Audio Review: Selected Short Trips

We’re back! You may have thought this site was abandoned–after all, the gaps between my posts are longer than the gaps between Doctor Who‘s television episodes–but here we are. Welcome!

Full disclosure, though: We’re not yet back to a regular schedule. Quite some time ago, we reached fifty episodes of the Monthly Adventures range of Doctor Who audio dramas; and ultimately I want to continue that range, along with some others (especially now that the Monthly Adventures range has ended). But, life is hectic, and that’s a commitment of time and energy that I can’t spare now. Eventually, maybe.

In the meantime, we’re looking today at a handful of Short Trips audio adventures, covering several Doctors and companions. These, too, are out of order; I chose selections based on what looked interesting at the time. If, eventually, we cover all of the Short Trips range, I’ll make sure that the links at the bottom of the relevant pages will give you the entries in the proper order.

But for now, let’s get started! Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t listened to the stories below. Continue at your own risk!

Sound the Siren And I’ll Come To You, Comrade

Written by John Pritchard; Read by Stephen Critchlow

The Fourth Doctor and Leela arrive–unintentionally as always–in the Soviet Union, mid-1950s. Their landing site is in the middle of a test zone for a new weapon: The atomic bomb. Naturally the scientists in the area fear the very thing they’re developing, although the soldiers are much more confident. However, the bomb isn’t the only danger present; a monster lurks in the area, a monster that lives on the radiation–and they’ve just given it a feast.

Although certainly entertaining, I found Sound the Siren and I’ll Come to You, Comrade to be the weakest of today’s selections, to the point that I found it difficult to pay attention (you’ll notice that my spoilers up there don’t include the details of the ending–chiefly because I’ve forgotten some of them). Not that it’s a bad story; it just didn’t grab me. Your mileage may vary. While the setting is interesting, there’s not a lot to work with in terms of plot. There is some novelty in placing a story in the early days of the Cold War; but once you set off an atomic bomb, everything else fades into the background. Having a set piece that large removes weight from whatever events are taking place around it.

Continuity references: None to speak of. This story is fairly self-contained.

Museum Peace

Written by James Swallow; Read by Nicholas Briggs

A retired Knight of Velyshaa, Kalendorf, has grown elderly; but still he remembers the war against the Daleks. Even when the rest of the planet seems to have moved on, he remembers. He frequently comes to the war museum, where he sits and thinks in front of a glass case containing three dead Daleks. As he broods on his past and his bitterness, he is unaware that one of the Daleks is not dead at all; indeed, it has monitored him while it gathers its minimal power, and it wants its last act to be one of defiance: Killing the man who killed so many Daleks in his time. Kalendorf is unexpectedly joined by the Eighth Doctor, nearing the end of his life. The Doctor reveals he is facing a choice, a moral dilemma (implied to be concerning the Last Great Time War). He and Kalendorf debate the morality of their respective causes–as the Dalek finds itself also facing a choice: Kill Kalendorf, or the Doctor? Both are great enemies of the Daleks. It chooses, and fires–just as a schoolchild on a tour runs in front of it, taking the shot. Kalendorf destroys the Dalek, then finds the child dead–and finds the Doctor gone, apparently having made his choice.

This story was originally published in print, in the Short Trips: Dalek Empire anthology. There’s a great deal of connection between this and other Dalek Empire stories, as well as other audios (all the way back to Big Finish’s first Doctor Who audio, The Sirens of Time). I have by no means read or listened to all the relevant material; however, one could almost consider Museum Peace to be a coda to those stories. As such it contains everything you need to appreciate it; its references to other works dangle out there as hooks for further reading and listening, but you aren’t obligated to follow them up. I like the portrayal of the Eighth Doctor here as old and tired; he’s not far from the man he will be in The Night of the Doctor. He fits right in with Kalendorf, who is now aged himself. The death of a child is a little extreme for Doctor Who, and a bit shocking, though not entirely unanticipated if you pay attention in the first half of the story. Overall, it’s sad and melancholy, and a little foreboding–but definitely a worthwhile listen.

Continuity references: Mostly to previous Dalek Empire events. The Doctor references two televised Dalek stories: The Daleks, and Genesis of the Daleks, making reference to the potential destruction of all Daleks. The Doctor previously met Kalendorf on the planet Zaleria; Kalendorf does not at first recognize him now, as that was in the Doctor’s seventh incarnation (Return of the Daleks). The Doctor knows his regeneration is coming soon (The Night of the Doctor). The Knights of Velyshaa are in the process of developing time travel, which will be realized in The Sirens of Time.

One more thing: The Doctor here mentions that he has an opportunity to destroy the Daleks completely, clearly referring to the events of the Time War. However, modern additions to the lore have rendered this unlikely. The story was first published (in print) in 2006, late enough to have established the existence of the war, but long before the War Doctor was known to exist. At the time, the assumption was that the Eighth Doctor was the one who ended the war (not even the Moment was known at that time). Of course we now know better–but the story still retains the line in which the Eighth Doctor admits to facing this choice.

Gardens of the Dead

Written by Jenny T Colgan; Read by Mark Strickson

This story is told in first person perspective, from the point of view of Vislor Turlough.

Turlough and Tegan have been verbally sparring for some time, especially regarding Tegan’s (fully justified) lack of trust in Turlough–who, unknown to the others, is under the influence of the Black Guardian. The Guardian wants Turlough to kill the Doctor; Turlough just wants peace. Therefore, when Turlough deliberately causes the TARDIS to land, Tegan is outraged. The Doctor and Nyssa, however, take it in stride; and Nyssa recognizes their landing place as the Gardens of the Dead, a cemetery world covered in dust that has a unique property: It shapes itself into the form of the beloved, departed dead, allowing the mourners to have a moment of closure. The Doctor refuses to go out into the dust, for personal reasons. However, Nyssa goes out, longing to see her father again; and Tegan follows. The Guardian prompts Turlough to kill the Doctor here, but Turlough resists. They quickly discover a kind of psychic parasite in the dust, which tries to use the dust to choke and kill the mourners. Turlough slips and allows Nyssa to know about the Guardian’s demand that the Doctor be killed; but before she can reveal it to the Doctor, she slips and hits her head. The parasite attacks first an old man nearby, then Nyssa, and at last the Doctor, forcing Turlough to make a choice. Defying the Guardian, he returns to the TARDIS, ultimately stumbling into a room that looks just like the gardens, but without the dust; there he finds a water hose, and sprays the dust away from the others, saving their lives. As the planet’s caretakers come in to clean up, the group departs in the TARDIS; fortunately for Turlough, Nyssa doesn’t remember anything of the day’s events.

I’m fond of the Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS team, and especially of Turlough, who I feel is underrated as a companion. Therefore it was inevitable I was going to at least enjoy this story. It makes for an excellent followup to a previous Short Trip, The Toy, which was released the previous year, and focuses on Nyssa. Both stories address the topic of her grief regarding the Master’s takeover of the body of Nyssa’s father, Tremas. This time, though, we see it through Turlough’s eyes; and we see the full measure of the conflict he felt while trying to serve the Black Guardian. You get the impression he’s nearly at the turning point here, though the resolution of the story essentially allows him to put the choice off a little longer (the story takes place between Mawdryn Undead and Terminus, so actually closer to the beginning of Turlough’s arc). For all that the story concerns the Fifth Doctor, his role here is limited; were this an episode, it would be a Doctor-lite story. Still, it doesn’t suffer for that; the dynamic among Turlough, Tegan, and Nyssa is good enough to carry the story.

Continuity references: Just a few, but they’re major. There are several references to the events of Mawdryn Undead, especially with regard to Turlough’s deal with the Black Guardian. As well, Nyssa speaks at length regarding her father and the Master (The Keeper of Traken). The Black Guardian’s anger at the Doctor stretches back to the events of the Key to Time story arc.

The Best-Laid Plans

Written by Ben Tedds; Read by Jacob Dudman

This story was the winning entry of the 2019 Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trip Opportunity, and can be downloaded for free from Big Finish’s website.

On Dowdonia, a man named Dracksil Forg specializes in ideas. He has made his fortune selling solutions to problems; but lately, perhaps having grown a little greedy, he has begun to cultivate a new clientele: Those who want to rule over others. Warlords and dictators come to him, and he sells them plans, which are inevitably successful…until suddenly they aren’t. It begins with one rather intimidating shark-headed customer, whose plan of conquest backfired spectacularly–but that’s only the beginning. Soon he realizes that there’s a common thread to the failed plans: A grey-haired gentleman who calls himself the Doctor. At last, with Dracksil’s name, reputation, and fortune on the line, he comes face to face with the Doctor…who reveals that Dracksil is, and has ever been, a thief and an opportunist. The ideas don’t come from him; they come from the customers. Dracksil is mildly psychic; he sieves ideas from the people around him like a net collects fish, and replaces them with a psychic lure that brings them into his shop in search of answers. And that would be fine, except that his powers are being used for evil by the various warlords. However, as the Doctor points out, he faces a choice: Stay, be arrested, possibly killed; or leave, forge a new identity and a new life, and use his powers for good.

Big Finish has very little Twelfth Doctor material, so there’s not much to which to compare this story. It’s a slow starter; it’s late in the story before the Doctor is even mentioned–but that’s alright. When he appears, it’s sans companions (a requirement for the Paul Spragg Memorial Opportunity); combining that with a description of his short hair would indicate that this story takes place during Series Eight, between the Doctor’s adventures with Clara Oswald. The story is clever and to the point, and fits the Twelfth Doctor’s no-nonsense, blunt manner very well. Regarding the presentation, Jacob Dudman does a passable impersonation of the Twelfth Doctor’s accent and manner; he sounds as though the Doctor has a cold, but otherwise, it’s convincing.

Continuity References: None to speak of. This isn’t a reflection on the story, but rather, on the contest for which it was written. Due to rights issues, stories presented as part of the Paul Spragg opportunity are not permitted to use previous companions or monsters; this usually causes the submissions to be isolated from most of the series’ lore.

The King of the Dead

Written by Ian Atkins; Read by Sarah Sutton

We’re on an “x of the dead” kick with the Fifth Doctor, apparently!

London, 1982: The TARDIS materializes onstage in the middle of the debut showing of The King of the Dead, an interactive play based on the events of the king’s abdication in the 1930s. Immediately the team gets separated by a staff member, Patrick, who seems to know more than he lets on. The Doctor finds himself giving medical attention to an injured man–and in the process he discovers a swarm of spiderlike, extradimensional aliens who seem to feed on the minds of humans. Nyssa and Tegan, meanwhile, learn that there’s something odd about Patrick. When the group manages to reunite, they put their heads together and learn the truth. Patrick’s father was a member of UNIT, who died in an unknown operation. Patrick, seeking revenge, joined UNIT himself, and discovered both the aliens and the means to bring them into this reality. Now, he intends to unleash him on the more than six hundred audience members, creating a crisis which UNIT can’t hide, and discrediting the agency. However, Nyssa tells him about her own desire for revenge on behalf of her father–and how she had at last come to forgive the Master, who murdered her father and took his body. Faced with a new choice, Patrick refuses to help the aliens, and returns them to the place from which they came.

The King of the Dead is a much more complex story than I expected from the Short Trips range, with more mystery and more action. On those points I can’t fault it–it’s an exciting story. It also adds to the theme we had in Gardens of the Dead, regarding Nyssa’s grief over her father, Tremas. This is an older, more mature Nyssa (not by much, I gather, but enough to make her mention it–I admit I’m not entire clear on the chronology, having skipped far ahead in her story to get here), and it shows. The trade-off for all of these high points, is that the story is chaotically put together. We leap straight into the action with no explanation at all, and it takes a few minutes to catch up enough to realize what’s happening. From there, we bounce between viewpoints and scenes erratically, until we arrive at the ending a little sooner than we expected. It almost feels like a found-footage film in that regard–just a little shaky, a little random. In the end, that’s not enough to ruin the story; you should definitely give it a listen.

Continuity References: There’s a fair bit of discussion, again, of Tremas and the Master (The Keeper of Traken) and of Traken’s destruction (Logopolis). The play is based around the 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII, which is also mentioned in the Sixth Doctor novel Players. Reference is made to the Brigadier (various UNIT stories) and to the UNIT vault (Tales from the Vault; The Scales of Justice). The Doctor mentions his exile on Earth (Spearhead from Space and most of the Third Doctor era). At the start of the story, the Doctor was attempting to reach the 2012 Olympics; he eventually visits them in later incarnations (Fear Her; Good as Gold).

And that’s it for today! Next time: Who knows? Thanks for reading.

All stories presented here can be purchased from the Big Finish Productions website. Individual sale pages have been linked at the titles, above.

Audio Drama Review: Masquerade

We’re back, with another audio drama review! Today we’ll round out our recent trilogy of Fifth Doctor stories with Masquerade, #187 in Big Finish’s Monthly Range. Written by Stephen Cole, and published in June 2014, this story features the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and temporary companion Hannah Bartholomew.

Just a reminder, I have listened to, and reviewed, these audios out of order, both in regard to the rest of the monthly range, and in regard to each other. If you’re reading my posts in post order, you may be a bit confused! However, the “Previous” and “Next” links at the bottom of the post will put the stories in order of their placement in the range.

And with that, let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for those who have not listened to this audio drama! For a less spoiler-filled review, skip down to the line divider below. However, some spoilers are inevitable in any discussion, so read at your own risk!

The Doctor, his young ward Nyssa, and her governess, Hannah, arrive at the estate of the Marquise de Rindell near Paris, 1770. They find the area surrounded by heavy fog and cut off from the world. They meet the Marquise de Rimdell, her niece Helene, her butler Jean, and the visiting Vicomte de Valdac. They quickly discover that something is not right on the estate. The Doctor begins to hear the voice of someone calling himself the “Dead Man”; Nyssa visits the orangery on the grounds, where she meets with Helene, and hears vast machinery approaching. De Valdac takes Hannah to a strange, out-of-place pagoda on the grounds, and she begins to forget what she knows about herself. Meanwhile the Doctor realizes that he can’t remember who he really is, and becomes distressed at his and his friends’ apparent integration into the local time period. As his memories break through, de Rimdelle tries to have him removed from the property, but Jean is missing. The Doctor leads her to the wine cellar in search of Jean, but instead finds the voice of the Dead Man again. Helene confirms that the machinery Nyssa hears is real; she calls it the “Steamroller Man”, and says he is approaching. Hannah goes fully native, believing she really is Nyssa’s governess and that the Doctor is a visiting physician. Helene gets them all back to the house; outside the house, she begins to talk about something called “Shadow Space”, and then has a seizure. As the others go inside, the Doctor and Nyssa see the monstrous Steamroller Man looming over the treeline.

Two glowing figures appear, calling themselves the Maschera. Apparently by magic, they create a trench between the Steamroller Man and the Doctor, Nyssa, and Hannah, causing the Steamroller Man to retreat. Inside the trench, only shadows can be seen. The Doctor and his friends join the others in the house, finding that everyone’s real memories are restored. They learn that they are somewhere in Earth’s early future, and are engaged in an intergalactic expedition. This expedition is taking place before proper shielding has been developed, at a time when faster-than-light travel is known to drive humans mad; therefore the project utilizes the experimental technology called Shadowspace. Shadowspace is an artificial dimension into which a crew’s minds are placed, to occupy themselves in a simulation while their bodies sleep inside the ship. Rimdelle is a systems chief; Valdac is a neurologist; and Helene—or actually Helen, as she isn’t really French—is a professor, and the group’s leader. They quickly conclude that the TARDIS’s arrival seems to have caused problems in Shadowspace, damaging the interfaces that link them back to their “Home-D”, or home dimension, and thus to their bodies. The Steamroller Man is a data cleaning tool, now transformed into a rampaging monster; the Maschera are a protective program for the safety of the crew. They decide that the Steamroller Man is after the Dead Man in the cellar, as it would read him as anomalous data. They find the Dead Man, but he doesn’t appear to be a crew member. Meanwhile the Maschera disappear to stop the oncoming Steamroller Man again, and the Doctor manipulates the structure of the house via the damaged interface, thus warding the Steamroller Man off. Instead it finds a way into the cellar to attack Nyssa and Valdac. Rimdelle is then possessed by an unknown being, and declares they will all die without leaving Shadowspace. She passes out.

The Doctor leaves Hannah and Helen to watch over Rimdelle, and he runs to the cellar to help Nyssa and Valdac. Nyssa and Valdac aren’t waiting around; they are running for their lives, carrying the Dead Man with them. He seems to be regaining lucidity. The Doctor is interrupted by the Maschera, who tell him they won’t reveal the main interface with him because he is an alien, and not authorized to be here. He manages to convince them to let him help with the Steamroller Man. Helen realizes that the Orangery is the location of the main interface. The Doctor connects with Nyssa, Valdac, and the Dead Man, and Nyssa reveals that she thinks the Dead Man is also a program construct, the opposite pole to the Steamroller Man. The group reunites as Rimdelle recovers; she reports something cold and lifeless on the other side of the interface. The group heads to the orangery, where they find a destroyed Machera connected to the power source of the main interface. The interface is severed, apparently stranding them all here. The Dead Man becomes too heavy to move; the Doctor reluctantly allows Nyssa to watch over him, but warns her that he must be kept apart from the Steamroller Man. As the Doctor helps Rimdelle with the interface, they formulate a plan to turn its energy against the Steamroller Man. The Dead Man seizes Valdac and Nyssa as the Steamroller Man advances. Rimdelle tries to focus the interface energy, learning in the process that their ship is not in flight at all—so why are they even in Shadowspace? The Doctor sees the Steamroller Man roll over Valdac, Nyssa, and the Dead Man, and is unable to stop it; Hannah drags him inside. They execute the plan to attack the Steamroller Man, but the Maschera appear and try to stop the Doctor. The plan works, but Rimdelle passes out again; the Doctor demands answers from the Maschera, but they force him into the same energy field that was used against the Steamroller Man. Elsewhere, Nyssa awakens, strapped to a gurney, and find two Meschara watching her; they declare they are going to kill her now.

Valdac wakes up as well, and interferes, stopping the Maschera from killing Nyssa. He manages to kill one of the Maschera; the other claims that they were trying to save Valdac. Meanwhile in Shadowspace, the Maschera attacking the Doctor reveal that they have their own interface to Home-D. Suddenly the energy field fails as Rimdelle awakens; she reveals that she drained off the energy. The Maschera reveal they are aliens of a pair of races that humans have subjugated. They seize control of the minds of Helen and Hannah. The Maschera with Valdac also reveals its identity, and derides humans before Valdac kills it. He wakes up Nyssa, who thanks him; however he notes that he doesn’t actually feel anything. They find the bodies of the other members of the group, who are all still in Shadowspace. The Maschera in Shadowspace threaten to control Rimdelle as well, and to kill the Doctor, but they are destroyed by the suddenly revived Dead Man. He claims that as the Steamroller Man was made to cleanse, he was made to kill. Outside, Valdac reveals they are not on a ship at all, but in a research outpost called SORDIDE Delta—the “Scientific Outpost for Research and Development of Inter-Dimensional Energies”. It is the base where Shadowspace was developed—and he and his crewmates are part of the team responsible. But, where is everyone else? They find a large number of corpses, and realize they and the group still inside are the only survivors. Nyssa suddenly remembers that the TARDIS was dragged here by the distortions of Shadowspace; two of the now-dead crewmates, controlled by the Maschera, forced Nyssa, Hannah, and the Doctor into Shadowspace. Dead Man reveals that the Steamroller Man was intended to expunge the aliens, not the humans; he reveals that this is the research base rather than a ship. There was a plague aboard the base; everyone was placed in Shadowspace for safekeeping while a cure was found, but the Maschera took the opportunity to break in. He now has the power to destroy Shadowspace—a literal “Dead Man” switch—but the Steamroller Man is now gone from the equation. However, this all means that Nyssa and Valdac are still alive, in Home-D…along with the plague, and the invaders.

Valdac and Nyssa learns that the plague vastly increased emotions, turning people into killers. Valdac had devised a desperate cure—one that cuts off all emotion from humans, much as Valdac is now. Meanwhile the Maschera come for the Doctor and the survivors; the Dead Man tries to attack them, but fails. As all the pieces fall into place, it is revealed that the aliens—posing as Maschera—caused the plague, which Valdac then cured. The aliens then planned to quietly reinfect everyone, and with the “safe” travel afforded by Shadowspace, the humans would spread the plague everywhere, causing humans across the Empire to turn on each other. It’s a subtle but effective long-term plan of revenge—but to make it work, they must expel the Doctor from Shadowspace. Rimdelle warns that they are making Shadowspace unstable—but instead of using it directly, the Maschera seize control of Rimdelle, and set all three women against the Doctor. The Doctor locates the power packs where Rimdelle diverted the energy field, and deploys it to knock out the Maschera, freeing Hannah, Helen, and Rimdelle. The Dead Man states he can sense another power supply which he can use to end Shadowspace. Nyssa and Valdac find the TARDIS, but can’t get in; they instead decide to follow the Maschera to their interface. The Doctor and the others follow the Dead Man to the strange pagoda, the site of the Shadowspace side of the Maschera’s interface; the other side is in the base control room. Valdac tries to kill another Maschera, but fails and is shot; Nyssa kills it instead. Valdac succumbs to his wound and dies.  The Doctor and the others find the interface, as well as the entranced minds of the rest of the crew—it seems their bodies weren’t corpses after all—but they are accosted by the Maschera Prime, the leader of the Maschera. It refuses to see reason, and insists on retaliation against the human Empire. It gives them a choice—become the tools of the Maschera, or die. Nyssa activates the interface from the Home-D side; she can’t get in, but she manages to contact the Doctor. The Maschera Prime warns that an alien’s DNA will destabilize Shadowspace again, possibly trapping them all forever. Hannah intervenes, forcing the Doctor into the portal; he awakens in Home-D, as Shadowspace begins to collapse. Before the Maschera can react, the Dead Man draws power from the interface, and detonates.

The Doctor tries to bring everyone out, but is too late; the survivors awaken, but with the cure intact, they awaken emotionless. Hannah is among them. She urges the Doctor and Nyssa to leave, stating that without them, she can make a life here, where she may be able to integrate. She warns them not to worry, and says that millions of lives have been saved; “the matter”, she says, “has been concluded correctly.” The Doctor wants to bring them back to normal, but Nyssa agrees; it can’t be done. She leads the Doctor back to the TARDIS to make their exit, as Rimdelle and the others—also emotionless—awaken.

Masquerade piles on the mysteries right from the start! We have any number of questions that need answering. Who is the mysterious Dead Man, and what is wrong with him? Who or what is the Steamroller Man? How can this be eighteenth century France? (My first indication of that problem was the name of the Steamroller Man; the steam roller was only patented in 1867, nearly a century after the ostensible date of this story, and yet the locals know to call the Steamroller Man by that name.) Why are the Doctor and his companions dressed in period clothes, and why don’t they appear to know who they really are? What is the Vicomte de Valdac up to? (Nothing, as it turns out; he was playing a role, and didn’t know he was playing it.) Why does Helene seem to know more than she lets on?

Which brings me to the only real issue with this story: One could get whiplash from changing perspectives and plot threads so much and so often.  The story is lightning fast, and a bit hard to follow as a result. I was listening with my daughter in the car, and found it hard to give the necessary level of concentration to adequately pay attention to this story. Ultimately I had to re-listen to parts of it. But, it was worth it, because it all comes together in the end!

And I do mean “the end”, because the resolution of the story comes about a minute and a half before the ending theme. Even seconds before the end, one is left wondering if the Doctor won’t pull some final ace from his sleeve. Because, although there are relatively few deaths for a Doctor Who story, this is decidedly not a happy ending. Our heroes win, and many lives are saved—but at what cost? The survivors, except for the Doctor and Nyssa, are drastically changed by the events here, and not for the better. At best the story is, as Hannah Bartholomew says, “concluded correctly.” It’s a victory, but it feels a bit hollow.

I’ve heard it suggested that each incarnation of the Doctor is shaped by what he perceives to have been the problems with the previous life. Further, I’ve heard it suggested that the Fifth Doctor perceives himself to be less active and effective than other incarnations, leading to the bombastic, emotional, fully engaged Sixth Doctor. I won’t go so far as to say I believe that theory—at best the jury is still out—but if it’s true, this is the type of story that supports it. The Doctor is left at the end frantic at his own sense of failure, his desire to do more; so much so that Nyssa practically has to drag him back to the TARDIS and tell him to leave well enough alone. It’s a bitter pill for him to swallow, and I’m curious to see (eventually) where he goes next. After all, for better or worse, this is the exit story of a companion, and thus disproportionately emotional.

That companion, of course, is Hannah Bartholomew. Here at the end, I feel that she’s flown under the radar; she’s been a lesser character in each of her three stories. In Moonflesh, she precipitated the story’s problem, but she did so off camera, and then bailed out in the final episode. In Tomb Ship she was instrumental in the ending, but did little prior to that. It’s the same here; in Masquerade she is ultimately the hero who saves everyone, even the Doctor, but she does little before that except get possessed by the Maschera. She certainly could have used more character development; we still don’t have a strong picture of the kind of person she is. Even her affiliation with the Order of the Crescent Moon—arguably her most unique characteristic—is barely touched on. And that’s a pity, because in the end, she all but gives her life for the Doctor. Thus far, this trilogy constitutes her only appearance, but I’d like to see more stories with Hannah, possibly set between these installments (she hints that she’s been to several worlds with the Doctor, where in this trilogy she really only visits Earth, one spaceship, and one research outpost in an unrevealed location).

Continuity References: Only a few; keep in mind that our characters spend a portion of this story without their own memories, so they don’t make the usual offhanded references. The Doctor mentions seeing the Mona Lisa in Paris (City of Death, although he may not be remembering accurately at this point). He tells Rimdelle that he was present at the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (The Massacre). Hannah mentions the Order of the Crescent Moon (Moonflesh). Nyssa mentions tending the Grove on Traken (The Keeper of Traken). And, not a particular reference, but a thought about timeline placement: Humanity is referred to as a “Human Empire”, and yet this is very early in the spacegoing history of humanity. That would almost certainly place this story in what would retroactively be called the “First Great and Bountiful Human Empire” (first hinted in The Long Game, first seen in The Lost Flame).

Overall: It’s an enjoyable story, but I have mixed feelings about it. The pacing is uneven, and there’s a lot of content to unpack, probably more than its runtime supports. Hannah gets a bad deal in the end, as well. But, it’s a thought-provoking story, and it provides a glimpse into a time period that has been largely avoided in Doctor Who, and for that I’m grateful. Definitely worth checking out, especially if you’ve already finished the other two entries in the trilogy.

Next time: Who knows! Ultimately we’ll get caught up to this point, and continue with Monthly Range # 188, Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories. But, as we’ve come here out of sequence, we’re not ready for that yet. Ideally we’ll get back to where we came from in the Main Range, with # 51, The Wormery (which we previously skipped). We’ll see! See you there.

The Masquerade and other stories in the Monthly Range can be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page can be found here. You can read the TARDIS wiki’s entry for Masquerade here.



Audio Drama Review: The Toy

We’re back, with another Doctor Who audio drama review! Today I’m starting a new range of audios–or rather, new to me: Big Finish’s “Short Trips Rarities” range. This limited range consists of stories that were previously subscriber-exclusive bonuses, but have now been released for individual sale. (They are also still available as subscriber bonuses, as well—but don’t think subscribing is no longer worth your while! These releases only constitute about half of the subscriber Short Trips; the rest must be obtained via subscription bonus.)

Like all of Big Finish’s Short Trip audios, these entries are audiobooks rather than full cast audio dramas; they are usually read by a supporting cast member rather than the relevant Doctor actor. They’re also, as the title suggests, short, usually about a half hour long. Currently there are fifteen stories in the range, broken into three “seasons” of five each; however there is no direct connection between stories, and they range over various Doctors and companions without much organization. As a consequence, I can just drop in as I see fit, and you, readers, don’t have to worry about catching every post.

We’ll start at the beginning, though, and that is October 2015’s The Toy. Written by Nigel Fairs, and read by Sarah Sutton, this story focuses on the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and Adric, with cameos from the first four classic Doctors as well as Susan. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this story! For a less spoiler-filled review, skip down to the line divider. However, some spoilers are inevitable in the discussion below. Read on at your own risk!

Nyssa of Traken is determined to lock away her memories of her lost home—but in her dreams, they return unbidden.

Nyssa finds herself dreaming of her childhood on Traken, and the scent of a much-loved flower, and a forbidden archway. The dream turns dark when she sees, and is chased by, the burned and ravaged face of the man who stole her father’s body—the Master. It’s not the first time, but it’s never been so strong; and this time, the memory is fresh when she awakens. She tries to tell the Doctor and her friends about it, but finds them arguing, and so she heads deeper into the TARDIS, looking for a place to think. She is surprised when she finds the doorway from her dream inside the TARDIS—and even more so when she hears a voice from behind it. The sign on the door says not to enter, but she disregards it, and steps inside.

Inside, she finds a number of old but wonderful things. She is drawn to a small chest containing a  brilliant red jewel; and from that jewel she hears voices, calling her by name, asking to be her friend. When she touches it, she is carried away, and finds herself on a planet of red soil and orange sky, with an old man who calls her “Susan”…a man she knows as Grandfather. They visit a great domed city called Arcadia, the man showing her around. She is confused, at first certain she is not this Susan, but soon becoming unsure. Another man appears, his face changing its age, sometimes even resembling her father—if she really even remembers her father?. The man speaks smooth, comforting words to her, offering her a way out of her troubles, if only she will help him, and tell him where she is.

She is about to do as he asks, but the first man speaks up and begs her not to do it. He has changed now, and continues to change—first becoming a younger, shorter, dark-haired man, then a tall white-haired man—but all the while his kind eyes remain unchanged. At last he turns into a face she knows, the face of the Doctor as she knew him before, at Traken and Logopolis. Finally he becomes the Doctor she knows—and he reveals that the other man is none other than the Master. Nyssa fights with the Master, trying to get away, taking injuries in the process…

She struggles awake, finding herself on the floor of the room beyond the archway. The Doctor is there, with Tegan and Adric. At first the Doctor is angry at her for being taken in by the Master’s ruse, but Tegan and Adric talk him down, and tell Nyssa how he went running to find her so quickly that they could barely keep up. Finally the Doctor explains that the jewel is a toy given to his granddaughter—Nyssa knows her name without being told—by an old family friend. It is a node in a telepathic communication network that transcends both time and space. Susan, he says, once become addicted to its use, and he was forced to lock it up for her safety. Nyssa asks if the family friend was the Master, and the Doctor reluctantly admits it was so. She asks if he could still be alive after their last encounter with him; he admits that the Master has a way of surviving the impossible—but, he insists, the Master she contacted via the jewel was a past version, from many years ago. It is very fortunate that she didn’t tell him where to find them; for no good could come of the Master having knowledge of his—and the Doctor’s—own future. And with that, he puts the “Do Not Enter” sign on the door, and leads the way back to the console room.

The Toy is a story that wants to be several things. It wants to be a multi-Doctor story, for one. It’s never confirmed that any of what Nyssa sees in the visions she receives in this story is real; so it’s unclear whether she really met the various past Doctors in any sense. (As an aside, I should mention that the wiki for this story says that the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Doctors also appear; but that doesn’t fit the plot, isn’t mentioned in the wiki’s plot summary, and I don’t remember it, so I’m going to call that an error until proven otherwise. For this release, I don’t have the script—I bought my copy separately rather than as a subscription bonus—and confirming would require more time than I have at the moment.)

The story wants to be a cautionary tale as well. Near the end, when the Doctor describes how addictive the red jewel—the titular “toy”—can be for anyone with a degree of psychic talent, Adric compares it to “The Facebook”, a computer program alleged to have been banned in the 21st century for “turning people into mindless, incommunicative zombies”. But the story doesn’t commit to that take; it’s very much tacked on at the end, with no foreshadowing. It’s actually the one thing I didn’t like about this story, not because I have any particularly strong feelings about Facebook—I don’t—but because it’s shoehorned in so awkwardly.

What the story is, is a character study for Nyssa, albeit a brief one. Now, I will admit that I have many stories with Nyssa still to go, and so my information is incomplete; but until now, it’s been my impression that writers have largely avoided dealing with Nyssa’s feelings about her lost home, Traken. And that’s understandable; Nyssa is much more useful, in a dramatic sense, as a counterpoint to Tegan (who later goes on to be the same for Turlough); and as a counterpart to the Doctor, filling the role that Romana left open. And there are plenty of great stories to be told from those angles. But The Toy takes a direct look into Nyssa’s feelings for her lost world and her family, and it’s haunting.

This phenomenon of leaving Traken undiscussed is even acknowledged in the story. Nyssa comments at one point in the opening that for once, she’s going to avoid the Doctor, Tegan, and Adric, and sit out the day’s adventures, and avoid the battles to be fought, and just find a quiet place to sit and think about Traken. And she should; trauma like hers can haunt a person forever. It’s a wonder she carries on as well as she does.

Of course, the Master—the villain of this piece—can never leave well enough alone, and he turns her memories against her. It’s a crime of opportunity; this is not our Master, the one we last saw in Castrovalva, but rather, an earlier version. It’s not confirmed just how much earlier, but it’s hinted that it may be the Master from a time just after the Doctor and Susan fled Gallifrey. As a result, he doesn’t even know who Nyssa is; and as she has been overtaken by the echo of Susan’s identity, he at first thinks it is Susan. But his interference gives Nyssa something unique: A glimpse into the past of the Doctor, the Master, and Susan, and a suggestion that the Doctor, too, has known the loss of people he loves. The Doctor even suggests that the Master may feel the loss as well; he says that the Master perhaps couldn’t bear the thought of a universe without the Doctor to cross swords with, and may have left Gallifrey for that reason. (There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for you—they’ll literally cross swords soon enough, in The King’s Demons!)

In the end, it works out well enough for everyone—no great harm done here. Nyssa and the Doctor each come away with a little more insight, so we’ll call this one a win. (Tegan, ever the counterpoint, comes away with a hint of jealousy toward Nyssa; when Nyssa comes up with Susan’s name before the Doctor can say it, Tegan thinks that perhaps it’s another thing he’s told Nyssa without telling the rest of them. Can’t win them all, I suppose.)

Continuity references: A pleasantly higher number than I expected from a Short Trip! Aside from non-story-specific references to past Doctors, it’s mostly references to other Fifth Doctor stories. Nyssa sees the Melkur in her dreams, as well as her parents and the decayed Master (The Keeper of Traken–as if there was any doubt that this one would be mentioned). She mentions the destruction of Traken (Logopolis). Her vision of the other Doctors takes her to Arcadia on Gallifrey (The Last DayMistfall, et al). She sees snow on Gallifrey (Gridlock), and members of the Prydonian Chapter (The Deadly Assassin, et al). She mentions Tegan’s bad dreams and possession by the Mara (Kinda). She sees a future snake-like version of the Master (TV movie). Susan’s psychic powers are mentioned (The Sensorites).

Overall: Not a bad start to this range! Almost, but not quite, a bottle episode, it’s still a cozy story with many references to old familiar territory. You can do worse for a Short Trip. Check it out if you get a chance.

Next time: The next entry in this range is Museum Peace, an Eighth Doctor story with strong ties to the Dalek Empire range. We haven’t covered that range yet (it’s on the list!) but we’ll do our best! Also, after much pandemic-related delay, I hope to get back to the Monthly Range soon as well, with The Wormery. See you there!

The Toy and other stories in the Short Trips Rarities range are available for purchase from Big Finish Productions. Its purchase page is available here. You can read the TARDIS wiki’s entry for The Toy here.


Audio Drama Review: Moonflesh

We’re back, with another Doctor Who audio drama review! Welcome aboard!

You may recall that my last audio drama review was far out of order for its range. In October, I reviewed the Fifth Doctor audio Tomb Ship, which is number 186 in the Monthly Range (aka the Main Range)—and we previously left off at The Creed of the Kromon, a much earlier number 53. So I feel compelled to say that the plan hasn’t changed; my usual pattern is still to take the stories in order, and I listened to Tomb Ship out of order just for a moment of variety. We’ll go back to doing things in order (and even pick up #51, The Wormery, which we previously skipped).

But not today! You see, my random selection of Tomb Ship created a problem. At that point in the Monthly Range, stories were being released in trilogies—three stories featuring the same Doctor and companion(s), which are consecutive not just in terms of release dates, but also in terms of the in-universe storyline. Tomb Ship happens to be the middle story of such a trilogy. Further, those three stories are tightly connected by the presence of temporary companion Hannah Bartholomew. As such, it behooves me go ahead and finish out the trilogy before we go back to the mid-fifties.

Which, in turn, leads to another bit of confusion. If you are reading this post somewhere far down the road, when I’ve caught up all the intervening stories, you can navigate using the “Previous” and “Next” links I place at the bottom of each post, and you’ll be fine. The stories will connect in release order. Obviously if you’re reading before I finish everything between, you’ll find gaps. But even if everything is finished, if you’re reading in posting order, then you’re going to have some confusion here, as you encounter Tomb Ship first.

Hence, this long-winded explanation. Which I will no doubt go back and add to Tomb Ship, as well.

Now: On to the show! Today, we’re looking at number 185 in the Monthly Range, Moonflesh, written by Mark Morris. Featuring the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Hannah Bartholomew, this story takes place in Suffolk, 1911. Let’s get started!

As always, spoilers ahead! For a less spoiler-filled review, skip to the second dividing line; however, spoilers are present throughout this post!

Suffolk, 1911: The Doctor and Nyssa land at the estate of one Nathaniel Whitlock, a big game hunter who has turned his land into a private hunting ground. They quickly befriend the transplanted Sioux warrior Silver Crow, who serves as Whitlock’s retainer; they also encounter Whitlock’s daughter Phoebe, and his guests: Father and son Edwin and Hector Tremayne, and Hannah Bartholomew. Hannah is concerned with the Moonflesh, a rock in Whitlock’s collection, previously belonging to Silver Crow, who claims to have received it supernaturally while in a trance. Later, the Doctor, Silver Crow, and Nyssa find Bartholomew under attack by an energy being.

Whitlock shoots at the being, naturally failing to harm it, but causing it to retreat via the chimney. In the commotion, Hector checks on Phoebe, and they see the being escaping into the grounds. Upon questioning, Hannah reveals she is part of the Order of the Crescent Moon, a group obsessed with spiritualist artifacts, who want to study the Moonflesh. She had tried to scrape samples from the rock, which released the being from the stone. In the morning, everyone but Nyssa and Phoebe goes out to hunt for the being; but they are attacked by a gorilla, clearly under the control of the being, which attacks and injures Edwin. While the gorilla is shot and killed, the creature escapes. The Doctor takes Silver Crow to the TARDIS to analyze the crystal scrapings; they confirm what they already suspected—the being is incorporeal, but can possess and control other creatures. This is all familiar to Silver Crow; he says that his people have encountered the creature before, and nearly defeated it—and in fact, they must have captured it in the Moonflesh. Heading back to the group, they see a number of meteors strick the grounds, yielding a red mist like the disembodied form of the creature. Meanwhile at the house, Nyssa and Phoebe are attacked by a possessed dog; they lock themselves in a room, but the creature gains entry anyway.

The group returns to the house and puts the wounded Edwin in the drawing room; he demands immediate medical assistance, thinking only of himself. Nyssa comes to get the Doctor, and takes him to Phoebe; Phoebe is now possessed by the creature, which speaks through her. It says that its name is Vatuus, and that it is a political refugee; it says the other meteorites are an assassination squad coming to kill it. Committed to helping, the Doctor sends Silver Crow, Hector, and Hannah to barricade the house, while he and Nyssa take the news of Phoebe’s possession to Whitlock. The Doctor offers himself to Vatuus as a vessel to carry Vatuus to the TARDIS and whisk it away; however his mind’s natural defenses reject the creature. Instead, Nyssa carries Vatuus, and they depart on horseback. Meanwhile, upstairs, animals start to invade the house, possessed by the newly-landed creatures. Edwin bribes Bartholomew to take him to safety in Whitlock’s carriage, leaving even his own son behind despite the danger. At the TARDIS, Vatuus shows its true colors and tries to possess the TARDIS itself via its telepathic circuits, but the Doctor prevents this; Vatuus escapes into one of the horses. The Doctor moves the TARDIS into the house—where he finds Hector, Phoebe, and Whitlock, all possessed by the newcomers.

The creatures express no intent to harm, and release Hector and Phoebe as a show of good faith. They say they were sent to track Vatuus, who is a “rogue element” in their society; they plan to capture and reabsorb Vatuus. But there’s a catch: If they haven’t succeeded by midnight, the entire cluster of their people, a billion strong, will come to join the hunt. Meanwhile, Vatuus, in possession of an element, attacks the coach leaving the grounds, and kills Edwin; Hannah escapes, and is not seen again. The Doctor realizes it was Silver Crow’s ritual Ghost Dance that caused Vatuus to be trapped in the Moonflesh. They perform the ritual again, and fall into a trance, their minds transported to a different plane of existence. The other survivors keep watch; they are soon attacked by Vatuus in the elephant. Whitlock kills the elephant, but Vatuus has leaped to one of the group: Whitlock himself. In the other world, the Doctor and Silver Crow locate a new Moonflesh rock, and return with it; Silver Crow draws Vatuus out of Whitlock, and traps it in the new Moonflesh.

Afterward, no one can account for Hannah’s whereabouts; however there is one good outcome: Hector decides to remain with Whitlock—much to the delight of Phoebe—and he has some ideas about turning the estate into a profitable safari park. The Doctor and Nyssa exit, taking the Moonflesh—and Vatuus with them to be returned to Vatuus’s people.

Moonflesh strikes me as a story with a great potential to go badly wrong. I’m not suggesting that it did go wrong, but that it could easily have done so. First, there’s the matter of big game hunting. That’s a topic that is very much out of style these days, and for good reason—just ask any of the relatively few remaining rhinos in the wild! It’s a topic that, while not exactly sensitive, is very much out of step with where we are as a society these days. But, this story is a pseudohistorical; and so it gets something of a pass by merit of being set in an era where big game hunting was not only accepted, but considered a point of prestige. I admit I was a little surprised that the topic is hardly even mentioned in the story, in terms of the social issues involved these days; I expected some sort of conversation between the Doctor and Nyssa about the barbarism of the practice and how it was common in that era. But there’s nothing of the type (possibly because Nyssa isn’t from Earth, and who knows how Trakenites would view the subject?).

Second, and much larger, there’s the matter of Silver Crow. Silver Crow is Native American—Sioux, to be precise—and portrayals of Native Americans, especially in a historical context, are very much a sensitive issue, at least in the USA. (And I admit to some ignorance here of how it’s viewed in the UK, where this story was written and recorded, so pardon me if I’m reading through too narrow a lens.) Now, I think that everything played well in the end; Silver Crow is portrayed as an intelligent, civilized man, not at all stereotypical. But he’s voiced by a white actor, which I think even now—just ten years after this story’s November 2012 recording—would be a highly questioned move. (John Banks did a fine job; I’m commenting more on the social situation than his performance.) As well, there’s the portrayal of the Ghost Dance ritual, which is very downplayed—and that’s probably for the best, because it would have been difficult to avoid cliché territory otherwise.

So, overall, I’m pleased with the outcome—but there’s a feeling in hindsight of dodging a bullet with regard to things that could have gone wrong, had the production been done by less capable people.

It’s a satisfying story with a solid resolution, which feels very contained—and not just in the sense of being the typical “base under siege” story. We never get a species name or an origin for Vatuus and the other creatures; they refer to the collective of their people as the “Prime Cluster”, but that’s hardly informative for us. Put another way, they could have come from anywhere, which in turn allows the action to focus on the here and now, the Whitlock estate.

Most interesting, of course, is the character of new (and temporary) companion Hannah Bartholomew. This story doesn’t actually establish her as a companion; but we’ve already reviewed the next entry, and we know that she’ll be joining the TARDIS crew. Hannah is strong-willed, stubborn, and motivated by her own agenda, which doesn’t have much in common with the Doctor’s plans. There’s potential for her to be a villain, though I don’t expect she’ll go that route. She’s not reluctant to join the Doctor—as we saw in Tomb Ship—but she’s the kind of person he would be reluctant to take on if given the choice. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

Continuity References: Not much at all here. In fact, this is one of the barest stories I’ve ever found with regard to continuity nods. Nyssa mentions the deaths of her father (well, sort of death—at least she thinks of it that way) and stepmother on Traken (The Keeper of Traken). Aaaaand…..that’s about it! (The wiki does mention a loose connection, but it’s hardly enough to count as continuity; Whitlock’s father was a Crimean War veteran who fought at the Battle of Inkerman, where Mollie Dawson’s uncle was killed—see The Evil of the Daleks.)

Overall: Not bad at all! I enjoyed this one. It’s not anything groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it’s solid and well-paced, and uses old tropes in new ways. If you want a good, middle-of-the-road story, you could do much worse.

Next time: That depends on how you’re finding these posts! As I mentioned, I’ve already covered the next story, Tomb Ship; if you click on the “Next” link below, it will take you there. But in terms of order of posting, next time we’ll be covering the third and final entry in this trilogy, Masquerade. See you there (either way)!

All audio dramas in this series are available for purchase from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below.




Audio Drama Review: Tomb Ship

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.

Tomb Ship



Audio Drama Review: The Creed of the Kromon

We’re back! Today we’re looking at the next entry in Big Finish’s Monthly Adventures (or Main Range, if you prefer) range of Doctor Who stories. This title, 2004’s The Creed of the Kromon, written by Philip Martin, is number 53 in the Monthly Adventures range, and also the second entry in the Divergent Universe arc of stories, featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard. It picks up immediately after the events of the previous entry, Scherzo. Let’s get started!

The Creed of the Kromon

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

The Doctor and Charley Pollard walk out of the ruin of the experimental bottle, into an arid and deceptive landscape under two red suns. After some momentary hallucination, they manage to come to their senses, and see a number of habitat domes in the distance. They are stopped by a voice, who tortures them briefly; it is that of a being called Kro’ka. It bargains with them for admission to the world in front of them, which is called the zone of Eutermes; it wants a price to allow them in, and the price must fill a need in Eutermean society. The Doctor offers his knowledge of spacetime, but Charley offers a bigger prize: The TARDIS itself–if they can find it. Kro’ka lets them in; as they proceed, he notes that “experiment 2.70” has begun.

They encounter–and save the life of–a humanoid, reptilian local, named C’rizz, who is recently escaped from a habitat dome. As they progress, he tells them of the Kromon, termite-like insect creatures who rule Eutermes. C’rizz wants to return to the Alpha Sphere–the lead habitat dome–to be with his love, L’da. He explains that the Kromon rule his people, and that he and L’da were chosen to be “royals”, the leaders of their race–but that they will be made to take an elixir that puts them in tune with the Kromon. He further notes that despite the aridity of the area, the rains haven’t ceased; it later becomes apparent that the Kromon’s researches have caused the rivers and water table to dry up. They meet a subterranean creature called an Oroog; then the entire party is picked up by a Kromon patrol, and taken captive to the Alpha Sphere.

The Oroog is put to work as a laborer. The Doctor is assigned to research, and Charley is classed as breeding stock. C’rizz is forced to take the elixir, but he cannot tolerate it and spits it up. In the confusion, the Doctor and Charley escape. C’rizz is sent for execution, but is rescued by the Doctor and Charley. The Doctor finds that L’da has been made the subject of an experiment in hybridization between her species and the Kromon. The try to reach her on level five of the dome, but are intercepted; the Doctor is sent to Research, and C’rizz is put to work. Charley, however, is directed to the Reproductive center on level five.

The Doctor manages to get himself ingratiated into the Kromon space program, which is very rudimentary. He does, however, determine that they do not have the TARDIS, and indeed don’t understand the concept of time travel–or of time, at all. C’rizz manages to reconnect with the Doctor, and Charley–who has not yet been transformed by the experiment–is reassigned to the Doctor’s department. However, they find that L’da is not so lucky; she has been metamorphosed into a hybrid form to serve as a Kromon queen. C’rizz shoots and kills her with a stolen gun.

The Kromon arrest the trio. They immediately decide to use Charley as a replacement for the slain queen. The Doctor is forced to take elixirs to prompt his memories so that the Kromon can obtain his knowledge of space travel. In the process he becomes aware of the Kromon’s history; they were abused by a predatory mining company that ruined their world, but they survived by taking over the company and adapting its policies into their creed. Hence, they in turn have nearly ruined Eutermes. Meanwhile C’rizz is further tortured; and Charley is forced into the metamorphic process.She begins to change, but is disoriented by the process. C’rizz is rescued by the Oroog, and taken to safety. The Doctor helps the Kromon build a prototype rocket–but when it is activated by the Kromon director of space research, it explodes.

The Doctor flees, connecting with C’rizz on the way, and go in search of Charley. Not finding her, they retreat to level two. Her transformation is nearly complete, however. The Oroog reveals the existence of root plants that will clear the confusion from the minds of the Kromon’s victims. He uses them to attempt to free the rest of his kind, while the Doctor and C’rizz shut off the water supply–a crisis for the Kromon–in preparation for rescuing Charley. Charley learns to communicate with and control the larva that are newly hatched from eggs left by L’da–a success for the experiment. However, the lack of water causes chaos before she can be placed in the breeding chamber; without constant water, the Kromon royals begin to die off. C’rizz kills the Kromon breeding scientists, but it’s a needless gesture; as the royals die, so do the rest of the Kromon, who are mentally linked to the leadership. The Oroog tells the Doctor that his people are cutting off the water to the rest of the spheres as well, returning the water to the surface and eliminating the Kromon threat.

The Doctor places Charley in a pool, ensuring her survival, and gives her the roots, breaking the Kromon influence and starting her body on a path back to its human form. She mercifully sleeps through the process, and retains little memory of the transformations. With the crisis averted, and Eutermes saved, the Doctor and Charley leave for other lands, other zones–but C’rizz, now cast adrift from his old life, asks to come along, and is granted permission. However, in the interzone between zones, Kro’ka speaks to the Doctor’s mind again, and warns him to be wary of C’rizz; the Eutermesan was formerly a peaceful monk, but has been damaged by his experiences. As they move to the next zone, the Kro’ka comments that experiment 3.56 is about to start.

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After the experience of Scherzo, I was, I admit, relieved to have a more linear, stable story here. Call me a traditionalist, I suppose, but I think that Doctor Who works best when it tells more traditional stories, with a clear antagonist and a situation to overcome–as opposed to the internal-view type of story presented in Zagreus or Scherzo. In that light, the Divergent Universe’s circular nature becomes an asset, a nice twist, rather than a source of confusion for the audience.

And The Creed of the Kromon delivers. It capitalizes on the idea that this is all new territory for the Doctor; his usual vast store of knowledge about the universe and its history is useless here. Worse: it’s a liability–several times he makes assumptions and guesses that would probably have panned out back in N-Space, but here are terribly wrong. In the midst of all this, we get some nice touches: a slow-burn body horror (though unfortunately without much in the way of stakes, because it’s a safe bet that Charley will be normal again at the end), and a new companion, C’rizz. I was completely unfamiliar with this character; I knew he was mentioned in The Night of the Doctor (among a rush of Big Finish companions that got a canonical nod), but that was it. It’s easy to overlook that he isn’t actually human, only humanoid; in fact he is of reptilian stock. The body horror here is along the same lines as the Krynoid all the way back in The Seeds of Doom, or the Wirrn in The Ark in Space; both of those stories scared me witless as a kid, but this story is less terror and more tragedy. In that sense, it’s more like Peri’s transformation in Vengeance on Varos.

I want to point out something else that I think is especially relevant to the current state of Doctor Who. The Eighth Doctor is most definitely a classic series Doctor, despite bridging between classic and modern. We can see this most in his attitude toward the deaths of his enemies. The current Doctor as of this writing (Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, at least until someone gets around to numbering the pre-Hartnell Doctors) is a diehard pacifist. Not only will she not kill, but also she will neither engineer deaths secondhand, nor allow her companions to in any way be responsible for a death. She holds that line even when it results in greater deaths through inaction–a point which has infuriated many fans. (To be fair, it’s an outgrowth of the Doctor’s growth after the Time War; but it seems sometimes to be a hard line just for the sake of a hard line, rather than any practical decision.) There’s none of that here. Eight is witness to the death of the entire Kromon race, and hardly blinks. He tacitly admits that justice demands their deaths; that by letting it happen, he is saving the Eutermesans, who are helpless victims. it’s a straightforward morality that has become increasingly grey and muddled in modern times, ultimately giving us its own antithesis in the Thirteenth Doctor–a transformation about which I have not made up my mind.

Continuity References: While doling out information to the Kromon scientists, the Doctor mentions Zeiton-7 as a fuel for his ship (Vengeance on Varos). The Kro’ka will return in The Twilight Kingdom. Charley (AGAIN) relives her averted death on the R101 (Storm Warning, and if we could stop referencing the same story every week that would be great, thanks). The Doctor mentions meeting Charles Darwin (Bloodtide), and visiting Mars before its dessication (The Judgement of Isskar). C’rizz is revealed to be a monk, which will be further explained in Faith Stealer and Absolution.

Overall: I like this one. I think it’s a better setup for the rest of the Divergent Universe arc than Scherzo, and it’s an enjoyable, well-paced story in the bargain. it makes me feel better about the situation overall.

Next time: If you’re keeping up, we’re right in the middle of four in a row in the Divergent Universe arc. Next time–if I don’t take a break to finish up The Wormery–we’re listening to The Natural History of Fear. 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. 

The Creed of the Kromon



Audio Drama Review: Scherzo

All my friends are dead

All My Friends Fans Are Dead (!)

Well, I hope not, anyway. But they may have fled the site by now, which comes to the same thing from a readership perspective. After all, this blog has been, for most purposes, dead for some time now. My last post was almost exactly six months ago; and at that point, I left two projects unfinished, in addition to leaving off with our regular series of reviews. I will try to back up and finish those projects, but that’s going to take some work, so bear with me.

In the meantime: I have not forgotten you! Or this site. The lack of posts here has largely been due to a lack of time and energy to experience the stories I cover, not a lack of effort to cover them. In short, I haven’t watched, listened to, or read much Doctor Who for a long time now (with the exception of Series 12 of the television series, and I’m not ready to cover that anyway–I still need to cover the Eleventh Doctor era, let alone Twelve or Thirteen). There’s a variety of largely pointless reasons for that, but suffice it to say I want to take another stab at catching up. If you’re still with me after all this time, bless you and thank you…and if not, and I’m just speaking into the void Time Vortex, well, perhaps future generations of digital archaeologists will uncover these ramblings. Bernice Summerfield, at least, would be pleased.

Today, we’ll take the plunge back into the world of Big Finish’s Main Range (or Monthly Adventures Range–that seems to be their preferred term these days) of audio dramas. It’s a conspicuous time, because I’ve heard rumors that they may be preparing to phase out the monthly adventures as they increasingly move toward a box set model. Definite plans haven’t been announced, but the rumbles have been felt. (My personal thought is they’ll go to three hundred entries before stopping; they’re at 263, Cry of the Vultriss, with placeholders up to 275 on the website.) We left off with the fiftieth entry, the large-scale insanity that was Zagreus; you can read about it at that link. I’m going to do something I usually try not to do, and skip the next entry, The Wormery, for now, chiefly because I haven’t finished it. It’s a bit of an odd man out, a Sixth Doctor (and Iris Wildthyme!) story sandwiched between several continuous Eighth Doctor stories. As soon as I’ve finished it, I’ll post about it and fix the “previous” and “next” links to match. These next few entries will also be a bit abbreviated, as I want to hurry and catch up a bit.

So, with all that said, let’s get started! Today, we’re covering the next Eighth Doctor story after Zagreus, the first in the Divergent Universe arc, Scherzo.


Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this story!

Following on the events of Zagreus, Charley Pollard finds herself, the Doctor, and the TARDIS thrust into the bizarre and counterintuitive Divergent Universe. This universe, as we previously learned, was spun off by Rassilon in ancient times to trap its inhabitants away from the real universe. It is a universe without time, where everything constantly circles around to the same point; but Charley doesn’t yet grasp the implications.

She has bigger problems to worry about, though. The Doctor is apparently free of the Zagreus entity, but is far from himself, spouting sad nonsense and refusing to act to save himself or Charley–and the TARDIS is vanishing. They find themselves abandoned in a featureless world, one that sometimes even lacks sight, name, identity. They make their way repeatedly through a world that seems almost circular, leading them in circles–no, spirals–around and around. Repeatedly they encounter a mysterious and variable figure, who tempts them each to give up on the other. Charley faces her own past; the Doctor faces the reality that he has, indeed, lived as though his friends and companions were disposable, interchangeable, for which he is ashamed. And yet, when confronted with the choice of whether each would live for themselves or die for the other, both pass the test.

With the TARDIS fully vanished, the world is revealed to be the inside of a large glass experimental jar; they have been circling it, slowly making their way upward. Now, they are able to shatter the glass and move forward into a new world, which they will explore together…though enemies are already arraying themselves in the shadows.

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There’s experimental, and then there’s experimental. Big Finish has done quite a bit of experimentation with their audios over the years–we’ve covered a few of their experimental pieces, and I expect to cover more. Doctor Who is a series that lends itself well to the practice, at least when not on television (where viewer counts are paramount).

But there’s a vast difference between experimenting with the format (as in Flip Flop or Doctor Who and the Pirates) and experimenting with the content. The former is often a welcome change, a bit of variety in a long series. The latter…well, it either works for you or it doesn’t. For me, in this case at least, it doesn’t. I was fairly kind to Zagreus in my review; for all that it’s the most bizarre piece of DW fiction I’ve encountered, it tells a cohesive story, and it’s a compelling one even if it’s not what anyone expected. Scherzo, though…Scherzo is a bit like dry heaves. It’s not very pleasant, but it’s not even particularly productive as a bad thing. I mean no insult at all to the author, Robert Shearman, who is quite capable in general. I feel, though, that he had a bad task to accomplish here: The transition from Zagreus to the Divergent Universe arc. We went from a scenario of mindscapes (but orderly ones) to a universe with no rules; it was bound to be a bumpy ride.

And that’s exactly what this story is: a transition. It makes no secret of that, and it shouldn’t. The consequence is that it doesn’t have much identity of its own–which is appropriate, given that identity is a major issue for our characters in this story. (It will get better though; we’ll re-establish some order in the next entries in the arc.)

As an aside, the story does do something unusual: It is one of only a handful of performed Doctor Who stories to only involve the main cast, and at the time of its release it was only the second story ever to do so, after 1964’s The Edge of Destruction (which was also the first bottle episode–ironic, given that this story takes place in a literal bottle). It’s also the first “two-hander” story in Doctor Who history, the first (performed) story with only two roles.

Continuity References: Things are going to get weird for awhile, I’m afraid. I don’t usually include references to stories that are still in the future of the same range as the story under discussion; I prefer to look back for references, not ahead. That’s not a valid plan when we’re talking about the Divergent Universe. The universe itself is circular in terms of time, and so stories go out of their way to behave as such. Hence, the Doctor makes reference to several things he has not yet encountered: The Kromon and Kro’ka (The Creed of the Kromon), the Censor (The Natural History of Fear), and Major Koth (The Twilight Kingdom). Additionally, Charley mentions the crash of the R101, as she often does (Storm Warning).

Overall: Not a favorite for me, but I grudgingly admit we need Scherzo to get us over to the Divergent Universe. Better things are coming. Moving ahead!

Next time: Unless I catch up on The Wormery, we’ll continue with The Creed of the Kromon, and meet a new companion! 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. 




Audio Drama Review: The Nightmare Fair

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! After just coming off of the famous (or infamous) Zagreus, I needed a quick change of pace; and so today, we’re looking at the first in another range, the Lost Stories. We join the Sixth Doctor and Peri in The Nightmare Fair, where they face off against a very old enemy: The Celestial Toymaker! Written by Graham Williams, and adapted and directed by John Ainsworth, this story was released in November 2009, nine years ago this month. Let’s get started!

Nightmare Fair 1

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

Part One: Following their last adventure against the Daleks (Revelation of the Daleks), the Doctor and Peri arrive at the Pleasure Beach fair in Blackpool for a bit of relaxation. They are unaware that they are being observed by an old enemy… Meanwhile, a local man, Kevin, reports to the police about strange events from the night before at the fair—strange lights, a frightened man. It is the latest of numerous reports Kevin has made; but most also involve a strange Chinese Mandarin. Last night, the Mandarin wasn’t there. He also discusses his missing brother, Geoff. The police don’t take him seriously, and run him off.

The Doctor admits that he had an ulterior motive for coming to Blackpool: a disturbance in the time vortex, indicating danger. Elsewhere, the Celestial Toymaker—for that is who watches—prepares his servant, Stefan, to bring the Doctor in; Stefan, meanwhile, provides the Toymaker with the Doctor’s biodata, confirming his identity. Peri begins to hear the Doctor calling her, though he denies it; soon, the Doctor also hears his own name being called. He deduces that there is telepathy in use. As they continue checking out various rides, the Doctor notices Kevin following them. Peri ends up separated from the Doctor on a ride, sharing a car with Kevin as the Doctor follows behind. At the other end, the Doctor is nowhere to be seen. Peri reports to security, but to no avail. Introducing herself to Kevin, she enlists his help—but they are intercepted by the Toymaker’s servants, and forced to fight. Unintentionally, Kevin kills their captor; the duo then runs. Meanwhile the Doctor is collected by Stefan, and escorted to a cell.

In the tunnels beneath the fair, Kevin shares his story with Peri. They happen upon numerous mechanical dummies, as well as the machinery of the rides. Meanwhile the Doctor examines his surroundings, and makes rudimentary communication with something in the next cell by tapping on the pipes. Before he can continue, the Toymaker arrives and insinuates that the Doctor will be forced to play his games, possibly at the cost of harm to Peri if he refuses. Before he vanishes, he causes the wall between cells—which proves to be a solid hologram—to become invisible, revealing a clawed monster. However, the Doctor quickly reestablishes communication with the creature. The Toymaker watches from elsewhere, amused. In the tunnels, Peri and Kevin are briefly separated; and Kevin is taken to the cells. The Toymaker returns to debate with the Doctor about Earth and its inhabitants and their capacity for games, which fits right into his plans. He challenges the Doctor to one  more game, and the Doctor is obliged to accept.

Part Two: The Toymaker commits to not harming Peri. Meanwhile, Kevin rejoins Peri, but he begins to speak and act strangely. Meanwhile, Kevin is also in the cell with the Doctor—clearly only one of them is real. But, which Kevin is it? Kevin and the Doctor compare notes, and the Doctor recruits him to help build a strange device. Elsewhere, one of the Toymaker’s servants, Yatsumoto, delivers a large video game cabinet, and reviews its use; the Toymaker, delighted, authorizes the next phase of his plan, which will see the machines rolled out to the public all over the world. Meanwhile Peri realizes that Kevin no longer has a wound he received in their escape; and she quickly realizes that he is not real. Seeing that the game is up, he has her taken to the cells with the Doctor and the real Kevin. The Toymaker has Yatsumoto try out the game; but when he loses, a glowing creature of some sort is generated by the game, and kills him. Peri catches up with the Doctor, who fills everyone in on their status. The Doctor’s device removes the walls between cells completely, though the corridor wall remains intact. The clawed creature can be seen in one cell. In the other is a humanlike android, who quickly joins their cause, and reveals that he is an old and oft-rebuilt member of an expeditionary fleet, now far away. The creature, the Doctor reveals, is a Venusian, of a type that is known for their mechanical skills; the Doctor dubs him “Mechanic”. With the Mechanic’s help, and a hand—literally—from the android, the Doctor assembles a sort of helmet device, and puts it on Peri. At that time, Stefan arrives to take the Doctor to the Toymaker; the Doctor tells Peri to yell for him if she needs him.

After much debate about his motives, the Toymaker causes the Doctor to play the video game; down in the cell, the Mechanic works feverishly to finish the helmet device, but can’t speak to Peri to explain what it’s for. Just as the Doctor loses the game, and the video monster emerges, the Mechanic attacks Peri, causing her to scream for the Doctor…and the Toymaker screams himself, as if struck, and falls unconscious.  The video monster turns on Stefan, and kills him. The Doctor quickly brings Peri and the others up from the cells, and they ransack the Toymaker’s living space, searching for a device. They quickly find it: the Toymaker’s telemechanical relay, by which he controls the various holographic systems. The Doctor wires it into his own device, just as the Toymaker begins to awaken.

The Toymaker threatens dire punishment; but the Doctor stops him. He has placed a holofield around the Toymaker, trapping him—and it is powered by the telemechanical relay. In other words, it is the Toymaker’s own brain which keeps him trapped, and will do so forever. Worse for the Toymaker, the field generates a time loop; he will have a repetitive eternity in which to go mad. It is barbaric; but for the Toymaker, as the Doctor points out, no other punishment is possible.

Meanwhile, Kevin finds his missing brother, who has been trapped here. The Doctor advises him to locate the patents for all the machinery here, which may make him rich—and will allow him to shut down the Toymaker’s entire operation. Peri, for her part, obligates the Doctor to take the Mechanic and the android home—but first, there’s still time for the fair.

Nightmare Fair 2

I was surprised to see how simple and direct this story was—but after recent main range entries, that proved to be a welcome change. The Lost Stories range consists of stories adapted from scripts which were never filmed; this story would have been the first of the proposed Season 23 that was annulled by the temporary hiatus of the series As such this story would have followed directly from Revelation of the Daleks; in fact, allegedly there was a line at the end of that serial which would have indicated the Doctor was taking Peri to Blackpool, the site of this story. That line was allegedly nixed when it became apparent that the show would go on hiatus. The story seems very small-scale for the series; it occurs in a very confined space, with a relatively small cast (though the accompanying interviews seem to indicate that many of these scripts were adapted down from the larger cast that a television serial would have afforded).

It’s a good thing, though, because the story flows very well, and is fun to listen to. The Celestial Toymaker is a villain who wouldn’t work as well, I think, in a highly science-fiction setting; he is the sci-fi element for the story, and needs no support in that regard. Placing him in a mundane setting just allows his particular talents and reasoning to shine. (I don’t count his toyroom from The Celestial Toymaker as a sci-fi setting, because it is only defined by his powers. In and of itself, it’s very nondescript.) He appears rarely enough that he doesn’t feel overused as a recurring villain. He plays especially well against the Sixth Doctor, for the same reasons that he worked well against the First; both Doctors share a high degree of arrogance, a similar wit, and a sense of mirth. To watch the Toymaker and the Doctor bait each other along is almost as satisfying as watching the Doctor debate with Davros. It wouldn’t be the same against, say, the Second Doctor, or the Ninth (or the Eighth!).

Most of all, you can tell that everyone involved with this production had fun with it, and was happy to be there (as confirmed in the interviews). That energy transmits over to the audience, and covers well for what might otherwise be toosimple a story. The story isn’t just simple, either; it’s gimmicky, at least for the time of its original writing—it capitalizes on the early days of the video game industry, when arcade games ruled, and home systems were still rare. The Toymaker’s games this time are electronic, and they have an edge to them.

Continuity references: The obvious reference is to the events of The Celestial Toymaker, with the First Doctor, Steven, and Dodo, for which this story serves as a sequel. The doctor mentions Magnus Greel (The Talons of Weng-ChiangThe Butcher of Brisbane). He mentions visiting Brighton (The Leisure Hive). He mentions Jamie after Peri finds a piece of Jamie’s clothing in the TARDIS (last seen in The Two Doctors, only a few episodes earlier). He mentions a man in Paris who was always hitting things (Duggan, City of Death). He makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to Romulus and Remus (The Twin Dilemma). The Toymaker refers to the 1914 Christmas Truce, which was attended by both the First and Twelfth Doctors in Twice Upon a Time (technically a future reference, but as the First Doctor was there, I’ll mention it). One of the trapped creatures is a Venusian, which have been mentioned many times since the Third Doctor era; of the various Venusian races that have been mentioned, it is unclear which one this is.

Overall: If the rest of the series is anything like this, we’re in good hands. A great start to a new (to me) range. Looking forward to more!

Next time: We join the Doctor and Peri, as well as old adversaries Sil and the Ice Warriors (a metal band name if ever there was one) in Mission to Magnus! 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.

The Nightmare Fair


Audio Drama Review: Zagreus

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today—finally—we have reached the fiftieth entry in the main range, which also serves as Doctor Who’s fortieth anniversary story: Zagreus, written by Alan Barnes and Gary Russell. The story was released in November 2003, fifteen years ago as I write this review, and was directed by Gary Russell. It featured every Doctor and companion actor to have performed in Big Finish’s productions to date, although nearly all appeared in new roles here. The story is famously bizarre and trippy; and, well, I will say up front that the rumors are both correct and unable to do it justice. I can’t promise that anything I say here will do it justice, either; it’s hard to even wrap your head around a story like this, let alone sum it up. Nevertheless, we’ll give it a try. Let’s dig in!

Zagreus 1

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

Due to the extreme length and detail of this story, I’m going to break my own pattern today and leave out the usual plot summary. Several good summaries already exist; therefore I will point you to the summary that can be found at the TARDIS wiki, or the summary at the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Zagreus 2

Yep, it’s exactly this weird. Credit to Roger Langridge, DWM 340.

Despite having discussed it many times on the /r/Gallifrey subreddit, and despite having listened to the audio dramas that lead up to it, I still didn’t truly know what I was getting into with Zagreus. For one thing, the story is very long; it’s the longest entry to date in the main range, at three hours and fifty-six minutes, and the second longest in all of BF’s Doctor Who audio dramas. (Only UNIT: Dominion–which is excellent, and which I hope to cover eventually—is longer, by a measly two minutes.) If the average main range audio is a serial, and the average Eighth Doctor Adventures story is a NuWho episode, then Zagreus is a feature film, or possibly a trilogy of films. For another thing, the story takes many familiar actors and scrambles them like eggs (via new roles); the resulting omelette is…well, it is definitely different.

Zagreus picks up where Neverland–which feels like a very long time ago to me; I covered it more than a year and a half ago)–left off, just after the TARDIS and the Doctor absorb the explosion of the anti-time casket. This transforms the Doctor’s mind into a strange, raging beast that takes the name and identity of the mythical Zagreus. Most of the story then proceeds inside the TARDIS, and also on a place called the Foundry of Rassilon, which is at least nominally located on Gallifrey. The Doctor, Zagreus, and the TARDIS all battle their respective foes and selves to establish their identities. At the end, it is discovered that there is another hand at work in these events; and in the end, the characters are—for the most part—saved from destruction. However, the Doctor still is not rid of the anti-time infection; and he cannot be allowed out into the universe any longer. If he makes contact with the normal universe, the infection will escape, and bring all of time to an end (or worse: a state of never having been). Instead, he chooses exile in the anti-time universe, called hereafter the Divergent Universe after the name of its dominant species, the Divergence. Unknown to him, Charley Pollard chooses to go with him.

Most actors appear in different roles, as I have mentioned; but a few appear as their usual characters. Lalla Ward appears as President Romana; Louise Jameson appears as Leela; John Leeson, as K9 (Romana’s K9, in this instance; Leela and Sarah Jane, of course, have their own, who do not appear here). Miles Richardson appears very briefly as Cardinal Braxiatel, and Don Warrington appears as Rassilon. Charley Pollard is the true central character of the story, and as such, India Fisher appears in her usual role; and Nicholas Courtney, while not appearing as the actual Brigadier, appears as a simulation thereof. As well, posthumous voice clips of Jon Pertwee (taken from the Devious fan production) were used to reproduce the voice of the Third Doctor, though he does not appear corporeally in this story. The entire cast, with roles, can be found on the story pages for Zagreus at the TARDIS wiki and at Big Finish’s site. Of special interest is that Big Finish’s site does not credit Paul McGann as the Doctor, but only as Zagreus, though he fills both roles. This is the first appearance in audio of both Leela and K9, though both will go on to figure prominently in the Gallifrey series and other places. Likewise, Braxiatel appears for the first—and only—time in the main range here, though he too will appear in Gallifrey. The story is a three-parter, and only four actors—Peter Davison, Nicholas Courtney, India Fisher, and Paul McGann—appear in all three parts. More sadly, it is Elizabeth Sladen’s only appearance in the main range, and her only work with any of the Doctor actors in Big Finish, due to her untimely death.

I’ve described this story as trippy, but I don’t want to give the impression that it’s hard to follow. It flows very directly, with two parallel plot threads (one for the Doctor/Zagreus, one for Charley). However, the story is filled with mindscapes and illusions and visitations by past Doctors; in that sense, it can be thought of as a sort of bookend for The Eight Doctors. Both the Doctor and Charley are subject to these visions; and, given that they provide the viewpoints for the story, it becomes a little difficult to know what is real and what isn’t. (Here’s the cheater’s version: almost everything in parts one and two is illusory—though valid and important; there are few red herrings here—while part three is reality.) At first the story feels as though it’s wandering; it tells several narratives that don’t seem to be related to anything. I didn’t have any trouble maintaining interest, though, as each narrative is well-told and interesting enough on its own. Soon enough, they all come together, as Zagreus—the monster, not the story—reaches its endgame.

The problems, I think, are twofold. First and foremost: this story is not what we were promised. Not that I’m saying that we, the audience, were literally promised anything; but the lead-up in the various preceding stories would have suggested something much different than what we ultimately got. Zagreus is supposed to be a universe-ending monster that consumes the unsuspecting and undoes time itself; but when you consider that the entire story occurs within the confines of the TARDIS (or the second location, which is also confined), with no one in danger but the Doctor himself, it quickly becomes apparent that Zagreus is sort of a joke. Were he to be unleashed on the universe, he might become the promised monster; as it is, he’s a Schrodinger’s Cat of unrealized potential. Indeed, the story itself uses the same metaphor in part one, and it’s very apt. It subverts the usual Doctor Who trope of the universe-ending catastrophe, but it doesn’t feel clever for subverting it; it just feels like we were a bit cheated. The second problem is related: this is, for better or worse, an anniversary story; and we’ve come to expect something exceptional from an anniversary story. (Well, perhaps not as much as we expect it after The Day of the Doctor, but still…) As the Discontinuity Guide puts it: “Oh dear. An eighteen-month wait – for this!” I’m not sure what I would have done differently; but I certainly wasn’t expecting this.

Still, it’s not entirely out of step with Big Finish’s other stories; and we did just come off of a run of experimental stories. Perhaps Zagreus is best thought of as the last of those stories, rather than as an anniversary story; in that regard it fits right in. For me, the worst part is that I greatly suspect that Zagreus–the monster, not the story–will turn out to be forgotten and never mentioned again. You can’t just create a universe-ending threat and then pretend it didn’t happen–but it won’t be the first time, and I doubt it will be the last. So much wasted potential!

Continuity: There are a great many continuity references here, and I can’t be sure I’ve found or compiled them all. Charley has met the Brigadier before, in Minuet in Hell; Romana also has done so, in Heart of TARDIS. This story proposes that Romana and Leela are meeting for the first time; but this contradicts the events of Lungbarrow, which takes place at the end of the Seventh Doctor’s life, and which makes it clear that they have known each other on Gallifrey for some time. The Doctor refers to the TARDIS briefly as Bessie (last seen in Battlefield). The Doctor finds a copy of Through the Looking-Glass; Ace previously read it in Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible. There are hints that Project Dionysus (seen in one of the simulations) was under the auspices of the Forge (Project: Twilight, et al). The Brigadier paraphrases the Doctor from The Five Doctors regarding being the sum of one’s memories—a quote he shouldn’t know, but…spoilers! The Yssgaroth get a couple of mentions (State of DecayThe Pit). The Doctor sees a vision of the planet Oblivion (Oblivion), the Oracle on KS-159 (Tears of the Oracle), the removal of one of his hearts (The Adventuress of Henrietta Street) and a crystal Time Station (Sometime Never, and possibly Timeless). The effect of all of these latter visions is to place the novel series—from which all of them are drawn—in a separate continuity from the audios, which allows for various noted contradictions going forward. Likewise, another vision shows the Time Lords with great mental powers (Death Comes to Time).

The Sisterhood of Karn appears, though not by name (The Brain of Morbius, et al). The TARDIS has a history of generating sentient avatars (A Life of Matter and DeathThe Lying Old Witch in the Wardrobe). Gallifrey has a watchtower (The Final Chapter). The statue from Sivler Nemesis is mentioned, as well as Rassilon’s various accoutrements and the De-Mat Gun (The Invasion of Time). The Oubliette of Eternity is mentioned (Sisterhood of the Flame). Cardington appears in a vision (Storm Warning). The Doctor mentions meeting Rasputin (The WandererThe Wages of Sin). Charley mentions the Doctor escaping from Colditz Castle (Colditz), which she did not witness, but the Doctor has mentioned. The Doctor refers to John Polidori (Mary’s Story). Charley and Leela have met before, but do not remember (The Light at the End). The Fifth Doctor paraphrases the Fourth Doctor from Logopolis: “I very much fear that the moment’s not been prepared for.” The Tower of Rassilon appears, along with the Death Zone (The Five Doctors). Fifth Doctor lines from Warriors of the Deep and The Caves of Androzani are also quoted, as well the Seventh Doctor from Survival: “If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!” Gallfrey will in the future be empty (Dead RomanceHell Bent). The Doctor suggest that power will corrupt Romana; this comes true in The Shadows of Avalon. The Doctor mentions a beryllium clock (TV movie). Vortisaurs are mentioned (Storm Warning, et al). Transduction inducers are first mentioned in The Deadly Assassin. The Rassilon Imprimature—mentioned here, but not by name—is first mentioned in The Two Doctors. The TARDIS has a back door (LogopolisGenocide). Various monsters are mentioned in quick succession—Mandrells, Hypnotrons, Drashigs, Daleks, Yeti, Quarks.

Overall: Not a bad story. I enjoyed it quite well. On the other hand, it’s definitely not what I expected—if I expected anything. Certainly it feels more appropriate as an experimental story than as an anniversary story, as I mentioned. Most importantly, it serves to get the Doctor and Charley into the Divergent Universe, where they will spend the next several adventures. It’s a story I am glad to have heard once, but I probably won’t come back to it. Still, it’s unique, and I can’t say I regret it. Moving on!

Next time: Well, that was a lot to take in. We’ll take a break with the Sixth Doctor (and introduce another popular character, Iris Wildthyme!) in The Wormery. 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.




Audio Drama Review: Master

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Master, the forty-ninth entry in the Main Range, and also the penultimate entry in the tetralogy of villain-centered audios which ends with Zagreus. Released in October 2003 (just in time for Hallowe’en!), this story was directed by Gary Russell, and features Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and Geoffrey Beevers as the Master. Let’s get started!

Master 1


Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler free review, scroll down to the next picture.

Trailer: A Doctor John Smith reads off a letter he is sending to some dear friends, inviting them to a celebratory dinner at his old and expansive manor house.

Part One: An old man awakens from a nightmare of evil voices promising death. Elsewhere, overlooking a parade and a large crowd, an assassin waits for his target. However, he is interrupted by the arrival of a strange little man, who offers him a story—and all the assassin must do is wait. The assassin begins to listen to the story:

In an imitation-Edwardian village called Perfugium, on a colony world of the same name, Dr. John Smith meets his guests at the door. They are Adjudicator/Inspector Victor Shaeffer and his wife, Jacqueline, who is a well-known philanthropist. They are met by John, and also by his maid, Jade. They talk of various local matters; but later, as Jacqueline goes in search of a kitchen knife to replace hers (which has gone missing), Victor reveals that there has been another murder. It is the latest in a series of murders of young women, mostly prostitutes, though this one was not. Victor is quite unsettled by the deaths,  They are interrupted by Jade’s cat. Meanwhile Jacqueline speaks harshly to Jade, assuming that Jade has romantic designs on John Smith. She reveals that John has amnesia, and doesn’t remember anything before his arrival here ten years earlier; she suspects an accident, perhaps fire, which would explain not only the amnesia, but the disfigurement of his face. Nevertheless Jade has no such designs. After dessert, Victor suddenly grows moody and has a brief outburst against John, which nearly turns to violence; but it passes, and the group returns to their talk. Jacqueline gives John a birthday present—a sort of primitive Ouija board. Against everyone’s better judgment, they try it out; it spells out the letters D-O-C-T-…and suddenly there is a crash of thunder, followed by two screams.

Part Two: One scream is Jacqueline; but the other is from a man outside the window. John and Victor bring him in, finding he was struck by lightning; he is incoherent at first. Meanwhile, the assassin argues briefly with the storyteller about the veracity of the story, before letting him continue. Victor and Jacqueline temporarily withdraw, letting John work on the man; the man recovers, and seems to be healing quickly. After some awkwardness, the two begin to discuss the murders, and find much common ground. The man calls himself Dr. Vaughn Sutton. They discuss the nature of evil in the heart, and whether a man can be purely evil without motive. The Doctor—for that is who Dr. Sutton really is—tells Smith about a truly evil man he once knew, called the Master. Pushing the issue, Smith reveals his own evil impulses, for which he cannot account, but which he steadfastly resists. Does this make him evil?

John is taken by a sudden fit; and a new voice speaks through his mouth, promising death to all present if the Doctor does not do what he came to do. As John revives, a book–*Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde*–falls off the bookshelf. John goes to check on the others, and the Doctor picks up the book, getting the point at once; the voice speaks again, telling him he has one more chance to keep his word, or everyone will die.

Part Three: The assassin wants to know if John Smith really is the Master, as the storyteller—who is obviously the Doctor—implies. And what other force is at work here? The Doctor resumes his story.

Jacqueline thinks the newcomer is dangerous; but regardless, some force is at work, as she slaps Jade and drives her out of the room. However, Smith tells them that the Doctor will be staying the night, as will they, due to the storm outside. They are interrupted by Jade’s scream; her cat is dead, its throat cut and its heart removed—just like the murder victims. Victor believes the killer is taunting him personally now. They gather with the Doctor, who now claims to have been attacked by books in the library—and indeed, the library is a wreck. In the midst of it all, John admits to having invited his friends over to test the alleged curse on this house—but now he regrets it, because they all seem to be in danger. John becomes convinced that the Doctor knows him from his past life, but why won’t he admit it? Smith feels something evil inside him—and he happens across Jacqueline’s missing kitchen knife. The Doctor tries to get Victor and Jacqueline to leave, but John interrupts by taking Jacqueline hostage with the knife, and demanding to know the truth. The Doctor gets him to relent by agreeing to talk—and talk he does.

He tells the story of himself and the Master as children. They were bullied by an older boy—but one day, one of them had enough. In the midst of the bullying, he killed he bully. The two boys burned the body together, but after that, the killer become more distant and angry, full of guilt, while the other went on to be a good man. One became the Doctor; the other, the Master. And John, he reveals, is the Master—though he does not remember it. Worse, the Master’s innate telepathy has projected that evil onto those around him, affecting their actions tonight. Jacqueline defends him; the Doctor offers to take them all away from here. However, they are interrupted by Jade—who reveals her true identity: Death itself.

Part Four: Jade—no, Death—mocks them all, and especially the Doctor. She quickly shares everyone’s secrets: the Doctor is here to  kill the Master; Jacqueline is in love with John; and Victor is the murderer. Victor flees the room, screaming from the revelations, and the lights go out. In the dark, Jacqueline admits that she has always loved John, and still does—but he rejects her, accepting the revelation of who he is. He cruelly dismisses her, and she leaves in tears, leaving only John and the Doctor. The Doctor says that he knows John truly loves Jacqueline, and ran her off to save her from Death. He says that the Master has been Death’s servant—her Champion—but that, ten years ago, he struck a deal with Death. For ten years, Death would release the master, allowing him a normal life, but at the end, the Doctor had to kill him. She arranged tonight to push the Doctor to do just that, perhaps in punishment for his past role as Time’s Champion. The Master urges him to do it, and hands him the kitchen knife. Meanwhile Jacqueline finds Victor in the scullery, and talks with him about whether anyone is truly too hopeless to be saved.

The Doctor refuses to kill him. Instead he realizes that John’s love for Jacqueline—which Death never anticipated—could save John from the Doctor’s deal…but only if they get to Jacqueline first. They head for the scullery. However, Death is whispering to Victor, and ultimately he kills Jacqueline. The Master shrieks in despair.

Death pauses time so she can gloat over her victory. The Master—with his true personality revealed—scoffs at Death’s influence; he is evil of his own will, regardless of her actions. However, she reveals the truth: Even the Doctor has forgotten that there was an earlier deal. It was not the Master that killed Torvic, but the Doctor. Death gave the child Doctor a choice: remember his guilt and serve her, or let it pass to his friend. The Doctor chose to let his friend serve death…and the rest is history. The innocent suffered, and the guilty forgot. However, the remnants of John Smith forgive the Doctor; after all, they were only children. Death gives John a choice: Go back and save Jacqueline by killing Victor first. However, he sees the trap: if he does so, he will become Death’s servant again, but if he does not, Jacqueline will die. John again forgives the Doctor, and chooses—and Death sends the Doctor away before he can learn the decision, as punishment for breaking their more recent deal. The story ends where it began, with the guests arriving; but John threatens Victor with death.

The assassin wants to know what he chose, but the Doctor does not know, and cannot tell him. However, the assassin knows why the Doctor is here now; he has been sent by death to fufill his bargain another way, by killing an innocent—and he is to take the place of the assassin to do it. The assassin offers him the gun, but the Doctor refuses; this again breaks his bargain. The assassin reveals himself to be Death in a new guise, and resumes Jade’s form to mock the Doctor again.  She promises to find new ways to punish him, and stalks off to kill an innocent. Meanwhile the Doctor vows to someday find and free his old friend.

Master 2

The Doctor doesn’t lack for enemies who want to compare him to themselves. There’s Davros, as we mentioned last time; the Daleks and Cybermen have done it; many others wait their turn. And of course, there’s the Doctor’s oldest friend, the Master. In this story it’s a little more on-the-nose than usual; there’s a twist near the end that reveals that the two are more alike than either of them thinks. I won’t reveal the twist, but it caught me by surprise.

We start out the story with a man named John Smith—usually one of the Doctor’s aliases, but here used (if unknowingly) by the Master. I don’t think it’s a great spoiler to say that Smith is the Master; for anyone even slightly familiar with the character (or even the title of the story!) it will be obvious almost instantly. It’s the Master who doesn’t know, and I found that fascinating. Of course, in the years since this story was released, we’ve had such an occurrence on television (Utopia, etc.), but this version takes a different view; for one, the Master didn’t put himself in this situation, and for two, unlike Professor Yana, John Smith doesn’t want to go back to being the Master.

I want to call this another character study, but that’s only on the surface. The real story here is of the relationships among the Doctor, the Master, and Death itself—that’s Death as an incarnate being, as previously portrayed in Timewyrn: Revelation and other novels. This is her first appearance in an audio, however. It’s long been established that the Doctor is Time’s Champion; here it’s confirmed that the Master is Death’s Champion. What matters is how it came about—but, that strays into spoiler territory! I will say, however, that the explanation for the Master’s life choices is quite different from (though not entirely incompatible with) the version we saw in The End of Time, regarding the drumbeats; or the version from The Sound of Drums regarding the Master’s look at the Untempered Schism. The guy really can’t catch a break.

One thing is certain: Missy was right. The Doctor really is her truest and oldest friend. Listening to this story adds considerable depth to the Twelfth Doctor stories where their friendship is discussed. (She’s still a liar with regard to him being a little girl, though; when the Doctor and Death tell a childhood story, they both refer to the Doctor and the Master with male pronouns. Score another for the Doctor not having faces prior to the Hartnell incarnation, I guess?)

At any rate, I have much greater appreciation for the Master as a person here, though he is still evil, of course. I’m also okay with the level of ambiguity with which this story end; the Doctor doesn’t know how it ends, but we can surmise the answer, because we know that the Master lives to fight another day—and we know which side he fights for.

The acting here is average for the most part; but I want to take a moment to compliment two aspects of it. First, Charlie Hayes as Jade does double duty as Death; and the transition between the two roles is just amazing. Compliments for both roles; it’s excellent work. Second, the trailer for this story is unusual; instead of clips from the story, it consists of John Smith reading out loud the letter of invitation he is preparing for his dinner guests. It’s simple and not at all scary—and yet, having an inkling of what is to come, you’ll still feel a chill. Very well done. (The trailer can be found on the story’s purchase page at the Big Finish website.)

Continuity References: The Doctor is referred to as Time’s Champion (Love and War); this is slightly expanded on, when Death reveals that she wanted the Doctor as her champion, but “someone had other plans”. The Doctor mentions Traken (The Keeper of Traken) and Duchamp 331 (Dust Breeding), where he previously encountered this version of the Master. (The Master’s history is a bit complicated, here, and there may be some contradictions with other stories, notably First Frontier, which I have not yet read.) The Doctor uses the alias “Vaughn Sutton”, which refers back to a character in Excelis Decays (although I have not listened to that audio myself yet, I found an indication that for the Doctor, it is recent). The Doctor mentions having known other Adjudicators (Original Sin, et al.). He mentions being disowned by his own family (Lungbarrow). He quotes a line from Primeval: “Exposure to evil, even the smallest amount, can corrode the soul.” Death mentions the Seventh Doctor’s mixed metaphors and playing the spoons (Time and the Rani); however she says that now he is busy destroying planets and old enemies (Remembrance of the DaleksSilver Nemesis, et al.) Death appeared personified in several previous novels (Timewyrm: RevelationLove and WarHuman NatureThe Also PeopleSo Vile a Sin), but never before in an audio drama. In fact, this entire story has several parallels with Human Nature. One of Bernice Summerfield’s books is mentioned here, though it doesn’t seem to be a reference to any particular Benny story. John Smith’s request to the Doctor to “end my life” parallels the Doctor’s conversation with an assassin in The Happiness Patrol, though that may be unintentional. And—most relevant to this tetralogy—Jade recites a version of the Zagreus poem, then wonders what put it in her head.

Overall: Not the typical Doctor/Master encounter at all! And yet, it foreshadows—quite unintentionally—the interactions of the Twelfth Doctor and Missy (and also the Simm Master from recent times) in years to come. That’s a very nice bit of serendipity there, and it’s all the better for being completely unintentional—as far as I can tell—on the parts of every writer involved. Besides that, it’s a great story, and perfect for the Hallowe’en season: Spooky old (possibly cursed) house; a series of murders; a thunderstorm, lightning, screams; Death incarnate (!); and of course, the Master—what’s not to love? I’m very glad to have heard this one.

Next time: And now, for something completely different! Finally we reach the famous and infamous fiftieth Main Range audio, Zagreus. It’s been a long time coming. 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 stories may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.