Blurb: The TARDIS materializes on board a still and eerie spaceship. When a squad of soldiers land, they realize they've found themselves in the middle of a war zone. With one of their crew trapped by the enemy, the Doctor and his friends find themselves locked in a desperate race for survival. Vast warships manoeuvre around each other as both sides try to out-think their opponents, flying into ever more dangerous areas of space.
The stakes could not be higher. But as ever in war, the lines between good and evil are hard to define. Will anyone survive to claim the moral high ground?
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring William Russell and Carole Ann Ford published by Big Finish Productions and released September 2016.
Setting: The spaceships Vanguard and Endruance in an unknown star system, time unknown.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Reign of Terror and Planet of Giants. There is no indication of where it fits in relation to other stories within the same gap. Everyone is familiar with the concept of the TARDIS landing on a moving object (see The Sensorites).
Canonicity Quotient: Susan is listed as having a second heart in contradiction to what we're told about Gallifreyans pre-regeneration in much of the Virgin material. Other than that, there's no issue with working this into the existing canon.0.95
Discussion: Someone really likes the idea of the original TARDIS crew in naval situations. On the one hand, it's kind of funny. Domain of the Voord has the time travelers arriving on a planet made mostly of water and about half the story takes place at sea. This story while set in space uses a lot of naval terminology with the spaceship analogous to a submarine. While it almost certainly isn't a deliberate move, it does seem odd that the Powers that Be who commission these stories didn't notice it and perhaps assign this story to the season 2 crew instead of season 1.
On the surface, The Age of Endurance is a story about the war between the humanoid Lastborn and the reptilian Shift. The Shift have the advantage of being able to morph their skin into a variety of textures that can make them invisible or give them armored hides that are impervious to laser fire. Yet, the story is actually a little deeper than that. It's the classic sci-fi trope of pushing the edges of science to far. The Lastborn gave themselves artificial bodies that could ostensibly allow them to live forever, but did so at the cost of their humanity. They performed genetic experiments on the Shifts remaking them in their image, but in doing so created a "superior" race that dominated them and forced them into menial labor. It's through the creation of organic beings again that the Lastborn gain absolution and regain their "humanity". It's schlock b-level sci-fi, but that's perfect fare for the Early Adventures, who's mandate is to create stories in black and white.
On that topic, one shout-out that I wanted to give was that they even used scienctific terms incorrectly in the story, just like they would in a 60's Doctor Who serial. The term "galaxy" and "solar system" was used interchangeably, which was so common in those first few seasons of Doctor Who. The solar system that the Lastborn live in is completely closed off from the rest of space. Yet they mentioned that there was a cosmic incident that effected their entire galaxy. There was no way to know that isolated in their solar system, so they must have meant solar system. I just thought it was clever that they worked that in there. I also like that the engines are mostly mechanical with a lot of loud pounding piston noises. Most of the technical jargon seems more in-keeping with a 1960's perspective than a 21st century one and that was greatly appreciated.
From a cast perspective, the performances were overall serviceable, but not spectacular. Carole Ann Ford was a real delight. She alternated easily between her narrator voice and her voice as Susan. I continue to be impressed by her ability to sound like a fifteen-year-old on command, especially when she has to alternate with her regular voice. William Russell is doing amazingly for a 91-year-old man. He continues to be able to convey the strength and presence of Ian Chesterton, and although his narration was diminished in this story he still did a wonderful job narrating when he needed to. If I have any concern it's that his performance as the Doctor continues to deteriorate, a trend that I've been noticing since The Dark Planet. His Doctor now sounds incredibly hoarse and week. While part of that was story-driven, one wonders if that wasn't put in to mask Russell's difficulty with playing the part. Still, there isn't much that you can do about that. The man is still doing better than so many his age, so it's still quite a feat. I just suspect that we'll be seeing a full recast of the first Doctor before to long.
The other voices are serviceable, but not memorable. Rachel Atkins' Myla is just your generic tough female commander. John Voce's Toban is strong soldier. Gethin Anthony's Olivan and Andy Secombe's Benya are such generic junior officers that at times its hard to tell which character is which. The story doesn't help much in that regard until Olivan's secret is given. Neither does much to really distinguish themselves and it's hard to remember which name applies to which one. Tom Bell gives perhaps the most prominent performance as Arran and the other Shifts, but it left me wondering if they'd gotten Darren Strange back to reprise his role as The Butcher from The Sleeping Blood. It was the exact same voice, which is basically just a deepening of the actor's natural voice to make them sound like a goa'uld from Stargate. It unfortunately, didn't really give him much room to actually act as the character, since the electronic effect dominated his voice, and it seemed like a strange choice in the first place. One imagines the Shift's looking like armor-plated velociraptors. When they reveal themselves they're given a hissing sound effect that like someone put the microphone up to newly-poured soda and then dropped the sound a few octaves. There's a lot of hissing in that sound, but when the Shift's speak they sound perfectly normal except unnaturally deep. There's no hissing or anything that'd actually identify them as reptilian at all. It seems a really weird choice and really works against trying to create the reality of the situation.
The big deal is that Big Finish recast Barbara Wright as Jemma Powell following Powell's performance as Jacqueline Hill in the An Adventure in Space and Time documentary. The problem that I always had with that casting is that Powell had maybe a half dozen lines as Hill, and she never really sounded much like her. But seeing the success of Elliot Chapman and Tim Treloar as recast Doctor Who characters, I was curious to see what she'd do. To say that I was underwhelmed is an understatement. While Chapman and Treloar obviously studied the performances of the actors who they were replacing, Powell's response to playing the role of Barbara is to read the lines as if she's seeing them for the first time. It's a slow, precise performance with absolutely no inflection. I'd say that she was doing a better job of playing Ben Stein than she was playing Barbara Wright. I know that others have said to give her time, but Chapman and Treloar hit the ground running with these parts. I get the feeling that Powell isn't paying the same respect to the character, and I honestly blame David Richards for doing stunt casting with a name that would be familiar rather than finding someone who could truly emulate the warmth and presence of Barbara Wright.
The pacing is slow, but that doesn't feel that out of place for a story that's trying to emulate season 1. The first episode really hearkens back to those days when the crew could explore and figure out where they are for most of that first episode, and it gives the story some time to breathe and gives the regulars a chance for some character interaction. The rest of the story is the cat-and-mouse game from The Wrath of Khan dragged out for three episodes. There's some intrigue and some action that keeps the story from getting to glacial, but there also isn't anything to exciting or memorable other than Ian teaching the Lastborn to use the currents inside the storm for speed and his spacewalk when those same currents could rip him from the ship.
My first real issue with the story structure is that once again two regular characters are removed from the story for a time. I'd hoped that this nonsense would stop after the first season and the negative reaction that similar moves caused, but it is here on full display. Yes, sometimes in the original series the cast could go on vacation for one or two weeks at a time, but it was never this often and never would they have allowed two regulars to be gone at the same time. Here the Doctor is gone for a single episode. While that's still better than most of the previous Early Adventures, it still grates because Barbara is gone for two and a half episodes. While the need to write the Doctor out may be due to William Russell's health, there's absolutely no reason to write Barbara out, since it's the only part hat Jemma Powell has to play. While it's possible that this story was written with the idea that Carole Ann Ford would double up as Barbara and that may have been the reasoning behind writing Barbara out, it really makes no sense. Both Russell and Ford are used to doing Companion Chronicles where they have to play far more roles than they do here. If they want to write a single character out then fine, but two is just to much. It also makes it more difficult for Ian and Susan to sustain so much of the story by themselves. If it's to much for William Russell to double as the Doctor and Ian for four episodes then they really ought to consider recasting the first Doctor as well.
My second issue is that the story just ends. Ian and Susan are talking and suddenly the ending theme happens. There isn't really anything that feels like a proper resolution or ending theme. Even some narration about everyone getting in the TARDIS and having it dematerialize would have been something. Here it just feels like someone yelled cut in the middle of the final scene and they just played in the end theme.
As for the sounds, the music this time was really good. Unlike Domain of the Voord it was not overpowering. Yet, it still had the authentic feel that the music for the previous story had. There are radiophonic tunes and real instruments. The music is used for good effect to enhance scenes, especially during the tense chase in the nebula. The sounds, however, seemed very poorly coordinated with the acting. I've already mentioned how the Shift's sound effects don't seem to match their voices at all. There are also lots of issues where the narrator will describe something, there's an awkward pause, then there's a sound effect, then there's an awkward pause and either there's more narration or some dialog that happens. While I realize that they're trying to emulate a CD reconstruction with narration, the problem is that every time these scenes happen the awkward pause is the same length. It feels very artificial. The less I say about the scene where Barbara is put on a scanner, it talks about her writhing in discomfort and we get an unconvincing "oof" after an akward pause, and the move on the better. I'm also not enamored withe last sound effects. When so much effort was made to keep the story and plot in-line with 60's storytelling, having the "pew pew" of laser fire just doesn't fit. Go watch any Hartnell story and the lasers are just a lightbulb with some kind of alarm sound. While a lightbulb obviously won't work on audio, the alarm sound would have been fine and with the narrator describing the action it would have been all that was necessary rather than going for a sound that jarred with the reality that they were trying recreate.
Final Rating: 6/10
Recommendation: It's a Hartnell story-by-numbers. If you're a fan of the era then there's definitely something to enjoy. If you aren't, then there isn't much new here to hold your interest. Carole Ann Ford and William Russell do an excellent job with this story, but some generic voices, and a plot that doesn't really work to develop the characters keeps this from holding a lot of interest and removing two members of the main cast for a significant portion undercuts any momentum that the plot has. The story mostly works at recreating the season one atmosphere and has a real verisimilitude to the sounds, jargon, and plots that would have been employed in the period, but that alone isn't enough to keep this story out of mediocrity. Every single story from the first season of Early Adventures beats this one hands down. I don't recommend it unless you're a huge Hartnell fan.