The Space Race
Tony’s blasting off.
On paper, The Space Race, the second of the ‘1963 stories’ celebrating the year of Doctor Who’s launch, sounds like a classic slab of mid-80s, Varos-era mystery Who – an exotic location that could be replicated in a studio, a space mission with unforeseen consequences, an interesting hook in the idea of what happened to the animals used as Earth’s first astronauts, a space-based MacGuffin, and a solid chase scene with a world-saving goal. What’s not to love about Jonathan Morris’ entry into the 1963 series?
If we’re absolutely honest, only the fact that it goes on for four episodes, and gets weirder as it goes.
What works well here is the setting – Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War, before the death of Kennedy had fuelled American fervour to set foot on the Moon and effectively ‘win’ the space race. The fact that it was so hidden for decades gives the Soviet space programme a suitably grey area on which to embroider a Who story that feels convincing. The characters too are solid archetypes, and there’s some proper Cold War espionage drama too. All of this works pretty well – and the end of episode 1 has a killer ‘bizarro cliff-hanger.’ The idea of elements of the Soviet space programme sabotaging and even killing other elements, or perhaps there being some Western involvement in the shootings, explosions and sabotage that blast you off into The Space Age, keeps at least episode 1 bouncing along with a proper Eighties pace.
After that cliff-hanger though is where things start to go a bit ‘weird sci-fi.’ Funnily enough, the story has all the makings of a Pertweean six-part epic, with its more slowed-down pace, its grungy space travel, and its dedication to giving the listener some solid period atmosphere and more than a dollop of hard stuff with which to cope – this story isn’t exactly Cosmonauts of Death, but it has a good amount of that Ambassadorial atmosphere.
It’s only as the story progresses, and we’re asked to believe more and more improbable things for less and less good reason that the sense of a plot spun from a single great cliff-hanger idea without much in the way of coherently ‘filling of the other three episodes’ in mind begins to permeate. There’s a point in there somewhere about sacrificing animals because they’re inherently more expendable to us than human beings are, and the plot that unfolds (really, to tell you anything much about it is to blow the big reveal) claims that the space race was actually won by the Russians, but that there might well be a price to pay for their victory. The location to which the action moves is suitably base-under-siege to deliver some mid-story padding, and indeed, that’s what we get, and really, whether the race to the end works for you depends on how invested you are in the central premise by the time it begins.
There’s every chance it will work for you – Morris is no slouch and he crams the story with elements that make you want to see the thing through, and towards the end of episode 3, he duly turns up the heat on those elements to get the pulse of the Who-fan pounding. The question is really whether you can go with everything you’re being sold in this storyline, and really speaking whether you find the natural MacGuffin that’s responsible for the storyline believable and necessary to investigate in as much minute-chewing detail as we do in this story. Again, Morris does good work in trying to convince you that it is, but he’s swimming upstream against credulity. In itself that’s odd – were this some entirely invented alien planet, we wouldn’t think twice of going with the flow of the storytelling, and while in that scenario, the race to the finish would be inherently more believable because it was removed from our own reality, somehow, the fact that we’re dealing with Earth history, and recent Earth history at that, makes the fantasy elements somehow more difficult to swallow. It shouldn’t, by any means, but somehow it does. Possibly the reason that it does is because it’s so close to existing conspiracy theories that actual humans believe, and so there’s a pull on the rational listener to disengage from it, which wouldn’t be there were the setting removed from our own history.
Overall, there’s a lot to love about The Space Race – the atmosphere and mood-setting, the almost constant second-guessing which fits well with both the period and the Cold War mindset, the complex, well-motivated characters, the double-crossing and sabotage, and the Sixth Doctor and Peri slipping seamlessly into undercover roleplay among leading Russian cosmonauts and space researchers. Also, if you can get past that sense of believing the unbelievable – which to be fair, some would say is a fundamental step if you want to enjoy a series about a double-hearted, body-changing alien who travels through time and space in a police box! – Morris’ script delivers some good sweaty base under siege action which is logical within its own precepts, and dots every available ‘I’ before it’s done.
Unmissable audio Who? Possibly not. But certainly engaging in its first half, and tense in its second, so it’s worth giving The Space Race a spin if you can.