By Matthew Kresal.
In the beginning, there was the First Doctor.
Doctor Who turns 60 in November. After such a run, in so many formats, the series has become a icon of SF. It’s also gathered a great deal of history itself, and our resident aficionado of all things Who-related, Matthew Kresal, will be writing about some of Big Finish’s Doctor Who – The Lost Stories audio drama adaptations of unmade TV serials, looking at each of the first six Doctors. If we’re nice to him, he might also review other formats.
That’ll be nice.
I’ll hand over to Matthew.
Doctor Who: Farewell, Great Macedon, and The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance.
The First Doctor
Sixty years ago this November, the BBC began airing a new series of science fiction serials. From those humble beginnings, Doctor Who would evolve from Saturday teatime entertainment alternating between science fiction adventures and semi-educational historical tales into a British TV icon and a globally successful franchise encompassing books, audio dramas, comics, and more. As such, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some prospective serials would be scripted but unproduced over the decades. Among them are a pair of scripts from the series’ earliest days penned by writer Moris Farhi: Farewell, Great Macedon and The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance.
Number 1 in a continuing series.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In the early 1960s, Farhi was an up-and-coming actor and writer with credits that included supporting roles in the Sean Connery James Bond films From Russia With Love and You Only Live Twice. Yet it was in the capacity of writer that Farhi would come into contact with Doctor Who’s first script editor, David Whitaker. With the two having come into contact through the Screenwriters Guild of Great Britain the previous year, Farhi wrote to Whitaker in early January 1964 to put himself forward as a potential writer for the still-new science fiction series. When Whitaker agreed to a meeting, Farhi wrote a self-contained single-episode tale, The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance.
Whitaker was impressed enough by the script to continue discussions with Farhi. Whitaker steered the young man away from science fiction and toward writing a historical-based serial, a staple of the series at the time. After considering the Ottoman admiral Barbaros to base a story around, Farhi and Whitaker settled on another historical figure: Alexander the Great. Whitaker gave Farhi a commission to write the opening episode for £50 and sent the writer on his way.
Alexander. Taken from a mosaic.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Farhi, however, was struck by inspiration. Though Whitaker would attempt to dissuade him from the effort and offer no additional payment, Farhi would write all six episodes of the prospective serial. Thus the six episodes of Farewell, Great Macedon were delivered in March 1964, though Whitaker would only respond to them in July. By then, with a single serial left in Doctor Who’s debut season, the shape of what the series would become had more firmly taken hold, leading to the decline and eventual replacement of “pure historical” serials (where the TARDIS and the time travellers were the only science fiction element) with “pseudo-historicals” (stories with science fiction elements in historical settings). Farhi would resubmit the serial to one of Whitaker’s successors later in the decade and then to the BBC as a non-Doctor Who historical serial, receiving rejections both times again, leaving it to remain unseen for decades.
Ironically, another of Farhi’s unmade scripts brought his Doctor Who work back into the light. In 1966, Farhi worked on Patrick McGoohan’s legendary series The Prisoner, writing a script that creator/star McGoohan would turn down. Farhi was contacted about that script in the late 1990s, casually revealing the existence of his Doctor Who scripts in the process. Doctor Who historian Richard Bignell presented fans with their first taste of Farewell, Great Macedon in Doctor Who Magazine in 2000 before, as part of his fanzine Nothing at the End of the Lane, publishing the scripts for both Macedon and Fragrance in a script book in 2009 (which, initially published as a print on demand book through Lulu, remains available as a PDF through the fanzine’s website).
Around the time the script book was published, Doctor Who’s unmade serials were receiving new attention. In 2008, Big Finish Productions (the UK-based company producing audio dramas and spinoffs since 1999) began a new range of releases under the banner of Dr Who – The Lost Stories . Initially focusing on unmade stories from the era of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, the company’s attention soon turned to the unproduced scripts from the other Doctors. And, perhaps appropriately, the opening release of the second run of Lost Stories would focus on William Hartnell’s First Doctor and the two scripts Farhi wrote back in 1964.
As released in The Lost Stories: The First Doctor Box Set in November 2010, these versions of Farhi’s scripts aren’t quite the full-cast audio dramas Big Finish (and the Lost Stories range as a whole) has become known for. Produced at a time before the company had embraced the idea of re-casting roles played by departed cast members (Hartnell had passed in 1975 and Jacqueline Hill, who played companion Barbara Wright, in 1993), they were presented instead as an enhanced talking book. To explain the format, Nigel Robinson, who adapted two Hartnell stories into novels for Target books in the 1980s, novelised the scripts into prose. Actors William Russell and Carole Ann Ford served as readers, reprising their respective roles as Ian Chesterton and the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan from the television series while narrating the story and taking the parts of the First Doctor and Barbara. Appearing alongside them was John Dorney (whose work as a writer and actor with the company includes the First Doctor era Companion Chronicle tale The Rocket Men ) as Alexander in Macedon, with Dorney playing a different role in Fragrance, where he was joined by Big Finish regular Helen Goldwyn playing a pair of sisters on an alien world.
The results? Simply stunning if you’re a fan of Doctor Who and the First Doctor era. Robinson’s adaptations of Farhi’s scripts is faithful almost to an extreme, using virtually every line of dialogue written in 1964. The only major scene missing is a brief one, found at the front of Macedon, where Farhi had the TARDIS crew learning various languages (including ancient Greek) via “two electrodes attached to his or her forehead... attached to a strange machine that looks like a cross between a tape recorder and an electronic computer.” Robinson even includes such out-of-place moments as the Doctor and Susan discussing Heaven and God (a move made ironic by Robinson later toning down the religious subtexts of The Masters of Luxor ) and the Doctor mentioning taking the Hippocratic Oath as a young man. Present, too, are veiled references suggesting the Doctor and Susan are from Earth’s future rather than, as established later, being Time Lords from Gallifrey. That also extends into Fragrance with the technobabble that the Doctor uses to explain how the TARDIS travels, which has dated but also contrasts with later explanations. Robinson is faithful nearly to a fault, but the richness of Farhi’s scripts combines with the new prose in a near-perfect marriage.
And it’s in Macedon that those strengths are most evident. Told across six episodes with a running time of three and a half hours (making it one of Big Finish’s lengthiest productions), it is an epic in every sense. Taking the TARDIS crew from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon into the city itself and Alexander’s camp beyond, it’s an expansive tale that brings them into contact with Alexander and his inner circle. All, of course, is not well among Alexander’s men as a conspiracy takes shape to thwart his vision of a marriage between East and West in 323 BC. Across six episodes, the inevitable march of history makes itself felt as tragedies unfold. Soon, the travellers find themselves caught up in deceits, debates, literal fights for their lives, and (in the Doctor’s case) a bit of firewalking. It’s a packed story, but well-paced, avoiding the mid-story lull of wheel-spinning that would make stories of such length notorious in later years. It’s a fine story well-realised, right down to Toby Hrycek Robinson’s music, echoing the scores from several Hartnell-era historicals.
If Macedon is an epic, then Fragrance is a quieter, more focused tale. That’s perhaps unsurprising, given that it’s a sixth of the length of Macedon, but it’s also tonally different. Set in the alien world of Fragrance, where the TARDIS has been for some weeks while awaiting manufacture of a replacement component, it’s a more philosophical piece. One that focuses on the effect the traveller’s presence has when a young man develops affection for Barbara in this paradise. It’s a tale that is, after nearly sixty years, perhaps more than a little predictable but poignant as realised here, once again speaking to the strengths of Farhi’s original scripts.
The Big Finish version of the story also has two of the series’ original cast members, with both reprising their roles and narrating the story. William Russell and Carole Ann Ford, having done similar jobs elsewhere for Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles range at the time, were well versed in the semi-dramatic/semi-narrated format and are definite highlights of these two stories. Their performances also bring out the best parts of the original scripts, not only from their characters but also in Russell’s recreating Hartnell’s Doctor, including the firewalking scene where the Doctor’s glee is on full display. John Dorney, in turn, offers up a solid Alexander, capturing the mercurial nature of Farhi’s writing with a mix of idealism and world-weariness that makes the final scenes almost heart-breaking to hear after more than three hours of listening. Dorney presents a very different performance as the alien Rhythm in Fragrance, ably joined by Helen Goldwyn as his sisters, who become increasingly concerned and desperate as events unfold. The sum total of these performances gives these productions both an air of authenticity and offers plenty of tastes of what a 1964 TV version of the story would have been like.
Which, in turn, also helps to explain why they went unmade in 1964. In the case of Fragrance, format alone would suffice as (outside of the notable example of the series’ very first episode and the one-off Mission to the Unknown in 1965), 20th century Doctor Who didn’t do single episode stories. It’s also, in tone, a far more philosophical piece that would have been better suited for BBC 2’s Out of the Unknown when it began airing in 1965. A change that could have been made simply enough; the TARDIS crew perhaps becoming travellers from Earth or somewhere else who had landed on the planet for a time.
Another vision of Alexander, courtesy Horrible Histories. That's Ptolemy in the background
It's disturbing when a children's programme from CBBC is more accurate than a lot of adult fiction.
Details at the Horrible Histories website.
To understand why a story as strong as Macedon went unmade requires looking at a larger context of where Doctor Who was in the summer of 1964 when Whitaker sat down to read Farhi’s scripts. That comes in particular regard to the historically set serials produced in that debut season. As Farhi recounted to Bignell for the script book, complaints lodged to the BBC over its portrayal of historical characters and events such as those in Marco Polo had helped the series steer clear of significant entanglements, leaving the TARDIS crew to linger in history’s shadow, even if briefly meeting the likes of Robespierre and Napoleon in Reign of Terror. There is another serial that looms larger over Macedon and helps to explain its fate.
That would be The Aztecs, written by John Lucarotti and broadcast across May-June 1964. Like Macedon, this was an immersive tale that would allow the TARDIS crew to spend time among an ancient civilisation, allowing history teacher Barbara to show her knowledge while also being aware of the fate of those involved. Conspiracies would unfold, Ian would fight for their lives, and the question of whether or not history could or should alter would surface. Lucaratti and Farhi each examined these themes in stories set a thousand years and half a world away from one another, but The Aztecs made it into production first. And with the series moving toward more adventure and science fiction elements, Macedon had the feel of an adult costume drama rather than a Saturday teatime slot. Something that made it ripe for a fan-aimed production nearly half a century later, but which helped to seal its fate in the summer of ’64.
What remains, after nearly sixty years since it was written and more than a decade on from Big Finish’s production, is a remarkable piece of Doctor Who storytelling and one that fans of this Doctor’s era should adore. Even as they offer a taste of the series as it might have been, yet was destined not to be.
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Matthew Kresal is author of the SLP book Our Man On The Hill.