15 June 2014

AG: Hunters of Earth

Hunters of Earth is the first entry into the Big Finish/AudioGo collaboration for Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary (which older readers may remember). Destiny of the Doctor spanned eleven incarnations in as many months, bringing an actor of prominence from their era back to bring an original audiobook to life, set within their time on the show. For those unclear as to the format of these (as I was prior to listening to this), they seem to take the form of the lead actor reading a story, with the second performer voicing a single character only to support the narration.

Appropriately enough for the fiftieth anniversary, the first story is set before the first story. Taking place before An Unearthly Child, Hunters of Earth goes a long way into fleshing out the life Susan and her grandfather lead before Ian and Barbara bumbled onto the scene in that historic episode. The opening of this story is relatively slow, but it really feels like that's what's needed. Heralding from era where the first episode would often be the regular cast exploring a new location, it feels nice to just explore '60s London and drink in the atmosphere. Susan's school life is detailed further than I've seen before and her feelings of exclusion and isolation are recurring themes through this. She's been befriended by the 'posh' (the common adjective associated with him) Cedric, who she's beginning to feel a connection with. By having Ford as the narrator, Robinson lets us get inside Susan's head a bit and see the spark of that yearning to belong somewhere, to have an identity, that she speaks of during The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

The pair have been living in the Totters' Lane junkyard for four months now, which does seem quite a long time. Given that this presumably takes place in November, Susan had to spent the whole summer alone - they must have landed around July. This won't have helped her feel like she fits in, but it is nice that it would have afforded the Doctor some time to arrange for her enrollment at Coal Hill School especially given the lengthy periods that the early adventures were set across (most notably Marco Polo). The TARDIS is out of order, and the Doctor is trying to affect some repairs. Seeing an advertisement in the local paper, he decides to pay a visit to Magpie Electronics where "discretion is assured" to acquire some more components, after Susan nags him not to steal "again" (referring to the TARDIS?). I love the way Robinson ties the classic and new series together so seamlessly. I'm guessing Bernie must've 'acquired' the premises following the original Magpie's demise ten years previous.

The most enjoyable thing about Hunters of Earth is the way it dances through the story; director John Ainsworth has done a great job. Visiting a local cafe where the young 'uns meet, the dark backstreets of London and an old bomb site, Ainsworth and sound designer Simon Hunt appear to be masters of their trade. Each location is evocatively created and adds another dimension to Robinson's story (not that it needs it). One thing I often like to do when listening is pause in the middle of a track. The difference you get between the atmospheric sounds and the following silence is frequently surprising. All the little bits culminate to give an overall impression so good that you notice it most when it's gone. Hunt passes this test with flying colours and I'm happy to see I'll be looking at a few more stories he's worked on over the coming months.

Colonel Rook, a teacher at Coal Hill, initially appears to be the villain behind this. Giving off a sinister presence (almost other-worldly) he stalks the Doctor and Susan, asking questions about their origins. I'll admit he's not the most subtle of villains, but he's pretty enjoyable in this role. It turns out that he's completely human but has big suspicions about the newcomers - he's certain they're not human. This is never confirmed or denied by the Doctor or Susan which I thought was a nice touch given that the production team at the time weren't entirely sure themselves and so skirted around the issue in a similar manner.

Over the preceding few months (around four, coincidentally) there has been a series of attacks by angry mobs. These are all young people who are long-term residents of Coal Hill, and they turn on any outsiders. The Jewish cafe-owner and Susan seem to be the main targets, but the Doctor does also suffer one such attack. They seem to be overcome with hatred for foreigners or outsiders. In the spirit of the Daleks, dislike for the unlike. Rook thinks the Doctor to be at the bottom of this, what with it having started as he arrived. He is of course wrong and at points even Cedric seems to turn on Susan, though this does vary where most convenient for the plot.

Indeed, it was the young sixth former than told his uncle about the strange pair in the first place. It's unclear if Rook is working for the authorities - there are facts that support both arguments. On the one hand, he has official government filing cabinets full of useful documents, but on the other hand, where's his back up if he is still with the military. Although this is left ambiguous, it's never a major issue and certainly didn't impact on my experience of the story.

Susan soon works out what's happened. Rosa, the cafe owner, claimed that many years ago when Coal Hill was bombed by the Nazis, she saw three bombs fall but only two were officially recorded. Even though it would be unfair to say this was shoe-horned into the story, the listener's ears ought to prick up when you hear something like that. It's impossible in a story like this that it won't be key to the explanation. It turns out that it was some kind of pulse bomb that hid in radio transmissions, inciting hate in consumers. It was dropped by the Germans in the Second World War to tear the communities apart, to weaken them, but it never 'detonated' until now. This is a pleasing explanation to me, and really ties in with the whole discussion of what constitutes an 'alien' in this play, which is something that really interested me and got me thinking. It's something I've long been keen on and readers are probably tired of me playing on that in my stories. Robinson explores the issue very well though.

So xenophobia is the main enemy in this first piece. In a slightly predictable, but still enjoyable, showdown at the Magpie warehouse, the Doctor has to quickly create some kind of jamming signal that will immobilise the transmitter while Susan and Cedric hold the youths off. It's revealed that it only affects them as their hearing is more sensitive, which is an inventive way to tie it into Susan's new-found life. The plot is resolved with what the narration describes as an invisible bullet, shot into the sky to reflect off a satellite (love the way Rook uses the word artificial here) down onto the bomb site, where the effect has only just begun because the bomb was dislodged when a house on the site was recently demolished. Saying that, the attacks do seem to ramp up in intensity rather quickly given that they've been occurring for a good few months. First it's one girl in a cafe, then it's a whole crowd of strangers, then it's the whole youth population of Coal Hill. I understand this is for dramatic purposes, but there was no need to make it quite as long as four months - two would have more plausible I feel. I did like the Doctor's comment about training up their psychic abilities a bit though. I haven't seen it, but I'd assume that was some kind of reference to The Sensorites?

Carole Ann Ford returns to carry the bulk of the narration for Hunters of Earth, which isn't entirely surprising given the story. It seems a bit of a shame that she gets saddled with all the males parts [steady - Ed] (aside from Cedric) as Ford doesn't sound as confident and to be Frank doesn't really have the required gravitas to pull it off. She plays the female characters more robustly, and I was particularly impressed by her attempt at the cockney girl, almost convincing me there was a second actress in the studio. Less successful was her interpretation of the Jewish lady, which boils down to almost unintelligible murmurs and strange inflections. Her Doctor is more of the tottering old man remembered by fans than the alien with the belly of fire that we saw throughout the first few stories, which is a shame as he's clearly written this way. Best of all though is Ford's recreation of Susan. While it's not perfect (in terms of speech patterns I mean; I don't expect her to sound the same after fifty years) it's a great attempt and lovingly brought the character back for me.

Tam Williams is somewhat sidelined as Cedric, but the dialogue he does get is well-delivered and fits the character perfectly. I don't know his age, but I'm guessing he's over seventeen. You wouldn't know it just by listening to this story. His most enjoyable scenes are those where he's alone with Susan, such as when they're listening to their new record. When he's in the presence of the Doctor he gets a bit cocky and arrogant, which never sits very well with me. Williams puts in a good performance though, and I wouldn't be sad to see his name pop up in the schedules in future. It's just a shame he doesn't get more of a chance to show off his ability; I would've liked to have heard his interpretation of Rook in particular.

Arguably the third performer in this is Simon Hunt. His sound design, accompanied by his music score, sets just the right tone for the story and it's not a stretch of the imagination to visualise the '60s while playing Hunters. His work is so strong that I was very disappointed when the narrative didn't move into the Tube (which it looked for a short while like it would). The discordant piano is starkly effective and striking, setting the mood appropriately. Other reviewers have noted its absense in places, but I didn't notice this at all. I look forward to more from him.

Nigel Robinson's story is equally skilful. It does take a few shortcuts in places but these aren't to the detriment of his tale. He evokes the era, and his principals, very well. The Doctor and Susan are so well written that this almost feels like a Lost Story. The author's relative specialism in the black and white era has undoubtedly helped him, but he still captures the tone of the sixties really well and I'd love to see/hear more from him set in Series 1 or 2. He clearly has a good handle on the regulars, and his style of prose is flowing and highly listenable. Coming off the back of two plays with some of the most bland and abstract characters I've encountered (Moonflesh and Tomb Ship) this feels like a real breath of fresh air and every character (no matter how incidental) has infinitely more depth than in either of them. Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor (although it could justifiably be the Seventh Doctor given his extended time spent in 1962-4 during the brilliant The Assassination Games) is included via a radio message in this play, and although he doesn't add much, he kind of does lead Susan and Cedric to the solution. Ms Foreman's comment at the end was just bizarre though, so I'll overlook it.

Although this format may not work for some, I really enjoyed it. It seems to me that this series will play out like an audiobook version of a second edition of the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories eBook series. If the comparison must be drawn, this is much better than A Big Hand for the Doctor and Robinson is obviously much more familiar with the period than Eoin Colfer. It helps that John Ainsworth (a skilled director) is on the scene for the whole lot too. This has really inspired confidence in me for the following ten serials, and I only hope they can all live up to this high standard. Susan's never been a favourite of mine, but I really liked her here so that's a big thumbs-up to Nigel Robinson's interpretation. Despite the fact that the above analysis might seem critical, I did really like this. As it finished, I said to myself "8/10". Even though there may be valid cause to score it lower, it's such a pleasure to listen to after the heady nonsense of the 2014 main range that I can't myself.

In a Nutshell: An excellent start that signals really good things to come with the range.

You can buy Hunters of Earth from Big Finish here, read the Doc Oho review here, or read the Blogtor Who review here.

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