Novel Review: Tragedy Day

And we’re back! Welcome back to the Time Lord Archives. If you’ve followed along before, I thank you for your patience, as it’s been awhile; if you’re new here, welcome aboard! Today we’re picking up our read of the New Adventures line of Seventh Doctor novels with #24 in the series, Gareth Roberts’ Tragedy Day, published in March 1994, and featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace McShane, and Bernice Summerfield. I should mention that when I left off this series, I had read several more books than I had reviewed, and so this and the next several reviews will be a bit shorter and more to the point than my usual, in an attempt to catch up.

One last but necessary note. Gareth Roberts is a controversial topic himself these days, due to various comments he’s made over the years, and he has largely been ousted as a writer for the Doctor Who community. However, that kind of personal controversy is not really the purview of this blog; and I am not making any statement regarding his character, personal life, or personal views, or the reaction thereto. Here–and this will be my policy going forward, because we’re going to encounter Roberts again, more than once–I’m only discussing the book. Regardless of his outside issues, for better or worse, his works are part of the series, and we’ll consider them as with all the rest. It may or may not be deemed appropriate to as it were “cancel” a person for their actions; but I’m not going to apply that standard retroactively to their work prior to the commission of the relevant offense.

With all that said, let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead (though not as many as usual). For a more spoiler-free review, skip down to the line divider below.

Long ago, the planet of Olleril was visited by the mysterious stranger known as the Doctor–but, probably not the one you were expecting. Had the natives known about regeneration, they might have known him as the First Doctor, accompanied by his granddaughter Susan. He saved the natives and their world from death by contamination–radiation from a crashed starship would have killed them all. And he took away with him a mysterious piece of red glass, which the locals believed was the source of a curse…

Centuries later, the Seventh Doctor and his companions return to the planet for its famous Tragedy Day celebration. It’s a different world now, with the natives all but wiped out, and a new society descended from a fallen–but not forgotten–human empire. Ace is quickly lost in a refugee camp, and the Doctor and Bernice find themselves the targets of an imperial cult-turned-dictatorial regime–not to mention a celebrity gone mad with power. Worse: the mysterious and transdimensional Friars of Pangloss have sent assassins to kill the Doctor and recover the red glass, the key to their source of power.

Now, the Doctor must piece these disparate threads together, defeat a child maniac, save Ace from being eaten by monsters, and oh yes, defeat the Friars–and all before Tragedy Day reaches its violent end!

This story is, in a word, everywhere. There are so many threads at work here that it gets a bit hard to follow. It’s certainly enjoyable, if only because its pace has to be breakneck in order to fit everything in. It’s everywhere in the geographic sense, too; from the Imperial City on Olleril, to a weapons test site on an island, to a hidden base on a submarine, to a crowded refugee camp, to the devastated planet Pangloss, this story jumps around more than nearly any I’ve seen recently.

As seems to be common in the VNAs, we have a prominent look back at an episode in a previous Doctor’s life. This is the earliest such scene we have, with the First Doctor and Susan appearing sometime prior to their time on Earth–it’s not possible to place it exactly, but then, pre-An Uneartly Child adventures are fairly rare anyway. (We do have earlier flashbacks in previous books, but those scenes concern the history of the founding of Time Lord society, not the Doctor’s earlier life.) We’re going to have several more occasions like this in upcoming novels, so stay tuned! It happens often enough in the VNAs that it’s almost a cliché–and yet, as a longtime fan, I find it hard to complain; of course the Doctor’s life should circle back and intersect sometimes, much as we may meet an old friend and catch up. It’s a way to bring in the past without making multi-Doctor stories even more common than they are already, and I am content with that, especially given that the television series finds it harder to be self-referential in this way. It also serves to show us that the Doctor’s adventures are far more numerous than we seem, which I find comforting; it allows us to account for his odd throwaway instances of name dropping, and it tells us there’s always more to learn.

I don’t often delve into the real-world themes found in these novels–for example, any time they are written with reference to real-world politics. It’s not that those things are unimportant; it’s that the real world can be depressing enough these days, and I like to enjoy these books–now nearly thirty years out of date–as happy fiction rather than commentary. Nevertheless, the commentary is there, and sometimes it’s too obvious to be missed. That’s the case here, but unlike many novels, Tragedy Day doesn’t discriminate; it takes a jab at everyone and everything. War, colonialism, religious fanaticism, television, celebrity–there’s a critique here for everyone! And it’s always well-deserved. The only downside is that there’s not enough time to get as far as solutions, in most cases, so we’re left with the critique and the opportunity to make our own decisions unaided.

Continuity References: Surprisingly, less than I expected this time, especially after opening with a First Doctor reference. But that reference is to a story that isn’t recorded anywhere else, so in a sense it doesn’t count. There are hints at the events of An Unearthly Child, though not very definite. The Monk, aka Mortimus, is mentioned, after recently showing up in No Future. The Rutans are mentioned (Horror of Fang Rock). The actor Crispin has a complete collection of a television series called Captain Millennium, except for a single episode missing; this is undoubtedly a reference to The Highest Science, in which an odd episode of the series was randomly transported to the planet Hogsumm (that novel was Roberts’ first contribution to the VNAs). The Doctor claims to have never met Henry VII, but this is not true; he met him previously in The Sensorites, God Send Me Well to Keep, and Recorded Time. Bernice mentions the nonexistent planet Rhoos (The Playthings of Fo). And, the ruling faction on Olleril, the Luminus, came about as a result of Faction Paradox (Interference – Book Two). And, not specifically a reference, but I feel compelled to point out that the Doctor is still using the Third Doctor’s TARDIS as rescued from the alternate universe; there’s little mention of it here, but we’ll have occasional reminders in upcoming books.

Overall: I know I sound like I’ve been harsh toward this book, but actually I enjoyed it. It’s a mess, but it’s our mess, as it were. It reads quickly, and it’s one of the rare novels in the series that’s very easy to get lost in–I didn’t finish it in a single sitting, but close enough. For me, that won’t happen again until Blood Harvest, number 28 in the series. As well, being fairly low on continuity references–and having finally passed through the Alternate Universe novels and the “holiday trilogy” (as I call it)–this book is easy to get into for a newcomer. So, check it out, if you can!

Next time: We revisit the world of Peladon in Legacy, by Gary Russell! See you there.

A prelude to Tragedy Day can be found here.

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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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.

Charity Anthology Review: Mild Curiosities: Comfort in Tea and Tales of Time Travel, and The Peculiar Package

We’re back, with another charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our look at the Ian and Barbara anthology, Mild Curiosities, with two entries in Chapter III, the post-Doctor era: Comfort in Tea and Tales of Time Travel, by Dana Reboe; and Logan Fairchild’s The Peculiar Package.

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

With that said, let’s get started!

Mild Curiosities

Comfort in Tea and Tales of Time Travel

After two years of trying—give or take; with time travel, who can tell?—Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright have made it home. The problem is: What to do now? Sometime shortly after their return, the duo sit in Barbara’s flat, just taking it all in. It’s been a stressful transition—of course it has—but here they are, at long last, sipping drinks and enjoying the peace and quiet. After all, those are things they rarely experienced with the Doctor; adventure, action, and even outright terror were more the order of the day. This is so much better.

Therefore, it comes as a bit of a surprise when Ian asks Barbara if she is happy.

She is taken aback; of course she’s happy, right? This is what they wanted. She turns the question back to Ian; and as always, his answer is a bit layered. Of course they’re happy; but, what about the Doctor? It was quite a blow to him when Susan left, and now they’ve followed suit. Will he be okay? To put it another way, though they wanted this for years, was their leaving a bit premature?

Barbara spends a moment musing about her time in the TARDIS—specifically, an early moment, in which she sat in the open doorway of the ship and looked out at the stars, with nothing beneath her feet but the vastness of space. What a view! It brings back all the longing, the curiosity, the sense of wonder she has felt—and yes, she is forced to admit, she too will miss the Doctor. So will Ian, obviously. After all, who will challenge the Doctor’s technobabble? Who will argue right and wrong with the old man?

It all begs the question: Will they see him again?

They don’t know. There’s no way to know.

But—and here Ian joins Barbara at the window, looking out over a bustling London morning—the world is still turning, and the two of them still carry on. There’s something satisfying about that. Despite what they’ve given up, they have each other; and if they are now on the slow path through life, rather than the highlights, well…Ian doesn’t mind. Barbara, either.

The Peculiar Package

It’s been some time since Ian and Barbara found their way back to 1965 London, and they’ve begun to settle in. More to the point, they’ve finally found time to make their relationship something more than just friends or traveling companions; and so, while Ian is away for the weekend with family, Barbara finds herself unexpectedly at loose ends.

She doesn’t have long to think about it, though; for a mysterious package has arrived in the post. Inside, she finds a strange, handheld device, made up of a screen like those on the TARDIS, surrounded by a large number of switches and buttons. Intrigued—and a bit worried at the obviously alien nature of the machine—she spends the rest of the weekend tinkering with the device, but to no response. When Ian returns (with romance on his mind, but unfortunately he’ll be redirected in a moment), she enlists his help with it. He spends the evening working with the device, but also gets no response; in the end he falls asleep on her sofa.

During the night Barbara awakens—and spots a strange light from the room where Ian is asleep. She knows at once it’s the device, and with a sinking feeling she moves to check it out. When she picks it up, however, she is shocked to see the Doctor and Vicki on its screen!

It quickly becomes apparent that she can’t only see them; they can see her, and speak with her. They tell her that the device is a telepathic communicator—just in case Ian and Barbara ever need the Doctor for anything. However, he congratulates her on their engagement, confusing Barbara; they’ve never discussed marriage yet. Vicki realizes what has happened, and chides the Doctor for calling too soon. The Doctor retorts that perhaps he isn’t early; perhaps Ian is late (conveniently ignoring the fact that it’s the preoccupation with his own gift that has distracted both Ian and Barbara!). Just before he cuts contact, he warns Barbara not to check Ian’s jacket pockets.

In the morning, Barbara tells Ian about the call from the Doctor. Feeling emboldened, she includes his congratulations on their engagement. Ian, quickly chagrined, produces a ring box from his jacket pocket, and apologizes, saying that he intended to propose on their now-canceled date last night.

And of course, Barbara’s answer is “yes”.

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I’ve placed these two stories together in part for a reason of my own—that is, that I’m falling further behind in this series, and need to catch up. However, I also observed that the two stories go very well together, almost as chapters in the same story. Comfort in Tea and Tales of Time Travel (hereafter abbreviated as Comfort for convenience’s sake) takes place very shortly after our heroes’ arrival back on Earth; it’s broadly hinted that it takes place on the night of the same day in which they arrived, but I have left that open to interpretation, chiefly because of the insinuation in our last story that their flats may no longer be available to them. Here we see Barbara’s, so I’ve chosen to allow for the possibility of a little more time. The Peculiar Package takes place some time later, possibly months, but still not too long thereafter. Ian and Barbara have moved forward with their relationship, and here we see one account of their engagement (there may be others in existence, I’m not sure). I’m stating that I think this story is only a few months after their return, because that is in keeping with Hunters of the Burning Stone, which recounts their wedding; that story has them encountering the Eleventh Doctor after being kidnapped from 1965, indicating that not too much time can possibly have passed before their wedding.

These stories are more of the slice-of-life variety. There are no villains, no adventures; only good feelings here—after all, the first story’s title begins with Comfort. That’s fair enough for now; after all, they’ve only just come off of two years of adventures. I will be happy to see more adventures later if possible, but for now, this is all we—and they—need. Put another way, all they need is each other and time—and that’s time in linear order, as we must clarify.

I know this is quite fan-service-y, for lack of a better word; but I love the suggestion that The Chase was not the end of their encounters with the Doctor. They don’t need to come back for constant adventures; but just to know that they weren’t abandoned to their own devices forever is nice. We got a hint of that in The Wreck of the San Juan de Pasajes, with the Seventh Doctor; and there will be other stories down the road. It’s comforting to know that in a pinch, they still have access to their old friend, as we see here.

Overall: Two short stories that accomplish exactly what they set out to do: They set our heroes on course for a happy, if Earthbound, life. I’m content with that. In our upcoming entries, we’ll see if it lasts.

Next time: We’ll wrap up this chapter with Riviera Refuge by Stephen Hatcher! See you there.

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

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

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

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

With that said, let’s get started!

Mild Curiosities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Charity Anthology Review: Mild Curiosities, and Doctor Who In A Very Exciting Adventure With The Eater Of Worlds

We’re back, with another charity anthology review! First, I apologize for my absence the last few weeks, as I’ve been dealing with an illness and some other complications with my life. But, we’re back today, continuing our look at the Ian and Barbara anthology, Mild Curiosities, with the fourth (and possibly longest) entry: Doctor Who In A Very Exciting Adventure With The Eater Of Worlds, by William J. Martin.

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

With that said, let’s get started!

Mild Curiosities

Vicki Pallister is admiring the rather ornate clock in the TARDIS console room, when the ship lurches and sends the clock toppling to the floor, shattering it into fragments. The Doctor, Ian, and Barbara all come running, just in time for the ship to shudder to a halt. They find they have landed in New York City—and the time appears to be very close to Ian and Barbara’s own. Have they finally made it home (or near enough)? Are they really just a transoceanic voyage away from home?

Unfortunately…the TARDIS has suspended itself half a mile up. Which would be fine—until there’s a knock at the door. Outside, a man made of light hovers in the air. He introduces himself as Starblaze, of the Quintessence Quartet, and tells them they must evacuate. Something strange is going on, and it’s only grown worse since the TARDIS arrived. Suddenly the TARDIS begins to lurch and groan again—not departing, but behaving very strangely. As the Doctor struggles with the controls, he allows Starblaze to get them out, beginning with Ian, Barbara, and Vicki.

One by one, Starblaze flies them down to the roof of a tall building with an atom symbol on its center. He leaves them in the capable hands of a new character—his sister, who introduces herself as Ms. Phantasm—and returns for the Doctor. But, all the observers are stunned as Starblaze disappears into the TARDIS—and then the TARDIS itself disappears.

Ms. Phantasm, or Debbie, as she calls herself, is momentarily shaken, but recovers quickly. She is sure they can track the TARDIS, and so she leads the others into the building, which is called Dawnrise Plaza. To everyone’s surprise, she does so by phasing them through the concrete of the roof. There they meet a third stranger, a man made entirely of stone, who introduces himself as Jacob. Debbie quickly explains: She, her brother Danny Grey (aka Starblaze), Jacob, and her husband, Stephen Sinclair, make up a research team. Some time back, they were exposed to a rather unusual situation, and as a result each developed unique powers. Now, they function as a sort of superhero team, and call themselves the Quintessence Quartet. Danny’s powers allow him to fly and turn his body to energy, most notably light and fire; Debbie’s powers allow her to turn herself or others intangible, and create force fields; Jacob, while turned to a living stone, is incredibly strong and durable; and Stephen, in addition to his prodigious mind, can totally control the molecules of his body, making him a sort of shapeshifter who can stretch to any shape and size. On this particular day, the team detected the presence of the TARDIS—but also detected some other, more frightening, phenomena.

Meanwhile, Danny and the Doctor make quick, if unsatisfying, introductions as the TARDIS grinds to a stop. They find themselves in a maze of corridors, somewhere far from Earth. The Doctor, without explaining, sets off in search of something, and Danny is forced to follow. Oddly, the corridors seem to be changing as they go, resisting their efforts to navigate. At last, though, they find themselves in a large observation bay, in which an image of the Earth is displayed, observed only by a single, strange man.

At Dawnrise, Debbie introduces Stephen, who is in a panic. He has detected two strange energy signatures heading for Earth. One is small, but moving fast; the other is so massive as to be beyond description. And they have nearly arrived.

The Doctor engages the man in conversation. He is struck silent, however, when the man explains why he is here: to observe the affairs of a creature called Omnidax. When the Doctor recovers himself, he explains to Danny that Omnidax is an almost legendary creature, a massive entity that devours whole worlds. The man adds that it is from beyond time, before time, from a previous universe. He insists that Omnidax now has its sights set on Earth—and must not be stopped. The Doctor, who now recognizes the man (or at least, his species and his purpose), argues with him over what is the greater good: to save the lives on Earth, or to save many others by allowing Omnidax to fulfill its purpose? They are interrupted when a beam of light streaks toward the Earth—and the man announces it is too late.

Steven, too, has detected the approach of the light, and rushes everyone to the roof. It rapidly approaches Dawnrise, and Debbie uses her power to contain it, creating a force field. However, she is quickly overwhelmed. The light resolves itself into a human figure made of light, similar to Starblaze, but much stronger. The creature introduces itself as Argamant, the Herald of Omnidax, come to prepare the way and observe as Omnidax feeds on the Earth. Jacob attacks Argamant, but is easily repelled. Argamant speaks to Ian, Barbara, and Vicki, and says that they seem different from the others; they alone are not afraid. He invites them to join him as he observes the citiy, and then heads for the street. With little choice, they move to follow him…and the sky explodes above them. Omnidax has arrived.

Debbie and Stephen send the trio to follow Armagant. As Omnidax begins to destroy neighboring buildings, Stephen has Jacob throw him closer to Omnidax, in an attempt to reason with the beast. However, Omnidax insists that only after he feeds will he hear reason.

Chasing Armagant, and trying to plead with him, Barabara and the others gather vital information. They learn that Omnidax consumes something vital, something more essential than DNA; though they can’t put a precise name to it, it may roughly be considered the soul of the planet and its people. Armagant insists that no one actually dies; instead, he claims, they become one with Omnidax, and are preserved as data (a small consolation to the victims, perhaps!). His task is to witness the worlds before they merge with Omnidax. Meanwhile, back at Dawnrise, Stephen realizes that Omnidax came here because of the density of life in the city. He realizes, as well, that Omnidax isn’t destroying the buildings; he is cannibalizing them for parts, constructing a strange spherical object. Clearly he needs this device to feed on the planet; and if they can damage it, they can slow his advance.

The strange man gives his name as Qajaqualconitonis, which the Doctor quickly abbreviates to Qaja. He claims to be an appointed Watcher for this system. He says that Omnidax doesn’t only consume life; he consumes the timelines represented by that life. He insists that he cannot let the Doctor interfere; the Doctor insists he must. The Doctor tells Danny that Qaja is of his own species, a rather lazy and fearful species at that. Qaja ignores the jab, and says that he is not permitted to interfere except in the prevention of a greater threat. He insists that if he repels Omnidax—forcing him to find another world, with its own innocents to die—he will add complexity to the course of history, and rip the web of time apart. However, he stumbles when the Doctor lets slip—innocently and quite accidentally, it seems—that he has friends on the surface. Friends, who just happen to also be time travelers. Qaja becomes enraged; the Doctor brought other time travelers here, into the most sensitive moment in Earth’s history?! And the Doctor refuses to try to remove them—after all, it is a sensitive moment in the timestream. Qaja knows his hand has been forced, and there will be consequences; but he grudgingly agrees to help. He tells the Doctor to consider Omnidax’s strength in order to find his weakness. He reminds the Doctor that Omnidax consumes not just matter, but timelines. Those timelines don’t cease inside him; rather, they war with each other, and it is the tension between them that sustains him. But, the addition of a few rogue elements—such as Ian and Barbara and Vicki—could upset that balance, and destroy him, and the universe with him…That is unacceptable, and therefore Qaja allows the Doctor to act. He gives him coordinates that will take him to Omnidax’s point of origin, in the previous universe. He also promises to provide the power boost necessary for the TARDIS to go there and return—but he warns them that the laws of reality in that universe will be quite different, and dangerous to them…

Debbie gets Stephen and Jacob into Omnidax’s sphere, where they set about destroying everything they can touch. Meanwhile, Vicki and the others follow Armagant to the now-damaged Times Square. Here they see a building with a collapsed front, and from inside they hear cries for help. They also discover quickly that Armagant can read a person’s history from even the slightest residue of their touch, and more if he touches the person. They hear someone calling for help from the broken building, and find a blind sculptor, Karen Lieber, trapped in the rubble. They work furiously to dig her out, much to the puzzlement of Armagant, who insists her story will end soon anyway when Omnidax consumes her. When they get her uncovered, they find that she is bleeding profusely from a leg injury, and Vicki begins a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding. However, Armagant is stunned to silence when he sees Karen’s timeline change before his eyes, something he has never seen before. It rattles him to his core, and though he has not yet decided what it means, he moves to heal Karen’s injury. He then declares that this event has made him see that Omnidax is not all-powerful, and can—and should—be resisted. Though it may damn him, he will now stand against Omnidax himself, and perhaps atone for the crimes in which he has been complicit. He spreads his golden light around the group, and teleports them away.

The Doctor and Danny successfully make the trip back into the previous universe, but they find that the environment is inimical to the Doctor. However, Danny has a better chance of survival; and so he goes out in search of the thing for which they have come: the device Omnidax built to survive the transition between universes. He is nearly killed in the process, but he brings back the component the Doctor requires.

At Dawnrise, Omnidax lashes out against Jacob and Stephen, repelling them and nearly killing Jacob in the process. Jacob is saved by Debbie and Stephen—but Omnidax successfully completes his device, and prepares to feed. Suddenly, the orb explodes apart, and Omnidax furiously looks for his new opponent—and finds Armagant. At the same time, Ian, Barbara, Vicki, and Karen materialize on the roof with Stephen and the others. Armagant challenges Omnidax, and prepares for battle—and then the TARDIS reappears on the rooftop.

The Doctor and Danny emerge, and the Doctor calls out to Omnidax. He presents the device retrieved from the prior universe: a quantum tachyon capacitor, a device capable of storing a nearly-infinite amount of energy. Omnidax recognizes the threat; if the Doctor activates the device, Omnidax’s hunger would increase to infinity, and he would wither away. Omnidax insists he must be allowed to live, for the sake of all the knowledge he contains, but the Doctor disagrees; all things have their time, and must pass away. The Doctor cannot favor the long dead over the living. Armagant, however, objects. He offers to destroy Omnidax at the cost of his own life—a due penance, he believes. The Doctor will not hear of it. He offers to keep the capacitor, thus becoming as it were Omnidax’s jailer, and thus allow Armagant to live and find peace. But it is Omnidax who breaks the standoff—he accepts the Doctor’s terms, and will only feed on dead worlds henceforth; but his travels will be long, and he still must feed in order to go. To that end, Armagant allows him to consume all the cosmic power and knowledge he contains, reducing him to an ordinary man, bound to Earth. The balance—and the bargain—is struck, and Omnidax departs.

As goodbyes are said, Armagant begins his new life; Karen finds herself getting close to Jacob, whose stone exterior doesn’t matter to her; and the Doctor grants Stephen a rare peek inside the TARDIS. However, they are interrupted by Qaja; he announces that his interference has been found out, and will be punished. As well, as his masters arrive, if they find the time travelers on Earth, they will correct the timeline, wiping them out of existence and restoring Omnidax to his previous state. All their work will be for nothing. And so the Doctor and his companions are forced again to hurry into the TARDIS and away, leaving the Earth—and yet another chance at home—behind them. Still, as Ian reflects, it’s not so bad; imagine if this crisis had been their last goodbye to the Doctor and Vicki. In the meantime, they’ll keep trying.

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I’ve met the Quintessence Quartet before, in my review of the Defending Earth Sarah Jane Smith anthology. (If you’re interested, you can read that review here; that story is titled When the Stars Come to Man.) Given that these anthologies come to me with no real order to them, that story represents a much later event in the lives of the Quartet, and represents a conclusion of sorts, as it brings them full circle with their origins. Here, however, we see them at their prime, in a more mainstream adventure.

For those not aware, William J. Martin’s Quintessence Quartet are a tribute of sorts to the classic eras of comic books, and specifically, to the Fantastic Four. The characters have very similar powers and identities to the Fantastic Four, and the stories seem to be structured in much the same way as classic FF adventures. There’s one major difference, though: Martin handles the characters with care and respect. That’s something that can’t be said about recent portrayals of the Fantastic Four, especially their big screen outings. (It’s an unfortunate truth, but even the classic comics didn’t always give the team the respect they merited. There’s none of that here, though—the Quintessence Quartet are well presented and well handled.)

In this story, the Doctor and his companions, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki, stumble into the Quartet’s first encounter with one of their greatest enemies: Omnidax, the Eater of Worlds. I say “first” despite not having read any further encounters; that’s a bit of presumption on my part, I admit. Omnidax is clearly based on one of the Fantastic Four’s most persistent and famous adversaries: Galactus. Like Galactus, he is a force from a previous universe, known for consuming entire worlds, and expected to survive the death of this universe as well. Also like Galactus, he travels preceded by a Herald; Galactus famously had the Silver Surfer, and Omnidax has Armagant, who shares many qualities with the Surfer. Galactus is a bit less defined here than in the comics, where he takes the form of a massive (but variably sized) humanoid; here, the impression I got is more akin to the amorphous, cloudlike representation of Galactus as seen in the Rise of the Silver Surferfilm. (Apologies to the author if I’ve interpreted that wrong!) As happens in some Galactus stories, the Herald learns a new truth about his reality, and turns against Omnidax; but here, that is not enough. It’s the Doctor—in alliance with the others—who saves the day, by retrieving a deadly artifact from Omnidax’s previous universe.

(One has to ask, though: If the Doctor went back in time, and stole a critical part of the device that Omnidax used to enter our universe, then how did Omnidax do it? Shouldn’t his timeline be interrupted? Omnidax, of course, being above such concerns, sneers at our petty logic, and continues to exist anyway. The nerve of some people!)

I found myself intrigued by the character of Qaja (no, I’m not going to spell out his full name again). He seems to be a blending of two bits of lore here. First, he is a Watcher, one of a longstanding cadre of Marvel Comics characters (or the equivalent thereof), assigned to observe and record—but not interfere in—the events of Omnidax’s arrival. That sounds suspiciously like the Time Lords, however, who in Classic Who were chiefly observers and not meddlers (though of course that role began to change over time). Indeed, the Doctor tells Danny Grey that Qaja is one of his own race, though he doesn’t use the phrase “Time Lord”. Qaja is an interesting conundrum, though; he doesn’t act like he is here on behalf of the Time Lords specifically, and indeed it doesn’t quite seem that we can equate the Time Lords with the Watchers. Rather, there’s the distinct impression that he is a Time Lord who was plucked from Gallfrey to become a Watcher—and it seems those worthies represent something higher than the Time Lords. Rassilon is NOT going to be happy.

Overall, though, it’s good to remember that this is an Ian and Barbara anthology. They take a bit of a backseat in the events of the story; but the actions they take are the pivotal turning point of the story. On their actions rests the conversion of Armagant; and it can be argued that without that event, the story would have ended very differently. Ian and Barbara, along with Vicki, are the humanizing element here, the ones bringing sanity to an otherwise insane situation; and it’s their humanity that makes all the difference.

And once again, they’re prevented from returning home. Can’t win ‘em all.

Next time: I mentioned that this may be the longest story in the anthology. I haven’t confirmed that, but I do know that most of the upcoming entries should be shorter. It’s not that I have a problem with longer stories; but longer stories require more reading and writing time, and I’m already very far behind. We’ll try to make up for lost time, and we’ll start with the next entry: The Stowaways, by Peter Cumiskey. See you there!

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

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Charity Anthology Review: Mild Curiosities, and A Restless Night

We’re back, with another charity anthology review! Today we continue our look at the Ian and Barbara anthology, Mild Curiosities, with the third entry: A Restless Night, by Jeff Goddard.

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

With that said, let’s get started!

Mild Curiosities

I can’t give a proper plot summary for this story, and for a very good reason: This is not a plot-driven story. (As a result, this entry will be shorter than most, but I think we’ll accomplish what we need to, despite that.) Rather, it’s a vignette, a slice of life that focuses much more on the feelings of our characters. We find Ian wandering the TARDIS at night, musing on how it seems to change, and how it seems to be benignly conscious, always getting him where he wants—or needs to go…within its own corridors, that is. Outside, in the universe, not so much—but save that for later. He finds his way to the console room, where the Doctor is not present, but Barbara is, lost in her own thoughts. She is clearly distraught; when prodded, she admits to thinking about Susan, who has recently left the team—no, not left; was left behind, by the Doctor. The old man’s motives are sincere enough, and seem to make perfect sense to him, but perhaps not to his human traveling companions. After all, Susan is just a child, isn’t she?

Ian points out that he has begun to suspect that she isn’t. Mounting evidence seems to point to the idea that the Doctor and Susan don’t age like humans. Still, the girl is capable, and everyone could see that she was falling for David on the Dalek-ravaged Earth, and…well, perhaps she’ll be alright. But that begs the question—what of Ian and Barbara? After all, it was Susan who led them to this life of travel and adventure, and now, without her…well, Barbara says it plainly: She just wants to go home. “No Daleks or telepaths or dips into history. Home.” Ian agrees—“Back to foggy nights and rainy days. Marking homework and football on Saturdays.” The question is…can the Doctor get them there? And that, it seems, remains to be seen.

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We fans, I think, have become a bit jaded over the years. Certainly we love this series, and certainly we still try to put ourselves in the shoes of companions of the Doctor. I think, though, that by way of familiarity we may have forgotten just how strange and bizarre this lifestyle would be. We forget just how stressful, how hard it would be to be spirited away with the Doctor. (As an aside, the modern series seems to be aware of this development, and has accommodated it; companions no longer stumble into the Doctor’s TARDIS and get whisked away against their will, as happened often in the classic series. Modern companions get a choice; the Doctor invites them along. It’s charming, and avoids the unpleasant specter of kidnapping. Even one-off companions usually get to go in with their eyes open, even if they don’t get the standard invitation.) Ian and Barbara, though, had nothing going for them, no invitation, no advantage to which to cling. They were, quite literally, kidnapped. We know that they later acclimatized themselves to the situation (a more unkind me might call it Stockholm Syndrome), and they—in a word—coped. Still, for much of their tenure with the Doctor, they were on the back foot, as it were; stressed, lonely, far from home, and without any real hope of ever getting there. Indeed, if they had relied solely on the Doctor, they might never have made it—let’s not forget that it’s a captured Dalek time machine that ultimately gets them home, in The Chase. (There’s a cute line in this story, which I omitted above, where Barbara says that she’d be happy with just getting close to London 1963, and Ian retorts “What, like London, 1965?” Which is of course where they ultimately land.)

This story captures those feelings. It plays them up further by its placement; this story takes place shortly after Susan’s exit at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It doesn’t let the impact of that story be lost; Barbara stresses that Susan didn’t leave (a distinction we fans sometimes gloss over), she was left by the Doctor, who is still very much an unpredictable and sometimes capricious character. (I’ve often theorized that the Doctor doesn’t really become “the Doctor” as we know him until The War Machines, which is when he finally embraces the heroic personality he’s been building. It’s pure speculation, of course; but if I am correct, I feel I should mention that that story is a long time in the future here, and the Doctor is by no means that man yet—though he is making progress!) Ian and Barbara are seen here at their most weak, most human, and most like the people we would really be in their situation.

But they aren’t hopeless! They despair—but only a little. Ian is, as ever, the consummate optimist; and he does what he does best, which is lift Barbara’s spirits. He really has no choice but to believe they’ll make it; after all, what’s the alternative? There’s no towel to throw in. There’s no such thing as giving up—what would that even look like? They must continue, and all they control here is their attitude toward it. It’s enough. It has to be enough, and so it will.

And so, they continue on.

There’s a lesson for us in that, but I think it’s obvious, and I won’t hammer it home; I’ll simply point out its existence. Consider it one more reason to buy the book and read it—yes, even this short-but-poignant story. Perhaps especially this story.

Next time: Doctor Who in a Very Exciting Adventure with the Eater of Worlds, by William J. Martin! See you there.

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

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Charity Anthology Review: Mild Curiosities, and The Wreck of the San Juan de Pasajes

We’re back, with another charity anthology review! Today we continue our look at the Ian and Barbara anthology, Mild Curiosities, with the second entry: co-editor James Bojaciuk’s The Wreck of the San Juan de Pasajes.

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

With that said, let’s get started!

Mild Curiosities

Ian Chesterton is far from young when the opportunity arises. He is an old man now, and full of memories—but it’s for the sake of those memories that he invests the money. It’s a good cause, he believes; it’s the restoration of a ship once thought lost, the San Juan de Pasajes. Perhaps, as his friends insist, his involvement is a little stronger than the situation justifies—after all, why would he show such interest in the restoration of an old wreck? Well, he can’t properly tell them why, of course—but he doesn’t need the money, and neither does his son, Johnny, who is quite successful on his own. There’s no reason he shouldn’t donate—and no reason why he can’t attend the unveiling. After all, it’s to the memory of his beloved Barbara… There are many memories Ian treasures—but the chance to revisit one: now, that is a treasure indeed. So many are lost to history. But now, as he stands in the museum and looks over the restored hulk of the San Juan de Pasajes, his mind drifts back to a snowy day, long—and long—ago.

It was a different life, traveling in the TARDIS—and that’s no common turn of phrase; it was indeed very different. Ian and Barbara, along with the still-mysterious Doctor and his granddaughter, Susan, had just come from the markets of a far-flung planet in the Tracian system, bustling with aliens. Now they step out onto Earth—but not their own part of it. Instead, it is the dead of winter, in a raging snowstorm; and to Ian’s surprise, he finds himself on the deck of a seventeenth-century sailing ship. (History was Barbara’s purview, but perhaps the science teacher was picking up a few bits.) He steps back inside for a moment of banter with the Doctor, who then leads the way out, with Barbara close behind. Ian makes to follow— –and is hurled about as the TARDIS lurches in what seems to be agony. Somewhere deep inside it, a church bell—the cloister bell, though he doesn’t know the term—begins to toll. He staggers to the console, where Susan is fighting with a lever, and helps her to pull it, setting the TARDIS on its proverbial feet again. Susan leads the way to the door…but now they are on the shore, perhaps a mile distant from the ship. They can see the Doctor and Barbara on the deck, can hear them calling out, but they can’t reach them.

As they watch, the ship runs aground, tearing a jagged hole in its hull.

Something must be done. Ian suggests the fast return switch—not a bad idea! Susan dives for the switch, and the TARDIS spins away into the time vortex…and comes to rest in the Tracian market. A second attempt takes them back to the shore. The stop aboard ship hasn’t been logged! Now the ship is visibly listing, and the crew—and Barbara—are throwing barrels into the sea while the Doctor argues with the captain. And worse: the snow is falling faster.

Ian sees the problem at once. If the crew—and their wayward companions—can’t be rescued at once, they will have to swim for shore; but with visibility quickly dropping, they can easily get lost, and hypothermia will make short work of them. He leaves Susan to work on getting the TARDIS to the ship, and looks for another solution.

Their place on shore isn’t just any landing. The ship is clearly a whaling ship; and this landing is a camp for rendering the blubber down to valuable whale oil. And it just so happens that one of the cabins contains barrels of stored oil… Ian quickly constructs two torches, and tries to signal the ship. If they can follow the light, they’ll be safe. But the snow is falling so hard that the torches are obscured, and he knows something more will be required. If Susan was making no progress—and she wasn’t—then he would need a bigger fire. He is able to make one quickly enough, but it’s still not enough; and the snow is nearly waist-deep. He’s a science teacher! He should be more inventive than this! He checks on Susan, who has disassembled part of the console in an attempt to redirect the ship; her face and hands are dark with grease.

Seeing the grease, Ian suddenly remembers.

This is a rendering plant. For whale oil.

Dragging Susan with him, he races back to the storage cabin. Together they wrestle a large barrel of oil back to the shore near the site of his first fire, which has burned out in the snow. They place the barrel on a rock, and then—praying the wood is dry enough to catch—they set it alight.

Now this is a blaze!

And it works. Slowly, the crew stagger to shore. With them are the Doctor and—to Ian’s unending delight—Barbara. As he gives her his coat, the two share a quiet, but heartfelt, reunion, safe at last.

That danger, that moment of triumph—all so long ago, Ian thinks. And now he knows why he came to the unveiling: to say goodbye to someone he has loved for a very long time. As he says the word, he is gently accosted by a short man in a porkpie hat, who speaks with a Scottish accent. The man, it turns out, is also here to say goodbye to an old friend. The man tells him a bit of trivia about the ship: that in its moment of death, a woman on board made sure that the crew had reliable boats, constructed of barrels, to carry them to shore. Remarkably, she saved their lives, and her own. Together, Ian and the strange man take a moment to remember a remarkable woman. As the man starts to walk away, he pauses and asks Ian his name. And Ian—knowing that somehow, against all odds, this man is an old friend—gives the only appropriate answer: “Ian Chatterton”.

There’s no need for the man to correct the mispronunciation (although he does). After all, old friends need no introduction.

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Well, it’s good to see we’re getting the tearjerkers in early! This is definitely a story to make one cry. I’ve mentioned in previous posts—though not yet in this series—that I consider Ian and Barbara to be among my favorite Doctor Who companions, if not my favorite; and here is a tribute to them that I didn’t expect to see until the end of the book. James Bojaciuk uses a frame story set in Ian’s old age to tell a story set during his travels with the Doctor; and frankly, it’s a moment I’ve been hoping to see in some capacity for a long time. (I’m still a little bitter that Ian didn’t meet the Twelfth Doctor in The Caretaker, but can’t have it all, I guess. Hmpf.)

There are a few things that get casual mention here, which are worth noting. Obviously, Ian’s relationship and marriage to Barbara is a given. As I mentioned last time, their wedding is acknowledged in several later stories, and seen in Hunters of the Burning Stone. That story also confirms that they became familiar with the concept of regeneration, although the Doctor hadn’t regenerated yet during their travels with him. That, then, plays into this story, when Ian rather casually meets the Seventh Doctor while remembering Barbara. Ian also mentions their son, Johnny, or “Johnny Chess” as he becomes professionally known. This was a detail with which I wasn’t familiar, although I’ve seen the name mentioned once or twice (and didn’t know what I was seeing): Ian and Barbara’s son John Alydon Ganatus Chesterton becomes popular musician Johnny Chess (first mentioned in Timewyrm: Revelation, first seen and confirmed to be their son in Byzantium!). I’ve since come to know that Johnny got his start as a fan fiction character, which perhaps makes it poetic that he gets a mention here in this charity work.

But this is Ian’s story, though, not Johnny’s; and it’s Ian who gets to be poetic here. It’s a rare look not so much at his actions, as at his feelings. He’s elated to be traveling; a bit caught off guard by the suddenness of their journeys; and then all of that is overwhelmed with desperation and fear when Barbara—and of course the others, but mostly Barbara—is at risk. He doesn’t think of himself as a hero here; he’s only desperate to save the people he cares about, and if possible, the bystanders as well. But that’s what a hero is: Someone who does what must be done, against all odds, without any drive for fame. Wanting to be a hero precludes you from being one, or at least, it should.

Make no mistake, Barbara is a hero here as well. Saving the crew of the San Juan de Pasajes is a team effort. But it’s Ian’s story, and the focus is on him; even he doesn’t know what Barbara did. In all the years of their marriage, it never came up, because she too is a hero, meaning she doesn’t think of herself as one. It took the Doctor to bear witness, belatedly, to her valor. And I think this is a pattern we saw often in the early TV adventures: Ian was portrayed as a hero, but in the background, Barbara (and Susan as well) was also quietly doing what had to be done. She didn’t get many moments in the spotlight, but she’s no less heroic for that.

And that’s that. Nothing else is required here. The emotion is enough. Read the story; I promise you’ll feel the tears, even if you don’t let them out.

Next time: Continuing chapter II, “Travelling Companions”, we have A Restless Night, by Jeff Goddard! See you there.

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

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Charity Anthology Review: Mild Curiosities, and Touch the Stars

We’re back again! Now that I have a few reviews of charity projects under my belt, I’ve begun to garner a little attention for these reviews, and have been approached a few times about these projects. It’s been interesting; the fan project world—though it seems to get more circulation in the UK than here in the US, even with the help of the internet—is and remains a niche corner of the Whoniverse. It doesn’t get the type of cataloguing efforts that licensed works receive (there’s no TARDIS wiki for charity works—though if I’m wrong about that, someone please point me there!). I can only assume that timely reviews and other publicity are hard to come by as well. This is the primary reason I’ve accepted these requests for reviews: I think many of these projects, being for good causes, are worthwhile, and generally they embody a quality selection of authors and work, which deserves to be remembered and catalogued somewhere. This is doubly true in the case of charity projects, because, once their initial publication run ceases, they generally become unavailable; and those stories can be lost to time. Here, I’m not seeking to record the actual text—that wouldn’t be acceptable—but I do include plot summaries as well as my opinions, and thus preserve them in some way.

Full disclosure: this has been a bit of a refreshing change for me as well. In my personal life I have a lot going on, including issues with an illness that I don’t usually talk about here, but that takes up much of my time and energy. As a result, I’m a bit burned out on the licensed materials. Watching an episode is easy enough, but committing multiple hours to an audio drama or days to a book—as much as I enjoy doing those things—is, for the time being, something of a chore for me, and especially when I need to review it afterward. Reading and reviewing a short story each day is a bit easier, and doesn’t require digging into continuity the way the licensed materials do.

Mild Curiosities

Mild Curiosities cover

With all that said: On to something new! Or new to me, at any rate, because this isn’t an initial release for the project I’m discussing. Rather, it’s a digital re-release, which puts me in the odd position of knowing that some of you will already know what I’m talking about. The project we’re looking at today, and for the next few weeks, is the Ian and Barbara charity anthology, Mild Curiosities. Edited by Sophie Iles and James Bojaciuk—both of whose work I’ve covered before—this anthology was published in 2018, and is now receiving, as I said, a digital re-release. You can purchase it here for a limited time. I also want to mention that this project was released in support of Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest breast cancer charity and research organization; to learn more about this wonderful organization, you can find them here.

The anthology is divided into chapters, with each chapter containing one or more stories, and arranged in roughly chronological order for Ian and Barbara’s lives. (“Roughly”, because what is chronology when we’re talking time travel?) There are a total of thirteen stories. Chapter I, titled “An Earthly School”, which we’re covering today, comprises one story: Touch the Stars, by Kara Dennison. Let’s get started!

There will be spoilers ahead! For my reason for taking this approach, see above.

Ian Chesterton never thought of himself as awkward, and as a teacher, that was only appropriate. So it came as quite the shock to him to find that he was losing his cool—a phrase that wouldn’t be extant for some years yet—over the pretty history teacher at Coal Hill School.

Of course, there was first the problem of whether his interest in her was even appropriate. They were colleagues, and faculty at Coal Hill tended to be on the reserved side. Still, appropriate or not, he couldn’t get Miss Barbara Wright out of his head, despite only seeing her on rare occasions, and never talking to her.

It was having her in his head that started the trouble.

It wasn’t so much that Ian found himself staring at the corridor ceiling and thinking about Barbara—that would have been alright, if distracting. It was that Barbara found him that way, and decided to check on him. And thus the normally confident and capable science teacher found himself doing the most unscientific thing imaginable: babbling nonsense at the one person he wanted most to impress. Great work, Ian! Well, this was promising, wasn’t it.

As it turned out, it was.

The little conversations began to accrue. First the corridor, then the faculty common room—he stammered his way toward asking her out that time, but fell short, only mentioning the tea room to which they might go, never actually inviting her. Later he took the initiative and approached her in her classroom–dear heavens, the audacity!—under some pretext, and learned a bit about her tastes in music. As usual, he made a bit of a fool of himself; but by now she was coming to expect that, wasn’t she? Besides, in for a penny, and all that. More meetings, more awkwardness…

It was too much, really. This living in limbo, not getting anywhere but always with her on his mind, was doing no one any good; and so Ian decided to take the professional approach. Eyes front, soldier! And while it was far from what he wanted, it did seem to work…for about two weeks. Until she approached him.

Barbara Wright was never one to leave a problem unaddressed. Having seen the change in Ian’s demeanor, she did the natural thing, and assumed something was wrong, and set out to fix it. What could he say? There was something wrong, but not something he could easily explain—especially when every conversation turned into rambling, one-sided lunacy. And so no one was as surprised as Ian when she took the initiative, and asked him out.

In later days, he would most likely tell himself that he asked her. She may even have allowed him to think so. But, as so many events in Barbara’s life would demonstrate, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. And so, with the greatest of poise, Barbara Wright prompted Ian Chesterton to take her on their first date.

Of course, the tea shop was closed.

In hindsight, it was probably meant to be. When awkwardness is the rule of the day, it tends to assert itself in every situation. But this time, it wouldn’t win; Barbara, ever collected, smoothly redirected their walk into a walk to the station instead. And along the way, something magical happened. A talk about that most dry of subjects—how they came to Coal Hill—turned into a talk about the stars. It was Ian’s subject, of course—science and all—but his approach was clinical. Barbara, a bit put off, took the romantic view. What could be more romantic than to see the distant stars up close? And in a moment that both would remember for years to come, stuffy, scientific Ian leaped the gap into romantic territory, and declared that one day, he would take her to see them. After all, science—becoming as always a part of history—was proceeding apace, and one day surely there would be ships that could take them there. They would be the first in line when that day came.

Smiling, Barbara agreed. Find the ship, and she would go with him. And so the duo walked on, while off in the distance, a strange wheezing, groaning sound could be heard…

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Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: On television, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright were hardly a couple. They were companions of convenience, but not romantic partners; and each had at least momentary romantic involvements with others, though of course nothing substantial. I can only imagine that, whether written or not, one of the rules of the original (and more education-minded) version of Doctor Who was to avoid romantic plots. However, Eleventh Doctor comic story Hunters of the Burning Stone would show that Ian and Barbara did in fact have a relationship, by showing their wedding; other stories have also expanded on their relationship. I think it’s no great stretch to show that the seeds were sown as early as their first year at Coal Hill School. It makes sense to me that something as shocking and stressful as traveling in the TARDIS would put those feelings on the back burner for some time, giving us the version of the characters that we see in the series. But it’s wonderful to know that something magical was happening between them right from the beginning.

This story takes place over a period of time, but it ends just as the Doctor and Susan Foreman come to Earth, as evidenced by the TARDIS sounds that can be heard as the story ends. Other stories (Hunters of Earth, et al) have established that once the TARDIS landed on Earth, it was in need of repairs, and thus stranded for some months, which ultimately leads to Susan’s enrollment in Coal Hill. Given that the TARDIS takes the Doctor where he needs to be, and that this situation led to…well, everything else in Doctor Who history, one may wonder if possibly the TARDIS strategically broke itself? After all, I’ve made the case for a long time that without Ian and Barbara, there would be no Doctor. Even the name, Doctor, seems to be Ian’s doing—he mistakenly refers to the Doctor as “Doctor Foreman”, which confuses the Doctor, and that is the first time we ever hear the term. (Full disclosure: some of the handful of stories set before An Unearthly Child, seem to contradict this detail—but not the general thrust of my argument.) I would argue that it was Ian and Barbara’s example of heroism and goodness that inspired this angry, cranky old Time Lord to become the “good man” that calls himself the Doctor. Even the Eleventh Doctor, in Hunters of the Burning Stone, admits that it was because of them that he took on other companions over the years.

And it all starts here.

There have been numerous attempts to describe how the Doctor got started. All are fascinating, but all fall a bit short—after all, this ancient alien was even more, well, alien back then. We can’t truly relate. But sometimes, a good origin story for the companions comes along, and when it’s good, it’s perfect. I’ve been a professional; I’ve been in love; I’ve been awkward about it. I can put myself in Ian’s shoes. They’re a good fit. And likewise, this is a good story. It’s well worth your time.

Next time: We’ll move on to the next chapter with The Wreck of the San Juan De Pasajes, by co-editor James Bojaciuk! See you there.

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Audio Drama Review: Flywheel Revolution

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

Flywheel Revolution 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flywheel Revolution 2_edited

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

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

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

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

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

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

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions. This story’s purchase page is linked below.

Flywheel Revolution

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Audio Drama Review: A Star is Born

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we begin a look at the final collected volume of Short Trips audio dramas, August 2011’s Short Trips: Volume 4. I will confess that I’ve been anxious to get through these early collections; I keep a checklist of audio dramas that I’ve reviewed, which is organized by release, meaning that each seven-part collection constitutes only a single entry on the list. Naturally, I feel like I’m not making much progress. But, here we are, at the final collection; after this we’ll move to the monthly releases. We’ll begin this collection with A Star is Born, written by Richard Dinnick. Featuring the First Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan, this story is read by William Russell. Let’s get started!

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

An enormous, damaged spaceship drifts, pulled slowly toward the planet by gravity, falling through the planet’s exosphere. It sends out a distress signal on all available frequencies; and the signal is received by the TARDIS. The time ship’s arrival is overheard and detected by Egrabill, who is on his way to the Provost’s cabin; he is sidetracked by the ship and the aliens that come out of it—two males, one female, and one, the smallest, of which he is unsure. They tell him that they have come to help; and so, he takes them to the Provost, Rode.

Barbara finds herself marveling over the ship and its people, the Metraxi, who are very alien indeed. They resemble sea lions; and they originate from an aquatic planet called Kinneret. However, a virus some generations ago had stripped away their ability to procreate; and so they had turned to cloning technology to save their race. However, this is not without its problems; each successive generation loses a little genetic information, and so experiences a shortening of the lifespan. Some Metraxi had blamed their world, and so they set out into space to seek a new home. That was seven generations ago, on this very ship. And now, the ship is dying—or it will, if it falls to the planet below. Barbara pities them; they have done nothing to deserve this fate.

The Provost introduces himself as “Rode”. He shows them a projection of the engine deck, where the propulsion generators have failed. The reactors are leaking radiation. His crews are not able to handle the situation, though they try. Fortunately, the Doctor is familiar with propulsion systems, and Ian has a science background as well. Rode has Egrabill take them to Greneva, the young but capable female who serves as chief engineer. Greneva, oddly, is suffering from a strange fatigue and bouts of pain. The Doctor examines the control rods in the system, determining that there is no leak after all—and in fact, there is no malfunction at all. Ian agrees that this is very odd, and the Doctor sets out to investigate the engine’s vents, where any remaining leak must be.

The Doctor, Greneva, and Ian don ill-fitting radiation suits, and head into the ductwork. The conduits running inside the ductwork is searing hot. They reach the junction that marks the beginning of the vent network, and Greneva explains how it is supposed to work—a set of pipes redirects steam overflow into the vents. The group tracks the pipes through the ductwork.

Returning to the engineering deck, they find Egrabill explaining more of their history to Barbara and Susan, and expounding on how events fit into the Metraxi religion. The Doctor is enraged at something as he listens to the folklore; and he catches Egrabill’s statement that the reactors have been leaking for years—since before Egrabill was created. The Doctor storms out of the room. Greneva quietly explains to Barbara that the engines have been sabotaged.

The group follows the Doctor to the Provost’s quarters, where he tells Susan that they are seeking the truth. The Doctor confronts Rode, calling him a traitor and scoundrel, and claiming that Rode is responsible for the sabotage and the radiation poisoning of his people—but, why? Rode begins to weep. Greneva says that the radiation was being recirculated into the secondary life support system. Egrabill demands to know if it is true; Ian insists that only Rode has the control over the ship necessary to see it happen.

Rode claims that he gave up a long time ago—that he had decided their search was hopeless. Therefore he took action; the radiation seemed to be the best way to end it all. But now, he sees the irony in his choice: the world below them is the new haven they’ve been searching for. But it was too late! Twenty years of radiation poisoning could not be undone so easily—and besides, now the engines have failed, and they will crash. He counters the Doctor’s accusing tone by insisting that the Doctor and his friends could not comprehend what it was like to be an exile from their homeworld—but, Susan says, they can indeed.

Rode insists he had no choice but to kill them all this way; the ship will burn up on re-entry without its engines. In his mind, he has saved them all from the misery ahead. However, the Doctor says that Rode may have achieved something unexpected: the opposite of what he intended. For Greneva, it seems, is pregnant. In fact, though she didn’t know it, she is probably in early labor. The radiation, it seems, has caused a beneficial mutation, restoring their fertility.

Rode is quickly arrested, and the Doctor takes the Metraxi aboard the TARDIS, along with as much technology and information as they can load. He lands the TARDIS on a beach below. Above, the colony ship is a burning streak across the sky; the Doctor had managed to put it on a course that will cause it to burn over several months, rather than crashing. It will now be a beacon of hope for the Metraxi. Last to exit is Greneva, with her newborn; she thanks the Doctor for saving them. He sends her off, and tells her to look over the child. As she leaves, the Doctor muses that it would be very unlikely for Greneva to be the only fertile Metraxi now; perhaps the race should get used to the sound of children.

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There’s absolutely nothing experimental here; and perhaps that’s the best way to start this collection. This story would fit well in the usual canon of First Doctor stories; the portrayal of the Doctor is spot on, both in writing and in voice acting, and the companions are also well portrayed, though a bit short on dialogue. (Admittedly, it’s hard to do justice to four major protagonists in a serial-length story, let alone in a twenty-minute Short Trip; the fact that it’s accomplished at all is frankly amazing.) The Doctor is perhaps a bit more proactive than he usually would be in the Ian-Barbara-Susan era; he chooses to answer the Metraxi ship’s distress call, and takes the lead in dealing with the Metraxi. That isn’t completely unprecedented, however; my impression is that he tends to be more assertive in alien settings than Earthbound stories. Slightly more conspicuous is that he is able to make the TARDIS do what he wants here; he is able, first, to home in on the distress signal, and second, to land the TARDIS by choice on the planet below. The Doctor’s degree of control over the TARDIS in the early stories is usually stated to be minimal, but occasionally we get these incidents where it does just what he wants it to; it’s a little odd, and the only explanation I can come up with is that the TARDIS is doing it by choice—she happens to agree at that moment with his decisions.

The Metraxi are interesting aliens; they resemble large sea lions, but they have been victimized three times. First, their race experienced a viral epidemic that left them sterile; second, generations of cloning (due to the absence of natural reproduction) have left them genetically degraded and with shortened lifespans; and third, as the story reveals, they have experienced two decades of radiation poisoning—which may not be an accident. As a result of all of this, their capabilities are a bit diminished, and one can’t help feeling a great surge of pity for them, as Barbara does in the course of the story. Aside from those conditions, however, they behave very much as humans do. The premise of the story sees their damaged colony ship falling toward a planet; they have been searching for several (cloned) generations for a new world, one that won’t try to kill them, and now, ironically, a new world will do exactly that. It’s a premise we’ve seen on television before; 42 featured a ship trapped in a star’s gravity well, and World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls puts a colony ship over a black hole, adding time dilation for an additional twist. In terms of urgency, this story falls somewhere between those two. (For another continuity reference, which doesn’t merit a paragraph of its own, Ian mentions the radiation poisoning he experienced in The Daleks.)

Overall, I enjoyed this story. It has a happy ending; no one dies, and the villain is arrested. There’s no real bearing on any larger events; but the Metraxi represent a race that could appear again at some point, though I am not aware of them having done so as yet. It’s a good start to this collection, and worth the twenty minutes it takes to listen.

Next time: We’ll join the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe in Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, by Foster Marks. See you there!

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below.

Short Trips, Volume 4

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