Big Finish The Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor Volume 2 boxset review

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The Companion Chronicles, Big Finish’s series of stories narrated by the Doctor’s fellow travellers, continues with a second volume focussed on the First Doctor era.

Set in the latter part of William Hartnell’s tenure, this set offers adventures with Vicki, Stephen and then Ben & Polly. ‘Fields of Terror’ opens the box set, bringing the TARDIS back to revolutionary France.

However, unlike the Parisian action of The Reign of Terror, writer John Pritchard opens our eyes to the wider implications of the revolution; ruthless columns of soldiers crossing the countryside to crush any resistance, raising villages to the ground and putting innocents to the sword in the name of the republic. Maureen O’Brien narrates and she spins a terrifying tale as the Doctor, Vicki, and Stephen get caught up in the hostilities, implemented by the high-handed Captain Lagrange (Robert Hands – Algy from The Empty Child). When he commandeers a local chateau he finds not only a hostile reception from its mistress, but his troops are troubled by a monstrous nocturnal visitor.

There are some vintage Doctor moments here, not least his uncomfortable meal with the Captain and the mistress, and we were kept guessing throughout; until the point at which we were sure we had deduced the identity of the monster, when we were proved utterly wrong.

Peter Purves narrates the second tale, Across The Darkened City by David Bartlett, which begins with Stephen separated from the Doctor, and as a prisoner on an alien planet. Attempting a daring escape leads to tragedy, and Stephen finds himself making an uneasy alliance with a damaged Dalek for a journey to the only possible escape route – all the while avoiding the horrific Chaons, life force hungry monsters with an unceasingly flexible biology.

Nicholas Briggs voices the rather unusual Dalek mutant and the story gives Stephen a relentless struggle right through to its rather clever conclusion, which will thrill 60’s Dalek fans no end.

The final two stories take place towards the end of the First Doctor’s run, utilising the talents of Anneke Wills as Polly, and Elliot Chapman as Ben Jackson.

The Bonfires of the Vanities brings the TARDIS to Lewes in the 1950s, where writer Una McCormack plays with the town’s famous history of celebrating Bonfire night as the guys take on a sinister dimension and gangs of Bonfire Boys roam the streets. With a frail Doctor, approaching his end, the two companions step up to handle much of the action, suiting the format perfectly, and they find a surprising ally in the remarkable woman who runs the town’s library.

Finally, Guy Adams’ The Plague of Dreams gives the whole set an incredibly meta-twist, trapping Polly within an Elizabethan style play. Guided by a narrator, she has to take part in a story where things become real if you believe in them enough with the Doctor’s fate hanging in the balance.

This final story is immense fun, making a positive virtue of the narrated style and twisting the show’s format in the ambitious sort of way they dared to on occasion in the 60s – it is totally engaging and quite unlike anything else we have heard.

Revealing implications on a wider scale for his own race, the Doctor is presented with a hint of his future and the foreknowledge of his impending change before being granted a choice. Cleverly though, this is all achieved through the filter of the show’s 1960s constraints and sensibilities.

Building on the trailer for the Second Doctor Volume 1, which employed a charming Troughton-voiced introduction, courtesy of Fraser Hines, this volume’s trail gives some context for the story arc with a framing scene that is not actually in the final production. It is all really very clever.

Across the set, there is a real sense of ambition and we really must highlight the score by Robert Harvey, who features in all the CD extras, along with input from producer Ian Atkins, as well as the writers and performers. William Hartnell may sadly not be with us anymore, but these Companion Chronicles do a fine job of keeping his era of the show alive with challenging stories and brilliant performances throughout.