We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Wondrous Box, the Fourth Doctor’s contribution to the Short Trips, Volume 3 collection. Written by Juliet Boyd and read by Louise Jameson, this story features the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane. I have to say, I’m getting anxious to get through the four initial collections in the Short Trips range of audios; it feels as though we’re not making much progress, though I know that isn’t true. Still, we’ll continue on. 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.
The TARDIS comes to a halt inside a circus tent—unfortunately, not on the ground, but on a high-wire stand, where it promptly crashes to the ground. Fortunately no one is hurt, and it’s too early for a show in the tent—and the Doctor is delighted to find himself at P.T. Barnum’s famous circus. Sarah Jane curbs the Doctor’s enthusiasm long enough to get him to move the TARDIS out of the performance ring—but, unknown to either of them, the dematerialisation is observed. One Benjamin Jackson sees it go—and becomes determined to acquire this wonder for Mr. Barnum.
The Doctor “parks” his ship in the trainyard where the circus train waits, looming like a small town of its own. As they view the circus, Sarah Jane objects to the freak shows so common in the era, but grudgingly accepts that it’s a product of the time. The Doctor is delighted to see the famous circus elephant, Jumbo, the prototype of that name.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Jackson finds the TARDIS and tries, to no avail, to get inside. He determines to acquire the key instead, and formulates a plan.
The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to cut his own entrance to the circus tent (as he and Sarah lack money for tickets), then seal it up again. They find seats and wait for the show to begin. Barnum and his contingent of clowns open the show, and one of the clowns pulls the Doctor into the show momentarily. However, the clown disappears, leading Sarah to suspect something isn’t right.
She is quite correct. The clown, Jimmy, has picked the Doctor’s pocket, obtaining the TARDIS key. He hands it off to Benjamin, who quickly gets inside the time machine. Jimmy the clown has secrets of his own; he is less entertainer and more guardian to Benjamin, due to a debt owed to Benjamin’s father, but that is hardly an issue right now. As the TARDIS door closes behind Benjamin, Jimmy takes a nap.
Banjamin is stunned by the TARDIS interior, where nothing makes sense to him. He sees the date on the console—15 September, 1885—and then begins to experiment with the various controls. Not knowing what he is doing, he manages to cause the TARDIS to take off; and he is unable to properly reverse it. He does manage to get it to land, however, and get the doors open; but when he runs outside, he is in a different location in the train yard, and Jimmy is nowhere to be seen.
Sarah Jane tells the Doctor she has heard the sound of the TARDIS. The Doctor doesn’t believe her, but agrees to let her check on it—but he becomes alarmed when he can’t find his key. They rush out to investigate.
The elephant handler, Scotty, is walking the elephants out of the tent. Jumbo, being more intelligent than many people give him credit for, notices the odd blue box, which smells unusual, and alerts the other elephants. Meanwhile, the Doctor produces a tracker and locates the TARDIS, concluding that someone has stolen the key and moved the TARDIS; Sarah insists she already knew that much. They find the key in the lock, and the Doctor goes inside, not knowing that Benjamin is still watching.
The Doctor notices the settings have been changed, but finds nothing else wrong. He secures the console, and then goes back out for Sarah Jane—and then he notices a sign that displays the location of this show: St. Thomas, Ontario. He becomes alarmed, though Sarah doesn’t know the significance. He quickly moves the TARDIS away from the train, though without Sarah aboard; he runs back outside to get her, just in time to see a train engine careening toward several elephants on the track. The elephants are running, but only Jumbo has any chance. The Doctor hears Benjamin calling out to the elephants; in some part of his mind, he guesses that this is the man who stole the key, but he files that away for now. He pulls Sarah to safety, and wills with all his might for the elephant Jumbo to step into the space between two carriages…but the elephant thinks the TARDIS is in that space. By the time Jumbo realizes the space is open, it is too late. History, as it always has, will record that Jumbo the elephant died on this day in a train collision—and the Doctor leads Sarah Jane sadly back into the TARDIS.
Later, the Doctor and Sarah Jane stand in the Barnum museum, viewing Jumbo’s taxidermied remains—visiting a noble animal for the last time.
There’s a common thread throughout much of Doctor Who, which is the idea that the Doctor really can’t change history (at least, mostly). What we see him doing most often is preventing things that would change history—the classic example is another Fourth Doctor/Sarah Jane story, The Pyramids of Mars, where the Doctor explicitly shows Sarah how history will change if he doesn’t stop Sutekh. (I’ve often wondered how it can be that the Doctor can’t change history, but others can; and what would have happened if he had just flown away rather than going back to challenge Sutekh? But that’s a matter for another time.) What we don’t see as often are the cases where it’s the Doctor’s presence or actions that bring about our version of history in the first place.
That’s what we have in this story. History records that P.T. Barnum’s famous circus elephant, Jumbo, was killed on 15 September 1885 at St. Thomas, Ontario, when a locomotive struck the elephant. In this story, while it’s not the Doctor’s direct actions that cause this tragedy, it is his presence, or rather the presence of the TARDIS, which causes the elephant to be unable to avoid the impact. I’ll spare you the details of how exactly it comes about, in case you’re trying to avoid spoilers. The Doctor doesn’t comment on his part in these events, but context—and Sarah Jane’s perspective—make it clear that it weighs on him. Without ever having it spelled out, the Doctor comes across as both sentimental and sensitive; you get the impression that you’re seeing past the Fourth Doctor’s usual armor of nonchalance and wit, if only for a while.
As with most of these early Short Trips, there isn’t much in the way of continuity references, and so it’s difficult to place the story in the Doctor’s timeline. Sarah Jane is present, but nothing is said to give us an idea of when this story takes place. We can note that as Harry Sullivan is not present, it must occur after Terror of the Zygons. It’s a little disconcerting at first to hear Louise Jameson voicing a companion other than Leela, but it passes quickly; I suppose she has done so on other occasions, but this is my first encounter with her in that capacity. Sarah Jane’s customary actress, Elizabeth Sladen, unfortunately had passed away a little over a month prior to this story’s release.
Overall: This is a good, solid Fourth Doctor story, and I liked it. It fits well with its era; Sarah Jane’s time with the Fourth Doctor is a mixed bag of large and small events, and after season 12 lacked the series arcs that would become prominent when Romana arrives. The Doctor was still traveling for fun at this point, and one can easily see him getting into situations much like this. It’s worth the eighteen minutes it takes to listen.
Next time: We’ll join the Fifth Doctor and Peri in 1903 Shropshire in Wet Walls! 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.