Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Original Doctor Who: Transit of Venus (2009)

Whatever happened to Ian Chesterton? The special introductions filmed for The Crusade brought William Russell back to home video, and then Big Finish Productions followed up with the fifth of their Companion Chronicles audio-dramas starring a companion of the First Doctor. Transit of Venus is also the second to focus on one of the original companions.

Where the previous one, Here There Be Monsters, was a Science Fiction tale from the perspective of Susan, Transit of Venus is a classic historical from that of Ian Chesterton. Immediately after leaving the Sense-Sphere, a furious Doctor declared that he was going to abandon Ian and Barbara the next time they landed on Earth. You thought that was during the French Revolution? Think again.

Instead, they end up on the Endeavour: Captain Cook's celebrated ship, aboard which he claimed Australia for England. The TARDIS materializes on the deck of the ship, Ian and Barbara leave, and the next thing Ian knows, he wakes in the hold with The Doctor looking over him and the news that Susan and Barbara were tossed overboard in the big blue box! Adjusting to the fact that they will have to spend the rest of their lives in the 1700s (and for The Doctor, that will be a very long life), they settle into life on the ship by masquerading as visitors from Venus. Venus, Ian remembers, was making a transit across the Sun that year, forming a... well... not entirely perfect or plausible explanation, but one that Cook does not press. Ian immediately makes the acquaintance of ship's botanist Joseph Banks, who fells an albatross while quoting from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner... Two years before Coleridge's birth. Obviously, not all is as it seems.

As scriptwriter Jacqueline Rayner explained in the included bonus interview, her model was Marco Polo. That lost story set the tone for the historicals and was a sweeping epic that would be perfect for the Companion Chronicles. It would also have to be. Transit of Venus would have been impossible on television in 1964, requiring tall ships and tropical foreign coasts. It could have been done, one supposes, with judiciously not showing anything, but plays better on the screen of the mind's eye.

Russell is a pleasure to listen to. The pretense of having a disembodied voice to talk to is long gone. Now, we are listening to grandfatherly Mr. Chesterton (who did marry Barbara, according to The Sarah Jane Adventures) tell an old tall tale of his time on the TARDIS. His impression of the Doctor could use some work - no one seems to nail it quite like another, later companion - but that's all par for the story. This time, we're just curling up in front of the fire while he sits on his rocking chair, drifting in and out of tangents.

In the end, everyone survives but The Doctor is still furious with the pair of school teachers. He still plans on dispensing with them at the next earliest opportunity, though ol' Mr. Chesterton leaves it open, with a sly and imagined wink, as to whether it will be in Revolutionary France or somewhere else entirely.

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