Audio Drama Review: Starfall

I had some unexpected appointments today, so I’m running a little behind with the next Main Range entry. Therefore, for today’s post, I’m covering the next installment of the BBC Audio Fourth Doctor Adventures, Starfall. We pick up after last week’s A Shard of Ice. On Wednesday, I’ll return to the Main Range with Dust Breeding.

We’re back, with another BBC Doctor Who audio drama review!  Today we’re continuing the Fourth Doctor Demon Quest arc, listening to part four, Starfall.   Written by Paul Magrs, this story features the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), Mrs. Wibbsey (Susan Jameson), and Mike Yates (Richard Franklin).  Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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This entry is narrated by a New Yorker named Buddy.  New York, July 11, 1976: Buddy is working a street pretzel stand, as his girlfriend, Alice Trefusis, watches from her office window.  Alice’s supervisor, the elderly and awful Mimsy Loyne, employs her as a literary secretary, helping with Loyne’s memoirs; Alice hates the job, but needs the money.  Nearby, a cult meets to perform bizarre rites.  That night, a meteor crashes into Central Park; Buddy and Alice search for it, but fail to find it.  The next day, the Doctor, Mike Yates, and Mrs. Wibbsey arrive in the TARDIS; the Doctor is almost immediately struck with an ill feeling, which he attributes to something in the atmosphere.  He notes the now-empty pretzel stand, and then they go into the park.

Buddy, meanwhile, has abandoned his post to take Alice on a walk in the park while Alice vents over her boss.  They stumble upon the meteor; Alice says it is singing to her.  She touches it and is knocked back; Buddy sees her glowing with strange golden light.  The Doctor and his companions come upon Buddy and Alice, and offer to help; but Alice fears him, and tries to get rid of him.  Suddenly, energy bolts shoot from her eyes, and she can’t control them.  Wibbsey points out that this is all in the comic, which says Alice will become a loved superhero called Ms. Starfall—indeed, Alice seems to embrace the idea, before passing out.

The Doctor carefully collects the meteor (wrapped in a coat), and Wibbsey helps Buddy take Alice back to Loyne’s apartment, with Wibbsey recognizing Loyne’s name as a once-famous actress.  Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor feels better; while analyzing the meteor, it splits open, revealing half a golden heart, which is stamped “SEPUL”—short for “Sepulchre”, presumably.  He realizes that Mrs. Wibbsey is in danger, and takes Mike to find her.  Along the way, they find the brutally-murdered body of a young man, who has been desiccated like previous victims.  At that moment the police arrive, finally alerted to the strange happenings, and—jumping to entirely the wrong conclusion—arrest them both.

At Loyne’s apartment, Buddy at last meets Loyne, and takes Alice to her own room.  Alice awakens, and says that she feels amazing.  Loyne sees the police entering the park, and demands to talk to Buddy; Wibbsey goes to talk to her instead.  She accidentally leaves behind the comic, which is dated for today, and includes all of them, as previously described.  Alice likes the idea—and suddenly discovers she can fly.  She takes an old Hollywood Valkyrie costume from Loyne’s collection, and notes it is the same as in the comic; she puts it on, and starts exultantly using her powers, flying over the city.  Buddy looks again at the comic, and sees that the writer’s name is the same as his.  In the window, Wibbsey sees the Doctor and Mike escorted out of the park by the police.  As she prepares to go after them, Loyne orders Buddy to bring back her secretary, then leave.

Alice is using her powers to stop petty crimes and avert minor disasters.  Meanwhile, the Doctor and Mike are in a squad car; the Doctor continues to feel worse now that he is away from the TARDIS.  They discuss the Demon; the Doctor says it is “a potpourri of physiognomy and DNA”, and could be anyone around them.  They witness Alice flying around, and then watch as she lands in front of them and demands their release from the police.  When the police refuse, she disarms them, and removes the Doctor and Mike from the car.  At the apartment, Loyne gloats over the progress of the situation, shocking Mrs. Wibbsey; Loyne puts her out, with Buddy.  While exiting, they see glimpses of the Doctor, and return to the apartment in search of him—but the glimpses begin to pile up, as if there are multiples of him.  Buddy and Wibbsey hide on the stairs to watch as the figures go past, but none of them are the actual Doctor.  The figures go into the door at the top of the stairs.

Alice brings the Doctor and Mike back to the apartment through a window, landing in Loyne’s bedroom.  The Doctor feels his worst so far, and thinks he is near the epicenter of the effect.  Upstairs at the attic level, Buddy and Wibbsey listen at the door where the figures entered, hearing what sounds like ritual chanting; they peek in, and see a weird, dancelike ritual in progress.  The Doctor-like figures are dancing around the final piece of the spatial geometer, which is glowing.  The figures discover they are being watched, but they continue the chant.

The Doctor confronts Loyne, and says that he knew her in 1922, on Sunset Boulevard, when he had a different form.  Alice demands to know where Buddy is, and says she will find him; the Doctor asks her to bring back Mrs. Wibbsey as well.  When Alice leaves, Loyne changes demeanour and tries to paint Alice as her captor, and possibly the Demon, as well; she also admits to remembering the Doctor.  He does not believe her claims, though.  She claims to have heard Alice consorting with demons.  The Doctor expounds his own thoughts briefly, and then sends Mike to make tea.  While Mike is out, the Doctor admits that he never had a past acquaintance with Loyne, and therefore she is lying about remembering it—and is the Demon.  She admits it, but says that he is too weak to resist—and she needs him.

Mike returns and finds the Doctor weakened on the floor, and Loyne absent.  The Doctor insists that they must find the true epicenter of the debilitating effect.  The cultists in the attic admit to working for a mysterious boss, presumably the Demon; they say that she has ordered them to complete this ritual as the Doctor dies.  Alice arrives and breaks in to rescue Wibbsey and Buddy.  She easily overcomes the cultists, knocking them out; Wibbsey takes the opportunity to go after the spatial geometer component.  The cult leader intercepts her.  Loyne arrives and claims leadership over the cult.  The Doctor and Mike also arrive, and confront Loyne; the Doctor suddenly appears recovered, which he attributes to the interruption of the ritual.  Loyne is not dismayed; she changes to the form of the Demon, announcing that her preparations are already complete anyway.  She admits to having been all the villains of the preceding stories; she also claims to have been responsible for the meteor which gave Alice her powers.  She intends to dispose of the others as irrelevant now that she has the Doctor; the Doctor points out that they are never irrelevant, as Mike has just reclaimed the geometer component while she was distracted.  In retaliation, the Demon grabs Mrs. Wibbsey and drags her into the dematerialization chamber.  The chamber dematerializes, but not before the Demon announces that the Sepulchre is prepared for the Doctor.

The group returns to the TARDIS; the Doctor says they must go after Mrs. Wibbsey.  The Doctor tells Buddy and Alice they must stay in New York; but unfortunately, now that the Demon is gone, Alice’s powers will fade in a few hours.  Buddy is not dismayed; he plans to write a comic series about Alice, or rather, Ms. Starfall.

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This entry is timely, as it shares some similarity with the 2016 Christmas special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio.  [Full disclosure: it may not be timely by the time I get it posted; I’m writing this in mid-January 2017.]  Both concern unintentional, New York-based, Superman-like superheroes whose powers originate from mysterious stones.  Both stories exploit—and in my opinion, pay tribute to—Silver Age comic book tropes.  That’s where the similarities end, however; the two stories’ plots proceed very differently.  Personally, I like this type of story; I grew up reading old Silver Age comics, and watching the Christopher Reeves version of Superman, and I think those things are great.  This story does a great job of paying tribute to those sources, although it devolves into occasional caricature in doing so.  Buddy, for example, is a stereotypical New Yorker (though his accent is more New Jersey, I think) who would have been right at home in any parody of the early twentieth century.  (Now that I think of it, Daleks in Manhattan comes to mind…)  That would be no big deal, except that this story is set in 1976.  Mimsy Loyne is a caricature of a rich, vain, villainous former starlet; it’s perhaps understandable if she’s over the top, given that she’s actually the Demon in disguise, but it’s still very obvious.  And Alice—the titular “Ms. Starfall”, in her superhero persona—while taking quickly to her superhero role, sounds more like the traditional damsel in distress.

There are no large roles in this story, which takes place over just a span of an hour or so (excluding the meteor crash on the previous night).  Perhaps that makes it a bit more excusable that neither Mike Yates nor Mrs. Wibbsey actually does much here, but it still seems awkward in hindsight.  They do have some action at the end; Mrs. Wibbsey stands up to the cult leader, while Mike recovers the last geometer component.  Otherwise, it’s a bit dull on the action side for everyone, which is a waste in a superhero story.

The Demon’s plan here doesn’t make a lot of sense.  I understand that she needed Alice to have superpowers, because it inspired Buddy to write the comics which were then adapted to feature our main characters.  But, the book that led them here can’t be one of Buddy’s actual comics; the date of publication is the same date as the story, and that’s just not possible.  It does seem that the Demon is somehow incapable of leaving clues for the Doctor without existence; it requires humans to do this on its behalf:  Metafix the mosaic-maker in The Relics of Time, Lautrec the painter in The Demon of Paris, and Tiermann the storyteller-turned-author in A Shard of Ice.  But—getting back to Alice—it seems like a colossal oversight to give a superhero to the Doctor as an ally, when the plan is to trap the Doctor.  As well, though the Demon caused the meteor to hit the park, it could not have guaranteed that Alice—the one person close enough to the situation to suit her needs—would be the one to find and touch it.  I also was curious why the cultists were required to dress like the Doctor; if it’s for the purpose of establishing a connection to him, shouldn’t the spatial geometer be enough to accomplish that?  In general, the Demon’s plans seem to be quite convoluted, if all it wants to do is get the Doctor to Sepulchre; but I’ll reserve judgment until the end of the final chapter.

I can’t help wondering just how much of an investment the Demon makes in these trap scenarios.  In the previous installment, it was stated that the mountain lodge was actually the Demon’s dematerialization chamber in disguised form, and that it had been there for about forty years; likewise, the Demon had been in Ice Queen form that long, for most of Tiermann’s life.  Here, Mimsy Loyne had a real Hollywood career going back about fifty years at least, as corroborated by Mrs. Wibbsey.  Already that places us at about a hundred years of involvement, if we assume that the Demon was Loyne all along.

Buddy isn’t the greatest narrator.  While his accounts seem accurate enough, he wanders quite a bit, with a number of false starts and redirections.  He freely admits that he wasn’t there for most of the story, getting it instead from the other participants; at some points he has to be embellishing, given that no one in his group could have seen the things he reports.  I won’t say he breaks the immersion; but he’s definitely frustrating to follow.

With all of this, it may sound as though I disliked the story; but in the end, that’s not the case.  It’s certainly not the high point of the arc, but neither is it the low point; I would give that dubious honor to part two, The Demon of Paris (pending the last chapter, of course).  While the story has some flaws, those flaws are consistent with the Silver Age comics it seeks to emulate; those stories haven’t always aged well, and they are guilty of similar failings.  Still, there’s something nostalgic about a story in that vein, and I enjoy them, even with their flaws.  It requires a bit more suspension of belief to enjoy this story, as it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny, but it’s worth the effort.  And as well, it’s of course necessary to get us to the final chapter.

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Next time:  We’ll wrap up Demon Quest with part five, Sepulchre!  See you there.

All BBC audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased on CD at Book Depository; this story’s purchase page is linked below.  If anyone has a link to a purchase page directly from BBC, please let me know in the comments!  I would be happy to support the producing company, but have been unable to locate this or related audios for sale on the BBC website.

Starfall

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