Charity Anthology Review: Mild Curiosities: The Stowaways, and Trip of a Lifetime

We’re back, with another charity anthology review! Today we’ll be looking at two entries, and you’ll see why when we get there. We’re continuing our look at the Ian and Barbara anthology, Mild Curiosities, with the end of chapter II, and the fifth and sixth entries: Peter Cumiskey’s The Stowaways, and Beth Axford’s Trip of a Lifetime.

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! I do this when reviewing charity projects, because these projects are generally only available for a limited time or in limited quantities, and because they get little in the way of documentation. Although I would not give the text away for free, I believe these stories deserve to be remembered, and also to be catalogues and accessible in some way. Therefore, I include plot summaries, which are naturally heavy in spoilers. (But don’t let that stop you from buying the anthology and appreciating the work firsthand! Purchase link is at the end!)

With that said, let’s get started!

Mild Curiosities

The Stowaways: The Doctor and his companions have just left Vortis, the world of the insectile Zarbi and Menoptera. Ian and Barbara have come away from this adventure lightheartedly enough—and so, it seems, has Vicki. The girl comes crashing into the TARDIS’s living areas with the Doctor in pursuit—and it instantly becomes clear why. Accompanying her is a squat, odd-looking, snub-snouted creature that the others immediately recognize: A venom grub, one of the living weapons of the Zarbi. Vicki begs Barbara to let her keep it (playing, perhaps, on Barbara’s feelings, as Barbara was once responsible for the death of Vicki’s original pet, the sand beast Sandy); but Barbara directs her to the real decision-maker here: the Doctor, who chooses that moment to make his entrance. He arrives wearing a long-suffering but parental expression; and so Ian and Barbara give them the room.

In the console room, Ian and Barbara take a moment to talk about their experiences on Vortis. It was, Barbara thinks, the first truly alien place they’ve visited, and it has made its mark on her. Ian, meanwhile, admits to having felt that way often, even traveling into Earth’s past; history, after all, is not his field. It truly has been a voyage of discovery—even if the thing they have discovered most is themselves.

Vicki is despondent at the thought that the Doctor won’t let the creature stay. He comforts her a bit, in his usual gruff manner; but still, the creature must be addressed. He is surprised to discover that the creature snuck aboard, rather than being brought aboard by Vicki. They are interrupted by a loud crash before they can speak further.

The Doctor and Vicki race to the console room, where they find the hat-stand lying on the floor. And tangled in the coats, they find…a second venom grub?! The first joins it eagerly. It seems the TARDIS has an infestation! But it’s not that simple; it seems the second creature has punctured holes in the tubing of the astral computer. Perhaps it was scavenging for food, as Vicki theorizes. But for what, exactly? It is Ian and Barbara who piece it together: Based on the beams of energy the creatures emit, perhaps what they eat is connected to electricity, somehow? The Doctor is intrigued by the idea; quickly, with Vicki’s help, he assembles a trail of wires from the computer, to which the grubs quickly apply themselves, feeding on the power.

This leaves the question even more urgent, however: What to do with the grubs? They can’t feed on the equipment indefinitely; therefore they can’t stay; and the Doctor can’t navigate back to Vortis. However, he assures them, he can find them a suitable world elsewhere.

It takes three days, but at last they find it: A world that is technologically advanced enough to feed the grubs, but with peaceful and welcoming lifeforms. The world in question is in the Isop Galaxy, distant enough from home, but still the same galaxy as Vortis. Barbara watches with a bit of odd jealousy as Vicki says her goodbyes; these creatures have found a home, but they have yet to find theirs. As the TARDIS slips away, Vicki asks the name of the planet. The Doctor can’t get it quite right; but the future would remember the name of Raxicoricofallapatorius.

Later, as the Doctor pilots his ship and Vicki dozes, Ian and Barbara talk over the events of the week. It’s a bit hard for the venom grubs, perhaps; they’ll never see their home again. Ian, though, thinks that it’s not so different from himself and Barbara—perhaps the grubs, like them, knew what they were doing when they entered the TARDIS, even if they didn’t know where it would take them. But one thing is true: Like the grubs, Ian and Barbara are light years from home, but they have found a place they can call home.

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One of the beautiful things about the Doctor Who universe is the sheer depth of its lore. One can spend hours digging into the minutiae of the various eras of the series, its stories and its locations and its people. This story works a bit of magic in that regarding, pulling together two very obscure coincidences and building a story around them that—to my pleased surprise—works.

In the classic First Doctor serial The Web Planet, the antlike Zarbi use smaller creatures as weapons. Those creatures are called “larvae guns”; but in the novelization by Bill Strutton, they are referred to as “venom grubs”. (Notably, this is NOT a Target novelization; it predates that range, and is only the second Doctor Who novelization to be published.) Meanwhile, in the NuWho episode Boom Town, Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen makes reference to venom grubs on her homeworld of Raxicoricofallapatorius (where they are admittedly more carnivorous). Also coincidentally, Vortis—the Zarbi world—was first noted to be located in the Isop galaxy, which is also the location of Raxicoricofallapatorius. Combining these two coincidences, Peter Cumiskey gives us an origin story for the Slitheen-affiliated venom grubs: Basically, the Doctor did it! It’s a clever bit of correlation, and I like it.

This is more a Vicki story than an Ian and Barbara story, although Ian and Barbara are the viewpoint characters. In tone, it feels very similar to the Fifth Doctor/Erimem audio No Place Like Home, which also features the TARDIS experiencing an unwelcome infestation. (You can get that audio for free from Big Finish, so I won’t spoil it.) Most of all, this story serves to show how life in the TARDIS had begun to grow on Ian and Barbara, and how they had come to consider it, if not home, at least a home away from home. (I find that ironic, as it was during the filming of The Web Planet that William Russell, Ian’s actor, decided to depart the series.)

The next entry is a short poem by Beth Axford, titled Trip of a Lifetime. This isn’t a story, per se, and therefore I can’t summarize it in the usual way; to do so would be to retell the poem. It recaps the beginning of Ian and Barbara’s journey with the Doctor, and muses on how they had no idea what they were getting into—but they would come to appreciate it and enjoy it just the same. Anything else I could say would ruin it for you—check it out!

Next time: We’re on to chapter three, “Down to Earth”, with perhaps the oldest entry in the anthology: Adam Christopher’s 1995-penned story titled Homecoming. (If anyone would like to read this one first, and get a taste of what this anthology has to offer, you should note that it was originally published in Timestreams 5, which you can download here, courtesy of the New Zealand Doctor Who fan club. You should note that the version I’ll be covering, from Mild Curiosities, has been revised and updated, so it won’t be exactly the same—hence I feel justified in linking to the original.) See you there!

Mild Curiosities is published in support of Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest breast cancer charity and research organization. You can learn more about them here. The anthology can be purchased in digital form here for a limited time.

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