Released October 2013
Big Finish’s 1963 trilogy continues with ‘1963: The Space Race,’ a tale that deftly taps into the fascination with space and its exploration that so gripped and enthralled the world during that time period. As Vostok Seven, the first manned capsule to orbit the Moon, undergoes a life support systems malfunction as it travels over the dark side, only the Doctor and Peri have a chance of uncovering the strange truth behind the failure and Cosmonaut Petrov’s erratic behaviour as they adopt the identities of scientists from Moscow University.
It’s clear from the start that author Jonathan Morris has a passion for Earth’s space travel history, and he has clearly researched the Russian space programme’s terminology, practices, and procedures. The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was one of the most important buildings in the formative years of space exploration, and it is brought to life excellently here as science fiction intertwines with undisputed fact to create an extremely tense and suspenseful tale with a strong central mystery.
Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant are both superb in this story as the former tackles the cause of the problem and the latter the effect, a testament to their lasting chemistry that also draws into focus how few main range releases this pair have done together. The Doctor and Peri have obviously developed a deep friendship at this point in their relationship, and while the Doctor shows his usual resourcefulness and bravery in the face of so many dangers, Peri really steps into the spotlight as an American in Russian territory who proves to be extremely quick on her toes.
It’s a brave choice to explore the Russian side of the space race for this release after Doctor Who and the world in general has focused so much on the American and British programmes in the past. Even as the capsule returning to Earth at the end of the first episode channels the seminal portion of ‘The Ambassadors of Death,’ the gritty realism and horror that pervades the Kazakh Step as events unfold and the search for a secret agent leaking information continues is magnificent. Morris proves that he is unabashedly unafraid to stray off the familiar path, and the return to Earth of the canine Laika, augmented with a specific larynx and brain, is an unexpectedly delightful twist that carries serious repercussions. Likewise, the Soviets housing a copy of a prototype lunar landing module that Neil Armstrong would use during his famous journey and America having already claimed the Moon as their own with the establishment of Moonbase Eisenhower are brilliantly intriguing concepts.
Ultimately, the alien aspect of the story, though making its presence known throughout, is simply a means of exploring the full range of emotions Earth’s citizens in general are capable of experiencing. With the mystery of the nearby black hole looming and the lonely and angry Laika the first being the aliens met as their introduction to the destructive human race, it’s sadly fitting that it’s the collective grief over the assassination of President Kennedy that shows humanity’s potential for unity and progress.
‘1963: The Space Race’ requires a greater suspension of disbelief than most Doctor Who stories, but for those willing to overlook the audacious use of Laika and the liberties taken with the secretive progress of both world powers in space exploration relative to known history this is an absolute delight. With masterful performances from both Baker and Bryant and an engaging thriller from beginning to end, the emotions and suspense of the script far outweigh the extreme bizarreness.