We’re back, with another Big finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to the forty-sixth entry in the Main Range, Flip Flop. This story continues Big Finish’s brief experimental period in the Main Range; this story consists of two discs, one white and one black, each consisting of two episodes. You can listen to either disc first; the story plays with timelines and events in such a way that the order doesn’t matter. I was listening on Spotify, which puts the white disc first, and so that is the order in which I listened, though that should have little effect on this review. The story features the Seventh Doctor and Mel, landing on the planet Puxatornee; it was written by Jonathan Morris, and directed by Gary Russell, and released in July 2003. 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.
White Disc, Part One:
The Doctor and Mel arrive on Puxatornee on Christmas Eve, 3090, in search of Leptonite crystals, for use in dealing with the Quarks in another system. They are immediately arrested by security agents Reed and Stewart, who accuse them of being spies for the Slithergee—and they insist that the two have already confessed! However, they are soon rescued from their cell by…Reed and Stewart?! Not the same Reed and Stewart, as it turns out—but before they can explain, they are killed. Still, something weird is going on; everyone seems to know who the Doctor and Mel are. The rather paranoid President, Mitchell, sends his security forces through the city to find them. The Doctor and Mel discover a Professor Capra, who has invented a time machine; but it can only work once, and only in one direction—to the past. He reveals that, thirty years earlier, the planet was approached by the Slithergee, who asked for asylum on one of the planet’s moons. However, the then-President, Bailey, was assassinated by her secretary, Clarence, which led to a war with the Slithergee. While the humans won the war, their planet was ruined and poisoned, and soon everyone will die. Capra—with Mitchell’s blessing—plans to send agents Stewart and Reed back in time to prevent the assassination. The Doctor determines not to let that happen; the humans must not change their own history. In the struggle, Stewart and Mel are sent back in time; the Doctor and Reed follow in the TARDIS. Behind them, Capra’s machine overloads, destroying the entire planet. The Doctor and Reed find Mel and Stewart, but fail at stopping Stewart from killing Clarence before the assassination. Reed and Stewart then tell Bailey that she must make peace with the Slithergee, in order to prevent a terrible war.
White Disc, Part Two:
Reed and Stewart’s mission is finished, and so they demand that the Doctor take them forward. He takes them to Christmas Day, 3090. Things have changed; the war never happened, but all is not well. Bailey is now called “The Great Appeaser”, having given in to the Slithergee’s demands. This eventually brought the Slithergee to occupy both moon and planet. Subsequently, through various maneuvers, the Slithergee have enslaved the humans. This is not the outcome Stewart and Reed wanted, and so they order the Doctor to take them back to the previous note so they can stop themselves from leaving to the past. The Doctor does so, but they are dismayed to learn that they cannot return to their original timeline; it no longer exists. Their story ends when they are killed by Potter, who was an agent under them in their original timeline, but here is a Slithergee collaborator. However, the Doctor and Mel then run into the other Reed and Stewart, who are freedom fighters against the Slithergee. This is an earlier moment in their timeline, and they do not recognize the Doctor or Mel; but they quickly discover that the duo has a time machine. Meanwhile the Doctor realizes that, just as there are doubles of Stewart and Reed (and Potter, as well), there will be alternate versions of themselves, who will probably arrive soon. The problem: they will most likely land their TARDIS in the same spot as the current version—and that would be disastrous! With their Leptonite crystals in hand, they hurry back to their TARDIS and leave; the Doctor refuses to stay and help, trusting that his alternate self will figure things out.
Black Disc, Part One:
The (other) Doctor and Mel land on Puxatornee on Christmas Eve, 3090, attempting to obtain Leptonite crystals to deal with a Quark incursion in another system. They find a world that is both occupied and enslaved; the Slithergees, in their weird hivelike buildings, have made slaves of the humans. They are promptly arrested by Slithergee collaborator Potter, who takes them to Professor Capra for interrogation. This Capra has not built a time machine, but rather, a Leptonite-powered torture device. The Doctor and Mel are freed by two freedom fighters, Reed and Stewart, who somehow know who they are. More strangely, they know that the Doctor has a time machine, and they want to use it to go back and kill President Bailey before she can begin the peace process that led to the Slithergee occupation. Meanwhile, Bailey suspects that her deputy, Mitchell, is secretly a Slithergee agent; she thinks he staged the failed assassination attempt that led to the peace process, so as to keep her from going to war. She confronts him, and ends up dead for her trouble; Mitchell calls it suicide. The Slithergee Community Leader designates Mitchell the new president, but then kills him, taking direct control of the planet. Meanwhile, Stewart threatens to shoot Mel if the Doctor won’t transport them; and he reluctantly agrees. He takes them back thirty years, where they kill Bailey’s secretary, Clarence. They then kill Bailey to prevent the peace process, and stage the scene so as to frame Clarence for the murder.
Black Disc, Part Two:
The Doctor then takes them forward to Christmas Day, 3090, where they find things changed. Mitchell, having assumed power after Bailey’s death, believed Clarence was a Slithergee agent, and so he went to war against the Slithergee. While the humans won the war, it left their world a wasteland, and soon the remaining humans will die. Potter—here a security agent under agents Stewart and Reed—arrests the Doctor and Mel as enemy agents; but the rebel Stewart and Reed pretend to be his superiors, and take the time travelers into their custody. This is not the future they sought, and so they demand that the Doctor take them back to last night, so that they can stop themselves from going back to complete the assassination. He does so, but they find that this is still the new timeline; and they leave, disappearing into the city. However, the Doctor and Mel run into agents Stewart, Reed, and Potter; from the agents’ point of view, this is their first meeting. The Doctor remembers that tomorrow, Potter will arrest them as spies, and so he confesses to being such, in order to preserve the timeline. Once in a cell, Mel realizes that they, too, must have counterparts; the Doctor realizes that their counterparts will soon land, in the same spot as their own TARDIS—a catastrophe in the making. He gets them out of the cell, and they rush to the TARDIS to depart, trusting that their other selves will set things right.
I have to say up front, I appreciate what they’re trying to do here. Flip Flop is actually a very clever application of alternate timelines. We have the Doctor and Mel from one timeline contributing to the actions that create the other timeline—and this happens in both directions! That’s very clever; but in practice, it’s a mess, and hard to follow. There’s no shame in needing a few runs through this story in order to follow along!
I love stories about alternate timelines, not just in Doctor Who, but in other franchises as well. While trying to piece this one together, I realized that it conforms with a theory of my own. If you follow the idea that any choice can result in a new timeline splitting off, you have the basis for multiverse theory. However, when we’re talking about time travel, we have to ask: what happens if you go back to a point before the split? I theorize that it only makes sense if each new timeline also happens retroactively, splitting off both forward and backward in time. There’s no such thing as a unified timeline before the split (sorry, Legend of Zelda fans—of which I am one, so I’m apologizing to myself, too). This story must follow that notion, because there are two versions of the Doctor and Mel. While their timelines were identical up to the events on Puxatornee, they differentiate at that point—but the split must be retroactive, or else we’d only have one TARDIS team here. Interestingly, the story ends with each team in the opposite universe from the one in which they started!
Confused yet? Yeah, me too.
With all that said, I reiterate my initial point: I appreciate what they’re trying to accomplish, but in execution, it doesn’t work out so well. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m looking forward to getting past this experimental phase in the Main Range. Everyone has an adolescence; I suppose this is Big Finish’s. On the plus side, the voice acting is pretty good; I never had trouble discerning which version of each character was being portrayed. In a story like this, that’s priceless.
We do get some continuity references here. The Quarks (The Dominators) get a few mentions; they represent the inciting incident for the story, as the Doctor and Mel (in both timelines) come to Puxatornee to obtain Leptonite crystals, which cause Quarks to explode. (According to the Doctor Who Reference Guide for this story, the Quarks mentioned here—being mentioned sans Dominators—are more likely a reference to the 1960s comic strip stories Invasion of the Quarks and The Killer Wasps (and others; I don’t have a complete list) than to The Dominators. In those strips, the Quarks were billed as a conquering race on their own. However, I’m not familiar with those stories myself, so I can’t comment.) The Doctor mentions the musical group “Pakafroon Wabster” here; I don’t usually mention future references, but as I am not likely to reach the referenced story anytime soon, I’ll say that they will be mentioned a few times in the future before actually appearing in the comic story Interstellar Overdrive. The Doctor mentions “anti-radiation gloves” invented by a previous incarnation; this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to The Daleks, where William Hartnell mistakenly said “anti-radiation gloves” instead of “anti-radiation drugs. The cloister bell is heard when the two TARDISes are at risk of colliding (Logopolis, et al.) The Doctor quips several times that “I’ll explain later”; while I haven’t identified the first appearance, this line has appeared as a running joke on many occasions. I should also mention that the planet’s name, “Puxatornee”, is a slightly-altered reference to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which is the setting for the film Groundhog Day (and coincidentally, a few hours from my hometown, though I haven’t been there). That film, like this story, focuses on repetitive sequences of time, though the resolution is much different.
Overall: The story is ambitious, and it does, I suppose, accomplish its goal. For the listener, getting there is a mess. I applaud the attempt, but I don’t think I’ll come back to this one.
Next time: We begin the villainous countdown to the fiftieth Main Range entry, with Omega! 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.