We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! A few weeks ago, we reached the end of the four early anthologies in the Short Trips range. Today, we pick up that range with the first of its individual releases, Flywheel Revolution! This story was released in January 2015, nearly four years after the previous release in the range, and it is a different animal—longer, with a more involved plot, and a somewhat slower pace. It will set the template for future releases in the range, continuing to the present day. Written by Dale Smith, and directed by Lisa Bowerman, the story features the First Doctor, and is read by Peter Purves. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.
On a distant and far-future world, a robot named Frankie is confined to a scrapheap. He and his friends—all flawed or damaged—have been consigned here by their masters and makers, who are robots themselves, sent to colonize and develop this world. Frankie is a rover, and his flaw is that his geolocation module doesn’t work; he cannot receive the global timestamp signal, and so for him, it is always 5:15 and 23 seconds. Therefore, he gets lost very easily. This comes into play when he takes his friend—a misaligned boring machine named Toby—to see a monster in the scrapheap. Though he navigates by bouncing off of the magnetic Wall that defines the edges of the scrapheap, he is unable to lead Toby to the monster.
Over several days, he does not give up; and eventually he finds the monster, living—to Frankie’s horror—in the gutted interior of another, larger robot! The creature calls out to him, and seems delighted to see him, but he backs off in fear. Still, his curiosity is fully engaged; and after a few more days of wandering, he finds the monster again. This time, it calls itself the Doctor.
Over a few contacts—horrified on Frankie’s part, excited on the Doctor’s—Frankie learns that the Doctor is also trapped here, separated from his companions and his ship. Communications break down when Frankie sees that the Doctor has built a device to shut off the wall—shut it off? Let them all escape? Frankie can hardly dare to dream of it!—but he has built it from the scavenged parts of Frankie’s dead friends! Frankie erupts at him, and leaves in fury.
When he next sees the Doctor, the creature is solemnly apologetic. He had not understood the horror of what he had done; all he had seen were components. But now, he has disassembled his device…and he asks Frankie to help him lay them to rest with respect. This, at last, wins Frankie’s trust; and when the Doctor offers to repair his geolocation device, he is intrigued (though he does not accept).
Soon, however, the Doctor makes a breakthrough with the Wall. He sends Frankie to gather all of his friends; and he tells them they will soon be free. Then, he has Toby dig down into the soft soil beneath the scrapheap and fill another machine with the dirt—and he launches it skyward, raining down on the wall. Soon, this barrage overloads the magnetic wall, and it fails. The machines are free.
Before the Doctor leaves, he thanks Frankie for his help; and he asks the robot what he will do with his newfound freedom. Frankie thinks that he would like to find the people who condemned them all to the Scrapheap…and teach them how wrong they were. He trundles off, noting that it is five-fifteen and twenty-three seconds—the moment when his new life begins.
As with most short trips, this story happens in a bubble of sorts. The story takes place on a planet whose identity is not given, not populated with any race we’ve previously seen, at a time that is not identified (only that it is in the far future), separate from his TARDIS, and separate from his companions (Ian, Barbara, and Susan, though they are not named, only loosely described). As such, there’s very little continuity to speak of, which is something we saw often in the early anthologies, and I expect it to be the standard henceforward as well.
The most accurate word I can apply to this story is “charming”. It’s the story of the Doctor facilitating a revolution—but not a bloody one; rather, a very small one, not much more than a family squabble of sorts. The robots with whom he deals are most definitely people in their own right; but they’re much like children, and he is very paternal toward them. Paternalism is a common enough trait with the First Doctor, and often it works out badly, but here it seems to be a good thing.
On television, the First Doctor was clever, but not nearly as resourceful as his later incarnations, especially in technological matters. Out of universe, that’s an artifact of the show’s early shifts in direction, I think, as it tried to find a stable identity after starting out as a children’s programme. As well, of course, the Doctor wasn’t really the main character at first, and so most of the resourcefulness was exhibited by the companions. Put another way, the Doctor got them into trouble; the companions got them out. Here, though, he’s quite resourceful (and has to be, given that he’s on his own). He correctly analyzes the political situation (if you can call it that) on the planet; he figures out the wall; he recognizes and understands the various robots; and he expresses his ability to repair them, though they don’t take him up on it. He builds a device from spare parts, though—for reasons revealed in the story—he doesn’t use it. He also has a keen, if belated, understanding of the personalities of the other characters. It’s really a good showing for the First Doctor, at a point in his life when frankly, he could use some good press.
Though the story is set during Ian, Barbara, and Susan’s era, the story is read by Peter Purves (Steven’s actor). I haven’t checked far enough ahead to be sure, but I believe this is usual procedure for First Doctor short trips, at least for awhile (I vaguely seem to recall that William Russell may have read a few? We’ll find out soon enough). Purves is, I think, one of the most steady and reliable narrators in Big Finish’s stable. His performances aren’t revolutionary in any way, but they’re steadily good; and he captures the First Doctor fairly well.
Overall, it’s not a bad foot to put forward with regard to reopening this range. It’s a fairly safe story—nothing too experimental, and we know from the Main Range that “experimental” is a mixed bag at best for Big Finish. At the same time, it manages to feel significant in a way that most of the anthology stories did not. If the upcoming entries can build on this start, the range will be in good hands (and the fact that it’s still running, three and a half years later, says that that is probably the case).
Next time: We’ll join Frazer Hines reading for the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe in Little Doctors! See you there.
All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions. This story’s purchase page is linked below.