The First Wave
Tony waves goodbye to Oliver Harper.
The Oliver Harper trilogy of stories is a remarkable insertion into the First Doctor’s history – adding a whole ‘previously unseen’ companion to the roster and hugely building up what we know about one of the TV show’s least developed companions, Steven Taylor, in the process. Oliver transforms, over the course of three audio stories by Simon Guerrier, from a nervous man haunted by the legal realities of his time and place (1960s London and the cut and thrust of the city’s commodities market) in The Perpetual Bond to an enthusiastic puppy-dog citizen of the universe when freed from its restrictions in The Cold Equations. The combination of Steven and Oliver becomes fascinating in The Cold Equations, because Steven, wounded by the deaths of The Daleks’ Master Plan, feels almost defeated by the inevitable crushing eventuality of death in the universe, while Oliver, fresh and deathless in his adventures, is full of bouncy positivity and a refusal to give in to Steven’s inevitable logic.
In The First Wave, his third and final story, the difference between Oliver and Steven is sharply delineated all the way down the line, from the fact that the Doctor only takes them to the planetoid Grace Alone because in The Cold Equations, the Tardis crew learned they would go there and commit a crime – historical inevitability coming to kick them in the destinies – to Steven’s increasing exhaustion, when pursued by an alien aggressor. He’s convinced it’s simply his ‘time’ to die, and so is prone to giving up to that inevitable fate. He feels, in a theme that runs throughout The First Wave, that they’re all on ‘borrowed time.’ Oliver though has no concept of that borrowed time, and so saves Steven’s life in this story when the space pilot wants to literally just lie down and die.
In terms of the actual alien threat on Grace Alone, it’s something that terrifies at one remove for most of the story – Steven and Oliver spend the first half of the story running away from an implacable and unnamed menace they believe is following them, and has already killed the Doctor.
It’s only when we go back into their memories that we discover exactly what that pursuer is, and how it ‘killed’ the Time Lord – and when we do that, you’ll be go from fascinated to punching the air, because the villain of this piece is one that features in much later Who than Hartnell’s, and is dreadfully realised on screen. That means there’s a double thrill here, hearing this particular villain encounter the Hartnell Doctor, and finally fulfilling the potential of their nature and psychology on audio, getting a breath of fresh air in a story that doesn’t especially reboot them, but simply does them right.
Guerrier delivers a story that comes down to the difference between Oliver’s and Steven’s point of view. When the Doctor, with his somewhat hardline ‘We can’t rewrite history, not one line’ stance, comes down on Steven’s side, preferring to take the consequences than allow them to go untaken, Oliver shows him, for the first real time in the Doctor’s life, that there is another way – a more actively meddlesome way, a way that involves telling the universe that while you’re there, you have as much right to a say in what happens as anyone else. You could make a fairly bold case for this story to fit perfectly into the Hartnell Doctor’s history as the point at which his meddling with the web of time became rather looser and more free, inspired by the actions of the young puppy dog from London who decided the future could go hang because he was there, and could rewrite what happened simply by his actions.
While The First Wave impresses throughout, as all the Oliver Harper stories do, it’s actually not until what is essentially its epilogue that it reaches the same emotional ‘No no, I’ve just got something in my eye’ pitch as The Cold Equations. Without spoilering the ending for you, it’s a sequence that extends beyond the end of the story, and forward throughout a handful of Hartnell’s, to almost the closing moments of The Tenth Planet.
Peter Purves, throughout the three Oliver Harper stories, delivers us Steven Taylor in spades, according to Guerrier’s playbook. It’s a Steven who is all the things he should have been on-screen, but rarely got a chance to be. The traveller ready for anything, the trained space pilot, the man haunted by recent deaths, and keenly aware of his own inevitable mortality alongside the Doctor (a sense which, to give the sixties writers their due, they did deliver in a blistering scene at the end of The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve). In The First Wave, he continues his unbroken streak of fine work at Big Finish, adding real human flesh to Steven’s bones.
Tom Allen as Oliver gives us a great, believable new companion for the First Doctor, who in The First Wave completes an evolution from being too scared to say boo to a goose to being the teacher, the one among the all-male Tardis crew to grasp the nettle of the future with both hands and declare his own importance, saving the Doctor and Steven’s lives in the process.
The Oliver Harper trilogy is a run of three stories you’ll listen to again and again, as each has its own joys – The Perpetual Bond has a return to sixties London, a monster that’s not a little mad but still creepy, and a plot that makes us ask uncomfortable questions about the business ethics of banks, traders and the like. The Cold Equations is an absolute love letter to Steven, his training, his actual skills, and the difference that both the Doctor and Oliver Harper have made to his outlook on the inevitabilities of the universe. And The First Wave gives us a thrilling, saddening, epic conclusion, and the first encounter between the Doctor and a villain that has gone on to be rather better served on audio than it ever was on screen. It gives us a lesson in the importance of standing up for what you believe is right, whatever even your clever friends think. And it gives us the sense of being a previously unseen turning point in the Doctor’s life, as he learns from the example of the city trader-cum-citizen of the universe that is Oliver Harper.