Blurb: England, 1400. Winter. Blood in the snow. Henry IV has usurped the throne, and deposed King Richard II languishes in Pomfret Castle.
Meanwhile the Doctor and his companions preside over New Year revels at Sonning Palace.
But Sonning is a prison, treachery is in the air and murderous Archbishop Thomas Arundel will stop at nothing to crush the rebellion.
As the Doctor and Barbara take the road to Canterbury, Vicki finds a royal friend and Ian is dragged into a dark web of conspiracy at whose heart sits that teller of tales, Geoffrey Chaucer.
Review: The advertisements for the Early Adventures line states that the stories are told “in black and white”. Big Finish is trying to create an authenticity to these stories by making them feel like the classic period that they emulate. Anyone familiar with the first three seasons of Doctor Who knows that the stories alternated between historical adventures and science fiction ones. The Doctor’s Tale falls in the former camp. Set in the second season, Big Finish varies the format from the previous story by replacing Susan with Vicki. As William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill are no longer with us William Russell takes over duties, doubling as both Ian and the Doctor, and Maureen O’Brien plays Vicki and Barbara.
Writer Marc Platt seems to have started out with the idea of creating the most Hartnellian era historical ever. So many of the elements of this story feel like they are stitched together from aspects of previous Hartnell historical stories. We have Barbara asserting herself to right a historical wrong as she did in The Aztecs. We have a handsome rogue fall in love with Barbara and try to kill Ian like Reign of Terror. The Doctor decides to take one of his companions off on a dangerous trip while leaving the other two behind like in The Romans. The list goes on. The good news is that this might actually be helpful for people who aren’t very familiar with this period in the show’s history. They won’t notice how many former elements from the series are referenced here and can enjoy the story on its own merits. For those very familiar with the first two seasons it all feels a little too similar to what’s gone before and it certainly detracts a bit from enjoying the story on its own merits. There are a few links to other stories but almost all of those are explained within the confines of this tale. The only time that a reference might go over someone’s head is that there are two references to another one of Marc Platt’s audio stories for the first Doctor, The Flames of Cadiz. Those references are fairly minor, however, and can easily be ignored to enjoy the story.
Mainly this story tries to emulate the format of The Romans while making the story absolutely serious. The good side of this is that there is some decent political intrigue. There’s one major character whose side you’re not very sure about and there are lots of plots and counter plots that keep you guessing as to what the ultimate resolution will be. Using Thomas Arundel as a villain gives the Doctor a new kind of problem. Arundel is part of history, so he can’t be defeated in the same way that the Doctor defeats so many of his foes, giving the story a very satisfying plot complication. This story also does what any good historical should do. It educates the listener about history. Domain of the Voord was sadly lacking in any kind of science lecture as they would have done in the 60’s. Thankfully, The Doctor’s Tale has Barbara giving the expected history lesson and giving it some authenticity for that 60’s feel that Big Finish wants to evoke.
On the downside, using a really obscure period in history such as this one works to the detriment of the story. There seems to be some background information lacking and while we do get quite a bit of information in the story a lot of it comes later on. While listening to the early episodes some of the scenes are very confusing, a problem exacerbated by the fact that some of the voice actors are playing 3 or more parts and their characters can sound very similar. Platt throws in quite a few of the characters from the Canterbury Tales and seems to be indulging in a bit of elitism in assuming that everyone knows what he’s doing. To someone only passingly familiar with the Tales it seems like Platt is trying to create some sort of symmetry or making some sort of statement, but it doesn’t quite work and it seems like an absurd thing to expect every listener to this story to be familiar with a work so old. Also, emulating the format of The Romans creates a lot of languid movement and not a whole lot of a sense of danger. Things happen and there’s a rather vague sense of threat that hangs over the entire story but the regulars are only put in real jeopardy a couple of times within the story. Platt seems so interested in throwing in all his references to the Canterbury Tales and previous Hartnell historicals that he forgets to make this a really gripping yarn in its own right. The pacing is also a little odd. The last episode seems to hit its natural conclusion about midway through the story only for another seemingly unnecessary ending to be tacked on at the end.
The performances in this story are top notch and help to keep it from sagging too deeply from the flaws in its writing. The story starts with the Doctor suffering from a cold. Initially this seems to be a humorous acknowledgement that William Russell’s voice doesn’t sound like William Hartnell’s. However, the Doctor soon recovers and the cold is forgotten. Still, Russell shines as the Doctor. His voice may not be the same but he has all the mannerisms down exactly as the other man would have said them. When the Doctor takes on the character of the folk legend, The Lord of Misrule, he plays it with all the flair that Hartnell himself would have gone for and you can easily imagine the man pulling off those scenes. Russell doesn’t disappoint as Ian, being the gallant man of action that everyone expects from the TV series. Russell does seem to lack a little energy as Ian that he gives for the Doctor, so his performance isn’t quite as good as in some of the Companion Chronicles but for a man pushing 90 it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect that he’ll be able to give the same performance every time. The fact that he is consistently good is amazing enough. Maureen O’Brien delights as Vicki, seemingly able to recapture the orphan youth with ease. Unfortunately her Barbara leaves something to be desired. Neither she nor Carole Ann Ford seem to be able to do a reasonable imitation of Barbara’s mannerisms and O’Brien just makes her sound the same as her normal voice only giving her “Barbara” less energy and having her talk slower.
The guest cast is also excellent. Special mention should be given to John Banks who plays the villainous Thomas Arundel. Banks plays Arundel as a very dangerous man who delights in looking at art of souls being tortured in hell. The menace in his voice helps to compensate for the lack of real danger in the story. Alice Haig also does a great job as Isabella, the young queen of the deposed Richard II. She plays the character as somewhat hysterical but that’s understandable for a woman who wasn’t even 13 who’d gained a husband and a crown only to have them wrenched away suddenly. The scene where she sees Richard’s body is played with true conviction and she gives the character a subtle sort of strength. It’s a nice touch that as someone who has hunted that she’s also skilled at archery giving her something to do other than rail against her captors. Joseph Kloska is also good as Sir Robert and a few of the minor roles. The only real issue with the voice acting comes from Gareth Armstrong. He’s great as Chaucer and his scenes as the Bishop are far enough from those of Chaucer that one doesn’t notice that they sound exactly the same. Unfortunately the story cuts directly from Chaucer to the butcher, Jud Hacker. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Chaucer was masquerading as Hacker because Armstrong fails to give them any differentiation and they sound like the same man. There’s definitely some extra work that could have gone here.
Musically this story has some good and some bad. There’s some choir music in the background of some scenes to show the heavy religious influence to some of the characters and locations in the story. There’s also a trumpet theme, which seems close enough to something that would have been performed in the 60’s that it lends some authenticity to things. Thankfully, unlike Domain of the Voord the music is not overused. There is one bombastic trumpet riff that’s played whenever certain scenes come to an end that creates an unfortunately humorous reaction because it is way over-the-top to what’s required. On the flip side there’s some interesting 80’s synth music that appears more appropriate for season 21 than season 2. It is nice to see Big Finish experimenting with the music and even the parts that don’t sound authentically 60’s in their presentation are still pretty good.
Recommendation: The Doctor’s Tale follows all the conventions of a Hartnell historical but fails in that it lacks any really strong dramatic impact. The story will certainly educate and it should entertain but it have to overcome the twin obsticals of an obscure period of history that we aren’t made to care about and a lack of any real immediate danger to the story. Despite all of this it is a good try performed very well by the actors and with some interesting musical choices. I do recommend giving it a listen.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Ken Bentley
Produced by David Richardson
Written by Marc Platt
Runtime Approx 120 min.