Doctor Who – Early Adventures: The Outliers
The latest in the Early Adventures range of Doctor Who audio adventures from Big Finish takes us back to the era of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, with companions Jamie, Polly and Ben. It’s a spacefaring tale of the far future from Simon Guerrier, with a big drill, a big company, a potentially lethal mineral, and an ocean where something is going very quietly, very creepily wrong.
In terms of what The Outliers is about, it’s ‘Jaws In Space,’ with a colony of human miners threatened by a sentient, seemingly malevolent sea that picks people off when no-one else is looking.
As a threat, the ‘hungry sea’ feels like it should work a treat, but it actually comes across as a second-string villain compared to the more philosophical evil here, which is wilful human blindness motivated by profit. How much are human beings prepared to turn a blind eye to the suffering and death of their fellows if it’s in their interest to do so is the main question of the piece.
Outliers, in the science of statistics, are rogue numbers, rogue results in a calculation that can be dismissed or discarded from a trend, and it’s this that brings the sinister in this story. How many lives will we allow to be snuffed out as ‘outliers’ to maintain our way of life, especially if they’re not immediately presented to us? If we have to ask questions, defy authority, and go beyond what is told to us by trusted sources, would we want to know how many people suffer and die to keep us comfortable? Those are the really troubling questions that pin The Outliers to your ears as the Tardis team arrive on the unnamed alien world and start asking awkward questions about the disappearing people and the eerily empty houses of the miners, flooded with water.
The Jaws In Space comparison grows more valid when you realise what you’re dealing with in The Outliers – all of the Tardis team are one composite Chief Brody shouting about sharks, while Richard Tipple, the mining operations manager with a silly title and superciliousness to spare, insists that there’s nothing to be afraid of in the water, and that the number of unexplained deaths is merely an outlier, a nothing, an insignificance compared to the importance of his work. Alistair Petrie makes him a very Sixties villain, very snide and sure of himself, while delivering 21st century marketing-speak, so you really want him to get eaten by the sea. Does he? That would be telling.
In case you need even more deep and meaningful philosophical roughage in your Doctor Who, the decision over who lives and dies on the planet of the creepy hungry sea has another message hidden inside it – that being certain of your position is often a dangerous mistake, and that the future is written not in the stars or by the gods, but by the decisions you make today, tomorrow, and the day after that.
Balanced against these deep themes is some cracking characterization, especially from Frazer Hines, who takes on two roles, as Jamie, the companion he played in the show in the Sixties, and as Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor (in which role he has an uncanny ability to make you forget he isn’t Troughton). Matilda Ziegler deserves some characterization props too as Chatura Sharma, the good company woman whose mind is opened to questioning the truth she knows by the arrival of the Doctor and Co.
The point of the Early Adventures, really, was to bulk up the kinds of audio adventures that could be told using the first two Doctors, and explore both the absolutely archetypal types of stories from their era and the things that couldn’t be done then in terms of budgets or ideas, but can be brought to a new life in audio. The Outliers would never have been called The Outliers back in the Sixties, that would have been far too vague and a little too philosophical. But in terms of what it offers, its Sixties right down to its bones – stupid, blind authority, money, power, and an alien force that is able to more or less fight back before it’s even been attacked. Deadly seas, weird coral, vanishing people, and the growing, creepy sense that the humans on this piece of space rock are rather bringing their deadly fate upon themselves. It has a vibe of Fury From The Deep, but with a layer of uncomfortable questions about our own nature, our own potential wilful blindness to the suffering of others, that has a very modern feel.
The Outliers has a questionable ending, with the people killed by the Things In The Water written off as having deserved it simply by virtue of being closed-minded, but short of a fairytale magic ending where they all come back to life, that’s almost unavoidable. In terms of atmosphere, philosophical clout, characterization and creepy, tension-building pace though, The Outliers is a story you’ll come back to listen to again and again.