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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Audio Drama Review: Master

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Master, the forty-ninth entry in the Main Range, and also the penultimate entry in the tetralogy of villain-centered audios which ends with Zagreus. Released in October 2003 (just in time for Hallowe’en!), this story was directed by Gary Russell, and features Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and Geoffrey Beevers as the Master. Let’s get started!

Master 1

 

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

Trailer: A Doctor John Smith reads off a letter he is sending to some dear friends, inviting them to a celebratory dinner at his old and expansive manor house.

Part One: An old man awakens from a nightmare of evil voices promising death. Elsewhere, overlooking a parade and a large crowd, an assassin waits for his target. However, he is interrupted by the arrival of a strange little man, who offers him a story—and all the assassin must do is wait. The assassin begins to listen to the story:

In an imitation-Edwardian village called Perfugium, on a colony world of the same name, Dr. John Smith meets his guests at the door. They are Adjudicator/Inspector Victor Shaeffer and his wife, Jacqueline, who is a well-known philanthropist. They are met by John, and also by his maid, Jade. They talk of various local matters; but later, as Jacqueline goes in search of a kitchen knife to replace hers (which has gone missing), Victor reveals that there has been another murder. It is the latest in a series of murders of young women, mostly prostitutes, though this one was not. Victor is quite unsettled by the deaths,  They are interrupted by Jade’s cat. Meanwhile Jacqueline speaks harshly to Jade, assuming that Jade has romantic designs on John Smith. She reveals that John has amnesia, and doesn’t remember anything before his arrival here ten years earlier; she suspects an accident, perhaps fire, which would explain not only the amnesia, but the disfigurement of his face. Nevertheless Jade has no such designs. After dessert, Victor suddenly grows moody and has a brief outburst against John, which nearly turns to violence; but it passes, and the group returns to their talk. Jacqueline gives John a birthday present—a sort of primitive Ouija board. Against everyone’s better judgment, they try it out; it spells out the letters D-O-C-T-…and suddenly there is a crash of thunder, followed by two screams.

Part Two: One scream is Jacqueline; but the other is from a man outside the window. John and Victor bring him in, finding he was struck by lightning; he is incoherent at first. Meanwhile, the assassin argues briefly with the storyteller about the veracity of the story, before letting him continue. Victor and Jacqueline temporarily withdraw, letting John work on the man; the man recovers, and seems to be healing quickly. After some awkwardness, the two begin to discuss the murders, and find much common ground. The man calls himself Dr. Vaughn Sutton. They discuss the nature of evil in the heart, and whether a man can be purely evil without motive. The Doctor—for that is who Dr. Sutton really is—tells Smith about a truly evil man he once knew, called the Master. Pushing the issue, Smith reveals his own evil impulses, for which he cannot account, but which he steadfastly resists. Does this make him evil?

John is taken by a sudden fit; and a new voice speaks through his mouth, promising death to all present if the Doctor does not do what he came to do. As John revives, a book–*Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde*–falls off the bookshelf. John goes to check on the others, and the Doctor picks up the book, getting the point at once; the voice speaks again, telling him he has one more chance to keep his word, or everyone will die.

Part Three: The assassin wants to know if John Smith really is the Master, as the storyteller—who is obviously the Doctor—implies. And what other force is at work here? The Doctor resumes his story.

Jacqueline thinks the newcomer is dangerous; but regardless, some force is at work, as she slaps Jade and drives her out of the room. However, Smith tells them that the Doctor will be staying the night, as will they, due to the storm outside. They are interrupted by Jade’s scream; her cat is dead, its throat cut and its heart removed—just like the murder victims. Victor believes the killer is taunting him personally now. They gather with the Doctor, who now claims to have been attacked by books in the library—and indeed, the library is a wreck. In the midst of it all, John admits to having invited his friends over to test the alleged curse on this house—but now he regrets it, because they all seem to be in danger. John becomes convinced that the Doctor knows him from his past life, but why won’t he admit it? Smith feels something evil inside him—and he happens across Jacqueline’s missing kitchen knife. The Doctor tries to get Victor and Jacqueline to leave, but John interrupts by taking Jacqueline hostage with the knife, and demanding to know the truth. The Doctor gets him to relent by agreeing to talk—and talk he does.

He tells the story of himself and the Master as children. They were bullied by an older boy—but one day, one of them had enough. In the midst of the bullying, he killed he bully. The two boys burned the body together, but after that, the killer become more distant and angry, full of guilt, while the other went on to be a good man. One became the Doctor; the other, the Master. And John, he reveals, is the Master—though he does not remember it. Worse, the Master’s innate telepathy has projected that evil onto those around him, affecting their actions tonight. Jacqueline defends him; the Doctor offers to take them all away from here. However, they are interrupted by Jade—who reveals her true identity: Death itself.

Part Four: Jade—no, Death—mocks them all, and especially the Doctor. She quickly shares everyone’s secrets: the Doctor is here to  kill the Master; Jacqueline is in love with John; and Victor is the murderer. Victor flees the room, screaming from the revelations, and the lights go out. In the dark, Jacqueline admits that she has always loved John, and still does—but he rejects her, accepting the revelation of who he is. He cruelly dismisses her, and she leaves in tears, leaving only John and the Doctor. The Doctor says that he knows John truly loves Jacqueline, and ran her off to save her from Death. He says that the Master has been Death’s servant—her Champion—but that, ten years ago, he struck a deal with Death. For ten years, Death would release the master, allowing him a normal life, but at the end, the Doctor had to kill him. She arranged tonight to push the Doctor to do just that, perhaps in punishment for his past role as Time’s Champion. The Master urges him to do it, and hands him the kitchen knife. Meanwhile Jacqueline finds Victor in the scullery, and talks with him about whether anyone is truly too hopeless to be saved.

The Doctor refuses to kill him. Instead he realizes that John’s love for Jacqueline—which Death never anticipated—could save John from the Doctor’s deal…but only if they get to Jacqueline first. They head for the scullery. However, Death is whispering to Victor, and ultimately he kills Jacqueline. The Master shrieks in despair.

Death pauses time so she can gloat over her victory. The Master—with his true personality revealed—scoffs at Death’s influence; he is evil of his own will, regardless of her actions. However, she reveals the truth: Even the Doctor has forgotten that there was an earlier deal. It was not the Master that killed Torvic, but the Doctor. Death gave the child Doctor a choice: remember his guilt and serve her, or let it pass to his friend. The Doctor chose to let his friend serve death…and the rest is history. The innocent suffered, and the guilty forgot. However, the remnants of John Smith forgive the Doctor; after all, they were only children. Death gives John a choice: Go back and save Jacqueline by killing Victor first. However, he sees the trap: if he does so, he will become Death’s servant again, but if he does not, Jacqueline will die. John again forgives the Doctor, and chooses—and Death sends the Doctor away before he can learn the decision, as punishment for breaking their more recent deal. The story ends where it began, with the guests arriving; but John threatens Victor with death.

The assassin wants to know what he chose, but the Doctor does not know, and cannot tell him. However, the assassin knows why the Doctor is here now; he has been sent by death to fufill his bargain another way, by killing an innocent—and he is to take the place of the assassin to do it. The assassin offers him the gun, but the Doctor refuses; this again breaks his bargain. The assassin reveals himself to be Death in a new guise, and resumes Jade’s form to mock the Doctor again.  She promises to find new ways to punish him, and stalks off to kill an innocent. Meanwhile the Doctor vows to someday find and free his old friend.

Master 2

The Doctor doesn’t lack for enemies who want to compare him to themselves. There’s Davros, as we mentioned last time; the Daleks and Cybermen have done it; many others wait their turn. And of course, there’s the Doctor’s oldest friend, the Master. In this story it’s a little more on-the-nose than usual; there’s a twist near the end that reveals that the two are more alike than either of them thinks. I won’t reveal the twist, but it caught me by surprise.

We start out the story with a man named John Smith—usually one of the Doctor’s aliases, but here used (if unknowingly) by the Master. I don’t think it’s a great spoiler to say that Smith is the Master; for anyone even slightly familiar with the character (or even the title of the story!) it will be obvious almost instantly. It’s the Master who doesn’t know, and I found that fascinating. Of course, in the years since this story was released, we’ve had such an occurrence on television (Utopia, etc.), but this version takes a different view; for one, the Master didn’t put himself in this situation, and for two, unlike Professor Yana, John Smith doesn’t want to go back to being the Master.

I want to call this another character study, but that’s only on the surface. The real story here is of the relationships among the Doctor, the Master, and Death itself—that’s Death as an incarnate being, as previously portrayed in Timewyrn: Revelation and other novels. This is her first appearance in an audio, however. It’s long been established that the Doctor is Time’s Champion; here it’s confirmed that the Master is Death’s Champion. What matters is how it came about—but, that strays into spoiler territory! I will say, however, that the explanation for the Master’s life choices is quite different from (though not entirely incompatible with) the version we saw in The End of Time, regarding the drumbeats; or the version from The Sound of Drums regarding the Master’s look at the Untempered Schism. The guy really can’t catch a break.

One thing is certain: Missy was right. The Doctor really is her truest and oldest friend. Listening to this story adds considerable depth to the Twelfth Doctor stories where their friendship is discussed. (She’s still a liar with regard to him being a little girl, though; when the Doctor and Death tell a childhood story, they both refer to the Doctor and the Master with male pronouns. Score another for the Doctor not having faces prior to the Hartnell incarnation, I guess?)

At any rate, I have much greater appreciation for the Master as a person here, though he is still evil, of course. I’m also okay with the level of ambiguity with which this story end; the Doctor doesn’t know how it ends, but we can surmise the answer, because we know that the Master lives to fight another day—and we know which side he fights for.

The acting here is average for the most part; but I want to take a moment to compliment two aspects of it. First, Charlie Hayes as Jade does double duty as Death; and the transition between the two roles is just amazing. Compliments for both roles; it’s excellent work. Second, the trailer for this story is unusual; instead of clips from the story, it consists of John Smith reading out loud the letter of invitation he is preparing for his dinner guests. It’s simple and not at all scary—and yet, having an inkling of what is to come, you’ll still feel a chill. Very well done. (The trailer can be found on the story’s purchase page at the Big Finish website.)

Continuity References: The Doctor is referred to as Time’s Champion (Love and War); this is slightly expanded on, when Death reveals that she wanted the Doctor as her champion, but “someone had other plans”. The Doctor mentions Traken (The Keeper of Traken) and Duchamp 331 (Dust Breeding), where he previously encountered this version of the Master. (The Master’s history is a bit complicated, here, and there may be some contradictions with other stories, notably First Frontier, which I have not yet read.) The Doctor uses the alias “Vaughn Sutton”, which refers back to a character in Excelis Decays (although I have not listened to that audio myself yet, I found an indication that for the Doctor, it is recent). The Doctor mentions having known other Adjudicators (Original Sin, et al.). He mentions being disowned by his own family (Lungbarrow). He quotes a line from Primeval: “Exposure to evil, even the smallest amount, can corrode the soul.” Death mentions the Seventh Doctor’s mixed metaphors and playing the spoons (Time and the Rani); however she says that now he is busy destroying planets and old enemies (Remembrance of the DaleksSilver Nemesis, et al.) Death appeared personified in several previous novels (Timewyrm: RevelationLove and WarHuman NatureThe Also PeopleSo Vile a Sin), but never before in an audio drama. In fact, this entire story has several parallels with Human Nature. One of Bernice Summerfield’s books is mentioned here, though it doesn’t seem to be a reference to any particular Benny story. John Smith’s request to the Doctor to “end my life” parallels the Doctor’s conversation with an assassin in The Happiness Patrol, though that may be unintentional. And—most relevant to this tetralogy—Jade recites a version of the Zagreus poem, then wonders what put it in her head.

Overall: Not the typical Doctor/Master encounter at all! And yet, it foreshadows—quite unintentionally—the interactions of the Twelfth Doctor and Missy (and also the Simm Master from recent times) in years to come. That’s a very nice bit of serendipity there, and it’s all the better for being completely unintentional—as far as I can tell—on the parts of every writer involved. Besides that, it’s a great story, and perfect for the Hallowe’en season: Spooky old (possibly cursed) house; a series of murders; a thunderstorm, lightning, screams; Death incarnate (!); and of course, the Master—what’s not to love? I’m very glad to have heard this one.

Next time: And now, for something completely different! Finally we reach the famous and infamous fiftieth Main Range audio, Zagreus. It’s been a long time coming. 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 stories may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Master

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Audio Drama Review: Flip Flop

We’re back, with another Big finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to the forty-sixth entry in the Main Range, Flip Flop. This story continues Big Finish’s brief experimental period in the Main Range; this story consists of two discs, one white and one black, each consisting of two episodes. You can listen to either disc first; the story plays with timelines and events in such a way that the order doesn’t matter. I was listening on Spotify, which puts the white disc first, and so that is the order in which I listened, though that should have little effect on this review. The story features the Seventh Doctor and Mel, landing on the planet Puxatornee; it was written by Jonathan Morris, and directed by Gary Russell, and released in July 2003. Let’s get started!

Flip Flop 1

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

White Disc, Part One:

The Doctor and Mel arrive on Puxatornee on Christmas Eve, 3090, in search of Leptonite crystals, for use in dealing with the Quarks in another system. They are immediately arrested by security agents Reed and Stewart, who accuse them of being spies for the Slithergee—and they insist that the two have already confessed! However, they are soon rescued from their cell by…Reed and Stewart?! Not the same Reed and Stewart, as it turns out—but before they can explain, they are killed. Still, something weird is going on; everyone seems to know who the Doctor and Mel are. The rather paranoid President, Mitchell, sends his security forces through the city to find them. The Doctor and Mel discover a Professor Capra, who has invented a time machine; but it can only work once, and only in one direction—to the past. He reveals that, thirty years earlier, the planet was approached by the Slithergee, who asked for asylum on one of the planet’s moons. However, the then-President, Bailey, was assassinated by her secretary, Clarence, which led to a war with the Slithergee. While the humans won the war, their planet was ruined and poisoned, and soon everyone will die. Capra—with Mitchell’s blessing—plans to send agents Stewart and Reed back in time to prevent the assassination. The Doctor determines not to let that happen; the humans must not change their own history. In the struggle, Stewart and Mel are sent back in time; the Doctor and Reed follow in the TARDIS. Behind them, Capra’s machine overloads, destroying the entire planet. The Doctor and Reed find Mel and Stewart, but fail at stopping Stewart from killing Clarence before the assassination.  Reed and Stewart then tell Bailey that she must make peace with the Slithergee, in order to prevent a terrible war.

White Disc, Part Two:

Reed and Stewart’s mission is finished, and so they demand that the Doctor take them forward. He takes them to Christmas Day, 3090. Things have changed; the war never happened, but all is not well. Bailey is now called “The Great Appeaser”, having given in to the Slithergee’s demands. This eventually brought the Slithergee to occupy both moon and planet. Subsequently, through various maneuvers, the Slithergee have enslaved the humans. This is not the outcome Stewart and Reed wanted, and so they order the Doctor to take them back to the previous note so they can stop themselves from leaving to the past. The Doctor does so, but they are dismayed to learn that they cannot return to their original timeline; it no longer exists. Their story ends when they are killed by Potter, who was an agent under them in their original timeline, but here is a Slithergee collaborator. However, the Doctor and Mel then run into the other Reed and Stewart, who are freedom fighters against the Slithergee. This is an earlier moment in their timeline, and they do not recognize the Doctor or Mel; but they quickly discover that the duo has a time machine. Meanwhile the Doctor realizes that, just as there are doubles of Stewart and Reed (and Potter, as well), there will be alternate versions of themselves, who will probably arrive soon. The problem: they will most likely land their TARDIS in the same spot as the current version—and that would be disastrous! With their Leptonite crystals in hand, they hurry back to their TARDIS and leave; the Doctor refuses to stay and help, trusting that his alternate self will figure things out.

Black Disc, Part One:

The (other) Doctor and Mel land on Puxatornee on Christmas Eve, 3090, attempting to obtain Leptonite crystals to deal with a Quark incursion in another system. They find a world that is both occupied and enslaved; the Slithergees, in their weird hivelike buildings, have made slaves of the humans. They are promptly arrested by Slithergee collaborator Potter, who takes them to Professor Capra for interrogation. This Capra has not built a time machine, but rather, a Leptonite-powered torture device. The Doctor and Mel are freed by two freedom fighters, Reed and Stewart, who somehow know who they are. More strangely, they know that the Doctor has a time machine, and they want to use it to go back and kill President Bailey before she can begin the peace process that led to the Slithergee occupation. Meanwhile, Bailey suspects that her deputy, Mitchell, is secretly a Slithergee agent; she thinks he staged the failed assassination attempt that led to the peace process, so as to keep her from going to war. She confronts him, and ends up dead for her trouble; Mitchell calls it suicide. The Slithergee Community Leader designates Mitchell the new president, but then kills him, taking direct control of the planet. Meanwhile, Stewart threatens to shoot Mel if the Doctor won’t transport them; and he reluctantly agrees. He takes them back thirty years, where they kill Bailey’s secretary, Clarence. They then kill Bailey to prevent the peace process, and stage the scene so as to frame Clarence for the murder.

Black Disc, Part Two:

The Doctor then takes them forward to Christmas Day, 3090, where they find things changed. Mitchell, having assumed power after Bailey’s death, believed Clarence was a Slithergee agent, and so he went to war against the Slithergee. While the humans won the war, it left their world a wasteland, and soon the remaining humans will die. Potter—here a security agent under agents Stewart and Reed—arrests the Doctor and Mel as enemy agents; but the rebel Stewart and Reed pretend to be his superiors, and take the time travelers into their custody. This is not the future they sought, and so they demand that the Doctor take them back to last night, so that they can stop themselves from going back to complete the assassination. He does so, but they find that this is still the new timeline; and they leave, disappearing into the city. However, the Doctor and Mel run into agents Stewart, Reed, and Potter; from the agents’ point of view, this is their first meeting. The Doctor remembers that tomorrow, Potter will arrest them as spies, and so he confesses to being such, in order to preserve the timeline. Once in a cell, Mel realizes that they, too, must have counterparts; the Doctor realizes that their counterparts will soon land, in the same spot as their own TARDIS—a catastrophe in the making. He gets them out of the cell, and they rush to the TARDIS to depart, trusting that their other selves will set things right.

Flip Flop 2

I have to say up front, I appreciate what they’re trying to do here. Flip Flop is actually a very clever application of alternate timelines. We have the Doctor and Mel from one timeline contributing to the actions that create the other timeline—and this happens in both directions! That’s very clever; but in practice, it’s a mess, and hard to follow. There’s no shame in needing a few runs through this story in order to follow along!

I love stories about alternate timelines, not just in Doctor Who, but in other franchises as well. While trying to piece this one together, I realized that it conforms with a theory of my own. If you follow the idea that any choice can result in a new timeline splitting off, you have the basis for multiverse theory. However, when we’re talking about time travel, we have to ask: what happens if you go back to a point before the split? I theorize that it only makes sense if each new timeline also happens retroactively, splitting off both forward and backward in time. There’s no such thing as a unified timeline before the split (sorry, Legend of Zelda fans—of which I am one, so I’m apologizing to myself, too). This story must follow that notion, because there are two versions of the Doctor and Mel. While their timelines were identical up to the events on Puxatornee, they differentiate at that point—but the split must be retroactive, or else we’d only have one TARDIS team here. Interestingly, the story ends with each team in the opposite universe from the one in which they started!

Confused yet? Yeah, me too.

With all that said, I reiterate my initial point: I appreciate what they’re trying to accomplish, but in execution, it doesn’t work out so well. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m looking forward to getting past this experimental phase in the Main Range. Everyone has an adolescence; I suppose this is Big Finish’s. On the plus side, the voice acting is pretty good; I never had trouble discerning which version of each character was being portrayed. In a story like this, that’s priceless.

We do get some continuity references here. The Quarks (The Dominators) get a few mentions; they represent the inciting incident for the story, as the Doctor and Mel (in both timelines) come to Puxatornee to obtain Leptonite crystals, which cause Quarks to explode. (According to the Doctor Who Reference Guide for this story, the Quarks mentioned here—being mentioned sans Dominators—are more likely a reference to the 1960s comic strip stories Invasion of the Quarks and The Killer Wasps (and others; I don’t have a complete list) than to The Dominators. In those strips, the Quarks were billed as a conquering race on their own. However, I’m not familiar with those stories myself, so I can’t comment.) The Doctor mentions the musical group “Pakafroon Wabster” here; I don’t usually mention future references, but as I am not likely to reach the referenced story anytime soon, I’ll say that they will be mentioned a few times in the future before actually appearing in the comic story Interstellar Overdrive. The Doctor mentions “anti-radiation gloves” invented by a previous incarnation; this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to The Daleks, where William Hartnell mistakenly said “anti-radiation gloves” instead of “anti-radiation drugs. The cloister bell is heard when the two TARDISes are at risk of colliding (Logopolis, et al.) The Doctor quips several times that “I’ll explain later”; while I haven’t identified the first appearance, this line has appeared as a running joke on many occasions. I should also mention that the planet’s name, “Puxatornee”, is a slightly-altered reference to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which is the setting for the film Groundhog Day (and coincidentally, a few hours from my hometown, though I haven’t been there). That film, like this story, focuses on repetitive sequences of time, though the resolution is much different.

Overall: The story is ambitious, and it does, I suppose, accomplish its goal. For the listener, getting there is a mess. I applaud the attempt, but I don’t think I’ll come back to this one.

Next time: We begin the villainous countdown to the fiftieth Main Range entry, with Omega! 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.

Flip Flop

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Audio Drama Review: The Shadow Trader

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Shadow Trader, the Seventh Doctor’s entry into the Short Trips, Volume IV anthology. This story was written by Charles Williams, and features the Sixth Doctor and Ace, and is read by Sophie Aldred. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 4 a

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

Salim is a shadow trader. It’s an old profession, one practiced by his father before him, and dating all the way back to the old days on Earth. Some cultures have known for centuries that buildings—and in these days, spaceships—have souls of their own; it’s why a man may call his ship “she”, and put faith in its abilities. Those souls don’t happen; they are acquired by binding a shadow to the bones of the building or the ship. That’s where the shadow traders, like Salim, come in. It’s a little bit magical, but it always works—as Salim’s dying father taught him. Salim wasn’t the greatest at the job, but that didn’t matter; all his father asked of him was that he live, procreate, and pass on the skills to his son, who might do it better.

Fraser’s Rest, in orbit around the old colony of Sonos Prime, is a declining shipyard and trading post—once more powerful, but now diminished in the face of new settlements. Salim fits in here; he doesn’t stand out in this decaying realm of reduced activity. He finds a ship in the midst of construction, and watches the activity; it’s a luxury cruiser for a billionaire, quite a prominent addition to the construction yards of Fraser’s Rest, but that is because the billionaire grew up here, and feels some affection for the place. It is, perhaps, the last chance for the Rest. Salim has been staking it out for days, trying to determine what kind of soul—what kind of shadow—this ship should have. Even its name has not been decided; but the shipbuilders have been calling it the Defiance. Now Salim must search for a person to provide the shadow—someone who matches the character of the Defiance.

He finds it in a girl with a bulky jacket, a rucksack, and a ponytail. He follows the girl, Ace, as she rejoins a little man called the Doctor—or the Professor, as she calls him. They are here to watch a launch, but the Doctor ruefully notes that he may have brought them to the wrong year, as he remembers the places being more upscale. He admits there is nothing special about this ship launch, but that he just likes to watch them, and think about what adventures it may have. Ace isn’t interested, and heads back to their own ship, the TARDIS. Salim thinks on how to cut the girl’s shadow away.

Salim follows Ace down a lonely corridor, and sets a music box playing. Ace hears the music, which grows more and more complex; she finds it has caused her to be stuck in place. Salim confronts her, and she finds she cannot even approach him. He tells her that her shadow is holding him in place; it can’t move, and therefore neither can she. He produces a strange, circuitry-laden knife, and turns it on. He tells her to hold still, so that he can cut off her shadow; Ace threatens to kick him if he approaches. Salim is okay with this; they’ll be in a stalemate until she lets him take the shadow.

They are interrupted by the approach of the Doctor. Ace warns him away; the Doctor is unperturbed, and recognizes music box as a shadow lure. He states that it won’t work on him, to Salim’s surprise. The Doctor says this is because he has no shadow; and he knocks the music box from Salim’s hand, breaking it. Ace immediately kicks him to the floor.

The Doctor examines the knife, which is quite blunt, and says that it cuts shadows, not flesh. He recognizes Salim as a shadow trader, something he last encountered in nineteenth-century London. Salim defends his profession as noble; the Doctor counters that there is nothing noble about waving a knife at a girl in an alley, and says that Salim’s ancestors wouldn’t do it this way. They would offer a deal instead, though often not a favorable one. The Doctor explains that taking the shadow takes the person’s substance, causing their lives to go nowhere; past victims would end up in freak shows, or in bedlam. Salim objects that people must have sold the shadows willingly; the Doctor acknowledges that sometimes the downtrodden would do so, for the lure of being part of something great. Some people have felt that all they have to offer in life…is their shadow.

The Doctor leaves, taking Ace with him; without the lure, Salim may still be a parasite, but he’ll have to be a traditional one.

Salim watches the Defiance under construction, and thinks about his father, and about the many others who have desired to be part of something bigger. For a moment, he feels that desire as well…and then it is gone.

Short Trips Volume 4 b

I commented back in Volume II that the Seventh Doctor’s stories in these early anthologies seem to be built around the idea of teaching someone a life lesson. Saving the world—when it happens—is secondary to that purpose. The same holds true here, but with a twist that left the story a bit unsatisfying to me; I’ll get back to that in a moment.

The story finds the Doctor and Ace visiting a decaying shipyard for the purpose of watching a launch. In the course of it, they encounter a man named Salim. Salim is a shadow trader; he removes the shadows from unsuspecting individuals, and sells them to ship construction crews to be attached to the ship, thus giving it a “soul” of its own. It’s an ancient profession, going back to buildings on Earth, but it isn’t a very honest one. Salim gets more than he bargains for when he targets Ace’s shadow.

I say that the Doctor makes a point of teaching Salim a life lesson; in this case, that his chosen profession is dishonest, and leaves its victims with some severe consequences even if they agree to it. That’s standard for these Seventh Doctor stories, but the problem here is that nothing comes of it. We don’t see the effect it has on Salim at all; he’s still thinking about it when the story ends, but even that slips away from him. As far as we can tell, he’ll go on as he always has. While not every story has to have a happy ending, I think that it’s best when the actions of the story seem to count for something, whether it’s happy or not. That characteristic is lacking here, and it’s very unsatisfying. There’s potential, but it’s just not realized. (I should note that the wiki page for Salim’s character interprets the ending differently, but I think the author of the page is extrapolating a bit to reach the conclusion that Salim changes for the better. I do think that the author intended to show that Salim changes, but somehow that detail got omitted from the final cut.)

The presentation is decent, as usual; Sophie Aldred had been voicing Ace for Big Finish for a very long time by the time this story was released, and audiobooks seem to have been an easy transition for her. Her presentation of the Seventh Doctor is a little rough, but that’s only because her voice is (obviously) quite different from his; she captures his tone and mannerisms fairly well. There are no continuity references to speak of; the Doctor does mention having encountered shadow traders in nineteenth century London, and possibly at the construction of the Sphinx as well, but those references don’t seem to be attached to any stories.

Overall: Not the greatest of the Seventh Doctor’s anthology stories. It could have been better, but just didn’t hit the mark. We’ll see if things improve when we reach the individual Short Trips.

Next time: We’ll finally reach the last installment in the Short Trips anthologies! We’ll join the Eighth Doctor, sans companions, in Quantum Heresy. 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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