Blurb: When the Doctor, Polly, and Ben arrive in Lewes in the late 1950s, they’re just in time to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night. But there’s no fun on the streets tonight – the town is in the grip of fear. There are imps on the loose in Lewes, the Bonfire Boys are on the march, and nobody is safe from the fire.
Format: Limited-cast audio drama, a Companion Chronicle from the point-of-view of Polly Wright and Ben Jackson. Published by Big Finish Productions and released June of 2017.
Setting: Lewes, England, Earth: November 5, 1950's. The exact date is never specified. Polly and Ben narrate this story from an unknown time and place in the future.
Continuity: This story takes place between "The Smugglers" and "The Tenth Planet". While still in the TARDIS, the Doctor mentions that there's quite an arctic storm outside (see The Smugglers).
Canonicity Quotient: Big Finish goes through a lot of effort to create a justification for this gap when the simple answer would be to either set the first adventure with this group somewhere else that's cold (either the North Pole or an alien world) or to just have it that the TARDIS systems weren't working properly. The whole temporal distortion explanation is unnecessary and doesn't really feel authentic to the era, especially since plenty have used this gap in the last 17 years or so. No discussion by Ben or Polly that they're only a few years out from their own time seems odd, but just about possible since they've only been traveling with the Doctor for a short time.
Discussion: To say that I've been looking forward to this for a long time would be an understatement. Ever since I heard about The companion Chronicles I've wanted them to do a story with Polly and Ben with the first Doctor. There's a lot of ground to explore there, and it's easy enough to wedge a gap between "The Smugglers" and "The Tenth Planet". The Short Trips story "Fallen" was just a taste. This was the main course. Thankfully, it did not disappoint.
So, for me, so much of this story hung on the performances. It's wonderful for Anneke to narrate, and I really enjoyed her first Doctor. I think that she easily beats Jean Marsh and Maureen O'Brien on that score putting her about at the same level as Carole Ann Ford. I was surprised by the level of care that she took with it. For all the talk that we've heard that she didn't like him at the time, she's definitely able to channel the same kind of admiration into her performance that's so evident when Ford, Russell, or Purves have to perform as the Doctor. She's also a delight as the local Librarian, who's so matter-of-fact and unphased by everything that she's a real joy to listen to.
Not to be outdone Elliot Chapman puts in his own strong performance as Ben. As usual, it's apparent how much work he puts into recreating Michael Craze's performance. He even mentions on the extras that Craze performed Ben slightly different in the earlier episodes, and it's that slightly different performance that he gives here. What's an amazing and new treat is his performance as The Doctor. I've long said that while Purves is good and has the mannerisms down that I don't like his Doctor as much as William Russell's. So much of the first Doctor's personality comes from a tone of righteous indignation that Purves' impish style just can't convey. Purves' Doctor sounds silly and ineffectual anytime he's supposed to sound angry and imposing. William Russell captures that essence of the first Doctor. But Chapman in some ways put them both to shame. I think that this is by far technically the best first Doctor performance that we've had yet from Big Finish. Whereas, I think that Russell and Purves are giving their own performances as "The First Doctor", Chapman is giving a performance of William Hartnell. It's a subtle difference, but it means that he sounds closer to the original than anything that we've had yet. I loved it. His Doctor sounds so Doctorish, and I'm glad that he was allowed to deliver the denouement. On one level, I do wish that we'd had some context as to why these stories were being narrated. I find that the best Companion Chronicles have a framing sequence, but at least there's reason for Ben and Polly to be narrating together, since "Fallen" established that they get married, but the performances were so good that I can overlook it.
The plot wasn't really all that great. There wasn't much character development to be had. Once again it seems like The Companion Chronicles are just going the route of shorter Early Adventures with less of a cast. I really feel like including a framing sequence would help in that regard. The most interesting character in this one was the local librarian. I loved that she referenced that she both read and wrote science-fiction, which I thought was fantastic. The atmosphere was fantastic, and McCormack does a fantastic job of weaving together a mysterious tale that pokes at hidden fears and all-to-common ones. Unfortunately, at the end it just fizzles. We're supposed to believe that a creature who's been plotting revenge for over a century had no better plan than to scare everyone and hope they all killed each other? When he talked about everything burning I thought for sure that he had a bomb or something. Instead, as soon as he reveals himself the humans all gang up on him again and he runs away. I understand that the message was one of paranoia making people do things that they shouldn't, but it was still kind of a let down at the end. Regardless of what started things, one hundred years of hatred just doesn't go away overnight.
The production was also a bit of a let down this time. I don't know if they recorded this one at a different location or what, but there was a hollow sound to a lot of the voices, like you could hear that this was a recording. When Anneke or Elliot were narrating it seemed to go away, but everything in the story had that quality to it. Because it was so specific I'm not sure if it was deliberate or not, but it sounded jarring. The music and sounds, though, were up to there regular quality. I really love that they're letting the composers and sound designers talk on the extras now, because I enjoy hearing about the process that they use to work. The "fragile" music really helped to sell this one, and I really enjoyed listening to it.
Final Rating: 7/10
Recommendation: A fantastic first tale for the first Doctor/Polly/Ben Companion Chronicle trio. The performances are fantastic and really prove why this team needs to have more stories. The story helps to keep the tension for most of the story, but fizzles at the end. The sound design is also a mixed bag with fantastic sounds and music but a little bit of a lapse in the quality of the dialog. Overall, though, this one is far more of a success than a failure, and I highly recommend that others listen to it.