Blurb: Ceres. A tiny, unforgiving ball of ice and rock hanging between Mars and Jupiter. It’s no place to live, and it takes a special kind of person to work there.
The crew of the Cobalt Corporation mining base know exactly how deadly the world outside their complex is, but the danger isn’t just outside anymore. The systems they rely on to keep them safe are failing and the planet is breaking in.
When the TARDIS strands Steven, Vicki and the Doctor on the base, they have to fight a foe they can barely comprehend to survive.
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring Peter Purves and Maureen O'Brien published by Big Finish Productions and released November 2014.
Setting: The dwarf planet Ceres sometime in the 21st century.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Time Meddler and Galaxy Four. There's no indication of when this happens with respect to other stories placed within the same gap, but is likely after The Suffering (see the entry on that story for why). Mention is made of the dimensional stabilizer that the Doctor stole from the Monk's TARDIS (see The Time Meddler). Steven's talk of an intelligent planetoid not being that outlandish compared to some of the things that they've seen could be a reference to the intelligent Fungus they encountered in London (see Upstairs). Steven's work in the Kuiper Belt is mentioned (see The First Wave). Vicki's origins in the 25th century are mentioned (see The Rescue). Steven mentions his having been marooned on Mechanus (see The Chase).
Canonicity Quotient: The constant references to the fact that Vicki comes from a later time period than Steven seems a bit odd when this has been a point of fan contention for decades. Some have dated Steven to the 36th century and while I don't think that it's likely that he's from that far in the future it does seem more likely that he came from the early Imperial period somewhere closer to the 26th. The TARDIS supposedly gets bigger at this point but the console room doesn't look bigger in any of the later 60's stories. In fact it seems to shrink in later stories. At the end, the Doctor gives Moreland knowledge of the future so that he can prepare himself for the skills that he'll need. This is very out of character for the first Doctor who was afraid of Barbara changing even one line of history. 0.80
Discussion: In space no one can hear you scream. That's the thought that the introduction to The Bounty of Ceres puts in my mind. It was the most mysterious of all the Early Adventures. Very little was known of its plot. One thing that I did know is that Lisa Bowerman would be directing. Lisa is a veteran of The Companion Chronicles, one of the best ranges of Big Finish stories. I was happy to know that she'd be returning. Although the Early Adventures aren't quite like the Companion Chronicles, since they have more actors, they do have the narration element and with these being in a "60's style" they do try to keep things minimalist. Although I'd enjoyed both Domain of the Voord and The Doctor's Tale, neither story felt quite right to me, and I felt that Lisa might be able to bring out the missing quality that I was looking for.
I should have known that something was up when they used subversive writer Ian Potter for this. Potter's earlier stories, especially The Sleeping City were predicated on a plot twist. Potter shows his hand a little early in this, having the Doctor suspicious of Moreland's paranoia about the planet being alive. When he says "it seems that you've been possessed with the idea of being possessed" I knew that we were in for some sort of double-bluff. I thought it would end up being something about the corporation doing experiments on people in remote conditions. The reveal itself was something of a surprise, but at the same time I liked how subtly that Potter had telegraphed his plans for the story in his writeups and interviews for this one. I do like that Potter knowing his audience's expectations sets up a red herring with the idea that Ceres may be alive, but if anyone stops to think they should know that it doesn't make much sense. If Ceres had been alive, Steven and Vicki being from a more future time would have known about it and that very fact is brought up in the final episode. It seems strange that no one had considered it earlier and that's the only real plot flaw that I find in this story.
It is interesting how topical this storyline is. As someone who keeps track of the space news, I'm always interested in knowing what the plans are. Long term missions into space and mining of asteroids is a big subject these days. There are a lot of concerns and one of those are the psychological impact to the people that are sent into those kinds of conditions. Even in the remotest conditions on Earth there is some hope of being rescued. How would the human mind react knowing that you're to far away for anyone to ever get to you if something went wrong, knowing that you're alone in the giant vastness of space? The Bounty of Ceres doesn't shirk from that kind of examination and dives straight in.
There's also the pulp sci-fi of course. The installation where they arrive has low gravity and it's fun to imagine them trying to show low g's on the 1960's Doctor Who sets. There is a rotating spindle for artificial gravity. There are also robot servants that end up being oddly menacing. It was nice to hear Vicki saying that she almost wanted to name them, a nice nod to her penchant to give a cute name to everything new that they encountered on their travels. There are also cryogenic sleeping units and a computer. The fear of being put to sleep in a way where someone else has to wake you up as well as the sinister "malfunctions" of the computer and the robot servants gives the story a creepy and sinister air. It feels very 1960's while not specifically being like any 1960's story that you can think of. It's really well done and it's a nice use of the period that the story is set in.
It's an interesting period to set a story in. Potter takes the fact that Vicki and Steven are both from our future and sets them in a story that's a historical for them but science fiction for us. I like the fact that Potter pays attention to the broader Doctor Who continuity. Reference is made to Steven's work in the Kuiper Belt and the megacorporations used in the 21st century of the Virgin novels are part of the background setting for this story. With the Doctor having so many contemporary and past companions, it's a rare chance for an interesting juxtaposition of characters and storyline with respect to the audience and it's a welcome one. I do hope that someday someone gives Steven and Vicki a true historical. So far they've all been pseudo-historicals and while this is ok because their era started the pseudo-historical with the Time Meddler it would be nice to have them face-to-face with actual dark historical fact rather than an alien menace that happens to be in the past. Another setting that would be interesting is a contemporary story for the pair. Big Finish is doing that with the next story in the Early Adventures, An Ordinary life, but it would be nice to have Steven and Vicki in a more modern setting as well.
The production values are really good in this one. Thankfully the cast is small, so Peter Purves is the only one with dual roles as both the Doctor and Steven. It's also nice that this time the Doctor is only sidelined for about half of episode two. At first I feared he'd be gone from the whole story but he emerges from the cryo-tube with plenty of time to help move the plot along before the episode ended. Purves gives that same Doctor performance that he's famous for in The Companion Chronicles. He also effortlessly recreates the voice of Steven every time that he does this. Maureen O'Brien seems to have been liberated by only having to do her Vicki voice, which she recreates with supreme ease and becomes her younger self again. Richard Hope convinces as the nervous Moreland while Julia Hills gains your sympathies as Qureshi, the put upon space commander whose working in such remote conditions for the pay to send back to her children. Lisa Bowerman even makes a guest appearance as the computer, putting in a fine performance for a standard sci-fi computer, until she's forced to do a very OTT voice at one point for the computer "possessed". The real standout is Peter Forbes as Thorn. He seems to incredibly likable through most of the story until the big reveal at the end. His deadpan delivery and lack of remorse are so creepy and chilling. It's a wonderful performance and a nice reversal from the standard sci-fi tropes. Credit should also go to the music for keeping up the great 60's feel of the story, which helps to give it a feeling of authenticity that it wouldn't have otherwise had. I'm quite a fan of this and really hope that either Lisa Bowerman be given more Early Adventures to direct or that more employ her style.
Final Rating: 8/10
Recommendation: The Bounty of Ceres is a wonderfully acted story with a great TARDIS team and some phenomenal performances. It's a claustrophobic, downbeat tale set in the near future with some surprisingly topical plot elements. On top of that, there's a wonderful plot twist that makes the story far from straightforward but isn't so outlandish that it may not have been part of the actual series in the 60's. A surprising story that works on multiple levels, I definitely recommend it.