Blurb: An experimental timeship smashes into the TARDIS, and the crews of both ships wake up on a desert island. Has the TARDIS been destroyed? And why doesn’t the Doctor want to escape?
Then, Steven and Sara find themselves on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in 1966. And their only way back to the TARDIS is to betray the Doctor.
Review: Big Finish had wanted to reunite Peter Purves and Jean Marsh in an audio adventure for some time. Both Purves and Marsh had had successful trilogies in The Companion Chronicles range written by Simon Guerrier. With Purves expressing interest in working with Marsh again, it seemed obvious to put the two together sooner rather than later. A double-length Companion Chronicle was commissioned, but the author was unable to meet the deadline. Instead, fan favorite Simon Guerrier was asked to create a replacement at the last minute. The result was The Anachronauts.
Guerrier plays to his strengths with this story. While there are a lot of ideas packed into the narrative, he makes the story center on the relationship between Steven Taylor and Sarah Kingdom. To that end, he cleverly sets up a format where the two companions each narrate alternate episodes of the story. In some ways this creates a little padding, since some of the same events are narrated from different points of view. Yet, this ends up creating some fascinating insights into how these two characters perceive each other and their time with the Doctor. This becomes all the more exciting when you realize that these two companions were only together for seven episodes of the TV series. There’s a lot of story to mine here, and Guerrier exploits that to his utmost, building on the work that he’d already established in their two respective solo trilogies and making those elements play out here with each other. Steven wishes that he and Sara might have been more than just friends while Sara feels like she needs Steven’s absolution after she mistakenly killed her brother. The crossed connections between these two lonely travelers is very bittersweet, but it gives the story extra impact that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story doesn’t work as well. It’s odd since most of The Companion Chronicles are only two episodes long, but even at four episodes this story seems to be a muddled confusion of plots that would each make a fine story of their own but ultimately get in each other’s way. There’s a story about futuristic human time travelers, supposedly the first humans to develop time travel. There’s a plot about the TARDIS possibly being destroyed and the crew stranded on a deserted island with a legendary creature. There’s a story about being marooned in 1960’s Berlin. They’re all interesting stories, but it feels like every time one of them is going to be developed, one of the others interferes. This is on top of the Steven/Sara dynamic that’s given the central role in the story.
It doesn’t help that the term “Anachronaut” is a complete misnomer. While changing history is speculated on, it turns out that not only does no history change in this story, it was never possible that history would change. Also, a lot of the elements in the first two episodes appear to be a ripoff of The New Adventures of Doctor Who novel, Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible. It’s impossible to tell if Guerrier had ever read that story or not, but it would be remarkable coincidence if he hadn’t. The elements of the TARDIS crashing into a prototype time vessel, the supposed destruction of both ships, and both crews being marooned in a strangely deserted landscape inhabited by odd beings who shouldn’t exist is way too similar to go unmentioned.
One of the key elements to this story is the idea of a Time War. The Doctor is appalled that humanity’s first use of time travel is as a weapon of war rather than a vessel for exploration. His fears of a war that would never end because it would be fought in all of time paints a stark picture for the listener, and Purves nails the imperious and outraged Hartnell, a side of Hartnell that Purves typically struggles with. The resolution to that part of the story is well done and very much in-keeping with the attitude of the first Doctor. It may be shocking to some, but elevates the story slightly for leaving the listener with a moral question that they’d have to decide for themselves over whether he does the right thing or not.
As one of the double-length features, the soundscape is fairly lavish on this story. There are a lot of sounds from laser blasts to rain, to booted feet on roads. Yet, the real standout sound effect comes with the sound for the Time Lord legend of the Time Sprite that lives at the heart of the TARDIS. Big Finish has come up with a sound that’s completely chilling and unsettling for the creature that may make it difficult to listen to in the dark or while driving. The music is used sparingly enough that it doesn’t intrude on the story, but when it is used it’s used to good effect with exotic sounds to denote the odd location and situation for the TARDIS crew. Purves as ever is a joy to listen to. It’s already been mentioned that he gets a lot to do with the Doctor in this story, but he’s also given a lot of meat to dig into as Steven deals with his relationship with Sara, his brushes with death, and how to get out of a dangerous situation without the Doctor’s help. He rises to the occasion each time. Jean Marsh is an older actress and can’t always bring the same energy to a story as Purves can, but in this one Marsh gives one of her liveliest performances for Big Finish. Sara is weary of constant battles and wants to run from the fact that she’s killed her brother. Yet, she’s also the type of person that doesn’t show weakness. Her need and fear and strength are all shown really well in her performance. When she starts acting differently in the second half of the story it’s a clue to what’s going on. She gives an amazing performance in the fourth episode that’s impossible to listen to without feeling her desperation and pain. It’s very well done. All-in-all it’s a testament to the work of director Ken Bentley that he can get the power from these performances that’s lacking in some of the other Companion Chronicles.
Recommendation: It’s a story that united Peter Purves and Jean Marsh. These two great actors are given a lot of meat as their relationship becomes the focus of the story, and they rise to the occasion giving some of their most memorable performances for Big Finish. Unfortunately, the story itself is lacking with too many elements tripping over each other and none developed fully. Some credit ought to be given to Simon Guerrier, since he had to create this in a rush at the last minute, but it’s still a bit of a muddled mess. It’s probably worth checking out just for the performances, but if you aren’t interested in the Hartnell era then this isn’t a strong recommendation.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Ken Bentley
Produced by David Richardson
Written by Simon Geurrier
Runtime Approx 120 min.