Written by: Justin Richards
Featuring: Fifth Doctor and Peri
Release Date: May 2000
Ares One: NASA’s first manned mission to the dead planet Mars. But is Mars as dead as it seems?
While the NASA team investigate an ‘anomaly’ on the planet’s surface, the Doctor and Peri find themselves inside a strange alien building. What is its purpose? And what is frozen inside the blocks of ice that guard the doorways? If the Doctor has a sense of deja-vu, it’s because he’s about to meet some old adversaries, as well as some new ones…
Despite a great first episode and the first appearance of the Ice Warriors in a Big Finish adventure, “Red Dawn” ultimately fails to take off in the way I hoped it would.
The first few minutes of episode 1 set up this adventure perfectly: the spaceship Ares One takes off from Houston with a crew of four on a voyage to Mars, whilst the Doctor and Peri arrive in a structure that appears to be an organic shell. When it is revealed that this shell is actually storing a group of Ice Warriors frozen in blocks of ice, which cracks as the group investigates, I got huge “Tomb of the Cybermen” vibes and I could imagine this taking place in my mind. This had all the makings of a great story and set up a battle between the humans who have just landed on Mars and the Ice Warriors, with the Doctor and Peri trapped in the middle. That is also ultimately what the synopsis of the story suggests.
After this exciting and dramatic opening episode, I’m afraid to say that the story does not go anywhere near the direction I was hoping for. The Ice Warriors, led by Commander Zzaal, turn out to be guardians of the organic structure, which is a tomb for one of their greatest ever leaders, Izdaal. I generally liked the direction that the writers took the Ice Warriors in; they could have been lazy and had them attempt to kill the human intruders on the planet. Their portrayal reminded me of that of the Third Doctor TV adventure “The Curse of Peladon”, but even less confrontational, unless provoked, as an unfortunate member of the crew discovers. For me their biggest contribution to the story was right at the climax, where Zzaal sacrifices himself to the ultraviolet rays of the red dawn of Mars, as his hero Izdaal did, in order to have his men be able to destroy the true villain of this story. However, in between these two bright spells, there is over an episode and a half of them deliberating whether to kill the alien imposters where they decide to and then change their mind thanks to the Doctor and then decide to again and stand down again. It makes for an extremely tenuous characterisation where it feels like the writers didn’t know what else to get Zzaal to do.
The lackluster development as the story progresses leaks to other areas of the narrative as well. The true villain is revealed to be the son of a billionaire back on Earth who guessed alien life was alive on Mars from past expeditions and so wanted to steal technology. This would be a good idea had the character have more than one aggressive layer that is maintained for over half of the story and I can’t help thinking that it could have been taken further. Another missed opportunity is the fact another of the crew was genetically modified with Martian DNA as a fetus. They could have done so many cool things and provide a completely different perspective than either of the two groups, but she just drives a craft and has similar instincts as the Ice Warriors and goes no further. Episodes 2 and 3 felt like the characters were running around in circles and either one of these two ideas could have been developed to make a more detailed and exciting story than just playing very safe.
You notice that I have gone through much of the review without even passing comment on the Doctor and Peri’s portrayals in this story and that is honestly because I don’t have much to say. They are just fine I guess, with Peri showing a bit of fight and personality, even if her character can annoyingly say something at such inappropriate times. As for Peter Davison, I really like his portrayal as the Doctor but I have not listened to a single story yet where he has been given some good writing to sink his teeth into. The Doctor spends literally the entire story powerless to stop either Zzaal or the billionaire’s son and by the finish, even his protests about what is happening feel very tired indeed. The fact that Zzaal, as beautiful as his moment at the end was, became the individual to solve the problem, says a lot about how little influence the Doctor had on the story. I really hope that the character is given some good writing soon enough.
“Red Dawn” has a great first episode, setting up a massive skirmish between human astronauts and the Ice Warriors on Mars, but doesn’t reach that highs again, instead becoming bogged down by characters wanting to take the diplomatic route. A beautiful but sad solution in the climax at least finishes the story on a high. It is not a bad listen by any means, but I am wondering whether Big Finish can ever give Peter Davison an exceptional story that he can run with.
Next time will see the return of the Sixth Doctor and the brilliant Big Finish original companion Evelyn Smythe, as well as the first appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in “The Spectre of Lanyon Moor”. If you enjoyed reading this review, please like and subscribe to the blog to get notified via email when new posts are published, so you don’t miss a single one!