Like many Big Finish series concepts, The First Doctor Adventures is never so great that I feel enthusiastic about picking up the next volume, never so terrible that I swear off picking up another one. Part of the problem is that it has such a plodding formulaicity to it. An historical and a science-fiction story in every volume — the historical always a very worthy “pure” that feels very precisely like The Aztecs or The Reign of Terror — and the characters, despite being played by new actors, frozen in amber since 1964. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been surprised by a First Doctor Adventure, except maybe The Invention of Death.
Volumes Three and Four are as much a part of these trends as the preceding volumes. I’ll discuss the stories by genre: historicals, then sci-fi. Marc Platt’s The Phoenicians is one of those stories that could have come out of 1964 and is all the worse for it. The plot apes things like The Aztecs and Marco Polo, but there’s not the depth of character or performance that animates those stories. The performances are so broad, the script so languid it’s hard to care. I know The Aztecs has a lot of historical errors, but when I watch it I feel like I’ve really met the Aztecs. Here I feel more like I’ve watched a school play about the Phoenicians. In the extras, Marc Platt even says he specifically didn’t listen to any of the previous stories so that he would only imagine the original cast, so little is this series trying to do anything innovative.
That said, I would still rate it higher than Jonathan Barnes’s Last of the Romanovs in Volume Four. Big Finish dramas with four leads end up limited by the small guest casts they can muster, but the better writers do it so as you don’t notice — in this story, however, an entire Russian city seems to consist of three people, one of whom is Dan Starkey doing a voice. The Doctor and company end up embroiled in the last days of the tsars. There was a whole big Romanov family (you can see them on screen in the pretty good Nicholas and Alexandra, where the Valeyard himself plays Tsar Nicholas), but Big Finish can only afford to have two of them speak, so there are lots of scenes where people have to go, “Oh, everyone else is sleeping”, or “Oh, they’re all in the next room, I shan’t go get them”, or even worse, “Hello everybody, I am going to talk to you all but none of you are going to reply”. I feel like it would have been smarter for Barnes to just be a little ahistorical and say Nicholas and Anastasia were imprisoned separately from the rest of the family, rather than make the limitations of the format so obvious.
I also found the moral dimensions of the story weird. Yes, the Communist regime that supplanted the tsars was awful and committed many atrocities… but the tsar was a dictator, you know? The Doctor keeps going on about how bad it is this guy is getting executed… but how many people did he execute? Does the Doctor go on like this when people blow up Daleks? (No he does not.)
The sci-fi stories in these two sets are a study in counterpoints: Guy Adams’s Tick-Tock World in Volume Three is clearly attempting to do something interesting. It’s weirder than any First Doctor Adventures sci-fi story, reminding one of the more out-there stories like The Edge of Destruction. Carole Ann Ford even appears as an older Susan. But I found it hard to care anyway — nothing very interesting ever seemed to happen, and the story goes through some moves that are by this point pretty clichéd for Doctor Who stories.
On the other hand, Andrew Smith’s Return to Skaro on Volume Four is noteworthy for how uninteresting it seems to be aiming for. A sequel to the original The Daleks, it very carefully recreates the setting of the original story, with lots of meticulous detail. Oddly, I think this makes it feel unlike the period it’s trying to emulate — anyone who’s seen The Dalek Invasion of Earth or The Chase knows that aping the previous Dalek story is a thing that never even occurred to the production team of the early 1960s! I think it gets the form right without really understanding the function. If you watch The Daleks, I think what’s different about that Dalek story is that the Daleks aren’t monsters yet, they’re aliens. They’re rationally pursuing their own interests, which happen to be inimical to those of the Thals and our heroes; it’s only once they start invading the Earth and defacing monuments and trying to drive planets around that they become monsters. I think there’s room for an “early” Dalek story that takes the aliens approach of Terry Nation’s original script, defying our expectations for a Dalek story. The Daleks wouldn’t be cackling plotters, but beleaguered survivors of a genocide while their neighbours prosper. But Smith’s script never fails to go the obvious route: you can see every twist coming 30 minutes out.
I would say I don’t know what this range is going for, but I do know what it’s going for: a kind of nostalgia that prioritises aping the style of the old stories over understanding why those stories actually worked. Doctor Who in 1963-64 was a trailblazing piece of television — no-one who worked on it then would have ever tried to do the same thing week in, week out like these stories do. Just like Big Finish’s early Fourth Doctor Adventures, these new stories feel so much less lively than the decades-old stories they’re attempting to follow. Volume Four will be it for me. I think there was space to do something really interesting with a completely new cast for the original TARDIS team, but it’s obvious no-one at Big Finish sees it the same way I do.
The First Doctor Adventures Volume Three (by Marc Platt, Guy Adams; starring David Bradley, Claudia Grant, Jamie Glover, Jemma Powell) and Volume Four (by Andrew Smith, Jonathan Barnes; starring David Bradley, Claudia Grant, Jamie Glover, Jemma Powell) were released by Big Finish Productions in January 2019 and March 2020 respectively.