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!
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.
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.