We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Short Trips, Volume I, covering the Sixth Doctor’s contribution: The Wings of a Butterfly. This story is unusual in that it is both written and read by Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor’s actor. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.
A Time Lord professor, Duotheros, requests that the Doctor, a former student, join him. In his quarters, he asks a favor of the Doctor: Duotheros has been examining the history of a planet called Bixor, up to its sudden and little-understood destruction—a destruction which has only just been discovered. The Doctor, being of an inquisitive and investigatory nature, may be willing to go to Bixor and determine the cause of its destruction—a task most Time Lords would ignore. The Doctor agrees, and heads out; but almost immediately, Duotheros has second thoughts, knowing the Doctor’s tendency to get too involved. He goes to call the Doctor back, but it’s too late; in the corridor, he meets the Doctor, who is just returning from his mission. Ah, time travel!
Back in Duotheros’s study, the Doctor explains, with some humor, that the destruction of Bixor was due to a pair of badly-made trousers. Duotheros is confused, and so the Doctor explains: A man had been walking down a street when his trousers fell down, causing onlookers to laugh at him. This distraction allowed a pickpocket to steal some keys from a bystander. One of the keys was for a nearby car; the thief then stole that car, but before he did so, he gave his bicycle to another boy. The boy was not good at riding, and he accidentally steered into the path of a truck. The truck swerved and struck a power substation, which knocked out power to an entire manufacturing block. The power would be out for hours. One plant in the affected block was responsible for assembly of vector modules, and when the power was restored, the machinery accidentally re-printed sixteen such modules with a double layer of circuits. The modules were then installed in the backup guidance system of an aerial drone, which later transported nuclear materials to a power plant. A fault in the main guidance system caused the backup to activate just as the drone was flying over the planet’s only active volcanic vent. The improperly printed backups caused the drone to accelerate to sublight speed and fly into the fissure. The nuclear materials then set off a chain reaction in the planet’s magma, destroying the planet.
Duotheros panics a bit at the destruction and its wanton cause. Bixor, he says, was supposed to have great accomplishments which would affect the entire galaxy; its sudden destruction is more horrific for that. The Doctor offers to go back and fix the problem at its source; after all, the destruction was only recently noted by the Time Lords, and the record of the event won’t have been uploaded to the Matrix yet, meaning there’s still time to interfere. Duotheros agrees.
However, as soon as the Doctor arrives on Bixor, he discovers the source of the trouble—and it makes him swear off doing any more favors for old friends. It seems the worker who made the troublesome trousers was distracted…by the sight of the TARDIS arriving outside her window, on the Doctor’s original visit. The Doctor himself, it seems, has brought about the destruction of the planet! Having learned this, the Doctor travels back thirty years, and plants a tree outside the window, one that will block the view from the window in the future, allowing the trousers to be made without error. However, when he returns to his TARDIS, he discovers that this time, it has distracted workers in another factory! He can’t risk another odd chain of events, and so he travels back in time one day, arriving in the middle of the night, away from any buildings. He walks to the site of his second materialization, and erects a group of mirrors which will hide the TARDIS’s arrival the next day. At last he returns to Gallifrey, where he meets Duotheros…who doesn’t remember meeting the Doctor at all lately, and knows nothing of any destruction of Bixor. History, it seems, has been preserved from the destructive power of a pair of trousers.
Possibly the most unique entry in Short Trips, Volume I, The Wings of a Butterfly has a long and slightly uncertain history. Colin Baker has gone on record stating that he wrote the story as a commission by Gary Russell for Doctor Who Magazine. Russell’s tenure as editor ran from 1992 to 1995. (He explains that it was not published there because Russell left the magazine before the story was completed.) However, in an interview Baker stated that he originally wrote it in Microsoft Word 2, which (assuming his computer wasn’t years out of date) would place it in the mid-1980s, around the time of his tenure on the series. It’s possible he was simply using an old computer—he hasn’t clarified—but the story about Word 2 seems to be true, as he says he had to make efforts to convert it to a more modern electronic format for revising. Regardless, the story considerably predates this audio rendition, and in fact predates the existence of Big Finish Productions. If it is true that he wrote it for DWM, it would have been considerably shorter in its original form, in order to meet the magazine’s word count requirement. Further, the original version—or a revision closer to it—is included in 2001’s charity anthology, Missing Pieces, and is shorter than this version. It’s hard for me to imagine shortening this version, but then, it is the second-longest entry in Short Trips, Volume I, at over 18 minutes.
If the early origin of the story is correct, it would do much to explain why there are practically no continuity references—no companions, no mention of other on-camera adventures; even the references to Gallifrey do not include anyone or anything we’ve seen before. The other major character, Duotheris, does mention some exploits of the people of Bixor, but as that planet was created for this story, those events aren’t noted anywhere else. It’s interesting to think that, if it is true that Baker wrote the story around the time of his television appearances, it not only predates Big Finish, but also predates Russell’s time at DWM (hence the lack of clarity in this history), and indeed predates most of the novels and other spinoff media. I also can’t help thinking that the lack of continuity references for the Sixth Doctor may indicate that not much of his televised story had yet been told.
With all that said, it’s a good story. The title is, of course, a reference to the so-called “Butterfly Effect”, the notion that a tiny change in one place (e.g. the flapping of a butterfly’s wings) can lead by chain reaction to a massive change elsewhere. We rarely know when such things happen in the real world, but it’s a common theme in time travel stories; however, that’s not so true in Doctor Who. The Time Lord’s adventures usually focus on other aspects of time travel, such as paradoxes, and live the more linear (but less probable) aspects of causality unaddressed. Hence, this story is a delight to hear, and is quite clever. Colin Baker’s presentation is enthusiastic; it’s well-documented that he loves the series and is fond of the role, but in this case, having both written and read the story, it can be understood if he is more proud of it than usual.
Next time: We join the Seventh Doctor and Ace in Police and Shreeves, read by Sophie Aldred! 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.