Stephen Noonan is the Doctor! The First Doctor returns in the first instalment of a new series of relaunched audio adventures, The Outlaws, which consists of two stories steeped in 1960s black and white goodness. It’s always a gamble recasting iconic characters from the Doctor Who universe, but Big Finish have consistently managed to pull it off. Will their winning streak continue with this new release? Read on to find out!
Old Friends, New Voices
Thus far, the First Doctor has been brought to life in multiple ways by Big Finish. We’ve had Companion Chronicles and Early Adventures, where the likes of William Russell and Peter Purves have taken on the part. We’ve also had the inimitable David Bradley reprise the role he played on TV in Twice Upon A Time in his own series of First Doctor Adventures, putting a decidedly different spin on the character. And now, Stephen Noonan takes up the mantle, giving us an interpretation far closer to William Hartnell than ever heard before.
Let’s not beat around the bush any longer: Noonan as the Doctor is excellent. As with all good recasts, this is a well-rounded performance rather than simply a Dead Ringers-style impression, though the way in which Noonan manages to recapture Hartnell’s vocal mannerisms is stunning. There are points in both of episodes where I was taken aback at just how like the First Doctor we all know and love he sounded; seriously, this is incredible work, and it’s clear just how much preparation was put into this performance behind the scenes.
Noonan is joined in this boxset by Lauren Cornelius, who takes on the role of Dodo Chaplet from the late Jackie Lane. While we’ve heard Cornelius’s take on the character before, in last year’s The Secrets of Det-Sen, this is her first full-cast outing in the role, and she does just as good a job as Noonan, bringing to life this more well-rounded iteration of the character effortlessly. She’s particularly impressive in The Miniaturist, which gives her some meatier material to work with; we get some tantalising hints about Dodo’s past which leave me excited to see where the team at Big Finish will take her in future boxsets. Although Dodo is one of the show’s oldest companions, circumstances mean she’s pretty much a blank slate, so it’s thrilling to think of the ways the writers will continue to flesh her out and develop her in stories to come.
1. “The Outlaws” by Lizbeth Myles
In the first story in this boxset, the Doctor and Dodo find themselves in 13th century Lincoln, where Sheriff Nicholaa de la Haye is contending with an unruly group of outlaws. As the Doctor makes the Sheriff’s acquaintance and learns of King John’s conflict with France, Dodo falls in with charming bandit William of Berkshire and his meddlesome comrade, a very familiar face wearing a monk’s habit…
This story was, overall, fairly average for me. It’s a very traditional historical story, with little to no science fiction elements aside from the TARDIS, but it doesn’t feel like it has very much to say about the period in which it’s set. Part of this, I think, is that (as you can probably guess from the synopsis) this is a story inspired by Robin Hood which, although largely fictional, deals with the same kind of historical period as this. Therefore, there’s nothing that really feels new or exciting here, which is a shame, because Lizbeth Myles writes very well.
There are also tonal problems with this script; while the first half is played pretty much straight, the last two parts devolve into a bit of a runaround. This means that, in the first half, Rufus Hound‘s unruly, cheeky performance as the Monk feels very much out of place, while the more naturalistic performances given by the rest of the guest cast clash with the less serious tone in the second half. I think if the tone had been more balanced, this story would have got a far higher score.
All in all, The Outlaws isn’t a bad story by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly nothing much above average, giving us a slightly uncreative and tonally imbalanced look at a well-worn period of history.
2. “The Miniaturist” by Lizzie Hopley
The Miniaturist sees the Doctor and Dodo arrive in Yorkshire in 2019, where the strange disappearance of people and landmarks seems to be linked to a geological survey investigating the Zechstein seabed. As the Doctor ventures underground with the secretive Professor Medra, Dodo investigates sightings of ghostly children, and encounters a mysterious woman surrounded by miniatures. Who is the Miniaturist? And what is the link between this part of the world and Dodo’s past?
While The Outlaws faithfully recreated a Hartnell-style historical, The Miniaturist veers in completely the opposite direction, telling a far more modern type of story. Set pretty much in the present day, this is the kind of tale that, unlike its predecessor, simply could not have been told in the 60s and which, as a result, is far more successful. Lizzie Hopley crafts an intriguing script full of mysteries and strange goings-on, while the sci-fi explanations in the second part are predictably less exciting than the buildup in part one,
The previously-mentioned hints about Dodo’s past here are one of the highlights of the tale, as is the titular character, who is suitably enigmatic, though I did feel that the guest characters lacked somewhat in characterisation. This, along with the slightly weaker ending, means that The Miniaturist, although strong overall, doesn’t quite hit the heights of Hopley’s other recent scripts, like her superlative Torchwood story Sonny (review here).
The guest cast throughout this boxset are all on top form, even if the material they’re given to work with isn’t necessarily always the strongest. The standout is Annette Badland as the Miniaturist: a fascinating character who she brings to life with an understated but captivating performance. Rufus Hound is also as strong as ever in his role as the Meddling Monk, Paul Copley impresses as the compelling Mick Huff, and Glynis Barber is suitably pompous as Sheriff Nicholaa de la Haye.
Sound design and music are handled here by Toby Hrycek-Robinson, who shows off his skills by giving us something both era-authentic and modern. Sound design-wise, The Outlaws has some excellent action sequences in its final half, while The Miniaturists is given a gloriously spooky atmosphere throughout. Hrycek-Robinson’s music is similarly strong all through the set, but is particularly effective in the latter story, adding to the creepy atmosphere of the script.
Blending the authentic sixties atmosphere of the titular story with the more modern sensibilities of The Miniaturists, The Outlaws has something for everyone. While the second episode is stronger than the first, which isn’t much above average in terms of plot, both scripts are well-written by their respective authors. Add to this Stephen Noonan‘s glorious reimagining of the First Doctor, some intriguing development for Lauren Cornelius‘s Dodo and a guest cast on top form, and The Outlaws is a successful, though not quite consistently brilliant, reboot for the First Doctor Adventures which leaves me excited to see where the range will go next. Recommended.
The First Doctor Adventures: The Outlaws is available on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com