We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Shadow Trader, the Seventh Doctor’s entry into the Short Trips, Volume IV anthology. This story was written by Charles Williams, and features the Sixth Doctor and Ace, and is read by Sophie Aldred. 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.
Salim is a shadow trader. It’s an old profession, one practiced by his father before him, and dating all the way back to the old days on Earth. Some cultures have known for centuries that buildings—and in these days, spaceships—have souls of their own; it’s why a man may call his ship “she”, and put faith in its abilities. Those souls don’t happen; they are acquired by binding a shadow to the bones of the building or the ship. That’s where the shadow traders, like Salim, come in. It’s a little bit magical, but it always works—as Salim’s dying father taught him. Salim wasn’t the greatest at the job, but that didn’t matter; all his father asked of him was that he live, procreate, and pass on the skills to his son, who might do it better.
Fraser’s Rest, in orbit around the old colony of Sonos Prime, is a declining shipyard and trading post—once more powerful, but now diminished in the face of new settlements. Salim fits in here; he doesn’t stand out in this decaying realm of reduced activity. He finds a ship in the midst of construction, and watches the activity; it’s a luxury cruiser for a billionaire, quite a prominent addition to the construction yards of Fraser’s Rest, but that is because the billionaire grew up here, and feels some affection for the place. It is, perhaps, the last chance for the Rest. Salim has been staking it out for days, trying to determine what kind of soul—what kind of shadow—this ship should have. Even its name has not been decided; but the shipbuilders have been calling it the Defiance. Now Salim must search for a person to provide the shadow—someone who matches the character of the Defiance.
He finds it in a girl with a bulky jacket, a rucksack, and a ponytail. He follows the girl, Ace, as she rejoins a little man called the Doctor—or the Professor, as she calls him. They are here to watch a launch, but the Doctor ruefully notes that he may have brought them to the wrong year, as he remembers the places being more upscale. He admits there is nothing special about this ship launch, but that he just likes to watch them, and think about what adventures it may have. Ace isn’t interested, and heads back to their own ship, the TARDIS. Salim thinks on how to cut the girl’s shadow away.
Salim follows Ace down a lonely corridor, and sets a music box playing. Ace hears the music, which grows more and more complex; she finds it has caused her to be stuck in place. Salim confronts her, and she finds she cannot even approach him. He tells her that her shadow is holding him in place; it can’t move, and therefore neither can she. He produces a strange, circuitry-laden knife, and turns it on. He tells her to hold still, so that he can cut off her shadow; Ace threatens to kick him if he approaches. Salim is okay with this; they’ll be in a stalemate until she lets him take the shadow.
They are interrupted by the approach of the Doctor. Ace warns him away; the Doctor is unperturbed, and recognizes music box as a shadow lure. He states that it won’t work on him, to Salim’s surprise. The Doctor says this is because he has no shadow; and he knocks the music box from Salim’s hand, breaking it. Ace immediately kicks him to the floor.
The Doctor examines the knife, which is quite blunt, and says that it cuts shadows, not flesh. He recognizes Salim as a shadow trader, something he last encountered in nineteenth-century London. Salim defends his profession as noble; the Doctor counters that there is nothing noble about waving a knife at a girl in an alley, and says that Salim’s ancestors wouldn’t do it this way. They would offer a deal instead, though often not a favorable one. The Doctor explains that taking the shadow takes the person’s substance, causing their lives to go nowhere; past victims would end up in freak shows, or in bedlam. Salim objects that people must have sold the shadows willingly; the Doctor acknowledges that sometimes the downtrodden would do so, for the lure of being part of something great. Some people have felt that all they have to offer in life…is their shadow.
The Doctor leaves, taking Ace with him; without the lure, Salim may still be a parasite, but he’ll have to be a traditional one.
Salim watches the Defiance under construction, and thinks about his father, and about the many others who have desired to be part of something bigger. For a moment, he feels that desire as well…and then it is gone.
I commented back in Volume II that the Seventh Doctor’s stories in these early anthologies seem to be built around the idea of teaching someone a life lesson. Saving the world—when it happens—is secondary to that purpose. The same holds true here, but with a twist that left the story a bit unsatisfying to me; I’ll get back to that in a moment.
The story finds the Doctor and Ace visiting a decaying shipyard for the purpose of watching a launch. In the course of it, they encounter a man named Salim. Salim is a shadow trader; he removes the shadows from unsuspecting individuals, and sells them to ship construction crews to be attached to the ship, thus giving it a “soul” of its own. It’s an ancient profession, going back to buildings on Earth, but it isn’t a very honest one. Salim gets more than he bargains for when he targets Ace’s shadow.
I say that the Doctor makes a point of teaching Salim a life lesson; in this case, that his chosen profession is dishonest, and leaves its victims with some severe consequences even if they agree to it. That’s standard for these Seventh Doctor stories, but the problem here is that nothing comes of it. We don’t see the effect it has on Salim at all; he’s still thinking about it when the story ends, but even that slips away from him. As far as we can tell, he’ll go on as he always has. While not every story has to have a happy ending, I think that it’s best when the actions of the story seem to count for something, whether it’s happy or not. That characteristic is lacking here, and it’s very unsatisfying. There’s potential, but it’s just not realized. (I should note that the wiki page for Salim’s character interprets the ending differently, but I think the author of the page is extrapolating a bit to reach the conclusion that Salim changes for the better. I do think that the author intended to show that Salim changes, but somehow that detail got omitted from the final cut.)
The presentation is decent, as usual; Sophie Aldred had been voicing Ace for Big Finish for a very long time by the time this story was released, and audiobooks seem to have been an easy transition for her. Her presentation of the Seventh Doctor is a little rough, but that’s only because her voice is (obviously) quite different from his; she captures his tone and mannerisms fairly well. There are no continuity references to speak of; the Doctor does mention having encountered shadow traders in nineteenth century London, and possibly at the construction of the Sphinx as well, but those references don’t seem to be attached to any stories.
Overall: Not the greatest of the Seventh Doctor’s anthology stories. It could have been better, but just didn’t hit the mark. We’ll see if things improve when we reach the individual Short Trips.
Next time: We’ll finally reach the last installment in the Short Trips anthologies! We’ll join the Eighth Doctor, sans companions, in Quantum Heresy. 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.