We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries here and here. We’re looking at the third story in the collection, set during Sarah’s travels with the Fourth Doctor: Flow, by Niki Haringsma. Let’s get started! As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked above. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute.
The TARDIS lands in a most unusual cupboard. The room vibrates with motion; but stranger still, it appears to be made of silk, much like that of a spider or silkworm. Poking their heads out, they find that the odd room is being carried by a mothlike, only mildly humanoid woman, who calls herself Arren, and who is very shocked to see her unwelcome passengers. Below them, there seems to be no solid land, only floating islands and a vast amount of space on this large world. Their presence does not go unnoticed; Arren is swiftly attacked and captured—no, arrested–by similar creatures whom she calls “drones”. She calls out defiance against something she calls the Ascendant. And in the struggle, Sarah falls out.
Death seems imminent—but Sarah is saved when another mothlike woman swoops in and catches her in a web of silk. This is Jianna, Arren’s lifemate, who was telepathically summoned by Arren to save Sarah. She takes Sarah to a nearby island, where the ground opens to admit them into a sort of hive. Finally finding a moment to talk, Jianna tells Sarah that she and her fellow workers are struggling for freedom from their rulers, the Ascendant, for whom the drones work. It was all going well…until the plague came. A strange disease that spreads as a red flush in the skin and veins, it infects both drones and workers, but kills the workers. Now their kind are dying out—and even as they search the hive, they find that all their allies here have died. Only Jianna and Arren remain.
And Jianna is infected.
Against Jianna’s fatalism and fear, Sarah takes the initiative. Determined to get the Doctor and Arren back, she begs Jianna to call out to Arren and locate them. Jianna insists it is too far for normal telepathy; but, pressing her face to the earth, she is able to set up a resonant psychic scream, which reaches Arren, but also reaches the drones, and summons them all alike. Sarah passes out under the psychic onslaught.
She awakens in a wooden, cagelike cell, guarded by drones. The Doctor, Arren, and Jianna are there; Jianna is unconscious from the plague. Arren frantically tries to take the plague from Jianna’s body into her own, but only succeeds in lessening the burden, not relieving it—and infecting herself as well. Sarah and the Doctor brainstorm, but are unable to find a plan that will get them out.
But, there is hope; for the Doctor doesn’t realize the natives are telepathic. When he learns this fact, he is able to open his own mind and tune in to them; and he finds the psychic speech of the Ascendant. He learns—to the shock of everyone involved—that the Ascendant are the plague! In seeking to abdicate their responsibilities toward their underlings, they shrank themselves to microscopic size, and invaded the veins of the other classes. Now, however, they sense the Doctor—and find him to be a far better host. They begin to make plans to invade his body.
Locked in a trance, the Doctor lets them in. Moreover, he draws them in, before they are ready. They are unable to seize control of him—and before they can regroup, the Doctor ejects them, and Sarah traps them inside a mascara bottle, sealing them in. The crisis is averted…and before returning to the TARDIS, they decide that it is only right to let the workers and drones—who are now free of the control of the Ascendant—to decide their fate.
This is a short and fairly light entry in the anthology, and I’m inevitably reminded of the early Big Finish Short Trips anthologies. Those stories were known for being small, well-contained plots, with minimal casts of characters and small crises. Haringsma’s story puts us on a world that seems to be sparsely populated, with species reminiscent of the Menoptera of The Web Planet; in fact, were it a solid planet rather than one composed of sky islands, I’d be tempted to say it’s the same world. That story, however, is underrated, in my opinion; people sometimes judge it by its visual quality rather than its story. I would not like to see the same thing happen here—the setting is unusual, almost fairy-tale, but the story is interesting despite its brevity.
I wondered when I started this anthology if any of the stories would turn out to be more about the Doctor than about Sarah Jane. Not every story, of course, will feature him at all, as with The Sparks; and not all will fall into this pattern, as we saw with Swinging Londons. This story, however, is definitely the Doctor’s story, although it’s told from Sarah Jane’s point of view. I’m not complaining, though. The Doctor is, after all, a big personality, and one that’s hard to upstage. Dozens of companions over the years bear witness to that fact, and that includes Sarah Jane. Therefore I think it’s fine that he takes center stage here. The fun, for us, is in watching him (as well as the situation) through Sarah’s eyes. We see how much she invests herself in the situation; how quickly she feels empathy for the moth people; how much she fears for the Doctor when he is invaded by the Ascendant. I wouldn’t say Sarah Jane is prone to snap judgments; but when she commits to a situation, she commits. We see that in action here, and it’s glorious.
If anything at all can be said against this story, it’s that it’s too short. I find myself wanting to know more about this world and its people. Of course we have everything we need in reference to the problem at hand; but I would love to see more. Near the end of the story I realized that we never find out the planet’s name, or the name of the species; that’s unusual, and it leaves me wondering.
But, overall, it’s a swift, graceful story, and it accomplishes its goals quickly and with aplomb. It was a pleasant reminder of all the great adventures Sarah and the Doctor have had together…there’s a reason why they are one of the most fondly remembered Doctor/companion pairs. We get to revisit that here, and it’s exactly as it ought to be.
Next time: We’ll be looking at Cuckoo Clocks that Work, by James Macaronas. See you there!
Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.