Audio Drama Review: Little Doctors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Doctors

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Audio Drama Review: 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!

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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 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: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, the Second Doctor’s tale in the fourth Short Trips collection. Written by Foster Marks, and read by David Troughton, this story features the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe. Let’s get started!

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

A man named Jack sits down with his breakfast in his cabin on the planet Juno 1-0. He hears a strange grating sound outside, and checks it out; it turns out to be three people coming toward him. He meets them outside. He warns them about a hole in the ground ahead of them. They check it out; it is more than twenty meters wide. They introduce themselves as Zoe, Jamie, and the Doctor. The Doctor thanks him for the warning, and inquires as to how long Jack has been here—a few centuries, it turns out. He claims he is a Larian, with a bit of Terian blood; the Doctor thinks the job—warning people about the hole—is a bit menial for a Larian. Zoe says that they want to look around; the Doctor’s scans had detected an extensive series of cavities beneath the surface. Against Jack’s will, they go to check out the hole, leaving Jack at the cabin.

The hole seems to go down forever. The Doctor muses on Jack’s expertise. They are interrupted by a series of explosions behind them—another hole opens up, pulling the trio in! Jack watches, completely unperturbed, then returns to his cabin. He reveals a hidden control console behind a wall, and brings up audio and video of the companions’ fall into the hole. To his surprise, he sees that the trio have survived the fall, the debris having broken their tumble.

The Doctor determines they are in a metal-clad tunnel, not a natural hole. They hear a mewling sound down the tunnel, and go to check it out. Jack tries to follow their progress, growing more irritated; he determines that, no matter who they are, they are in his caves, and he is going to kill them all. He sets up a quick flush of Hadron gas in the tunnels, which should kill them without disrupting the work schedule. However, he is interrupted by an alert: his holding stock is nearly full—and his buyers will be waiting. While the Hadron flush is preparing, he activates the launch sequence for the stock. Rocket engines can be heard, and he goes outside to watch the rocket launch. However, his happiness turns to horror as the rocket comes apart on launch and explodes. He runs to check out the wreck.

The nose section, thrown free by the explosion, lands safely, and its hatch opens. Creatures stream out—furry halflings, a few dozen of them; and they are followed by the Doctor and his companions. The halflings become aggressive when they see Jack.

Jack demands to know how they got aboard the rocket’s capsule. Zoe claims to have cracked its security code; and the Doctor says that the eject sequence was printed out inside the cabin. Jack claims ownership of the halflings, and demands to know why and how the Doctor freed them. The Doctor explains that he played his recorder to lull them. The creatures are hybrids, bred for mining branzine, a dirty power source that is unfortunately lucrative. The way Jack was mining this planet would soon implode its core—and the implosion would pollute the entire quadrant. Jack knew, and didn’t care; his plan was to take the money and buy another planet in the Paradine system, which he would continue mining. He already owns six planets in that system. The Doctor points out that Jack’s Larian caste values the means of commerce over the ends, and will not stop this pursuit. However, the issue of revenge is taken out of their hands when the halflings surround Jack. Still, the Doctor does have a plan; and he asks Zoe to prepare Jack’s transmat.

On Paradine Alpha—one of the planets owned by Jack—the Larian awakens on a beautiful beach. However, he roars in anger as he realizes he is trapped here—a paradisiacal world, but one where there is no chance of advancement, only contentment. Truly it is the worst possible punishment for Jack.

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Let me take a moment and talk about another popular science-fiction franchise: Star Trek. While remaining wildly popular, Star Trek has gotten more than its share of criticism over the years, for various reasons, some of which are valid. One such reason is the series’ tendency to portray one-note alien races; that is, races which are defined by one or two characteristics, such as Vulcan logic, Klingon violence and honor, and—most relevant to us today—Ferengi greed and commerce. Star Trek does this again and again, and it’s rare that individuals of those races have much personality or character development (well, beyond the main characters of each installment; Spock and Worf get their moments, but not so much the others of their races). On the one hand, it’s almost a necessary form of shorthand in science-fiction writing; it’s nearly impossible to invest the time and energy necessary to understand true alien complexity, and so we use these shortcuts to display alienness. On the other hand, it’s very easy to devolve into lazy writing.

For the most part, I find that Doctor Who avoids this trope. While alien races in Doctor Who do have their quirks—“Exterminate”, anyone?—this series seems to make a mission out of subverting and exploring those quirks, in a way that many other franchises never attempt. How many stories have we had which explore the inner workings of the Dalek mind? How many Ice Warrior stories have explored the idea of Ice Warrior honor and when and how it should apply? And frankly, that’s fantastic. The Doctor himself is an alien, and shouldn’t react with the standard human trope of generalizing everyone he meets. Indeed, he doesn’t do that; he tries to look past the surface even of his enemies, and draw out the best in them.

That’s why a story like this, Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, seems a little out of place to me. This story pits (literally, and I definitely intended that pun) the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe against a Larian named Jack, who is performing legal-but-highly-dangerous mining on a planet called Juno 1-0. In the process, he’s enslaving an engineered race, though that’s sort of a footnote here; if you removed the Halflings from the story, it wouldn’t change substantially. That’s all fair enough; the Doctor has stood against corporate greed and environmental hazards many times (the VNA Cat’s Cradle: Warhead comes to mind). But the villain, Jack, is portrayed as having no real choice in the matter; he’s a product of his race and caste, who always single-mindedly pursue commerce with an eye on the means rather than the ends. Sound familiar? Jack may as well be a Ferengi! It makes for a clever ending, in that Jack ends up in a situation that would be paradise for anyone else, but is torture for him or anyone of his race and caste; but it comes across as lazy to me. As well, any punishment seems like a harsh punishment for something that can’t be helped; Jack’s crimes are serious, certainly, but he’s literally wired to commit them—it’s in his nature. That renders the otherwise-clever ending unsatisfactory, and makes the Doctor seem a little malicious.

I hate to make the complaint over which I’ve labored, because it’s a fun story, right up to the end. It’s only in the last few minutes, when the statement about Jack’s race and caste is made, that it goes south. Otherwise, I enjoyed it completely.

Next time: We’ll join the Third Doctor and Jo Grant for Lost in the Wakefield Triangle! 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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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.

Short Trips Volume 3 b

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 Five Dimensional Man

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we begin listening to Short Trips: Volume 3, released in May 2011. As with previous collections, this volume includes one story focusing on each of the first eight Doctors, and read (mostly) by individuals connected with those eras.

Big Finish opted to do something new with this volume. The First Doctor’s story, titled Seven to One, is spread across the entire volume, with one part placed between each pair of the following seven stories. The reason for this will be apparent when we discuss that story; but that will not be today. Because the entire story will not be heard until the volume is complete, I’m choosing to put off reviewing it until I have completed the entire story. As a result, we’ll start today with the Second Doctor’s entry, The Five Dimensional Man, written by Kate Orman and read by David Troughton. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 3 a

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

A perfectly ordinary, 25-year-old, American housewife named Betty is getting ready for an evening at home with her husband, Mark. With everything ready, she sits down for an hour of writing science-fiction, but the words aren’t coming. She has no idea she is about to have an unexpected visitor.

The cat tips her off to the newcomer—a young, dark-haired girl, wearing a spacesuit and carrying a strange device. The girl starts to speak, but passes out. Betty rushes to help her. When the girl recovers, she blurts out something about a crystal—the device, one presumes, which is now on the table. She introduces herself to Betty as Zoe, and asks what year it is—it is October 2, 1959, and Betty is certainly handling this better than most people would. She asks if Zoe is from the future; she is, but she isn’t actually an astronaut—the suit, and the crystal, are borrowed. She has come in pursuit of a 28th-century scientist named Lord Ferdinand Sterling, who has reprogrammed an army of robots for war with Earth. The radiation that powers the weapons of that war would be dangerous to Earth, causing fatal mutations; and so Zoe intends to stop him—if only her friend the Doctor can reach her here. The Doctor has a time machine, but it is less than reliable—and Zoe made her way here via a time-travel booth belonging to Sterling, anyway. She is quite stranded, with no way to contact the Doctor despite his ability to travel in the five dimensions.

They are interrupted by the arrival of a most strange object—the TARDIS.

The Doctor steps out and joins them, to Zoe’s joy. He explains that the TARDIS was able to home in on the signal from Sterling’s machine. Unfortunately another companion, Jamie, has been taken hostage by Sterling, who wants the crystal back, as it is integral to his plans. The Doctor intends to give it to him—but Zoe suggests taking Betty with them. The robots won’t have a record of her, and so they should ignore her. Betty, for her part, is anxious to help, although it will put her in danger. The Doctor agrees, but warns her that she will only have a glimpse of the future, and then must return to the safety of the TARDIS.

The TARDIS takes them to the future, and into space. Betty finds herself outside the TARDIS in a large laboratory full of spacesuited men—no, not men: robots. Nearby, an ornately dressed man has his back to them, and has a young man in a spacesuit in tow; this must be Sterling, with Jamie. Jamie sees them, but Zoe warns him to silence. There is a machine nearby, obviously built to accommodate the crystal; if reactivated, the machine will activate a forcefield that will protect the Earth from missiles. Placing it there is Betty’s task.

The Doctor calls out to Sterling, distracting him. Zoe adds to the distraction, claiming to have had the crystal. While the robots are distracted, Betty runs for the machine; the robots don’t notice her. Sterling, however, hears her footsteps, and turns toward her; Betty is stunned by his appearance—he appears to be a bizarre form of mutant. The Doctor realizes that Sterling has used the radiation on himself. Sterling intended to strengthen himself, but it has gone wrong. Still, he believes he can perfect the process—and the war against Earth will be one great experiment, in which Sterling will breed the best survivors into a new, improved human race. Betty, however, feels sympathy toward him, and asks if it hurts. As Sterling confronts her, Zoe snatches the crystal away—but Betty touches him in sympathy. As she does so, Zoe puts the crystal in the machine.

Jamie tackles Sterling, dragging him away from Betty as Sterling demands the help of his robots. The machine springs to life; at the same time, Jamie shoves Sterling into a glassy box of energy—the time-travel booth. And then Sterling is gone.

Betty is home by four, well before dinner and before her husband gets home. She puts away her typewriter and her sci-fi magazines; but then she runs to the living room, where a square of carpet is crushed down as by something heavy. Then, realizing that there is “no time like the present”, she returns to the typewriter and begins to write.

Short Trips Volume 3 b

One of the strengths of the Short Trips range of audio dramas is the way in which it gives us the perspectives of bystanders. Many of these stories are told from the point of view of various minor characters who are caught up in the Doctor’s adventures. Unlike the Doctor’s companions, they don’t get the full picture; they don’t see the Doctor’s battles from beginning to end, and they often don’t know what is at stake. And yet, somehow, the Doctor always makes them feel fully engaged and involved—put another way, he makes their contributions matter. Or, as the Eleventh Doctor will one day say:

Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. You know that in nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before!

In that regard, this story shines. The point-of-view character is a housewife named Betty, who has aspirations of publishing her science-fiction stories (a dream with which I can sympathize). She’s apparently average in every way; but the Doctor sees potential in her, and she in turn saves the day, or at least helps to do so. In the course of it, she does something very Doctor-ish: she shows a great deal of sympathy even for the unrepentant villain of the piece. In the end, the experience moves her to continue chasing her own dream after she returns home.

More interestingly, this story is a tribute to The Twilight Zone, the well-known science-fiction anthology series hosted by Rod Serling. The story’s frame sequences take place on October 2, 1959 (I’m using the American form of date notation because the story is set in America, and uses that format internally), which is the premiere date of the original Twilight Zone television series. As well, the story is framed by a voiceover narration similar in tone to Rod Serling’s opening and closing narrations for the series. Although this story lacks the typical Twilight Zone twist ending, it mimics the format in other ways; it begins with a rather ordinary protagonist who is suddenly thrust into a situation far outside her experience, and hinges on her reaction to the situation. Also, the series’ pitch teleplay, The Time Element, is a time-travel story; that story did not ultimately become the pilot episode, but it stands as part of The Twilight Zone’s history. (The Time Element was eventually produced as an episode of a different series, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.)

Within the story there are some subtle references to the Twilight Zone pilot episode, broadcast on the date above, titled Where is Everybody? Zoe appears in Betty’s apartment, disoriented and wearing a spacesuit; the episode’s protagonist, Mike Ferris, appears suddenly, disoriented and wearing a flight suit. Ferris is found to be inside a glass sensory-deprivation booth; there is a very similar booth in this story, serving as a time machine. The closing narration refers to “the barrier of loneliness”; the villain of our story, Sterling (also a reference to Twilight Zone’s host, Rod Serling) is arguably a solitary man, and his defeat hinges on Betty’s comfort in the face of that isolation. Even the title, The Five Dimensional Man, is a reference to the opening voiceover of The Twilight Zone:

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears, and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call, The Twilight Zone. (Ironically, the pilot episode referred to it as the “sixth” dimension; this was changed to “fifth” for all subsequent episodes.)

Overall, I was pleased with this story, especially when viewing it through the lens of its Twilight Zone tribute. It’s weak on continuity—but then, most Short Trips seem to be so. At the same time, it stands well on its own, and is a cozy—if slightly oblique—look into the Doctor’s life. Not bad for an opener to this volume—well, as much as it IS an opener, given that we’ve temporarily skipped part one of the First Doctor’s story.

Next time: We’ll look at Pop-Up, featuring the Third Doctor and Jo Grant. 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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Novel Review: The Eight Doctors

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! It’s been awhile since we looked into the world of Doctor Who novels, but here we go again. I set out to review Vampire Science, the second of the Eighth Doctor Adventures novels, but then discovered to my embarrassment that I never covered the first. It’s been several months since I read it, so my observations may be less thorough than usual; but, without further ado, let’s get started on The Eight Doctors (1997), by Terrance Dicks!

Eight Doctors 1

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

Immediately after the events of Doctor Who (the 1996 television movie, which gave us the regeneration of the Seventh Doctor into the Eighth), the Doctor returns to his TARDIS. He finishes reading The Time Machine (begun during the movie), then checks the Eye of Harmony—where he falls victim to the Master’s final trip. It erases his memory, leaving him in possession of his name—“the Doctor”—and orders to trust the TARDIS…but nothing else.

The TARDIS lands on its own at 76 Totter’s Lane in London in 1997. He intercepts a teenager named Samantha “Sam” Jones, who is running from some drug dealers led by one Baz Bailey; Baz correctly thinks that Sam told the police about his activities. Baz intends to force Sam to take cocaine, causing an addiction that will both punish her and ensure her silence. The Doctor rescues her, but is then caught himself by the police, who believe he is the one dealing the cocaine (as he had it in hand when they arrived). Meanwhile, Sam escapes to school, but tells two of her teachers the story while explaining her tardiness; she takes them to the junkyard to prove her story. At the same time, Bailey and his gang attack the police station to attempt to recover the drugs (as their own suppliers will not be pleased with the loss). The Doctor escapes during the attack, and takes the cocaine back to the TARDIS for disposal…but as the ship dematerializes, Sam is left on her own to deal with Bailey.

Flying more or less on its own, the TARDIS lands on Earth in 100,000 BC. The Eighth Doctor meets the First, just as the First Doctor is about to kill a caveman. He stops his past self from this heinous act, and the two psychically link, restoring the Eighth Doctor’s memories up to this point in the First Doctor’s life. These events have occurred in a time bubble, which allows them to converse without being noticed by anyone; but the First Doctor tells the Eighth to go before the bubble bursts and damages the timeline. The Eighth Doctor takes off again in his TARDIS.

His next stop takes him to the events of The War Games. Here he lands in the vicinity of the survivors of the Roman Legions, and is captured and sent to the headquarters location at the center of the war zones. He meets the Second Doctor, Jamie McCrimmon, and Zoe Heriot. Another time bubble forms, allowing him to make psychic contact with his past self, and restores the next segment of his memories; then he advises the Second Doctor to contact the Time Lords for intervention in the War Lords’ plans. He departs again.

Returning to Earth in 1972, the TARDIS lands at UNIT HQ. The Third Doctor and Jo Grant, meanwhile, having just defeated the Sea-Devils, have tracked the Master back to his previous haunt of Devil’s End, where his TARDIS awaits. After a brief standoff with white witch Olive Hawthorne, the Master escapes in his TARDIS. The Third Doctor and Jo return to UNIT HQ, where they discover the Eighth Doctor. The Third Doctor shares a psychic link with his Eighth self, but not willingly; he blames his previous encounter with the Eighth Doctor, during his second incarnation, for the circumstances that led to his exile. The Eighth Doctor—whose memories are starting fill in the gaps as more segments are added—assures the Third Doctor that he will be released from exile, and will even end his life with a noble sacrifice one day. They are interrupted by the arrival of the Master, who attempts to kill the Third Doctor; but the two of them are able to overpower him and drive him off. In the process, the Third Doctor captures the Master’s tissue compression eliminator, and threatens his other self with it, stating he could demand the Eighth Doctor’s working TARDIS…but he relents and gives his other self the weapon, choosing to stay.

The TARDIS next takes the Eighth Doctor back to a time prior to the destruction of the Logopolitan CVEs, and into E-Space, where he meets his Fourth self on the planet of the Three Who Rule. The Doctor has just killed the great vampire, but a few lesser vampires remain…notably one Lord Zarn. He captures Romana and uses her to lure in the Fourth Doctor, intending to transform them into a new king and queen of the vampires. The Fourth Doctor rescues her, but is caught himself, and nearly drained of blood before the Eighth Doctor can find him. He provides an emergency blood transfusion as the local peasants arrive and finish off the vampires. With more memories intact, he departs.

Interlude: On Gallifrey, the Doctor’s timeline-crossing has not gone unnoticed. Flavia, who is currently president after the Sixth Doctor’s sham trial some years ago, refuses to execute the Doctor for this crime, but keeps him under observation. A political rival, Ryoth, grows angry at this decision, and surreptitiously contacts the Celestial Intervention Agency. They refuse to get involved, but offer to secretly support him; they give him access to the Time Scoop. He uses it to send the Raston Warrior Robot (still in the Death Zone after The Five Doctors) to the Eye of Orion, where the Fifth Doctor is trying to take a vacation with Tegan Jovanka and Vislor Turlough. However, the Eighth Doctor arrives, and the presence of identical brain patterns in two places confuses the robot, leaving it immobile. Ryoth then sends a Sontaran patrol to the planet. The patrol apprehends the Doctors, but they convince the leader, Vrag, to reactivate the robot. It immediately begins slaughtering the Sontarans. Quickly the Doctors put together a device to generate temporal feedback; Ryoth’s next target, a Drashig, is redirected into the Time Scoop chamber. It promptly eats both Ryoth and the Time Scoop, before being destroyed by the guards.

The Eighth Doctor then lands on the space station where the Sixth Doctor’s trial is just ending…in his execution. The resultant time bubble allows both Eight and Six to escape, but they realize something is wrong. This timeline, in which the Sixth Doctor was found guilty, is not the real one; it has been forced into existence by the Valeyard. Somewhere, the actual trial goes on. As that false timeline has been interrupted, this version of the Sixth Doctor will soon also vanish. They rush to Gallifrey, and speak with then-president Niroc. [I have to step out of character for a second here. Gallifreyan presidency rarely makes sense. Flavia became president at the end of Trial of a Time Lord, and then was forced to step down for political reasons; she was replaced by Niroc, and then later re-elected, bringing us to the point at which we met her earlier while monitoring the Doctor’s progress. Whew!] They force an inquiry into the legitimacy of the trial, and enlist former president Flavia to help. In so doing, they step into a brewing rebellion among the Shobogans in and around the capital. The Sixth Doctor finally vanishes during the inquiry. The inquiry exposes a conspiracy among the Valeyard, Niroc, and the Celestial Intervention Agency—with the Master thrown in just for chaos’ sake. As the rebellion erupts, the Sixth Doctor’s real timeline reasserts itself, and it is seen that he has defeated the Valeyard inside the Matrix. The Eighth Doctor visits Rassilon’s tomb and persuades Rassilon’s ghost to release Borusa from his imprisonment; he takes Borusa, who is now very much absolved of his previous crimes, to the Panopticon, where he quickly asserts control of the situation and leads the Time Lords and Shobogans to a peaceful solution.

With Gallifrey sorted for the moment, the Eighth Doctor heads off to locate his Seventh self. The Seventh Doctor has become depressed in the knowledge that his life will soon end (thanks to his experiences in Lungbarrow), and has retreated to Metebelis 3 for contemplation. There he is captured by one of the giant spiders, who remembers the Third Doctor’s destruction of the spider colony. He is rescued by the Eighth Doctor, and a final psychic link fully restores the Eighth Doctor’s memories. The Eighth Doctor’s sympathy overrides his good sense, and he warns his past self not to answer a call that will soon come from an old enemy (that is, the Master, who wants the Doctor to carry his remains home—failing to do so would change the Eighth Doctor’s timeline). However, the Seventh Doctor, having become encouraged, decides to go anyway.

Meanwhile, the Master, ever one to lay a trap, visits a tribe called the Morgs. He obtains from them a deathworm, which allows them to survive death, but at the cost of their bodies and forms. He uses the deathworm on himself, then travels to Skaro, where he will be executed.

The Eighth Doctor returns to Rassilon’s tomb, and implies that Rassilon guided his journey. Rassilon congratulates him, and confirms it; this adventure allowed some loose ends to be tied up, most notably the infamous Ravolox incident (as Ravolox, aka Earth, has now been put back in place). But one loose end remains…

The Doctor returns to the scrapyard in 1997, and quickly rescues Sam from Baz Bailey, handing both Bax and the cocaine over to the police. Just as he prepares to leave, Sam leaps into the TARDIS. He doesn’t want to take her at first, but she insists on at least one trip to see the Universe. He tells her his name is Doctor John Smith; she points out that with names like Smith and Jones, they are perfect pair.

Eight Doctors 2

There’s a distinct difference between a good novel and an entertaining one, and few Doctor Who stories illustrate that as well as this one. The novel is almost one hundred percent fan service (and not in the sexual sense; in the sense of things that fans routinely want, such as past-doctor appearances). I love that kind of thing as much as the next person (and probably considerably more); but even I have to admit that this story serves as a cautionary tale about why such things are only good in moderation. I’ll say ahead of time that the book was a lot of fun to read; it has that going for it, and there’s nothing wrong with that—if you’re not reading for enjoyment, why are you reading? Now, with that said, let’s tear it apart.

Since this book is almost completely composed of continuity references, I won’t be able to list them all in a neat paragraph as I usually do. We’ll look at them from the perspective of the problems they cause, and other references will be scattered throughout. The book tries to serve as a bridge between the television movie (which left the Doctor with a blank slate and no companions) and the rest of the Eighth Doctor Adventures novels—which, let’s not forget, were the only major Eighth Doctor stories for a long time. (I know there have been comics, but I’m not sure how they fit into the publication timeline.)

The book plays havoc with Gallifreyan presidential succession. It tries to salvage the notable character of Flavia from the end of The Five Doctors; that’s admirable enough, as Flavia is an interesting character with potential. However, it casts her as president, then promptly throws the succession into confusion with President Niroc, who is stated to be president during Trial of a Time Lord. It explains the proper succession, but the explanation is elaborate enough for its own bout of confusion. None of this, of course, deals with the fact that Lungbarrow–to which this book clearly refers—establishes that Romana should be president at this point in the Eighth Doctor’s life. (There’s a very short time between the end of Lungbarrow and the television movie, and this novel proceeds immediately thereafter; it’s unlikely that Romana was deposed and Flavia elected during that time. The events of Flavia’s term seen here could take place before the Eighth Doctor’s timeline; but then why, when monitoring him, does Flavia treat his Eighth incarnation as the current one? It’s never addressed.) This also contradicts a previous novel, Blood Harvest, which was also written by Terrance Dicks. It’s partially explained away by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum in Unnatural History, where they explain that Rassilon has made improvements to the patterns of history…but it’s Lungbarrow that gets undone, not The Eight Doctors. (And what a pity! Lungbarrow is a much better novel.) Yet more layers of contradiction take place in The Shadows of Avalon and The Ancestor Cell (which I haven’t read yet, so bear with me).

There are lesser contradictions to other stories as well. Sam Jones mentions “silver monsters” having been seen once in Foreman’s Yard; this is a reference to Remembrance of the Daleks, but the Cybermen didn’t actually appear there in that story. The Eighth Doctor, when meeting the Brigadier with the Third Doctor, doesn’t realize he’s been promoted up from Colonel (post-The Web of Fear). However, even the Second Doctor should have known that, as he met him at the rank of Brigadier in The Invasion; therefore the Eighth Doctor should know, having already acquired the Second’s memories. The VNA Blood Harvest states that Borusa was still imprisoned in the Seventh Doctor’s time; to be fair, it also implies he may return to imprisonment voluntarily after a short freedom. The method of “vampirization” (for lack of a better word) seen during the Fourth Doctor’s scenes here contradicts other versions, including Blood Harvest, Goth Opera, and the soon-to-arrive Vampire Science; however, most of those stories are careful to observe that different versions of vampires may reproduce in different ways.

The largest issue I have with this story is that it is the novel equivalent of a clip show. A clip show (and I don’t know if the term is common in the UK as it is in America) is a late-series episode composed mostly of flashbacks and clips from past stories. It’s meant to provide a cheap, easy, filler episode, while bringing later viewers up to date. I understand why the EDA line would begin with such a story; Doctor Who was at a fragile point, having just finished up the VNA line, and just coming off a failed television movie. I imagine there was a perception of not having much to work with, and therefore any effort to tie this new series to the Classic Series in its heyday would have seemed like a no-brainer. One must establish that yes, this is the Doctor, and we will be going forward with him in this incarnation; but he is the same Doctor he’s always been. The problem is, clip shows don’t make good stories; and this one meanders from place to place. It dabbles in the First Doctor’s story, while diving deep into the Sixth; this kind of variation is everywhere throughout the book, and so it feels very uneven and unpredictable. It may have been the only way to begin the novel line, but it was not a good way.

With far too many continuity references to list, I’ll stop there, and just refer you to the TARDIS wiki for more information. Instead, let’s take a glance at our newest companion: Samantha “Sam” Jones. I am aware that there’s far more to Sam than meets the eye, with some interference in her history and timeline yet to be revealed; but none of that is apparent yet. She’s very much a television version of a 1990s teenager: bright, almost manic, witty, high-energy, and highly involved. I was reminded instantly of Lucie Miller from the Eighth Doctor Adventures audios, and having already read the next book, I’m convinced that Lucie’s character is directly inspired by Sam’s; the two could practically be twins. Sam is very much a character, though; she’s not very realistic, but she’s very well written. She’s exactly how I imagine an older adult writing the character of a teenager in the 1990s—and of course, that’s exactly what she is. Terrance Dicks is a fine author, but he’s no teenager, and there’s a little bit of “uncanny valley” when looking at Sam…she’s almost, but not quite, normal. Add in the scenes with the cocaine and drug dealers, and the sense of being a little disconnected with the 90s—but still familiar with its pop culture—deepens.

As for the Doctor, we don’t yet know what kind of man he will be. He’s certainly high-energy, but beyond that, he’s still a blank slate. He spends most of this book playing off of the characterization of his other incarnations, which is something that Terrance Dicks nails (and he should, by now, with the stacks of books he’s written). It’s been mentioned that you have to ask which Eighth Doctor you’re dealing with in any given story; the answer here is, “we don’t know”. I’ll report back as I finish more of the series.

None of this makes the book a bad read, and it’s worthwhile at least for introducing Sam’s character, although one should keep in mind that Sam’s involvement is only the frame to the rest of the story. When we meet her again, she will have been traveling with the Doctor for an undisclosed time, and he will also have had some independent travel in the middle of her time with him. While I can’t completely recommend the book, the completionist in me says that you should read it; but feel free to skip it if your tolerance for weak storytelling is low.

Next time: We’ll continue our Short Trips audios, and we’ll look at the next book in the Eighth Doctor Adventures: Vampire Science! See you there.

The Eighth Doctor Adventures novels are currently out of print; however you may find them at various used booksellers.

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Audio Drama Review: The Way Forwards

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we continue with Short Trips, Volume 2, listening to The Way Forwards, by Steve Case. This story is read by David Troughton, and features the Second Doctor and Victoria Waterfield. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 2

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

In 1986, a young boy named Sherman Pegg has entered a high school science fair, though he didn’t want to. As he sits at his table and mulls over his mother’s orders to be here, and his desire to go buy a book instead, he waits for the judges to come by and judge his project, along with the 359 others in the room. He is sure it doesn’t matter; Spragg High School always wins, as they have an alumnus on the judging committee. Ah, well, competition for second place–! He is sure he won’t win.

It’s unfortunate, too, because he had actually done something interesting—he had come up with a theory of time travel. Famous physicists like Einstein had been close, but he was closer. Still, it was a bit strange; the ideas had just come to him in the middle of the night. It was a great project, he knew, but it was so far above the usual concepts of time that no one would understand it! And as luck would have it, the judges come by at that moment, and move on without a word.

He had described his project as “A Way-Forward Machine”, but had struggled to visually represent it. But, what was this? A strange, little, black-coated man and a young woman—both practically in costume—wandered by his table; and Sherman realizes at once that the man gets it! He understands the project! The young man is surprised to see that Sherman, at the tender age of fifteen, understands the concepts. He introduces himself as the Doctor, and the girl as Victoria. Sherman haltingly explains his theory, and the Doctor offers a suggestion; he changes a section of the formula. Sherman is amazed to see that the new formula works—and suddenly, Sherman vanishes.

The Doctor is quite caught off guard. The items on the table are gone as well; and more things in the vicinity disappear—until they are left in an open field. Sherman, it seems, has understood the theory too well. The field changes to a parking lot, a forest on fire, a (mercifully brief) underwater scene, and then a field again. They hurry to the TARDIS.

Sherman, the Doctor explains, has created a paradox. He went back in time to avoid attending the fair; but that means he wouldn’t have met the Doctor, and the theory wouldn’t have allowed time travel. Now, as the boy tries to fix the problem, he makes things much, much worse. At the moment, the TARDIS is…nowhere.

As the Doctor manipulates the console, the TARDIS takes off, and then lands again. The Doctor and Victoria step out onto a flat black expanse of rock; the Doctor explains they haven’t actually moved at all. Ahead is the Summer Park Mall, where the science fair took place; in the distance is a veritable garden of crashed planes—or rather, many of the exact same plan. The rest of the town is buried in ice, though there is heat where they are. Intelligent gorillas sit outside the mall. The Doctor and Victoria head inside.

The mall is listing to the side, and every store is a bookstore, now closed. In the center of the mall, they find Sherman…or rather, they find several of him, at different ages and in different stages of dress. All of them look defeated.

The Doctor’s version of Sherman is in tears. He admits to breaking “it”—time itself. The Doctor acknowledges that Sherman had made a valiant effort to fix it all; and then he claims responsibility. He had given Sherman the formula, but had not expected him to understand it. Now he is willing to fix the mistake—if Sherman will come with them. The Doctor and Victoria take Sherman back to the TARDIS (where he pointedly does NOT comment on the oddity of the greater interior space). The Doctor offers to fix the mistakes, and then to help Sherman come up with a winning science fair idea.

Short Trips Volume 2 1

Many of these early short trips are small-scale stories, not just in their run time (16 minutes and 28 seconds, here), but in their scope. It’s not often, though, that we get a small-scale story with enormous implications. We have that here, as the Second Doctor helps a rather brilliant teenager with a science-fair project…and then the boy promptly upsets history. The boy, Sherman Pegg, has already made great mathematical strides toward a working theory of time travel; when the Second Doctor, on a whim, gives him the missing pieces of the formula, he expects the boy won’t be able to understand it. He quickly finds out how wrong he is, when the boy vanishes, his future self having built a working time machine. However, his first steps into the past cause him to have never attended the science fair, thus creating a paradox; and his continuing efforts to fix the problem only make it worse. The Doctor is forced to step in and set things right.

It’s a cozy little story, and it sounds innocuous enough. I can’t help wondering, though, if Sherman will retain the memories of the events. He may be scared to try again now, but what about adult Sherman, later on? Without actually saying so, the story manages to highlight the risk involved when races who lack the Time Lords’ rigid laws develop time travel (as if the long history of the Daleks isn’t enough to make that point already!). We often see the Time Lords as a stuffy bunch, and certainly the Doctor flouts their laws regularly; but those laws exist for a reason.

Again, this story is read by David Troughton, the son of Patrick Troughton, and he does a fine job with it. I don’t find him to be as convincing as, say, Frazer Hines; but I don’t think he is trying to be. I should point out that out loud, he refers to the story as The Way Forward, rather than the actual title of The Way Forwards; inconsequential, but those tiny mistakes seem to happen fairly often.

Once again, we lack continuity references. There are some real-world references to Einstein and string theory. I’d love to make a reference of Sherman’s “It’s bigger on the inside!” moment, but he doesn’t have one; it’s pointed out that he’s already seen more amazing things, and he doesn’t say the line.

Next time: We listen to one of my favorite Third Doctor short stories, Walls of Confinement! 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. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Short Trips, Volume 2

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