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Audio Drama Review: Flip Flop

We’re back, with another Big finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to the forty-sixth entry in the Main Range, Flip Flop. This story continues Big Finish’s brief experimental period in the Main Range; this story consists of two discs, one white and one black, each consisting of two episodes. You can listen to either disc first; the story plays with timelines and events in such a way that the order doesn’t matter. I was listening on Spotify, which puts the white disc first, and so that is the order in which I listened, though that should have little effect on this review. The story features the Seventh Doctor and Mel, landing on the planet Puxatornee; it was written by Jonathan Morris, and directed by Gary Russell, and released in July 2003. Let’s get started!

Flip Flop 1

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

White Disc, Part One:

The Doctor and Mel arrive on Puxatornee on Christmas Eve, 3090, in search of Leptonite crystals, for use in dealing with the Quarks in another system. They are immediately arrested by security agents Reed and Stewart, who accuse them of being spies for the Slithergee—and they insist that the two have already confessed! However, they are soon rescued from their cell by…Reed and Stewart?! Not the same Reed and Stewart, as it turns out—but before they can explain, they are killed. Still, something weird is going on; everyone seems to know who the Doctor and Mel are. The rather paranoid President, Mitchell, sends his security forces through the city to find them. The Doctor and Mel discover a Professor Capra, who has invented a time machine; but it can only work once, and only in one direction—to the past. He reveals that, thirty years earlier, the planet was approached by the Slithergee, who asked for asylum on one of the planet’s moons. However, the then-President, Bailey, was assassinated by her secretary, Clarence, which led to a war with the Slithergee. While the humans won the war, their planet was ruined and poisoned, and soon everyone will die. Capra—with Mitchell’s blessing—plans to send agents Stewart and Reed back in time to prevent the assassination. The Doctor determines not to let that happen; the humans must not change their own history. In the struggle, Stewart and Mel are sent back in time; the Doctor and Reed follow in the TARDIS. Behind them, Capra’s machine overloads, destroying the entire planet. The Doctor and Reed find Mel and Stewart, but fail at stopping Stewart from killing Clarence before the assassination.  Reed and Stewart then tell Bailey that she must make peace with the Slithergee, in order to prevent a terrible war.

White Disc, Part Two:

Reed and Stewart’s mission is finished, and so they demand that the Doctor take them forward. He takes them to Christmas Day, 3090. Things have changed; the war never happened, but all is not well. Bailey is now called “The Great Appeaser”, having given in to the Slithergee’s demands. This eventually brought the Slithergee to occupy both moon and planet. Subsequently, through various maneuvers, the Slithergee have enslaved the humans. This is not the outcome Stewart and Reed wanted, and so they order the Doctor to take them back to the previous note so they can stop themselves from leaving to the past. The Doctor does so, but they are dismayed to learn that they cannot return to their original timeline; it no longer exists. Their story ends when they are killed by Potter, who was an agent under them in their original timeline, but here is a Slithergee collaborator. However, the Doctor and Mel then run into the other Reed and Stewart, who are freedom fighters against the Slithergee. This is an earlier moment in their timeline, and they do not recognize the Doctor or Mel; but they quickly discover that the duo has a time machine. Meanwhile the Doctor realizes that, just as there are doubles of Stewart and Reed (and Potter, as well), there will be alternate versions of themselves, who will probably arrive soon. The problem: they will most likely land their TARDIS in the same spot as the current version—and that would be disastrous! With their Leptonite crystals in hand, they hurry back to their TARDIS and leave; the Doctor refuses to stay and help, trusting that his alternate self will figure things out.

Black Disc, Part One:

The (other) Doctor and Mel land on Puxatornee on Christmas Eve, 3090, attempting to obtain Leptonite crystals to deal with a Quark incursion in another system. They find a world that is both occupied and enslaved; the Slithergees, in their weird hivelike buildings, have made slaves of the humans. They are promptly arrested by Slithergee collaborator Potter, who takes them to Professor Capra for interrogation. This Capra has not built a time machine, but rather, a Leptonite-powered torture device. The Doctor and Mel are freed by two freedom fighters, Reed and Stewart, who somehow know who they are. More strangely, they know that the Doctor has a time machine, and they want to use it to go back and kill President Bailey before she can begin the peace process that led to the Slithergee occupation. Meanwhile, Bailey suspects that her deputy, Mitchell, is secretly a Slithergee agent; she thinks he staged the failed assassination attempt that led to the peace process, so as to keep her from going to war. She confronts him, and ends up dead for her trouble; Mitchell calls it suicide. The Slithergee Community Leader designates Mitchell the new president, but then kills him, taking direct control of the planet. Meanwhile, Stewart threatens to shoot Mel if the Doctor won’t transport them; and he reluctantly agrees. He takes them back thirty years, where they kill Bailey’s secretary, Clarence. They then kill Bailey to prevent the peace process, and stage the scene so as to frame Clarence for the murder.

Black Disc, Part Two:

The Doctor then takes them forward to Christmas Day, 3090, where they find things changed. Mitchell, having assumed power after Bailey’s death, believed Clarence was a Slithergee agent, and so he went to war against the Slithergee. While the humans won the war, it left their world a wasteland, and soon the remaining humans will die. Potter—here a security agent under agents Stewart and Reed—arrests the Doctor and Mel as enemy agents; but the rebel Stewart and Reed pretend to be his superiors, and take the time travelers into their custody. This is not the future they sought, and so they demand that the Doctor take them back to last night, so that they can stop themselves from going back to complete the assassination. He does so, but they find that this is still the new timeline; and they leave, disappearing into the city. However, the Doctor and Mel run into agents Stewart, Reed, and Potter; from the agents’ point of view, this is their first meeting. The Doctor remembers that tomorrow, Potter will arrest them as spies, and so he confesses to being such, in order to preserve the timeline. Once in a cell, Mel realizes that they, too, must have counterparts; the Doctor realizes that their counterparts will soon land, in the same spot as their own TARDIS—a catastrophe in the making. He gets them out of the cell, and they rush to the TARDIS to depart, trusting that their other selves will set things right.

Flip Flop 2

I have to say up front, I appreciate what they’re trying to do here. Flip Flop is actually a very clever application of alternate timelines. We have the Doctor and Mel from one timeline contributing to the actions that create the other timeline—and this happens in both directions! That’s very clever; but in practice, it’s a mess, and hard to follow. There’s no shame in needing a few runs through this story in order to follow along!

I love stories about alternate timelines, not just in Doctor Who, but in other franchises as well. While trying to piece this one together, I realized that it conforms with a theory of my own. If you follow the idea that any choice can result in a new timeline splitting off, you have the basis for multiverse theory. However, when we’re talking about time travel, we have to ask: what happens if you go back to a point before the split? I theorize that it only makes sense if each new timeline also happens retroactively, splitting off both forward and backward in time. There’s no such thing as a unified timeline before the split (sorry, Legend of Zelda fans—of which I am one, so I’m apologizing to myself, too). This story must follow that notion, because there are two versions of the Doctor and Mel. While their timelines were identical up to the events on Puxatornee, they differentiate at that point—but the split must be retroactive, or else we’d only have one TARDIS team here. Interestingly, the story ends with each team in the opposite universe from the one in which they started!

Confused yet? Yeah, me too.

With all that said, I reiterate my initial point: I appreciate what they’re trying to accomplish, but in execution, it doesn’t work out so well. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m looking forward to getting past this experimental phase in the Main Range. Everyone has an adolescence; I suppose this is Big Finish’s. On the plus side, the voice acting is pretty good; I never had trouble discerning which version of each character was being portrayed. In a story like this, that’s priceless.

We do get some continuity references here. The Quarks (The Dominators) get a few mentions; they represent the inciting incident for the story, as the Doctor and Mel (in both timelines) come to Puxatornee to obtain Leptonite crystals, which cause Quarks to explode. (According to the Doctor Who Reference Guide for this story, the Quarks mentioned here—being mentioned sans Dominators—are more likely a reference to the 1960s comic strip stories Invasion of the Quarks and The Killer Wasps (and others; I don’t have a complete list) than to The Dominators. In those strips, the Quarks were billed as a conquering race on their own. However, I’m not familiar with those stories myself, so I can’t comment.) The Doctor mentions the musical group “Pakafroon Wabster” here; I don’t usually mention future references, but as I am not likely to reach the referenced story anytime soon, I’ll say that they will be mentioned a few times in the future before actually appearing in the comic story Interstellar Overdrive. The Doctor mentions “anti-radiation gloves” invented by a previous incarnation; this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to The Daleks, where William Hartnell mistakenly said “anti-radiation gloves” instead of “anti-radiation drugs. The cloister bell is heard when the two TARDISes are at risk of colliding (Logopolis, et al.) The Doctor quips several times that “I’ll explain later”; while I haven’t identified the first appearance, this line has appeared as a running joke on many occasions. I should also mention that the planet’s name, “Puxatornee”, is a slightly-altered reference to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which is the setting for the film Groundhog Day (and coincidentally, a few hours from my hometown, though I haven’t been there). That film, like this story, focuses on repetitive sequences of time, though the resolution is much different.

Overall: The story is ambitious, and it does, I suppose, accomplish its goal. For the listener, getting there is a mess. I applaud the attempt, but I don’t think I’ll come back to this one.

Next time: We begin the villainous countdown to the fiftieth Main Range entry, with Omega! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Flip Flop

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Audio Drama Review: Quantum Heresy

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re concluding our examination of the early Short Trips anthologies with the Eighth Doctor’s contribution to the Short Trips, Volume IV collection: Quantum Heresy! Written by Avril Naude, and read by India Fisher, this story features the Eighth Doctor traveling companionless. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 4 a

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

A woman with an…oddly loose grasp of time…works in an archive on Earth. All seems well at first; but then she realizes that she is living the same moments over and over again. Later, the strange man called the Doctor will tell her that she is time-sensitive, or else she would never have noticed.

While checking data in the archive, the woman sees the Doctor appear out of apparently nowhere. He seems familiar, and introduces himself as “the Doctor”; then says an odd thing: “Oh, but you won’t have met me yet.” The woman feels increasingly panicked, but she swears she knows him, somehow. He escorts her deeper into the archive, and shows her an old man, shuffling forward, muttering something. Strangely, the Doctor calls the man “it”. The Doctor refuses to let her speak or approach, despite the overwhelming urge to hear what the man says.

Again she is working in the archive, alone in the quiet and dust. She thinks she has always been here. The man called the Doctor approaches, and she remembers him; but when he is gone, she forgets. Perhaps this happens over and over; she doesn’t know. It happens again, and she thinks that she stays because it is her duty. She hears the old man shuffling closer and muttering. She wants to know what he says; but she is afraid. She sees the old man searching for something—and then the Doctor appears, but she does not recognize him this time. He warns her back, and the old man shuffles away. He tells her that time is repeating itself, and even he is caught in it. He says he keeps arriving in this time loop at different points, until he gets it right—and then he vanishes.

The woman works in the archive, checking data, in the dust and the quiet. She thinks of the Doctor as she eats her lunch, and he appears, looking tired and worn. He asks for something to eat, and she offers him her lunch. He laments that he can’t seem to break the time loop—and then he realizes she remembered him this time. She says that he told her it was vital that she remember.  He doesn’t seem to know that, but is cheered by the news. Still, she thinks she has forgotten something. He asks if she remembers the old man—and the loop resets.

She works again. She knows now that the loop exists, and the Doctor is real—but not here. Her time sense awakens, and she realizes the days are not identical. She thinks of the old man, and the Doctor’s warning to avoid him. But would hearing him help or hurt? She is not even sure who she is.

She is no longer checking data storage, and the archive sits in its dust. Is any of this real? The old man passes by, and seems worse than before. Her compulsion to hear him is much stronger. The Doctor appears and breaks the spell again. She wonders not who she is, but what.

Another loop. She longs to be free, and is angry over it. It feels as though time has stopped. She calls out for the Doctor, and she hears his voice, now dry and cracked. He tells her it’s time—he has worked it out, and she has remembered. The time loop is an experiment. The old man is no man at all; he’s a creature from another dimension, trying to push through. And the woman…she WAS the experiment. She was created from raw matter, but has become a living person. The old man wanted to control her so as to manipulate the Doctor’s reality. But she resisted—and the experiment failed. She sees the old man, and he looks like a hole in reality. It burns and dies in front of them. The Doctor says that had she approached it, it would have granted the creature control—and she would have died.

The archive is not real, and it begins to crumble around her. She tries to hold on—but the Doctor assures her she is part of real reality now, and she can break free. So, she does.

Now, she has her own life, and freedom—and things can change and be different. She knows what the Doctor meant when he said she would understand in time—she would understand when she began to live in real time. More, she understands the Doctor—and just how much the universe owes him.

Short Trips Volume 4 b

It has always seemed to me that the Eighth Doctor era—having lacked a television series to set its tone—has become the dumping ground for the most weird and bizarre and—to borrow the Tenth Doctor’s term—timey-wimey stories in the DW canon. One need only to look at Zagreus (which I haven’t covered yet, but have heard enough about) to know that that is the case. His stories push the limits of time travel and dimensions and universes and his own lifespan and nearly any other fantastic aspect of the series.

This story, while hardly the most large-scale or dramatic, fits right in. It concerns a time loop—standard fare by itself—that is more than it seems, and gradually reveals an otherworldly creature (villain? By default, I suppose, but we don’t get very far into that aspect) trying to break into reality, as well as an artificial lifeform that becomes real. Pinocchio ain’t got nothin’ on this story, friends. Being a story of a time loop—but with the Doctor dropping in at non-sequential points—the story is told in non-linear fashion. Sometimes, as with Creatures of Beauty (which I recently covered), that can become a problem, as the story gives itself away too early. Here, I think it’s saved by the fact that it’s essentially a bottle episode; there are very few characters, in a very contained environment, and we’re only seeing the story from one character’s perspective, which is subject to the rules of the time loop. Thus, we don’t get the ending spoiled before we get there, despite the non-linear structure. That’s a rare combination of factors indeed, but it works here.

The Eighth Doctor is traveling alone, but that does little to establish when in his timeline the story takes place. If we got a good description of his hair or clothes, it might narrow it down; but the point-of-view character has other, more pressing concerns, and doesn’t oblige us. As is typical in these anthologies, there are no continuity references (we don’t even see a sonic screwdriver!), and that further obscures any attempt to place the story. Being a bottle episode, that’s just as well, I suppose; it doesn’t NEED to have any bearing on any other stories. As with past Eighth Doctor short trips, India Fisher (of Charley Pollard fame) does the reading; she’s passable and formal, but she doesn’t really attempt to capture the Doctor’s voice or mannerisms. I think that’s acceptable in audiobook format; it’s nice when we can get the different voices, but it’s not necessary.

Overall: A nice story, self-contained in more than one sense, and a decent wrap-up to both the fourth volume and the anthologies as a group. I haven’t always been optimistic about the Eighth Doctor’s short trips thus far, but this one is decent. It’s also short; I didn’t do the math, but I suspect it’s the shortest installment in this anthology. If you’ve made it this far, give this one a listen as well.

And that’s that! When we return, we’ll begin listening to the individual Short Trips, which tend to be longer and more involved—someone recently compared them to the Companion Chronicles, but in short form, and I think that’s an apt comparison. I should note that there’s a significant gap in release dates between Volume IV, published in 2011, and the first single release, published in January 2015. We’ll begin with the First Doctor in Dale Smith’s Flywheel Revolution! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions. This story’s purchase page is linked below.

Short Trips, Volume IV

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Audio Drama Review: The Shadow Trader

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Shadow Trader, the Seventh Doctor’s entry into the Short Trips, Volume IV anthology. This story was written by Charles Williams, and features the Sixth Doctor and Ace, and is read by Sophie Aldred. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 4 a

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

Salim is a shadow trader. It’s an old profession, one practiced by his father before him, and dating all the way back to the old days on Earth. Some cultures have known for centuries that buildings—and in these days, spaceships—have souls of their own; it’s why a man may call his ship “she”, and put faith in its abilities. Those souls don’t happen; they are acquired by binding a shadow to the bones of the building or the ship. That’s where the shadow traders, like Salim, come in. It’s a little bit magical, but it always works—as Salim’s dying father taught him. Salim wasn’t the greatest at the job, but that didn’t matter; all his father asked of him was that he live, procreate, and pass on the skills to his son, who might do it better.

Fraser’s Rest, in orbit around the old colony of Sonos Prime, is a declining shipyard and trading post—once more powerful, but now diminished in the face of new settlements. Salim fits in here; he doesn’t stand out in this decaying realm of reduced activity. He finds a ship in the midst of construction, and watches the activity; it’s a luxury cruiser for a billionaire, quite a prominent addition to the construction yards of Fraser’s Rest, but that is because the billionaire grew up here, and feels some affection for the place. It is, perhaps, the last chance for the Rest. Salim has been staking it out for days, trying to determine what kind of soul—what kind of shadow—this ship should have. Even its name has not been decided; but the shipbuilders have been calling it the Defiance. Now Salim must search for a person to provide the shadow—someone who matches the character of the Defiance.

He finds it in a girl with a bulky jacket, a rucksack, and a ponytail. He follows the girl, Ace, as she rejoins a little man called the Doctor—or the Professor, as she calls him. They are here to watch a launch, but the Doctor ruefully notes that he may have brought them to the wrong year, as he remembers the places being more upscale. He admits there is nothing special about this ship launch, but that he just likes to watch them, and think about what adventures it may have. Ace isn’t interested, and heads back to their own ship, the TARDIS. Salim thinks on how to cut the girl’s shadow away.

Salim follows Ace down a lonely corridor, and sets a music box playing. Ace hears the music, which grows more and more complex; she finds it has caused her to be stuck in place. Salim confronts her, and she finds she cannot even approach him. He tells her that her shadow is holding him in place; it can’t move, and therefore neither can she. He produces a strange, circuitry-laden knife, and turns it on. He tells her to hold still, so that he can cut off her shadow; Ace threatens to kick him if he approaches. Salim is okay with this; they’ll be in a stalemate until she lets him take the shadow.

They are interrupted by the approach of the Doctor. Ace warns him away; the Doctor is unperturbed, and recognizes music box as a shadow lure. He states that it won’t work on him, to Salim’s surprise. The Doctor says this is because he has no shadow; and he knocks the music box from Salim’s hand, breaking it. Ace immediately kicks him to the floor.

The Doctor examines the knife, which is quite blunt, and says that it cuts shadows, not flesh. He recognizes Salim as a shadow trader, something he last encountered in nineteenth-century London. Salim defends his profession as noble; the Doctor counters that there is nothing noble about waving a knife at a girl in an alley, and says that Salim’s ancestors wouldn’t do it this way. They would offer a deal instead, though often not a favorable one. The Doctor explains that taking the shadow takes the person’s substance, causing their lives to go nowhere; past victims would end up in freak shows, or in bedlam. Salim objects that people must have sold the shadows willingly; the Doctor acknowledges that sometimes the downtrodden would do so, for the lure of being part of something great. Some people have felt that all they have to offer in life…is their shadow.

The Doctor leaves, taking Ace with him; without the lure, Salim may still be a parasite, but he’ll have to be a traditional one.

Salim watches the Defiance under construction, and thinks about his father, and about the many others who have desired to be part of something bigger. For a moment, he feels that desire as well…and then it is gone.

Short Trips Volume 4 b

I commented back in Volume II that the Seventh Doctor’s stories in these early anthologies seem to be built around the idea of teaching someone a life lesson. Saving the world—when it happens—is secondary to that purpose. The same holds true here, but with a twist that left the story a bit unsatisfying to me; I’ll get back to that in a moment.

The story finds the Doctor and Ace visiting a decaying shipyard for the purpose of watching a launch. In the course of it, they encounter a man named Salim. Salim is a shadow trader; he removes the shadows from unsuspecting individuals, and sells them to ship construction crews to be attached to the ship, thus giving it a “soul” of its own. It’s an ancient profession, going back to buildings on Earth, but it isn’t a very honest one. Salim gets more than he bargains for when he targets Ace’s shadow.

I say that the Doctor makes a point of teaching Salim a life lesson; in this case, that his chosen profession is dishonest, and leaves its victims with some severe consequences even if they agree to it. That’s standard for these Seventh Doctor stories, but the problem here is that nothing comes of it. We don’t see the effect it has on Salim at all; he’s still thinking about it when the story ends, but even that slips away from him. As far as we can tell, he’ll go on as he always has. While not every story has to have a happy ending, I think that it’s best when the actions of the story seem to count for something, whether it’s happy or not. That characteristic is lacking here, and it’s very unsatisfying. There’s potential, but it’s just not realized. (I should note that the wiki page for Salim’s character interprets the ending differently, but I think the author of the page is extrapolating a bit to reach the conclusion that Salim changes for the better. I do think that the author intended to show that Salim changes, but somehow that detail got omitted from the final cut.)

The presentation is decent, as usual; Sophie Aldred had been voicing Ace for Big Finish for a very long time by the time this story was released, and audiobooks seem to have been an easy transition for her. Her presentation of the Seventh Doctor is a little rough, but that’s only because her voice is (obviously) quite different from his; she captures his tone and mannerisms fairly well. There are no continuity references to speak of; the Doctor does mention having encountered shadow traders in nineteenth century London, and possibly at the construction of the Sphinx as well, but those references don’t seem to be attached to any stories.

Overall: Not the greatest of the Seventh Doctor’s anthology stories. It could have been better, but just didn’t hit the mark. We’ll see if things improve when we reach the individual Short Trips.

Next time: We’ll finally reach the last installment in the Short Trips anthologies! We’ll join the Eighth Doctor, sans companions, in Quantum Heresy. See you there!

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below.

Short Trips, Volume IV

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Audio Drama Review: Project: Lazarus

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re continuing the Main Range of audios with the forty-fifth entry, Project: Lazarus. This story was written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, and features the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables), as well as the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). It resumes the story of Nimrod, Cassandra “Cassie” Schofield, and the Forge, as begun in Project: Twilight. It was released in June 2003. Let’s get started!

Project Lazarus 1

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

Part One:

The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn are searching for missing vampire Cassie Schofield, last seen in the wake of the Forge’s Project: Twilight. A bit belatedly, the Doctor has found a cure for her condition, the Twilight virus. They locate her in Norway in July 2004, just as she is also found by a hunter called Professor Harket; but as it turns out, Harket isn’t seeking Cassie at all. Instead, he is seeking a rather unusual alien, which he dubs the Huldra, after a local legend. He knows he is on the trail when he finds a body covered in a venomous blue slime, produced by the Huldra. He goes to try to make a call to his university. Meanwhile, the Forge is not dead; and its central computer, Oracle, receives notice that an agent named “Artemis” has at last made contact with “Lazarus”. The head of security, Sergeant Frith, and the head researcher, Dr. Crumpton, exult over this message, and send extraction teams to bring them in. Back in Norway, the Doctor and Evelyn are shocked to learn that Cassie is quite bitter toward them, as it has been some time since they left her behind. Moreover, she is now working for Nimrod and the Forge! She considers them her family now, which doesn’t sit well with Evelyn. They are interrupted by Harket’s return; he has located a Huldra. Cassie overpowers the creature and stuns it, just as the extraction team arrives. When Harket protests, Cassie takes some of the creature’s slime and forces it into his mouth, killing him almost instantly. Nimrod arrives and refers to Cassie as Artemis, and takes the Doctor, Evelyn, and the Huldra captive.

Part Two:

Nimrod’s team takes the TARDIS as well as the captive, and flies them by helicopter to Dartmoor. The Forge’s headquarters awaits, situated below ground under an abandoned asylum. Nimrod, now the Deputy Director of the Forge, sets Crumpton to studying the alien, while Nimrod gives the Doctor and Evelyn a tour. Frith, meanwhile, is repulsed by working with the alien, but he has no choice; no one leaves the Forge voluntarily. Crumpton uses Oracle to research the figure called Lazarus. Meanwhile Nimrod assures the Doctor that he only intends to analyze the alien venom for development as a stun weapon, and that he ultimately intends to help the creature get home; he has the wreckage of its ship here in the labs. He also claims that Cassie’s service is voluntary. Evelyn sits with Cassie and talks about what has happened to her; Cassie blames the Doctor for abandoning her, though Evelyn insists it was unintentional. Oddly, she does not remember her son, Tommy, at all, and denies that the child exists; the Forge is her only family, she insists. She changes the subject; she can hear Evelyn’s heartbeat, and knows there is something wrong with her. Evelyn admits to a heart attack before meeting the Doctor, and begs Cassie not to tell him, as she knows he will take her home if he finds out. Meanwhile Nimrod shows the Doctor the main archive, full of dead aliens and stolen technology; the Doctor is appalled, but Nimrod assures him that a function called the Hades Protocol will destroy it all if it ever becomes dangerous. Frith arrives, and the two cease being polite, and force the Doctor into confinement in a lab; they plan to study the Time Lord regenerative ability—even if it means killing the Doctor. Project Lazarus—named for another man who evaded death—has begun. As they torture the Doctor, Evelyn pushes Cassie to remember Tommy; and suddenly the block on Cassie’s memory breaks, and she remembers. Shrugging off the pain, she takes Evelyn to the lab and rescues the Doctor from his torture, and leads them to the storage room where the TARDIS has been placed. Nimrod closes the emergency bulkheads along the way, forcing Cassie to rip open the control panels; this slows them down, and lets Nimrod get there first. Cassie delays him while the Doctor and Evelyn get into the TARDIS; but before she can join them, Nimrod puts a crossbow bolt through her heart. She dies in a burst of flame. The TARDIS escapes; but Evelyn is grief-stricken, and the Doctor knows this pain will last for a long time.

Part Three:

Many years later, the Seventh Doctor is traveling alone when his TARDIS is hit with temporal energy. He traces it to a place he never expected to see again: The Forge’s Dartmoor headquarters. The Forge is under attack by the Huldra; Crumpton manages to deter the attack, but in the course of it, the TARDIS’s arrival is detected. This Doctor hasn’t been here before, but his image matches file footage from elsewhere. It seems Lazarus has returned. Nimrod brings the Doctor inside, where he makes a bad first impression on Frith. The Doctor is still angry at Nimrod, but agrees to help him solve the time disruptions that led to the burst of energy. He is shocked to see his own sixth incarnation working as scientific advisor to the Forge! Nimrod insists the Sixth Doctor is voluntarily serving, but the Seventh Doctor cannot remember it, and doesn’t believe it. [Note: For convenience, I will refer to the Doctors simply as “Six” and “Seven” for the remainder of this summary.] He accompanies Six to Crumpton’s lab, and examines the data from the attack—the latest in a series of attacks, all centered on the captured Huldran ship, which has been cannibalized by the Forge. The captive Huldran has long since been killed. The Doctors speak privately; Six explains that the Earth is under attack by Huldrans, apparently for revenge. Six claims to have offered his services to combat the Huldrans; in order to prevent Nimrod and Crumpton from analyzing his TARDIS, he removed a component, leaving only the outer shell accessible. However, he wants to escape now in Seven’s TARDIS—which is puzzling, as the Huldran problem is still unresolved. He offers to help—but with diplomacy rather than violence. Nimrod and Crumpton explain that the Huldran ships actually travel by means of a self-contained portal; the temporal discharge was the result of the Huldrans attempting to breach the portal from the captured wreckage. Nimrod refuses to shut it down while it could be useful, but says that with a sample of the TARDIS’s exo-shell, they could make the portal impervious to attack. Seven reluctantly agrees to help, though Six—in a passable imitation of Nimrod’s voice—mocks him at first. Nimrod confers with Six about disposing of Seven once they have the TARDIS. Seven interrupts them and asks why, if they have Six’s TARDIS shell, they don’t just take a sample from it? When Six cannot answer, Seven realizes he is an imposter; and he darts away to talk with Crumpton. He demands to know what is really going on, and urges Crumpton to be a scientist and question authority. When the Huldrans attack again, he urges her to shut off the defences and let them in; and to Frith’s shock, she does so. A troop of Huldrans, bearing swords, pours into the facility. Nimrod sends Six to greet them, and they cut him down.

Part Four:

Seven intervenes, and somehow calms the Huldrans. Crumpton closes the portal, and Frith takes the Huldrans captive, placing them in holding cells. Nimrod sends Six to the sickbay; but among his injuries, his arm has been severed. This confirms for Seven that this is not the real Sixth Doctor. He tries to reason with Frith, who doesn’t really want to be here at all; when Frith tries to lock him up, he knocks Frith out and goes to speak with Six. Meanwhile Nimrod reactivates Project: Lazarus and tells Crumpton to dissect the Huldrans; Crumpton is not willing, but has no choice to obey. She is interrupted by Oracle, which has detected an energy spike, but not from the portal. Seven awakens Six, and asks why the trauma did not spark a regeneration. He forces mental contact with Six, and learns that Six is a clone, created from a blood sample taken during the real Sixth Doctor’s torture last time. Six claims to be the last survivor of three clones, which demonstrated enough of the real Doctor’s traits that Nimrod took him on for scientific assistance. However, the clones were never truly stable; and with this trauma, his genetic deterioration is accelerating. However, the contact between them brought out more memories; and Six takes Seven to investigate. Meanwhile Crumpton reads the data, and determines that there is a telepath in the Forge—it can only be Seven, and Nimrod expects he will have communed with Six. The Huldrans are also reacting to the telepathy; they are a telepathic gestalt, sharing one mind. The death of their missing member, then, would have driven them into a frenzy. Crumpton refuses to kill them at Nimrod’s orders, and so he kills her. Meanwhile, Six leads Seven to a room—the same one where Cassie died, actually—where they find dozens of mutated Sixth Doctor clones, all begging to be killed. Seven finds notes indicating that Six is not three years old as he believed, but only several days—there have been many like him, as the process burns through clones at an incredible rate. The process is cumulative, and the degeneration is indeed increasing. Six is driven into a frenzy; and he imitates Nimrod’s voice and activates the Hades protocol, which will destroy the facility and everything in it.  He gives Seven six minutes to rescue the Huldrans and escape. Seven flees, and finds Frith organizing an evacuation. He talks Frith into helping him with the Huldrans; if they die, the rest of their kind might consider it an act of war. Nimrod, furious, confronts them and orders Frith to kill the Doctor and save the items in the archive instead; he then departs. Frith knows he has been left to die, and joins the Doctor. Nimrod goes down to find Six, who is nearly mad with pain now thanks to the telepathic cries of  the other clones; Nimrod tells him that he is worthless, only one of an unknown number of failed experiments. However, Six will have his revenge; he is destroying the facility. Nimrod shoots him, then leaves. Seven and Frith find Crumpton dead in the lab; Seven sends Frith to open the portal while he sends the Huldrans through. They then race for the exit, but find Six dying; Six refuses to let Seven save him. As the minutes tick away, they race for the lift; and at the last second, Firth pushes him into it. The Doctor escapes, but Frith does not. Sadly, he departs for the TARDIS, content at least that the forge has been destroyed. But elsewhere, Oracle awakens in a new system, and the Forge’s beta facility is activated.

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A multi-Doctor story! …Or not. I won’t spoil it, but let’s say that all is not what it seems, in this story that features both the Sixth and Seventh Doctors. I will suggest that those who have listened to Jubilee will figure out the twist to this story in short order; the stories aren’t similar overall, but there is one plot element that serves as a giveaway here, after having previously been used in that story. Regardless, it’s always interesting to see the Sixth and Seventh Doctors onscreen (or, well, the audio equivalent) together; I find that the two aren’t so different, and work well together. If we theorize that each regeneration is a reaction to the previous incarnation, then this makes sense; the Sixth Doctor is quite pleased with himself most of the time, and wouldn’t want to change much about himself (much as, later, the Tenth Doctor and the Eleventh Doctor would be very similar). I do think it’s worth noting, as well, that the Seventh Doctor doesn’t seem to have any of the memory issues that ordinarily accompany an encounter with his past self…

I’ve been given to understand that Big Finish was going through an experimental phase around the time of this story’s release; in just the last few stories, we’ve seen a story inspired by the New Adventures novels (The Dark Flame), a musical (Doctor Who and the Pirates), and a non-linear story (Creatures of Beauty). The trend continues here; this story is broken in half, with the first half featuring the Sixth Doctor, and the second half featuring primarily the Seventh. I understand it will continue, as well, in the next entry, Flip-Flop, in which the two halves of the story can be played in any order. As far as placement goes, the first half picks up the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn’s adventures where we recently left off, and sometime after Real Time, which I have not yet experienced (as indicated by a reference to the Doctor’s new suit). The Seventh Doctor’s story occurs late in his life, possibly near his death in the television movie, as he is traveling alone and considers “going home” to Gallifrey at the end of this story. Of particular note: Project Destiny, which wraps up the Forge trilogy (and which I haven’t reached yet), occurs earlier in the Seventh Doctor’s life, though its events aren’t mentioned here.

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I enjoyed this story immensely; it was a nice change after Pirates, which didn’t interest me, and after Creatures of Beauty, which was hamstrung by its own novelty. Nimrod and the Forge make for dynamic enemies and great action; and this story wastes no time jumping in, as halfway through, we get the death of a major character from the previous entry. The only downside—and perhaps this isn’t a criticism, just a sad observation—is that there is a definite downward spiral to the Doctor’s relationship with Evelyn, as she experiences one tragedy after another. If her story leaves me crying in the end, I may have to stage a riot.

We’re heavy on the continuity references here, even leaving out the obvious connections to Project: Twilight. Cassie Schofield is indicated to be the mother of Tommy Schofield, better known—and much later—as Hex, the Seventh Doctor’s companion (The Harvest). Reference is made to the Seventh Doctor’s appearances in Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield. While I don’t usually refer to connections to future stories, I’ll make an exception for Project Destiny; as I previously noted, that story occurs earlier in the Seventh Doctor’s timeline, and features Ace and Hex visiting the Forge’s beta facility. The Sixth Doctor makes reference to the Record of Rassilon (State of Decay) and the Time Lords’ war against all vampires. The Doctor makes telepathic contact with himself, signified by the “Contact!” catchphrase, previously seen in The Three Doctors and others. The Forge’s archive room contains Zanium (The Twin Dilemma) and Axonite (The Claws of Axos).

It’s worth mentioning that this is the first story to receive multiple covers. (I have only linked one of three, above; the rest can be found on this story’s wiki page.) One cover featured the Sixth Doctor; one featured the Seventh; and one featured both equally. It’s also one of only eight audio dramas so far to feature both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. The voice acting from both is on point as usual—in fact, all the acting in this story is exceptional.

Overall: A very good entry as we begin the lead-up to the fiftieth Main Range entry. I strongly recommend a refresher of Project: Twilight before listening to this story—I wish I had done so myself—but regardless, it’s a fast-moving, action-packed story, and a great listen. Free on Spotify, as well—if you haven’t already, check it out! (Unfortunately, as I discovered, the Spotify edition of this story is missing the final track. However, the story is available for download from Big Finish Productions for $2.99.)

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Next time: One more experimental story before we start the iconic villain stories leading up to the fiftieth entry. We’ll join the Seventh Doctor and Mel in Flip-Flop! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions. This story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Project: Lazarus

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Audio Drama Review: To Cut a Blade of Grass

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to To Cut a Blade of Grass from the Short Trips, Volume IV anthology. Featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown, this story was written by Cindy Garland, and read by Colin Baker. Let’s get started!

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Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

A woman named Rosie stands in a parking lot, staring up at the stars and feeling alienated, knowing difficult times are ahead. Then she enters the hospital.

Hospitals are strange places, in both time and space. Rosie visits her father, who is both there and not; he stares into space, ignorant of the television. His stroke has taken away his ability to speak, so she speaks to him, in a whisper that she can’t explain even to herself. She babbles about the weather, watching his reactions, knowing he sees through her. Finally he silences her and tries to speak, but she cannot understand him. At length, he sleeps.

The nurse reassures Rosie that her father is the same as before; he is simply tired from his other visitor. Other visitor? Rosie didn’t know anyone else was coming. The nurse describes him as eccentric, with a strange dress sense, and an ageless look under curly blonde hair.

Rosie visits a nearby café, then returns. She finds a new nurse—short, dark-haired, with an American accent—helping her father into a wheelchair; the nurse says he is to sit up for fifteen minutes each day as part of his therapy. The nurse leaves them alone together; Rosie stays until visiting hours end. She is a mile away from the hospital when she gets a call: her father is missing.

Rosie immediately suspects the nurse, and discovers that no nurse of that description is employed at the hospital. She races back to the hospital—and find that her father has reappeared. Everyone is apologetic, but no good explanation is forthcoming—just an alleged error. However, he seems better, somehow.

Rosie stands outside a moment, when she is interrupted by a stranger offering her…parsnips? She is stunned for a moment, but the man’s manner is disarming enough—and he is certainly eccentric. She has a hunch… ”Do you know my father?” The man does, and introduces himself as John Smith. He assures her that her father is very proud of her, and talks of her often. She isn’t sure, and feels compelled to explain; she is an aspiring writer, with high marks and considerable skill, but little success; when her father’s convalescence is complete, she intends to go back for a business degree instead. The man questions her decision; in the grand scheme of things, even though business will feed a person, great works of art endure. Rosie’s phone rings, and she turns to answer it; when she turns back, John Smith has vanished.

Aboard the TARDIS, the Doctor is in a morose mood. Peri remarks on it, and tells the Doctor that what he did for the old man was quite kind—taking him to the future to see his daughter’s wedding, his grandchildren, his daughter’s eventual death. Isn’t this forbidden, though? Well, perhaps the Doctor bent the rules a bit—after all, he didn’t change anything, or at least, nothing unintentional. The man was Walter Wibberley, a baker, a man of no great repute; the Doctor met him over some excellent Cornish pasties. The Doctor became first his customer, and then his friend. Though he knew the Doctor was a Time Lord, they never traveled together; but the Doctor gave him a telescope, which he treasured. Peri thinks the man must have done something of significance; but the Doctor says no, he simply liked to look at the stars and bake things.

Still, Peri has a point; most of the Doctor’s friends are people of great accomplishments. Walter was not so, but what he did, he did very well; and that was often enough to improve the day—and the life—of a man like the Doctor. He is gone now, the Doctor admits. However, the Doctor says that he didn’t come to make Walter happy; he came to keep Rosie from giving up on her writing. Even in this she won’t be successful; but if she chooses business, she won’t work at a bookshop one day, where she won’t meet her husband. You see, if she does meet him, she will form a habit of slipping love poems into his pockets. One day he will read one on the train, and smile at another man, who will in turn make more human decisions at his company. The cleaning lady at that company will therefore keep her job, and will buy her son an electronic kit, which will lead him to become an engineer, who will design a component of a deep-space telescope that will therefore last much longer than expected, allowing humanity to make some great discoveries, which will further humanity’s history. So, Walter does do something great…just, not on his own. After all, all things are connected, and everyone matters, regardless of fame. As the old proverb says, “To cut a blade of grass is to shake the universe”. Now, what could be more appropriate than pasties for dinner…and parsnips, of course?

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To Cut a Blade of Grass is a sentimental story—let’s say that up front. I find it fascinating that, the more such stories I hear, the more obvious it becomes that Colin Baker’s Doctor—long known for being the most abrasive—is well suited to this type of story. I thought for a long time about why that would be so; all I can conclude is that his strong emotions aren’t limited to anger, but rather, cover the full range. All the various Doctors are passionate, but none more so than Six, and it shows here.

In this story, the Doctor visits an old friend who is dying, and in the course of it he makes a casual—but supremely lasting—impact on the old friend’s daughter. The Doctor is not a character given to introspection, or to revisiting his own past—how many companions has he abandoned, never to return (Tenth Doctor farewell tour notwithstanding)?—so when he does it, it has impact. Personally, I think the short trip format—especially the extra-short version found in these early anthologies—is better suited to this sort of thoughtful, non-action, human-interest story; but given that the previous entry was a decent action story, your mileage may vary.

I compared an earlier story in this anthology, The Old Rogue, to another much later Short Trip, Forever Fallen. Both stories feature the Doctor and a companion checking up on an old dictator serving exile in a café, with varying results. I feel compelled to also compare this story to Forever Fallen in a different regard. Both stories feature situations where the changes the Doctor makes are not about the individual at hand, but about someone else further down the road, who will be influenced for the better. It’s the chain reaction, the often-cliched butterfly effect; or as the Doctor puts it, “To cut a blade of grass is to shake the universe.”

There are no continuity references of note here, so to sum up: I enjoyed this one. It’s a side of Colin Baker’s Doctor that we don’t always get to see; but when we do, it’s always good. This one is worth a listen. (Actually, I should amend my statement; the Doctor does call himself “John Smith” here, which dates back at least to The Wheel in Space, and in the Doctor’s timeline even further, as seen in The Vampires of Venice.)

Next time: We’re nearly done with the anthologies! We’ll check in with the Seventh Doctor and Ace in The Shadow Trader. See you there!

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below.

Short Trips, Volume IV

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Audio Drama Review: The Lions of Trafalgar

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Lions of Trafalgar, the Fifth Doctor’s entry in the Short Trips, Volume IV collection. Written by Jason Arnopp and read by Peter Davison, this story was published in August 2011, and features the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa. Let’s get started!

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Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan arrive in London on 23 October 1843; Tegan is amazed at the primitive state of the city, which is both relaxed and busy at the same time. Visiting Trafalgar Square, they discover a number of stone lions, but quickly discover that the lions are only visible to the three of them. The Doctor concludes there is a perception filter in place, but one that can only affect people of this time.

The Doctor climbs the newly-constructed Nelson’s Column to have a look around. At the top, he finds two men, Samuel Morton Peto and Thomas Grissell, who are the contractors responsible for construction of the column. They are famously having tea at the top of the still-statueless column, along with twelve of the stonemasons. The stonemasons are nowhere to be seen, however. The two contractors have been possessed by a predatory race called the Sevakrill, who have used them—to the Doctor’s disgust—to devour the twelve stonemasons. It is a celebratory dinner, to be sure; but it is the Sevakrill who are celebrating their own impending conquest!

The column, they reveal, holds a missile that is scheduled to destroy the Earth, but not until 2017, when it will serve to distract their enemies, a force called the Charnal Horde; and it will entertain the Sevakrill as well. The Doctor speaks to the two men instead of the Sevakrill, and tries to get them to build a mental barrier against the Sevakrill, using Nelson’s honorable example for strength.

Below, the lions begin chasing Nyssa and Tegan at the command of the Sevakrill, in order to disrupt the Doctor’s efforts. Eight people—seven civilians and a policeman—are killed during the chase. The lions are interrupted as the Sevakrill are forced out of their hosts; and the lions return to their plinth. The hosts are left with their freedom and a stomachache; the Doctor declines to tell them that it comes from their unwitting cannibalism.

The Doctor spends the next two weeks working to remove the missile. He is unable to eliminate it completely, but lowers it into a tunnel below, and puts a floor under it (since the missile is aimed down at the Earth instead of up). He also places a signal that will bring him back if it is every activated. As the lions are still in place—but invisible—he sets the perception filters to switch off in a few decades, and arranges to have the lions covered and then unveiled as if they had been newly placed—thus maintaining known history. He also makes a note to skip ahead thirty-five years and see if anyone has tampered with Cleopatra’s Needle.

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The Fifth Doctor’s entries into these early volumes—of which, as a reminder, this is the last—have consistently been some of the most action-packed, but also some of the most ridiculous. This volume, at least, takes a break from the ridiculousness; this is a believable enough adventure as Doctor Who goes. We visit the 23 October 1843 completion of Nelson’s Column, a few weeks before its famous statue is placed; the Doctor is forced to thwart an alien sleeper plot which will eventually—give or take seventeen decades—destroy the Earth. Nyssa and Tegan aren’t much help here, but they do get chased by the titular stone lions, which is really the only reason for the lions to be in the story at all, as historically it would be a few decades before they were built. That sort of splitting of the plot into two parallel tracks is, of course, common in Doctor Who even today, with the Doctor going one way while his companions go a separate-but-related way. Usually the companion’s track is a little more vital to the story, but unfortunately, sometimes—like here—it’s just extraneous.

With all that said, I still enjoyed the story. I do think it would have felt a little more real to someone who is familiar with the area and the history. I know what Nelson’s Column is, and what it memorializes, but I would not have recognized the date of this story (apparently the dinner party atop the column, mentioned with changes here, was a real event). I wouldn’t have known that there were stone lions around the column, or that they were a later addition, and thus an anachronism here. (The wiki claims that this story “is a reference to an old legend that the lions in Trafalgar Square will come to life if Big Ben chimes 13 times”—another reference I wouldn’t have gotten.) Tegan also makes reference to the “Great Stink” of 1858; this one I had to look up. The story does explain a bit, but more in a “hurry and catch up” manner. That’s a risk, I think, in any historical; of course it’s a British series, and deals most of all with British history, while the fanbase is worldwide at this point. Not a complaint, exactly, just noting that some of it may be lost on international fans like me. I do think this is mitigated a bit by the Fifth Doctor; he travels with a group of young people, and it’s almost inevitable that he serves as a teacher to them, and to the audience by default. The balance of “show vs. tell” is maintained, but perhaps with a bit more “tell” than in the case of other Doctors. (I’m a bit biased; I like the Fifth Doctor, and think that the usual issues people raise against his era are overblown. You can feel free to take my opinions with a grain of salt, accordingly.)

Continuity References: Nelson’s Column has been visited previously, as early as The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Perception filters, which here conceal the lions, were first mentioned in Torchwood (Everything Changes) before making their way to the main series (Human Nature episode version, et al.). The Doctor claims—typically, if you ask me—to be a friend of Nelson (World Games). Tegan tries to dissuade the Doctor from climbing the column, noting that climbing ended badly for him last time—a reference to his regeneration after falling from the Pharos Project telescope (Logopolis). As well, given that the Doctor is only accompanied by Tegan and Nyssa, this story must occur between Earthshock and Mawdryn Undead.

Overall: Pretty quick for an action story, but decent enough. If anything, it was over too quickly, but it was fun while it lasted. I understand that later short trips are perhaps double the length of these anthology stories; I think that’s a more workable length for an action story like this. Still, not bad.

Next time: We join the Sixth Doctor and Peri in To Cut a Blade of Grass! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions. This story’s purchase page is linked below.

Short Trips, Volume IV

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Audio Drama Review: The Old Rogue

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re continuing our look at Short Trips Volume IV with the Fourth Doctor’s entry, The Old Rogue. Written by John Grindrod, and read by Louise Jameson, this story features the Fourth Doctor, Romana II, and K9, with an appearance in flashback by the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. Let’s get started!

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Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

The proprietor of The Old Rogue café in Catford, Sid, muses on his life here in this little empire, when outside he hears a familiar and unwelcome sound. He watches the windows for sight of him—the alien he hates most to see. He is oblivious to the ministrations of his waitress, Katya, as he thinks for a moment about killing her, and how it would cheer him up…but his killing days appear to be over, as something in him has changed.

He is interrupted by the bell at the door, and he knows it is him. This man visits every ten years, but he is never the same; ten years ago he was a cricketer with several young people, and ten years before that he was an older and dignified man with a young woman. Today he’s an odd man with a long scarf, accompanied by a refined young woman…and a robot dog? The woman is Romana, and the dog is called K9. The man—the Doctor—spouts nonsense and places an order as he confronts Sid; and Romana says they intend to stay. The Doctor and Romana take a table and some tea as K9 waits outside. They place an order; as Sid goes to fill it, Romana asks if this is really the former galactic emperor Arkinen. Sid denies it, a bit grumpily.

The Doctor asks after Arkinen’s welfare, trying to elicit a response. Business is going well, Sid—no, Arkinen—meets them at the table, and the Doctor and Romana review his crimes; he once destroyed all life in the Helix Nebula just for kicks. However, his empire is getting along fine without him—as is his original body, now occupied by the real Sid. It seems that, forty years earlier, the Doctor punished Arkinen by transferring his consciousness into the body of a café owner named Sid—and allowing Sid to run Arkinen’s empire. Now, he has regular checkups with the Doctor, to ensure that he’s up to no mischief during his rehabilitation. However, human lifespans are shorter than those of Arkinen’s race, and he must be nearing the end of it. This enrages Arkinen, but the Doctor suddenly turns cold, reminding Arkinen that his crimes merited so much more punishment than he has received.

Arkinen thinks back on his crimes, which involved killing a huge population with a so-called “understanding device”; and he also thinks on his capture by the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. The Second Doctor witnessed as Arkinen fired the device; but Arkinen quickly found that the Doctor had modified the device to focus on only one person—Sid, the café proprieter—instead of the entire world. Jamie then shoved him into the other end of the device’s beam…and Arkinen awoke in Sid’s body, in Catford, as a side effect of the device. Still, all’s well that ends well; Sid has redeemed Arkinen’s reputation, doing great things in the dictator’s name. Meanwhile, Arkinen sits and stews in his limitations…but he still does not feel any remores for his actions, only for getting caught.

Romana gets up to rescue K9, who in the interim has gotten into a scrap with some teenagers outside (and held his own admirably but chaotically, as well), but the Doctor stops her—they haven’t paid for their tea yet. Arkinen grumbles that it is on the house. The Doctor and Roman say goodbye and leave as Arkinen watches. Katya comes to comfort him, and he for once relishes it; perhaps these humans weren’t so bad after all, and being an emperor was such hard work.

Arkinen is surprised, however, when Katya calls him by his real name. She claims she has searched the galaxy for him, and now the Doctor has given her the confirmation she needed. She claims to be with a band of mercenaries who want his expertise in killing…and they offer to restore him to his empire of blood and fire. Arkinen takes a long moment to think, and then tells Katya that she has the wrong man…he is Sid, and this is his café.

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Recently I reviewed the Fifth Doctor Main Range audio Creatures of Beauty. The hook of that story—though found at the end, as the story is non-linear—is that the Doctor never knows the true impact of his presence. That story ends gloomily, as the Doctor’s primary effect is a catastrophe. There’s something similar here, however, in that the Doctor (and Romana and K9) will never know the full effect of their presence here—but this time, the effect is one of goodness.

The story portrays the Doctor making a ten-year visit to a man named Sid, who is secretly Arkinen, a one-time galactic emperor guilty of horrendous crimes. Arkinen was unintentionally transplanted into the body of café owner Sid, who now sits on Arkinen’s throne (and does quite well with it). The Doctor is here just to check in on Arkinen’s rehabilitation; and he leaves convinced that even after four decades, the man has not changed. However, a final test, after the Doctor leaves, proves that he may just be wrong—and happily so.

I’m heavily reminded of a story that I haven’t covered yet, but will eventually: Joshua Wanisko’s Forever Fallen, the winner of the first Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trip Opportunity. That story also features the Doctor (the Seventh, along with Ace, to be precise) making regular visits to a former tyrant in a new life, and conducting the visits in a café. Where this story only gives us one visit, that one gives us several, spread over several years, and so we get to see the growth of the character. In the end, the stakes are different, and the ending is not immediately happy—but the payoff is much greater. I’m not trying to insinuate that one story is better than the other; both are great, and I think that they’re worth your time (a collective 45 minutes will get you through both, and Forever Fallen is available for free from Big Finish’s site). While I’m in no way suggesting that it’s plagiarism or any such thing, I wonder if the author of Forever Fallen was inspired by this story.

I always find it a little strange to hear Louise Jameson voice stories that don’t involve Leela. I understand that it’s a matter of who is available for the recording, but it strikes me as odd to hear Leela’s voice applied to Romana’s lines, and doubly so given that I know that both Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward appear in the Gallifrey series. Still, she’s quite practiced now at these audios, and this one is well done. Really I have nothing to complain about here.

Continuity references: Arkinen remembers previous visits of the Doctor, including the Fifth along with a “group of sulky teenagers”, which could be any combination of Adric, Nyssa, Tegan, and Turlough (or even possibly Peri and Erimem, though I wouldn’t have used the word “group” with just two of them), placing that visit nearly anytime in the Fifth Doctor’s run. He also mentions “a tall chap in velvet,” with “a dizzy dolly bird”; this must be the Third Doctor and Jo Grant, placing that visit between Terror of the Autons and Planet of the Spiders. In a flashback, we see the Second Doctor and Jamie; if they were traveling alone, as it appears, then this would have taken place either during the comic era between Fury from the Deep and The Wheel in Space, or during the hypothetical “Season 6B” after The War Games. The Doctor also mentions having met Torquemada; this may be a reference to the Missing Adventures novel Managra, though I haven’t read it, and therefore can’t be sure (the description found on the TARDIS wiki page isn’t clear enough to say). However, in that story, the Fourth Doctor mentions having met Torquemada once before, in his first incarnation along with Steven and Vicki, in The Empire of Glass. (This may be the incident to which the Doctor refers here, as well.)

Overall: A pretty good entry. I like these quiet, thoughtful stories, in which it’s less about action and more about the individuals. This story is a good example of that type of adventure—if you want to call it an adventure. I do think there’s potential for the character of Arkinen to appear again, and wouldn’t mind it, though to my knowledge he does not.

Next time: We’ll check in with the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa in The Lions of Trafalgar! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions. This story’s purchase page is linked below.

Short Trips, Volume IV

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