Rewritten from material that I originally posted 8/13/13 on another forum:
Blurb: The TARDIS lands in Berlin in the 1930s, where Hitler and his National Socialist party are in the ascendant.
Some of the greatest scientific minds are gathering here: Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck, Schrödinger, Wigner. The people who will build the future of planet Earth.
But the Doctor and Susan have brought something with them. Something apparently harmless, something quite common. Yet something that could threaten the course of history…
Format: Limited-cast audio drama, a Companion Chronicle from the point-of-view of Susan. Published by Big Finish Productions and released August 2013.
Setting: Earth: January 1933, Berlin, Germany. Susan narrates this adventure while reading aloud from a letter that she is writing to Barbara.
Continuity: Set prior to the events of the television episode, An Unearthly Child. There is no real indication of where it takes place in that period. All indications are that this story slots in directly after Quinnis with the Doctor and Susan looking for a place to settle down for a while, however it could just as easily take place before that story and there is no strong indication either way. The framing sequence with Susan's narration likely occurs between The Reign of Terror and Planet of Giants. Susan mentions the events of The Aztecs and asks Barbara to "remember" indicating that it happened a while ago. Since Ian and Barbara thought they were being put off the ship between The Sensorites and Reign of Terror it most likely occurs after the latter story. This could equally as well take place between Planet of Giants and The Daleks Invasion of Earth. The events of Here There Be Monsters might even help make sense of the fact that Susan is thinking of leaving the TARDIS. Reference is made to a box that the Doctor can't open and then later leaves in London 1963, which is a definite reference to The Hand of Omega (see Remembrance of the Daleks).
Canonicity Quotient: There are several links to other television stories. There is a reference to the Doctor wanting to get to the 20th century to "do something" with the Hand of Omega. This doesn't seem likely, but is not directly contradicted by any television story. Similarly, in the framing section Susan mentions thinking about leaving the ship. This also seems suspicious given her reaction to the notion in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, although if this happens after Here There be Monsters it's definitely more likely. 0.98
Discussion: I really looked forward to The Alchemists. Both of the previous stories told by Susan - Here There Be Monsters and Quinnis - were excellent tales in and of themselves that told us something new about her character. This one would also go where only Quinnis had gone before and give us a story about Susan and the Doctor before they met Ian and Barbara. I looked forward to the new insights that this story would reveal about the Doctor and Susan's adventurs as well as their characters and relationship during this time. After hearing it, I'm not sure that it lived up to my expectations.
First of all, the performances are top notch. Carole Ann Ford is doing a fantastic job of working to make herself sound like her 20-year-old self and resurrecting her performance as Susan. She did a very convincing job of transporting us back 50 years and sounding as if she'd leaped out of a DVD to perform. Wayne Forrester also did a wonderful job as Pollitt and, unusually for a CC the guest actor, also did some of the other voices as well. His German was a little contrived, but I've certainly heard worse. When the plot twist about Pollitt comes it feels like a surprise. After that he gives a markedly different performance, which I liked. It's no wonder that Susan feels so betrayed in Hunters of Earth. It doesn't seem that anyone in the last few adventures has honestly befriended her. One wonders why she isn't more cynical in An Unearthly Child.
A few more things that I liked - I liked that this is a true historical with no alien menaces or other sci-fi trappings. I think that it's good to show that sometimes humanity is bad enough, without invoking an alien menace to provide the conflict in the tale. I also liked the story being about alchemy. Its not the usual thing for stories set in this time period and that in itself was refreshing. It was also nice to work it into a history lesson, so we learn about the events leading up to World War 2 as a historical is supposed to do. I also enjoyed the music played during the dramatic scenes. It felt like the music that would have played if this had been a televized serial in the 60's, and that really helped to create the illusion that this was a new televized story. The rest of the music was annoying, goofy sounding stuff, but it seems like parts of the first season are definitely meant to be something like a comedy, albeit a non-funny one.
I wish that there was much more that I could say that was positive. I mentioned that previous Susan stories did a good job of saying something about the character and being interesting stories in themselves. We had neither of those here. We find out that for about nine-tenths of a second Susan may have considered changing history, but when she makes that consideration it's already too late to do anything about it. The story itself plods along. It doesn't really start until midway through episode 2. Until then we're just setting the scenes and that seems like incredibly strange pacing for a 2-episode companion chronicle. Once it starts it's interesting and good, but we wasted so much time getting to the start that could have been used in developing the story more and creating more interest. I appreciate that we didn't go down the standard route of having the Nazis as the villains, but at the same time they just happened to be there. They could have been utilized in some way to add to the danger, rather than having a few of them argue with Susan for a minute and having that be their sole contribution to the story.
Susan here continues the idea that her character is fairly useless. She bumbles through most of the story and never really actually solves the mystery of where the Doctor is. It's pure happenstance that she blunders into trusting a man who she already had full evidence could not be trusted. It jumped right out at me when Pollitt mentioned that she and the Doctor had gold. Yet, Susan ignores this most important of clues, and the fact that the man himself acts like a shifty ne'er do well. It's only because of all of that that she makes it back to the Doctor.
The Doctor acts strangely here. The Hartnell Doctor was never above lying, but here he admits that he has the knowledge and the capabilities of creating gold from seawater in an economical and energy-efficient manner to a man who obviously can't be trusted. I can understand why the Doctor might have agreed that the theory was sound but just not economical, but when pressed on the point I can't believe that he caved in so easily. That isn't the Hartnell Doctor I remember, who would have blustered and lied his way through the whole thing.
Susan's talk of how they change history in the beginning doesn't make sense. Of course what the Doctor said in The Aztecs makes sense. In that theory of time travel they were always meant to go back and always would have been part of his adventures, which is why they knew about him. I also think that there's a logic flaw in considering that Tegana would have tried to kill Polo if the time travelers hadn't turned up. It'd be mighty suspicious if a diplomat arrived alone after his entire escort party had been killed. I don't think that Tegana had that plan until he met the time travelers and realized that the risk was worth it to secure the prize of the "flying caravan". While this was just a throwaway line and a not a huge part of the story, it was one that jumps out as not being well thought out.
I was a little confused about Pollitt. He lives at the end, and the Doctor tells him to take up a more upstanding line of work. There's mention of him being a painter and a sculptor. Is he supposed to be someone from history? If so I'm completely lost on who.
All things considered, I'm giving this one a 6/10. It gets an extra point for being a pure historical and it really does pick up in the second half of episode 2. It's also not really bad, but there's just not a whole lot of good in it either. I think that it would have been far better if it had actually put Susan into a situation where the decision to change history was the source of the drama ala The Aztecs or The Glorious Revolution. Finding out that she just kind of considered it later for half a second doesn't really add much to the character and is very anti-climactic. I hope that Upstairs does a better job of creating an exciting story with new insights on the characters next month.
Final Rating: 6/10
Recomendation: The Alchemists is a slow story. For a long portion it seems to treat itself as a comedy and then becomes deadly serious. Once the twist is revealed the story does pick up. Unfortunately, by that point the story is almost over, and the final confrontation is not that interesting at all. On the positive side, despite several brief references to other stories that can easily be ignored this is an almost continuity-free story that a new listener would be able to pick up and listen to without confusion. If you're limited in what you can listen to I suggest skipping this. Yet, it isn't an awful story, so if you have the time and money you can definitely include this in your play list.