Audio Drama Review: …Ish

I skipped over the previous entry, Spare Parts, having already reviewed it; you can read my review here.

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! In this week’s Main Range entry, we reconnect with the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown in …Ish, the thirty-fifth entry in the range. Written by Phil Pascoe, and released in August 2002, the story explores a specialty of the Sixth Doctor: the realm of words. Let’s get started!

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

Ish 1

An obsessive voice contemplates the word “-sh”, which is almost, but not quite, a full word.

The most comprehensive English language dictionary in history, the Lexicon, is nearly complete, and will soon be unveiled before a gathering of delegates.  The Doctor and Peri have come to meet an old friend, Professor Osefa, the head of the project and compiler of the Lexicon.  Meanwhile the conference’s Symposiarch, Robert Cawdrey, has brought in new investors; but this necessitates a change to the Lexicon’s preamble.  Osefa locks herself into her office to finish this last bit of work; it is doubly frustrating to her, as her hologlyphic amanuensis, or scribe, Book, is stuck on contemplation of a word.  The TARDIS arrives in the midst of the preparations, and the Sixth Doctor and Peri emerge; as the Doctor is a great lover of words, the conference is a perfect occasion for him.  Nevertheless, he continues to be confounded by Peri’s American dialect, and the two bicker over it until they are intercepted by Cawdrey.  Cawdrey recognizes the Doctor from Osefa’s descriptions, and admits them to the conference; Peri goes off alone, tired of the argument, while the Doctor goes with Cawdrey to find Osefa.  He has brought her a gift—an original text regarding obscure and preposterous words—which Cawdrey acknowledges as a Time Lord gift.  However, upon arrival at the office, they find Osefa dead, apparently by suicide.

Peri goes in search of lunch, and ends up at the campus refectory, where she meets a logophile—a word lover or enthusiast—named Warren.  The two hit it off, and play word games, which Peri wins; Warren loses gracefully, and then explains that their game has paid for their meal.  Here in the Articulate Worlds, information is currency, and words have value.  However, Warren expresses some doubt about the Lexicon project, and indeed all dictionaries; he believes language should be free to evolve naturally, and should not be pinned down to precise definitions.  Words, he insists, are alive, and speak through their users—and maybe even speak people into existence.  Meanwhile, Book continues to struggle with the confounding word: the word “-ish”, indicating imprecision, which to his mind leads to a reduction in meaning—and making things worse, it is even found in the name of the language, English.

Cawdrey scrambles to rearrange the conference schedule and conceal Osefa’s death as long as possible.  The Doctor examines the crime scene, noting that the room was locked from the inside until Cawdrey unlocked it.  However, Osefa’s suicide note is unlike her, riddled with errors and a faulty version of her penmanship.  Perhaps someone else wrote it—but, who?  Suspicion instantly falls on Book, who would have been the last person to see her alive, inasmuch as he is a person—and as a hologlyph, he could materialize inside a locked room.  The Doctor sets the computers to locating Book for questioning.  Cawdrey questions the idea of foul play, but the Doctor realizes he has a personal stake in the matter: an investigation might expose some dubious investments in the project, for which Cawdrey was responsible.  Therefore he agrees to investigate without police involvement, on condition that any findings be presented to the authorities; after all, the murderer is still at large.

Warren tells Peri his own designs for Book.  He wants the amanuensis to rebel against the Lexicon faculty, whom he feels are using Book to restrict the development of the language.  He and Peri go to Book’s tiny office—as a hologlyph, he requires little space—and Warren meddles with Book’s recent work in order to attract his attention.  When Book arrives, he is angry, and locks them in, threatening that they may not escape alive.

The Doctor fails to locate Book, but finds that the campus’s ordinateurs, or computers, have experienced systems failure due to internal corruption.  This has the side effect of allowing him to look into Book’s virtual workspace, in which he finds and corrects Warren’s alterations.  He is able to identify Warren from the work, which disturbs Cawdrey; Cawdrey is familiar with Warren, and claims the young man is devoted to disrupting linguistic endeavours.  This is neither the first nor the largest example of his sabotage, and it may bring down the entire symposium.  To stave off disaster, the Doctor goes to entertain the delegates, sending Cawdrey to locate Warren.  Cawdrey, meanwhile, is growing more stressed, as the first information lost included necessary financial data on the investors.  Once the delegates are pacified, the Doctor turns his attention to the missing Book, and to Osefa’s body.  Her race has a hippocampus that retains some function even after death, and therefore the Doctor is able to cobble together a device which scans her brain and creates a hologlyphic duplicate of the woman.  He intends to ask her what happened.

Book draws back from harming Peri and Warren, and recognizes that his behavior is bizarre.  Warren challenges Book to provide definitions for obscure words, hoping to break the hologlyph’s rigid thinking patterns, but is cut off by a broadcast from Cawdrey.  Cawdrey insists that anyone without a symposium invitation report to the faculty.  Warren goes to check out the situation, leaving Peri behind with Book; but she suspects that Warren is hiding something.  Peri talks to Book about his work, and begins to worry that he is, in fact, stressed; perhaps he is overworked, which could strain even a complex computer.  He admits that his recent memories are no longer reliable.  He agrees with Peri that his task—to accumulate all words and definitions—will never end, nor will it ever be fully accepted by everyone; words, after all, represent knowledge and power.  However, this is his purpose; and he never questioned it, until he visited Xenocubis with Osefa.  The inhabitants of that world believe that the echoes of the Big Bang created the concept of language itself—an original Word, if you will.  As they believe that other languages are fragments of the original word, they collect and preserve them…but one word there was completely inexplicable to Book, and changed him.  Peri realizes that Book’s pursuit of words has left him no time to interact with the users of the Lexicon; he explains that he has created a Lexisphere, a virtual interface between the real world and the meaning found in the Lexicon.  Its opening was to have been the height of the symposium, but now that may not happen; and Peri realizes that the uncertainty that plagues Book may also be in the Lexicon, spelling trouble.

The Doctor learns from the Osefa hologlyph of the Xenocubis expedition, but is unable to ask about Osefa’s death, as the hologlyph can’t accept it.  He switches her off.  The Xenocubis notes contain references to L.T., or Lexical Transcendence—a superstition, perhaps, but one that would appeal to Osefa.  From this he deduces the existence of the Lexisphere, and realizes that Book is probably there.  Meanwhile, Book takes Peri to the Lexisphere, which breaks words into their basic phonemes and analyzes their meaning; but he detects a presence inside it.  He notes that words in the Lexicon are changing meanings as they speak; Peri realizes she is trapped in the Lexisphere as things begin to shake.  The rumbling stops, but Book begins repeating a strange syllable: “ish…”  Meanwhile, Cawdrey denies the Doctor access to the Lexisphere, claiming it will further disturb the conference.  However, something is already disturbing it: as they watch, the crowd begins repeating the strange syllable: “Ish…Ish…”

Warren saves Peri from the Lexisphere while Book continues to chant; but his exposure to it changes him, and he claims to feel at home inside its world constructed of words.  Peri warns him about the presence inside, and wants to find the Doctor; but when Warren finds that the Doctor and Cawdrey are together, he leaves, unwilling to deal with Cawdrey.  Meanwhile, the Doctor and Cawdrey are unaffected; their speech remains normal.  Cawdrey identifies Book—who can travel by projection—as the first speaker of the word; but how has this condition spread?  For now, at least, the delegates are physically unharmed.  Cawdrey searches for Warren, whom he blames for  the situation; everyone else on the campus is infected with the Ish, and all communications are jammed, preventing him from summoning help.  Moreover, the text in the books in the library is changing, as are the words in Osefa’s note.  Peri, meanwhile, locates the Doctor, who claims credit for her resistance to the condition; nevertheless he is happy to see her.  He theorizes that the delegates are trying to puzzle out the meaning of the word, but are becoming more disconnected from all meaning the longer they work at it.

Book continues to be obsessed.  He focuses on Osefa’s death, and her keynote adress, and the word “-ish”.  Osefa had planned the address to deal with “word killers”, individuals in history who were forced to remove old words from dictionaries due to limited space—a futile pursuit, as words never really die.  Stuck in this obsession, Book deflects Warren’s attempts to recruit him; Warren wants access to the Lexisphere.  Osefa materializes before Book, in hologlyhic form; the hologlyph continues work on the address, touching the topic of lexical transcendentalism.  She starts from the idea of pi, which is a transcendental number, not rigidly definable; so what, then, would be a transcendental word?

Peri updates the Doctor on her adventures, but stops when the sound of birdsong outside stops, then returns.  The Doctor realizes the contamination is spreading to other forms of language—such as birdsong—but only those which suit it; languages such as architecture are unaffected thus far.  He traces the situation back to the idea of lexical transcendence; short words can have many meanings, longer words only a few—so what about the longest possible word?  Such a word, the Omniverbum, would have such dense meaning that it could warp reality around it.  While Osefa and Book have clearly not found the Omniverbum, perhaps they found a fragment of it: a sentient word of sorts, eating meaning—the “ish”.  Cawdrey returns and reports the spread of the infection; the Doctor tells him to shut down the Lexisphere, as the ish can use it to spread.  For their protection, he gives Peri and Cawdrey in-ear translation devices, Babel Masters, which will censor the “ish” syllable in their hearing.  Cawdrey refuses to consider that the Doctor could be right, leaving Peri to work alone on the Lexisphere; however, the ish begins to manipulate words on the screen, trying to get to them in a non-verbal manner.

The Doctor meets Book in Osefa’s office.  Book tells him that Osefa’s search for the ultimate, transcendent meaning revealed only hollowness.  Warren arrives in a state of rapture, and forces Book to explain what happened here: Book infected Osefa with the ish, and she killed herself rather than watch all her knowledge degrade into babble.  Warren plans to use Book to spread the ish across the Articulate worlds—and once babble is given power over the minds that it infects, he will reveal the Omniverbum and destroy all language forever.

Osefa appears and distracts Warren long enough for the Doctor and Book to escape.  He lets them go, and explains his plan to Osefa—who then gives him a revelation about himself.  Meanwhile Book takes the Doctor to his office, and reveals his remote projectors, which are necessary for Book to leave the campus.  The Doctor reluctantly destroys them to hinder Warren’s efforts.  Book reveals that he is in fact infected, but that he has the ability to disassociate himself from portions of the Lexisphere’s content; he has been combining this ability with a focus on the widely-varying meanings of ish in order to keep himself sane.  The Doctor realizes that Warren and the ish have different agendas; Warren wants to spread it everywhere, but the ish has voluntarily confined itself to the campus thus far.  It most likely wants the Lexicon.  Book blames himself, but the Doctor assures him that he is not to blame; he was doing his job, and was taken advantage of.  They confirm that they ish is a fragment of the Omniverbum, a living syllable that consumes meaning until only babble is left.  The Lexicon gave it a wealth of sustenance, but it bided its time until the various delegates—linguists, all—arrived, ready to be consumed.  Now it can only be fought in the Lexisphere.

Realizing they are already infected, Peri and Cawdrey remove their Babel Masters.  Knowing time is short, Cawdrey explains that Warren—unknown to himself—is a hologlyph, which was programmed by Cawdrey and connected to the Lexisphere just as Book is.  With his built-in love of words, he was designed to sabotage the efforts of the Lexicon’s competitors; but Warren’s capacity for destruction was too great, and he has harmed the Lexicon as well.  However, he must be prevented from knowing the truth about himself; if he learns it, he will not need Book to spread the ish.  However, it’s too late; as Cawdrey shuts down the Lexisphere, Warren materializes, having learned the truth from the Osefa hologlyph.  He cannot be reasoned with, and Peri begins to fall to the ish.  Warren reveals that Osefa knew the truth all along, but allowed it as a mark of pity toward Cawdrey, whom she considered incompetent; this breaks Cawdrey’s sanity, and he succumbs fully to the ish.  However, the Docotr arrives and draws Peri back to Sanity.  The Doctor bluffs Warren into believing he is having a seizure, temporarily destabilizing him and giving Peri time to explain what has happened.  Warren recovers, and panics when he realizes the ish is deserting him.

The Doctor offers himself as a new host to the ish, in the process defending English as the most powerful language in the Universe.  The ish reveals it wants to return home, as it were—to the Omniverbum.  The Doctor offers to help it do so if it will release the delegates, but it expels him from the Lexisphere.  He finds Peri repeating the syllable and Cawdrey raving madly while Warren begs the ish to return; it seems all is lost.

Osefa’s hologlyph appears and addresses the delegates; but instead of its planned speech, it talks about the Doctor, a man who uses speech as his primary defense against evil.  But, what if that man could not talk himself out of a threat?  What if words were the enemy?  She uses this to defend the necessity of language, for without it, there is nothing.  She then vanishes, leaving Book despairing.

The Doctor despairs as well…until Peri begins to spout her American idioms.  He realises this may be a key; if they can give the ish conflicting words for the same meaning, it will become confused.  With Peri, he begins shouting out English words, while Peri shouts their American counterparts.  Unable to bear it, the ish retreats to the Lexisphere, and the Doctor and Peri escape it as the Omniverbum—with the rumbling they heard before—approaches.  Warren remains behind, and the ish chooses him as its host in order to return home.  However, he intends instead to pull the Omniverbum into the real world, completing his plan to destroy language and meaning and, by extension, reality.  To drive the Omniverbum back, the Doctor knows they must strike it with the full force of the English language, which—due to its durability and evolution—is more powerful than even the longest world.  Book disassociates himself from the full mass of the Lexicon, which overloads the Lexisphere with meaning, forcing the Omniverbum back to the conceptual space from which it came.  It takes the ish, and Warren, with it.

In the aftermath, the delegates recover; but Cawdrey never will, for his capacity for language is gone.  The Lexicon, too, is gone, and the Lexisphere is destroyed, but the faculty have retained Book and Osefa to create a new dictionary…on paper.  The Doctor encourages them, and warns them about other sentient words, and promises to return and check on them.  With Peri, he returns to the TARDIS, and makes an exit.

Ish 2

The Sixth Doctor’s moment has arrived! This story is utterly suited to him. It’s a story about words in all their complexity; and no one is ever more intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity than the Sixth Doctor. This story feels like the payoff on every joke and gag there has ever been regarding the Sixth Doctor’s choice of words. Surprisingly, Peri gets most of the good lines, and all of the good puns; but maybe that makes sense, given that a theme here is that sometimes the Doctor—who fights his battles with words more than anything else—can be beaten at his own game.

It’s an audacious concept: That a villain can be a simple word. We’ve already explored the concept of sound being both intelligent and malevolent, all the way back in Whispers of Terror; now we expand on the idea, and reveal that a word—or even a fraction of a word—can be sentient, and can devour. -Ish is a fragment of a word even in English, signifying an incomplete similarity; many times in these reviews, I’ve used it in the word “Doctorish”. Within the context of the story, it’s a fragment of a far greater and more destructive word, and as such it can’t be trusted; but in the end, all it wants—like E.T.—is to go home. It may sound like a silly idea; but consider how words shape our thoughts, and how our thoughts in turn shape our actions and even our reality, and it becomes powerful. At the same time, the format embraces the silliness of the idea and runs with it; in addition to the aforementioned puns, there are some clever audio tricks here. For one example, Peri and a fellow character are fitted with in-ear devices that prevent them from hearing the -ish syllable by censoring it if it is spoken in their vicinity; we, the audience, get to hear the censoring as well. It would be routine if the syllable was always a discrete entity, but the censoring also includes words that incorporate the syllable; at one point Peri sneezes, which comes out similar to the word “tissue”, and the middle of her sneeze is beeped out.

The setting is unique here, and has not yet featured in any other story. The story takes place in the Articulate Worlds, a group of human worlds with a common economy which is based not on money, but on information in the form of words. Words, therefore, have literal value, and can be used as currency. At one point Peri unwittingly pays for her lunch and drinks with a word game. It’s an interesting take on a post-scarcity economy, although I suspect it’s untenable in the real world. We know the worlds are human, because of the prevalence of the English language, but it is acknowledged that non-humans live there as well; in fact, a major character, Osefa, is revealed to be non-human. (It’s not directly stated, but references to, and descriptions of, her species would indicate she is not human.) The story concentrates more on describing the Articulate Worlds than on tying them into the overall history of the galaxy; we know they must be in the future, but that’s really all we know, and no date is given.

This is the first time in a while that we’ve seen the Sixth Doctor or Peri (or anyone other than Eight and Charley, for that matter), but they haven’t suffered for the gap; both performances are on point. The supporting performances are decent, given that every character at some point undergoes a major change: Book, the hologlyphic scribe, wavers between coherence and insanity; Osefa dies and returns in an altered form; Warren, Peri’s first contact in the story, experiences a major revelation that leaves him unhinged; Cawdrey, the organizer of the conference at which the story occurs, loses his mind completely. With insanity being such a common thread, the roles could not have been easy, but they are all handled well.

My only complaint is that this story is difficult to follow. With all the excess verbiage, it’s a strain on the vocabulary; and it doesn’t help that the Sixth Doctor is always a fast speaker. It’s worth it to listen more than once, although—at two hours of running time—that’s purely a judgment call.

Continuity references: With our return to the normal cycle of the Main Range, references are reduced, but still present. Peri makes reference to her stepfather, Howard Foster, and his archaeological endeavours (Planet of Fire) and also to her botany studies from the same episode. The Doctor uses a bit of the Delphon eyebrow language introduced in Spearhead from Space, where his newly-regenerated third incarnation used it on Liz Shaw. The phrase “A Time Lord gift?” appeared previously in The Masque of Mandragora, and the phrase “The birth-cry of the Universe” occurred in The Curse of Fenric (although admittedly, that one is still in the Doctor’s future). There are a few meta-references as well; an encyclopedia volume is referenced, which begins with DAL, referring to the apocryphal story that Terry Nation named the Daleks by looking at an encyclopedia volume (DAL to LEK). Also, the Doctor mentions, as another sentient word, “The Adjective of Noun”, which is how common Classic Series titles are usually formatted (e.g. The Keeper of Traken).

Overall: A fun return to the Sixth Doctor, though perhaps more fun for Peri than anyone else. It’s a bit complicated, and makes much of a very tiny partial word, but in doing so it’s very clever. Not a bad way to resume the normal routine.

Ish 3

Next time: On Thursday we will continue the Fourth Doctor Adventures, Series One; and next week we’ll return to the Main Range and the Seventh Doctor with The Rapture. 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.




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