Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and Sarah Jane: Superstar! By Joshua Wanisko and Lillian Wanisko

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries via the links at the bottom of this post. Today we’re continuing with the “Investigations” portion of Sarah Jane’s life, with the seventh entry of the anthology: Sarah Jane, Superstar! by Joshua and Lillian Wanisko. Let’s get started!

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked below. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute. Let’s get started!

Defending Earth (Cover)

Aliens on Earth don’t have many places to congregate—the world isn’t ready for that—but a few exist. One such is the Black Light Tavern, described by its starfishlike bartender, Gleep-Glop, as the armpit of the universe (and a starfish should know about armpits, being possessed of five of them). The decrepitude of the place is deliberate—it keeps the humans away. Mostly, that is. A few still find their way in; but eventually the pub comes to a sort of equilibrium with them. Sarah Jane Smith finds her way to the Black Light (so named because all of its advertising is written in ultraviolet ink, visible to many aliens natively, but to humans only with the help of a black light) for an unusual reason. It seems the pub is putting on a show, and—strange as it seems—the show is all about her! Yes, it’s all about Sarah in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Croydon: The Sarah Jane Story (no, really). She can’t resist investigating, and so it is that she finds herself playing herself…as an understudy. Uh…can’t win ‘em all?

No one believes her when she says she is really Sarah Jane Smith; but that hardly matters. As the play—no, the musical–nears readiness, Sarah meets many colorful individuals in addition to Gleep-Glop (whose real name is a bit beyond the average human): the haughty and stereotypical Director, who learned his fashion sense from a collection of clichés; his assistant and stage manager, Elisabeth, who is the Director’s polar opposite in every way (and is one of the few humans around); a 6’3”, wiry, foxlike alien named Linx (playing a Sontaran and singing about potatoes, no less); a blonde bombshell (not quite human, but close), serving as the main actress for the part of Sarah Jane; and the mysterious Author, who wrote the script. However, Sarah—real Sarah, not stage Sarah—can’t shake the fear that someone knows too much for comfort about her life, as the musical seems to cover all her adventures with the Doctor in startling—but inaccurate—detail.

At last it’s too much suspense, and so she breaks into the Director’s office to find the Author’s notes. She gets more than she bargained for; the Author is there—and he knows who she really is. After a brief negotiation, he refuses to tell her where he got his information; but he takes her on as a consultant, checking the accuracy of the play.

With his help, the others accept her for who she really is, and the days race by. However, there are disagreements with the Author about the details that Sarah wants to correct; and finally, it comes to a head, and she quits the play and returns home. All seems well for a few days, until she receives an unexpected visitor: Elisabeth, the stage manager. The two have a long talk, in which Sarah reminisces about the Doctor, and muses about coming home from that life. Elisabeth confides that she wants to be an actress, not just the stage manager; but the Director considers her indispensable. Sarah advises her to make herself dispensable, if she wants to move up to the stage; and the best way to do that is by letting something in her job fail. In return, Lis gives Sarah what she wanted: the Author’s notes. And, reading them, Sarah realizes where he got his information!

She storms back into the Black Light, and demands to know how the Author got his hands on a copy of the Doctor’s diary. Chagrined, he admits that he found the pages, forgotten, in a copier in a copy shop (along with a receipt for scarf detangler and a barrel of jelly babies—it seems the Doctor is quite a character, as Sarah well knows!). Still, he insists, as fantastic as these stories are, sometimes real life needs a little…massaging in order to make a good story. Sarah doesn’t like it, but she is obliged to agree. The Author—perhaps not wanting his reputation besmirched—agrees to have Sarah back on the production, and agrees to her changes to the script; and in exchange, Sarah allows most of his artistic licenses to remain in place, insisting on only a few (goodbye, Brain of Morbius jello mold!).

The night of the premiere arrives, and Sarah sits in the audience, musing over all that has happened. Certainly this play represents another point of change in her own life, and maybe even in her attitudes…but what did the Doctor always say? Change is a part of life. She determines to face any change with laughter.

…Which is just as well, because the play is a massive flop. (I did say you can’t win ‘em all!) It flops so hard that the careers of everyone involved—except Sarah, of course—are massively diverted in new directions. Sarah thinks, much later, on the lives the participants are leading now; most of them sought new homes and new work, whether alien or human. None stayed with the stage—except, curiously enough, Elisabeth (what is her last name, anyway?), who goes on to become quite the star. Sarah, meanwhile, remains herself, and continues on, having learned and grown and, of course, laughed. And the Doctor, who—quite inadvertently—started this entire episode? He goes on, as well. Change is always a part of his life, but in the important ways, he remains the same. And, as always, he loves the Earth and its people. Sometimes they disappoint him—but when those times come, “he thinks of Sarah Jane Smith and he goes on.”

Wanisko Title Card

Every anthology needs at least one good meta-story! Preferably full of inside jokes and puns—the sillier, the better. Here, halfway through, Defending Earth delivers!

I was familiar—as many Big Finish fans will be—with co-author Joshua Wanisko for his audio Short Trip, Forever Fallen, the winner of Big Finish’s inaugural Paul Spragg Memorial Opportunity in 2016. That story is an earnest, serious, thoughtful Seventh Doctor adventure, one that will stay with its listeners for some time. This story—co-written by Joshua’s daughter Lillian Wanisko, for whom this is a first writing credit—is none of that; and that is exactly as it should be! Where that story is full of emotion, this one is full of humor, and utterly lighthearted. How could it not be? It’s Sarah Jane Smith: The Musical!

We’re still firmly in the K9 and Company era here, as confirmed by some of the background details; Brendan gets a mention, though he’s not present, and Sarah Jane still lives in her aunt Lavinia’s house. K9 himself puts in a momentary appearance, though again he is not named as such. Thus, this Sarah Jane is young and energetic, and still—perhaps a little bit—somewhat directionless in life. I’ve commented in other entries that these stories seem to chronicle formative experiences in Sarah Jane’s life; this story makes it explicit, pointing out that this is another moment of change and refinement for her—if not as drastic a change as some.

Not many of these stories have had continuity references (something I usually include in my reviews), other than a general reference to the Doctor or UNIT or—obliquely—K9. This one is different; as it contains an in-universe chronicle of Sarah’s adventures, it mentions several of them directly, often even by name! Notably, we see references to Planet of the SpeedosSpiders (not my error! And, uh…we need Wardrobe over here, please!), RobotThe Monster of PeladonThe Brain of MorbiusThe Hand of FearGenesis of the DaleksThe Sontaran ExperimentThe Ark in SpaceDeath to the DaleksThe Time WarriorRevenge of the CybermenTerror of the Zygons, and Pyramids of Mars. In fact, it’s every story of Sarah Jane’s original (televised) travels with the Doctor, except The Android InvasionThe Seeds of Doom, and The Masque of Mandragora (and to be honest, I may have simply overlooked those). There are also a few meta-references: notably, Sarah declines to talk about the dates of the various UNIT stories; and the character of “Elisabeth” bears a very strong resemblance to a certain Elisabeth from our world, with a very close tie to Sarah Jane Smith…what is her last name?! I’ll get it eventually.

Overall: Nothing but pure fun, here—but that’s exactly what it sets out to accomplish. Did this “really” happen (as much as anything in Sarah Jane’s story really happened)? Does it matter? What matters is that, whether you’re a lifelong fan, or this anthology is your first exposure to Sarah Jane, you’ll get a good laugh—and a little life lesson—out of this story. And that, my friends, is plenty.

Next time: We’re halfway there! We’ll be checking out story number eight of fifteen, with Little Girl Lost, by Tina Marie DeLucia. See you there!

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and The Name of Universes, by James Bojaciuk

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries via the links at the bottom of this post. We’re looking today at the fifth story in the collection, set during Sarah’s travels with the Fourth Doctor: The Name of Universes, by James Bojaciuk. Let’s get started!

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked below. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute.

Defending Earth (Cover)

Out on the edge of space and time—in fact, outside it—other universes, other realities wait. More than that, they move and live, sometimes on their own, other times full of life. But there are predators even beyond the universes—and sometimes they prey on universes themselves.

The Doctor, with Sarah Jane Smith at his side, discovers just such a circumstance. A great predator, moving without malice, moving on instinct—which can be just as deadly—closes in on a universe in a chase so grand as to defy imagination…and yet so fragile as well. It is up to the Doctor and Sarah to stop the chase, to save this lesser universe from its fate, for the sake of all life inside it.

To do so, the Doctor will take his TARDIS outside the boundaries of N-Space, out of the universe itself—out of all the universes, in fact—something ordinarily not possible, but possible here, with enough finesse. He must bring time and space to a place where they do not exist, impose laws of cause-and-effect and topography where they are foreign. Once he has done so, he can divert the universe out of the path of its predator (which, disdaining to compare it to a shark, he calls a “coelacanth”, that ancient, archaic fish once thought extinct on Earth). To do so, however, he must turn the TARDIS inside out, empty its cargo of space and time into the void—and this will be dangerous for him, but utterly inimical to a short-lived mortal like Sarah.

To both complete the mission and shield Sarah from harm, he sends her on a task. He activates the process from the console room; but to complete the required circuit, she must activate another control, in the TARDIS’s distant engine room. To that end, she sets out through the many and twisting corridors of the TARDIS, deep into its core, all the while keeping the Doctor in remote communication. Even in this desperate circumstance, their banter is light; they debate the question of what one calls a group of universes. A swarm? A litter? The Doctor suggests a “vagabond”, a “gadabout”, or—all heavens forbid—a “gazingstock” of universes.

Soon, however, Sarah finds it hard to concentrate on the game, as the TARDIS begins to come apart around her. Her perception of space, of time, of gravity, of the very relation among parts, is twisted and tested. As a final challenge, she must make a leap across a yawning void to reach the engine room…and she misses. However, the TARDIS itself rewards her courage, as it gently refolds its own geometry to land her safely in the engine room. She activates the controls…

…and finds herself back at the console room. All is well. The universe—no, the universes–are saved. The TARDIS is back to normal, and the mission is complete. And to what purpose? The Doctor opens the TARDIS doors, and shows her: A procession of many universes, receding out away from them in stately order, all radiant and beautiful and worth saving.

The Doctor suggests a final name for a group of universes: A “Mystery” of universes. Sarah, thoughtfully but kindly, corrects him: The only proper name of universes…

…is a Miracle.

Bojaciuk Title Card.png

I don’t have much to say about this story, but that is for an excellent reason: It speaks so well for itself. My description hardly does it justice; it should be experienced. It is as much poetry as prose; in fact, very little actually happens here, and so the plot is a bit sparse. But, it’s a beautiful story regardless. Sarah Jane and the Doctor seek to save a minor universe—or, put another way, all universes, in a representative sense—and in the process, Sarah gets a glimpse of the beautiful reality for which they so often fight.

And yet we need this sort of glimpse. For us, the readers, it’s a double insight. We get the opportunity to see what Sarah sees here—the beauty of the multiverse—but also we get to see a bit of her growth. Determination—which, we already know, the Sarah Jane of later years will have in abundance—grows out of moments like this, when one gets to see what one is fighting for. I mentioned in my first post that Sarah has had many formative moments; this, then, is one of them. Call it a “booster shot”, if you will; it’s something of a course correction that will carry her into her later life. It’s a short story, and a short episode—the second shortest in the collection; we’ll cover the shortest later—but it’s a crucial moment for her. I’m glad to have read it.

I think I’ve already covered my “Overall” section, and so I’ll move on to the “Next Time”. We’ve finished a third of the stories in the anthology, and three of five parts of Sarah Jane’s life (!); next time, we’ll begin the “Investigation” section, with Sarah Jane in an Exciting Adventure with the Fauxes, by Anna Maloney. See you there!

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and “Cuckoo Clocks That Work” by James Macaronas

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries beginning here, or via the “Previous” and “Next” links at the bottom of each entry. We’re looking at the fourth story in the collection, set during Sarah’s travels with the Fourth Doctor: Cuckoo Clocks the Work, by James Macaronas. Let’s get started! As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked above. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute.

Defending Earth (Cover)

Sarah Jane Smith is only beginning to get used to this new version of the Doctor. So perhaps she can be forgiven for panicking a bit when the TARDIS turns upside down and is yanked from the time vortex.

As the Doctor fights to stabilize the ship, he explains that something large—an entire world, as it turns out—has been removed from the vortex, leaving a sort of hole. The TARDIS has been pulled along in its wake. That should be impossible—but yet it has happened. The Doctor manages to bring the time capsule to a halt on the planet’s surface, and Sarah Jane follows him out.

They find themselves in the residue of a missile strike. A ruined city sprawls around them. As they explore, the city rumbles and quakes—and suddenly, it changes. Now the city is whole, and populated with people in garish clothing. The city, they learn, is called Tenzin, the only city on this planet, which is one of Earth’s far-flung colony worlds. It is only fifty years old, they are told. Suddenly the Doctor doubles over in pain—something, he says, is wrong with time itself. The city and its people are torn away, disappearing in pieces, revealing a new scene—one of cracked Earth and grass, and no other signs of life.

The Doctor insists that it is not they who are moving through time—it is the planet, impossible though that may seem. The world has been cut out of the vortex, and now it wanders through its own timeline. Or, perhaps, it is being led through its timeline. The Doctor’s pain increases, and Sarah helps him back to the TARDIS. As they run, the scene changes again, this time to a war zone, and they are chased by soldiers and a tank. They make it safely to the TARDIS, if only just barely.

The Doctor quickly insists that they must do something before the time distortion tears the planet apart. He reveals something that Sarah failed to notice: In all the scenes they saw, it was never night. But, he explains, it is unlikely that the planet’s star was stolen with it, as that would take considerably more power. He puts the planet’s light source on the scanner…and reveals it to be a ship. Specifically, a time ship of some sort.

The TARDIS takes them inside the time ship, and the duo set out exploring. They find a bright room containing a television, a chaise lounge—and a young woman, dancing. She introduces herself as Naia, and asks if the Ophanin sent them. In fits and starts, she explains that the planet below, her home, fought for its independence. She is interrupted by the arrival of the Ophanin, vaguely humanoid creatures with faces of fire, who say that they did not bring the Doctor and Sarah aboard. They render Sarah unconscious, and take the Doctor prisoner.

When Sarah awakens, Naia is still dancing. She allows Sarah to watch the Doctor’s interrogation on the television. Naia explains that the Ophanin saved her life, and gave her a second chance—but at what? Meanwhile the Doctor argues with the Ophanin, who claim to know what they are doing to the planet below—and claim to be the masters of time. They say they intend to destroy the Doctor after they finish him. Naia claims that she is the one responsible for the destruction of the planet, not the Ophanin. For the Ophanin, it is an experiment; for Naia, it is personal. She reveals that she lost her younger sister, Elen, during the rebellion, and due to her own foolishness in leaving the child unattended. This experiment will bring her back…and if it destroys the planet in the process, so be it.

Sarah reveals that she, too, has a tragedy in her past: the deaths of her parents. She reveals that she has wrestled with the thought that the Doctor, a time traveler, could take her back to see them, perhaps even save them—but she knows the Doctor would refuse. Why? Because he, like Sarah herself, knows that there’s no going back. One can only learn from the past, and press on, and forge something new. She begs Naia not to dishonor the memory of Elen by destroying the only home the girl ever knew.

Swayed at last, Naia calls the Ophanin, and demands to see Tenzin. After some argument, they relent, and show her a view of the planet…and chaos. Time is breaking down, and minutes flow into each other out of sequence. The inhabitants live and die in moments, filled with terror. Horrified, Naia tells the Ophanin to stop the experiment. The Ophanin refuse, and invade Naia’s mind, forcing her to continue her dance. Sarah Jane confronts her, and talks her through the pain, to thoughts of the future, and of freedom—and the ship starts to come apart.

Sarah and Naia confront the Ophanin, and rescue the Doctor. The Ophanin move to attack—but are stopped by Naia. She holds a bloody piece of circuitry, pulled from her own body, and the Ophanin recognize it as the key piece of their machine. As they watch in horror, she shatters it on the floor, leaving the Ophanin to die in the ruins of their machine.

The Doctor returns Naia to Tenzin; and she comments that it looks different from when she left. He leaves her with a bit of hope: Maybe all the tampering has removed the conflict entirely. Maybe it has always been free. Sarah and Naia say their goodbyes, and Naia assures her that she will forge ahead. After all, time is what you make of it—which is a lesson she taught herself.

Macaronas Title Card

I’ve often been fascinated by those companions who are with the Doctor at times of regeneration. Often he hasn’t warned them of this strange and frightening transition that will come over him, and their reactions range from stunned silence to terror. Sometimes they are aware—our heroine here, for example, had witnessed the regeneration of K’anpo Rimpoche, and had some idea of what to expect—and thus things go a little smoother. Nearly all struggle with dealing with the strange new figure of Doctor after the regeneration, and Sarah Jane Smith is no different. Thus she begins our story mulling over whether she’ll ever get to understand this new Doctor, and whether she’ll ever even make it home.

As an aside, I should mention that this isn’t immediately after his regeneration; in fact, it’s a full television season later. Harry Sullivan has left the TARDIS, and Sarah Jane thinks of having “left Scotland”, presumably at the end of Terry of the Zygons. The phrasing is such that it allows for some additional adventures in between, but no known stories are confirmed. I would suggest that it at least takes place after Planet of Evil, but only shortly thereafter.

Regardless, Sarah’s prime reaction to the strangeness of her situation here is to take charge and make her own decisions. Here we see her not only resolve the situation at hand, but also save the Doctor’s life, and save an entire world from destruction. It’s a moment of bravery and passion that bodes very well for her future, especially when—further down the road—she will begin to have her own adventures, sans Doctor.

James Macaronas does an excellent job of capturing the banter that is so common between Sarah and the Fourth Doctor, especially at the beginning of the story. His portrayal of Sarah and her demands for explanations of the time phenomena sits well with everything else we know about her; and he gets the charming, somewhat off-the-wall humor of the Doctor. The duo don’t get a lot of dialogue with each other here, but the dialogue we do see is just right. Macaronas also plays up a less-well-explained facet of our favorite Time Lord: his sensitivity to time itself. This will get more screen time with the Seventh and Eighth Doctors, years later; but it’s used to good effect here in highlighting the crisis in the city of Tenzin.

More than anything, this story is quick. You can consider this both a positive and a negative. On one hand, the story flows so well that it’s a pleasure to read; on the other hand, I was finished in perhaps fifteen minutes, and was left wishing for more. To be certain, it says everything it needs to say in that short span; but it says it so quickly that you have to wonder if you missed anything. This is all the more strange in that it’s not a short story on the page; I’m reading the ebook edition, where pages are surely shorter than in the print edition, but even so, this story was eighty pages long, just a bit shorter than the previous entry, but twice the length of the next story. (More on that, of course, tomorrow.)

Overall: It’s a good story, perhaps hampered a little by how quickly it moves, but otherwise interesting. I won’t call it “fun”, as I’ve called other stories, because the Doctor and Sarah Jane are in a high-stakes situation, and the mood is tense. I will, however, call it compelling, and I suspect other readers may do the same.

Next time: We’ll move on to The Name of Universes, by James Bojaciuk! See you there.

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and “Flow”, by Niki Haringsma

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries here and here. We’re looking at the third story in the collection, set during Sarah’s travels with the Fourth Doctor: Flow, by Niki Haringsma. Let’s get started! As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked above. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute.

Defending Earth (Cover)

The TARDIS lands in a most unusual cupboard. The room vibrates with motion; but stranger still, it appears to be made of silk, much like that of a spider or silkworm. Poking their heads out, they find that the odd room is being carried by a mothlike, only mildly humanoid woman, who calls herself Arren, and who is very shocked to see her unwelcome passengers. Below them, there seems to be no solid land, only floating islands and a vast amount of space on this large world. Their presence does not go unnoticed; Arren is swiftly attacked and captured—no, arrested–by similar creatures whom she calls “drones”. She calls out defiance against something she calls the Ascendant. And in the struggle, Sarah falls out.

Death seems imminent—but Sarah is saved when another mothlike woman swoops in and catches her in a web of silk. This is Jianna, Arren’s lifemate, who was telepathically summoned by Arren to save Sarah. She takes Sarah to a nearby island, where the ground opens to admit them into a sort of hive. Finally finding a moment to talk, Jianna tells Sarah that she and her fellow workers are struggling for freedom from their rulers, the Ascendant, for whom the drones work. It was all going well…until the plague came. A strange disease that spreads as a red flush in the skin and veins, it infects both drones and workers, but kills the workers. Now their kind are dying out—and even as they search the hive, they find that all their allies here have died. Only Jianna and Arren remain.

And Jianna is infected.

Against Jianna’s fatalism and fear, Sarah takes the initiative. Determined to get the Doctor and Arren back, she begs Jianna to call out to Arren and locate them. Jianna insists it is too far for normal telepathy; but, pressing her face to the earth, she is able to set up a resonant psychic scream, which reaches Arren, but also reaches the drones, and summons them all alike. Sarah passes out under the psychic onslaught.

She awakens in a wooden, cagelike cell, guarded by drones. The Doctor, Arren, and Jianna are there; Jianna is unconscious from the plague. Arren frantically tries to take the plague from Jianna’s body into her own, but only succeeds in lessening the burden, not relieving it—and infecting herself as well. Sarah and the Doctor brainstorm, but are unable to find a plan that will get them out.

But, there is hope; for the Doctor doesn’t realize the natives are telepathic. When he learns this fact, he is able to open his own mind and tune in to them; and he finds the psychic speech of the Ascendant. He learns—to the shock of everyone involved—that the Ascendant are the plague! In seeking to abdicate their responsibilities toward their underlings, they shrank themselves to microscopic size, and invaded the veins of the other classes. Now, however, they sense the Doctor—and find him to be a far better host. They begin to make plans to invade his body.

Locked in a trance, the Doctor lets them in. Moreover, he draws them in, before they are ready. They are unable to seize control of him—and before they can regroup, the Doctor ejects them, and Sarah traps them inside a mascara bottle, sealing them in. The crisis is averted…and before returning to the TARDIS, they decide that it is only right to let the workers and drones—who are now free of the control of the Ascendant—to decide their fate.

Haringsma Title Card

This is a short and fairly light entry in the anthology, and I’m inevitably reminded of the early Big Finish Short Trips anthologies. Those stories were known for being small, well-contained plots, with minimal casts of characters and small crises. Haringsma’s story puts us on a world that seems to be sparsely populated, with species reminiscent of the Menoptera of The Web Planet; in fact, were it a solid planet rather than one composed of sky islands, I’d be tempted to say it’s the same world. That story, however, is underrated, in my opinion; people sometimes judge it by its visual quality rather than its story. I would not like to see the same thing happen here—the setting is unusual, almost fairy-tale, but the story is interesting despite its brevity.

I wondered when I started this anthology if any of the stories would turn out to be more about the Doctor than about Sarah Jane. Not every story, of course, will feature him at all, as with The Sparks; and not all will fall into this pattern, as we saw with Swinging Londons. This story, however, is definitely the Doctor’s story, although it’s told from Sarah Jane’s point of view. I’m not complaining, though. The Doctor is, after all, a big personality, and one that’s hard to upstage. Dozens of companions over the years bear witness to that fact, and that includes Sarah Jane. Therefore I think it’s fine that he takes center stage here. The fun, for us, is in watching him (as well as the situation) through Sarah’s eyes. We see how much she invests herself in the situation; how quickly she feels empathy for the moth people; how much she fears for the Doctor when he is invaded by the Ascendant. I wouldn’t say Sarah Jane is prone to snap judgments; but when she commits to a situation, she commits. We see that in action here, and it’s glorious.

If anything at all can be said against this story, it’s that it’s too short. I find myself wanting to know more about this world and its people. Of course we have everything we need in reference to the problem at hand; but I would love to see more. Near the end of the story I realized that we never find out the planet’s name, or the name of the species; that’s unusual, and it leaves me wondering.

But, overall, it’s a swift, graceful story, and it accomplishes its goals quickly and with aplomb. It was a pleasant reminder of all the great adventures Sarah and the Doctor have had together…there’s a reason why they are one of the most fondly remembered Doctor/companion pairs. We get to revisit that here, and it’s exactly as it ought to be.

Next time: We’ll be looking at Cuckoo Clocks that Work, by James Macaronas. See you there!

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.

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Audio Drama Review: The Old Rogue

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re continuing our look at Short Trips Volume IV with the Fourth Doctor’s entry, The Old Rogue. Written by John Grindrod, and read by Louise Jameson, this story features the Fourth Doctor, Romana II, and K9, with an appearance in flashback by the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 4 a

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

The proprietor of The Old Rogue café in Catford, Sid, muses on his life here in this little empire, when outside he hears a familiar and unwelcome sound. He watches the windows for sight of him—the alien he hates most to see. He is oblivious to the ministrations of his waitress, Katya, as he thinks for a moment about killing her, and how it would cheer him up…but his killing days appear to be over, as something in him has changed.

He is interrupted by the bell at the door, and he knows it is him. This man visits every ten years, but he is never the same; ten years ago he was a cricketer with several young people, and ten years before that he was an older and dignified man with a young woman. Today he’s an odd man with a long scarf, accompanied by a refined young woman…and a robot dog? The woman is Romana, and the dog is called K9. The man—the Doctor—spouts nonsense and places an order as he confronts Sid; and Romana says they intend to stay. The Doctor and Romana take a table and some tea as K9 waits outside. They place an order; as Sid goes to fill it, Romana asks if this is really the former galactic emperor Arkinen. Sid denies it, a bit grumpily.

The Doctor asks after Arkinen’s welfare, trying to elicit a response. Business is going well, Sid—no, Arkinen—meets them at the table, and the Doctor and Romana review his crimes; he once destroyed all life in the Helix Nebula just for kicks. However, his empire is getting along fine without him—as is his original body, now occupied by the real Sid. It seems that, forty years earlier, the Doctor punished Arkinen by transferring his consciousness into the body of a café owner named Sid—and allowing Sid to run Arkinen’s empire. Now, he has regular checkups with the Doctor, to ensure that he’s up to no mischief during his rehabilitation. However, human lifespans are shorter than those of Arkinen’s race, and he must be nearing the end of it. This enrages Arkinen, but the Doctor suddenly turns cold, reminding Arkinen that his crimes merited so much more punishment than he has received.

Arkinen thinks back on his crimes, which involved killing a huge population with a so-called “understanding device”; and he also thinks on his capture by the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. The Second Doctor witnessed as Arkinen fired the device; but Arkinen quickly found that the Doctor had modified the device to focus on only one person—Sid, the café proprieter—instead of the entire world. Jamie then shoved him into the other end of the device’s beam…and Arkinen awoke in Sid’s body, in Catford, as a side effect of the device. Still, all’s well that ends well; Sid has redeemed Arkinen’s reputation, doing great things in the dictator’s name. Meanwhile, Arkinen sits and stews in his limitations…but he still does not feel any remores for his actions, only for getting caught.

Romana gets up to rescue K9, who in the interim has gotten into a scrap with some teenagers outside (and held his own admirably but chaotically, as well), but the Doctor stops her—they haven’t paid for their tea yet. Arkinen grumbles that it is on the house. The Doctor and Roman say goodbye and leave as Arkinen watches. Katya comes to comfort him, and he for once relishes it; perhaps these humans weren’t so bad after all, and being an emperor was such hard work.

Arkinen is surprised, however, when Katya calls him by his real name. She claims she has searched the galaxy for him, and now the Doctor has given her the confirmation she needed. She claims to be with a band of mercenaries who want his expertise in killing…and they offer to restore him to his empire of blood and fire. Arkinen takes a long moment to think, and then tells Katya that she has the wrong man…he is Sid, and this is his café.

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Recently I reviewed the Fifth Doctor Main Range audio Creatures of Beauty. The hook of that story—though found at the end, as the story is non-linear—is that the Doctor never knows the true impact of his presence. That story ends gloomily, as the Doctor’s primary effect is a catastrophe. There’s something similar here, however, in that the Doctor (and Romana and K9) will never know the full effect of their presence here—but this time, the effect is one of goodness.

The story portrays the Doctor making a ten-year visit to a man named Sid, who is secretly Arkinen, a one-time galactic emperor guilty of horrendous crimes. Arkinen was unintentionally transplanted into the body of café owner Sid, who now sits on Arkinen’s throne (and does quite well with it). The Doctor is here just to check in on Arkinen’s rehabilitation; and he leaves convinced that even after four decades, the man has not changed. However, a final test, after the Doctor leaves, proves that he may just be wrong—and happily so.

I’m heavily reminded of a story that I haven’t covered yet, but will eventually: Joshua Wanisko’s Forever Fallen, the winner of the first Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trip Opportunity. That story also features the Doctor (the Seventh, along with Ace, to be precise) making regular visits to a former tyrant in a new life, and conducting the visits in a café. Where this story only gives us one visit, that one gives us several, spread over several years, and so we get to see the growth of the character. In the end, the stakes are different, and the ending is not immediately happy—but the payoff is much greater. I’m not trying to insinuate that one story is better than the other; both are great, and I think that they’re worth your time (a collective 45 minutes will get you through both, and Forever Fallen is available for free from Big Finish’s site). While I’m in no way suggesting that it’s plagiarism or any such thing, I wonder if the author of Forever Fallen was inspired by this story.

I always find it a little strange to hear Louise Jameson voice stories that don’t involve Leela. I understand that it’s a matter of who is available for the recording, but it strikes me as odd to hear Leela’s voice applied to Romana’s lines, and doubly so given that I know that both Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward appear in the Gallifrey series. Still, she’s quite practiced now at these audios, and this one is well done. Really I have nothing to complain about here.

Continuity references: Arkinen remembers previous visits of the Doctor, including the Fifth along with a “group of sulky teenagers”, which could be any combination of Adric, Nyssa, Tegan, and Turlough (or even possibly Peri and Erimem, though I wouldn’t have used the word “group” with just two of them), placing that visit nearly anytime in the Fifth Doctor’s run. He also mentions “a tall chap in velvet,” with “a dizzy dolly bird”; this must be the Third Doctor and Jo Grant, placing that visit between Terror of the Autons and Planet of the Spiders. In a flashback, we see the Second Doctor and Jamie; if they were traveling alone, as it appears, then this would have taken place either during the comic era between Fury from the Deep and The Wheel in Space, or during the hypothetical “Season 6B” after The War Games. The Doctor also mentions having met Torquemada; this may be a reference to the Missing Adventures novel Managra, though I haven’t read it, and therefore can’t be sure (the description found on the TARDIS wiki page isn’t clear enough to say). However, in that story, the Fourth Doctor mentions having met Torquemada once before, in his first incarnation along with Steven and Vicki, in The Empire of Glass. (This may be the incident to which the Doctor refers here, as well.)

Overall: A pretty good entry. I like these quiet, thoughtful stories, in which it’s less about action and more about the individuals. This story is a good example of that type of adventure—if you want to call it an adventure. I do think there’s potential for the character of Arkinen to appear again, and wouldn’t mind it, though to my knowledge he does not.

Next time: We’ll check in with the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa in The Lions of Trafalgar! See you there.

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

Short Trips, Volume IV

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Audio Drama Review: Seven to One

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re concluding our journey through 2011’s Short Trips, Volume 3 collection, back at the beginning: We’re listening to the First Doctor’s contribution, Seven to One. I say it’s the First Doctor’s story, but truthfully it features the first seven Doctors; this story, uniquely, is spread out in eight parts across the entire collection, between the other stories. It’s a different experience, and I’m looking forward to it. The story was written by Simon Paul Miller, and read by Nicholas Briggs and 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.

Part One:

The Seventh Doctor and Ace find themselves walking across a grey landscape under a grey sky—in fact, the realm is called Grey Space. The Doctor explains it was created by two entities, bound together, as a compromise between their desires for individual spaces, black and white. This place is their only achievement; they must work together, but never agree.

They see an RWR-Mark II android ahead, holding an energy rifle and guarding a grey door with a combination lock. It announces that the Doctor has seven chances to solve its test of intelligence—and if he fails, he will be removed from all space and time. If he succeeds, he will be freed to keep traveling. No further instructions are given. The Doctor knows the entities—which are speaking through the android—love games; on his previous visit here, he was able to use a Monopoly set to distract them while he slipped away in the TARDIS. They are not unaware; they brought him here this time without the TARDIS. But why is Ace here? At any rate, she suggests getting pass the door. The Doctor orders the android to shut down, using an unchanged default password; he then circles the grey door, which only comes up to his waist. He suspects it leads to another dimension. He manages to crack the lock, and confirms his suspicions—and tumbles through as if pushed.

Part Two:

The Sixth Doctor approaches the RWR android with Peri, and confronts it. He banters with it over military intelligence; then it announces that its purpose is to prevent anyone from opening the door. He manages to use logic to get the android to shut down, by convincing it the door is no longer a door, and therefore the android has no purpose any longer. He quickly unlocks the door and pulls it open, then looks inside—and falls in as if pushed.

Part Three:

The Fifth Doctor, accompanied by Nyssa, uses a fake Engineering Maintenance ID card to get the android to shut down, and then works the lock. He questions whether they should open the door; this test has been remarkably easy, after all. But Nyssa begs him to open it and get them out of here; and so he opens the door—and hurtles through as if pushed.

Part Four:

Romana looks over the android, which has been subdued with things from the Fourth Doctor’s pockets—his scarf, his jelly babies, other sweets. She reflects that it wasn’t very intelligent; but the Fourth Doctor says that as a soldier, it didn’t need to be. He uses his sonic screwdriver to unlock the door, musing on how unintelligent the robot was; but Romana reminds him that its processor indicates it has already beaten three of his future incarnations. She wonders what is behind the door as he pushes it open. “Why conjecture,” he says, “when we can see the answer for ourselves—“ and then he cries out as he tumbles in.

Part Five:

Jo Grant is focused on the laser rifle—or antimatter particle rifle, as the Third Doctor points out. The android, meanwhile, is in marketing mode; it explains how it came by the rifle, and how much it costs. The Doctor tells it that Jo is in the market for high-grade weaponry herself, and asks to see the wide-beam setting in action. The robot asks where to shoot it; the Doctor suggests the ground. The beam creates a hole in the ground, which will continue for infinity, as the particles will go on forever. Jo insists she can see the bottom; when the robot leans in to check, the Doctor kicks it into the hole. Meanwhile the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to open the door; and then falls in with a cry, as if shoved.

Part Six:

Jamie admires the antimatter rifle as the Second Doctor admires the android’s impenetrable zamanite casing. The Doctor questions its impenetrability, and Jamie joins in. The Doctor persuades it to fire the rifle at itself; and of course its head is burned off by the antimatter. Perhaps the robot really isn’t very intelligent. The Doctor tells Jamie that the robot wasn’t wrong; zamanite was impenetrable by all known technology when the robot was created, but the antimatter rifle was invented later. Fortunately the robot wasn’t good with such concepts…but that’s of no consolation as the Doctor tumbles into the doorway with a yell.

Part Seven:

The First Doctor—the youngest in age, but oldest in appearance of all the Doctor’s incarnations—ponders the oddly simple combination lock as his granddaughter, Susan, looks on. He is more mystified by the fact that—according to the entities that own this place—six of his future incarnations have failed here. Susan suggests that he’s more clever than they, but that should not be the case, if they came after him. They should be older and wiser—and anyway, it takes no great intelligence to outwit the android. He had distracted it by giving it a piece of paper with “P.T.O.”—Please Turn Over—written on both sides. Susan wonders what’s on the other side of the door; the Doctor doesn’t know, though Susan suggests it might be the TARDIS. The Doctor asks her to not stand so close to him as he contemplates the door. He wonders if his future selves had any companions with them. He continues to unlock it while musing on the basics of sleight of hand—distraction and division of activities. When he opens the door, he quickly springs aside—and whatever was impersonating Susan tumbles through the doorway as it tries to push him.

Part Eight:

The First Doctor has passed the test; and so, in keeping their own rules, the entities restore the seven Doctors back to the places and times from which they were taken. The entity that had bet against the Doctor complains that seven chances were too many; but its opponent, the other entity, insists that the number of chances had been determined by the roll of the Monopoly dice. After centuries of arguing, their game of Monopoly can at last start…or maybe not, as they set to arguing over who gets to use the dog token.

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I’ve called a few entries—mainly those to which the Fifth Doctor has been subjected—silly. I thought about applying the same term here; but it’s not really accurate, and at any rate I liked this story. A better term would be “absurd”, or perhaps “surreal”. That makes sense, as we’re dealing with a created realm here, similar to the Land of Fiction (The Mind Robber, et al). It’s not the most serious story ever, but it’s enjoyable just the same.

This is a multi-Doctor story of sorts, but unlike most such stories, the incarnations don’t meet. That fact dictates the story’s structure, and in turn defines it as a First Doctor story; because the incarnations don’t meet, they will each retain their memories of this situation, and so it has to take place in a very particular order. The parts of the story take place in chronological order, but the Doctors are summoned in reverse order, from Seven to One (hence the title). Otherwise, each progressive incarnation would retain the full memory of what has gone before. In this way the entities in control of the situation hedge their bets; the Doctors become successively less well informed as the contest goes on.

And contest it is. The two entities—unnamed, but affiliated with the colors black and white (and presumably not to be confused with the Black and White Guardians)—who created this Grey Space in which the Doctors find themselves, have set a test before each Doctor. There is a door which must be opened, guarded by an android which must be overcome—and one other aspect of the test as well, which I won’t spoil here. Each Doctor completes the first two parts of the test, but fails the third; only the youngest and least informed, the First Doctor, manages to succeed. There’s no solid reason why that should be so; but it is executed in a way that seems very fitting for his character.

William Russell has the smaller part in this story; he narrates the First Doctor’s segments in parts seven and eight. As usual his impersonation of the First Doctor is spot on. Oddly, his usual character, Ian Chesterton, doesn’t appear here; it is Susan who accompanies the First Doctor. Nicholas Briggs reads the other parts in the story; of course it’s long been established that he is extremely versatile with his voices, and none of his Doctor or companion roles sound bad. Of particular note is his Fourth Doctor impersonation; for a moment I thought I was hearing Tom Baker. I haven’t had much occasion to hear him impersonate Tom; I had no idea he was that good at it.

The only real problem I have with the story is a logical one. Though great pains were taken to set the story up in a believable way, it would almost have been better if the Doctors had encountered one another, so that memories wouldn’t be preserved; because the various later incarnations should have retained the First Doctor’s memory of how he defeated the entities. This is complicated by the fact that their experiences here happen in reverse order; if, say, the Seventh Doctor had remembered, and subsequently won the contest, then the First Doctor’s encounter would never have happened, setting up a paradox. In short: Time travel is confusing as always.

But regardless, if we set aside that objection, it’s a fun story. And that’s where we’ll leave it. With that, this collection ends on a high note (or at least a decent one), and we’ll move on to Volume Four! After that, we move to a monthly series format of twelve releases a year (plus the occasional bonus release). 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 3

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Audio Drama Review: The Wondrous Box

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Wondrous Box, the Fourth Doctor’s contribution to the Short Trips, Volume 3 collection. Written by Juliet Boyd and read by Louise Jameson, this story features the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane. I have to say, I’m getting anxious to get through the four initial collections in the Short Trips range of audios; it feels as though we’re not making much progress, though I know that isn’t true. Still, we’ll continue on. Let’s get started!

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

The TARDIS comes to a halt inside a circus tent—unfortunately, not on the ground, but on a high-wire stand, where it promptly crashes to the ground. Fortunately no one is hurt, and it’s too early for a show in the tent—and the Doctor is delighted to find himself at P.T. Barnum’s famous circus. Sarah Jane curbs the Doctor’s enthusiasm long enough to get him to move the TARDIS out of the performance ring—but, unknown to either of them, the dematerialisation is observed. One Benjamin Jackson sees it go—and becomes determined to acquire this wonder for Mr. Barnum.

The Doctor “parks” his ship in the trainyard where the circus train waits, looming like a small town of its own. As they view the circus, Sarah Jane objects to the freak shows so common in the era, but grudgingly accepts that it’s a product of the time. The Doctor is delighted to see the famous circus elephant, Jumbo, the prototype of that name.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Jackson finds the TARDIS and tries, to no avail, to get inside. He determines to acquire the key instead, and formulates a plan.

The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to cut his own entrance to the circus tent (as he and Sarah lack money for tickets), then seal it up again. They find seats and wait for the show to begin. Barnum and his contingent of clowns open the show, and one of the clowns pulls the Doctor into the show momentarily. However, the clown disappears, leading Sarah to suspect something isn’t right.

She is quite correct. The clown, Jimmy, has picked the Doctor’s pocket, obtaining the TARDIS key. He hands it off to Benjamin, who quickly gets inside the time machine. Jimmy the clown has secrets of his own; he is less entertainer and more guardian to Benjamin, due to a debt owed to Benjamin’s father, but that is hardly an issue right now. As the TARDIS door closes behind Benjamin, Jimmy takes a nap.

Banjamin is stunned by the TARDIS interior, where nothing makes sense to him. He sees the date on the console—15 September, 1885—and then begins to experiment with the various controls. Not knowing what he is doing, he manages to cause the TARDIS to take off; and he is unable to properly reverse it. He does manage to get it to land, however, and get the doors open; but when he runs outside, he is in a different location in the train yard, and Jimmy is nowhere to be seen.

Sarah Jane tells the Doctor she has heard the sound of the TARDIS. The Doctor doesn’t believe her, but agrees to let her check on it—but he becomes alarmed when he can’t find his key. They rush out to investigate.

The elephant handler, Scotty, is walking the elephants out of the tent. Jumbo, being more intelligent than many people give him credit for, notices the odd blue box, which smells unusual, and alerts the other elephants. Meanwhile, the Doctor produces a tracker and locates the TARDIS, concluding that someone has stolen the key and moved the TARDIS; Sarah insists she already knew that much. They find the key in the lock, and the Doctor goes inside, not knowing that Benjamin is still watching.

The Doctor notices the settings have been changed, but finds nothing else wrong. He secures the console, and then goes back out for Sarah Jane—and then he notices a sign that displays the location of this show: St. Thomas, Ontario. He becomes alarmed, though Sarah doesn’t know the significance. He quickly moves the TARDIS away from the train, though without Sarah aboard; he runs back outside to get her, just in time to see a train engine careening toward several elephants on the track. The elephants are running, but only Jumbo has any chance. The Doctor hears Benjamin calling out to the elephants; in some part of his mind, he guesses that this is the man who stole the key, but he files that away for now. He pulls Sarah to safety, and wills with all his might for the elephant Jumbo to step into the space between two carriages…but the elephant thinks the TARDIS is in that space. By the time Jumbo realizes the space is open, it is too late. History, as it always has, will record that Jumbo the elephant died on this day in a train collision—and the Doctor leads Sarah Jane sadly back into the TARDIS.

Later, the Doctor and Sarah Jane stand in the Barnum museum, viewing Jumbo’s taxidermied remains—visiting a noble animal for the last time.

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There’s a common thread throughout much of Doctor Who, which is the idea that the Doctor really can’t change history (at least, mostly). What we see him doing most often is preventing things that would change history—the classic example is another Fourth Doctor/Sarah Jane story, The Pyramids of Mars, where the Doctor explicitly shows Sarah how history will change if he doesn’t stop Sutekh. (I’ve often wondered how it can be that the Doctor can’t change history, but others can; and what would have happened if he had just flown away rather than going back to challenge Sutekh? But that’s a matter for another time.) What we don’t see as often are the cases where it’s the Doctor’s presence or actions that bring about our version of history in the first place.

That’s what we have in this story. History records that P.T. Barnum’s famous circus elephant, Jumbo, was killed on 15 September 1885 at St. Thomas, Ontario, when a locomotive struck the elephant. In this story, while it’s not the Doctor’s direct actions that cause this tragedy, it is his presence, or rather the presence of the TARDIS, which causes the elephant to be unable to avoid the impact. I’ll spare you the details of how exactly it comes about, in case you’re trying to avoid spoilers. The Doctor doesn’t comment on his part in these events, but context—and Sarah Jane’s perspective—make it clear that it weighs on him. Without ever having it spelled out, the Doctor comes across as both sentimental and sensitive; you get the impression that you’re seeing past the Fourth Doctor’s usual armor of nonchalance and wit, if only for a while.

As with most of these early Short Trips, there isn’t much in the way of continuity references, and so it’s difficult to place the story in the Doctor’s timeline. Sarah Jane is present, but nothing is said to give us an idea of when this story takes place. We can note that as Harry Sullivan is not present, it must occur after Terror of the Zygons. It’s a little disconcerting at first to hear Louise Jameson voicing a companion other than Leela, but it passes quickly; I suppose she has done so on other occasions, but this is my first encounter with her in that capacity. Sarah Jane’s customary actress, Elizabeth Sladen, unfortunately had passed away a little over a month prior to this story’s release.

Overall: This is a good, solid Fourth Doctor story, and I liked it. It fits well with its era; Sarah Jane’s time with the Fourth Doctor is a mixed bag of large and small events, and after season 12 lacked the series arcs that would become prominent when Romana arrives. The Doctor was still traveling for fun at this point, and one can easily see him getting into situations much like this. It’s worth the eighteen minutes it takes to listen.

Next time: We’ll join the Fifth Doctor and Peri in 1903 Shropshire in Wet Walls! 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 3

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