Novel Review: Iceberg

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today, we continue catching up on the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs, hereafter) featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Bernice Summerfield. Today we’ll be looking at Iceberg by David Banks, published in September 1993.

Iceberg cover

As I mentioned last time, due to my being a little behind schedule, this and the next several reviews will be a bit shorter than usual, and less involved. I hope you’ll stick around anyway.

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! Given that the books are two and a half decades old, I suspect that won’t be a problem; but at any rate, read at your own risk. And with that, let’s get started!

Here we come to the end of what I informally dubbed the “Holiday Tetralogy”, in which the Doctor wants a vacation. That sounds like such a simple premise; but this is Doctor Who, and of course nothing is that simple. The events of this novel take place at the same subjective time as those of Birthright–that is to say, while Benny and Ace are dealing with the Ch’tizz, the Doctor is on his own adventure in 2006 Earth.

Having split off a portion of the TARDIS into a separate—and alarmingly temporary—craft, the Doctor finds himself aboard the SS Elysium, a new and elaborate passenger liner on a voyage through the Antarctic seas. At the same time, the world is facing a crisis, as its magnetic field is about to reverse itself. Fortunately, there’s a plan! At an Antarctic base—one that is distantly familiar to the Doctor—a team works to assemble a machine that will, in the critical moment, reverse the reversal, and set the magnetic field back to its normal alignment. Unfortunately, no one imagined that under the ice waits a force of silver giants: Cybermen, with a plan to take over the planet. Now, undercover journalist Ruby Duvall must join this strange little man in stopping the plans of the Cybermen…and oh yes, saving the world from a natural disaster as well. All in a day’s work, right?


 

When I describe it the way I did in that summary, it sounds incredibly clichéd. I had some doubts when I read the cover blurb; but I was pleased to see it didn’t work out that way in practice. The story is engaging; and I have to say that it was refreshing to have a story that didn’t focus on the terrible relationships among the TARDIS crew. In NuWho terms we would call this a companion-lite story; ultimately I think it’s most reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor special Voyage of the Damned. The Seventh Doctor works best when he isn’t brooding all the time, and Ace and Benny (or maybe it’s just Ace; it doesn’t seem to happen as much without her) seem to bring out the brooding in him. Here, it’s clear throughout the story that, regardless of how dire the situation may be, he’s enjoying himself. So, maybe the holiday situation worked out in the end?

The comparison to Voyage of the Damned also works in relation to the companion of the day, Ruby Duvall. (She does, momentarily, travel in the TARDIS; but still, I wouldn’t call her a regular companion.) Ruby is very similar to Astrid Peth from Voyage in terms of personality; perhaps a little more world-weary, as she has a more varied set of life experiences than Astrid, but with the same eagerness to get involved. Like Astrid, she too wants to leave with the Doctor, but doesn’t get the chance, even though he is willing to take her. (Fortunately, it’s not through death that she misses her chance—Ruby lives to tell the tale, literally, as she dictates the final chapter of the book.) She follows a familiar pattern; many of the Doctor’s one-off companions seem to fit this template.

The biggest issue I find with this novel is that it contains several threads which never really pay out. Most notable is iceberg-sculpting artist Michael Brack. One would believe, from the first half of the novel, that he is going to be a major figure, with possible ties to the Cybermen—after all, they’ve used human agents many times before. In the end, though, he doesn’t amount to much, and his big secret—while emotionally significant for Ruby Duvall—feels rather tacked on at the end.

It’s worth noting that there’s a theme in the background of the VNAs, regarding the state of the Earth in the 21st century. It’s generally depicted as a hothouse of resource depletion, pollution, and general environmental abuse, largely due to the actions of corporations like the Butler Institute (not pictured here, but prominent in other novels in the series, such as Cat’s Cradle: Warhead). Ten years ago, I would have mused about how quaint the view was; these days, it’s uncomfortably relevant, with the real-world climate change issue. That theme is the backdrop for this novel as well, though it’s shielded a bit by the fact that this story takes place in the Antarctic; it is mentioned prominently in the early chapters and again at the end, but not much in between.

We can’t completely escape the tropes we’ve built up; this book continues the trend of drawing heavily on past (read: televised) stories. Here it’s The Tenth Planet that gets revisited. The Antarctic base is the same one featured in that story; its new commanding officer, US General Pamela Cutler, is the daughter of deceased Brigadier General Cutler, who died in that story. Both stories feature the Cybermen; but the Cybermen here are not from the Mondas situation addressed in The Tenth Planet, but relics of an older invasion attempt in the 1970s (The Invasion). Other continuity references: The Doctor is reminded at one point of his Sixth incarnation’s multicolored coat. His first regeneration (at age 450) is mentioned (The Tenth Planet). International Electromatics is mentioned (The Invasion, et al). Ruby Duvall will reappear in Happy Endings (if we ever get there, that is). The Doctor mistakes Ruby briefly for Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart (Transit). Ruby mentions the Cottingley fairy photos (Small Worlds). Photographer Isobel Watkins and her work are mentioned (Who Killed Kennedy). The Doctor has a vague memory of Daleks connected to a cricket match (The Daleks’ Master Plan). As well, there are many references to previous Cybermen stories, many of which have timeline conflicts that are subject to some efforts at reconciliation.

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Overall: Not bad, and I’d even go so far as to agree with the Discontinuity Guide in calling it underrated. The author is an occasional Classic Series actor, having played a Cyberman on a few occasions, and has a great interest in and detailed knowledge of the Cybermen and their history. It shows, as this book makes them a more visceral enemy than their Classic Series television appearances; there’s more of the body horror that we see in NuWho and Torchwood, where we actually witness transformations in progress. It’s worth it just for that; and it’s a nice break, as well, before we dive back into the mess that is Ace and Benny’s relationship (and the Doctor’s, with both of them).

Next time: We sidestep into an alternate universe in Blood Heat, by Jim Mortimore! See you there.

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

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Novel Review: Birthright

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today, we continue catching up on the Virgin New Adventures line (VNAS, hereafter) featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Bernice Summerfield. Today we’ll be looking at Birthright by Nigel Robinson, published in August 1993.

I mentioned last time that I find myself in a combination of conflicting factors. For one, I dropped this line for some time due to burnout, meaning I’m further behind than I meant to be. For another, in the month of September I read a number of VNAs without posting any reviews, meaning I’m now behind on both reading and reviewing. As a result, these reviews (until I’m caught up) will be shorter than usual, less involved. I hope you’ll stick around anyway.

And finally, as always, there will be spoilers ahead! Granted, they’re spoilers for a book that is two and a half decades old, but, read at your own risk. Let’s get started!

Birthright cover

Picking up after the events of Shadowmind, we continue what I have informally dubbed the “holiday tetralogy”, wherein the Doctor really just wants a vacation. I don’t blame him; no one in the current TARDIS crew seems able to get along, nor to work through their own issues, and that includes the Doctor. He’s going to get it, too, whether his companions like it or not.

This book and the next, Iceberg, follow a pattern that ought to be familiar with viewers of the modern series: A “Doctor-lite” story, followed by a “companion-lite” story. The two stories take place at the same time (as much as any time travel story can be described in that way), at least from the perspective of our main characters. Here, we follow Benny for about two-thirds of the novel, and then incorporate Ace’s perspective. After experiencing a catastrophic event in the TARDIS, Benny finds herself stranded in 1909 London, where a serial killer is eviscerating young women. Ace lands on the planet Antykhon in the approximate year 22,000, where she finds humanlike survivors waging a resistance war against the ruling, insectoid Charrl, the reputed most noble race in the universe. There, an old hermit named Muldwych assists the queen of the Charrl in her efforts to transport her race through time to twentieth-century London; and all he needs is a missing piece of the TARDIS. The Doctor, of course, would know what to do—if he could be found.

I mentioned previously that we were embarking on what I consider a lackluster stretch of the VNAs, and that is true. It’s a sequence that highlights several plot and character elements that become so repetitive as to be tropes of the series, especially as relates to the relationship between Benny and Ace. But, in the interest of fairness, I did enjoy this book, once it got going. It, alone of this stretch of entries, tries to subvert some of those tropes; for example, instead of locking Benny up (or otherwise disposing of her) for two-thirds of the story, it puts her in the spotlight, allowing her some much-needed character moments. Of course, the downside is that now Ace is out of the picture; no one seems to be able to do justice to both characters together. We do, unfortunately, continue the trend of catastrophically removing the TARDIS from the story (though it’s not as egregious as what’s going to happen in Blood Heat when we get there!).

I liked the Charrl and their queen, Ch’tizz, as villains, largely because they don’t want to be villains; they feel driven to it by the threat of extinction. Their world, Antykhon (which has its own secrets that I won’t spoil), is a colony world that turned out to be hostile to their form of life; within a few centuries they will be extinct. This, in turn, drives Ch’tizz to strike a bargain with the hermit Muldwych to take them away somewhere safe, in exchange for his own freedom. On the other hand, the point is driven home many times that the Charrl are the most noble, most beautiful, most peaceful, most creative race the universe will ever know—a point which seems unlikely enough, but even the Doctor makes it, in his brief appearance at the end. I could have done without this particular bit of trivia, especially on repeat. The secondary villain, Ch’tizz’s human agent Jared Khan, was much more forgettable; there’s a hint of an interesting backstory involving the Doctor, but little is done with it. He could have been removed from the story with no great impact.

Of much more interest to me is Muldwych the hermit. As this isn’t addressed in this novel, I don’t consider this a spoiler; but other materials make it clear that he is a future incarnation of the Doctor, albeit a very odd once. It seems that he may be the incarnation that earned the “Merlin” moniker in Battlefield (although other incarnations have also been known by that name). Although he has made other, subsequent appearances, which confirm his connection to the Doctor, the wiki indicates that Nigel Robinson did not intend for Muldwych to be Merlin (and therefore presumably not the Doctor either). Indeed, the Doctor interacts with him here, and speaks of him familiarly as though they have met before; this would seem to imply they are not the same, as if he were a future incarnation, the Seventh Doctor should not be able to remember any past encounters with Muldwych. Muldwych is cantankerous, devious, and far less moral than the Doctor, and seems to have developed a strong sense of self-interest; so I’m interested to see how he is portrayed in later entries.

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Continuity References: We’re swimming in them today! It’s still some distance ahead of us, so I’ll go ahead and say that the Charrl and Muldwych will appear again in Happy Endings. Muldwych refers to 699 Wonders of the Universe; the 700th was destroyed in Death to the Daleks. Muldwych quotes the Fifth Doctor on the subject of tea, calling it “a noxious infusion of dried leaves” (The Awakening). Jared Khan, while following the Doctor through several hundred years of Earth history, ends up in the court of Kublai Khan (Marco Polo), and just misses the Doctor at Culloden in 1746 (The Highlanders). Muldwych recommends Madame Bovary to Ace via the Doctor, as a hint toward an as-yet-undefined future related to events of The Curse of Fenric (I admit this one is a stretch for me; I’m pulling that information from the Discontinuity Guide for this story, but I don’t personally know all the links in this chain of events yet). The TARDIS performs a time ram on part of itself, as first described in The Time Monster; this results in the famous Tunguska event, a massive explosion over Siberia. The character of Margaret is an aunt to Victoria Waterfield (The Evil of the Daleks); Ernie Wright, meanwhile, is implied to be Barbara’s grandfather (An Unearthly Child, et al). There is a bank account holding a large amount of money for use by the Doctor’s companions in emergencies; its five co-signatories are Benny, Victoria Waterfield (The Evil of the Daleks), Susan Foreman (An Unearthly Child), Sarah Jane Smith (The Time Warrior), and Melanie Bush (Terror of the Vervoids). And many more: for time’s sake, I’ll quote the Discontinuity Guide:

The Time Vector Generator first appeared in The Wheel in Space. The Cloister Bell rings again (Logopolis). There is a reference to the Seven Planets (The Pit). The Doctor mentions Susan. He has told Bernice, “sleep is for tortoises” (The Talons of Weng-Chiang) and has told Ace about the Wirrn (The Ark in Space). He mentions the Eye of Orion (The Five Doctors). Deaths for which the Doctor is held responsible include Adric’s (Earthshock), Katarina’s and Sara Kingdom’s (The Daleks’ Master Plan), Sorin’s (The Curse of Fenric), Julian’s (Love and War), and Raphael’s (Timewyrm: Apocalypse). There are references to Draconians (Frontier in Space), Hoothi (Love and War), Special Weapons Daleks (Remembrance of the Daleks), Karn and the Elixir of Life (The Brain of Morbius), Mondas (The Tenth Planet), Rassilon, Jan and Heaven (Love and War), Cybermen, Lady Peinforte and Richard (Silver Nemesis), Ace’s trip through a time storm to Svartos (Dragonfire), the Hand of Omega (Remembrance of the Daleks), Vicki, Steven, Nyssa, and Peri.

Overall: I actually wanted to hate this one, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a nice break in the midst of a lot of repetition. Just by nature, the next book will be similar, as it’s hard to have tropes about the companions without the companions. In a very real sense, the two books are halves of a whole. After that it will be back to business as usual for five books at least. Doctor-Lite and Companion-Lite are formats that I hope we see again in the novels.

Next time: We’ll get the rest of the story in Iceberg, by David Banks! See you there.

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

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Novel Review: Shadowmind

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today, we’re picking up the lost threads of our tour of the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs, hereafter), the Seventh Doctor novels published between the cancellation of the classic series and the release of the 1996 television movie. When last we met, we looked at the fifteenth (of sixty-one) entries in the series, White Darkness; today we pick up with Shadowmind, by Christopher Bulis, published in July 1993.

Shadowmind cover

I’ll confess to having dropped this series for some time—in fact, I had unintentionally taken a hiatus from all my review efforts (appropriate, given that these books were published while the series was on hiatus). What can I say; I was getting burned out. There’s a wealth of Doctor Who material, and after awhile it begins to be too much to keep track of. But that in no way means my enthusiasm for the series is diminished! And so, here we are, getting back on track (hopefully). I will say, however, that due to time constraints—as I have a number of time-consuming things going on in my offline life right now—these next reviews will be brief, more mini-reviews than full reviews, at least until I’ve caught up with my reading. Still, I hope you’ll stick around.

As usual, there are spoilers ahead (for a twenty-six year old book)! While the reduced size of this entry will preclude a full plot summary, it is really impossible to discuss details of a story without some spoilers. Read at your own risk (but I hope you will anyway). And with that said, let’s get started!

I mentioned last time—a very long time ago—that the previous book started an informal “holiday tetralogy”, in which the Doctor tries, unsuccessfully, to take a vacation, either with or without his companions. Here he continues his efforts, and they seem to be successful…for about five minutes, anyway. Visiting the established colony world of Tairngire in 2673, the Doctor, Bernice, and Ace spend a few minutes wandering peaceful sculpture gardens…before getting caught up in a disaster in progress. They are quickly drafted into the efforts to save Tairngire from an unknown, extraplanetary assailant. It becomes evident that the assault is centered on the nearby world of Arden, a newly-planted colony world that is inhabited by the indigenous Shenn, a race of telepathic squirrel-like creatures that exist in the form of group minds. The Shenn have the ability to create organic duplicates of anyone they choose, and thus have infiltrated Tairngire…but to what end? And who is controlling the Shenn?

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We’re embarking on a lackluster stretch of novels. For some time now, the VNAs have been a bit repetitive; there are certain plot points that get touched upon over and over. Ace (when she’s present) grapples with her time in Spacefleet much as she used to grapple with her family history; she’s a soldier now, and a brutal one at that, which brings her into conflict with both the Doctor and Bernice. Benny often gets kidnapped, tied up, drugged, or otherwise put aside; it sometimes seems that the authors don’t yet know what to do with her. The Doctor is both angsty and mysterious, and never quite puts his cards on the table, even among friends. Something bad happens to the TARDIS (not in every story, but nearly every one). We delve into the Doctor’s past lives. I believe that it wouldn’t have been so obvious to someone reading the VNAs as they released; but here, with the ability to binge-read portions of the series, it’s very plain. Some novels—The Pit and Lucifer Rising come to mind—are downright painful to read. (Apologies if that varies from what I said in the reviews of those novels; I like to be as optimistic as I can, and sometimes it’s only later that the flaws sink in.)

So, with that in mind, I’m pleased to say that Shadowmind is…well, acceptable. It’s neither great nor terrible. It’s good, middle-of-the-road Doctor Who. That’s a bit of a relief after the aforementioned Lucifer Rising; in fact, we’ve now had two decent stories in a row, with White Darkness preceding Shadowmind. I find this novel to be engaging, but a bit long for its material; it’s fun, with only a little of the introspection and navel-gazing of the novels before and after. (Literal navel-gazing in some cases; the Brigadier will use that very phrase in reference to Buddhist meditation in the upcoming No Future.) We get an interesting enemy in the Shenn and their patron, Umbra (I won’t spoil just what Umbra is); we’ve had group minds before, but here they actually have personality, and try to be as human as possible (for the sake of the humans they’re encountering). Ace is still in her struggling ex-soldier phase, but her actions are more sensible here than in some of the upcoming entries; her struggle is on the surface, and she’s trying to get along with the Doctor and Benny. Benny gets a taste of the military life herself, which will also come up again in No Future; she handles it decently here. This story is kind to her, in that she doesn’t get her usual level of abuse. The Doctor is at least not being particularly deceptive to his companions, though we do see him reiterate his pattern of not telling his secrets until after it’s all over (specifically so that the enemy won’t overhear). Still, the stresses among the TARDIS crew are showing, and they will only get worse from here—at least, for the next half-dozen entries. (I’m hoping for good things after No Future. Really I am. Or maybe I’m just naïve.)

Continuity references: Bernice makes a reference back to the events of the previous adventure, referring to it as “Club Zombie” (White Darkness). The local government, the Concordance, has access to records of the Doctor all the way back to his time with UNIT and his negotiations in the Human-Draconian War (Frontier in SpacePlanet of the Daleks, et al). While navigating visions of the Doctor’s past, Benny sees the First Doctor, and the Doctor refers to her as Barbara and to Ace as Susan (An Unearthly Child, et al). The Doctor name-drops Marco Polo (Marco Polo). Various mentions are made of Jan, Ace’s fallen love interest (Love and War), Iceworld (Dragonfire), various UNIT-era enemies: Daleks (Day of the Daleks, et al), Cybermen (The Invasion, et al), Yeti (The Abominable SnowmenThe Web of Fear), Autons (Spearhead from Space, *Terror of the Autons), and Ice Warriors (not directly UNIT, but The Curse of Peladon).

Overall, not a bad story by any means, but not the most outstanding one either. I’ll take it; it’s going to get worse before it gets better. If you’re reading the VNAs, but only hitting the highlights, you should include Shadowmind for its decent overview of the issues the Doctor and his companions are going to have over the next several novels; after that, if you like, you can skip to No Future without great consequences (though I hope you won’t skip my reviews of them!).

Next time: The Doctor finally gets his vacation, leaving Benny and Ace to fend for themselves in Birthright! See you there.

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

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

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

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

With that said, let’s get started!

Mild Curiosities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the grease, Ian suddenly remembers.

This is a rendering plant. For whale oil.

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

Now this is a blaze!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Novel Review: White Darkness

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the New Adventures line of Seventh Doctor novels, with the fifteenth entry, David A. MacIntee’s White Darkness. Published in June 1993, this novel weighs in at 244 pages, and is MacIntee’s first contribution to the Doctor Who universe. Let’s get started!

white darkness cover

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

After events at Lucifer were a bust, the Doctor is ready for a break. He attempts to take Ace and Benny to Key West, Florida, 1915; but as usual, his aim is…less than stellar. Instead, the group ends up in Haiti, 1915, which may as well be a world away from Florida. The island is ruled by the despotic President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, but his reign is under threat by General Rosalvo Bobo, the leader of a popular rebellion—nothing new in Haiti, but the timing is unfortunate, as both the Germans and the Americans have a vested interest in the tiny nation. The Doctor and his companions are pulled in when they stumble upon some mutilated bodies, and are taken in for questioning from General Etienne, who is loyal to President Sam.

The Doctor quickly takes charge of the situation, and ingratiates himself with the group’s guard, Captain Eugene Petion. He begins an investigation into the deaths, but moreover, into rumors of the dead rising; Haiti has long had talk, and sometimes more than talk, of zombis, but this seems out of proportion. He does not realize just how deep the web goes: for the Haitians are not the only ones present. The Germans have a hidden base on the island, in which they have allied themselves with a houngan named Lemaitre, or Mait for short; Mait’s underlings: the assassin Carrefour, the vodoun bocor Henri, and an American military attache—and devoted killer—named Richmann. With their help, the Germans are seeking to industrialize the ancient arts and potions that the locals use to create zombis, giving them a mass-produced weapon that will bring the war in Europe to a standstill—in Germany’s favor. As well, the American Marines under Admiral Caperton wait at nearby Cuba, poised to invade at a moment’s notice.

The Doctor senses odd telepathic whispers, which lead him to the local university and a doctor named Howard Philips. Philips, in addition to performing the autopsies on the original bodies, has long been researching the zombie tradition; and also, he has found something stranger still. He tells the Doctor of carved stones—now located in the university museum—that seem to date back much, much further than even the existence of humans, and which radiate a strange power. The Doctor sends Benny to investigate the stones; but she is captured by Henri, and taken away to be made into a zombi herself. Mait, fearing the interlopers’ influence, orders General Bobo to begin his attack on the palace. Ace returns with Petion to move the TARDIS to a new location, but they are attacked while en route; she manages to get them inside and pilot the ship to a safe location as instructed. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Philips try to return to the hospital, but are ambushed unsuccessfully by Richmann. Bobo and his men attack the palace, and Sam commits suicide (later to be believed an assassination). Meanwhile, the Marines, seeing their opportunity, invade the island to restore order. The Doctor quickly works his way into their ranks, and begins using them for his own purposes.

Benny awakens and escapes, only to find herself in the underground German base. She learns of their plan to use the mass-produced chemicals, and then escapes through a tunnel to the sea, coming ashore just in time to be picked up by the Marines. Meanwhile, General Etienne is killed by Carrefour.

The Doctor has learned of an upcoming ceremony in a nearby cemetery, to be conducted at midnight, and enlists the Marines to prevent it. He reconnects with Ace, Benny, and Petion—but he will need additional help. He meets and recruits another houngan, Dubois, who is also an Empereur of the Bizango, the island’s de facto council of houngans, who serve as a sort of unofficial law enforcement and court. With Dubois and the others, he visits Lemaitre’s villa, and destroys his vodoun workshop; he also finds a device that is used for amplifying telepathic signals. The device is Mait’s instrument for controlling his new breed of zombis. The Doctor doesn’t destroy it, but alters it to trap Mait’s mind and concentration—but unknowingly, he leaves an echo of his own memory in the device. He also realizes what is happening behind the scenes: Lemaitre serves the Old Ones, beings from before the dawn of the universe, who are disembodied—but who are using Mait and his upcoming ceremony to restore themselves to physical form. As well, the German plan will create an army of slaves for the Old Ones. The battle to end the ceremony just became much more urgent.

Hearing of the explosion of his workshop, Mait and Henri hurry back to the villa, where Mait is quickly trapped by the device. However, Henri frees him, and Mait gains a glimpse of the Doctor’s nature and plans. He sends Richmann to stop them at the cemetery, but the Doctor manages to convince Richmann he and the Germans are being betrayed by Mait. Richmann takes the Doctor to the base, but Mait intercepts him and interrogates him, unsuccessfully. When he leaves, the Doctor escapes, and plants explosives around the base and on a loaded transport ship, planning to destroy the chemicals. Meanwhile Ace, Petion, and Benny return to the cemetery with the Marines and their leader, Mortimer; but Mortimer holds out too long before attacking, allowing Mait to store sufficient telepathic energy in his device to complete the ritual on his own. He, Henri, Carrefour, and Richmann escape and retreat to the base, with Ace and the others in pursuit. Ace demolishes the door of the base, and the Marines invade it, joining battle with the Germans. Meanwhile, Richmann lashes out and kills Henri.

The Doctor chases Mait toward the lowest chamber, where the Old One’s body is buried, sending Benny to keep the Germans busy. She is captured by Richmann and Carrefour; but Carrefour has a crisis of memory, and takes out his long-delayed anger on Richmann. Richmann prevails and kills Carrefour, chasing the now-escaping Benny. En route he encounters Ace and Petion; and when he shoots Petion, Ace kills him with great prejudice. Mortimer is also killed in the fighting.

The Doctor manages to reach the chamber ahead of Mait, where he finds—and sabotages—a scaled-up version of the mind device. He also plants explosives with motion sensors behind him as he leaves, to bring down the tunnels. He encounters Lemaitre, and tries to talk him down; but Mait pushes past him, triggering the sensors and destroying the tunnels, killing himself. The Doctor heads back to the docking cavern and starts an evacuation—and just in time, as the hidden explosives detonate, bringing the project to an end.

In the end, the Doctor recovers the TARDIS, and the group moves on. The Marines, as history shows, will take control of the island, leading to the next chapter in its history. Petion will survive, though he will lose an arm. But the biggest shock is for Ace, who is confronted with the fact that in her last three years she has become a killer—perhaps not so different from Richmann. That is a fate she abhors, but can she still escape it?

White Darkness back cover

I’ve come to informally think of this book as the first in the “holiday tetralogy” (not an official designation, of course). After several difficult adventures, the Doctor makes attempts, over this and the next three books (ShadowmindBirthright, and Iceberg) to take his companions on a restful holiday…with predictably terrible results. Some people just can’t catch a break. At any rate, this book represents one of Doctor Who’s occasional takes on the classic zombie story—and literally, as these are traditional Haitian “zombis”, as it should properly be spelled.

Speaking of those who can’t catch a break, this is another entry in the now-well established tradition of doing terrible things to Bernice “Benny” Summerfield. Here, Benny gets a taste of what it’s like to become a zombi, though she thankfully recovers and escapes before it can be made permanent. She gives as good as she gets, several times fighting off various attackers and captors; but still, no one else seems to get into these situations in the first place. Maybe in the next book… (hint hint, Ace). Benny has had a tougher time since Ace returned; for one, the two women do not always get along; and for another, it’s hard to make anyone look tough beside hard-as-steel Spacefleet-era Ace. It will take a few more books to begin to balance things between them.

At the same time, this is Ace’s story too. When we last saw her, she was in full vengeful Spacefleet mode, taking out her long-delayed wrath on the Doctor and everyone else. Now that she’s got that out of her system, we’re slowly going to see her new persona get deconstructed; and it begins here, as she has to face the killer she’s become. The character of American assassin Richmann is otherwise extraneous to the story; but he’s here to show Ace what she’ll become if she doesn’t get a grip on herself and her future. I find that interesting, because Ace’s arc throughout the television series and early VNA novels was always about getting a grip on her past; now she’s shifted to look ahead. Meanwhile, Benny is the one focused on the past—specifically the matter of her father, though it will be a very long time before that thread comes to fruition.

Although this book itself is sunny enough, it must be pointed out that it occurs at a dark moment in history. The war in Europe—that would one day be called World War I—rages on; and Haiti is in a period of upheaval. It is, unfortunately, also a very racist time in the Western Hemisphere. The book doesn’t shy away from accurately describing the situation; characters sometimes use the word “nigger” and other insulting terms (not our heroes, thankfully), and the whole phenomenon of the racist relations between groups is on display. I was surprised that things were as explicit as they were; books today would tend, I think, to acknowledge the situation in info-dumps, but gloss over it in dialogue. There’s none of that here, and I can’t help wondering if the book would be rejected today. Certainly a story like this wouldn’t make it onto the television series, with family viewing at stake. Essentially it’s a gritty story set in a beautiful environment, and the contrast is jarring but satisfying.

Continuity references: The Doctor mentions having learned hypnotism from the Master—not by name, but by description, and not from any specific story. He wears the brooch given to him by Cameca in The Aztecs, and comments on the situation as a possible turning point in his character. In the same passage, he mentions Ian and Barbara’s return home (The Chase). It’s worth noting—though not mentioned here—that the First Doctor sold it for clothing in The Suffering, published sometime later; he seems to have recovered it. It will materialize again later in Relative Dimensions, as the Eighth Doctor gives it to Susan. The Doctor mentions his time as President of Gallifrey (The Invasion of Time, et al). He is reminded of his experience at the Dark Tower in The Five Doctors. He mentions hearing telepathic whispers (The Pirate Planet). He mentions wishing he had built another K9 (various stories). The HADS is mentioned (The Krotons, et al). The TARDIS translation feature works only erratically here (various stories). Ace mentions injuries from big cats, probably the Cheetah People (survival). Several figures, too common to name particular stories, are mentioned: Davros, the Brigadier, Bessie, Draconians, Centaurans, the Daleks. Drug use for mind control, seen here, is very similar to that used by the Usurians as mentioned in *The Sun Makers. The later novel All-Consuming Fire will indicate that the Old One featured here is Cthulhu, from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos series. Slightly unrelated, but I should point out as well that “Lemaitre” is French for “the Master”, though this is only an inside joke; the character is not the Time Lord by that name.

There is also a prelude to the story, available here. In it, Paul Richmann returns to his childhood home to kill an old man, presumably his grandfather, in the wake of his mother’s death (possibly at the old man’s hands). He takes a pocketwatch from the man, which is later lost in Haiti. Many years later, the Third Doctor—joining the Brigadier on an excursion for the American government—finds the pocketwatch, and feels something from it, before burying it again. I admit that I didn’t read the prelude before the novel; I didn’t discover its existence until afterward. However, you can read it at the above link.

Overall: I first stated this book more than a year ago, but couldn’t get into it, and put it aside. On a second reading, it was much better; a bit of a slow starter, as there are many pieces to be placed on the board here. However, once it picked up, I had to finish it. While I don’t know that I would call many of the VNAs essential yet, I will say that this book represents the start of a turning point in the relationships among the Doctor, Benny, and Ace. It’s a fresh start, of sorts, and I’m curious to see where it leads.

Next time: Shadowmind, the first Doctor Who novel by prolific author Christopher Bulis! See you there.

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

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Novel Review: Lucifer Rising, by Jim Mortimore and Andy Lane

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today we’re picking up an older thread from this series: The New Adventures line of Seventh Doctor novels, published by Virgin Publishing (series sometimes abbreviated as “VNAs”). It’s been awhile since our last visit here—almost two years, in fact, when we examined the thirteenth entry, series editor Peter Darvill-Evans’s 1993 novel, Deceit. I should point out that this is one of the hazards of tracking the Doctor Who universe: There’s so much material to cover, in so many ranges and media, that it’s easy to let a series lapse for far too long. But today, we’re making a course correction, so, welcome back!

Now, a confession: As I moved to pick up this series, I realized that I completed the next novel long ago, but failed to post about it at the time. I’m picking up that lost entry today, but it will be a bit of a rush job; I have various resources to jog my memory, but the material isn’t exactly fresh after nearly two years. As well, I’ll admit to being in a hurry to move on to more recent reading. So, today we’re looking at May 1993’s Lucifer Rising, by Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore. Let’s get started!

Lucifer Rising front cover

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

The Doctor, Bernice Summerfield, and the recently-returned Ace McShane arrive on the Project Eden station above the planet Lucifer, and almost mysteriously begin to insinuate themselves among the crew. One of the Project’s team members—Paula Engado, daughter of mission commander Miles Engado—has just died by re-entry, falling into Lucifer’s atmosphere in a starsuit—but unknown to anyone, she saw angels as she died. Miles summons an adjudicator to investigate the death. As the Adjudicator arrives, the team’s mission continues: to research and lay bare the mysteries of Lucifer and its rather odd star system, centered on a strange subsurface power transmission facility dubbed the “mushroom farm”. More deaths occur, along with acts of sabotage—and it seems that Ace, or perhaps the Doctor, may be responsible. Miles slowly loses his mind in the course of his grief, and tries to commit suicide in the same manner as Paula’s death; but he is rescued by Paula’s spirit, accompanied by the angels. The Doctor convinces the Adjudicator of his innocence, and sides with him to help stop a rogue scientist, Bannen, from taking control of the mushroom farm and destroying the system in his ignorance. As the system is activated, the planet’s atmosphere is torn away into black holes. Ace reveals that she manipulated the Doctor into coming here as part of a mission left from her days in Spacefleet; in the twenty-sixth century, there is an exclusion zone around the Lucifer system, and she wants to know why. That portion of the system’s history is about to begin, and she intends to witness it. The Adjudicator is killed by a strange being, and the Doctor kills it in turn, realizing that he has himself been too often guilty of manipulation. He sends the crew away in the Adjudicator’s shuttle, and takes Ace and Bernice to confront Bannen in the mushroom farm. The farm is revealed to control morphic fields, energy fields that shape biology—but the system is now running out of control due to sabotage to its feedback mechanism. The Doctor joins hands with Bernice, Ace, and Bannen, fusing together in the face of the morphic fields, but—through their dreams—providing the necessary feedback to shut down the system. Bannen becomes the new feedback mechanism for the system, and the Doctor and his companions are restored to normal. They depart—and as history demands, the system’s exclusion zone is complete. Later, the Doctor and his friends join Miles on Earth to honor Paula’s memory.

warhead-3

Up front, I’ll say I found Lucifer Rising to be a difficult read. It’s a good story, to be sure, and replete with the weirdness and technobabble that I sometimes expect from Doctor Who; but it takes a long time to get to the point. More than that, the story jumps around quite a bit, with little explanation between leaps. Perhaps the most immersion-breaking moment for me was near the beginning; the body of the story opens in media res, with the Doctor and his companions already having been present on the Eden Project space station for some time, and no one thinking this is odd! In fact, several of the crew find themselves wondering if the Doctor and his friends had been there all along, or were part of the crew. It’s been awhile, but I don’t remember any proper explanation for this phenomenon (something something telepathic circuits, maybe?), and I don’t recall seeing this happen in any other story. I’m accustomed to the Doctor having to smooth-talk his way into a situation. Mysterious, indeed!

I haven’t looked deeply into the behind-the-scenes aspects of the production of the New Adventures; but I think it’s telling that the previous novel was written by series editor Peter Darvill-Evans. It seems to have been a course correction of sorts for Ace, who returned therein after three novels away. For the Doctor, that’s been a fairly straightforward time, perhaps a few months at most, but for Ace it’s been three years—and not just any three years, but three years of enlistment in Earth’s Spacefleet. She comes back hard as nails, bitter and angry, and dangerous. Jim Mortimore and Andy Lane double down on that here, and has Ace be the manipulator as well, tricking the Doctor into bringing her here to complete a final Spacefleet mission. I don’t know yet how far this new Ace will go; but she won’t show the first signs of her old, happier personality returning until we get to Shadowmind, a few more books ahead.

Bernice, meanwhile, can’t catch a break, and there’s no sign of any change in the near future. She seems to exist only to have brushes with death, and has several here; otherwise she spends most of her time in the way. I feel bad for her; she has so much potential as a companion—and obviously things must get better at some point, as she takes over as the lead character of the New Adventures after the licensing of the Doctor expires. So far, though, she’s essentially disaster bait, and never accomplishes much. Spoiler alert: That’s not going to change in the near future.

We get introduced to the Guild of Adjudicators here, from which future companions Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej will spring. The Guild was mentioned as far back as Colony in Space, but their first onscreen appearance is here, in the form of the dour and analytical Adjudicator Bishop. Bishop is a bit trigger-happy, and spends a considerable amount of time coming to the wrong conclusions; but I like the guy, and was disappointed to see him meet a bad end. (Not much of a spoiler, that; deaths are like pennies in the New Adventures, they’re everywhere.) We’ll see more of the guild later, of course, but this book does a decent job of setting the tone for them: even Bernice, in the future, is familiar with them, and isn’t a fan.

Continuity References: Quite a few, actually! The starship Hydrax (State of Decay) gets a mention, as one Project Eden scientist, Piper O’Rourke, had a husband, Ben O’Rourke, serving aboard that ship when it vanished. This also gives a timeframe for the disappearance of the Hydrax, as Lucifer Risingtakes place in 2157. Ace refers back to several past stories, including Deceit (mentioning a ship, the Admiral Raistrick, on which she served), Dragonfire(mentioning being from Perivale), Love and War(her love interest Jan, and her earlier love interest Julian), and—indirectly–Colony in Space(mentioning IMC being aware of the Third Doctor and Jo Grant by way of that story). She also dreams of the death of her father, addressed in Rapture. Bernice also mentions Love and War by repeating the story of her father’s disappearance in the Second Dalek War. The Doctor dreams about the hermit on Mount Cadon on Galifrey (The Time Monster), and mentions having spared Davros (and thus condemned billions) (Genesis of the Daleks). This story occurs during—but at a distance from—the Dalek invasion of Earth in 2157, and the Doctor gives Piper the packet of powder that his first incarnation will then use on Earth in defeating the invasion force. Oddly, though, no direct mention of the invasion is made, although it is indicated that they are destroying Earth colonies on a possible track to Earth. The Doctor mentions Orcini from Revelation of the Daleks. The honorific terms Krauand Trau, last heard in The Caves of Androzani, are used here. Ace mentions having stolen the energy packs from a Special Weapons Dalek, last seen in Remembrance of the Daleks. Also, the Doctor mentions his age, claiming to be 943 years old.

A prologue to the story was published in DWM 199, pictured below.

Lucifer Rising prologue

Worth mentioning is that, allegedly, Virgin Books was looking into a possible regeneration for the Doctor, which would have seen his eighth incarnation resembling David Troughton. These plans were being laid at the time of this book’s writing, although it does not directly reference them. Eventually the plans were scrapped, and the 1996 movie, just three years later, would give us the now-accepted regeneration into the Eighth Doctor.

Overall: A good story, with lots of good material, but unfortunately fractured in its execution. It also perhaps goes on a little too long. I may be a bit biased; at the time I read it, I was fairly burnt out on the New Adventures, and this novel had much to do with that. Nevertheless, if you’re coming into it fresh, you will most likely enjoy it.

Next time: I’ve picked up the series again, and we’ll begin with David A. McIntee’s White Darkness! See you there.

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

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Audio Drama Review: Zagreus

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today—finally—we have reached the fiftieth entry in the main range, which also serves as Doctor Who’s fortieth anniversary story: Zagreus, written by Alan Barnes and Gary Russell. The story was released in November 2003, fifteen years ago as I write this review, and was directed by Gary Russell. It featured every Doctor and companion actor to have performed in Big Finish’s productions to date, although nearly all appeared in new roles here. The story is famously bizarre and trippy; and, well, I will say up front that the rumors are both correct and unable to do it justice. I can’t promise that anything I say here will do it justice, either; it’s hard to even wrap your head around a story like this, let alone sum it up. Nevertheless, we’ll give it a try. Let’s dig in!

Zagreus 1

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

Due to the extreme length and detail of this story, I’m going to break my own pattern today and leave out the usual plot summary. Several good summaries already exist; therefore I will point you to the summary that can be found at the TARDIS wiki, or the summary at the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Zagreus 2

Yep, it’s exactly this weird. Credit to Roger Langridge, DWM 340.

Despite having discussed it many times on the /r/Gallifrey subreddit, and despite having listened to the audio dramas that lead up to it, I still didn’t truly know what I was getting into with Zagreus. For one thing, the story is very long; it’s the longest entry to date in the main range, at three hours and fifty-six minutes, and the second longest in all of BF’s Doctor Who audio dramas. (Only UNIT: Dominion–which is excellent, and which I hope to cover eventually—is longer, by a measly two minutes.) If the average main range audio is a serial, and the average Eighth Doctor Adventures story is a NuWho episode, then Zagreus is a feature film, or possibly a trilogy of films. For another thing, the story takes many familiar actors and scrambles them like eggs (via new roles); the resulting omelette is…well, it is definitely different.

Zagreus picks up where Neverland–which feels like a very long time ago to me; I covered it more than a year and a half ago)–left off, just after the TARDIS and the Doctor absorb the explosion of the anti-time casket. This transforms the Doctor’s mind into a strange, raging beast that takes the name and identity of the mythical Zagreus. Most of the story then proceeds inside the TARDIS, and also on a place called the Foundry of Rassilon, which is at least nominally located on Gallifrey. The Doctor, Zagreus, and the TARDIS all battle their respective foes and selves to establish their identities. At the end, it is discovered that there is another hand at work in these events; and in the end, the characters are—for the most part—saved from destruction. However, the Doctor still is not rid of the anti-time infection; and he cannot be allowed out into the universe any longer. If he makes contact with the normal universe, the infection will escape, and bring all of time to an end (or worse: a state of never having been). Instead, he chooses exile in the anti-time universe, called hereafter the Divergent Universe after the name of its dominant species, the Divergence. Unknown to him, Charley Pollard chooses to go with him.

Most actors appear in different roles, as I have mentioned; but a few appear as their usual characters. Lalla Ward appears as President Romana; Louise Jameson appears as Leela; John Leeson, as K9 (Romana’s K9, in this instance; Leela and Sarah Jane, of course, have their own, who do not appear here). Miles Richardson appears very briefly as Cardinal Braxiatel, and Don Warrington appears as Rassilon. Charley Pollard is the true central character of the story, and as such, India Fisher appears in her usual role; and Nicholas Courtney, while not appearing as the actual Brigadier, appears as a simulation thereof. As well, posthumous voice clips of Jon Pertwee (taken from the Devious fan production) were used to reproduce the voice of the Third Doctor, though he does not appear corporeally in this story. The entire cast, with roles, can be found on the story pages for Zagreus at the TARDIS wiki and at Big Finish’s site. Of special interest is that Big Finish’s site does not credit Paul McGann as the Doctor, but only as Zagreus, though he fills both roles. This is the first appearance in audio of both Leela and K9, though both will go on to figure prominently in the Gallifrey series and other places. Likewise, Braxiatel appears for the first—and only—time in the main range here, though he too will appear in Gallifrey. The story is a three-parter, and only four actors—Peter Davison, Nicholas Courtney, India Fisher, and Paul McGann—appear in all three parts. More sadly, it is Elizabeth Sladen’s only appearance in the main range, and her only work with any of the Doctor actors in Big Finish, due to her untimely death.

I’ve described this story as trippy, but I don’t want to give the impression that it’s hard to follow. It flows very directly, with two parallel plot threads (one for the Doctor/Zagreus, one for Charley). However, the story is filled with mindscapes and illusions and visitations by past Doctors; in that sense, it can be thought of as a sort of bookend for The Eight Doctors. Both the Doctor and Charley are subject to these visions; and, given that they provide the viewpoints for the story, it becomes a little difficult to know what is real and what isn’t. (Here’s the cheater’s version: almost everything in parts one and two is illusory—though valid and important; there are few red herrings here—while part three is reality.) At first the story feels as though it’s wandering; it tells several narratives that don’t seem to be related to anything. I didn’t have any trouble maintaining interest, though, as each narrative is well-told and interesting enough on its own. Soon enough, they all come together, as Zagreus—the monster, not the story—reaches its endgame.

The problems, I think, are twofold. First and foremost: this story is not what we were promised. Not that I’m saying that we, the audience, were literally promised anything; but the lead-up in the various preceding stories would have suggested something much different than what we ultimately got. Zagreus is supposed to be a universe-ending monster that consumes the unsuspecting and undoes time itself; but when you consider that the entire story occurs within the confines of the TARDIS (or the second location, which is also confined), with no one in danger but the Doctor himself, it quickly becomes apparent that Zagreus is sort of a joke. Were he to be unleashed on the universe, he might become the promised monster; as it is, he’s a Schrodinger’s Cat of unrealized potential. Indeed, the story itself uses the same metaphor in part one, and it’s very apt. It subverts the usual Doctor Who trope of the universe-ending catastrophe, but it doesn’t feel clever for subverting it; it just feels like we were a bit cheated. The second problem is related: this is, for better or worse, an anniversary story; and we’ve come to expect something exceptional from an anniversary story. (Well, perhaps not as much as we expect it after The Day of the Doctor, but still…) As the Discontinuity Guide puts it: “Oh dear. An eighteen-month wait – for this!” I’m not sure what I would have done differently; but I certainly wasn’t expecting this.

Still, it’s not entirely out of step with Big Finish’s other stories; and we did just come off of a run of experimental stories. Perhaps Zagreus is best thought of as the last of those stories, rather than as an anniversary story; in that regard it fits right in. For me, the worst part is that I greatly suspect that Zagreus–the monster, not the story–will turn out to be forgotten and never mentioned again. You can’t just create a universe-ending threat and then pretend it didn’t happen–but it won’t be the first time, and I doubt it will be the last. So much wasted potential!

Continuity: There are a great many continuity references here, and I can’t be sure I’ve found or compiled them all. Charley has met the Brigadier before, in Minuet in Hell; Romana also has done so, in Heart of TARDIS. This story proposes that Romana and Leela are meeting for the first time; but this contradicts the events of Lungbarrow, which takes place at the end of the Seventh Doctor’s life, and which makes it clear that they have known each other on Gallifrey for some time. The Doctor refers to the TARDIS briefly as Bessie (last seen in Battlefield). The Doctor finds a copy of Through the Looking-Glass; Ace previously read it in Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible. There are hints that Project Dionysus (seen in one of the simulations) was under the auspices of the Forge (Project: Twilight, et al). The Brigadier paraphrases the Doctor from The Five Doctors regarding being the sum of one’s memories—a quote he shouldn’t know, but…spoilers! The Yssgaroth get a couple of mentions (State of DecayThe Pit). The Doctor sees a vision of the planet Oblivion (Oblivion), the Oracle on KS-159 (Tears of the Oracle), the removal of one of his hearts (The Adventuress of Henrietta Street) and a crystal Time Station (Sometime Never, and possibly Timeless). The effect of all of these latter visions is to place the novel series—from which all of them are drawn—in a separate continuity from the audios, which allows for various noted contradictions going forward. Likewise, another vision shows the Time Lords with great mental powers (Death Comes to Time).

The Sisterhood of Karn appears, though not by name (The Brain of Morbius, et al). The TARDIS has a history of generating sentient avatars (A Life of Matter and DeathThe Lying Old Witch in the Wardrobe). Gallifrey has a watchtower (The Final Chapter). The statue from Sivler Nemesis is mentioned, as well as Rassilon’s various accoutrements and the De-Mat Gun (The Invasion of Time). The Oubliette of Eternity is mentioned (Sisterhood of the Flame). Cardington appears in a vision (Storm Warning). The Doctor mentions meeting Rasputin (The WandererThe Wages of Sin). Charley mentions the Doctor escaping from Colditz Castle (Colditz), which she did not witness, but the Doctor has mentioned. The Doctor refers to John Polidori (Mary’s Story). Charley and Leela have met before, but do not remember (The Light at the End). The Fifth Doctor paraphrases the Fourth Doctor from Logopolis: “I very much fear that the moment’s not been prepared for.” The Tower of Rassilon appears, along with the Death Zone (The Five Doctors). Fifth Doctor lines from Warriors of the Deep and The Caves of Androzani are also quoted, as well the Seventh Doctor from Survival: “If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!” Gallfrey will in the future be empty (Dead RomanceHell Bent). The Doctor suggest that power will corrupt Romana; this comes true in The Shadows of Avalon. The Doctor mentions a beryllium clock (TV movie). Vortisaurs are mentioned (Storm Warning, et al). Transduction inducers are first mentioned in The Deadly Assassin. The Rassilon Imprimature—mentioned here, but not by name—is first mentioned in The Two Doctors. The TARDIS has a back door (LogopolisGenocide). Various monsters are mentioned in quick succession—Mandrells, Hypnotrons, Drashigs, Daleks, Yeti, Quarks.

Overall: Not a bad story. I enjoyed it quite well. On the other hand, it’s definitely not what I expected—if I expected anything. Certainly it feels more appropriate as an experimental story than as an anniversary story, as I mentioned. Most importantly, it serves to get the Doctor and Charley into the Divergent Universe, where they will spend the next several adventures. It’s a story I am glad to have heard once, but I probably won’t come back to it. Still, it’s unique, and I can’t say I regret it. Moving on!

Next time: Well, that was a lot to take in. We’ll take a break with the Sixth Doctor (and introduce another popular character, Iris Wildthyme!) in The Wormery. 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.

Zagreus

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