Charity Anthology Review: Regenerations, edited by Kenton Hall, featuring the War Doctor

Nearly seven years ago, I remember sitting in my bedroom with the television on and the lights dimmed. I had put my children—then ages seven and five—to bed early, and locked up the house, and silenced my cell phone, all so that I could watch, uninterrupted, something for which I had waited years: the fiftieth anniversary special of Doctor Who.

And it was worth it. In the years since, there has been much debate over the episode, much of it over on the /r/Gallifrey subreddit (where this post can also be found); but on that night I didn’t care about any of that. I watched and enjoyed the story for everything it represented–fifty years of wonderful stories, of colorful characters, of Doctor after Doctor after Doctor…and something unexpected: a new Doctor! And not even the next one, which we already knew about; but rather, a past Doctor, a hidden Doctor, one the Doctor himself couldn’t bear to bring into the light. Needless to say, I was caught up. (Full disclosure, of course: the actual reveal was in the previous episode—but we knew so little, it may as well have been in the special. I certainly wasn’t disappointed!)

John Hurt’s War Doctor became the glue that held the entire post-Time War continuity together. The Last Great Time War was the event that drove every incarnation of the Doctor, from Eccleston’s Nine to Capaldi’s Twelve; but it took Hurt’s War Doctor to show us just why, and how much, the Doctor loathed himself. So much so that he denied the very name; so much so that he managed to hide the existence of the War Doctor from every instance where he could have been expected to be revealed. But the past doesn’t always stay in the past, even if you’re the Doctor.

Unfortunately, John Hurt was taken too soon. He turned in a few glorious performances as the War Doctor in Big Finish’s audio format; and then he was gone. I one hundred percent respect the BBC’s, and Big Finish’s, decision not to recast him or otherwise continue his legacy. And yet, there’s a part of me, as a fan, that says what everyone was thinking: The War Doctor deserves more.

 

That’s where today’s review comes in. On 03 August 2020, a new War Doctor charity anthology was released; and we’ll be looking at it today. Published by Chinbeard Books, and edited by Kenton Hall, Regenerations is released in support of Invest in ME, a research organization studying treatments for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (the “ME” of the title). I will link to the charity at the end, as well as to the sale page for the anthology. In the meantime, you can view a short trailer for the anthology here!

Regenerations book cover

We’ve had other charity projects concerning the War Doctor before, most notably the Seasons of War anthology (an excellent read, if you can locate a copy; it is currently out of print, and not expected to return). Regenerations is a bit different; where Seasons of War is a compilation of stories that are in rough chronological order—as much as a Time War can ever be chronological!—but mostly unrelated to each other, Regenerations is more tightly woven. But more on that in a moment.

There will be some spoilers ahead! I have given a short and vague overview of the anthology’s entries, but even those clips contain spoilers. Further, afterward, I’ll be summing up the frame story, and will at minimum be spoiling who the major villain is, and a bit of how it is overcome. I am not going to try to spoiler tag such an extensive part of the post; but you can use the line dividers ahead as markers. You can read the next section, beginning with the phrase “Less like an anthology”, safely without significant spoilers. The two line-divided sections thereafter are spoiler-heavy, so if you want to avoid them, skip ahead!

With all that said, let’s dive in!


Less like an anthology, Regenerations reads like a novel, despite being the work of a group of authors. Its stories don’t simply have “the Time War” as their common thread; they mesh together for a purpose. There’s a frame story, penned by editor Kenton Hall, in which the War Doctor begins abruptly to sense that, in this war of changed timelines, someone is playing games with his own past. Suddenly, he’s not quite the man he has been—and he is dangerously close to becoming the man he used to be. That’s unfortunate, and quite possibly disastrous, because the change comes at a critical moment, a time when the universe seems to need the Warrior more than the Doctor. Now, he must work through his past lives and find the divergences, and somehow set them right, before he himself ceases to be. And if, along the way, he can find the parties responsible, it would be a wonderful bonus.

We’re introduced to two new Time Lords, newly minted Academy graduates (and CIA desk jockeys) Jelsillon and Dyliss. Their world is turned on its head when they receive a new mission from the CIA’s Coordinator—and instantly they know something is wrong. The Coordinator is a man they know—but not from the CIA. Rather, it’s a former classmate, Narvin (yes, THAT Narvin), who is suddenly seen to be much older and several regenerations along. Narvin sets them a mission: to disrupt the timeline of the famous (infamous?) Time Lord known as the Doctor. There’s just one problem: They don’t know who that is.

Jelsillon and Dyliss, as it turns out, live in a time long before the War, and even before the rise of the Doctor. This, it seems, makes them prime candidates for the mission; though they familiarize themselves with the Doctor, they have no preconceptions. All they have is a drive for adventure—and who wouldn’t want to save the world, after all?

From here, we launch into a series of tales, one concerning each of the War Doctor’s past lives. Each is an alteration of events familiar to us, the fans; each is a deviation from the timeline we have known. Between these stories, we see in short form the Doctor’s continuing efforts to get to the bottom of the situation.


Let’s take a look at the stories.

  • First Doctor: To get us started and set our course, editor Kenton Hall gives us our first tale, told in five short parts. In An Untrustworthy Child and The World That Was Different, we visit late 1963, where a policeman walks his beat near I.M. Foreman’s scrapyard; but his curiosity will cost him tonight. Elsewhere and elsewhen, on war-torn Gallifrey, the High Council under Rassilon banishes one of its own, and sets a dangerous plan in place. And two young Time Lords, Jelsillon and Dyliss, are sent on a mission to make that plan a reality, though they don’t know what they are getting into. In Exit the Doctor, the First Doctor mulls over his situation, and ultimately decides the time to leave 1963 London is fast approaching; but before he can act, he discovers the alarming presence of another TARDIS in the scrapyard, and goes to investigate. In The TARDISes, the Doctor isn’t the only one investigating; two teachers from his granddaughter Susan’s school are making their way to the scrapyard on a mission of their own. Meanwhile, the occupants of the new TARDIS, Jelsillon and Dyliss, have laid a trap, not for the Doctor, but for his granddaughter, Susan. A split-second decision will return Susan to Gallifrey, and turn everything on its head, as Jelsillon and Dyliss—not Ian and Barbara—join the Doctor on his travels. They have one goal: to ensure he never goes to Skaro, and never meets the Daleks. For, as the High Council believes, it’s the Doctor’s encounters with the Daleks that ultimately lead them to their vendetta against the Time Lords; if that can be averted, will not also the War itself? And in The Pawn of Time, the Doctor—now having traveled for some time with Dyliss and Jelsillon—has just taken on a new companion, one Vicki Pallister. Back on Gallifrey, the banished Cardinal is summoned to a meeting by the War Doctor; and on Earth, a somewhat traumatized policeman decides to put in for his retirement.
  • The Second Doctor: Dan Barratt’s Time of the Cybermen revisits the events of Tomb of the Cybermen, on the distant planet of Telos—until a sweeping wave of timeline changes carries the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria away to Earth, with aching heads and new memories… Here they discover a different tomb, as in the 22nd century they find that the Cybermen, not the Daleks, conquered Earth. Now, the last bastion of humanity, long sleeping in their own frozen crypt, is about to be discovered—and it’s all the Doctor’s fault!
  • The Third Doctor: Andrew Lawston revisits Day of the Daleks in The Paradoxical Affair at Styles. Events happen much the same, with a 22nd century assassin returning to kill Reginald Styles, only to be thwarted—but when the assassin is killed, he is determined to be the Doctor! Naturally, this is most alarming to the Doctor himself. He and Jo Grant find themselves transported into the future—but they miss the mark by twenty years, only to find themselves in the midst of the Dalek occupation of Earth. They receive unexpected aid from an old enemy: The Master—but not as they have known them. This Master claims to be from the future, in a time of universe-consuming war. In the end, his help only serves to perpetuate the loop, with the Doctor returning to the past to assassinate Styles…
  • The Fourth Doctor: Terminus of the Daleks, by Alan Ronald, takes us to the far future of Gallifrey, a time long past the disappearance of the hero known as the Doctor. We meet Ari, an actor, who is playing the role of the Doctor in his greatest adventure: his visit to Skaro at the very beginning of the Dalek menace (Genesis of the Daleks), where he asked the famous question, “Have I the right…?” and then answered with a resounding YES. And yet, here, now, with history solid and reassuring behind him, he must ask himself: How would the Doctor really feel? The question has weight, and so will the answer.
  • The Fifth Doctor: Shockwave, by Simon A. Brett and Lee Rawlings, picks up immediately after the death of Adric—but not the death we remember. After all, there were no Sontarans involved in Adric’s original death. Don’t mind the oddity though; as the Doctor says to Tegan and Nyssa, “as we’ve been dealing with a number of supremely powerful species discharging temporal energy in the same relatively localized area of time and space, normality may be too much to ask.” But there’s no time to worry about that, as the TARDIS has a close call with a VERY displaced Concorde—which leads them to a drastically altered Heathrow airport, an ankylosaurus in the shops, and a kidnapping by a quite unexpected old enemy.
  • Sixth Doctor: Revelation, by Christine Grit, opens with the Sixth Doctor landing on a world called Necros—or is it?—in the midst of an argument with his young companion, Per—no, Adric. Even the Doctor can detect that something isn’t right—just why did he come here, anyway? A funeral? An old friend?—but he can’t force his mind to sort it out. Which quickly becomes irrelevant, as he is captured and placed in a cage in a zoo, right between a dead Sontaran and a depressed-but-artistic Ice Warrior. Adric, meanwhile, escapes, only to fall in with a local band of (literally) shadowy rebels, led by a strange woman with a gravity-defying mermaid tail. Yes, that is a real sentence; just roll with it, it works out alright in the end. Before long, the roles are reversed; it is the Doctor who is free and siding with the young woman, while Adric is a prisoner…of a long-absent Time Lord called the Rani, and her modified Daleks.
  • Seventh Doctor: Enter the Rani by Nick Mellish picks up on the threads left hanging in Revelation. After disposing of Adric, the Rani’s plans have moved ahead, and she has found a suitable world in Lakertya. If only she hadn’t crashed on it! But given time—something she has in abundance—she shapes the rocky continent of her landing into something she can use, enslaving its people, building labs, conducting experiments. It isn’t long before her next targets—the Doctor and his companion, Mel—come along…only to crash as well. Strange. Well, the Rani is nothing if not an opportunist. She captures the Doctor, but is stunned to see that he has just regenerated, which will certainly throw a wrench in the plans. Mel falls in with the remaining natives, and organizes a rescue—and for once it works! The Rani is captured, the Doctor freed. Her plans continue, however—plans to destroy a strange matter comet and collect the chronons it generates, and use them to punch a hole in time and shape history—and evolution—to her own desires. But the mystery still remains: What is it that traps TARDISes on this world? As the moon turns blue, the truth proves to be stranger than fiction—but that won’t stop the end of the world from happening.
  • Eighth Doctor: Steven Horry’s The Edge of the War posits only a small change: What if the Master, in his deathworm morphant form after his execution by the Daleks, didn’t steal the body of Bruce the paramedic, but rather, the body of his wife, Miranda? Such a small change…and yet the consequences snowball, as this new Master kills Chang Lee rather than subverts him, and then steals the TARDIS, leaving the Doctor stranded on Earth—and out of the path of the inevitable Time War.
  • War Doctor–or not?: The Flight of the Doctor, by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, shows us a different view of The Night of the Doctor, one in which Cass and her crew safely escape the gunship’s crash on Karn…and the Doctor walks away from Ohila’s offer. After all, what does a war need more than a medic?

From here to the end of the book, we return to the War Doctor, Jelsillon, and Dyliss. For the War Doctor, this tale began on the world of Makaria Prime, which dealt with the War in a singularly impressive way: By removing themselves from it. Unfortunately, they did so by punching a hole through not only the time vortex, but the very fabric of the universe itself—and that hole became a superhighway for not only the Daleks, but also another, unexpected villain. Long ago, the Doctor encountered an artificial pocket universe called the Land of Fiction, which was ruled by a supercomputer called the Master Brain, using various human proxies. Now, the Master Brain itself has evolved sentience, just in time to find a way through the Makarian rupture and into the universe. And yet, it remains bound to the Land. Now, it seeks the Doctor, not just for revenge, but for a greater purpose: To cede control of the Land to him. This will give the Doctor the power to create what he always wanted: A universe without the Daleks. In turn, it will free the Master Brain to wander the universe and do as it pleases—much as the Rani once sought control over history. It is the Master Brain, using willing pawns in power-hungry Rassilon, Coordinator Narvin, Jelsillon, and Dyliss, who tampered with the Doctor’s past, all to bring him to this point. And to accomplish all this, it has possessed Jelsillon, taking control of his body—a control it plans never to relinquish.

When of course he refuses, the computer tortures him with visions of what may be. He sees his next life save London from overeager Chula nanogenes…by introducing them to regeneration. He sees the Tenth Doctor save Donna Noble from her memories, only to see her become an amalgamation of his own darker sides, calling itself the Valeyard. He sees a world where one Amy Pond didn’t follow her husband into the Weeping Angel’s touch, and mourns his death all the way to a world called Trenzalore. He sees his Twelfth incarnation stand at the top of a miles-long ship with two friends and an old enemy, and watches the villain take a blast for him that leaves a hole through her body. The Master Brain shows him these things not to hurt him (or, well, maybe a little to hurt him), but to show him the wealth of possibilities, if only he will give in.

And ultimately, he does exactly that.

But the Doctor—even as the Warrior—remains the Doctor; and as always, he’s done something clever. For he knows what the computer does not: That as much as anything else, this is a love story. Jelsillon and Dyliss’s story, to be specific—over the years, they’ve developed a bond much greater than classmates or coworkers. And that bond allows Dyliss to find Jelsillon, and with him, the Doctor and the Master Brain. Staser in hand, she offers the computer a way out: The Doctor will take ownership of the Land, and in return the Master Brain can go free—but in its disembodied form, where it can do no harm. At last it agrees.

The Doctor closes the tale with “a bit of a rewrite”. Going one step further than the Master Brain, he seeks out his Thirteenth incarnation, interrupting her battle against the Lone Cyberman at Villa Diodati, and enlists her help to set things right. Slowly he pieces his life back together, visiting points of divergence, preventing changes. Narvin’s call to Jelsillon and Dyliss is intercepted, much to Narvin’s anger. Changes radiate through his timestream as he makes them, a river resuming an old familiar course. Unfortunately, as he does so, the Doctor recedes, and the Warrior resurges. But that’s not such a bad thing—after all, there’s still the matter of the Makarians to deal with. Only a Warrior would help them escape the universe—and after all, the Doctor recently inherited a piece of extra-universal Land…

Back at their old jobs, Jelsillon and Dyliss talk over their experiences, before the timestreams cause them to forget. But some things—like the bond they created—will outlast even the changes of memory.

And in a future still to come, a weary Warrior trudges across a desert toward an old barn, a sack on his back, ready to bring about an end, and so many beginnings.


Most spoilers end here!

One never knows what to expect when beginning a story about the War Doctor. That’s chiefly because it’s impossible to do justice to the Time War, the inevitable backdrop of any War Doctor story. It’s a frequent complaint: Descriptions given by the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors paint a picture that is never fully realized, and understandably so—after all, a true Time War of the scale described would be beyond the comprehension of three-dimensional beings like us. Consequently many stories leave fans feeling a bit short-changed.

I don’t buy into that outlook, though. A bad War Doctor story is better than none at all; and if we can’t properly encompass the incomprehensibility of the Time War, well, neither can its victims. Therein lies the secret: You have to view it through the lens of an individual. When you do that, the smaller stories make sense, because that’s how the incomprehensible would filter down to us.

And if you’re going to do that, then you should run with it.

That’s what we have here in Regenerations. We see the War Doctor not as a force of nature, because forces of nature don’t make good stories (even a disaster movie is about the people it affects). We see him as a person. While we don’t get to see him in full Warrior mode—another frequent complaint—we do get to see him struggle between the two personas of Doctor and Warrior as they’re pitted directly against each other. He himself doesn’t know who he is, and he feels pulled apart by the struggle.

The entire book walks a line between earnest and tongue-in-cheek, sometimes dipping a toe in one direction or the other. There’s a serious story happening here, worthy of any other time-bending story in Whovian continuity; but there’s also plenty of jokes, and a wealth of references to past stories, far more than I could possibly cover here as I usually do. That’s above and beyond the fact that each story is a new take on a classic story—you get inside jokes, such as the War Doctor announcing “Im looking for the Doctor”; Graham declaring “You’ve certainly come to the right place”; and Thirteen leaping in to insist that “No he hasn’t! He’s come to entirely the wrong place and he knows it!”

I admit to being especially impressed at the continuity here. Sometimes I forget just how many threads of continuity one must tie together in order to keep a story in order these days. It’s especially complicated here, where not only do we have to track each Doctor’s timestream, track the changes we’re making, and make sure we’re not contradicting more obscure details; but also we have to bring in any number of sources—for example, Narvin from the Gallifrey audio series, the Doctor’s return to the Land of Fiction in the New Adventures novels, various television seasons, and even a hint about the Eighth Doctor being stranded on Earth with Grace Holloway in the Doctor Who Magazine comics. Somehow, despite spanning an entire stable of authors, it works.

In the final analysis, the book left me both satisfied with the outcome, and wanting more. I’m content with the end of this story; it’s fully resolved, and lingering too long would weaken it. But I wouldn’t mind seeing some more stories set in some of these alternate lives. In particular, Jelsillon and Dyliss are interesting characters, and I’d be interested to see more of their adventures with the First Doctor in place of Ian, Barbara, and Susan. Or, I would like to see more of the life of third-regeneration Susan as a Cardinal during the Time War—a different take than her appearance in the audio All Hands on Deck; a life in which she either never left Gallifrey with the Doctor, or was returned there from 1963 London by Jelsillon and Dyliss (her own memories of the event are in flux at this point). I’d like to know what happens to Seven and Mel and the Rani if and when they escape Lakertya. I wouldn’t mind a glimpse into the battle against Donna as the Valeyard.

We’ll leave that to the imagination for now, I suppose.

But, if you’re also into alternate continuities, or the War Doctor, or just the humor to be had in revisiting these adventures, check out the book. You’ll enjoy it, and you’ll give some support to a worthy cause in the process.

Thanks for reading!

You can purchase Regenerations from Chinbeard Books at this link. Please note that the limited print run has sold out, but the ebook is still available.

The trailer for the anthology may be viewed here.

For more information on Invest in ME Research, check out their website here.

Novel Review: No Future

We’re back! Today we’ll be finishing up the “Alternate Universe” arc of the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs, hereafter), with the fifth entry in that miniseries (and twenty-third in the VNAs overall), Paul Cornell’s No Future. Published in February 1994, this novel as usual features the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Bernice. Let’s get started!

No Future

I almost never comment on the cover art, but in this case…wow. That’s…really something.

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

Led by a hint laid for them during their time in the Land of Fiction, the Doctor and his companions land in 1976 London, searching for a man named Danny Pain. They find him to be less impressive than promised; a moody teenager in a punk band, he shows no sign of saving the world as implied. Nevertheless, something is up, and the Doctor has had enough of the meddling happening in his past; one way or another, the game ends here and now.

Now, Benny is a full member of Pain’s band, Plasticine—a fact the Doctor knew before he ever met her. Ace is at odds with the Doctor, and seeks to end their problems on her own terms. The Doctor seeks help from his old friends in UNIT…and finds that they don’t know him—but they’re more than willing to deal with the threat that he represents. It’s good timing, because the anarchist group Black Star is on a rampage, setting off bombs and sparking riots; but a record producer named Robert Bertram has a plan to bring peace to the world—and Plasticine, Benny, and Ace are at the core of it all.

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I’ll say up front that I enjoyed this novel; but I also have to say that I’m afraid that I can’t do it justice here. So, this entry is likely to be brief and a bit unsatisfying—but don’t let that reflect on the novel!

The problem, for me, is that this book, among all the entries in the Alternate Universe arc, is heavily steeped in a period of British culture with which I am almost completely unfamiliar. I grew up in the USA in the eighties and nineties, a time and place where most knowledge of British culture came from A) those bands that were popular on both sides of the Atlantic, B) Monty Python, and C) classic Doctor Who. None of those sources give much insight into what things were like locally, especially in the political and musical sense. (You’d think the musical side would be obvious, but in my experience, we can be fairly tunnel-visioned about such things.) As a result, references were lost on me; jokes most likely went over my head; and, since we’re dealing specifically with an altered history in this novel, I sometimes had trouble seeing where the novel’s background deviates from reality. It’s likely I’ll even get some things wrong in this review, even after having done the research.

To that end, I’ll mostly talk about what I did appreciate (and what I didn’t!) here. For one, it’s a UNIT story, which is generally a plus to me. It bookends the arc nicely; we started with an alternate version of UNIT, and we’re finishing with one as well. (To be fair, it’s not “alternate” here in the sense of another version; this is the real UNIT, but with some past experiences altered.) They also appeared tangentially in The Left-Handed Hummingbird, but insignificantly by comparison. Unfortunately, this book makes a strong effort to align UNIT’s history with the dates given in Mawdryn Undead, rather than every other UNIT story, thus further confusing the issue. While researching this review, I found mention that Paul Cornell had been vocal in his dislike for the Pertwee era; it seemed to be implied that this book was his effort to see a UNIT story “done right”. I hadn’t heard that before, and unfortunately didn’t have time to dig into original sources to confirm; but if that was his goal, I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t come across as particularly different from a typical UNIT story. Or perhaps I’m not sorry; after all, I like most UNIT stories.

Generally, though, I like Cornell’s work, and usually recommend his books. Allegedly he himself considers this to be the worst of his DW novels; but that doesn’t make it bad. The worst I can say for it is that it’s clogged; there are so many real-world references and continuity references here, I’d struggle to list them all (though I’ll take a stab at the continuity, at least). He has a lot of threads to tie together here, and he does a fair job of it. Our final villain—and before I say it, I’ll remind you that I did say there were spoilers ahead—turns out to be the Monk; allegedly this is the first DW story to confirm, not just suggest, that the Monk and the Master were not the same Time Lord. (In 1994! Who would have thought it would be that late?!) It’s he that has been tampering with the Doctor’s past since Blood Heat, chiefly out of a desire for revenge for trapping him on an ice planet in The Daleks’ Master Plan. That’s no mean feat; he does so with the help of a captive Chronovore, a creature that devours the leftovers and mistakes of time itself (think Reapers from Father’s Day, but much more sentient and attractive). He works his plan here with the help of the Vardans, the energy-based humanoids first seen in The Invasion of Time; they, too, have long been trapped by the Doctor, and seek revenge.

Ace, Benny, and the Doctor finally get some resolution for their various interpersonal problems here. Ace and Benny’s conflict comes to a head; after this we’ll see them getting along much better. It’s too bad that Ace has to get pulled over to the Monk’s side for awhile to get there, but then, no one said people were uncomplicated. There will still be the occasional tension with the Doctor on both their parts—soon it will be Benny’s turn to think about leaving (a nice change from Ace’s constant flirting with the idea)—but overall we’ll see some improvement going forward. And not a moment too soon, in my opinion!

Though we’re finished with the Alternate Universe arc, there are still a few threads hanging. Most importantly, the TARDIS: the Doctor is still using his third incarnation’s TARDIS from Blood Heat, and as far as we can tell, his original TARDIS is gone along with that universe. More on that to come, but for now, it’s a thread we’ll leave out there. He does, however, smash the chameleon circuit with a hammer; he decides he prefers the police box after all. Eh, well, it was fun while it lasted; in fact, the chameleon circuit is instrumental in his search for the Monk in this story.

Continuity References: I don’t expect to get them all today; there are quite a lot of them. But, notably: The events of Battlefield get a mention (for the Brigadier it is yet to come, but for the Doctor it was before this adventure). The Vardans are released from their time loop (The Invasion of Time); in reference to that story, Bernice, very quotably, remarks that the Vardans are “the only race in history to be outwitted by the intellectual might of the Sontarans” (a double burn, very nice!). The Monk was last encountered in The Daleks’ Master Plan, but that means that this novel contradicts his appearance in the comic 4-Dimensional Vistas. The Chronovores were introduced in The Time Monster. Very frequent references are made to all the preceding Alternate Universe entries (Blood HeatThe Dimension RidersThe Left-Handed HummingbirdConundrum). Ace already knows who Danny Pain is, having had one of his albums in Colditz; she denies knowing him here, but that may be because of her poor relationship with, well, everyone at this point. The Monk mentions Magnus, later revealed to be the real name of the War Chief (The War GamesDivided Loyalties). Professor Clegg is mentioned (Planet of the Spiders), as are the Zygons (Terror of the Zygons), the Axons (The Claws of Axos), the Autons (Spearhead from Space), Omega (The Three Doctors), the Guardians (The Ribos Operation, et al.), Morgaine (Battlefield), the Gods of Ragnarok (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and more recently, mentioned in Conundrum), and the Yeti (The Web of Fear). The Doctor mentions the Brigade Leader (Inferno), and the (alleged) death of the Master (Survival, though we of course know he survived). Ace and the Monk both mention Jan (Love and War). She also mentions the events of Nightshade. The Monk mentions the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which are still in the future. The Brigadier mentions Harry Sullivan and Sarah Jane Smith, and the Doctor mentions Susan (various stories). Mike Yates and his betrayal in Invasion of the Dinosaurs was mentioned. The Vardans use the phrase “chronic hysteresis” (Meglos). The Monk uses Chelonian technology (The Highest Science) and mentions the Daemons (The Daemons) and the Eternals (Enlightenment).

Overall: It’s been a tumultuous trip, but we made it! Through the Alternate Universe arc, that is. We’ll move on to some mostly standalone adventures for awhile, and some of the issues we’ve been facing will fade away. Not a bad ending, I must say, though quite a roller coaster in its own right. If you made it through the others, you’ll want to read this one.

Next time: We’ll catch up next time in (pre-scandal) Gareth Roberts’ Tragedy Day. See you there!

The New Adventures series is currently out of print, but may be purchased in previously owned form via Ebay and other resellers.

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Novel Review: Conundrum

We’re back! Today we’re looking at the twenty-second entry in the New Adventures (or VNAs) series of Seventh Doctor novels: Steve Lyons’ Conundrum, published in January 1994. This one is hard to describe, and although it was a fun read, I feel that it won’t lend itself easily to analysis; so we’ll make this quick. Let’s get started!

Conundrum

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

  • A family man with a dark and outrageous secret.
  • A detective who’s just a little too cliched to be for real.
  • An old man with both regrets and superpowers.
  • A group of adventuring kids too cute for their own good.
  • A criminal hiding in plain sight.

And right in the middle of it all—in a place that should no longer exist—the Doctor, Ace and Benny!

The town of Arandale is at the center of not one, not two, but three mysteries; and the Doctor, drawn here against his will, intends to solve them all. The problem is, nothing in the town is what it appears to be—and this time, that’s literally true! As events in the town race toward final destruction, the Doctor comes to realize he and his friends have been trapped in a realm he destroyed long ago, in another life: The Land of Fiction. Once again, someone or something has interfered with his past; and this time, he may not get away.

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The Mind Robber is such a classic of early Doctor Who, that revisiting it is always a dangerous exercise. (Coincidentally, it was my first experience with the Second Doctor; accordingly, I think very highly of the story.) The Land of Fiction is a concept that by its nature has few rules for its usage; and so there’s a multitude of directions a writer can go with it—but, many of those directions won’t live up to the standards of the original.

Steve Lyons comes close, though. His take on the Land of Fiction relies on the original just enough to establish continuity and give solidity to the story, but goes its own direction just enough to keep the story from feeling like a copy of the original. It’s a bit scattershot; the plot is all over the place, and that’s probably its biggest weakness (especially given the ambition of a story that brings superheroes into the DW universe!). I feel there’s perhaps one or two subplots too many for the story to contain. But I get why he chose that tactic, and I agree with him: As I’ve said before, few writers in this series seem to know what to do with this TARDIS team. Lyons does a better job than most, by giving the Doctor, Ace, and Benny each a situation of their own to deal with—and crucially, by making those situations of equal weight. No one is sidelined here the way it usually goes; everyone is important. (He’s still needlessly hard on Benny, I think, but hey, we can’t have it all. For the record, though, it’s nice to see I’m not the only one who feels this way; from the Cloister Library entry for this book: “There are so many things so wonderfully right about this book, and the first among those equals is Benny. Finally, after a few books where she is underused, the character shines here, being empathic, sarcastic, hilarious and sad by turns.”)

As a consequence, he manages something else that others don’t usually manage: He brings the interpersonal tensions between the Doctor, Benny, and Ace out into the open, and to a head. Benny finally admits that she feels pushed to the edge by the conflict between the Doctor and Ace, and she intends to leave (spoiler: she doesn’t, but she plans to). Ace finally admits to her fury at the way the Doctor manipulates her, and declares that she’s staying on so she can beat him at his own game; she actively confronts him about it at the end. The Doctor, for his part, doesn’t resolve his issues, but he ends the book aware that that reckoning must come. (Now, with all that said, don’t take this to mean there won’t be any further regression of this arc; I can’t promise you that. But it’s progress!)

The Land of Fiction, as portrayed here, is one relying heavily on stereotypes, as a result of the mind and experiences of its new Master (usually referred to as the Writer in this novel—I wonder if there was a copyright issue for the original Master of the Land character?). You have the detective who’s too noir to be real (Ace’s thread of the story); the retired (and very sad and poignant) superhero and his over-the-top nemesis (Benny’s thread); the precocious children (the Doctor’s); a mysterious string of exsanguinated murder victims; and oh yes, a village witch caught in the middle of everything. It’s all played for laughs, but this book is not a comedy; the laughs are only there to call attention to the fictional nature of this reality. It’s hard to say when the Doctor catches on—he, of course, has been here before—but Ace and Benny take a surprisingly long time to figure it out. I suppose that’s only fair, though; you’ll have readers who have watched The Mind Robber, and figure it out early; and readers who haven’t, and may need longer. It’s nice that the book has something for each.

Continuity References: The Mind Robber, obviously; the Doctor destroyed the Land of Fiction, but it has been restored. He also has visits there in his Fourth and Sixth lives (The Crooked ManLegend of the Cybermen), but this story predates those, and so the Doctor behaves as though this is his first time back. There are numerous references back to the previous entries in the Alternate Universe Arc (Blood HeatThe Dimension RidersThe Left-Handed Hummingbird), and they only advance from here. Ace sees fictional versions of her adventures, especially DragonfireLove and War, and Deceit. The Doctor plays the spoons (Time and the Rani, et al.). The Land of Fiction was created by the Gods of Ragnarok (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy). The chameleon circuit in this version of the TARDIS (the Blood Heat TARDIS) was repaired, and Ace knows how to use it (first explained in the last novel, and I apologize for not mentioning it there). The destruction of the Althosian system is mentioned (The Pit–spare us all from the memory!). The ghostly trio of Katarina, Sara Kingdom, and Adric make an appearance (The Daleks’ Master PlanEarthshock); we’ve seen them appear similarly before (Timewyrm: Revelation). The Valeyard is mentioned (Trial of a Time Lord), as is Fenric (The Curse of Fenric) and the Timewyrm (Timewyrm tetralogy). Ace thinks of several old acquaintances: Chad Boyle (Timewyrm: Revelation), Robin (Nightshade), Jan (Love and War), and IMC (Lucifer Rising). And, for the first time, we get a clear picture of just who is tampering with the Doctor’s timeline: The Meddling Monk. The Doctor, however, will have to wait to find out later.

Overall: You’ll like this one, but don’t expect it to be straightforward or tame; it’s nonsensical, as befits a Land of Fiction story. You should definitely read it before wrapping up in the next book.

Next time: We finish out the Alternate Universe arc with Paul Cornell’s No Future. See you there!

The New Adventures series is currently out of print, but may be purchased in previously owned form via Ebay and other resellers.

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Novel Review: The Left-Handed Hummingbird

We’re back! To date, I’ve reviewed the first twenty volumes of the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs, for short) line of Seventh Doctor novels. (There are a total of 61 novels in the VNAS featuring the Doctor, including one Eighth Doctor novel, The Dying Days. I’m not counting the novels with Bernice Summerfield as protagonist, although I do hope to read them and review them. Eventually.) Twenty sounds like an impressive enough number…except that I’ve read twenty-six of them (Well, twenty-seven; but I wrote the review for Lungbarrow a long time ago, after I read it out of order, and am just waiting to post it.) As I’m quickly beginning to forget details, and want to catch up as quickly as possible, I think a little picking up of the pace is in order. So, here we are, posting for the second day in a row.

Now, on to number twenty-one! This brings us to prolific DW author Kate Orman’s debut novel, The Left-Handed Hummingbird. Published in December 1993, this novel is the third entry in the “Alternate Universe Arc”. Let’s get started!

Left Handed Hummingbird

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

The life of a Mexican man of Aztec descent, Cristian Alvarez, is forever shaped by four events: the discovery of the Aztec great temple in 1978; the murder of John Lennon in New York, 1980; a marketplace massacre in Mexico City, 1994; and predating them all, a meeting with the Doctor in 1968 London. But Cristian has a secret that plagues him: at each crucial moment, he is assaulted by a psychic event or force that he calls “the Blue”. He can’t explain it; but he knows that when the Blue arrives, tragedy walks with it.

The Doctor, Ace and Benny are summoned by a psychic distress call. Arriving in late 1994, they meet Cristian for the first time—but, not his first time, as he knows them well. Soon enough it becomes apparent that someone or something is stalking Cristian through time; and, it seems, also stalking the Doctor. But, why? The Doctor first traces the phenomenon to the unearthing of the Aztec temple in 1978, and then to the temple’s bloody dedication in 1487. His course then takes him to 1968, and Cristian’s first encounter with the Doctor, in London; then at last to 1980, and the murder of John Lennon. At last, he comes to a final, traumatic event, one that Cristian would not have expected: the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. There, he faces a final battle with the persistent spirit of a long-dead Aztec warrior…but this battle will bring him no closer to his true enemy, the being interfering with his own past since the events in the alternate universe.

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My first inclination, when sitting down to write this review, was to be a bit hard on the book. I’ve already mentioned more than once that this arc of the New Adventures—the “Alternate Universe” arc—was a chore to work through. In fact, yesterday I said that this book represents the peak of that feeling for me—and that remains true.

And yet, that’s an unfairly negative description. Upon further thought, I’ve decided that to present the novel that way would be to do it an injustice and a disservice; because it’s a very good book, in the end. It’s possible my judgment, going into this book, was colored by the experience of the preceding two books; but more to the point, this book is extraordinarily complex, even for the VNAs, and I think I wasn’t prepared for that. My lack of preparation, though, doesn’t invalidate the fact that that complexity is a good thing.

Nevertheless, if you read this book, be warned: It’s going to take some time for it to come together. You’ll have passages where you think the plot is wandering. I assure you it isn’t. Kate Orman chose to weave together any number of very different historical events, on two continents and in three countries (plus the middle of the ocean!); naturally it’s going to take time to tie those things together.

It’s all that history that really shines here; and with that, I have to apologize, because I haven’t been able to put in the research time necessary to figure out what is real and what is fictionalized here. Some of it is fairly fresh; the death of John Lennon, for example, occurred within my lifetime. Some of it is distant enough to be of interest chiefly to historians—but we’re all historians here, at least when the Doctor goes to visit. Aztec history is something in which I’ve only lightly looked over the years, but if it’s even a fraction as interesting as Orman portrays, I find myself fascinated.

After a short reprieve, we’re back to the usual amount of violence found in the VNAs. Nearly everywhere Cristian and the Doctor go, people die in horrifically violent ways. Perhaps that’s to be expected in a story about the Aztecs, who were known for bloody human sacrifices; and yet, we don’t see much in the way of sacrifices (possibly not any at all; I can’t recall). This, in spite of the fact that the temple featured in the story was known to have been dedicated with twenty thousand sacrifices; we don’t stay on hand for that scene, if I recall correctly. Rather, the deaths here are often bloody, always personal, and always up close. Deaths are far from uncommon for the VNAs, but often they occur offscreen and quietly; not so much here. It’s one of the few times I feel the series thus far has earned its description of “more adult than the television series”.

Some things for which I didn’t care: After just finishing with the Garvond, we get another incorporeal, violent, possession-capable villain whose origin and persistence are tied to the Doctor’s mind—that is, the Aztec “god” Huitzilopochtli, aka the warrior Huitzilin. (I put “god” in quotes because, in true DW fashion, he’s not actually a god in the end; but he certainly plays the part.) Maybe that’s in keeping with a theme for this arc, but it’s not exactly revolutionary at this point. The Doctor uses LSD at one point; now, applying 21st-century society to this, I don’t care, because there’s been a softening of views on drug use in our time, and because there’s growing evidence that LSD has therapeutic value for some conditions. But, when this novel was released in the early nineties, the anti-drug movement was at its height, and this…well, it makes me wonder about the reception at the time. Anyway, having lived through that period, it feels jarring to me.

Most of all, though, we’re back to the same issues we’ve been having with Ace and Benny. Once again, the trust among the members of our TARDIS team is left broken at the end; once again, Ace is angry with the Doctor for interfering in her way of doing things, and once again, the Doctor suspects that he is responsible for making Ace a killer. Once again, Benny gets largely sidelined; most egregious of all, when the Doctor and Ace take off for 1487, it’s Benny, the archaeologist of the group, who gets left babysitting Cristian in the future! Don’t worry, Benny, your chance is coming…half a dozen books from now, give or take. It’s frustrating to see these same old problems—can I call them tropes at this point? They feel like tropes—arising again. Better things are coming, I think, but only through slow and incremental progress.

Continuity References: Almost endless! The Doctor visits the Titanic, which has appeared in numerous stories, and which he has visited in multiple incarnations (first DW appearance in a DWM comic titled Follow That TARDIS!). He mentions Barbara’s actions from The Aztecs. He mentions numerous aliens that have interfered with Earth: The Osirians (Pyramids of Mars), the Exxilons (Death to the Daleks; also of great importance in this very book, though not actually present), Scaroth (City of Death), the Daleks (The Chase, for this purpose, and many others), and the Timewyrm (Timewyrm: Genesys and its sequels). He mentions Woodstock; the wiki indicates two earlier incarnations were there. One is the Second Doctor (Wonderland), but I was not able to identify the other or his story; however, he will visit again in his Twelfth incarnation (The Crawling Terror). Ace mentions Saul, the church in Cheldon Bonniface (Timewyrm: Revelation). UNIT gets several mentions; notably, Mike Yates is known to not speak to anyone by 1994, and Harry Sullivan is mentioned. Unit Corporal Carol Bell was last seen in The Claws of Axos. Ace contacts an Air Commodore Ian Gilmore (Remembrance of the Daleks). Herbert Clegg is mentioned (Planet of the Spiders). The Nightshade TV series is playing in 1968 (Nightshade). The Doctor mentions the Mara (KindaSnakedance) and the Fendahl (Image of the Fendahl). The Doctor mentions that an aspirin could kill him (The Mind of Evil). Ace wears a shirt from Svartos, specifically Iceworld (Dragonfire). UNIT agent Hank Macbeth mentions the Yeti invasion (The Web of Fear), the evacuation of London (Invasion of the Dinosaurs), and Devil’s End Church (The Daemons). Ace mentions Merlin (Battlefield). Benny thinks of the planet Heaven (Love and War). The Doctor mentions Xanxia (The Pirate Planet). And, a touch of foreshadowing, the Doctor gets (ostensibly) killed and placed in a morgue with a “John Doe” toe tag, which will happen for real at his regeneration. Also notable: This book is absolutely littered with real-world pop culture references; I won’t list them here, but for a quick rundown, check the Discontinuity Guide.

Overall: You’ll like this one; and there are plenty of good reviews to support me on that. Just give it time, take it slow, and savor the story.

Next time: We’re more than halfway through the Alternate Universe arc! Next time we’ll look at the fourth entry, Steve Lyons’ Conundrum. See you there!

The New Adventures series is currently out of print, but may be purchased in previously owned form via Ebay and other resellers.

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Novel Review: The Dimension Riders

We’re back! So, how is the epidemic treating you? Still under lockdown? (For future generations, I’ll say that we are currently in the midst of an epidemic of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, with accompanying restrictions on contact and activities…as well as everything else that 2020 can throw at us.)

Today, we’re continuing our tour of the New Adventures novel series (VNAs, hereafter) with November 1993’s The Dimension Riders, by Daniel Blythe. Featuring Ace and Benny, this is the second of five novels loosely themed as the “Alternate Universe” arc, after the Doctor’s recent foray into an alternate Earth in Blood Heat. Let’s get started!

The Dimension Riders

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

While visiting a friend at Oxford, the Doctor and Ace are pulled across time and space to the ruins of a space station—where they are greeted by the crew of the starship Icarus, and by a warning previously recorded…by the Doctor himself! The Doctor is soon whisked away by a strange energy field, leaving Ace with the suspicious soldiers of the Icarus crew to find out what happened on the station, including the big question: Who or what has somehow aged the station’s crew to death?

Meanwhile, Benny remains on Earth, where she confronts the mystery of a female assassin who, it appears, may not be human; and a college president who definitely is more than he appears. Both, as it turns out, are in league with a creature from beyond time, an ancient Gallifreyan myth called the Garvond, which devours paradox to live and conquer.

The Doctor finds himself whisked back in time to a week before the station’s destruction, where he too must confront the Garvond and its soldiers. There he uncovers a plan to create a string of paradoxes which will feed the Garvond enough energy to manifest fully, and conquer all of time in its own image.

Now, all three strands of these events—and all three members of the TARDIS crew—must come together to somehow, some way, stop the Garvond and its servants, and preserve history from cataclysmic destruction. But how do you fight a creature that thrives on the breaking of cause and effect—and has your own memories as part of its very being?

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I’ve mentioned before that I found the entire Alternate Universe arc to be a bit of a slog. That feeling reached its peak in the next entry, The Left-Handed Hummingbird (and apologies in advance to those who loved that book—I don’t dislike it, I just found it to be a slow read, and I recognize that it’s well regarded). I wish I could put my finger on why I feel that way; no particular story is bad. However, I found The Dimension Riders to be the weakest entry.

But, that’s most definitely NOT the author’s fault. It’s that I’ve already encountered other versions of everything he does here. And that is admittedly unfair on my part; this story predates anything in NuWho, for example, and it should rightly be regarded in that light. It’s hard, though, to give proper emotional credit to the original source of an idea, when you’ve seen the later versions already. “It’s not you, it’s me!” And it really is. So, if you are the kind of reader who is able to easily read it just on its own merits, and not consider your prior experience, you’ll probably enjoy it. Definitely give it a try.

Right from the start, there are hints of Shada here. The Doctor visits a professor at Oxford; another Oxford figure turns out to have connections to Gallifrey; the villain is also heavily connected to ancient Gallifrey; there are multiple TARDISes. This story, like Shada, bounces all over the place, from Earth to the depths of time and space, and pulls in locals from every destination. That’s a good thing; I enjoyed Shada (the Fourth Doctor version), despite its lack of polish.

The Garvond itself is a bit tiresome as a villain, but again, that’s only because so many stories since have written similar characters. It’s a being from Gallifreyan myth, which is born from the minds of the Time Lords (via Matrix shenanigans), and lives on the energy generated by paradox. Its soldiers can time-travel, but this most often manifests as a phasing in and out of reality—in this I was reminded of The Sirens of Time, though that may be inaccurate; it’s been a long time since I listened to that audio. The Garvond’s feeding habits are echoed some years later in our favorite statue creatures, the Weeping Angels, who live on the energy created by destroying someone’s personal timeline. At one point the Doctor is revealed to have erased his own mental print from the Matrix in order to prevent the full form of the Garvond from arising, which is something that seems to be impossible based on later stories (most notably the recent The Timeless Children, where the Doctor’s Matrix print is much more extensive than we thought). (I should mention that others have compared the Garvond to the Dark Matrix from the novel Matrix, but I have not read that novel yet, so I can’t comment.)

I’ve often talked about how the New Adventures aren’t great for character development, especially for Ace. This is largely, I think, because of the rushed schedule; authors probably couldn’t communicate properly in time to react to each other’s work. Thus, a character may gain ground in one story, and then they’re back to previous states in the next one. That’s still happening here; we end the story with Ace and Benny still having a troubled relationship with the Doctor, despite all that has come before.

The other problem I’ve cited often is that authors in this series seem to have trouble managing a TARDIS team of three. As a result, either Ace or Benny—usually Benny—gets sidelined for most of the story. Maybe it’s an inevitable result of their drastically different natures as people and companions; maybe certain stories just lend themselves well to one or the other. But I disagree, and I think some upcoming stories will argue against that idea. In the meantime, though, Benny gets largely sidelined again here; she gets left on Earth while the Doctor and Ace solve the mystery, and her involvement mostly amounts to being captured (again) and/or pushed around (again). She does, however, come back with the last-second save at the end; she is able to pass a covert message via the outdated method of Morse code, delivering information that ultimately saves the day.

In the end, the Doctor comes to realize that, just as in Blood Heat, someone has tampered with his past, and this time has managed to affect the real universe. It’s a bit tacked on, but then, this is the literary equivalent of a stepping stone in the Alternate Universe arc, so we’ll come back to it in later entries.

Continuity References: The Doctor briefly uses the book titled The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, though not in its normal use (Shada). The android Amanda mentions the events of Terror of the ZygonsRemembrance of the Daleks, and Day of the Daleks (by way of Auderly House, which is mentioned in a few other stories–Time and Time Again, Who Killed Kennedy–all of which overlap to some degree). The Doctor’s friend, Professor Rafferty, knows UNIT (thought not in the context of any particular story), the Brigadier, Ian Chesterton, and Edward Travers (The Abominable Snowmen). Epsilon Delta, another Time Lord rogue, was inspired by the adventures of the Doctor, the Rani, and the Master. Frequent references are made to the previous story, *Blood Heat, especially in the context of the TARDIS that was taken from that universe to replace the Doctor’s original TARDIS. The TARDIS defensive mode, the “Defence Indefinite Timeloop Option” (DITtO? Hmm) is highly reminiscent of the “Hostile Action Displacement System, or HADS (The Krotons). It’s worth mentioning that Epsilon Delta’s TARDIS is a type 102, but that this is NOT the same as the type 102 humanoid TARDIS seen in the Eighth Doctor novel *The Shadows of Avalon. Some of the Garvond’s soldiers are of Tharil origin (Warrior’s Gate). Gallifrey’s Gold Usher is mentioned (The Deadly Assassin). Epsilon Delta has been to Argolis (The Leisure Hive). He has encountered Sontarans as well, who caused his first regeneration. The Doctor mentions Florana (Death to the Daleks) and his old nickname of Theta Sigma (The Armageddon Factor). He uses his common nickname of John Smith. A book in the TARDIS library mentions the Transit system (Transit). Ace—but curiously, not the Doctor—hears the Cloister Bell (Logopolis). Ace remembers characters from several past adventures (Remembrance of the DaleksSurvivalLove and WarGhost Light). And, last but not least, Darius Cheynor will reappear later in Infinite Requiem (VNA #36, same author).

Overall: Don’t be put off by my experience; this is a good one, I just wasn’t in a position to appreciate it as much as it deserved. In hindsight I think it plays out better than Blood Heat, and it stands well on its own, without the rest of the arc. It may or may not be an essential entry in the series, depending on your opinion, but it’s worth reading.

Next time: We’ll continue with The Left-Handed Hummingbird, which, as the back cover puts it, “is a triple first: Kate [Orman]’s first novel, the first New Adventures written by a woman, and the first written by an Antipodean.” (I don’t mind admitting I had to look up “Antipodean”; it means Australian, apparently. Not a common word in my part of the world.) See you there!

The New Adventures series is currently out of print, but may be purchased in previously owned form via Ebay and other resellers.

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Novel Review: Blood Heat

We’re back! After a bit of a delay, we’ll be taking a look at the next entry in the New Adventures novel series (“VNAs”, hereafter): 1993’s Blood Heat, by Jim Mortimore. This story is number nineteen in the VNAs. We’ve just concluded what I informally called the “holiday tetralogy”, in which the Doctor repeatedly and disastrously tries to take a vacation; now we move into another loosely-connected subseries, a pentalogy occasionally known as the “Alternate Universe” arc. And that’s where we’ll begin, so let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

Blood heat

An unexpected and unexplained attack on the TARDIS sends it crashing to Earth. A sudden encounter with living dinosaurs makes it seem as though the Doctor, Ace and Benny (the latter of whom has been lost in the landing) have arrived in the Jurassic period; but slowly it becomes apparent that, to the contrary, they have landed in the present day of 1993! It’s a very different 1993, though, and something has gone very wrong.

Two factions are soon realized: The Silurians have conquered Earth’s surface and bent it to their will; and the remaining humans, rare and in hiding, stage a resistance under the leadership of a craggy and embittered Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. The reception the Doctor receives isn’t what he expects, however; for, as he soon finds, the Doctor is the one responsible for this mad universe–by way of his own death!

It proves to be true. Years ago, in the Doctor’s third incarnation, rather than resolve the matter of the Silurians, he was put to death by them. Since then they have waged a war against the humans, and reclaimed the surface.  Now, the Doctor must find Benny, and gather what allies he can, and broker peace between the Silurians and the remnants of humanity while there is still time. With the help of old friends Jo Grant–here a feral former captive of the Silurians–and Liz Shaw, and the unwilling assistance of the Brigadier, the Doctor and Ace race to set things as right as they can, in a world that will never go back to the way it was.

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I did something with this novel that I don’t often do: I went in blind, or nearly so. Usually I have a good idea of where a novel will go before I read it; I don’t object to spoilers, and between fan discussions and wiki pages, I usually know how it will end. In this case, I’m glad I avoided those spoilers, because this novel leaves its characters in a very tense place at the end.

Far and away the biggest issue–from the perspective of the characters–is that their actions here come to nothing in the end. The Doctor, Ace, Benny, and their allies certainly save the day. But, this is, as I hinted, an alternate universe; the TARDIS enters it through a puncture of sorts in the vortex. It’s worse than that, though; slowly the Doctor becomes aware that this is an artificial universe. Someone managed to spin it off of the real universe, by preventing the Third Doctor from regenerating upon his death (an event which already deviates from the real universe even before the aborted regeneration!). That, in turn, steals energy from the real universe to maintain this one, meaning that the real universe will reach heat death billions of years early. Either the Doctor can allow both to live abbreviated existences, or he can eliminate this created universe to restore the main universe. He chooses the latter, which in turn will cause problems between himself and his companions…after all, it’s a cold decision to condemn an entire universe to death, isn’t it?

There’s another issue, much downplayed in the story, but conspicuous to any longtime fan: The TARDIS. Upon landing on Earth, the TARDIS almost immediately falls into a tar pit, from which the Doctor never retrieves it. Instead, he later takes the TARDIS left behind by his deceased third incarnation. That sounds like no big deal, perhaps, except that that TARDIS is lacking several hundred years of experiences and data–something that has the potential to come up again in many stories down the road. Slight spoiler: I understand from the wiki that he will eventually recover his original TARDIS, many stories down the road–but that creates another problem: The Doctor destroys this universe. Moreover he does it by time ramming his original TARDIS, destroying it, and releasing enough energy to destroy the universe.

It’s quite a busy story, with many moving parts, as it were; you’ll see that the continuity references section is quite full. And yet, despite the fact that the story is full of detail and fast-moving, it took me a long time to finish it. I don’t have a good explanation; it just felt very heavy and deliberate, I suppose. There are the usual VNA tropes; the Doctor is irritable, Benny gets sidelined for much of the story, Ace gets into an ill-advised relationship and gets angry at the Doctor, something bad happens to the TARDIS. Of much more interest are the alternate versions of old familiar characters. The Brigadier is not the man we knew; he’s been crystallized in terms of his worst characteristics, and yet he can still play the part of the old friend–which in turn makes him more dangerous than some villains. Jo Grant meets a bad end here (I won’t spoil how!), as does John Benton. Liz Shaw has survived mostly unscathed, despite a very traumatic life, and proves once again to be an underrated but valuable ally. The Silurians fall into a familiar pattern–military vs. science–but at least it’s handled fairly well. Most of the Silurians we meet here are holdovers from the Third Doctor television serial; but here they are given names, in keeping with the novelisation of The Silurians.

For once, I don’t mind the ending. It sets up well for the next few stories; the Doctor is left determined to get to the bottom of the situation, and find the person who interfered with time itself to trap him. One gets the sense that he’s offended at the meddling because it encroaches on his own territory–or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Likewise, I’m content with the tension between the Doctor and his companions here; after, for once, they have a good point–he did cause the death of a whole universe. It’s a catch-22 of sorts; there was just never going to be a good option. The Doctor did what he felt he must, but the truth isn’t clear; did he really make the right decision? We’ll see, perhaps.

Continuity References: This isn’t the only time we see the TARDIS fall through a puncture in the universal wall; we’ll see that again in Rise of the Cybermen. This story branches off from Doctor Who and the Silurians, picking up an alternate version of where that story left off. It draws several details, especially the names of the Silurians, from the novelisation of that story rather than the televised version. Ace’s friend Manisha–deceased in the real universe, but alive here–was first mentioned in Ghost Light, and elaborated upon in the novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks. Time ramming between TARDISes is first mentioned in The Time Monster. In the original-universe TARDIS, the Doctor appears to possibly be using the secondary control room (The Masque of Mandragora). The Doctor recovers his dead third incarnation’s sonic screwdriver, last seen (on television anyway) in The Visitation. The alternate TARDIS’s temporal grace function is operational (The Hand of Fear, et al) as is its chameleon circuit (many stories, notably Logopolis) and HADS (The Krotons). Ace again mentions having left Spacefleet (Deceit, et al). The Doctor mentions the Guardians (The Ribos Operation, et al), Rassilon (The Five Doctors, et al), and the Master (Terror of the Autons, et al). He mentions the Autons and Nestene Consciousness (Spearhead from Space) to Liz Shaw. A prelude to this story was published in Doctor Who Magazine #205; you can read it here. Also, not continuity, but worth mentioning: Jim Mortimore has also published a “Director’s Cut” of the novel, largely divorced from Doctor Who (that is, with distinctive characters and concepts renamed), and greatly expanding most aspects of the book; I have not read it nor have access to it, but interested fans may want to look into it.

Overall: Mixed feelings again! On one hand, it’s a good story, includes lots of action, and sets up well enough for what lies ahead. On the other hand…it was such a drag to get through. Nevertheless, a lot of things happen here which will be important not only for the rest of the Alternate Universe arc, but also for the VNAs in general, so I can’t recommend skipping this one.

Next time: We’ll continue the Alternate Universe arc in The Dimension Riders, by Daniel Blythe! See you there.

The New Adventures series is currently out of print, but may be purchased in previously owned form via Ebay and other resellers.

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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

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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.

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. 

Scherzo

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Charity Zine Review: A Pile of Good Things, and The Birds of Sweet Forgetfulness

We’re back, with another charity zine review! Today we continue our look into the Eleventh Doctor charity zine, A Pile of Good Things, edited by Ginger Hoesly. We’re picking up with a contribution by Paul Driscoll, titled The Birds of Sweet Forgetfulness. Here we catch the Doctor at a low point in his life—read on!

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! For my rationale regarding spoilers in charity and fan works, check out the first entry in this series. To avoid spoilers, skip ahead to the next divider. And with that, let’s get started!

A Pile of Good Things cover art

The Doctor is alone—but it’s by his choice. In the wake of the exit—he refuses to call it a loss—of Amy Pond and Rory Williams, he has, at last, had enough. Now he parks his TARDIS on a cloud (on Earth, though, in the Victorian era; he can’t bring himself to let go completely even now) and hides from the multitude of distress signals the time machine brings in, and wishes he could forget. But that is the one thing a Time Lord can never do; forgetfulness is for humans and other races. Still, there is a place that may be able to help with that… And so the Doctor makes a short trip to the planet Galfaria, where he poses as a company executive to enter the rehabilitative facility known as Sweet Forgetfulness. There, in a combination of therapy and meditation and the strange mental effects of the large birds called Therapati, criminals can be reformed, and the past can be…well, if not fully forgotten, at least eased.

Of course the Doctor is never one to stay for too long—though he is determined to try it on his cloud! So, he returns to Earth, and parks his TARDIS; but now he has a plan to, at the very least, distract himself.

George Furman was once a burglar and petty thief, but that was long ago. Now, though he still lives in poverty, he is trying to be an honest man. At the least, he has found an outlet for his time and his mind: George trains songbirds. And as it turns out, there’s a new landlord, Mr. Smith, at the King’s Arms pub (now oddly renamed the King’s Giraffe), and the landlord has a thing for songbirds. That thing, specifically, being a competition. George can’t fail to enter his prize goldfinch, Joey; and now he is the finalist, up against the landlord’s oddly named “Murraygold”. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived competition; and George leaves in frustration, sans bird.

Still, he was attached to Joey, and he can’t just leave it at that. He’s no sore loser, but he must know that Joey is alright. That night, he dusts off his old lockpicking skills, and sneaks into Smith’s house and back garden to check on the bird. He is stunned to find Smith, with Joey in hand, walking up into the sky! A quick check reveals a nearly-invisible, but extravagantly bejeweled, spiral staircase. What the hell—George decides to climb up after Smith. At the top, he finds a strange blue box…and the doors open for him, admitting him.

Inside, the larger-than-life room he finds—the console room, had he known as much—has been transformed into an aviary, full of chirping songbirds of all types. Smith is furious to find George here; but stranger yet, he seems to be furious not at George, but at…the box? He insists that the TARDIS, as he calls it, is playing games with him, trying to remind him of his responsibilities. He has countered by filling the space with birds to drown out the distress calls. He closes the doors to keep the birds inside, and George as well, though unintentionally. He explains that the TARDIS wants George to be his companion, so as to shake him out of his funk—but he has no intention of giving in. The TARDIS, however, has other plans; and in a flash, it takes them across the galaxy. Grudgingly, Smith—no, the Doctor—realizes where they’re going, and gives in. After all, what better place for a struggling former criminal than the most perfect reformatory?

The Doctor gives George his psychic paper and sends him out into Sweet Forgetfulness. He’ll appear as a transfer from a prison, but the therapy will be good for him. He claims he has no plans to leave George there—but of course he does.

George, meanwhile, stumbles into a feeding of the Therapati birds. He’s struck by the wonder of it all, and already begins to feel the positive effects of this place. Afterward he is escorted back to the incoming group from which he ostensibly was lost, and goes through the sifting, the process by which those who are ready for rehabilitation are separated from those who are not. He passes the test; but he suddenly learns that the facility has been taken over by a criminal gang, and is being used to release allies and silence enemies. Due to the psychic paper, George has, thankfully, been taken for one of the former. Meanwhile, the Doctor struggles against the TARDIS, which has decided to play havoc with its navigation system, bringing him back to Sweet Forgetfulness every time he tries to leave.

George makes a break and returns to the TARDIS, and swiftly tells the Doctor what has happened. The Doctor snaps to life at once, and instantly hits on an elegant solution. He grabs the psychic paper and leads George back into the facility, where he claims to be from headquarters, with a new shipment of birds. Then, with George’s help, he whistles for the songbirds…and the TARDIS releases them. This has the effect of startling the large-but-tame Therapati into a frenzy, which creates a similar frenzy among the gang members, setting them on each other. In the end, they are sent running; the Doctor summons the authorities to reassert control; and the songbirds, including Joey, have a new home inside the facility, separate from the Therapati, which will be returned to their natural environment (with no predators).

The Doctor returns George to London, where he commits himself to campaigning for the welfare of songbirds. As he departs, the Doctor settles back onto his cloud, and grudgingly tells the TARDIS that she won this round…but only this round. He refuses to take on a new companion. She, on the other hand, is content; she’ll continue reminding him who he is.

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I’ll credit this story with one fantastic quality: It feels very much like a Christmas special. I suppose that’s in part because of its placement; this story takes place shortly before The Snowmen, in which the Doctor meets the Victorian-era avatar of Clara Oswald. At any rate, it can best be described as “charming”, and I think that’s a fair term here.

We find the Doctor hiding out on a cloud, as in The Snowmen. The TARDIS, meanwhile, is having none of it, and making frequent attempts to pull the Doctor out of his depression and get things back to normal. Enter George Furman, potential (but ultimately declined) companion, a former petty thief and present bird tamer. The Doctor is cajoled into this adventure, with the TARDIS whisking him George off to the Sweet Forgetfulness rehabilitation center—where naturally, things aren’t all as they seem. It’s a quick fix for the Doctor, and a brief flash of his old self, and a happy ending for George. It’s not enough to bring the Doctor back to himself, but it does, perhaps, wear down his walls a bit, and set him up for the events of his meeting with Clara.

What can I say—a dose of whimsy is nice this time of year. If that’s not enough to interest you, there’s also some nice (and fourth-wall-breaking) references here, such as a reference to the Doctor’s own songbird as a “Murraygold”. The Doctor speaks birdish, now; move over, horse and baby! There are some continuity references, but only enough to establish the placement of the story; the Doctor refers to the events of The God Complex, and Amy and Rory’s exit in The Angels Take Manhattan, and the reboot of the universe in The Big Bang/The Pandorica Opens. He also makes a vague reference to other companions left behind, which can refer to any number of stories (maybe the Doctor has commitment issues?).

The thing I appreciate most here, however, is the view of the Doctor. He’s clearly seen to be struggling with his usual self. He’s clinging to his depression, but at the same time, his usual upbeat personality and desire for involvement can’t help leaking out; and he’s snarky and angry because of it. I’m somewhat reminded of his “And then I’ll have to find a new name” bit from The Beast Below in the way he seems frustrated, and the way his mood swings wildly here.

This is the first story we’ve had here with an actual villain and adversarial encounter, and I’m glad to have it. Not that I have any problem with the cozy vignettes we’ve had—the Whoniverse is full of them—but I like having both types of stories in the collection. It wouldn’t feel well-rounded without a few stories like this.

Overall: Quite fun, this one. A nice setup to the Clara Oswald era and the Impossible Girl arc. I’ve voiced my general dislike of Clara before; but I also enjoyed the early days of her time with the Doctor, and this story, though it doesn’t feature her, makes me want to rewatch. That’s not a bad sentiment. Check it out!

Next time: We’re quickly approaching the projected end of the sale period for this collection, so check it out while you can! I’ve been delayed a bit, most recently by a sick child at home, and so I don’t expect to finish before the end of the sale period. However, I do intend to finish the series, so stay tuned. To that end, next time, we’ll be reading The Stars and Their Promises, by Dana E. Reboe. See you there!

A Pile of Good Things is available here until 25 November 2019, in both physical and digital form.

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Charity Zine Review: A Pile of Good Things, and Someone Kidnapped, Something Blue

We’re back, with another charity zine review! Today I’ll be looking at the third entry in Ginger Hoesly’s Eleventh Doctor Zine, A Pile of Good Things. This entry, by Tina Marie DeLucia, is titled Someone Kidnapped, Something Blue, and features a few old favorite friends.

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! For my rationale for spoilers, check out the first entry in this series. If you want to skip the spoilers, you can pick up at the next divider, below.

For context, this story takes place near the end of the Eleventh Doctor comic, Hunters of the Burning Stone, after the end of the story’s primary action, but before the wedding scene. And with that, let’s get started!

A Pile of Good Things cover art

The Eleventh Doctor stands on a battlefield, the sounds of combat dying around him. With him stand two old friends—the oldest, or very nearly. Friends he never expected to see again: Ian Chesterton, and Barbara Wright. The unlikely trio have just survived the battle between the Prometheans and the now-uplifted Tribe of Gum—old adversaries and new, now turned on each other—and it is time to make an exit. For a moment, Ian and Barbara think the Doctor has been scarred by this encounter—but it only takes that moment for his boyish enthusiasm and boundless energy to return, and he ushers them aboard the TARDIS with glee.

It’s all been a lot to take in for Ian and Barbara. For them, it’s only been months since they last saw the Doctor—their year is still 1965, the year in which they returned home from their travels with him. For the Time Lord—did he ever even say that phrase to them?—it’s been centuries, and lifetimes. There’s a core of him that is still the same man, though—as Barbara says—changed for the better; but in so many surface ways, he’s a new man. Moreover, the TARDIS is different; Ian even finds himself missing the old bright white walls. But the Doctor doesn’t give them time to process it; he’s already bustling over the controls, and he claims, no, insists, that he knows how to fly the ship properly now! He hits a switch…

…And the TARDIS materializes in deep space. Well, that wasn’t according to plan!

Another attempt takes them to a tube station, in the path of an oncoming train! Another terrified, hurried jump takes them to yet another new location…and none of them are 1965 London. The Doctor is forced to come to a rather unusual conclusion: The TARDIS is playing with them. In fact, it seems—though the thought is bizarre to Ian and Barbara—that the ship…has missed them. After a brief, slightly huffy argument, the two schoolteachers leave the Doctor to work out his differences with the errant time machine.

Some time later—minutes, hours?—the Doctor is sitting on the edge of the doorway of the TARDIS, gazing out over the glowing spectacle of a galaxy. Ian comes to join him, and the Doctor nudges him over his anxiety to return home. At last Ian admits that he has a question to ask Barbara, and he doesn’t want to ask it here, or in the depths of space, or anywhere else in their travels. After all, it’s a very important question–the question, the only one that matters to them: He plans to ask Barbara to marry him.

The Doctor’s reaction is one of boundless excitement—he practically falls out of the ship in his joyful congratulations. He has already moved on to planning the wedding, while Ian is still voicing his concerns! Will Barbara take it seriously, Ian wonders, or will she think this is only a grab at normalcy after the world has moved ahead without them?

But the Doctor can’t accept that. Instantly he reassures Ian that Barbara loves him as well; after all, the two are not exactly subtle about it. Moving on, he announces that his oldest friends need the best possible wedding, certainly one better than his own (a revelation that sets Ian back a step). His enthusiasm is infectious; and in the midst of all the plans of dubious viability (Ian hasn’t even asked her yet!), he finds time to make a spur-of-the-moment request that is, despite it all, perfect: He asks the Doctor to be his best man.

In the morning—TARDIS’s morning, at any rate—the time machine has finally become more agreeable, and the Doctor is able to take his friends home. And as they step out into the London sunlight, and Ian gets down on one knee, the Doctor takes a moment to reflect that stealing them away, all those years ago, was worth it. He may not belong anywhere…but they do, and for a moment, he can enjoy that belonging as well. And, he decides, he will miss them.

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I’m a sucker for a good story involving Ian and Barbara, and I particularly like Hunters of the Burning Stone, the story on which this story builds. I wasn’t expecting to find it complemented here in this collection, but the surprise was certainly pleasant.

In any story like this, that brings the Doctor into contact with old companions, there is naturally going to be a heavy emphasis on referring back to old times. This story is no exception, and there’s a considerable amount of reminiscing that goes on: Ian talks about the changes in the TARDIS, Barbara talks about the changes in the Doctor. As a result, we do get a few continuity references. There are references to The Aztecs, and especially to Cameca, the Doctor’s erstwhile fiancée from that story. There’s a reference to the events of The Chase, most notably the Dalek time machine used to transport Ian and Barbara home. From the other direction, there is a quick overview of the Doctor’s relationship and marriage to River Song (A Good Man Goes to WarThe Wedding of River SongLet’s Kill HitlerThe Impossible Astronaut, and others). There’s even a bit of foreshadowing of much later events; the Doctor mentions the Kerblam! shipping company while talking about plans for Ian and Barbara’s wedding.

Overall: This is a much-appreciated vignette giving us a glimpse of a very important moment in the Chestertons’ lives. We’ve seen their wedding; we’ve seen their future and their son; here we get the proposal that started it all. It’s yet another good moment in the Doctor’s very long life, and it’s a pleasure to see it with him.

Next time: I’ve gotten a bit behind, so I may rush a bit to get through the remaining stories in the collection. Next we’ll be looking at a very low moment in the Eleventh Doctor’s life with Paul Driscoll in The Birds of Sweet Forgetfulness. See you there!

A Pile of Good Things is available here until 25 November 2019, in both physical and digital form.

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