By Matthew Kresal
The Elizabethan age of British history often is portrayed as something of a golden age. The Virgin Queen on the throne, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the beginning of its colonial period are all highlights, often romanticized. In some ways, the same is true of the early years of the BBC's Doctor Who when, even under the constraints of budgets and TV studios bursting with sets and costumes, those making the program did their best to create the extraordinary, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. Is it surprising, perhaps, that the two would be essentially kitbashed together by audio drama makers Big Finish Productions for an extraordinary story, 2005's A Storm of Angels?
As discussed in earlier pieces for this series, Doctor Who Unbound's origins lie in that era of the show's history known to fans as "the wilderness era." With the BBC having ended production of the series on TV in 1989, the series had found an ongoing existence in spin-off media. This including novel ranges, first under Virgin Books and then BBC Books, but also in a series of audio dramas that began being produced by Big Finish in 1999. With the show's fortieth anniversary approaching in 2003 and with plans for a celebratory multi-Doctor story planned in the form of Zagreus, the company hit upon the idea of producing a series of what-if tales. Combined with casting actors who had previously been candidates to play the Doctor in the past or a potential future series, it would allow writers to explore familiar tropes from new angles across releases that year.
With the release of Exile, it seemed that Big Finish's run of Unbound stories was through. Yet the rich worlds they'd created for some of the audios beckoned for further exploration. In 2004, Big Finish announced the first Unbound sequel, continuing the adventures of the alternate First Doctor and Susan from the opening Unbound audio Auld Mortality. First scheduled for release later that year, post-production issues delayed its release until after New Year's 2005. The story would, thankfully, prove to be worth the wait.
Making A Storm of Angels a sequel story was an intriguing move in its own right. Auld Mortality was as much a celebration of Doctor Who as it was a "what if?" story, which might make a sequel to it all the odder given the ambiguous nature of its conclusion. Writer Marc Platt, returning to pen the sequel, uses that very ambiguity as part of the sequel's starting point. If Auld Mortality asked the question of what might have happened if the Doctor never left his home planet of Gallifrey, then A Storm of Angels asks what might happen if that Doctor, free from his shackles, changed history, even just one line. It's a premise the Unbound series had explored in a way with a victorious Valeyard, but what Platt does here goes above and beyond the continuity fest of that story.
Both on TV and in spin-off media subsequently, the First Doctor's era has been defined by two story archetypes: purely historical adventures, and high concept science fiction tales. Platt's story is equally high concept, almost Space: 1889 like in its notions of taking a moment of Britain's historical past and extending it out into the stars. The Doctor and Susan get to meet historical figures such as Sir Francis Drake, John Dee, and Elizabeth I, thrown into a new setting even as Platt works details about them into the plot (indeed, having watched a documentary on Drake and the Golden Hind before re-listening to the audio again gave me a whole new appreciation for how much he put into the story). What Platt does is take them well and truly beyond the sceptered isle of Britain, taking imperial ambitions and folly out into the stars, peppering in references to everything from Shakespeare writing movies to an Aztec Alliance and Britain invading Spain in 1588 along the way. A Storm of Angels takes the tropes of the First Doctor era and mashes them together, creating something epic in scope that only the Unbound range could accomplish.
There's also a story to go along with that high concept. If Auld Mortality was about possibilities, A Storm of Angels is about consequences. What might happen if the First Doctor, let loose upon the universe after a long delay, wasn't the cautious traveler of the TV series, reluctant to get involved at times but a willing participant in the altering of history? Platt goes further than that, using his world-building and meshing of tropes to make this version of the First Doctor confront something that Modern Who Doctors, in particular, have had to face: one's past catching up with you.
Platt's choice of imagery and even use of characters echo much of what was to come in Modern Doctor Who within the years that followed. Something which ranges from the titular angels (here jeweled rather than the stone-like Weeping Angels who would find great fame starting in 2007's Blink) to the use of Elizabeth I. There's a conclusion that brings to mind the imagery of the Toclafane descending in the Series Three finale and the references of things out of time along the lines of 2011's The Wedding of River Song. In many ways, A Storm of Angels was a story ahead of its time in 2005, the scope of which has only become apparent in the years since its release.
It's also a well-performed piece of work, starting with Geoffrey Bayldon's alternate First Doctor. Bayldon channeled original Doctor William Hartnell nicely in Auld Mortality, and, just a couple of years later, does so again here with a take on the character that captures Hartnell’s spirit while also bringing something else to the part. For all of the grandfatherly presence, that sense of unpredictable danger from those early Hartnell outings here as well. For all the friendliness that Bayldon's Doctor puts on, there's a man who is capable of being quite dark and ruthless should he need to be underneath.
The supporting cast is equally solid. Carole Ann Ford returns once again as Susan, and, like with Bayldon, her performance builds on the earlier tale to do new things with the character as she faces a new slew of troubles, and even gets to be at the center of a couple of plot twists. Indeed, it might well be Ford's best performance as the Doctor's granddaughter. Beyond her is a slew of historical figures re-imagined from Cameron Stewart's swashbuckling Drake to Ivor Danvers’ Dee, and Kate Brown as Elizabeth I. Rounding out the cast are Ian Hallard as the Doctor's Time Lord pursuer, Shiv Grewal as Elizabeth's Indian secretary Mr. Raju, and Big Finish stalwart, Ian Brooker (who appeared in Auld Mortality) in several roles.
As both a Doctor Who story and an alternate history tale in its own right, A Storm of Angels is a solid piece. Its scope is grand, both in its storytelling and willingness to re-imagine the history (both real and fictional) that Platt plays with across two hours. Indeed, the great shame seems to be that there weren't to be more Bayldon First Doctor audios to come before his passing in 2017. Even so, A Storm of Angels remains a gorgeous thing to behold and a story worth hearing.