Released September 2013
To honour the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, Big Finish has commissioned a trilogy of adventures taking place in 1963, the year of the programme’s original debut. Beginning with ‘1963: Fanfare for the Common Men,’ the Fifth Doctor takes Nyssa back to where it all began, finding something very wrong with the time as The Beatles no longer exist in popular culture.
Ingeniously, writer Eddie Robson has taken a seemingly insignificant line of dialogue from the premiere episode ‘An Unearthly Child,’ crafting an entire story around the band that Susan was listening to on her portable radio, John Smith and the Common Men. Mitch Benn, Andrew Knott, and David Dobson are superb as the band members, delivering understated but very charismatic performances that manage to evoke similar sensibilities as the members of The Beatles, the band which The Common Men has taken the place of atop the charts. There are purposefully many parallels to The Beatles as the Common Men go from playing in clubs to using drugs, undergoing meditation, and eventually breaking up completely, and this seeming tribute to the 1960s and its most famous musical group helps to create a wonderful and rich atmosphere.
Although the story is certainly more light-hearted than several of the recent releases, it is very assured in its tone and pacing and takes a delightfully odd turn as the truth behind the Common Men is revealed. The story initially sets up the time traveler Paravatar as a source of intrigue while the Doctor tries to discern what he hopes to gain by having the Common Men take the place of The Beatles in history. Instead, the revelation that the members of the Common Men are hypnotised aliens from Bional takes the story in an unexpected direction, and the potential power these three together on Earth can garner from the power of fame and photographs is frightening. And while Lenny learns that one band is not simply interchangeable with another due to the exact right mixture of circumstances and talent in play, his failed plan still creates a neat nod to continuity hearkening back to ‘An Unearthly Child.’
Focusing on just the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa rather than on the much busier TARDIS crew with Turlough and Tegan as has been the case of late affords both main characters more time to be more proactive, and both Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton deliver incredibly strong performances. It’s particularly pleasant to hear Nyssa adjust to immerse herself in this completely alien fame-filled and fan-crazed atmosphere. Howard Carter manages to surpass all expectations with his sound design and vocal and instrumental music, deftly making the sound a vital part of the story without detracting from or overpowering the drama at hand. The end result is a loving look back to such an important decade in popular culture, Commonmania evoking the frenzy of Beatlemania perfectly. With superb characterization of and performances by both the core and guest characters and a straightforward but energetic narrative with an intriguing core mystery, the absurd but very emotional ‘1963: Fanfare for the Common Men’ is a superb start to this 1963 anniversary trilogy.