Blurb: 1950s London: newcomers arrive daily on British shores seeking a fresh start, new opportunities, or simply the chance of a different life. However, some are from much further afield than India or Jamaica...
After an emergency landing, the TARDIS crew must make the best of it, and look to their new neighbors for help. But the Newman family has more than the prejudices of the time to contend with. A sinister force grows in strength amid the pubs, docks and backstreets of London...
And without the Doctor, marooned in a time and place as alien as anything they've ever encountered, Steven and Sara may well face their greatest challenge yet. To live an ordinary life.
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring Peter Purves and Jean Marsh published by Big Finish Productions and released December 2014.
Setting: Earth: London, England over two weeks in the winter or late Fall (November) circa 1956. Steven and Sara mention multiple times that it's the 1950's and Joseph refers to the Queen. This makes it at least 1953. Based on rather flimsy conjecture over the fact that no one mentions the fact that the Queen is new, I've put this a few years on. Also, Steven mentions that they could wait to meet with Ian and Barbara but makes the "1960's" sound like they're somewhat distant, so I don't think that this is near the end of the decade. Historical weather data points to an unusually cold November in 1956. Since Audrey hadn't seen snow prior to the story's beginning and the fact that no one mentions Christmas, this story likely takes place in November, so 1956 would seem to fit as the year. However, there's really no reason that I can see why this can't be set anywhere from 1953-1959.
Continuity: This story takes place between two episodes of The Daleks Masterplan, The Feast of Steven and Volcano and sometime after the audio story The Anachronauts. There's no indication of where this story fits in relation to other stories set in the same gap. Steven mentions that he met Ian and Barbara (see The Chase). He also mentions Vicki and that she told him more about them (see The Time Meddler). Sara mentions that her brother is dead; that she doesn't get along with police in Liverpool; and Steven, Sara, and the Doctor mention the taranium core and that the Daleks will likely be after them at some point (see The Daleks Masterplan). Steven is obviously in love with Sara (see The Anachronauts). The Doctor uses the same venusian lullaby on baby Josetta that he uses later on Aggedor (see The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon).
Canonicity Quotient: While shoving much of anything into the gap between The Feast of Steven and Volcano was always going to be difficult this story just decides to drive a semi-truck through it. Its getting a little more difficult to swallow that Sara could have had this many adventures with the Doctor and Steven. We don't know if Jean Marsh will be able to do anything else, so if this is the end I guess it can just about work, but much more will make this a little difficult to swallow. We've also got the issue that Steven mentions "the last time that he was in London" in The Perpetual Bond and refers back to the events of The Suffering. There have already been problems with this in other stories and it just highlights how the authors shouldn't put in such definitive statements when new stories come out all over the timeline, but still it's a contradiction. Even though Steven gets memory loss at the end of this one, he still remembers everything that happened afterwards and knows that he was in London. It's just his memory prior to being copied that is at least partially erased. I'm also not a big fan of the first Doctor displaying such large amounts of psychic power. I'm a bit more ambivalent towards him being great with kids. I can see it but it seems like the Doctor on display here was a bit more mellow (as Purves' version tends to be) than the first Doctor we got on screen. 0.85
Discussion: As a whole, the Early Adventures have not wowed me. The Bounty of Ceres was quite good, even if the story had some logical flaws, but overall the range has suffered from some really bad missteps. An Ordinary Life had a few things going for it. First, it's by Matt Fitton, who wrote the excellent Return of the Rocket Men. Second, it deals with Steven and Sara Kingdom. This is a TARDIS team that has gotten so little play over the years. Fitton had already displayed a really great understanding of the character of Steven, so I was looking forward to what he would do with his character and how he would develop the character of Sara Kingdom.
I think that my biggest problem with this story was that so much of it was pulled from the second half of the Anachronauts. David Richardson admits that this story idea has been floating around for a while, and the liner notes for The Anachronauts indicates that it was a last minute replacement script for another concept, which had gotten shelved. I suspect that that original story was also based on the concept of An Ordinary Life. When it fell through, Guerrier used that idea to create the portions of The Anachronauts that took placed in 1960's Berlin. The idea of Sara and Steven living in one place and one time, the idea of them developing feelings for each other, and the whole debate about whether they should get involved all comes from that story. While the Sara from that second half of the story was an illusion it seems odd that Steven doesn't act like he remembers that adventure at all in An Ordinary Life. It also frustrates me because I'm not a big fan of The Anachronauts and on top of that I never saw Sara and Steven as very compatible. Whereas stories dealing with Barbara and Ian's relationships make me giddy with glee, stories about Steven and Sara's relationship fall flat with me because it seems forced.
The story is a bit more of a mixed bag. It's at its strongest when its dealing with the struggles of ordinary people just trying to live their lives amidst the prejudice of the time. Steven and Sara come up against these views like a brick wall. That creates some nice contrasts as Steven and Sara start feeling the brunt of the same persecution simply because they're helping out the "undesirables". It does lead to some nice dialog, though, such as when Steven replies that he is "being with his own kind" because they're "decent human beings" or showing the more subtle side of racism when we're told that someone won't have the Newmans in her house, not because she's prejudiced but because her neighbors are. Some of the things depicted are actually horrific such as Michael's coworkers actually forcing him into a crate and nailing it shut to ship him back to Jamaica. There's also a really great line from the Doctor at the end that immigrants such as the Newmans actually live extraordinary lives and are pioneers who enrich the culture that they're in. It all makes a really powerful point and it's a real shame that this whole story wasn't done as a true historical.
If I'm going to pick a slight nit, sometimes I feel like Steven and Sara are portrayed just a tad to naive. Even though national origin may have no meaning in the future and all races may be regarded as equals, I find it hard to believe that there's no prejudice at all. Steven's 24th century home time likely has some prejudice against aliens and I find it hard to believe that there will ever be a point in time when prejudice against place of origin doesn't exist. There will always be less affluent locations or locations viewed as less desirable to live because they're offworld. I'm sure that people from certain colonies would be regarded as lesser than those from others and colonials may not like those from Earth. I also feel like Steven should have a little more of a clue since he's already been exposed to the gender disparity in The Suffering and this isn't that many years forward from that story, so the racism shouldn't be such a huge shock.
The real issue with the story, though, comes when it's time to throw in the sci-fi part. I get that the 1950's would have probably been to recent to do a "historical" story back when season three was initially made. I also understand that the creators at Big Finish considered this more of a modern story in the style of the War Machines. But honestly, the science fiction element was completely intrusive and had nothing to do with the first half of the story. It almost feels like this is another Anachronauts where you have an 'A' story and a 'B' story that are only loosely connected together. A lot of people have mentioned the similarities between these unnamed aliens and the Zygons. The problem is that they couldn't have used Zygons because Zygons would have been more interesting and would have been involved in some sort of evil plot. It seems like Fitton tried to concede to his spec to make this about immigrants just trying to fit in by giving us boring, aimless aliens, because outright sinister aliens would have been to intrusive to the 'A' plot and would have very obviously destroyed the message of the story. Yet, the aliens that we get distract from the story as well. The whole theme about immigrants getting mistreated gets lost because the aliens treat themselves as immigrants who just want "an ordinary life". The fact that they're driven back to sea at the end and not given a chance at that life seems a strange mixed message for the story. It doesn't help that the Doctor ends the matter with the extremely dark line of dialog that "if a parasite doesn't know that it's a parasite is it any less culpable". Many view immigrants as parasites as well, so that really doesn't help to convey a positive view of immigration.
A second nit is that the "ordinary life" in the story is supposed to apply to Steven and Sara, yet that whole notion is entirely absurd. Steven is from the 24th century and Sara is from the 41st. Having them muse about living "an ordinary life" in those kinds of conditions defies any sense. It would be like throwing me back to the 14th century and having me muse about living an ordinary life. I would never consider any life from centuries ago to be ordinary because it would be so different to the way of life that I've been raised on. It really hurts the story in my opinion because it's one of the main thematic points in the story but it rings terribly false.
An Ordinary Life does have some really nice character moments. I like all the scenes with Steven trying to be protective of Sara and her not letting him get away with it. Sara wants to feel useful, so she tries to fix the hole in the window. Then there's the attempts to cook when neither of them knows how to do so. Sara can't bring herself to talk about Bret to Audrey, which says a lot with the absence of words. We also learn that the SSS sterilizes operatives, so as not to create family ties. It adds another layer to that organization and tells us a lot more about Sara and how far she's willing to go to do what she thinks is right. As I said earlier, I didn't care much for the romance angle as I don't think that Peter Purves and Jean Marsh have any chemistry, but I didn't have an extreme problem with it. Two people put in a common situation under stress are likely to develop feelings for each other that they wouldn't under ordinary conditions. My main problem is when Sara decides that the best way to get a job as a policeman is to beat up the police force and show them how good she is at combat. As someone in a form of law enforcement herself she should have realized that that was an awful idea that would just get her locked up and just made her seem like a dumb brute.
The production values were decent but didn't reach the heights of some other stories. It's really nice to hear Jean Marsh putting in another strong performance after she kind of faded during the Anachronauts and The Destroyers. She's once again showing some real voice inflection and while she doesn't necessarily sound youthful she sounds a LOT better than she did in her last few Big Finish stories. Peter Purves is once again fantastic as Steven and effortlessly brings back the character. My main issue is that once again Big Finish felt that the Early Adventures need to sideline the Doctor. This time he's gone for three episodes instead of one or two. I hope that in their third season that they get past this because I don't really see a point in doing the Early Adventures if they have to sideline the Doctor so much. Of course for this story, it's kind of necessary for the Doctor to be gone for so long. If it were the only Early Adventure that did this, I'd have no problem with it but having had three of the four stories sideline the Doctor for a significant amount of time it is becoming really disappointing. I love the Hartnell era and I think that both William Russell and Peter Purves do him justice, so I'd like to have more stories featuring that Doctor.
The guest cast is really good as well. Ram John Holder really excels as the charitable and kind Uncle Joseph. You really get the impression that this is a laid back war veteran who just wants to enjoy life in his later years. Damian Lynch also does a find job as Michael Newman. His role initially doesn't require much more than talking in a monotone but then it all changes in episode three. Suddenly he's able to make the monotone positively sinister, even chuckling in a sort of off way that's really creepy. Stephen Critchlow plays the typical bully type. He does it well but there isn't much to it. Sara Powell is alright as Audrey. Her accent seems a little overdone and can be a bit difficult to listen to but her friendship with Sara is believable and I do like the scene where they're together in the marketplace bonding. The music this time wasn't exactly to my taste either. It didn't have a lot of variability and while there were Jamaican characters, the bongo drums seemed a little out of place especially as the Jamaican culture wasn't really a large part of the story. The sound effects were good and there was plenty of sound from the squelching of the disintegrating copies to cooking to trucks to crates being burst open and beyond. It made the soundscape fairly rich, which gives the story a lot of nice texture to help the imagination in visualizing what's going on.
Final Rating: 7/10
Recommendation: It's a bit of a mixed bag. There is some wonderful stuff showing the ignorance of prejudice and really highlighting the struggles that people have trying to live in a new country. Unfortunately, the lame aliens and the mixed thematic messages detract from the whole. There's some good characterization except when Sara just randomly becomes dumb to conveniently make sure that she isn't in a particular scene and even the production seems relatively uneven. Still, I think that it's better than it isn't but it finishes off the Early Adventures on rocky territory. I do recommend listening to it.