I suppose it’s only fair to start the review of the earliest Doctor Who story with a look at it through a few other time dimensions. I would say it is the earliest possible, but I suppose the story that ends with the Doctor and Susan at the beginning of the story – that is to say, in a TARDIS repair shop, running from the authorities – will be told, but it is unlikely that it will be written in a satisfying enough way for anybody with the license to publish it.
It is February of 2015. I have written reviews of 31 Doctor Who stories, and have reviewed ninety of them on “An Unearthly Podcast”.
It is November of 2013. Doctor Who on televison is celebrating its 50th anniversary with Day of the Doctor, its 240th televised story. The BBC is celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who with the docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, the show’s former stars are celebrating it with The Five-Ish Doctors Reboot, BBC Audio (now Audio-Go) is celebrating with the 11th part of the 11-part Destiny of the Doctor, the Big Finish Doctor Who Main Range is celebrating with “The Assassin Games” (the last of a trilogy of stories set in the month of the show’s birth) and Big Finish Productions is celebrating with the story “The Light at the End”. The Companion Chronicles submit “The Beginning”, their own contribution to this celebration.
This month, the First Doctor is appearing in three stories and a docudrama, after having appeared in five stories since January. He has now appeared not only in Third, Fifth and Seventh Doctor stories, but also in Eighth and Eleventh Doctor ones as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, he is now tied with his Second and Third incarnations for appearing in the second highest number of crossovers (with the Eleventh Doctor having the most, with something between eleven and twelve, depending on your description of “Name of the Doctor”), although he was only played by William Hartnell in two of these crossovers: “The Three Doctors” and “Day of the Doctor”, in each case appearing in a pre-filmed insert on a monitor.
The Companion Chronicles‘ contribution to the celebration is a look at the dawn of the Doctor’s journey. Not the earliest – even if you ignore Lungbarrow, also written by Marc Platt – as it is set several seconds or minutes after the First Doctor’s appearance in “Name of the Doctor”. That is to say, this is several seconds or minutes after the TARDIS receives a notion from thousands of years in its future to project an image of a human girl to attract the Doctor – to “steal” a Time Lord and run away – to direct him to the right timeship. The Doctor and Susan are arriving in the TARDIS, on the run, and take off – before realizing there is a mechanic dissembling the ship as they speak.
Susan, having never heard the word TARDIS, comes up with it – presumably due to a whisper in her mind from a telepathic circuit – and spends the rest of her time traveling with her grandfather believing that she had invented a word that both the ship and the Doctor were already familiar with. This is unsurprising; in either a small or a large way, virtually every story set earlier in the Doctor’s timestream than when it was published sets out to fix some continuity error, large or small, established by later stories. The question of whether or not this tarnishes the original stories is irrelevant in this context: no William Hartnell story was set on Gallifrey, feature Time Lords, or used the words “Type 40”. Beside that, this is a small enough detail not to require me to form an opinion one way or another, as any such opinion is completely irrelevant in the face of the story at large.
The story features the Doctor and Susan arriving on Earth’s moon. Aliens living on the moon – presumably immigrants from another world, although it is not stating explicitly – are seeding the Earth with energy in order to guide the formation of life on the planet. When the Doctor objects to playing God, they attempt to dissemble the TARDIS, and end up placing themselves and the three Gallifreyans in temporal stasis for billions of years, until they are rescued by human explorers. Considering the experiment ruined because they did not control the process of life, the aliens – Archaeons – decide to destroy the life that has developed on Earth. The Doctor stops this, leaving them open to a counterattack from Earth, and leaves Quadrigger Stoyn – who had been eager to place the blame for the situation on the duo that had dragged him away from his home rather than helping them deal with the Archaeons – behind as the TARDIS dematerializes.
Companion Chronicles are definitely not my favorite Big Finish productions – the more important the narration is, the less likely it is I’ll be able to keep up with any given story – but it still features a significantly larger cast than a Destiny of the Doctor episode. The narration, of course, is intended to fit into the gimmick: this is Susan, former occupant of the TARDIS, telling the story to an audience of one of her adventures. Beyond my subjective experience of the format, this is directed, acted and scored as brilliantly as any Big Finish Production.
As for the story itself, I find it a bit hoaky. To start with, Susan’s obsession with the word “The” as part of the name of the Earth. Yes, we refer to our homeworld as the definitive article at least as often as we refer to it as a single name, but to think the name would have made it to other worlds and become a unique feature in all of space and time stretches the mind a bit. The accidental role of the Doctor in the evolution of humanity is also a bit of a stretch…the way this story goes, Time Lords might as well have been the template on which the human appearance was based and it would not have been any more unbelievable.
The tone of the story is successful. It captures the feeling of a Susan who is terrified to leave Gallifrey, but equally eager to explore. The Doctor is the same man who would default to stealing to fix the TARDIS (“Hunters of Earth”) and kill a man for risking to expose him (“100,000 BC”) without being too far from the protagonist he would become. It is either luck or wisdom that stories from this era are invariably from Susan’s point of view, as she is clearly the most sympathetic character; it is not at all difficult to believe in this Doctor holding an engineer hostage in the TARDIS for having the bad luck to be working on it when he steals it, or to strand the man on an alien moon for speaking out against him. These actions may be easier to empathize with than the Doctor as he would become, but they don’t make for a very heroic character, and we’re not expecting the Doctor to be one for a season or so.
As a beginning to all of Doctor Who…well, it is telling that this is a Companion Chronicles story. Companion Chronicles stories are generally small-scale stories that occur off-screen between televised adventures and are told by the companions after they leave the TARDIS. They are often used for creative purposes beyond this, but the whole point of the series is that these are “a day in the life” stories. They are abbreviated, lacking the multiple points of view of longer stories, and generally fit into under an hour, save perhaps some specials. This makes it a strange fit for the dawn of the saga, but it also makes it the only fit. This is a story that never could have made it onto television, and never could make it into any other Big Finish range unless they recast the First Doctor yet again, which tradition indicates would lead to the untimely death of David Bradley.
In the context of Companion Chronicles, this is the biggest this story could have been. Is it the best? Well, again, there are a few details that are a bit hokey and leave me scratching my head, so ultimately I can’t consider this the perfect “Beginning”. Everything up until the part where the TARDIS accidentally creates a stasis field for billions of years works very well, and a few things beyond that, but the story as a whole could have been tweaked to make more sense. Still, Big Finish is known for stretching the bounds of what would have made it to television, which is already a Doctor Who thing to do. While I don’t think this makes for the best story that can be created, I do think this makes for a very good story that could have been the first episode if Doctor Who was truly serialized – that is to say, if it didn’t feature a group of episodic multi-part stories and was simply a single ongoing story. Considering that this is in many ways what Doctor Who was trying to be in its beginning, maybe that makes this a more fitting beginning than anything else could have been.