Audio Drama Review: Time Tunnel

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Time Tunnel, the third entry into the fifth season of the Short Trips range. This Third Doctor story was written by Nigel Fairs and directed by Lisa Bowerman, and is read by Katy Manning. The story was published on 5 March, 2015. Let’s get started!

Time Tunnel 1

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

UNIT receives word of a problem at a railway tunnel in Sussex. Trains are entering the tunnel as normal, but emerging with the drivers and passengers dead—and not just dead, but long dead, as though they had aged immensely before death. This word reaches the Doctor and Jo Grant as the Doctor is making adjustments to Jo’s transistor radio, which is picking up some very odd signals. Nevertheless, they head to the tunnel to investigate. The tunnel already has an odd reputation; a legend has it that the devil himself is trapped beneath it, and that he is responsible for the huge rocks that loom over its entrance.

The Doctor, over the Brigadier’s objections, takes a train engine alone through the tunnel. He arrives at the other side a bit more aged, and very hungry, but with some interesting results: He believes he has been in the tunnel for a very long time. He claims that the only reason he survived was that, as a Time Lord, he was able to induce a sort of coma that let him survive. Now the Brigadier wants to destroy the tunnel, but the Doctor pleads for a chance to deal with the situation first; clearly there is more going on here than dynamite can address. The Brigadier has already received his orders, and set the demolition in motion; the Doctor has only a short time to work with. He prepares to enter the tunnel again—this time on foot.  He believes that the time dilation effect is only triggered when entering at speed; he expects no problems when walking. Unknown to him, however, Jo follows him in.

Her disobedience saves his life. She finds him suspended in a sort of energy barrier, in pain; and when he is able to back out of it, she catches him. Back outside, as the detonation is carried out, the Doctor explains what he learned. It seems that, centuries ago, something was buried under the mountain—but it wasn’t the devil; it was an alien ship. The alien aboard seems to live in a different sort of timestream than humans, one that moves at a much slower pace. With its ship damaged, it has sent out a distress signal—one that, as the Doctor demonstrates, Jo’s radio was picking up. The signal, when sped up, is a call for help, aimed at the alien’s own species. However, the problem in the tunnel is a result of leakage from the damaged engines—leakage of time energies. With the tunnel destroyed, it should no longer be a problem.

Still, one question remains unanswered. Why now? If the ship has been there for centuries, why is it only now intersecting with human reality? The Doctor admits that they may never know for sure…until “help” arrives, that is. But—and here the Doctor glances longingly at the TARDIS in the corner of his lab—he doesn’t expect any of them will be around to see it by then.

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I’m fond of Third Doctor stories—although I grew up watching reruns of Tom Baker’s serials, I feel more affection for Jon Pertwee’s era, having watched it all in the years since. As well, as I’ve mentioned before, Katy Manning does a surprisingly good impression of the Third Doctor (cross-gender impersonations are always a roll of the dice, but she consistently delivers perhaps the best one I’ve ever heard). Therefore, I started this story with a few points already in its favor; and I’m glad I did, because it needed them in the end.

It’s an interesting premise: Trains go into a tunnel as usual, but emerge with everyone aboard not only dead, but horribly aged. It even proceeds well; the Doctor, being somewhat resistant to time-based effects, decides to take a train into the tunnel and, well, see what happens. Where it falls down is at the end; the Doctor doesn’t really do anything. And while that makes for realism—there will always be the occasional problem that can’t actually be solved—it doesn’t make for interesting storytelling.

I’m willing to overlook it, though, on one condition: That someone writes a sequel. There’s a good hook at the end—not quite a cliffhanger, because the eventual resolution is expected to be a long time in the future, but a hook. There’s promise for a better resolution later. I won’t spoil exactly what that hook is, but I’d like to see it delivered upon.

One thing is definitely consistent with the Pertwee/UNIT era: The difference between the Doctor’s approach and the Brigadier’s. The Doctor wants to research and negotiate; the Brigadier wants to blow things up. It’s not as dramatic as it is in, say, Doctor Who and the Silurians; our monster of the week—which we never actually see, incidentally—is heavily implied to be unharmed at the end. Still, we continue a fine tradition of the Brigadier destroying things over the Doctor’s objections (and blaming it on Geneva). It’s good to see some things never change.

There are—surprisingly for a Short Trip—a fair few continuity references, which incidentally help to place this story by way of the things we know have already taken place. Jo makes a comparison between the folly at the mouth of the tunnel and the castle on Peladon (The Curse of Peladon). Devil’s End and Azal get a mention, also by Jo (The Daemons). Mike Yates refers to “tentacled monsters” (The Claws of Axos). The Brigadier makes reference to having met three versions of the Doctor (The Three Doctors). Yates also mentions having served in the regular Army (The Rings of Ikiria). I should note that I discovered that last reference via the wiki, but hesitated to include it, because I am not sure of the chronological placement of that story (which I have not yet heard). Its entry mentions the Brigadier turning on Yates, but I am not sure if this is a temporary action as part of the story, or if it occurs during Mike’s downfall on the television series (From The Green Death to Planet of the Spiders). Therefore I don’t know yet if it is in Mike’s future at the time of this story. Perhaps someone reading this will know more.

Overall: A fairly weak Third Doctor story, which is a pity. I did enjoy it at first, but when I saw how it was progressing, it didn’t really hold my interest. On to the Fourth Doctor!

Next time: We’ll meet up with the Fourth Doctor and Leela in The Ghost Trap. 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.

Time Tunnel

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Audio Drama Review: Little Doctors

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! It’s been awhile, but today we’re continuing the Short Trips range with the second entry of series five, Little Doctors. Released on 6 February 2015, this story was written by Philip Lawrence, read by Frazer Hines, and features the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe. Let’s get started!

Little Doctors 1

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

Zoe Heriot transmats into a maintenance corridor. Still in touch with Jamie McCrimmon over a communication circuit, she encounters a small gremlin, which leaps at her.

The transmat hub of the planet Olympos is busy and bustling, watched over by its superintending computer, Zeus. Zeus monitors a pair of humans, Lev (female) and Drex (male), whom he has matched up, as they head home; and he muses on the many pastimes he offers to the humans under his care. Lev and Drex are now expecting a child, and Zeus watches them select and buy a crib from a matter former—but instead of a crib, a giant, blue, wooden box materializes…

Inside the TARDIS, Zoe watches as the time rotor comes to rest. The Doctor congratulates himself on the landing. Jamie isn’t so optimistic; but he affectionately hides his concern from the Doctor as the Time Lord checks the scanner for any dangers outside. With no problems detected, the Doctor leads them outside—and encounters Lev and Drex, who are utterly perplexed by the box, its inhabitants, and the travelers’ clothes.

Lev and Drex recover quickly enough, and introduce themselves. They announce that they are collectors of twentieth-century Earth artifacts; and they begin to show off their collection. The Doctor, however, finds it disturbing; the items are far from accurate. Jamie asks where the items were from, and Drex explains that they have earned them—or rather, earned the points that are used to manufacture the items in the matter former (or plasmonic converter, as Drex calls it). As they leave the room, the converter springs into life again, producing a robot that examines the TARDIS—and sends its results back to Zeus, who is concerned.

The travelers use a moving platform to visit the city, much to Jamie’s consternation. The Doctor remarks on the pastel sameness of the people as they approach. They sample some nutritional paste—terrible, admittedly—prompting the Doctor offer Drex a jelly baby. It’s an intense experience for the local—but he accepts the rest of the bag. Zoe notices the microdomes of hydroponic farms spread among the surrounding buildings. Finally Drex and Lev have to leave to go to work, leaving the time travelers alone.

Zoe is impressed with the city; she remarks that colonies like this were being planted in her time, and as Jamie mentions, the people seem happy. The Doctor is less charitable; he feels the people have no spark, no vitality. He is at first annoyed at the idea of Zeus—until Zoe explains that it is an artificial intelligence, governing the colony. The Doctor decides to speak with Zeus, and tampers with a transmat booth to allow passage to the control zone. Zeus decides to allow it, but warns his council members to acknowledge the visitors, but not approach. When the Doctor and his friends arrive, he announces his desire to speak with Zeus, but the council members ignore him; but the nearby converters begin to hum, producing a stream of robots called Enforcers—shaped like armor mounted on small tanks. The Doctor and his friends run.

As they race through corridors, fleeing the Enforcers, Zoe casts back through her own photographic memory, trying to remember the plans for these colonies. At last, she leads them to a chamber with an old, rusty headset—a neural interlink, connecting to the Zeus mainframe. The Doctor puts it on, and for him, everything goes dark.

Later, the Council members apologize for the misunderstanding; Zoe accepts the apology, as the Doctor is unconscious in an infirmary. His mental contact with Zeus had provided them with safe identities, but the effort had left him unconscious. However, as they watch his sleeping form, the attached medical monitors abruptly melt, then return to their own shape. Suspecting a power drainage, the council member leads them back to central control, where a technician claims to have seen childlike figures in various nodes of the system. He accepts Jamie and Zoe’s help, giving them communicators and transmat access in order to figure out the problem. Jamie visits the first site, and finds bubble gum pasted over the camera lens through which the technician would have been watching. He then hears a commotion, and rushes back to Zoe, finding her thrashing about, wrestling with a strange, cackling, childlike creature. Jamie throws it to the floor—and suddenly they find that it looks like the Doctor! The creature escapes to the top of some shelves, taunting them. It throws instruments at them, laughing all the while. The technician tells them he is repairing the system damage now. Jamie gets ahold of the creature and knocks it out. The technician calls back that a dozen more power failures are happening as they speak. The figure melts in front of them—it is a plasmonic construct, just like the Enforcers. And to their horror, they realize there are plasmonic converters all over the city.

In his quarters, Drex finds a miniature Doctor in his bathroom. Across Olympos, others find the creatures as well, destroying things everywhere they can like true gremlins. The people panic, running and screaming. The creatures appear in the control room as well, pressing buttons at random. Zoe realizes that the Doctor’s contact with Zeus must have altered the Enforcer programming. The only hope is to reprogram Zeus—and only she can do it. She runs to the neural link.

Two of the duplicate Doctors have found the original, but Jamie knocks them off of the Doctor, who promptly wakes up. Meanwhile, Zoe puts on the link, and finds herself in a mindscape of a building under slow but steady destruction.

The Doctor and Jamie arrive at central control, soaking wet—the creatures have taken over Weather Control, and it is pouring rain. However, the Doctor points out something remarkable: while the creatures are destroying things, they are also spreading color all over the colony, painting the streets with sauces, growing flowers in the hydroponic domes, and even causing a rainbow in the sky. The people, long held to regularity and drabness, are intoxicated with the spectacle. The Doctor decides the duplicates are benevolent after all. He pulls something from his coat, and heads for the loudspeaker controls.

Zoe finds a door which won’t open, from which a voice warns her away.

The Doctor plays his recorder over the loudspeaker, and the notes of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” play over the colony. One by one, the creatures fall asleep. However, Zeus is still behaving abnormally.

Zoe finds the virtual version of the little Doctors to also be sleeping now. The door opens, and she finds a pale, anxious man behind it. The man pulls her into the room, which is a massive, ancient document library. The man is Zeus’s avatar; he asks for her help, and then informs her he is making a weapon.

Lev and Drex watch their baby in its amniotank. Drex, for the first time, feels true emotion toward Lev, and is pleased by it—but suddenly Weather Control goes offline, and the room becomes chilly. Back at Central Control, other systems go offline as well. Before long, a hurricane arises, and chaos begins to settle in. Zeus diverts more power to his scheme. Meanwhile, Zoe tries to persuade Zeus to stop, but he insists on protecting the colony—by any means necessary. A blast of power from the satellites would take care of the aliens—and if there were casualties along the way, well, logic allowed for that. But, Zoe suggests, perhaps there was more to life than logic?

The Doctor persuades the colonists to sacrifice their plasmonic items—including the little Doctors—for reversion in order to give the system enough power for a modicum of stability. Then he races to the neural link—but finds Zoe already occupying it. Inside the library mindscape, Zoe tears through the shelves, until she finds the TARDIS. Zeus can’t help being captivated; the TARDIS represents the lure of the unknown. As he stares, one of the little Doctors knocks out the avatar with a book.

The Doctor takes advantage of the lull to reboot the computer, and return things to some form of normalcy. However, before he and his friends leave, they provide the colonists with new possessions: Not furniture, not treasures, but the materials and tools to make their own. As they leave, Lev and Drex set to work, building new furniture.

Inside the TARDIS, Jamie suggests resting a bit before taking off; and reluctantly the Doctor concurs. However, Jamie yanks the dematerialization lever; as she says, they could sit around, but where’s the fun in that? And in their wake, the colony surges to life.

Little Doctors 2

Despite being read by Frazer Hines, this is chiefly a Zoe tale. She is central to the cold open, and is the real hero of the story, such as there is one (there’s not a lot of conflict to be had here, so the level of heroism is debatable). The story takes us to an Earth colony called Olympos, which is one of a series of such colonies built during Jamie’s time (although this one seems to have been long established at this point). Zoe is fascinated, but the Doctor finds the colony to be alarmingly dull and uniform; the people, led by the supercomputer Zeus, have lost their vitality and spark. The Doctor sets out to change that; but when he inadvertently causes the creation of hordes of miniature copies of himself, it becomes clear that he may have done more harm than good. It’s up to Zoe to put an end to the crisis—and maybe, just maybe, leave the planet a bit better than they found it.

Frazer Hines, as always, is good at what he does. I’ve always acknowledged that he captures the Second Doctor’s voice and mannerisms as well as anyone could expect. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of call for that here; there’s very little dialogue for the Doctor, who even spends a chunk of the story unconscious. Hines makes up for it with enthusiasm, and the story ends up being a pleasure to listen to.

That’s a good thing, because I suspect I’d have been a little frustrated had I been reading it instead of listening. It’s not a bad concept or plot; but in the second half it begins to jump around quite a bit. There were several times when I caught myself skipping back to listen again, thinking to myself “Now wait, how did they get there?!” Viewpoints shift among the characters frequently, and vital details are often given quickly and only once. It’s a lighthearted story, but it’s one to which you must pay attention; if your mind wanders, you will definitely miss something.

Still, it’s a good listen. The early anthology short trips, notably, ran shorter than the monthly editions; with the Second Doctor, especially, this always made the stories feel cramped to me. His television stories, while action-packed, seem to me to be more of a slow burn than those of some of his successors. He needs a little more time to build a good story. I’m glad to see he’s getting it here, even if there are some structural problems with the story; this story clocks in at about thirty-three minutes. It makes me look forward to future Second Doctor short trips. And, as always in this range, the story is supremely affordable at $2.99 (or the pound equivalent thereof), so there’s little reason not to check it out if you haven’t done so.

Next time: We’ll join the Third Doctor, Jo Grant, and UNIT in Time Tunnel! 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.

Little Doctors

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Audio Drama Review: Flywheel Revolution

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! A few weeks ago, we reached the end of the four early anthologies in the Short Trips range. Today, we pick up that range with the first of its individual releases, Flywheel Revolution! This story was released in January 2015, nearly four years after the previous release in the range, and it is a different animal—longer, with a more involved plot, and a somewhat slower pace. It will set the template for future releases in the range, continuing to the present day. Written by Dale Smith, and directed by Lisa Bowerman, the story features the First Doctor, and is read by Peter Purves. Let’s get started!

Flywheel Revolution 1

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

On a distant and far-future world, a robot named Frankie is confined to a scrapheap. He and his friends—all flawed or damaged—have been consigned here by their masters and makers, who are robots themselves, sent to colonize and develop this world. Frankie is a rover, and his flaw is that his geolocation module doesn’t work; he cannot receive the global timestamp signal, and so for him, it is always 5:15 and 23 seconds. Therefore, he gets lost very easily. This comes into play when he takes his friend—a misaligned boring machine named Toby—to see a monster in the scrapheap. Though he navigates by bouncing off of the magnetic Wall that defines the edges of the scrapheap, he is unable to lead Toby to the monster.

Over several days, he does not give up; and eventually he finds the monster, living—to Frankie’s horror—in the gutted interior of another, larger robot! The creature calls out to him, and seems delighted to see him, but he backs off in fear. Still, his curiosity is fully engaged; and after a few more days of wandering, he finds the monster again. This time, it calls itself the Doctor.

Over a few contacts—horrified on Frankie’s part, excited on the Doctor’s—Frankie learns that the Doctor is also trapped here, separated from his companions and his ship. Communications break down when Frankie sees that the Doctor has built a device to shut off the wall—shut it off? Let them all escape? Frankie can hardly dare to dream of it!—but he has built it from the scavenged parts of Frankie’s dead friends! Frankie erupts at him, and leaves in fury.

When he next sees the Doctor, the creature is solemnly apologetic. He had not understood the horror of what he had done; all he had seen were components. But now, he has disassembled his device…and he asks Frankie to help him lay them to rest with respect. This, at last, wins Frankie’s trust; and when the Doctor offers to repair his geolocation device, he is intrigued (though he does not accept).

Soon, however, the Doctor makes a breakthrough with the Wall. He sends Frankie to gather all of his friends; and he tells them they will soon be free. Then, he has Toby dig down into the soft soil beneath the scrapheap and fill another machine with the dirt—and he launches it skyward, raining down on the wall. Soon, this barrage overloads the magnetic wall, and it fails. The machines are free.

Before the Doctor leaves, he thanks Frankie for his help; and he asks the robot what he will do with his newfound freedom. Frankie thinks that he would like to find the people who condemned them all to the Scrapheap…and teach them how wrong they were. He trundles off, noting that it is five-fifteen and twenty-three seconds—the moment when his new life begins.

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As with most short trips, this story happens in a bubble of sorts. The story takes place on a planet whose identity is not given, not populated with any race we’ve previously seen, at a time that is not identified (only that it is in the far future), separate from his TARDIS, and separate from his companions (Ian, Barbara, and Susan, though they are not named, only loosely described). As such, there’s very little continuity to speak of, which is something we saw often in the early anthologies, and I expect it to be the standard henceforward as well.

The most accurate word I can apply to this story is “charming”. It’s the story of the Doctor facilitating a revolution—but not a bloody one; rather, a very small one, not much more than a family squabble of sorts. The robots with whom he deals are most definitely people in their own right; but they’re much like children, and he is very paternal toward them. Paternalism is a common enough trait with the First Doctor, and often it works out badly, but here it seems to be a good thing.

On television, the First Doctor was clever, but not nearly as resourceful as his later incarnations, especially in technological matters. Out of universe, that’s an artifact of the show’s early shifts in direction, I think, as it tried to find a stable identity after starting out as a children’s programme. As well, of course, the Doctor wasn’t really the main character at first, and so most of the resourcefulness was exhibited by the companions. Put another way, the Doctor got them into trouble; the companions got them out. Here, though, he’s quite resourceful (and has to be, given that he’s on his own). He correctly analyzes the political situation (if you can call it that) on the planet; he figures out the wall; he recognizes and understands the various robots; and he expresses his ability to repair them, though they don’t take him up on it. He builds a device from spare parts, though—for reasons revealed in the story—he doesn’t use it. He also has a keen, if belated, understanding of the personalities of the other characters. It’s really a good showing for the First Doctor, at a point in his life when frankly, he could use some good press.

Though the story is set during Ian, Barbara, and Susan’s era, the story is read by Peter Purves (Steven’s actor). I haven’t checked far enough ahead to be sure, but I believe this is usual procedure for First Doctor short trips, at least for awhile (I vaguely seem to recall that William Russell may have read a few? We’ll find out soon enough). Purves is, I think, one of the most steady and reliable narrators in Big Finish’s stable. His performances aren’t revolutionary in any way, but they’re steadily good; and he captures the First Doctor fairly well.

Overall, it’s not a bad foot to put forward with regard to reopening this range. It’s a fairly safe story—nothing too experimental, and we know from the Main Range that “experimental” is a mixed bag at best for Big Finish. At the same time, it manages to feel significant in a way that most of the anthology stories did not. If the upcoming entries can build on this start, the range will be in good hands (and the fact that it’s still running, three and a half years later, says that that is probably the case).

Next time: We’ll join Frazer Hines reading for the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe in Little Doctors! 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.

Flywheel Revolution

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Audio Drama Review: Quantum Heresy

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re concluding our examination of the early Short Trips anthologies with the Eighth Doctor’s contribution to the Short Trips, Volume IV collection: Quantum Heresy! Written by Avril Naude, and read by India Fisher, this story features the Eighth Doctor traveling companionless. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 4 a

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

A woman with an…oddly loose grasp of time…works in an archive on Earth. All seems well at first; but then she realizes that she is living the same moments over and over again. Later, the strange man called the Doctor will tell her that she is time-sensitive, or else she would never have noticed.

While checking data in the archive, the woman sees the Doctor appear out of apparently nowhere. He seems familiar, and introduces himself as “the Doctor”; then says an odd thing: “Oh, but you won’t have met me yet.” The woman feels increasingly panicked, but she swears she knows him, somehow. He escorts her deeper into the archive, and shows her an old man, shuffling forward, muttering something. Strangely, the Doctor calls the man “it”. The Doctor refuses to let her speak or approach, despite the overwhelming urge to hear what the man says.

Again she is working in the archive, alone in the quiet and dust. She thinks she has always been here. The man called the Doctor approaches, and she remembers him; but when he is gone, she forgets. Perhaps this happens over and over; she doesn’t know. It happens again, and she thinks that she stays because it is her duty. She hears the old man shuffling closer and muttering. She wants to know what he says; but she is afraid. She sees the old man searching for something—and then the Doctor appears, but she does not recognize him this time. He warns her back, and the old man shuffles away. He tells her that time is repeating itself, and even he is caught in it. He says he keeps arriving in this time loop at different points, until he gets it right—and then he vanishes.

The woman works in the archive, checking data, in the dust and the quiet. She thinks of the Doctor as she eats her lunch, and he appears, looking tired and worn. He asks for something to eat, and she offers him her lunch. He laments that he can’t seem to break the time loop—and then he realizes she remembered him this time. She says that he told her it was vital that she remember.  He doesn’t seem to know that, but is cheered by the news. Still, she thinks she has forgotten something. He asks if she remembers the old man—and the loop resets.

She works again. She knows now that the loop exists, and the Doctor is real—but not here. Her time sense awakens, and she realizes the days are not identical. She thinks of the old man, and the Doctor’s warning to avoid him. But would hearing him help or hurt? She is not even sure who she is.

She is no longer checking data storage, and the archive sits in its dust. Is any of this real? The old man passes by, and seems worse than before. Her compulsion to hear him is much stronger. The Doctor appears and breaks the spell again. She wonders not who she is, but what.

Another loop. She longs to be free, and is angry over it. It feels as though time has stopped. She calls out for the Doctor, and she hears his voice, now dry and cracked. He tells her it’s time—he has worked it out, and she has remembered. The time loop is an experiment. The old man is no man at all; he’s a creature from another dimension, trying to push through. And the woman…she WAS the experiment. She was created from raw matter, but has become a living person. The old man wanted to control her so as to manipulate the Doctor’s reality. But she resisted—and the experiment failed. She sees the old man, and he looks like a hole in reality. It burns and dies in front of them. The Doctor says that had she approached it, it would have granted the creature control—and she would have died.

The archive is not real, and it begins to crumble around her. She tries to hold on—but the Doctor assures her she is part of real reality now, and she can break free. So, she does.

Now, she has her own life, and freedom—and things can change and be different. She knows what the Doctor meant when he said she would understand in time—she would understand when she began to live in real time. More, she understands the Doctor—and just how much the universe owes him.

Short Trips Volume 4 b

It has always seemed to me that the Eighth Doctor era—having lacked a television series to set its tone—has become the dumping ground for the most weird and bizarre and—to borrow the Tenth Doctor’s term—timey-wimey stories in the DW canon. One need only to look at Zagreus (which I haven’t covered yet, but have heard enough about) to know that that is the case. His stories push the limits of time travel and dimensions and universes and his own lifespan and nearly any other fantastic aspect of the series.

This story, while hardly the most large-scale or dramatic, fits right in. It concerns a time loop—standard fare by itself—that is more than it seems, and gradually reveals an otherworldly creature (villain? By default, I suppose, but we don’t get very far into that aspect) trying to break into reality, as well as an artificial lifeform that becomes real. Pinocchio ain’t got nothin’ on this story, friends. Being a story of a time loop—but with the Doctor dropping in at non-sequential points—the story is told in non-linear fashion. Sometimes, as with Creatures of Beauty (which I recently covered), that can become a problem, as the story gives itself away too early. Here, I think it’s saved by the fact that it’s essentially a bottle episode; there are very few characters, in a very contained environment, and we’re only seeing the story from one character’s perspective, which is subject to the rules of the time loop. Thus, we don’t get the ending spoiled before we get there, despite the non-linear structure. That’s a rare combination of factors indeed, but it works here.

The Eighth Doctor is traveling alone, but that does little to establish when in his timeline the story takes place. If we got a good description of his hair or clothes, it might narrow it down; but the point-of-view character has other, more pressing concerns, and doesn’t oblige us. As is typical in these anthologies, there are no continuity references (we don’t even see a sonic screwdriver!), and that further obscures any attempt to place the story. Being a bottle episode, that’s just as well, I suppose; it doesn’t NEED to have any bearing on any other stories. As with past Eighth Doctor short trips, India Fisher (of Charley Pollard fame) does the reading; she’s passable and formal, but she doesn’t really attempt to capture the Doctor’s voice or mannerisms. I think that’s acceptable in audiobook format; it’s nice when we can get the different voices, but it’s not necessary.

Overall: A nice story, self-contained in more than one sense, and a decent wrap-up to both the fourth volume and the anthologies as a group. I haven’t always been optimistic about the Eighth Doctor’s short trips thus far, but this one is decent. It’s also short; I didn’t do the math, but I suspect it’s the shortest installment in this anthology. If you’ve made it this far, give this one a listen as well.

And that’s that! When we return, we’ll begin listening to the individual Short Trips, which tend to be longer and more involved—someone recently compared them to the Companion Chronicles, but in short form, and I think that’s an apt comparison. I should note that there’s a significant gap in release dates between Volume IV, published in 2011, and the first single release, published in January 2015. We’ll begin with the First Doctor in Dale Smith’s Flywheel Revolution! 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.

Short Trips, Volume IV

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Audio Drama Review: The Shadow Trader

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Shadow Trader, the Seventh Doctor’s entry into the Short Trips, Volume IV anthology. This story was written by Charles Williams, and features the Sixth Doctor and Ace, and is read by Sophie Aldred. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 4 a

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

Salim is a shadow trader. It’s an old profession, one practiced by his father before him, and dating all the way back to the old days on Earth. Some cultures have known for centuries that buildings—and in these days, spaceships—have souls of their own; it’s why a man may call his ship “she”, and put faith in its abilities. Those souls don’t happen; they are acquired by binding a shadow to the bones of the building or the ship. That’s where the shadow traders, like Salim, come in. It’s a little bit magical, but it always works—as Salim’s dying father taught him. Salim wasn’t the greatest at the job, but that didn’t matter; all his father asked of him was that he live, procreate, and pass on the skills to his son, who might do it better.

Fraser’s Rest, in orbit around the old colony of Sonos Prime, is a declining shipyard and trading post—once more powerful, but now diminished in the face of new settlements. Salim fits in here; he doesn’t stand out in this decaying realm of reduced activity. He finds a ship in the midst of construction, and watches the activity; it’s a luxury cruiser for a billionaire, quite a prominent addition to the construction yards of Fraser’s Rest, but that is because the billionaire grew up here, and feels some affection for the place. It is, perhaps, the last chance for the Rest. Salim has been staking it out for days, trying to determine what kind of soul—what kind of shadow—this ship should have. Even its name has not been decided; but the shipbuilders have been calling it the Defiance. Now Salim must search for a person to provide the shadow—someone who matches the character of the Defiance.

He finds it in a girl with a bulky jacket, a rucksack, and a ponytail. He follows the girl, Ace, as she rejoins a little man called the Doctor—or the Professor, as she calls him. They are here to watch a launch, but the Doctor ruefully notes that he may have brought them to the wrong year, as he remembers the places being more upscale. He admits there is nothing special about this ship launch, but that he just likes to watch them, and think about what adventures it may have. Ace isn’t interested, and heads back to their own ship, the TARDIS. Salim thinks on how to cut the girl’s shadow away.

Salim follows Ace down a lonely corridor, and sets a music box playing. Ace hears the music, which grows more and more complex; she finds it has caused her to be stuck in place. Salim confronts her, and she finds she cannot even approach him. He tells her that her shadow is holding him in place; it can’t move, and therefore neither can she. He produces a strange, circuitry-laden knife, and turns it on. He tells her to hold still, so that he can cut off her shadow; Ace threatens to kick him if he approaches. Salim is okay with this; they’ll be in a stalemate until she lets him take the shadow.

They are interrupted by the approach of the Doctor. Ace warns him away; the Doctor is unperturbed, and recognizes music box as a shadow lure. He states that it won’t work on him, to Salim’s surprise. The Doctor says this is because he has no shadow; and he knocks the music box from Salim’s hand, breaking it. Ace immediately kicks him to the floor.

The Doctor examines the knife, which is quite blunt, and says that it cuts shadows, not flesh. He recognizes Salim as a shadow trader, something he last encountered in nineteenth-century London. Salim defends his profession as noble; the Doctor counters that there is nothing noble about waving a knife at a girl in an alley, and says that Salim’s ancestors wouldn’t do it this way. They would offer a deal instead, though often not a favorable one. The Doctor explains that taking the shadow takes the person’s substance, causing their lives to go nowhere; past victims would end up in freak shows, or in bedlam. Salim objects that people must have sold the shadows willingly; the Doctor acknowledges that sometimes the downtrodden would do so, for the lure of being part of something great. Some people have felt that all they have to offer in life…is their shadow.

The Doctor leaves, taking Ace with him; without the lure, Salim may still be a parasite, but he’ll have to be a traditional one.

Salim watches the Defiance under construction, and thinks about his father, and about the many others who have desired to be part of something bigger. For a moment, he feels that desire as well…and then it is gone.

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I commented back in Volume II that the Seventh Doctor’s stories in these early anthologies seem to be built around the idea of teaching someone a life lesson. Saving the world—when it happens—is secondary to that purpose. The same holds true here, but with a twist that left the story a bit unsatisfying to me; I’ll get back to that in a moment.

The story finds the Doctor and Ace visiting a decaying shipyard for the purpose of watching a launch. In the course of it, they encounter a man named Salim. Salim is a shadow trader; he removes the shadows from unsuspecting individuals, and sells them to ship construction crews to be attached to the ship, thus giving it a “soul” of its own. It’s an ancient profession, going back to buildings on Earth, but it isn’t a very honest one. Salim gets more than he bargains for when he targets Ace’s shadow.

I say that the Doctor makes a point of teaching Salim a life lesson; in this case, that his chosen profession is dishonest, and leaves its victims with some severe consequences even if they agree to it. That’s standard for these Seventh Doctor stories, but the problem here is that nothing comes of it. We don’t see the effect it has on Salim at all; he’s still thinking about it when the story ends, but even that slips away from him. As far as we can tell, he’ll go on as he always has. While not every story has to have a happy ending, I think that it’s best when the actions of the story seem to count for something, whether it’s happy or not. That characteristic is lacking here, and it’s very unsatisfying. There’s potential, but it’s just not realized. (I should note that the wiki page for Salim’s character interprets the ending differently, but I think the author of the page is extrapolating a bit to reach the conclusion that Salim changes for the better. I do think that the author intended to show that Salim changes, but somehow that detail got omitted from the final cut.)

The presentation is decent, as usual; Sophie Aldred had been voicing Ace for Big Finish for a very long time by the time this story was released, and audiobooks seem to have been an easy transition for her. Her presentation of the Seventh Doctor is a little rough, but that’s only because her voice is (obviously) quite different from his; she captures his tone and mannerisms fairly well. There are no continuity references to speak of; the Doctor does mention having encountered shadow traders in nineteenth century London, and possibly at the construction of the Sphinx as well, but those references don’t seem to be attached to any stories.

Overall: Not the greatest of the Seventh Doctor’s anthology stories. It could have been better, but just didn’t hit the mark. We’ll see if things improve when we reach the individual Short Trips.

Next time: We’ll finally reach the last installment in the Short Trips anthologies! We’ll join the Eighth Doctor, sans companions, in Quantum Heresy. 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.

Short Trips, Volume IV

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Audio Drama Review: To Cut a Blade of Grass

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to To Cut a Blade of Grass from the Short Trips, Volume IV anthology. Featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown, this story was written by Cindy Garland, and read by Colin Baker. Let’s get started!

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

A woman named Rosie stands in a parking lot, staring up at the stars and feeling alienated, knowing difficult times are ahead. Then she enters the hospital.

Hospitals are strange places, in both time and space. Rosie visits her father, who is both there and not; he stares into space, ignorant of the television. His stroke has taken away his ability to speak, so she speaks to him, in a whisper that she can’t explain even to herself. She babbles about the weather, watching his reactions, knowing he sees through her. Finally he silences her and tries to speak, but she cannot understand him. At length, he sleeps.

The nurse reassures Rosie that her father is the same as before; he is simply tired from his other visitor. Other visitor? Rosie didn’t know anyone else was coming. The nurse describes him as eccentric, with a strange dress sense, and an ageless look under curly blonde hair.

Rosie visits a nearby café, then returns. She finds a new nurse—short, dark-haired, with an American accent—helping her father into a wheelchair; the nurse says he is to sit up for fifteen minutes each day as part of his therapy. The nurse leaves them alone together; Rosie stays until visiting hours end. She is a mile away from the hospital when she gets a call: her father is missing.

Rosie immediately suspects the nurse, and discovers that no nurse of that description is employed at the hospital. She races back to the hospital—and find that her father has reappeared. Everyone is apologetic, but no good explanation is forthcoming—just an alleged error. However, he seems better, somehow.

Rosie stands outside a moment, when she is interrupted by a stranger offering her…parsnips? She is stunned for a moment, but the man’s manner is disarming enough—and he is certainly eccentric. She has a hunch… ”Do you know my father?” The man does, and introduces himself as John Smith. He assures her that her father is very proud of her, and talks of her often. She isn’t sure, and feels compelled to explain; she is an aspiring writer, with high marks and considerable skill, but little success; when her father’s convalescence is complete, she intends to go back for a business degree instead. The man questions her decision; in the grand scheme of things, even though business will feed a person, great works of art endure. Rosie’s phone rings, and she turns to answer it; when she turns back, John Smith has vanished.

Aboard the TARDIS, the Doctor is in a morose mood. Peri remarks on it, and tells the Doctor that what he did for the old man was quite kind—taking him to the future to see his daughter’s wedding, his grandchildren, his daughter’s eventual death. Isn’t this forbidden, though? Well, perhaps the Doctor bent the rules a bit—after all, he didn’t change anything, or at least, nothing unintentional. The man was Walter Wibberley, a baker, a man of no great repute; the Doctor met him over some excellent Cornish pasties. The Doctor became first his customer, and then his friend. Though he knew the Doctor was a Time Lord, they never traveled together; but the Doctor gave him a telescope, which he treasured. Peri thinks the man must have done something of significance; but the Doctor says no, he simply liked to look at the stars and bake things.

Still, Peri has a point; most of the Doctor’s friends are people of great accomplishments. Walter was not so, but what he did, he did very well; and that was often enough to improve the day—and the life—of a man like the Doctor. He is gone now, the Doctor admits. However, the Doctor says that he didn’t come to make Walter happy; he came to keep Rosie from giving up on her writing. Even in this she won’t be successful; but if she chooses business, she won’t work at a bookshop one day, where she won’t meet her husband. You see, if she does meet him, she will form a habit of slipping love poems into his pockets. One day he will read one on the train, and smile at another man, who will in turn make more human decisions at his company. The cleaning lady at that company will therefore keep her job, and will buy her son an electronic kit, which will lead him to become an engineer, who will design a component of a deep-space telescope that will therefore last much longer than expected, allowing humanity to make some great discoveries, which will further humanity’s history. So, Walter does do something great…just, not on his own. After all, all things are connected, and everyone matters, regardless of fame. As the old proverb says, “To cut a blade of grass is to shake the universe”. Now, what could be more appropriate than pasties for dinner…and parsnips, of course?

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To Cut a Blade of Grass is a sentimental story—let’s say that up front. I find it fascinating that, the more such stories I hear, the more obvious it becomes that Colin Baker’s Doctor—long known for being the most abrasive—is well suited to this type of story. I thought for a long time about why that would be so; all I can conclude is that his strong emotions aren’t limited to anger, but rather, cover the full range. All the various Doctors are passionate, but none more so than Six, and it shows here.

In this story, the Doctor visits an old friend who is dying, and in the course of it he makes a casual—but supremely lasting—impact on the old friend’s daughter. The Doctor is not a character given to introspection, or to revisiting his own past—how many companions has he abandoned, never to return (Tenth Doctor farewell tour notwithstanding)?—so when he does it, it has impact. Personally, I think the short trip format—especially the extra-short version found in these early anthologies—is better suited to this sort of thoughtful, non-action, human-interest story; but given that the previous entry was a decent action story, your mileage may vary.

I compared an earlier story in this anthology, The Old Rogue, to another much later Short Trip, Forever Fallen. Both stories feature the Doctor and a companion checking up on an old dictator serving exile in a café, with varying results. I feel compelled to also compare this story to Forever Fallen in a different regard. Both stories feature situations where the changes the Doctor makes are not about the individual at hand, but about someone else further down the road, who will be influenced for the better. It’s the chain reaction, the often-cliched butterfly effect; or as the Doctor puts it, “To cut a blade of grass is to shake the universe.”

There are no continuity references of note here, so to sum up: I enjoyed this one. It’s a side of Colin Baker’s Doctor that we don’t always get to see; but when we do, it’s always good. This one is worth a listen. (Actually, I should amend my statement; the Doctor does call himself “John Smith” here, which dates back at least to The Wheel in Space, and in the Doctor’s timeline even further, as seen in The Vampires of Venice.)

Next time: We’re nearly done with the anthologies! We’ll check in with the Seventh Doctor and Ace in The Shadow Trader. 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.

Short Trips, Volume IV

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Audio Drama Review: The Lions of Trafalgar

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Lions of Trafalgar, the Fifth Doctor’s entry in the Short Trips, Volume IV collection. Written by Jason Arnopp and read by Peter Davison, this story was published in August 2011, and features the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa. Let’s get started!

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

The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan arrive in London on 23 October 1843; Tegan is amazed at the primitive state of the city, which is both relaxed and busy at the same time. Visiting Trafalgar Square, they discover a number of stone lions, but quickly discover that the lions are only visible to the three of them. The Doctor concludes there is a perception filter in place, but one that can only affect people of this time.

The Doctor climbs the newly-constructed Nelson’s Column to have a look around. At the top, he finds two men, Samuel Morton Peto and Thomas Grissell, who are the contractors responsible for construction of the column. They are famously having tea at the top of the still-statueless column, along with twelve of the stonemasons. The stonemasons are nowhere to be seen, however. The two contractors have been possessed by a predatory race called the Sevakrill, who have used them—to the Doctor’s disgust—to devour the twelve stonemasons. It is a celebratory dinner, to be sure; but it is the Sevakrill who are celebrating their own impending conquest!

The column, they reveal, holds a missile that is scheduled to destroy the Earth, but not until 2017, when it will serve to distract their enemies, a force called the Charnal Horde; and it will entertain the Sevakrill as well. The Doctor speaks to the two men instead of the Sevakrill, and tries to get them to build a mental barrier against the Sevakrill, using Nelson’s honorable example for strength.

Below, the lions begin chasing Nyssa and Tegan at the command of the Sevakrill, in order to disrupt the Doctor’s efforts. Eight people—seven civilians and a policeman—are killed during the chase. The lions are interrupted as the Sevakrill are forced out of their hosts; and the lions return to their plinth. The hosts are left with their freedom and a stomachache; the Doctor declines to tell them that it comes from their unwitting cannibalism.

The Doctor spends the next two weeks working to remove the missile. He is unable to eliminate it completely, but lowers it into a tunnel below, and puts a floor under it (since the missile is aimed down at the Earth instead of up). He also places a signal that will bring him back if it is every activated. As the lions are still in place—but invisible—he sets the perception filters to switch off in a few decades, and arranges to have the lions covered and then unveiled as if they had been newly placed—thus maintaining known history. He also makes a note to skip ahead thirty-five years and see if anyone has tampered with Cleopatra’s Needle.

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The Fifth Doctor’s entries into these early volumes—of which, as a reminder, this is the last—have consistently been some of the most action-packed, but also some of the most ridiculous. This volume, at least, takes a break from the ridiculousness; this is a believable enough adventure as Doctor Who goes. We visit the 23 October 1843 completion of Nelson’s Column, a few weeks before its famous statue is placed; the Doctor is forced to thwart an alien sleeper plot which will eventually—give or take seventeen decades—destroy the Earth. Nyssa and Tegan aren’t much help here, but they do get chased by the titular stone lions, which is really the only reason for the lions to be in the story at all, as historically it would be a few decades before they were built. That sort of splitting of the plot into two parallel tracks is, of course, common in Doctor Who even today, with the Doctor going one way while his companions go a separate-but-related way. Usually the companion’s track is a little more vital to the story, but unfortunately, sometimes—like here—it’s just extraneous.

With all that said, I still enjoyed the story. I do think it would have felt a little more real to someone who is familiar with the area and the history. I know what Nelson’s Column is, and what it memorializes, but I would not have recognized the date of this story (apparently the dinner party atop the column, mentioned with changes here, was a real event). I wouldn’t have known that there were stone lions around the column, or that they were a later addition, and thus an anachronism here. (The wiki claims that this story “is a reference to an old legend that the lions in Trafalgar Square will come to life if Big Ben chimes 13 times”—another reference I wouldn’t have gotten.) Tegan also makes reference to the “Great Stink” of 1858; this one I had to look up. The story does explain a bit, but more in a “hurry and catch up” manner. That’s a risk, I think, in any historical; of course it’s a British series, and deals most of all with British history, while the fanbase is worldwide at this point. Not a complaint, exactly, just noting that some of it may be lost on international fans like me. I do think this is mitigated a bit by the Fifth Doctor; he travels with a group of young people, and it’s almost inevitable that he serves as a teacher to them, and to the audience by default. The balance of “show vs. tell” is maintained, but perhaps with a bit more “tell” than in the case of other Doctors. (I’m a bit biased; I like the Fifth Doctor, and think that the usual issues people raise against his era are overblown. You can feel free to take my opinions with a grain of salt, accordingly.)

Continuity References: Nelson’s Column has been visited previously, as early as The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Perception filters, which here conceal the lions, were first mentioned in Torchwood (Everything Changes) before making their way to the main series (Human Nature episode version, et al.). The Doctor claims—typically, if you ask me—to be a friend of Nelson (World Games). Tegan tries to dissuade the Doctor from climbing the column, noting that climbing ended badly for him last time—a reference to his regeneration after falling from the Pharos Project telescope (Logopolis). As well, given that the Doctor is only accompanied by Tegan and Nyssa, this story must occur between Earthshock and Mawdryn Undead.

Overall: Pretty quick for an action story, but decent enough. If anything, it was over too quickly, but it was fun while it lasted. I understand that later short trips are perhaps double the length of these anthology stories; I think that’s a more workable length for an action story like this. Still, not bad.

Next time: We join the Sixth Doctor and Peri in To Cut a Blade of Grass! 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.

Short Trips, Volume IV

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