Vicki finds a royal friend and Ian is dragged into a dark web of conspiracy at whose heart sits that teller of tales, Geoffrey Chaucer.
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring William Russell and Maureen O'Brien published by Big Finish Productions and released October 2014.
Setting: Earth: England in January, 1400.
Continuity: This story takes place between the Space Museum and The Chase. There is no indication of where it fits in relation to other stories within the same gap. Ian mentions Coal Hill School (see An Unearthly Child). The Doctor mentions Ian's pursuit of Sir Francis Drake to Cadiz (see The Flames of Cadiz). Vicki mentions that she doesn't have a family anymore (see The Rescue). Vicki mentions crusaders and Ian refers to himself as Sir Ian of Jaffa (see The Crusades). The Doctor asks where the manual is for his Time-Space Visualizer (see The Space Museum and The Chase).
Canonicity Quotient: Barbara is depicted slightly off in this story. With a full grasp of the historical context that they're in, she purposefully picks a fight with the Archbishop. While some may say that this is shades of the Aztecs, in that story Barbara was mistaken as a goddess and she knew that with that would come absolute authority. In short, her knowledge of the historical context allowed the power to go to her head. Here she's depicted as almost completely reckless, knowing that they'd be endangered just so that she could advance a political cause that she knows is doomed to failure. That doesn't seem much like Barbara. The Doctor having a cold seems like something that they might have done in the 60's but doesn't fit in that well with things that we learn later about the character. 0.93
Discussion: The next story in Big Finish's Early Adventures range takes us into season 2 and the TARDIS team of the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki. This time we're given a historical to counterpoint the science fiction story that we got last month with Domain of the Voord. Writer Marc Platt takes the tale into a far more obscure period in history with Henry IV usurping the throne from Richard II. In a way this adds to the pleasure of the story. I learned some new facts while listening to this story and that's really the point of these early historicals. Overall, I enjoyed the story but felt that something was lacking. It may also have been that I was suffering from Platt burnout after listening to the Philip Hinchcliffe Presents box set and then listening to this tale immediately thereafter.
One of the things that really disappointed me about this story was that it just seemed like a pastiche of every Hartnell story that we've had before. Barbara acting haughty and getting them in trouble? Check. The Doctor going off on a personal jaunt to another location and leaving half the party behind? Check. Barbara semi-flirting with a hunk of the era? Check. They even have the Doctor with a cold evoking shades of The Ark or Barbara doing performed tales of Chaucer ala Ping-Cho and the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes in Marco Polo. Yet, a lot of this stuff just seems to be fluff to fill out a story that otherwise could have just been a companion chronicle. I initially laughed at the Doctor's cold thinking it a really clever way to disguise why his voice sounds different from how it did on the TV series. Instead it seems to have served no purpose at all. The Doctor gets rid of it with a trip to the TARDIS and it no longer provides a cover for the different sound to his voice. Sir Robert's flirtations with Barbara create a sum total of about two lines of dialog in the story. While it does give Ian a chance to have his final confrontation with the man all sorts of other reasons for them meeting at the inn could have been contrived.
I also feel like Platt is getting a bit to esoteric with the subject matter. I did read a few of the Canterbury tales in high school, but I can't really remember them. Platt's use of various characters from the story is kind of fun and it's definitely not a requirement to have read the Canterbury tales to understand the story. Yet, it seems from the use of the characters that he's telling some sort of joke or intending to draw some sort of symmetry. This led to me being distracted for a good portion of the story, which isn't good in a tale like this where the characters are somewhat difficult to tell apart. It doesn't help that Gareth Armstrong seems incapable of disguising his voice. I thought at one point that Chaucer had masqueraded as the butcher since the two men sounded completely identical. I did enjoy all the political intrigue but it seemed that there were a lot of discussions between people where the speakers weren't identified or at least not until well into the conversation that they were having. Several times I wondered who I was hearing and what they were talking about.
I do think that the pacing was rather odd. The story seemed to wind down to its natural conclusion only to have the Doctor and company decide that they'd better do a little mischief. The whole bit at the end with the Archbishop seems to be tacked onto the story and there doesn't seem to have been any reason for it. I didn't check the timing but I wonder if episode four was underunning by a bit or if Platt just wanted to make a final point about the will of the common people.
I did like that in this story they only wrote out one character for one story. Barbara is missing from episode three. This felt pretty true to the period and since Maureen O'Brien distinguishes her "Barbara" voice from her "Vicki" voice by putting less enthusiasm into the Barbara voice it's not really a bad idea to sideline the character. Russell's Doctor is still superb, so it's nice that he was only sidelined for half of an episode instead of two as in Domain of the Voord. O'Brien is able to recapture a lot of her performance as Vicki by pitching her voice higher and giving herself a lot of enthusiasm. While she was never a favorite it is nice to hear her again and I thought that her friendship with Isabella was touching.
The supporting cast works well except for Gareth Armstrong who I've already mentioned. His voice is fine for Chaucer but since he can't distinguish Chaucer from the Butcher it gets a little confusing and he's only really distinguished from the Bishop because they don't appear in scenes that are close to each other. Alice Haig manages to make Isabella very sympathetic. As a young girl who has been thrust into the life at court only to have that same life wrenched away her tantrums are far more understandable than with most characters of this type and it was nice to give her the hunting experience with a bow to make her a little more of a strong character. Joseph Kloska's Sir Robert is clearly a callback to the character of Leon Colbert from The Reign of Terror. He's a handsome man who is very interested in Barbara and could be on either side of the conflict. Kloska plays Sir Robert in a way that keeps you guessing, which makes for a far more interesting character than either an out-and-out baddie or a truly virtuous character. He also plays Henry IV and keeps him different enough from Sir Robert that he sounds like a different character. Unfortunately his Adam and Tom Chaucer sound a little to much alike and there was one scene where I thought that Tom was Adam and lead to more confusion. John Banks does an excellent job as Thomas Arundel. The depiction of him getting his jollies from staring at pictures of people being tortured in hell really paints a clear depiction of the man. This is a man that delights in cruelty using religion as only a pretext to do what he wants. It's also nice that as part of history there isn't anything that they can do to the man directly although the Doctor and company show that that doesn't mean that their hands are completely tied.
Musically this story was all over the place. There was some wonderful music that felt like it could have been on 60's Who. This was mixed by a strange, bombastic trumpet blast which seemed to herald the end of scenes that was completely unlike anything that they would have done in the 60's and which felt...silly more than anything. This was all juxtaposed with some actual period appropriate music and some strangely 80's music that sounded like it had been composed by Peter Howell on the same synthesizers that they were using on Doctor Who in the 80's. Overall I was quite a fan of the musical quality of the story. I was happy that they experimented a bit and it seemed to be used a little better than the omnipresent score of Domain of the Voord, which sounded more authentic but was used far more extensively than would have been authentic. I was also happy that someone seems to have found a better sound for doors opening and closing and the AOL instant messenger sound effect from The Devil's Armada is thankfully missing from this story.
Final Rating: 7/10
Recommendation: It's a check-box-a-thon of 60's proportions as the story seems to be put together with something from all the early Hartnell historicals. The story is a 15th century political thriller that suffers a little by being about an obscure era and doubling up voice actors in a way that can be a little confusing. Still, the actors give it their all and it's nice to learn some new things about a time in history with which you're unfamiliar. Although it's subtle, it's also nice to get more signs of the Ian/Barbara romance. I definitely recommend giving it a try.