Whereas the first adventure for the 1963 trilogy focused on British pop culture of the time, the second story, 1963: The Space Race, takes into account the far greater scientific advances that were taking place during the year that Doctor Who first graced the television sets of many a British household.
During the 1960s’s the great space race between countries around the world was taking place. All were in competition with one another to get to the moon and prove who had the biggest… rockets. Whilst the American made it in the late 1960’s (no thanks to the Eleventh Doctor tinkering with their space shuttle) it was the Russians who made the first hard landings on the surface from 1959.
The Sixth Doctor and Peri catch up with the Soviet Union in 1963, of course, and adopt the identities of scientists from Moscow University. But this is no mere visit to watch history unfold for the time travellers, manned capsule Vostok 7 has passed the dark side of the moon and communications have been cut off. By the time the shuttle comes back, the occupant is very different indeed, much to everyone’s shock…
The Space Race is pretty much a glowing tribute to The Ambassadors of Death and Doctor Who and The Silurians / The Sea Devils or Warriors of the Deep. There’s a conspiracy, spies working on the inside, political ramifications if the Doctor doesn’t save the day and a talking dog. Laika, to be specific. That’s correct; the poor dog that was flown into space by the Russians and died a few short hours afterwards actually became a creature of higher function with capable reasoning facilities.
Laika’s involvement in the story is the meat of the plot; being given a larynx and a cerebral cortex augmentation by a mysterious benefactor (who turns out to be something quite similar to the beings in The Ambassadors of Death), she is able to vocalise how terrifying her initial journey must have been. Alone, afraid and with no clue as to what was happening to her or why, the poor dog must have been terrified. It’s no surprise that in this story, she wants revenge on the humans that have caused her such misery. She creates an army of animals to help her exact her revenge: this is where the struggle of Earth’s original inhabitants, the Eocenes, becomes all too familiar.
The story of Laika is an interesting one, and certainly filled this listener with empathy. The intertwining tale of spies and evil Russians felt less important and perhaps served as filler to bring the adventure to its four episode quota. The reviewer would have been happier if this had been shaped into one of the Fourth Doctor Adventures and scaled down to two episodes instead, perhaps to bring the pace of the story up into a different gear.
Story structuring aside, this is a solid tale regarding the great worldwide space race that took place in the 1960’s and it’s quite amusing to note that although the Russians were the first country to successfully land a lunar module on the moon, their attempts in the 1960’s were failures.
Doctor Who is nothing if not generous with its history!
1963: The Space Race is out now – head to the Big Finish website to find out more.