Doctor Who Reactions: “1963: Fanfare for the Common Men”

A Fifth Doctor Audio Adventure

Synopsis: If you remember the Sixties, they say, then you can’t have been there. The Doctor remembers the Sixties. That’s why he’s taking Nyssa on a trip back to November 1963. Back to where it all began. Back to the birth of the biggest band in the history of British music. Back to see those cheeky lads from Liverpool... Mark, James and Korky. The Common Men. The boys who made the Sixties swing with songs like Oh, Won’t You Please Love Me?, Just Count To Three and Who Is That Man. The Doctor remembers the Sixties. And there’s something very wrong with the Sixties, if the Beatles no longer exist.

“Fanfare” is not just a Doctor Who thing, it’s a Beatles thing as well. The packaging contains mock-ups of the Common Men’s album covers made to look like The Beatles’ Please, Please Me, With the Beatles and Abbey Road. The packaging of the CD is itself an Abbey Road pastiche, with the Fifth Doctor bringing up the rear in the procession across the street and the TARDIS nestled on the curb in the background.

The parents of Mitch Benn (who plays Mark, the “John” character) grew up in Liverpool and were acquainted with the Beatles when they were the Quarrymen. About his role he says, “I’m playing a character called Mark, who is John Lennon except he isn’t. It’s quite interesting actually, because the John character in particular develops in a proper sci-fi way.”

The three actors who play Mark, James and Korky strove to attain a certain Beatles “vibe” or a Beatle-y rhythm into their conversations. It sounds a bit like that mid-sixties Beatles cartoon show. No, it’s better than that. There’s never any question that “Mark” is John, “James” is Paul and “Korky” is Ringo. What’s more the script is very witty, almost like “A Hard Day’s Night” or the “Help!” movie scripts. The actors who play the Common Men also sing the Beatlesque tunes especially written for this production. The songs are playing in the background of certain scenes, but there’s also ten minutes worth the music tracks by themselves.

The Beatles very seldom ever give permission for their music to be included on compilations, including any context in which their music would be released on a CD, and even if they did, Big finish would have had to pay hefty licensing fees. The songs used are not bad, maybe a bit more like Herman’s Hermits than the Beatles (on tune sounds as if it should be playing on the jukebox in the Blue Whale), but they’re convincing enough within the context of the story.

MILD SPOILERS: As the story opens, the Common Men are returning to London after touring abroad and are met by a group of screaming fans. The Doctor and Nyssa arrive at the airport to see the Beatles, only to learn that another band has apparently taken their place in history. Suddenly, a man with a gun appears on the scene. The Doctor moves toward the band, but Nyssa moves to disrupt the assassin’s shot, and they both disappear in a flash of light.

The assassin was wearing a personal time travel device, and Nyssa ends up being shunted to the year 1960, where she interacts with the band in their early days. Meanwhile, the Doctor, in an attempt to solve the mystery and find Nyssa, follows the development of the group by leaping into the future a few years at a time. The story is told in flashback, narrated by one of the band members (I won’t say which one) in the present day by use of a framing device. While Nyssa and the Doctor are separated, the Doctor interacts with Rita, a fan in the early sixties who becomes a journalist in the later sixties. There is also a Maharishi character, the Paravatar.

HEAVY SPOILERS: The Common Men and their manager, Lenny, turn out to be from an alien race which feeds and grows powerful off the adulation of the masses. The Common Men, however, are unaware that they are aliens and are being manipulated by Lenny. (Lenny was also the “assassin” at the airport in 1963.) Everything he has done has been to get the Common Men into the limelight to capitalize on their popularity. He even manipulated events in the past to keep the Beatles from rising to fame.

The alien race to which they all belong has time travel as well as the ability to absorb adulation, although both activities are forbidden. It requires a “triumvirate” to work, though, and what happens when one of the Common Men wants to break up the group? END SPOILERS

I have yet to listen to the conclusion of this four-part story, but I feel confident in recommending it to fans of Doctor Who or the Beatles, doubly to fans of both.

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Interesting - someone obviously took Susan and Ian's reference to "John Smith and the Common Men" in "An Unearthly Child" and decided to build a story around it.  I wonder where the Honorable Aubrey Waites will come into it?

The title derives from a piece by Aaron Copland.

Yes, "Fanfare for the Common Man"... a very stirring piece. (I played it in marching band.)

I do not recall the reference to "John Smith and the Common Men" from "An Unearthly Child," but a quick Google seach reveals...

“The honourable Aubrey Waites was a singer who used the stage name "Chris Waites" during his time leading Chris Waites and the Carrollers. He later used the stage name "John Smith" during his time leading John Smith and the Common Men. (TV: "An Unearthly Child", PROSE: Time and Relative)

“The Fifth Doctor, in fact, suggested to the Common Men in November 1963 that they become a backing group for Waites, and directly caused the creation of John Smith and the Common Men. The Common Men were slightly reluctant at first, but willing to do "whatever pays". (AUDIO: 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men)”

See, I totally missed that. Thanks for pointing it out!

The conclusion of “Fanfare” was every bit as satisfying as the first three parts. For the Doctor Who piece of it, the story loops around nicely to fit with the reference in “An Unearthly Child”; for the Beatles piece of it, [SPOILERS] the resolution hinges on James (the “Paul” character) being killed and replaced by a surgically altered duplicate. [END SPOILERS]

I will soon be adding two new audio reviews, both 50th anniversary specials, neither of which I was expecting until November 30th, but one of which I received over the weekend. Tracy’s keen to hear it, too, and has asked that I wait until our Thanksgiving trip (the only time we spend an appreciable amount of time in the same vehicle at the same time) to listen to it. There’s a lot to be said about it, though, so I may soon be setting up a discussion in anticipation.

I’m now listening to this one a second time through. It’s one of those stories, once you know where it’s headed, you can appreciate how it gets there. I just realized that, although self-contained, it’s part of a “trilogy” of sorts, with the Sixth Doctor (and Peri) and the Seventh Doctor (and Ace), all set in 1963 as part of the 50th anniversary four years ago. I may have to order those other two someday.

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