Audio Drama Review: The Nightmare Fair

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! After just coming off of the famous (or infamous) Zagreus, I needed a quick change of pace; and so today, we’re looking at the first in another range, the Lost Stories. We join the Sixth Doctor and Peri in The Nightmare Fair, where they face off against a very old enemy: The Celestial Toymaker! Written by Graham Williams, and adapted and directed by John Ainsworth, this story was released in November 2009, nine years ago this month. Let’s get started!

Nightmare Fair 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: Following their last adventure against the Daleks (Revelation of the Daleks), the Doctor and Peri arrive at the Pleasure Beach fair in Blackpool for a bit of relaxation. They are unaware that they are being observed by an old enemy… Meanwhile, a local man, Kevin, reports to the police about strange events from the night before at the fair—strange lights, a frightened man. It is the latest of numerous reports Kevin has made; but most also involve a strange Chinese Mandarin. Last night, the Mandarin wasn’t there. He also discusses his missing brother, Geoff. The police don’t take him seriously, and run him off.

The Doctor admits that he had an ulterior motive for coming to Blackpool: a disturbance in the time vortex, indicating danger. Elsewhere, the Celestial Toymaker—for that is who watches—prepares his servant, Stefan, to bring the Doctor in; Stefan, meanwhile, provides the Toymaker with the Doctor’s biodata, confirming his identity. Peri begins to hear the Doctor calling her, though he denies it; soon, the Doctor also hears his own name being called. He deduces that there is telepathy in use. As they continue checking out various rides, the Doctor notices Kevin following them. Peri ends up separated from the Doctor on a ride, sharing a car with Kevin as the Doctor follows behind. At the other end, the Doctor is nowhere to be seen. Peri reports to security, but to no avail. Introducing herself to Kevin, she enlists his help—but they are intercepted by the Toymaker’s servants, and forced to fight. Unintentionally, Kevin kills their captor; the duo then runs. Meanwhile the Doctor is collected by Stefan, and escorted to a cell.

In the tunnels beneath the fair, Kevin shares his story with Peri. They happen upon numerous mechanical dummies, as well as the machinery of the rides. Meanwhile the Doctor examines his surroundings, and makes rudimentary communication with something in the next cell by tapping on the pipes. Before he can continue, the Toymaker arrives and insinuates that the Doctor will be forced to play his games, possibly at the cost of harm to Peri if he refuses. Before he vanishes, he causes the wall between cells—which proves to be a solid hologram—to become invisible, revealing a clawed monster. However, the Doctor quickly reestablishes communication with the creature. The Toymaker watches from elsewhere, amused. In the tunnels, Peri and Kevin are briefly separated; and Kevin is taken to the cells. The Toymaker returns to debate with the Doctor about Earth and its inhabitants and their capacity for games, which fits right into his plans. He challenges the Doctor to one  more game, and the Doctor is obliged to accept.

Part Two: The Toymaker commits to not harming Peri. Meanwhile, Kevin rejoins Peri, but he begins to speak and act strangely. Meanwhile, Kevin is also in the cell with the Doctor—clearly only one of them is real. But, which Kevin is it? Kevin and the Doctor compare notes, and the Doctor recruits him to help build a strange device. Elsewhere, one of the Toymaker’s servants, Yatsumoto, delivers a large video game cabinet, and reviews its use; the Toymaker, delighted, authorizes the next phase of his plan, which will see the machines rolled out to the public all over the world. Meanwhile Peri realizes that Kevin no longer has a wound he received in their escape; and she quickly realizes that he is not real. Seeing that the game is up, he has her taken to the cells with the Doctor and the real Kevin. The Toymaker has Yatsumoto try out the game; but when he loses, a glowing creature of some sort is generated by the game, and kills him. Peri catches up with the Doctor, who fills everyone in on their status. The Doctor’s device removes the walls between cells completely, though the corridor wall remains intact. The clawed creature can be seen in one cell. In the other is a humanlike android, who quickly joins their cause, and reveals that he is an old and oft-rebuilt member of an expeditionary fleet, now far away. The creature, the Doctor reveals, is a Venusian, of a type that is known for their mechanical skills; the Doctor dubs him “Mechanic”. With the Mechanic’s help, and a hand—literally—from the android, the Doctor assembles a sort of helmet device, and puts it on Peri. At that time, Stefan arrives to take the Doctor to the Toymaker; the Doctor tells Peri to yell for him if she needs him.

After much debate about his motives, the Toymaker causes the Doctor to play the video game; down in the cell, the Mechanic works feverishly to finish the helmet device, but can’t speak to Peri to explain what it’s for. Just as the Doctor loses the game, and the video monster emerges, the Mechanic attacks Peri, causing her to scream for the Doctor…and the Toymaker screams himself, as if struck, and falls unconscious.  The video monster turns on Stefan, and kills him. The Doctor quickly brings Peri and the others up from the cells, and they ransack the Toymaker’s living space, searching for a device. They quickly find it: the Toymaker’s telemechanical relay, by which he controls the various holographic systems. The Doctor wires it into his own device, just as the Toymaker begins to awaken.

The Toymaker threatens dire punishment; but the Doctor stops him. He has placed a holofield around the Toymaker, trapping him—and it is powered by the telemechanical relay. In other words, it is the Toymaker’s own brain which keeps him trapped, and will do so forever. Worse for the Toymaker, the field generates a time loop; he will have a repetitive eternity in which to go mad. It is barbaric; but for the Toymaker, as the Doctor points out, no other punishment is possible.

Meanwhile, Kevin finds his missing brother, who has been trapped here. The Doctor advises him to locate the patents for all the machinery here, which may make him rich—and will allow him to shut down the Toymaker’s entire operation. Peri, for her part, obligates the Doctor to take the Mechanic and the android home—but first, there’s still time for the fair.

Nightmare Fair 2

I was surprised to see how simple and direct this story was—but after recent main range entries, that proved to be a welcome change. The Lost Stories range consists of stories adapted from scripts which were never filmed; this story would have been the first of the proposed Season 23 that was annulled by the temporary hiatus of the series As such this story would have followed directly from Revelation of the Daleks; in fact, allegedly there was a line at the end of that serial which would have indicated the Doctor was taking Peri to Blackpool, the site of this story. That line was allegedly nixed when it became apparent that the show would go on hiatus. The story seems very small-scale for the series; it occurs in a very confined space, with a relatively small cast (though the accompanying interviews seem to indicate that many of these scripts were adapted down from the larger cast that a television serial would have afforded).

It’s a good thing, though, because the story flows very well, and is fun to listen to. The Celestial Toymaker is a villain who wouldn’t work as well, I think, in a highly science-fiction setting; he is the sci-fi element for the story, and needs no support in that regard. Placing him in a mundane setting just allows his particular talents and reasoning to shine. (I don’t count his toyroom from The Celestial Toymaker as a sci-fi setting, because it is only defined by his powers. In and of itself, it’s very nondescript.) He appears rarely enough that he doesn’t feel overused as a recurring villain. He plays especially well against the Sixth Doctor, for the same reasons that he worked well against the First; both Doctors share a high degree of arrogance, a similar wit, and a sense of mirth. To watch the Toymaker and the Doctor bait each other along is almost as satisfying as watching the Doctor debate with Davros. It wouldn’t be the same against, say, the Second Doctor, or the Ninth (or the Eighth!).

Most of all, you can tell that everyone involved with this production had fun with it, and was happy to be there (as confirmed in the interviews). That energy transmits over to the audience, and covers well for what might otherwise be toosimple a story. The story isn’t just simple, either; it’s gimmicky, at least for the time of its original writing—it capitalizes on the early days of the video game industry, when arcade games ruled, and home systems were still rare. The Toymaker’s games this time are electronic, and they have an edge to them.

Continuity references: The obvious reference is to the events of The Celestial Toymaker, with the First Doctor, Steven, and Dodo, for which this story serves as a sequel. The doctor mentions Magnus Greel (The Talons of Weng-ChiangThe Butcher of Brisbane). He mentions visiting Brighton (The Leisure Hive). He mentions Jamie after Peri finds a piece of Jamie’s clothing in the TARDIS (last seen in The Two Doctors, only a few episodes earlier). He mentions a man in Paris who was always hitting things (Duggan, City of Death). He makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to Romulus and Remus (The Twin Dilemma). The Toymaker refers to the 1914 Christmas Truce, which was attended by both the First and Twelfth Doctors in Twice Upon a Time (technically a future reference, but as the First Doctor was there, I’ll mention it). One of the trapped creatures is a Venusian, which have been mentioned many times since the Third Doctor era; of the various Venusian races that have been mentioned, it is unclear which one this is.

Overall: If the rest of the series is anything like this, we’re in good hands. A great start to a new (to me) range. Looking forward to more!

Next time: We join the Doctor and Peri, as well as old adversaries Sil and the Ice Warriors (a metal band name if ever there was one) in Mission to Magnus! 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.

The Nightmare Fair

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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: Davros

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Main Range entry #48: Davros, written by Lance Parkin and directed by Gary Russell. The second in a loose tetralogy of stories leading up to (and including) the fiftieth Main Range entry, this story features Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, squaring off against an old enemy: Davros, creator of the Daleks! Notably, this is Davros actor Terry Molloy’s first appearance in a Big Finish audio drama, and his first appearance as Davros in any medium since 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks. With that said, let’s get started!

Davros 1

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

I am attempting to make these plot summaries less lengthy, less detailed, and—perhaps most importantly—less spoiler-filled (though spoilers will always be available here, so be warned!). Please bear with me as I work toward that end. Detailed summaries are usually available at the Doctor Who Reference Guide and the TARDIS Wiki (see the sidebar for links).

Part One: In a flashback, the Kaled scientist Davros survives a bombardment by the Thals, but sustains horrible injuries. His people expect him to die honorably at his own hand, and they give him a poison injector. Davros, instead, chooses to live, that a stronger race may replace the Kaleds.

Arnold Baynes, the CEO of the corporation TAI, and his wife Lorraine (a dedicated scholar of the Daleks and Davros) steal the body of Davros from a freighter. They transport him to their home planet and facilities, planning to revive him. As they do so, they get more than they bargained for, when the Doctor arrives. Over the Doctor’s protests, they revive Davros—and offer him a job in research and development. Seizing an opportunity, they force the Doctor to join them as well—and to work with his old enemy. The Doctor agrees, planning to keep an eye on Davros. Soon the two old enemies are playing the Baynes and their associates against each other, each trying to expose the other as a villain and interfere with each other’s plans.

Along the way the Doctor meets an investigative reporter named Willis, and the two assist each other with their own goals. Meanwhile Davros continues to have flashbacks to his early life, before the Daleks, and examines his own mind and upbringing. As things progress, Davros does at first seem to have turned over a new leaf; he produces technologies which will help address famine in the galaxy, and a formula that will give mastery over the stock market. Meanwhile the Doctor produces a new neural matrix. One of the Baynes’ employees, Kim Todd, leads the Doctor and Willis to a hidden production area that manufactures mining robots, and the Doctor discovers that the new matrix has been implanted into them, which makes them very dangerous indeed. Suddenly one of the robots activates, and attacks…

Part Two: As Arnold speaks with Davros, he gets an alert about the robots. Davros takes the opportunity to insinuate that the Doctor may be responsible—and maliciously so. Baynes and his guards destroy the robot, but Baynes accuses the Doctor of provoking it, and has him locked in his room. Meanwhile, Davros begins to corrupt Lorraine, telling her about what he can do with the stock market formula, and the power it could give him; but he slips and refers to her as Shan, which is the name of a female Kaled scientist of whom he was once fond.  Nevertheless, Lorraine keeps the formula secret from Arnold. Instead, she discusses the Doctor and Willis with Arnold; he wants to deport them, but she wants to have them killed, so as to prevent them from linking the Baynes to the attack on the freighter. Davros intervenes and asks to have the Doctor kept close at hand, but under surveillance, to which Arnold agrees.

Davros then contacts Willis and reports that Baynes possesses an atomic bomb, which is highly illegal. He gives Willis the bomb as proof, and also tells him about the stock formula. However he warns Willis that, should Willis share the formula with everyone, stock would become meaningless, and the economy would collapse into anarchy. This is what Davros wants, however, as he could then implement a new, war-based economy and power structure. Willis is appalled, and asks the Doctor to meet him in the mines beneath the company dome. However, Arnold hears this and tags along.

Davros collects Kim, needing her to transmit the formula and other messages on the galactic data net (as he lacks the authorization to do so). Lorraine arrives, and Davros tells her about Shan, the woman who first proposed the idea of the Daleks to him—even the word itself. However, he also explains that it was he who put the idea into practice, and he denies that he loved Shan, or anyone. He then explains how he had her framed and killed for treason, and refused to even credit her for the scientific matters. Now, Lorraine will witness as he destroys his enemies again. And with that, he activates the detonation sequence on the bomb—which, of course, he himself built. Beneath the dome, the Doctor is able save himself, Willis, and Arnold, but only by dropping the bomb down a fifteen-mile-deep mine shaft before it detonates. The mines are still heavily damaged and polluted—but the dome above is intact. Water begins to flood into the mines, clearing enough of the irradiated environment to prevent them from dying at once—but Arnold and Willis are separated from the Doctor. In that opportunity, Arnold kills Willis to prevent him from ever revealing what he knows. He manages to make it look like an accident, fooling the Doctor as well. Meanwhile, Davros strongarms Lorraine into making him the new CEO, on the assumption that Arnold is dead.  He orders Kim to transmit the formula; she refuses, and he punishes her, and threatens her with death if she disobeys again. He also tells Lorraine to begin liquidating TAI’s assets to fund a mercenary army…while money still means anything at all.

The Doctor and Arnold escape the mines, but the dome is sealed. However, the Doctor has an unexpected ace—his TARDIS is nearby. He uses it to transport them into the sector where Davros waits. Lorraine quickly tells them what Davros is doing. The Doctor pauses to summon the mining robots to help them, but Arnold runs to confront Davros. He takes the chance to try to enlist Davros in a scheme to save the company and grow rich—but if Davros won’t, well, he can still escape in Arnold’s personal ship, which is close by. Davros fires electricity at Arnold to torture him into revealing the access code; Arnold dies, and Davros prepares to flee. The Doctor holds Davros at gunpoint, but Davros knows the Doctor won’t shoot him; he takes Kim hostage using the Kaled poison injector, and demands the formula disc. The Doctor instead shoots the communications console. Davros flees with Kim into the ship, making one last unsuccessful attempt to kill the Doctor as he does so. He is enraged, knowing it’s the Doctor who has power over life and death here, not him. The ship launches. Lorraine reveals that as long as it is in the atmosphere, they can override its controls; but Davros realizes it as well, and tries to activate the hyperdrive and escape, knowing the Doctor won’t cause a crash with Kim aboard. Kim realizes it as well, and grabs the injector and kills herself with it. The Doctor then steers the ship back toward the planet, and—not without regret—activates the hyperdrive, crashing the ship.

Still, he fears that Davros is not truly dead. TAI is not dead, either; and with no evidence that Davros was ever here, it will rebuild. This leaves the Doctor angry, and he downloads the records of the ship’s last flight—the one in which Davros was pulled from the freighter. He intends to use it to see Lorraine held responsible—even though he blames himself for all the deaths.

Davros 2

Unlike the previous entry, Omega, there’s no big twist here. That’s largely due to the fact that this story serves as a bridge between two well-known Davros stories: Season 21’s Resurrection of the Daleks and Season 22’s Revelation of the Daleks. You can only do so much with the plot when you already know where you have to land, as a general rule. I should point out that the story isn’t entirely successful as a bridge; it ties nicely into Revelation, but not so much into Resurrection. I’d go so far as to suggest that there really should be another Davros story between Resurrection and Davros, explaining how he gets from the prison station (or its pod) and his encounter with the Movellan virus, to the freighter where he begins this story in apparent good health. (Well, good for Davros, that is.) Maybe one day we’ll get that story.

What we have, instead of a twist, is another great character study for Davros. All of his stories tend to turn into character studies, really; he’s such a fascinating character that, despite the fact that he’s actually a very one-note individual, we never feel like we get to the bottom of his characterization. Even if the things he says about power are appalling, I could listen to him rant about them all day, simply because he believes them so strongly. The man is evil, no question about it—but he believes in what he says. I don’t even suggest that he believes he’s right; every average villain believes that about himself. Davros doesn’t care if he’s right; he has, quite simply, made his choice, and he stands (er, sits) by it. I have yet to find a Davros story I didn’t like, simply because that’s such a rare and unflinching trait for a villain (or even a hero!). And of course the Doctor, when it comes down to it, is not that different; while he does believe in doing what’s right, he has less justification for the rightness of his actions than he has conviction that he is right. Davros, perhaps—no, definitely–sees the similarity more than the Doctor does…and so their conflict goes on.

Fifteen years may have passed since Terry Molloy played Davros, but he hasn’t lost it at all. He’s as convincing here as ever, despite being in what is, admittedly, a very contrived situation (the Baynes’ hero worship of him, their desire to give him a job, etc.). Or maybe it’s not so contrived—after all, America is currently seeing a resurgence of the Neo-Nazi movement, which isn’t so different. At any rate, Molloy’s performance is spectacular. Supporting actors aren’t bad, but they don’t stand out, either; however, this audio does set the foundation for 2006’s I, Davros series, in which Molloy, Katarina Olsson, and David Bickerstaff would reprise the roles of Davros, Shan, and Ral. That series would take the flashbacks present here and expand on them, delving into Davros’s early life up to a period about six months prior to Genesis of the Daleks. I should also mention that a few other veteran DW actors appear here: Bernard Horsfall (most notably, Chancellor Goth) and Wendy Padbury (Zoe Heriot) play the roles of Arnold and Lorraine Baynes here. Lorraine Baynes, in particular, is likely a nod to the character of the same name (spelled “Baines”) from Back to the Future.

Researching this story, I found unofficial statements to the effect that this is chronologically the earliest audio appearance for the Sixth Doctor (in-universe, that is), but I could find no actual justification for that placement. His companion at this point is Peri, but she is absent here; he mentions in passing that she is attending a biology symposium on the other side of the galaxy. I also saw a suggestion that the story occurs between The Two Doctors and Timelash. If anyone has any further information regarding any part of this placement, I’d love to hear it! As for the in-universe date, there isn’t one, as is common with most stories involving Davros, Skaro, or even Gallifrey. (Davros may occasionally time travel, as do the Daleks, but when dealing with his natural lifetime, the writers have always been reluctant to pin it down. Some events just never really get a solid placement, I suppose.) However, humanity doesn’t appear to have spread outside its home galaxy yet, so we’re not dealing with the far future.

Continuity References: There are numerous items that will be picked up on in I, Davros, so I won’t list them separately. Davros mentions the Fifth Doctor threatening him in Resurrection of the Daleks, and he describes his own imprisonment as discussed in that story. Arnold Baynes mentions that Davros was ostensibly killed by the Daleks shortly after their creation (Genesis of the Daleks). The reporter Willis mentions having reported on events on the planet Stella Stora in which the Doctor was involved (referenced in Terror of the Vervoids). Davros claims to have no eyes, ears (or at least the receptors in his ears), or taste buds, all due to the Thal bombardment that nearly killed him, but this is ultimately contradicted by The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, in which Davros uses his natural eyes. Also, not so much a reference as a lack of one, but I was disappointed to find that there were no references to the upcoming Zagreus here, as we had in the preceding story. Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

Overall: No complaints here. As I said, I have yet to meet a Davros story I don’t like. I’m glad to have taken the time to listen to this one.

Next time: The Seventh Doctor faces another old enemy in Master! 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.

Davros

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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: To Cut a Blade of Grass

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to To Cut a Blade of Grass from the Short Trips, Volume IV anthology. Featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown, this story was written by Cindy Garland, and read by Colin Baker. 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.

A woman named Rosie stands in a parking lot, staring up at the stars and feeling alienated, knowing difficult times are ahead. Then she enters the hospital.

Hospitals are strange places, in both time and space. Rosie visits her father, who is both there and not; he stares into space, ignorant of the television. His stroke has taken away his ability to speak, so she speaks to him, in a whisper that she can’t explain even to herself. She babbles about the weather, watching his reactions, knowing he sees through her. Finally he silences her and tries to speak, but she cannot understand him. At length, he sleeps.

The nurse reassures Rosie that her father is the same as before; he is simply tired from his other visitor. Other visitor? Rosie didn’t know anyone else was coming. The nurse describes him as eccentric, with a strange dress sense, and an ageless look under curly blonde hair.

Rosie visits a nearby café, then returns. She finds a new nurse—short, dark-haired, with an American accent—helping her father into a wheelchair; the nurse says he is to sit up for fifteen minutes each day as part of his therapy. The nurse leaves them alone together; Rosie stays until visiting hours end. She is a mile away from the hospital when she gets a call: her father is missing.

Rosie immediately suspects the nurse, and discovers that no nurse of that description is employed at the hospital. She races back to the hospital—and find that her father has reappeared. Everyone is apologetic, but no good explanation is forthcoming—just an alleged error. However, he seems better, somehow.

Rosie stands outside a moment, when she is interrupted by a stranger offering her…parsnips? She is stunned for a moment, but the man’s manner is disarming enough—and he is certainly eccentric. She has a hunch… ”Do you know my father?” The man does, and introduces himself as John Smith. He assures her that her father is very proud of her, and talks of her often. She isn’t sure, and feels compelled to explain; she is an aspiring writer, with high marks and considerable skill, but little success; when her father’s convalescence is complete, she intends to go back for a business degree instead. The man questions her decision; in the grand scheme of things, even though business will feed a person, great works of art endure. Rosie’s phone rings, and she turns to answer it; when she turns back, John Smith has vanished.

Aboard the TARDIS, the Doctor is in a morose mood. Peri remarks on it, and tells the Doctor that what he did for the old man was quite kind—taking him to the future to see his daughter’s wedding, his grandchildren, his daughter’s eventual death. Isn’t this forbidden, though? Well, perhaps the Doctor bent the rules a bit—after all, he didn’t change anything, or at least, nothing unintentional. The man was Walter Wibberley, a baker, a man of no great repute; the Doctor met him over some excellent Cornish pasties. The Doctor became first his customer, and then his friend. Though he knew the Doctor was a Time Lord, they never traveled together; but the Doctor gave him a telescope, which he treasured. Peri thinks the man must have done something of significance; but the Doctor says no, he simply liked to look at the stars and bake things.

Still, Peri has a point; most of the Doctor’s friends are people of great accomplishments. Walter was not so, but what he did, he did very well; and that was often enough to improve the day—and the life—of a man like the Doctor. He is gone now, the Doctor admits. However, the Doctor says that he didn’t come to make Walter happy; he came to keep Rosie from giving up on her writing. Even in this she won’t be successful; but if she chooses business, she won’t work at a bookshop one day, where she won’t meet her husband. You see, if she does meet him, she will form a habit of slipping love poems into his pockets. One day he will read one on the train, and smile at another man, who will in turn make more human decisions at his company. The cleaning lady at that company will therefore keep her job, and will buy her son an electronic kit, which will lead him to become an engineer, who will design a component of a deep-space telescope that will therefore last much longer than expected, allowing humanity to make some great discoveries, which will further humanity’s history. So, Walter does do something great…just, not on his own. After all, all things are connected, and everyone matters, regardless of fame. As the old proverb says, “To cut a blade of grass is to shake the universe”. Now, what could be more appropriate than pasties for dinner…and parsnips, of course?

Short Trips Volume 4 b

To Cut a Blade of Grass is a sentimental story—let’s say that up front. I find it fascinating that, the more such stories I hear, the more obvious it becomes that Colin Baker’s Doctor—long known for being the most abrasive—is well suited to this type of story. I thought for a long time about why that would be so; all I can conclude is that his strong emotions aren’t limited to anger, but rather, cover the full range. All the various Doctors are passionate, but none more so than Six, and it shows here.

In this story, the Doctor visits an old friend who is dying, and in the course of it he makes a casual—but supremely lasting—impact on the old friend’s daughter. The Doctor is not a character given to introspection, or to revisiting his own past—how many companions has he abandoned, never to return (Tenth Doctor farewell tour notwithstanding)?—so when he does it, it has impact. Personally, I think the short trip format—especially the extra-short version found in these early anthologies—is better suited to this sort of thoughtful, non-action, human-interest story; but given that the previous entry was a decent action story, your mileage may vary.

I compared an earlier story in this anthology, The Old Rogue, to another much later Short Trip, Forever Fallen. Both stories feature the Doctor and a companion checking up on an old dictator serving exile in a café, with varying results. I feel compelled to also compare this story to Forever Fallen in a different regard. Both stories feature situations where the changes the Doctor makes are not about the individual at hand, but about someone else further down the road, who will be influenced for the better. It’s the chain reaction, the often-cliched butterfly effect; or as the Doctor puts it, “To cut a blade of grass is to shake the universe.”

There are no continuity references of note here, so to sum up: I enjoyed this one. It’s a side of Colin Baker’s Doctor that we don’t always get to see; but when we do, it’s always good. This one is worth a listen. (Actually, I should amend my statement; the Doctor does call himself “John Smith” here, which dates back at least to The Wheel in Space, and in the Doctor’s timeline even further, as seen in The Vampires of Venice.)

Next time: We’re nearly done with the anthologies! We’ll check in with the Seventh Doctor and Ace in The Shadow Trader. 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: Doctor Who and the Pirates

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week—and after a very long delay (more on that later)—we’re listening to the forty-third entry in the Main Range of audios, Doctor Who and the Pirates! (This story is also subtitled, in true Gilbert and Sullivan fashion, as or, The Lass That Lost a Sailor.) Written by Jaqueline Rayner, and directed by Barnaby Edwards, this, err, unusual story is the first musical entry into Big Finish’s catalog, and features the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables). The story was released in April 2003. Let’s get started!

Doctor Who and the Pirates 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:

Evelyn drops in unexpectedly on one of her students, Sally. Over Sally’s repeated and strident objections, she begins telling Sally an unlikely story—one in which Evelyn, accompanied by a bombastic time traveler called the Doctor, landed their time machine, the TARDIS, in the hold of a sailing ship, the Sea Eagle. Unfortunately, that ship was in the middle of being captured by pirates, and its crew—to the horror of their captain—are throwing in their lot with the pirates.

Evelyn is no great storyteller, and her story is a mess of elisions, corrections, and clichés, such that Sally finds it impossible to believe—and Sally says as much. Nevertheless, Evelyn persists, first describing the capture of the ship and the murder of its first mate, then moving on to the theft of the TARDIS by the pirates. At last, Evelyn—in the story, that is—is left in a barrel on the sinking (and now burning!) ship, while the pirate captain turns instruments of torture on the Doctor. Sally believes none of this…until the Doctor himself enters her flat, and takes over the story.

Part Two:

The Doctor makes tea, and Evelyn brings him up to speed on what she has already revealed. They decide to split the storytelling, with Evelyn telling her experiences and the Doctor telling his. Evelyn picks up with story-Evelyn still in a barrel on the burning ship, and the captain, Swan, lashed to the mast above. However, a cabin girl—conveniently named Sally—rescues Evelyn, prompting the real Sally to object. The Doctor gently persuades Evelyn not to insert Sally into the story; the cabin boy’s real name was Jem. Evelyn continues.

Jem frees Evelyn and Swan, and in the absence of any boats or firefighting tools, helps them lash together a raft from deck planks. Meanwhile the pirate captain, Red Jasper, and his first mate Merryweather, prepare to torture the Docor. They want to know where to find a man named One-Eyed Trent, who possesses a treasure map for the Ruby Islands. The Doctor knows nothing, and gets Jasper to explain his history with Trent, in which their former captain hid the treasure. The captain and crew were then arrested and/or killed, but Jasper survived, and Trent’s body was not among the dead. Jasper had assumed Trent betrayed them; he then trailed the man to England before losing him. He now seeks any mention of Trent or the treasure, and refuses to admit defeat. Believing the Sea Eagle crew to know something, he kills one of them, and plans to continue killing them until someone talks.

Evelyn, Jem, and Swan paddle the raft, with some argument from Swan. Jem tells her that his father told him about the Ruby Islands and the treasure hidden on one of them, a donkey-shaped island; he also has his father’s compass, which Evelyn uses to steer them. However, they don’t find the islands, but rather, a ship—probably the pirate ship. Meanwhile, present-day Evelyn doesn’t want to continue the story; she knows the tragedy that is coming. The Doctor takes over, and details his confrontation with Jasper, who insists that the treasure is worth a few lives. The mate, Merryweather, insists that the Doctor doesn’t understand the life of a pirate; the Doctor denies this, and to everyone’s horror, begins to sing: I am the very model of a Gallifreyan buccaneer…

Part Three:

The Doctor tries, in his song, to convince Merryweather that murder is the wrong choice; Merryweather agrees, but insists he will follow his captain’s orders. The Doctor insists he wants to understand Merryweather’s thinking; and so Merryweather and the pirates respond with a song of their own, justifying their obedience. To the Doctor’s surprise, Sally joins this song, acknowledging blood on her own hands. The Doctor joins in as well, singing a counterpoint. Sally, now fully engrossed in the song, admits she is ready to accept blame and give it all up, despite the Doctor’s arguments.

In the present, Evelyn quietly admits that she knows why Sally joined in. Sally was involved in an auto accident that killed her lover, and she blames herself for driving too fast for the road conditions. Though she couches it in metaphor, it appears she intends to kill herself, out of guilt.

The Doctor brings more tea, and the story resumes. Evelyn and Jem plan to board the ship and try to reach safety in the TARDIS; Swan, however, refuses to stow away, considering it an affront to his dignity as captain. Instead, he wants his crew to admit their errors and accept him back as captain. Meanwhile the Doctor and Merryweather continue to debate—in song, at that—and they engage in a contest of piratical skills. The Doctor tricks Merryweather—now quite intoxicated from drinking more rum than the Doctor—into walking the plank. Evelyn, Jem, and Swan hear the mate fall overboard, but can’t reach him; but this distracts the pirates and lets Evelyn and Jem climb aboard. Swan refuses, and stays behind on the raft. Meanwhile Jasper accuses the Doctor of mutiny, and the pirates prepare to kill him. However, the Doctor sees Evelyn and Jem arrive, and bluffs, telling the pirates that he serves “Evil Evelyn”, the most dreaded pirate of all, captain of the Lecturer’s Revenge! She tries to help him, but her warning pistol shot uses up all Jem’s gunpowder, and the bluff fails.

Merryweather, humiliated, climbs back to the deck, and Jasper has him lock up the Doctor. He confronts Evelyn and Jem and threatens to kill them. One of the Sea Eagle sailors, John Johnson, protests; but for his trouble, Jasper cuts out his tongue and makes him eat it.  Evelyn tries to calm the pirates with chocolate, but to no avail. She and Jem are dragged away. Hearing this, the Doctor breaks out of the hold, but Jasper makes him walk the plank.

Part Four:

The Doctor falls in, witnessed by Evelyn and Jem from Jasper’s cabin. She breaks the sternlight and directs the Doctor to the raft, where Swan still waits. As the ship starts to leave the raft behind, Evelyn throws the compass to the Doctor and directs him south-southwest. Jasper enters, and confronts Evelyn—who, not knowing about Jasper’s obsession, asks to be let off at the Ruby Islands that Jem had mentioned. Jasper confronts Jem, who admits that his father told him about the islands. His father, it is revealed, was One-Eyed Trent…but Jem knows nothing about any map. Jasper starts to beat him. Present-day Evelyn can’t continue the story at this point, because she blames herself for what happened next; the Doctor sadly confirms that Jasper refused to believe Jem, and beat him to death. Evelyn comments that she has learned there are no happy endings in real life. Sally agrees; she believes real stories only end one way. The Doctor insists that it doesn’t have to be that way; that when one story ends, another begins. He continues the story, relieving Evelyn of the burden—and this time without singing.

The Doctor and Swan reach the Ruby Islands, and search for the one shaped like a donkey. Using one island as a vantage point, the Doctor climbs a tree, and sees two likely islands—but is interrupted by Swan, who claims a dragon is chasing him. As Swan climbs the tree, the Doctor drops the compass. Swan reveals that he has a spyglass, which the Doctor uses to verify that one of the islands is the likely choice—and that the “dragon” was just an iguana. They climb down, and in the fragments of the compass, they find a treasure map.

The Doctor skips ahead in the story, glossing over the hunt for the treasure. He and Swan find the treasure—a cache of rubies—before the pirates arrive; but now they have to recover Evelyn, the TARDIS, and of course Swan’s crew, who are still in league with the pirates. The ship lands, and Jasper uses a boat to lead a party ashore. The Doctor finds that Swan let the raft drift away; and so he uses a few rubies to bribe the boat guards to let them board the ship. As they approach, the Doctor swims to the side of the ship, while Swan announces himself to his sailors. He claims to have the map, and Merryweather takes him on board. Merryweather takes the map, knowing it will fetch a reward from Jasper, and locks Swan up.

When Merryweather departs for the island, the Doctor slips aboard and frees Swan. He locate Evelyn, who is crying over Jem’s body. Meanwhile Swan tries to convince his crew to return to him; he fails, until the Doctor and Evelyn arrive with Jem’s body. The sight shames them, and they agree to switch allegiances back to Swan. They take control of the ship and sail away, leaving Jasper and the pirates to their fate. However, the Doctor explains that Jasper, Merryweather and the pirates followed the directions on the map…only to find a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey waiting, courtesy of the Doctor.

The Doctor and Evelyn opt to leave the rubies with Swan, considering what they have already cost. They leave him practicing his speech for the Queen. Evelyn is shaken by the events, but the Doctor points out that this means she can still be shocked by evil. Nevertheless, she needs a rest, and so the Doctor takes her home…leading to the current events with Sally. At the end of the story, Evelyn is tired again, and the Doctor lets her go home, assuring her he won’t leave without her. After she leaves, the Doctor produces a letter that was waiting for Evelyn at home—one written by Sally, announcing her suicide, which Sally has only just mailed before Evelyn’s arrival! The Doctor explains that he had taken Evelyn back in time by one night, to allow her a chance to talk to Sally and perhaps prevent this tragedy. The story reminds sally that, as the Doctor says, if you make it through the night, it can seem better in the morning. He leaves Sally in the morning light, with the knowledge that Evelyn cares, and some hope for the future.

Doctor Who and the Pirates 2

Credit to Martin Geraghty, DWM 329

I fear, up front, that this will be an “unpopular opinion” post, as I know this story is generally well-liked. I struggled with it, however; it took me multiple attempts to get through it, over a period of a few months, and even then I had trouble paying attention to it. I don’t have a solid explanation for why; I don’t think it’s because of the musical nature of the presentation, as the songs are all found in part three, whereas I had trouble with the entire story.

With all that said, I think that it’s a cleverly constructed story. The frame story, in which Evelyn and later the Doctor visit Sally, one of Evelyn’s students, seems irrelevant at first. Later, however, you find that the story Evelyn is telling is not just important to Sally, but vital—life-changing, even. That reveal is a bit sudden, but it’s less “deus ex machina” and more “Wait, did she mean what I think she means?” Yes, yes she did. This also adds some gravity to what would otherwise be just a silly story; I won’t say why that is, but it’s enough to make you reconsider your view of the entire performance.

I’ve been aware for some time that Evelyn’s overall arc is a sad one; I don’t yet know how it ends (and please don’t spoil it!), but I know it’s not going to end well. This story adds another brick to that edifice; there’s a sense of foreboding to Evelyn here. For once, even the Sixth Doctor is somber as we approach the end of the story—partly because of Sally’s issues, but also, I think, because of Evelyn’s. It’s enough to make me dread what lies ahead, though I am certainly looking forward to getting there.

The songs in part three are all homages (or parodies, if you prefer) of musical tunes and sea shanties, mostly from Gilbert and Sullivan shows. This is not a form of media with which I’ve had much experience, and I only recognized one of the source tunes from which the songs were constructed (“I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”, from The Pirates of Penzance, and thank you, Star Trek, for that one! Here it is rendered as “I Am the Very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer”). The tunes are catchy, though. One gets the impression that both the Doctor and Colin Baker have been waiting for a chance to sing for a long time (at least since Terror of the Vervoids, according to Mel…). I won’t list all the songs here; but you can find a complete list on the TARDIS wiki’s page for this story.

Continuity references: Hold on to your three-cornered hat, because there are a lot of these! Most occur in the Doctor’s previously-mentioned “I Am the Very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer” song, rattled off in rapid-fire mode. He mentions the following:

  • The Death Zone and the Game of Rassilon (The Five Doctors)
  • His Gallifreyan presidencies (The Invasion of TimeThe Ancestor CellTime In OfficeThe Five Doctors, and if we play with the timelines, the Sixth Doctor himself in *The Quantum Archangel)
  • Tobias Vaughn (The Invasion)
  • Mavic Chen (The Daleks’ Master Plan)
  • Viking hordes (The Time Meddler)
  • Daleks (The Daleks, many MANY others)
  • Quarks (The Dominators)
  • Cybermen (The Tenth Planet, et al.)
  • Autons (Spearhead from Space, et al.)
  • Axons (The Claws of Axos)
  • Daemons (The Daemons)
  • Krotons (The Krotons)
  • Monoids (The Ark)
  • Vampires (State of Decay, stories in other media)
  • Voords [sic; I think it should be “Voord”, but he adds the -s] (The Keys of Marinus)
  • Manussa (Snakedance)
  • Dulkis (The Dominators)
  • Skonnos (The Horns of Nimon)
  • Tigella (Meglos)
  • He quotes Drax’s line from The Armageddon Factor: “Remember me to Gallifrey!” (here pronounced as “Gallifree”, for the sake of rhyming the previous line of the song.)
  • As well, he mentions Hecate from K9 and Company, though the canonicity is doubtful, and he wouldn’t have been there to know that story.
  • The Great Fire of London (The Visitation; not mentioned in the song)

Interestingly, all the above are from television episodes; I’ve made connections to a few stories in other media, but none of those are necessary for the references.

Overall: Not a bad performance, but not my cup of tea. While the story has value as part of Evelyn’s arc, it’s been the most difficult part for me to digest so far. Still, if musicals (and pirates!) are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy it much more than I did. For myself, I’m happy to move on.

Next time: After much delay, we rejoin the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa in the experimentally non-linear Creatures of Beauty! 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.

Doctor Who and the Pirates, or, The Lass That Lost a Sailor

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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.

Short Trips Volume 3 b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Trips, Volume 3

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