Directed by Jamie Anderson
Written by Una McCormack
Starring Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), and Bonnie Langford (Mel)
However much a relief it might be to know history went another way (and that is the direction these stories tend to go—not history that would’ve been better but history that would’ve been worse), there’s something about alternate history stories, and imagining what might’ve been if a crucial event had gone differently, that’s fascinating in a nagging-ly curious way. Red Planets is what would’ve happened if Communism hadn’t collapsed in the 90’s but continued to spread, resulting in a Communist Europe called Mokoshia.
Since it’s Doctor Who, and a story where the Seventh Doctor is traveling with two companions (Mel and Ace), Red Planets plays out over two different time lines. Ace is in East Berlin, where it’s November 1961, and Tom Elliot (Matt Barber) needs to cross the Berlin Wall. Shot in the line of making his attempt, Ace manages to get Tom to safety, but will she convince him to trust her with the photos he needs to get to West Berlin?
The Doctor and Mel are in the future – London 2017 – but given that 2017 is the past for anyone listening, there’s not a lot that’s recognizable. When Mel doesn’t register anything as off, the Doctor decides to investigate what’s gone wrong with the time line to make Communism prevail.
That’s one Red Planet explained, but there’s a second one – Mars, where the first human is about to set foot years before they’re meant to, according to the Doctor.
When you break it down that way, Red Planets is an irresistible title and Mars is probably the component that makes it most Doctor Who, but if scrapping Mars would’ve given the audio drama more time to dig into the Doctor’s insistence that Mokoshia is the wrong time line, that would’ve been pretty cool.
It’s a direction the drama basically drops once Mel grows less sure of Mokoshia and starts remembering two, different time lines but the initial dynamic, where Mel is challenging the Doctor to argue his side, and explain why time was better, when Communism fell, could’ve gone further if things on Mars hadn’t required their attention.
That’s the difference, though, in setting this story up so that one time line is supplanting another, instead of a parallel universe: one has to come out on top. Casualties make the consequences not minimal and the Doctor’s anger flairs up a lot, which is always part of his personality, but not something I’ve grown to expect from the warm Seventh Doctor.
There’s a lot to be said for how comprehensible McCormack’s writing makes this story, which has a lot of moving parts to keep from getting convoluted. The main trio spend most of Red Planets apart, which is a shame, though it’s also what allows Ace to be this super cool, spy in the face of danger – calm and unrattled.
Red Planets didn’t need to be anything but historical fiction, with some time travel mixed in, but sci-fi is the show’s lifeblood and you can’t really blame it for wanting to land on Mars.
Red Planets is available to purchase from Big Finish.