Welcome back! Not only has it been awhile, but also, it’s been an even longer while since we looked at (er, listened to?) an audio story. But, here we are! And I, for one, am glad to be back.
A bit of bad news, though: I’m not picking up where we left off–or at least not yet. Last time–all the way back in April of 2020!–we listened to number 53 in the main range of Doctor Who audio dramas, The Creed of the Kromon, where we found the Eighth Doctor, C’rizz, and Charley Pollard wandering the Divergent Universe. I’ll admit–and my posts of the time will confirm–that this has been a difficult stretch of stories for me, post-Zagreus. The Divergent Universe arc is pretty experimental as audios go, and often the stories are a sort of thought experiment, sometimes of a type that wouldn’t translate well to any other medium–in short, not your father’s Doctor Who! With all that said, I’m not saying that I won’t cover them; but I am saying that it’s a bit of a trudge for me, and I’m not quite ready to dive back in.
So, today, while we’re staying in the main range, we’re going to divert ahead a bit. We’re listening to a much later story, Main Range # 186, Tomb Ship! Written by Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby, this story was published in May 2014, and features the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and temporary companion Hannah Bartholomew. Note that since we’re skipping so far ahead, I won’t be activating the “Previous” and “Next” buttons at the end of the post today; there are no relevant posts for them to link to. Once we (eventually) reach those posts, I’ll add the links. Let’s get started!
As always, there are spoilers ahead! For a more spoiler-free review, skip to the next line divider.
The Doctor and Nyssa land in a long stone passage, filled with dust and dark from disuse. They soon find it to be a part of a massive structure–a ship, as they will soon discover. After finding a dead and dried body, the Doctor deduces that the ship was built by the long-gone Arrit species, an advanced race that, he claims, could have grown to rival the Time Lords had they not met their end. Unknown to the Doctor, however, they are not alone on the ship. Elsewhere, a woman named Virna has broken in, along with several of her adult sons; they are a family of treasure hunters, and Virna is…obsessed, to put it mildly. So much so, in fact, that she is willing to sacrifice everyone around her, including her own sons, to get what she wants. She has already lost one to this ship, and just before the arrival of the Doctor and Nyssa, she loses another son, Rek, to one of the ship’s many traps. She is taunted by the voice of a mysterious woman, but conceals both this and Rek’s death from her other children.
The Doctor realizes, to his horror, that the ship is an Arrit tomb ship–the not-so-final resting place of the last of the Arrit god-kings. The Arrit, he explains to Nyssa, believed their kings were gods, and that in death they would become new stars in the sky, allowing their people to live on in their light. But, being both highly religious and highly advanced, they weren’t content to believe it; instead, they set about making it happen. Their tomb ships, they equipped with incredible explosives–powerful enough to turn the ship, its contents, and its surroundings into a supernova, which will settle into a new star! The ship would be set off into the cosmos on a journey of thousands of years–but this one is nearing its end; the Doctor can feel the hum of its engines cycling, a sign of its arrival at its destination. Meanwhile, Virna and her children discover the new intruders’ presence, and take them captive. They briefly break free and run, only to find that the TARDIS is not where they left it. Immediately thereafter they are recaptured–but Virna learns that the way back to her own ship has been cut off, as well. The whole group is now trapped–and the only way out, is in.
After a few mishaps with traps, Virna threatens Nyssa, forcing the Doctor to help her. She leaves Nyssa with one of her sons, Hisko, and takes her remaining sons Murs and Heff, along with the Doctor, to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the ship, using the Doctor’s expertise to disable or avoid traps. Along the way, they are confronted by giant insects, which the Doctor identifies as the Arrit-ko, slaves of the Arrit. He tries to talk Virna out of her plan, but she only adds urgency to the situation when she tells the Doctor that the tomb ship has entered a populated star system, thus endangering millions of lives. They find another body, this one better preserved; the Doctor notices several similarities to Virna’s current expedition, and his suspicions grow. At the same time, Nyssa outwits Hisko and escapes; he pursues her, but stops when she finds yet another body. They are attacked by the Arrit-ko, but are rescued by a strange woman, who seems to have some control over the creatures. She takes them along toward the inner sanctum, for what she calls a “family reunion”.
The Doctor, Virna, Heff, and Murs end up in a trap which requires someone to choose who will die. It quickly becomes evident to the Doctor–though not to Heff and Murs–that Virna will gladly sacrifice her sons to save herself. He struggles with her, and manages to execute the choice to sacrifice himself (as well as Virna); the trap then releases them. He explains that it was a test; only one who is willing to sacrifice himself would be allowed to continue. Proceeding on, Virna sends her sons ahead, where they encounter a mob of Arrit-ko, and begin to fight them. Virna has Heff hold them off while the others escape into the next room–and then she seals the door, locking Heff out to die. Murs, horrified, tries to stop her, but she threatens him as well. Unable to save Heff, the Doctor leads them toward the inner sanctum. Heff, meanwhile, is momentarily saved by a new arrival: Hannah Bartholomew, who stowed away in the TARDIS during the Doctor’s last adventure. He succumbs to his wounds, but not before begging her to stop his mother.
The mysterious woman introduces herself as Jhanni. She does not explain her presence here, but Nyssa figures it out; and as Jhanni runs on ahead, sensing trouble in the inner sanctum, Nyssa explains her conclusions to Hisko. She is sure that Virna has been here before, with other children with her–and Jhanni is one of them. Abandoned by Virna, she now only wants revenge; and her mind is somehow linked to the ship and the Arrit-ko. Meanwhile the ship comes under attack from the locals in the star system.
The Doctor’s group arrives at the inner sanctum, and discovers the dead god-king of Arrit, preserved in a stasis field. Jhanni contacts Virna and taunts her, telling her the Arrit-ko are coming for her. The Doctor figures out the final “catch” of the tomb: The god-king is not quite dead; its mind persists. A second mind must link with the god-king to form the psychic trigger that will activate the supernova bomb. The Doctor tries to link with the god-king, not to activate the bomb, but to persuade the god-king to steer the ship back out to deep space. While his under the link, the Arrit-ko arrive and attack Virna; Hisko runs on ahead to intervene, and the Arrit-ko also attack Nyssa. Hannah arrives and rescues her, and they head to the inner tomb. Once there, they find Jhanni confronting Virna; Virna sends Hisko on ahead. Nyssa and Hannah connect with him, then pull the Doctor from the link. The Doctor tells them his plan, but says he was unsuccessful; Jhanni’s mind is already linked, and is filled with nothing but rage, pain, and revenge–hence the ship’s presence in an inhabited system. When she goes, she’ll take millions with her.
The Doctor takes Nyssa, Hisko, and Murs to save Virna, because if she dies, Jhanni will have no reason to continue living, and will blow the ship up. However, this lets Virna escape, killing Murs in the process. At the Doctor’s insistence, Jhanni convinces the ship to head back into deep space; but she can’t stop the god-king from activating the supernova bomb. The survivors–the Doctor, Nyssa, Jhanni, Hisko, and Hannah–flee to the TARDIS (which had moved due to the HADS–Hostile Action Displacement System–when the walls closed around it, but has now returned). Meanwhile Virna confronts the god-king, and learns the awful truth: there was never any treasure. The promised prize is the opportunity to become a star along with the god-king, and thus, in the Arrit view, to ascend to godhood herself. As the TARDIS escapes, the supernova bomb detonates, taking the god-king and Virna with it.
Later, the Doctor takes Jhanni and Hisko to safety, before deciding what to do with Hannah. She wants to stay and travel with the Doctor and Nyssa, but of course the Doctor is having none of it, and sets the controls to take her home…casually mentioning that the destination he sets is usually the last place the TARDIS will take him.
I mentioned earlier that many of the Eighth Doctor’s main range stories are somewhat experimental in nature, and often would not translate well to the screen. Well, if you’re like me, and that type of story doesn’t work well for you, you’re in luck! Tomb Ship is exactly the opposite–a story that practically demands to be told onscreen. So much so, in fact, that it almost feels a bit wasted on audio.
That’s not to say that listening was a bad experience. Rather, I had a fantastic time with this story. It moves at lightning speed, but at the same time it is just tight enough and contained enough that one never loses track of the plot. No, when I say it would play well on television, I’m thinking of the implied visuals: the majestic setting of the tomb ship’s halls and corridors and columns, the explosion of the supernova bomb, the massed swarms of the Arrit-ko…it would translate to visual media so well!
But in the meantime, I appreciate what we have. The TARDIS team of Five and Nyssa is nothing if not efficient; the story moves along much more smoothly when the Doctor has a companion that is on his level, or near enough. Nyssa never has to be told, in agonizing detail, what to do; she anticipates, and usually correctly. She’s decisive but not headstrong, which plays well with the Fifth Doctor’s cooler temperament. When set up against a villain such as the matriarch Virna, who is calculating and shrill, but slowly falling apart under her obsession, it’s a small-scale but worthy match.
Then there is the matter of Hannah Bartholomew. She appears suddenly in this story, and obviously the intention is that the listener will have listened to the previous story, where the character is introduced. I hadn’t done so, although I had–entirely by coincidence–read a summary of the previous story, and so I had some idea of what to expect from Hannah. But her presence would be jarring to anyone who came into this story completely blind; and that’s the biggest weak point to this story. I suppose that’s an issue in any story that is part of a series; but in this case, it’s complicated by the fact that she doesn’t seem to be a focal character in the preceding story either. Oh well; we’ll check it out eventually! For the moment: welcome aboard, Hannah! (I understand the character will be short-lived as companions go; she only has one more appearance before departing. We’ll see.)
Doctor Who has no shortage of cruel villains, who stand in sharp contrast to the Doctor’s “never cruel nor cowardly” persona. Virna has a special place among them, though, and one that is especially emotional for me. After all, it’s not every day we find a villain who will sacrifice their own children for their cause. Virna did it, not once, but twice (at least!). There are few things sadder than a parent who chooses herself (or himself–we’re equal opportunity here) over his children, and especially to the point of death. Likewise, there are few things better calculated to create rage in the Doctor–and indeed, he lets her suffer the consequences of her actions, and die in the supernova. It’s terrible, it’s horrifying, and it’s incredibly satisfying from a story perspective.
Continuity: There’s very little in the way of continuity references here; this story is pretty independent and freestanding, as audio dramas go. What little there is has been thoroughly recorded on the TARDIS wiki, so I’m repeating their findings here. Nyssa makes reference to the character of Nathaniel Whitlock from the previous story, Moonflesh; Hannah also mentions the events of that story, and how they pointed her toward stowing away on the TARDIS. The Doctor mentions the TARDIS’s translation circuits (The Masque of Mandragora). Virna compares the Arrit-ko to the Wirrn (The Ark in Space). The TARDIS is moved by its HADS, or Hostile Action Displacement System (The Krotons).
And now, before we go, a bit of idle theorizing. I recently rewatched the revived series episode 42, with the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones. In that story, a star is found to be both alive and hostile; it can in some limited way possess individuals, accessing their knowledge while taking them over. I couldn’t help wondering if that star may be connected to Akhaten, the living celestial object in The Rings of Akhaten. I very carefully chose the phrase “celestial object” because, although Akhaten is portrayed as a planet of sorts, its appearance is much more like a star; and it is only once referenced as a planet, but that within the context of the viewpoint of the locals, which is heavily loaded with superstition. If the first appearance in 42 is early in the star’s life cycle, and The Rings of Akhaten takes place much later, it’s plausible to me they could be the same. (Or I would be content to have them be related phenomena.) Now: What if those objects originated as Arrit tomb ships? The Arrit are adamant that their god-kings become living stars–and it is made clear that their minds live beyond death. What if those stars are, indeed, living?
Just a thought, but one that I find intriguing.
Overall: Tomb Ship is a fun, rollicking story, and you won’t regret your time. That’s the most that can be said for it–but really, what more do we want?
Next time: Who knows? But, eventually, we’ll get back to the Divergent Universe, and also to the next story in this sequence, Masquerade! We’ll 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.