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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Audio Drama Review: Project: Lazarus

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re continuing the Main Range of audios with the forty-fifth entry, Project: Lazarus. This story was written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, and features the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables), as well as the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). It resumes the story of Nimrod, Cassandra “Cassie” Schofield, and the Forge, as begun in Project: Twilight. It was released in June 2003. Let’s get started!

Project Lazarus 1

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

Part One:

The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn are searching for missing vampire Cassie Schofield, last seen in the wake of the Forge’s Project: Twilight. A bit belatedly, the Doctor has found a cure for her condition, the Twilight virus. They locate her in Norway in July 2004, just as she is also found by a hunter called Professor Harket; but as it turns out, Harket isn’t seeking Cassie at all. Instead, he is seeking a rather unusual alien, which he dubs the Huldra, after a local legend. He knows he is on the trail when he finds a body covered in a venomous blue slime, produced by the Huldra. He goes to try to make a call to his university. Meanwhile, the Forge is not dead; and its central computer, Oracle, receives notice that an agent named “Artemis” has at last made contact with “Lazarus”. The head of security, Sergeant Frith, and the head researcher, Dr. Crumpton, exult over this message, and send extraction teams to bring them in. Back in Norway, the Doctor and Evelyn are shocked to learn that Cassie is quite bitter toward them, as it has been some time since they left her behind. Moreover, she is now working for Nimrod and the Forge! She considers them her family now, which doesn’t sit well with Evelyn. They are interrupted by Harket’s return; he has located a Huldra. Cassie overpowers the creature and stuns it, just as the extraction team arrives. When Harket protests, Cassie takes some of the creature’s slime and forces it into his mouth, killing him almost instantly. Nimrod arrives and refers to Cassie as Artemis, and takes the Doctor, Evelyn, and the Huldra captive.

Part Two:

Nimrod’s team takes the TARDIS as well as the captive, and flies them by helicopter to Dartmoor. The Forge’s headquarters awaits, situated below ground under an abandoned asylum. Nimrod, now the Deputy Director of the Forge, sets Crumpton to studying the alien, while Nimrod gives the Doctor and Evelyn a tour. Frith, meanwhile, is repulsed by working with the alien, but he has no choice; no one leaves the Forge voluntarily. Crumpton uses Oracle to research the figure called Lazarus. Meanwhile Nimrod assures the Doctor that he only intends to analyze the alien venom for development as a stun weapon, and that he ultimately intends to help the creature get home; he has the wreckage of its ship here in the labs. He also claims that Cassie’s service is voluntary. Evelyn sits with Cassie and talks about what has happened to her; Cassie blames the Doctor for abandoning her, though Evelyn insists it was unintentional. Oddly, she does not remember her son, Tommy, at all, and denies that the child exists; the Forge is her only family, she insists. She changes the subject; she can hear Evelyn’s heartbeat, and knows there is something wrong with her. Evelyn admits to a heart attack before meeting the Doctor, and begs Cassie not to tell him, as she knows he will take her home if he finds out. Meanwhile Nimrod shows the Doctor the main archive, full of dead aliens and stolen technology; the Doctor is appalled, but Nimrod assures him that a function called the Hades Protocol will destroy it all if it ever becomes dangerous. Frith arrives, and the two cease being polite, and force the Doctor into confinement in a lab; they plan to study the Time Lord regenerative ability—even if it means killing the Doctor. Project Lazarus—named for another man who evaded death—has begun. As they torture the Doctor, Evelyn pushes Cassie to remember Tommy; and suddenly the block on Cassie’s memory breaks, and she remembers. Shrugging off the pain, she takes Evelyn to the lab and rescues the Doctor from his torture, and leads them to the storage room where the TARDIS has been placed. Nimrod closes the emergency bulkheads along the way, forcing Cassie to rip open the control panels; this slows them down, and lets Nimrod get there first. Cassie delays him while the Doctor and Evelyn get into the TARDIS; but before she can join them, Nimrod puts a crossbow bolt through her heart. She dies in a burst of flame. The TARDIS escapes; but Evelyn is grief-stricken, and the Doctor knows this pain will last for a long time.

Part Three:

Many years later, the Seventh Doctor is traveling alone when his TARDIS is hit with temporal energy. He traces it to a place he never expected to see again: The Forge’s Dartmoor headquarters. The Forge is under attack by the Huldra; Crumpton manages to deter the attack, but in the course of it, the TARDIS’s arrival is detected. This Doctor hasn’t been here before, but his image matches file footage from elsewhere. It seems Lazarus has returned. Nimrod brings the Doctor inside, where he makes a bad first impression on Frith. The Doctor is still angry at Nimrod, but agrees to help him solve the time disruptions that led to the burst of energy. He is shocked to see his own sixth incarnation working as scientific advisor to the Forge! Nimrod insists the Sixth Doctor is voluntarily serving, but the Seventh Doctor cannot remember it, and doesn’t believe it. [Note: For convenience, I will refer to the Doctors simply as “Six” and “Seven” for the remainder of this summary.] He accompanies Six to Crumpton’s lab, and examines the data from the attack—the latest in a series of attacks, all centered on the captured Huldran ship, which has been cannibalized by the Forge. The captive Huldran has long since been killed. The Doctors speak privately; Six explains that the Earth is under attack by Huldrans, apparently for revenge. Six claims to have offered his services to combat the Huldrans; in order to prevent Nimrod and Crumpton from analyzing his TARDIS, he removed a component, leaving only the outer shell accessible. However, he wants to escape now in Seven’s TARDIS—which is puzzling, as the Huldran problem is still unresolved. He offers to help—but with diplomacy rather than violence. Nimrod and Crumpton explain that the Huldran ships actually travel by means of a self-contained portal; the temporal discharge was the result of the Huldrans attempting to breach the portal from the captured wreckage. Nimrod refuses to shut it down while it could be useful, but says that with a sample of the TARDIS’s exo-shell, they could make the portal impervious to attack. Seven reluctantly agrees to help, though Six—in a passable imitation of Nimrod’s voice—mocks him at first. Nimrod confers with Six about disposing of Seven once they have the TARDIS. Seven interrupts them and asks why, if they have Six’s TARDIS shell, they don’t just take a sample from it? When Six cannot answer, Seven realizes he is an imposter; and he darts away to talk with Crumpton. He demands to know what is really going on, and urges Crumpton to be a scientist and question authority. When the Huldrans attack again, he urges her to shut off the defences and let them in; and to Frith’s shock, she does so. A troop of Huldrans, bearing swords, pours into the facility. Nimrod sends Six to greet them, and they cut him down.

Part Four:

Seven intervenes, and somehow calms the Huldrans. Crumpton closes the portal, and Frith takes the Huldrans captive, placing them in holding cells. Nimrod sends Six to the sickbay; but among his injuries, his arm has been severed. This confirms for Seven that this is not the real Sixth Doctor. He tries to reason with Frith, who doesn’t really want to be here at all; when Frith tries to lock him up, he knocks Frith out and goes to speak with Six. Meanwhile Nimrod reactivates Project: Lazarus and tells Crumpton to dissect the Huldrans; Crumpton is not willing, but has no choice to obey. She is interrupted by Oracle, which has detected an energy spike, but not from the portal. Seven awakens Six, and asks why the trauma did not spark a regeneration. He forces mental contact with Six, and learns that Six is a clone, created from a blood sample taken during the real Sixth Doctor’s torture last time. Six claims to be the last survivor of three clones, which demonstrated enough of the real Doctor’s traits that Nimrod took him on for scientific assistance. However, the clones were never truly stable; and with this trauma, his genetic deterioration is accelerating. However, the contact between them brought out more memories; and Six takes Seven to investigate. Meanwhile Crumpton reads the data, and determines that there is a telepath in the Forge—it can only be Seven, and Nimrod expects he will have communed with Six. The Huldrans are also reacting to the telepathy; they are a telepathic gestalt, sharing one mind. The death of their missing member, then, would have driven them into a frenzy. Crumpton refuses to kill them at Nimrod’s orders, and so he kills her. Meanwhile, Six leads Seven to a room—the same one where Cassie died, actually—where they find dozens of mutated Sixth Doctor clones, all begging to be killed. Seven finds notes indicating that Six is not three years old as he believed, but only several days—there have been many like him, as the process burns through clones at an incredible rate. The process is cumulative, and the degeneration is indeed increasing. Six is driven into a frenzy; and he imitates Nimrod’s voice and activates the Hades protocol, which will destroy the facility and everything in it.  He gives Seven six minutes to rescue the Huldrans and escape. Seven flees, and finds Frith organizing an evacuation. He talks Frith into helping him with the Huldrans; if they die, the rest of their kind might consider it an act of war. Nimrod, furious, confronts them and orders Frith to kill the Doctor and save the items in the archive instead; he then departs. Frith knows he has been left to die, and joins the Doctor. Nimrod goes down to find Six, who is nearly mad with pain now thanks to the telepathic cries of  the other clones; Nimrod tells him that he is worthless, only one of an unknown number of failed experiments. However, Six will have his revenge; he is destroying the facility. Nimrod shoots him, then leaves. Seven and Frith find Crumpton dead in the lab; Seven sends Frith to open the portal while he sends the Huldrans through. They then race for the exit, but find Six dying; Six refuses to let Seven save him. As the minutes tick away, they race for the lift; and at the last second, Firth pushes him into it. The Doctor escapes, but Frith does not. Sadly, he departs for the TARDIS, content at least that the forge has been destroyed. But elsewhere, Oracle awakens in a new system, and the Forge’s beta facility is activated.

Project Lazarus 2

A multi-Doctor story! …Or not. I won’t spoil it, but let’s say that all is not what it seems, in this story that features both the Sixth and Seventh Doctors. I will suggest that those who have listened to Jubilee will figure out the twist to this story in short order; the stories aren’t similar overall, but there is one plot element that serves as a giveaway here, after having previously been used in that story. Regardless, it’s always interesting to see the Sixth and Seventh Doctors onscreen (or, well, the audio equivalent) together; I find that the two aren’t so different, and work well together. If we theorize that each regeneration is a reaction to the previous incarnation, then this makes sense; the Sixth Doctor is quite pleased with himself most of the time, and wouldn’t want to change much about himself (much as, later, the Tenth Doctor and the Eleventh Doctor would be very similar). I do think it’s worth noting, as well, that the Seventh Doctor doesn’t seem to have any of the memory issues that ordinarily accompany an encounter with his past self…

I’ve been given to understand that Big Finish was going through an experimental phase around the time of this story’s release; in just the last few stories, we’ve seen a story inspired by the New Adventures novels (The Dark Flame), a musical (Doctor Who and the Pirates), and a non-linear story (Creatures of Beauty). The trend continues here; this story is broken in half, with the first half featuring the Sixth Doctor, and the second half featuring primarily the Seventh. I understand it will continue, as well, in the next entry, Flip-Flop, in which the two halves of the story can be played in any order. As far as placement goes, the first half picks up the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn’s adventures where we recently left off, and sometime after Real Time, which I have not yet experienced (as indicated by a reference to the Doctor’s new suit). The Seventh Doctor’s story occurs late in his life, possibly near his death in the television movie, as he is traveling alone and considers “going home” to Gallifrey at the end of this story. Of particular note: Project Destiny, which wraps up the Forge trilogy (and which I haven’t reached yet), occurs earlier in the Seventh Doctor’s life, though its events aren’t mentioned here.

Project Lazarus 3

I enjoyed this story immensely; it was a nice change after Pirates, which didn’t interest me, and after Creatures of Beauty, which was hamstrung by its own novelty. Nimrod and the Forge make for dynamic enemies and great action; and this story wastes no time jumping in, as halfway through, we get the death of a major character from the previous entry. The only downside—and perhaps this isn’t a criticism, just a sad observation—is that there is a definite downward spiral to the Doctor’s relationship with Evelyn, as she experiences one tragedy after another. If her story leaves me crying in the end, I may have to stage a riot.

We’re heavy on the continuity references here, even leaving out the obvious connections to Project: Twilight. Cassie Schofield is indicated to be the mother of Tommy Schofield, better known—and much later—as Hex, the Seventh Doctor’s companion (The Harvest). Reference is made to the Seventh Doctor’s appearances in Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield. While I don’t usually refer to connections to future stories, I’ll make an exception for Project Destiny; as I previously noted, that story occurs earlier in the Seventh Doctor’s timeline, and features Ace and Hex visiting the Forge’s beta facility. The Sixth Doctor makes reference to the Record of Rassilon (State of Decay) and the Time Lords’ war against all vampires. The Doctor makes telepathic contact with himself, signified by the “Contact!” catchphrase, previously seen in The Three Doctors and others. The Forge’s archive room contains Zanium (The Twin Dilemma) and Axonite (The Claws of Axos).

It’s worth mentioning that this is the first story to receive multiple covers. (I have only linked one of three, above; the rest can be found on this story’s wiki page.) One cover featured the Sixth Doctor; one featured the Seventh; and one featured both equally. It’s also one of only eight audio dramas so far to feature both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. The voice acting from both is on point as usual—in fact, all the acting in this story is exceptional.

Overall: A very good entry as we begin the lead-up to the fiftieth Main Range entry. I strongly recommend a refresher of Project: Twilight before listening to this story—I wish I had done so myself—but regardless, it’s a fast-moving, action-packed story, and a great listen. Free on Spotify, as well—if you haven’t already, check it out! (Unfortunately, as I discovered, the Spotify edition of this story is missing the final track. However, the story is available for download from Big Finish Productions for $2.99.)

Project Lazarus 4

Next time: One more experimental story before we start the iconic villain stories leading up to the fiftieth entry. We’ll join the Seventh Doctor and Mel in Flip-Flop! 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.

Project: Lazarus

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Audio Drama Review: Seven to One

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

Short Trips Volume 3 a

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

Part One:

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

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

Part Two:

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

Part Three:

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

Part Four:

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

Part Five:

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

Part Six:

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

Part Seven:

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

Part Eight:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Trips, Volume 3

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Audio Drama Review: The Riparian Ripper

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to the Seventh Doctor’s contribution to the Short Trips, Volume 3 collection, The Riparian Ripper. Written by Andrew Cartmel, and featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace, this story is read by Sophie Aldred. Let’s get started!

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

The Seventh Doctor and Ace make their way to a crime scene along the Red River, where they encounter a reporter named Walter Orpheus. The Doctor—letting Ace call him the Professor—manages as usual to be taken for someone official, in this case from the nearby university. He produces a newspaper clipping about the situation—a series of nearly-deadly attacks near the river, perpetrated by an assailant who has been dubbed “the Riparian Ripper” (“Riparian” meaning “on or of the riverbank”). Oddly, none of the victims have died, despite their grievous injuries; but none of them can identify the attacker as well. The current victim, a teenage girl, is in St. Saviour’s hospital. Her name is Dolores Gorman, and her uncle, Stan Gorman, is in the crowd here at the scene. Stan intends to kill the Ripper if he can find him—or it, as the Doctor thinks it may be an animal instead of a human. The wounds, after all, don’t look like knife wounds.

At the hospital, the Doctor and Ace investigate the victims’ case histories. All have survived—but, with the help of Dr. Leonard Milroy, they learn that all the victims have had an organ removed, though without having actually had the proper surgery—but with surgical skill. More interestingly, prior to their attacks, they all suffered problems related to the organs, which were eased when the organs were removed.

The Doctor and Ace stay overnight in the university’s student halls. They are awakened to news: the Ripper has been found! Stan Gorman’s brother, Herb Gorman, was attacked in the early hours, and brought into the hospital. The Doctor correctly predicts that the wounds were to the chest and upper abdomen; Milroy had already stated that Herb suffered from lung cancer. Ace realizes that the Ripper is not harming anyone—he is performing successful surgeries! The problem is that no one will understand it—and that means the Ripper will be mobbed and killed if isolated.

They rush to the site of the Ripper’s entrapment: a nearby storm drain. There they find workers from Stan Gorman’s construction company, wiring the place with explosions. Stan confronts them, and says he intends to murder the “monster”; but the Doctor informs him that his brother is doing very well, and was not, in fact, tortured after all. Nevertheless, Stan intends to blow up the drain tunnels anyway. In spite, the Doctor leaps up and into the drain pipe; Ace and Milroy follow. The Doctor has Ace covertly cut the detonation wire; and then they head deeper into the tunnels.

Before they can find the Ripper, they hear sirens; but they are coming from the darkness ahead, not from outside. Something approaches; the Doctor manages to pull his companions aside, just in time to avoid something large and silver streaking past in the tunnels. The thing—the ship—shoots out of the tunnels and flies away; the Doctor, Ace, and Milroy make it outside just in time to see it vanish over the horizon.

The Doctor laments that their “friend” is gone; and indeed, he can’t blame the Ripper for leaving. On the bright side, Herb Gorman will go on to recover fully, free of tumors. As the Doctor and Ace depart, they gift Milroy with a telescope; he intends to watch the sky, hoping the silver ship will return. Ace is secretly sure it won’t.

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We seem to be on a theme in this collection. Every story so far, with the exception of The Five Dimensional Man, has featured a villain that isn’t actually a villain, and in most cases is simply misunderstood. I, for one, wouldn’t want a steady diet of such stories; but it is a nice occasional diversion. It’s inevitable, in a universe as large as that of Doctor Who, that species or individuals with radically different outlooks on life will pop up; and it suits the Doctor’s character very well to defend them as well as humanity. This is a concept that goes back at least as far as Doctor Who and the Silurians, and probably much further (I’m a little short on time right now, and don’t have the time to look into it). We see it here, when the titular Riparian Ripper—whom we never actually see or identify—isn’t at all what he appears to be at first; and he nearly dies for his trouble, when in fact he is here to do good for the humans in the area. Unfortunately, that’s also a common theme in Doctor Who: that humans can be heavy-handed and insensitive to anything different and/or wondrous. (Related: The Ripper’s species and homeworld are never revealed, either; that wonderfully obscure word, “riparian”, means “of or on the riverbank”, which is where the attacks in this story take place.)

At just over sixteen minutes, this is one of the shorter entries in the collection. After the painful voice acting in the last two entries—at least where Peri Brown was concerned—hearing Sophie Aldred read this story is something of a relief; she doesn’t try to imitate the Seventh Doctor precisely, but settles for a suggestion of his brogue, which is all that’s really necessary. This story is told in first person from Ace’s perspective, which while unusual, is a good mode for Sophie Aldred’s narration. As is common in Seventh Doctor stories, there’s no real hint of any framing events; we don’t see the Doctor and Ace arrive or leave, and the TARDIS isn’t seen at all, nor do we get any indication of why they came here at this time. I always find that a little odd, given that the Seventh Doctor has such a reputation for manipulating events and scheming behind the scenes; nevertheless a lot of stories seem to happen in that way.

Overall: A short, pleasant story, and a nice change from the body horror and pain in recent entries (although, if “organ removal” counts, one could say there’s body horror here as well—but at least we don’t have to watch it happen). It’s almost a little too short, too easy; I would have liked to see the Doctor and Ace be involved in tracking down the Ripper, but that event is handled elsewhere and essentially handed to them. Otherwise, not bad at all.

Next time: We’ll wrap up with the Eighth—wait, no, we won’t! We’ll listen to the Eighth Doctor’s entry, All the Fun of the Fair, featuring Lucie Miller; but don’t forget, we’ve also put off the first Doctor’s entry, Seven to One, which is split among the various parts of this collection. We’ll try to get in both stories tomorrow, and start fresh on Monday with Volume Four, if possible. See you then!

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

Short Trips, Volume 3

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