on 2 November 2002
This was the first online audio production to be broadcast by the BBC, and the first Doctor Who story made in house since 1989. The first episode was webcast as a pilot and proved very popular, generating large numbers of hits for BBCi (then called BBC Online). It was followed a few months later by the rest of the story. If you never heard the original webcast, the plot is concerned with the world-conquering actions of General Tannis, a deliciously evil genius played with camp abandon by John Sessions. Meanwhile Ace, the Doctor's companion from the original TV series played once more by Sophie Aldred, begins a journey led by the ancient Casmus (Leonard Fenton). The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is despatched to find out who is murdering Time Lords. We are introduced to Stephen Fry's Minister of Chance, who is charged with the task of aiding the rebellion on Santiny, the latest victim of Tannis's invasion plans.
Why is it that even though Io?=ve already heard this story before, Death Comes to Time on CD was still the title I was looking forward to the most since it was announced? At last, after a few delays, here it is. And it's absolutely glorious. Throw away your computer speakers, stick the first CD in your stereo system and crank it up to max. The internet is a wonderful thing, but you really haveno?=t experienced Death Comes to Time until youo?=ve heard it on CD. Gone is the need to click on the next small subsection of a subsection to hear the next part. Gone is the occasionally dreadful sound quality that would randomly corrupt each episode. Hello gorgeous, seamless stereo sound.
There's so much that's worth hearing. Sound is used to describe every scene, not dialogue. The detail in the background effects is stunning, and now you can hear every pinging console, every shot fired during a battle, every drop of rain. The sound mix sets the standard against which all Doctor Who audio drama will be measured. The internet medium did wonders for the awareness and novelty factor of Doctor Who online, but it doesn't do this production justice.
What makes this story so rich is that it's about so much more than the basic plot. It's about power, responsibilities, friendship, consequences and conflict. In short, elements that make good drama. Big things happen in Death Comes to Time and events feel like they matter.
This presentation differs in some ways from the version available online, and even if you listened to the original webcast it's well worth getting hold of the CD. One obvious change is that there are no more irritating divisions, so scenes fade into one another properly, and a greater feeling of flowing events can be experienced. Some scenes have been re-recorded, a few extra lines of dialogue have been dropped in for clarification, and the sound mix rebalanced. Voiceover has been put over the opening and closing theme, which unfortunately sounds rather annoying. The changes areno?=t radical, I was hard pressed to spot all of them, but together they give greater coherence to the whole. Most notably, in the last episode, the scenes featuring Americans have been toned down. They still sit uncomfortably with the rest of the story and the accents continue to sound bad (which is odd considering real American actors have been used to re-record the lines), but there is an improvement. The controversial appearance of an old Doctor Who character in the last episode still bugs me, but I realized that his involvement is actually signposted earlier in the story by Speedwell, a detail I missed the first time I heard it.
As for the cast, its one of the strongest Doctor Who has ever seen. John Sessions is terrific in the role of the evil dictator. Tannis gets some wonderful lines, but everyone gets their fair share. Aldred's Ace is recognizable from the television series, but grows up here in a way that's better handled than in Virgin's New Adventures books series. Sylvester McCoy is a revelation. His Doctor is older, wiser, weighed down by his responsibilities. When he says he's tired, we believe him. Gone is the hamminess that would often plague McCoy's performance in moments that demanded subtlety and quiet power. The Minister is troubled, compassionate and devilishly charming. His ultimate downfall is the pivotal point of the story and his final scene is both powerful and moving. The ever wonderful Stephen Fry plays the role flawlessly. There's even a scene featuring Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Anthony Stewart Head.
The CD comes with some amusing extras. There are the requisite outtakes, some of which are laugh out loud funny, especially John Sessions asking if his last line was camp enough, and Anthony Stewart Head 's plea to be rescued. Funnier still is John Humphries' interview'with General Tannis. There's also an interview with Sylvester McCoy and Michael Hanlon, science writer for the Daily Mail. It's worth listening to just to hear Sylvester McCoy defend both Doctor Who and the internet.
Death Comes to Time is one of the most controversial releases in the show's history, but also one of the best, most dramatic and most powerful. The CD presents this story in the way it was meant to be heard. This is truly Doctor Who for the new millennium.