Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions
Writer: Matt Fitton
RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £10.99 (Download)
Release Date: December 2014
Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online
“1950s London: newcomers arrive daily on British shores seeking a fresh start, new opportunities, or simply the chance of a different life. However, some are from much further afield than India or Jamaica...
After an emergency landing, the TARDIS crew must make the best of it, and look to their new neighbours for help. But the Newman family has more than the prejudices of the time to contend with. A sinister force grows in strength amid the pubs, docks and backstreets of London...
And without the Doctor, marooned in a time and place as alien as anything they've ever encountered, Steven and Sara may well face their greatest challenge yet. To live an ordinary life.”
This one, according to the CD Extras and David Richardson’s notes, has been in the pipeline for a long, long time now. Richardson hit upon the central ideas of this play a while back but it’s only now, in the form of An Ordinary Life and with Matt Fitton in the writer’s seat, that we can hear it in all its glory.
You can see why Richardson kept persisting with this idea and holding back until he had found the perfect writer and team: the notion of the Doctor’s companions being forced to live life day by day in a past as alien to them as the far-flung future aboard a starship would be to us (well, me anyway: I cannot speak for the rest of you all) is a good one, and Steven Taylor and Sara Kingdom prove themselves to be the ideal subjects for such a story, as Fitton’s very strong script goes out of its way to show you time and again. Indeed, such is the strength of the drama and scenery, that it’s acutely disappointing when aliens pop up and turn the tale away from the domestic. (I am certain that this will not be an original observation by any stretch, but all the same, I mean it.)
Perhaps the smartest thing about this play is the time in which it is all set. It puts us in England in the 1950s with a family of first-wave immigrants, a time of quite some social unrest and upheaval, and Fitton neatly draws parallels between the family with whom Steven and Sara stay, and the companions themselves: both learning, both cautious, both more frightened than they let on. It could be done in a very clunky manner or grow patronizing, but Fitton never lets that be the case. He continues with the slight will-they-won’t-they take on Steven and Sara’s relationship as put forward in The Anachronauts (still one of my favourite Companion Chronicles) and develops it slightly, but, again, not enough to rock the boat too much, nor to cause any continuity errors further down the line. Whether it necessarily needs to happen is a matter of personal taste, really: I’m sure their personal relationship/story could have been as strong without this take on it, but it is far from the worst thing in the world.
Of course, a script is only as strong as its execution, and never more so is that the case when it’s so people-orientated as this one is. Thankfully, everyone is great. As Who fans, we practically expect that from both Jean Marsh and Peter Purves, but it really is worth stressing here just how incredibly good they are: this play would crumble without them. It would also be nothing without its guest cast, and here we have Ram John Holder and Sara Powell in particular delivering about as good a set of performances as Big Finish gives us. One thing definitely worth saying at this juncture is how good the guest cast has been across this first series of Early Adventures, which bodes very well for the future.
As noted earlier though, things falter when the story shifts from domestic to alien, and sadly it is that which stops this from reaching the dizzy heights that it rightly deserves to scale. It is a crying shame really, but fewer bodysnatchers and more scenes of Sara kicking policemen to the ground would have given this the 10 out of 10 it probably deserves.
By the time the TARDIS departs and the story ends with that oh-so-familiar theme tune, we feel like we have really grown to know everyone involved, regular- and guest-cast alike, and Fitton has every right to hold his head up high, as does David Richardson, whose dogged persistence has paid off in spades here. Hearty congratulations to all involved.
And with that, we reach the end of the first series of The Early Adventures. I’ve noted before flaws I perceive to be present in this series, so it’s not worth retreading old ground here, though I will note that the issue of authenticity chimes again, sadly. An Ordinary Life is great in that it very cleverly puts 1960s companions into the 1950s, the recent past for contemporary viewers of Hartnell’s adventures, but most of that impact, especially with regards to political and social repercussions, only works now, decades later. As with some of the very best Companion Chronicles, it makes use of both the present and past simultaneously and plays with them to create something wonderful, but the one thing it is definitely not is period-authentic. A smart use of 1960s settings and characters? Yes, but not a story that would (or perhaps even could) have been tackled back during the relevant period of Doctor Who.
This recurring issue doesn’t stop the stories from being any good (indeed, you’ll note that three out of four of these reviews have been positively glowing) but it does make Big Finish look a bit silly, or to be more kind naïve perhaps, to keep screaming on about how these accurately recreate 1960s soundtracks.
They do not; they do not come even close, but they’re bloody good fun all the same. Stop being ashamed of letting them be what they are; drop the slogans and taglines and just admit that these are the new Lost Stories, which in themselves were fuller-cast Companion Chronicles at times. There’s no shame in that at all.