The Alchemists

Posted in Audio by - July 05, 2019
The Alchemists

Released August 2013

Set before the events of ‘An Unearthly Child,’ Ian Potter’s ‘The Alchemists’ finds the Doctor and Susan in 1930s Berlin with Hitler and the National Socialist Party in the ascendant. But as the greatest scientific minds of the era converge to help determine and forge the future for all of humanity, the travelers soon learn just how precariously balanced the established flow of history is with even the most innocuous objects proving capable of spurring unintended change.

Susan has unquestionably been one of the characters best served by The Companion Chronicles, and even in this setting prior to her televised outings she continues to develop as a much more mature and well-rounded individual than the well-meaning but impetuous youth she was often written as on screen. Here she is confident and capable of ingratiating herself into her surroundings while learning from mistakes both small and large as she gets used to doing so early on in her travels. In fact, through the framing device of a written letter for Barbara should she decide to leave the TARDIS in the future, Susan explains that she has already learned the dangers of changing history while reminding her companion how easy it is to judge and misjudge people based on just a few interactions, a nice nod to the sometimes rocky relationship between the Doctor and Barbara at the start. But with the Doctor quickly kidnapped and Susan left to fend for herself in a strange world that is slowly starting to become familiar due to the TARDIS’s frequent return journeys, her own resourcefulness and determination shine in this world still very much dominated by men, allowing Carole Ann Ford to really show her acting acumen and fitting in perfectly with what has been established for the character while also hinting at just how much she has already matured by this point.

Susan is quick to point out that history will be impacted just by them stepping into it, and the same holds true with Big Finish taking the rare step of telling a story set prior to the events at Coal Hill. Unfortunately, Potter doesn’t do too much with this setup and seems like it was included just as much to feature a smaller TARDIS crew comprised very much of novices still learning their way, and truly the functioning chameleon circuit is the only aspect that sets ‘The Alchemists’ distinctively apart. Conversely, however, the realisation of 1930s Berlin is wonderful, and Potter adeptly includes brutal anti-Semitic moments that harshly but realistically correlate with the increasing power of the Nazi party to further flesh out this world that is already so full of paranoia, distrust, and tension. This is a story that is unafraid to at least briefly explore the political undercurrents of the time, and just as the characters introduced are followed through to after Hitler’s rise to give a sense of completion, the Doctor’s discussion about how history may have been different had Germany been more secure financially is an interesting note that segues into his promise to show Susan the better world that resulted from the war quite effectively.

‘The Alchemists’ may not be the most profound or unique Doctor Who serial, but its core messaging about the good present in every person is realised well with Fritz Haber’s role in developing chemical warfare a startlingly effective backdrop. While more could have done to emphasise the genuinely terrible acts of this man to offer more of a balanced take, the story more than capably overcomes its few missed opportunities to provide plenty to think about within an incredible atmosphere that ranks amongst the best of The Companion Chronicles.

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