The range of The Early Adventures have really become the home for great Second Doctor stories and in particular, those with the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie. Previously, the group had only appeared in the range of Companion Chronicles, which unfortunately limited the number of actors who could appear in them. All too often it was left up to Frazer Hines and Anneke Wills to portray the whole range of characters, even if it were detremental to their original characters.
But this all changed in 2014 when Big Finish decided to make stories which featured both the First and Second Doctor and got together all the surviving cast members to tell brand new, full cast dramas with little bits of narration to help move the story along. Of course, this relived the strain on the original cast, meaning they were able to play the characters they actually played on television in the sixties. With the Patrick Troughton teams though, this still left Frazer Hines with three roles to play, Jamie, the Second Doctor and Ben. Anneke Wills still had two roles, Polly and Narrator. But this changed again when the decision was made to recast the role of Ben.
While this is now old news, the casting of Elliot Chapman as Ben Jackson has really made each Second Doctor story get better and better with every release. Comparing this story to his first, The Yes Men, it shows the vast change that his inclusion has brought. Unfortunately, we will never really know the in's-and-out's of Michael Craze's original performance as Ben because so very little of that era still exists but thanks to my memory of Craze's performance and that which I am hearing from Chapman, Ben and Polly, are quickly becoming one of my favourite TARDIS teams. They were already rated quite highly by me but these are making them get better and better. These stories are now being written with Ben in mind and are coming across all the better because of it.
In The Night Witches, the snowy landscape of the Eastern Front comes across brilliantly on audio. By now, I would hope that Big Finish have become dab hands at creating convincing sound-scapes, particularly snowy ones which they had to do twice in the first ten releases, now some eighteen years ago! This story is full of howling winds and creaking doors with characters huddling in groups with their teeth chattering. And there is a particularly brilliant reference to Jamie's knees turning blue.
But putting aside Ben's recasting and Jamie's blue knees, this really is a Polly story. Anneke Wills pulls a double duty as both Polly and the narrator of the story. Helpfully, to keep things from getting confusing, she switches the pitch in her voice between the two things. And the narration in this story is pretty sparse, only used in moments where audio isn't enough. This narration is particularly helpful when characters are in planes or tanks, something that would be very difficult to portray on audio.
Anneke is also given a lot to sink her teeth into with this story, Polly is central to the plot in a way I won't spoil but she does get to show her aptitude of getting herself out of trouble without the help of her boys. She also features in some excellent scenes with the Night Witches, where she gets interrogated and she manages to really sell Polly's desperation when they won't except the truth.
But because there are so many characters, some of them don't get much to do. Jamie spends most of his time off with the Doctor, following orders. But this does feel very reminisant of the original series where the writers couldn't think of what to do with either Jamie or Ben so gave them nothing to do. Jamie doesn't really contribute much to this plot, which is a shame as Frazer Hines is also playing the Doctor. Some people have criticised Hines' performance as the Second Doctor because they don't think he sounds like Patrick Troughton. I must disagree with this, whilst this isn't a straight impersionation, you really can hear the depths of the friendship the pair shared over their time on the show. This is something that would be lost if the role was done by any other actor.
Writer, Roland Moore explores every aspect of the Doctor's personality here too. He is kind and bumbling whilst being cunning and ruthless. This is a Doctor who drops all pretences of nicities when his friends are in dire danger. I do wish though there had been a mention of his big fur-coat, this would have been the perfect setting for it.
Out of all the six cast members, only two of them are male. This gender balance isn't always something that is done well on television, so it is nice to see Big Finish are pushing for a bit more diversity when it comes to their casting. Anjella Mackintosh, Wanda Opalinska and Kristina Buikaite are brilliant as our small group of Night Witches. All the pilots come across different in terms of their attitudes. I did sometimes find them hard to differenciate in frantic scenes but that was probably my unfamiliarilty with the dialect.
The Night Witches kicks off what promises to be a great new series for The Early Adventures and as long as they all have the same quality as this one, Big Finish will continue to have one very happy customer...