Audio Drama Review: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, the Second Doctor’s tale in the fourth Short Trips collection. Written by Foster Marks, and read by David Troughton, this story features the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe. 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 man named Jack sits down with his breakfast in his cabin on the planet Juno 1-0. He hears a strange grating sound outside, and checks it out; it turns out to be three people coming toward him. He meets them outside. He warns them about a hole in the ground ahead of them. They check it out; it is more than twenty meters wide. They introduce themselves as Zoe, Jamie, and the Doctor. The Doctor thanks him for the warning, and inquires as to how long Jack has been here—a few centuries, it turns out. He claims he is a Larian, with a bit of Terian blood; the Doctor thinks the job—warning people about the hole—is a bit menial for a Larian. Zoe says that they want to look around; the Doctor’s scans had detected an extensive series of cavities beneath the surface. Against Jack’s will, they go to check out the hole, leaving Jack at the cabin.

The hole seems to go down forever. The Doctor muses on Jack’s expertise. They are interrupted by a series of explosions behind them—another hole opens up, pulling the trio in! Jack watches, completely unperturbed, then returns to his cabin. He reveals a hidden control console behind a wall, and brings up audio and video of the companions’ fall into the hole. To his surprise, he sees that the trio have survived the fall, the debris having broken their tumble.

The Doctor determines they are in a metal-clad tunnel, not a natural hole. They hear a mewling sound down the tunnel, and go to check it out. Jack tries to follow their progress, growing more irritated; he determines that, no matter who they are, they are in his caves, and he is going to kill them all. He sets up a quick flush of Hadron gas in the tunnels, which should kill them without disrupting the work schedule. However, he is interrupted by an alert: his holding stock is nearly full—and his buyers will be waiting. While the Hadron flush is preparing, he activates the launch sequence for the stock. Rocket engines can be heard, and he goes outside to watch the rocket launch. However, his happiness turns to horror as the rocket comes apart on launch and explodes. He runs to check out the wreck.

The nose section, thrown free by the explosion, lands safely, and its hatch opens. Creatures stream out—furry halflings, a few dozen of them; and they are followed by the Doctor and his companions. The halflings become aggressive when they see Jack.

Jack demands to know how they got aboard the rocket’s capsule. Zoe claims to have cracked its security code; and the Doctor says that the eject sequence was printed out inside the cabin. Jack claims ownership of the halflings, and demands to know why and how the Doctor freed them. The Doctor explains that he played his recorder to lull them. The creatures are hybrids, bred for mining branzine, a dirty power source that is unfortunately lucrative. The way Jack was mining this planet would soon implode its core—and the implosion would pollute the entire quadrant. Jack knew, and didn’t care; his plan was to take the money and buy another planet in the Paradine system, which he would continue mining. He already owns six planets in that system. The Doctor points out that Jack’s Larian caste values the means of commerce over the ends, and will not stop this pursuit. However, the issue of revenge is taken out of their hands when the halflings surround Jack. Still, the Doctor does have a plan; and he asks Zoe to prepare Jack’s transmat.

On Paradine Alpha—one of the planets owned by Jack—the Larian awakens on a beautiful beach. However, he roars in anger as he realizes he is trapped here—a paradisiacal world, but one where there is no chance of advancement, only contentment. Truly it is the worst possible punishment for Jack.

Short Trips Volume 4 b

Let me take a moment and talk about another popular science-fiction franchise: Star Trek. While remaining wildly popular, Star Trek has gotten more than its share of criticism over the years, for various reasons, some of which are valid. One such reason is the series’ tendency to portray one-note alien races; that is, races which are defined by one or two characteristics, such as Vulcan logic, Klingon violence and honor, and—most relevant to us today—Ferengi greed and commerce. Star Trek does this again and again, and it’s rare that individuals of those races have much personality or character development (well, beyond the main characters of each installment; Spock and Worf get their moments, but not so much the others of their races). On the one hand, it’s almost a necessary form of shorthand in science-fiction writing; it’s nearly impossible to invest the time and energy necessary to understand true alien complexity, and so we use these shortcuts to display alienness. On the other hand, it’s very easy to devolve into lazy writing.

For the most part, I find that Doctor Who avoids this trope. While alien races in Doctor Who do have their quirks—“Exterminate”, anyone?—this series seems to make a mission out of subverting and exploring those quirks, in a way that many other franchises never attempt. How many stories have we had which explore the inner workings of the Dalek mind? How many Ice Warrior stories have explored the idea of Ice Warrior honor and when and how it should apply? And frankly, that’s fantastic. The Doctor himself is an alien, and shouldn’t react with the standard human trope of generalizing everyone he meets. Indeed, he doesn’t do that; he tries to look past the surface even of his enemies, and draw out the best in them.

That’s why a story like this, Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, seems a little out of place to me. This story pits (literally, and I definitely intended that pun) the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe against a Larian named Jack, who is performing legal-but-highly-dangerous mining on a planet called Juno 1-0. In the process, he’s enslaving an engineered race, though that’s sort of a footnote here; if you removed the Halflings from the story, it wouldn’t change substantially. That’s all fair enough; the Doctor has stood against corporate greed and environmental hazards many times (the VNA Cat’s Cradle: Warhead comes to mind). But the villain, Jack, is portrayed as having no real choice in the matter; he’s a product of his race and caste, who always single-mindedly pursue commerce with an eye on the means rather than the ends. Sound familiar? Jack may as well be a Ferengi! It makes for a clever ending, in that Jack ends up in a situation that would be paradise for anyone else, but is torture for him or anyone of his race and caste; but it comes across as lazy to me. As well, any punishment seems like a harsh punishment for something that can’t be helped; Jack’s crimes are serious, certainly, but he’s literally wired to commit them—it’s in his nature. That renders the otherwise-clever ending unsatisfactory, and makes the Doctor seem a little malicious.

I hate to make the complaint over which I’ve labored, because it’s a fun story, right up to the end. It’s only in the last few minutes, when the statement about Jack’s race and caste is made, that it goes south. Otherwise, I enjoyed it completely.

Next time: We’ll join the Third Doctor and Jo Grant for Lost in the Wakefield Triangle! 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 4

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