Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: The Interstellar and the Improbable, by Scarlett Ward

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 via the links at the bottom of this post. Today we’re continuing with the “Investigations” portion of Sarah Jane’s life, with the ninth entry of the anthology: The Interstellar and the Improbable, by Scarlett Ward. 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 below. 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.

Defending Earth (Cover)

An empty tube station is never not scary.

If anything, it’s worse when the station is unfinished—never used for passengers, its only occupations have been the movie crews that use it occasionally for filming…and oh yes, the rats. But they don’t figure into our story.

Someone does. That someone is an investigative journalist named Sarah Jane Smith: A journalist with a penchant for not just the sensational, but also the impossible, the supernatural, the—dare it be said?–alien. And Sarah Jane has heard rumors about this tube station. It started simply enough; the station is currently being used as the entrance point for an underground ghost tour, of the type that boasts the spirits of the dead, but ultimately relies on cheap jump scares. And yet, two things stand out: For one, this one is unusually successful; and for another, its guests come back different, somehow. They come back raving about the tour, and dedicating themselves to marketing its tickets; but also, somehow, not quite themselves. That is a bait that Sarah Jane—who is no stranger to weird phenomena—cannot ignore.

Now, she stands in the tunnel during the daylight hours, before the tour opens—and she hears a noise. She quickly tracks down and confronts the perpetrator: a young blond-haired woman, accompanied by…a very familiar canine robot?! She quickly learns, though, that this isn’t her robot—rather, it’s another of the same type, perhaps slightly more advanced. The woman introduces herself as Romana, and the oddity of their meeting quickly leads them both to put their cards on the table: Romana, like Sarah Jane, is a former companion of the Doctor, and is also a Time Lord herself (or Time Lady, if you prefer). She and her robot are traveling on their own for the time being, if in limited fashion; Romana is working on a ship of her own, but hasn’t completed it yet, leaving her to rely on a homemade time ring to get around for the moment. In the meantime, she is here investigating the same phenomenon as Sarah Jane. The two quickly—if not quite wholeheartedly—join forces.

As the tour opens for the evening, they join the line of customers. While waiting they talk about the possibilities, and conclude it must be some kind of mind control; thus Romana, who has some telepathic ability, insists on going in first—noting that customers are being admitted only one at a time, ostensibly due to cramped quarters in the unfinished tunnels. Sarah Jane unhappily agrees.

Romana allows herself to be escorted inside. Once down the tunnel, she is seized by two large men, and brought before a large, glowing crystal. They force her to place her hands on it—and instantly she finds herself in telepathic battle for control of her mind and body. She holds out briefly, but the force arrayed against her is strong and angry, and she begins to lose. Desperately she pulls herself and the enemy into a mental construct—a virtual castle, if you will—where she can see her enemy face to face. It manifests as a young woman, who calls herself Ellery Westwall.

Despite Ellery’s attempts to break free, Romana forces her to talk. She reveals that she and her people were destroyed many centuries ago by Rassilon, the near-mythical founder of Time Lord society; and their minds were trapped in this crystal, which has now found its way to Earth. They don’t care about right or wrong or morals; they only want to live again, and if possible, to take revenge on Rassilon’s children. Slowly, however, Romana wears her down, and gives her something she never had before: hope. If Ellery will let Romana fight along with her, they will challenge the leader of the group, Visser, and Ellery will replace him. Then Romana will, somehow, arrange for new bodies for them, bodies that won’t require theft from other beings—perhaps by Looming them, if she can steal a minor Loom from Gallifrey. The details may be a bit unformed, but Romana’s sincerity and determination are unmistakable—and so Ellery agrees.

Ellery takes control of Romana’s body long enough to get back to Sarah Jane, who is next in line. Romana resurfaces, and quickly fills Sarah in on the plan. She escorts Sarah Jane inside; but before Sarah can be exposed to the crystal, Romana challenges Visser to telepathic combat, and battle is joined. She lets Ellery lead the fight—but something is frighteningly amiss in Romana’s brain. The two of them are overcome, and Romana falls unconscious.

Sarah rushes to check on her—and sees a wisp of gold escape from her. But it isn’t regeneration energy—rather, it’s Ellery. With no time for any other plan, she allows Ellery into her mind. She suggests that they challenge Visser, but Ellery is panicking—if Romana couldn’t do it, how can a human?

Sarah Jane Smith, however, is never one to back down. She has faced Davros, the Daleks, the Sontarans, the Cybermen, and many others, and she is not afraid. As Visser sneers over her challenge, she touches the crystal, and urges Ellery to share her vision with her people…and it works. As hope spreads through her people, Ellery herself is strengthened—and returns to the fight, alongside Sarah Jane. Visser is strong, but Sarah has a flash of inspiration: She asks Ellery to urge the human whom Visser controls to fight back. And the man complies. Suddenly Visser is besieged on two fronts, giving Ellery the edge she needs. At last Visser is broken.

It’s not a clean victory though; for at the last moment, he declares that he will at least die with a body, and pulls out a knife to slash his host’s throat.

Sarah persuades Ellery to temporarily return to the crystal so that she can help Romana. She manages to get the unconscious woman—along with her robot—out of the tunnel and back to her own home, and waits for her to awaken. Romana awakens, and claims she was in a healing coma, and the two compare notes.

Unable to avoid Sarah’s questions, Romana explains what happened. She admits that, ever since regenerating into the form of one Princess Astra—who happens to have been a segment of the Key to Time—her lifespan has been affected. She may be only three hundred and three—a pittance in Time Lord years—but she is dying, slowly but surely. And since healing seems to require unbalancing the Key to Time—and the universe with it—it seems selfish to worry over her one solitary life. She’s been spending her remaining days seeking out places to do good, much like the Doctor before her. Still, it’s the robot who comes up with a suggestion for enhancing her remaining years, and it’s one that applies to Sarah Jane as well: Seek allies, or put another way, make friends. It’s just as well for Sarah Jane to hear it, for she is musing over her past—her travels with the Doctor, and how it changed her. But Romana points out that it’s possible that the Doctor doesn’t makewanderers; he only finds them. Sarah Jane can be that person, regardless of whether she is on Earth or among the stars.

Likewise, as Sarah says, Romana can do the same at home on Gallifrey—and perhaps that is where she should go. After all, why should she face her disease lying down? Gallifreyans are brilliant, but also stubborn: a combination that, for once, may do some good. And in the end, perhaps Romana might make her own people a little better. And in the meantime, there’s still Ellery to deal with, and Romana will need Gallifrey’s help for that. She bids Sarah Jane goodbye, and “thank you”; and Sarah wishes her well, musing that she is at long last beginning to understand why the Doctor loves this world so much.

Ward Title Card

Although we’re still in the “Investigations” section of Sarah Jane’s life, we’ve taken a step forward again. Goodbye, K9 and Company; hello, Big Finish! Or almost, at any rate. In 2002, Big Finish Productions brought Sarah Jane back to the (figurative) screen with a series of Sarah Jane Smith audio dramas (which you can still purchase at the link at the bottom). This story takes place immediately before the first entry in that series, Sarah Jane Smith: Comeback, and brings her character up to a point that listeners of the series will recognize. I, unfortunately, am not yet one of those listeners; I’ve listened to quite a bit of Big Finish’s Doctor Who-related lineup, but haven’t made it to the Sarah Jane audios yet. However, as this story serves as a sort of introduction to that period, it doesn’t make much difference to have not listened to the audios.

I love stories where companions from different eras meet (as we saw in the last entry with Victoria Waterfield, although she and Sarah Jane and the Brigadier had already met in Downtime). Here, one of my favorite companions, Romana, meets Sarah Jane for the first time. (Both appear in The Five Doctors, but do not meet.) Romana and her K9—again not named, at the request of the owners of the character, but identifiable by description—have at some point escaped from E-Space, but Romana has not yet made her way to Gallifrey. At the end of this story, she is poised to do so, thus setting up for the beginning of not one spinoff series, but two (the Sarah Jane Smith audios and the Gallifrey series). Meanwhile, Sarah’s K9 doesn’t make an appearance, but Romana’s K9 has detected his presence on Earth; Sarah muses that her K9 is functioning increasingly poorly, leading up toward his eventual malfunction sometime prior to School Reunion.

Halfway through this story, I was convinced it was more Romana’s story than Sarah Jane’s, much as Little Girl Lost was more about the Brigadier. Sarah Jane does seem to be the kind of character that can facilitate the rise of other people. However, as it turns out, it’s Sarah’s moment to shine; she is the one who—again, by promoting another character—brings about the victory at the end of the story. It’s a confidence boost for Sarah as well, which she will need for the adventures that lie ahead in her near future. It’s a testament to how far-reaching this character’s influence is within the universe of Doctor Who; she touches everyone eventually, and most come away better for it.

At the same time, Romana is the most fascinating character here, because of what’s happening behind the scenes. She indicates that she is dying of a disease that pertains to her form; ever since regenerating into the form of Princess Astra—who, The Armageddon Factor tells us, was secretly a segment of the Key to Time—she has been somehow affected by the Key segment, and is dying as a result. As far as I can tell from research, this is a result of the events of The Chaos Pool, an installment in the Fifth Doctor “Key 2 Time” audio arc, in which Romana temporarily absorbs the Key to Time—but again, this is a story I haven’t heard yet. If anyone knows more, feel free to comment! More interesting yet is Romana’s reference to the often-debated Looms; she considers the possibility of stealing a Loom from Gallifrey to give bodies to Ellery’s people.

Overall: This was a very enjoyable story. It’s classic Doctor Who format, even without the Doctor: a mundane, if creepy, setting, suddenly revealed to be the work of something far beyond Earth. Sarah Jane is quickly revealing herself not just to be a warrior for good and justice, but also a healer of sorts—a restorer of those who are broken. She stands for those who cannot stand on their own. We’ve seen it in several stories so far, and I think it sets her up well for what lies ahead. It’s a good role for her. It was good, as well, to see Romana and K9 again, if only briefly.

Next time: We have one more story in the “Investigations” era: When the Stars Come to Man, by William J. Martin! 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.

The Sarah Jane Smith audio drama series may be purchased here.

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