The Plot: In the remnant of a shattered satellite, far above the ruined planet Earth, Steven Taylor and Oliver Harper are dying. As time runs out, they face their pasts … and a secret long kept is revealed. The borrowed time is elapsing, and they realize they are facing an enemy that cannot be defeated. The cold, hard facts of science.
“Perhaps you should tell me your secret now”
This is the second in a trilogy of Companion Chronicles by Simon Guerrier narrated by Peter Purves as astronaut Stephen Taylor and featuring new First Doctor companion Oliver Harper, played by Tom Allen. In their first adventure, The Perpetual Bond, we knew from the outset that Harper was on the run from the police but not why, though given that he was a stockbroker it seemed natural to assume that it may have been due to something work-related – a slight case of insider trading perhaps? This story opens with a pre-titles teaser with the two men trapped in a space station following some unexplained catastrophe – separated from the Doctor, their chances of rescue apparently next to zero and a dwindling oxygen supply, Harper finally seems set to admit what it was he was running from back in 1966 …
The two are now far in future and have landed on a space station overrun with aliens hovering over an Earth that is shrouded in a polluted cloud and almost completely encircled by dangerous space debris. It seems that the aliens are engaged in strip-mining the Earth of its valuables, but to do so have put most of its population in a sleep from which they do not recover, targeting the children. This part of the story is weirdly under-developed, this near-genocide being somewhat elided in the development ans conclusion of the narrative, though it does set up the explosion that provides a great cliffhanger at the end of the first episode. This separates the Doctor from Steven and Oliver and sees the TARDIS ejected into space to get rid of ballast.
The second half, which is where the great teaser is extracted from, to a certain extent rehashes those parts of the story inspired by, and to be fair plainly acknowledged in its title, from Tom Godwin’s widely anthologised classic science fiction story of the same name. First published in 1954 and reprinted frequently ever since, it is also about the tough decisions made on a spaceship with regards to ejecting cargo to ensure the survival of the maximum number of people where air is in short supply. The main set-piece in the play sees Steven sticking his hand out into the vacuum of space (apparently without it freezing and falling off …) to help take part in what can best be described as a game of six dimensional billiards to try to save the TARDIS and those stranded on the satellite and the escape module as the air supply starts to really run out. This part of the story is well in keeping with the educational ethos of the Hartnell era as we got lengthy explanations of the laws of physics in space, though this does work pretty well in fact.
Peter Purves continues to give a really excellent performance, especially as the First Doctor, and the partnership with Allen works extremely well, especially in the scene in which the big secret is revealed – it would be too big a spoiler to give it away, though a bit of knowledge about British law, and how it changed in 1967, is probably fairly useful to our understanding. It’s not exactly an earth-shattering secret, but works fairly well though I’m glad they didn;t make listeners wait until the next play!
On the whole I preferred this story to its predecessor, finding it more dramatic and less comic, much to its benefit – it does feel a bit constricted by the format, especially as the alien menace is just not developed enough, though there are some amusing throwaway gags about our heroes becoming escaped criminals in the future that hint to possible future developments. One assumes though that the reference to the planetoid ‘Grace Alone’ is just a sly nod to Guerrier’s other Big Finish series, the Graceless spin-offs from the Key 2 Time titles from the main range, and not more meaningful thank that. We shall have to wait and see … The trilogy concludes in The First Wave.