Novel Review: All-Consuming Fire

We’re back! Almost caught up now. Today we’re looking at the twenty-seventh entry in the New Adventures novel series: Andy Lane’s All-Consuming Fire. Published in June 1994, and featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Benny, this novel takes a turn even further into fiction with an appearance by none other than Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson! That should be interesting. So, let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead! For a more spoiler-free review, scroll down to the line divider, below.

In 1887, a secret and most interesting library stands in London: the Library of St John the Beheaded, visited only by those in the know. And, despite its most impressive security, it has been robbed. Several rare and important books have been stolen—books which, if properly used, may lead to another world. A case of such import deserves the best; and so, at the behest of none other than the Pope, Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Watson, take the case.

They are not alone in their efforts. Also at work is a strange and mysterious figure, one who has been associated with the library under various faces: A man calling himself The Doctor. There’s one problem: The Doctor himself was the last to read the books—and thus, he himself is a suspect!

One thing is sure: this case won’t be easy. It will take Holmes, Watson, and the Doctor to places they never expected to go—from a séance in a rundown brothel, to the rugged and hot provinces of central India, to a world called Ry’leh that is populated with monstrosities, to perhaps the strangest place of all: San Francisco (!). Moreover, the case will prove to be personal for Holmes, much more so than even the great detective ever anticipated. The only question remaining is, will any of them survive?


One of the great things about the VNAs is the capacity for experimentation. Typically that means more sex, profanity, and violence than television would allow; but sometimes there’s experimentation with other conventions as well. Here, we have experimentation with the format itself. This novel takes the form of a book within a book. The frame of the story consists of the Doctor, Benny, and Ace discussing their adventure with Holmes and Watson (which are pen names for the real individuals; their real names are not given). The Doctor hands Benny a book by Arthur Conan Doyle, titled The Strange Case of the All-Consuming Fire (or, more fully, “All-Consuming Fire: Being a Reprint From the Reminiscences of Doctor John Watson As Edited by Arthur Conan Doyle”), which is Doyle’s (and by extension, Watson’s) take on their adventures. (Benny isn’t particular impressed; she implies that it took liberties with the real events.) The rest of the book, in the middle, is the text of Doyle’s book; therefore, as with most of Doyle’s works, it is presented in first person from Watson’s perspective (with occasional excerpts from Benny’s diary, as provided by her to Watson).

And now, confession time: I have never read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s one of those things that has perpetually been “on the list”, but I’ve never made it to them yet. I’m familiar with some of them through highly abridged junior versions from my school days, or from various adaptations, but I haven’t read the original works. Therefore, as much as I’d like to, I can’t comment on how convincing the presentation is (given that it purports to be a Doyle book). On the bright side, that left me with no preconceptions about it; and I will say that Lane does a convincing job of making it seem period-appropriate. That’s good enough for me!

Not emphasized is the H.P. Lovecraft influence on this story. Given that the story takes place three years before Lovecraft’s birth, it’s no wonder his name is never referenced—but his work forms the entire foundation of the book. And while I’m not particularly familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories, I am an unabashed Lovecraft fan (well, except for the racism and all—I like his work, not the man himself as much). So there’s reference here to several features of the Cthulhu Mythos, including Cthulhu himself (in a reference back to the events of White Darkness). This story’s ultimate villain, Azathoth, is a Lovecraft reference; it is a being that became a major figure in the mythos after Lovecraft’s death, although he himself died before he could give it more than a passing reference in the short story of the same name. Both Cthulhu and Azathoth—along with Hastur the Unspeakable (aka Fenric), Lloigor (aka the Animus, from the planet Vortis), Dagon, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth (possibly the Great Intelligence, by the Doctor’s implication), and the Gods of Ragnarok—are Great Old Ones, that collective group of beings from the universe prior to our own. The planet Ry’leh is undoubtedly a reference to R’lyeh (slightly different spelling), the island city from The Call of Cthulhu. It’s a bit strange to see all of these references and not have them called out as such; it almost makes them into a part of the background. The Doctor, of course, takes it all in stride, as do Ace and Benny—this is nothing new for them—but even Watson’s reactions are more subdued than I would have expected. Holmes is the only one who is rattled by the entire situation; but Watson explains that that is because, on Ry’leh, all of the familiar conventions that Holmes relies on for his famous deductions, are not present. He’s perhaps more adrift than anyone, simply because on Earth he’s more grounded than most.

As if tracking the Doctor’s course isn’t difficult enough, there’s a short time skip at the end, at least for him. The Doctor, Holmes and Watson, and Ace and Benny, end up stranded in San Francisco in 1906—two decades after the time from which they departed. Watson briefly thinks about whether they’ll get back home; but in the moment, the Doctor excuses himself, and next thing anyone knows, the TARDIS is materializing to take them all back. The Doctor admits that he left them and spent three months traveling back to London to retrieve the TARDIS, then traveled back to the same moment to retrieve them. It’s a fairly minor point (and exactly the kind of thing the series usually avoids, because if the Doctor can do this sort of thing, why doesn’t he always do it?). I mention it, though, because I’ve noticed throughout the VNAs that the Seventh Doctor is very good at piloting the TARDIS where he wants it to go. Previous incarnations were never so good. This is consistent throughout his time, as well (or at least as much of it as I’ve experienced); it’s a minor plot point in television serials as well, for example Delta and the Bannermen, which was during Mel’s time as a companion. I had always assumed this was something that developed during the Time War, and that we didn’t see it until the new series, but apparently not. This matters, though, because some sources imply that the yet-to-be-born Seventh Doctor took control of the Sixth Doctor’s body and flew the TARDIS into the path of the Rani’s weapons in order to bring about the Sixth Doctor’s deaths. (We’ll get to that in a later novel, but it’s worth mentioning now.) The fact that he has this degree of skill would add weight to that theory.

Continuity References: I’ve mentioned several already, but in addition: The Library of St John the Beheaded was mentioned in Theatre of War and will show up again several times. The Gods of Ragnarok are a reference to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. The Doctor mentions the Raston Warrior Robot (The Five Doctors). The Seventh Doctor’s fob watch is the same one carried by the First Doctor (it’s unclear if it’s also the same as the Tenth Doctor’s watch from Human Nature/The Family of Blood). Holmes and Watson will show up in other stories, most notably in Happy Endings (but then, everyone shows up in Happy Endings…); not all stories will treat them as real people, unfortunately. Ace says her smart missiles—perhaps a little too smart—deserted her on Peladon to form a union with mining machinery (Legacy). Silurians are mentioned (The Silurians, et al.) Benny mentions the planet Terserus (several stories, but probably most famously from The Curse of Fatal Death). The Doctor’s pants are still dirty from Menaxus (Theatre of War; seriously, do your laundry, Doctor). The Third Doctor briefly appears in the Diogenes Club; the Seventh Doctor gets him kicked out. The Doctor leaves the TARDIS with George Litefoot (The Talons of Weng-Chiang, many others). The Doctor reads Adventures Amongst the Abominable Snowmen by Redvers Fenn-Cooper (Ghost Light; completely by coincidence, I happened to rewatch Ghost Light while I was reading this book, so seeing the name pop up again was an unexpected treat). A cult of Shobogans is mentioned (The Deadly Assassin). Shlangii mercenaries appear here; they were first mentioned in The Ribos Operation. Holmes says “sleep is for tortoises”, a line previously said by the Fourth Doctor (The Talons of Weng-Chiang). Not a DW reference, but a Holmes reference: The giant rat of Sumatra is implied to have been from Ry’leh. The library contains a copy of Love’s Labours Wonne (Theatre of WarThe Shakespeare Code) and documents about the Loch Ness Monster (Terror of the Zygons). Sabalom Glitz is mentioned (Dragonfire; it’s implied that Ace may have lost her virginity to Glitz). The Doctor and Benny also make a number of quick, offhand references to various stories, too many to list here (I’ve already gone on too long); for a full list, see the Discontinuity Guide for this story.

Overall: This one is pretty good. Not quite the page-turner that I found the next entry to be, but that’s just personal preference; you will probably enjoy this one too. It’s refreshingly different, and in a good way (we’ll get a bad example of “different” soon).

Next time: We’ll revisit E-Space (and gangland Chicago!) in Terrance Dicks’s Blood Harvest. See you there!

A prelude to All-Consuming Fire can be found here. An audio adaptation by Big Finish Productions may be purchased here.

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

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Novel Review: Legacy

We’re back! Today, we’re reviewing the next entry in the New Adventures series of Seventh Doctor novels, Gary Russell’s Legacy. The twenty-fifth novel in the series, this book was published in April 1994 (nearly 27 years ago!), and features the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Bernice. Let’s get started!

Some spoilers ahead! For a more spoiler-free review, skip down to the line divider, below.

The Doctor is in pursuit of a murderer. That would be bad enough, but there’s a complication: The victim was the daughter of the leader of the Galactic Federation. She was killed due to her pursuit of an ancient, and possibly evil, artifact called the Diadem—on a world very familiar to the Doctor: Peladon.

The Doctor takes Bernice to Peladon to search for the murderer in the midst of King Tarrol’s Restatement ceremony, an occasion with delegations from across the Federation in attendance, including a delegation of Ice Warriors, much to Benny’s delight. Meanwhile he sends Ace to the planet Pakha, home of the slain woman’s partner in the archaeological expedition, to follow up on the Diadem itself.

But one murder is never enough for the power-hungry, and more people fall victim to the murderer. Nothing is as it appears, and the real villain (or villains, perhaps?) will not be who anyone expects—least of all the Doctor.

Not that anyone is worried about the Doctor’s opinion—after all, he just became the next victim.

I fear that I’ve waited too long to review this story—about fourteen months—and won’t really be able to do it justice. To refresh my memory, I’ve been reading through the excellent and thorough plot summary over on the Doctor Who Reference Guide, and constantly shaking my head at all the details I’ve forgotten. Still, we’ll give it a try!

We revisit an old friend here: the planet Peladon, from the Third Doctor’s era. The Doctor has been here at least four times previously; however, he only mentions two. Out of universe, this is because two of those stories–The Prisoner of Peladon and The Bride of Peladon–are Big Finish audios which had not yet been recorded at this novel’s publication. The two mentioned appearances are television’s The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon, both Third Doctor serials. Placing this story in time is a bit of an exercise, but with a cheat sheet at the end; one could nearly nail it down from various clues, but then later, in the Eighth Doctor Adventures novel Placebo Effect, Russell places this novel in the year 3984. This makes it the third of a series of four visits to Peladon roughly every fifty years: Curse in 3885, Monster in 3935, Legacy in 3985, and (as hopefully one day I’ll cover) Bride in 4035. (Prisoner doesn’t seem to fit the pattern.) Most characters have changed or been replaced since last time; the notable exception is our giant-eyed friend Alpha Centauri, who seems to be particularly long-lived.

It’s perhaps a bit unfair to compare two unrelated stories in this series, but I find it useful here in order to illustrate what I liked about Legacy. The previous book, Tragedy Day, I would describe as complicated; but this one, as complex. Tragedy Day was complicated largely because it was so ambitious; it tries to do, well, everything, and as a result it’s chaotic. It has…I’m trying very hard not to use the phrase too many, because that would be unfair. But, it has a great number of villains, plot threads, and twists, and as such it’s a bit hard to follow. It’s certainly fun along the way, though. Legacy, by contrast, is much more streamlined, but there’s layer upon layer within each plot thread. No character is without secrets here, and you never know until late in the game just who is trustworthy and who isn’t. Every turn of the plot is fully justified—nothing is just for show—but you won’t fully get the justification until the end. It’s a great piece of work.

I was especially pleased with the portrayal of the Ice Warriors here. This didn’t have to be an Ice Warrior story—as a bit of a tell, if you look at the wiki page’s book details box, you won’t find Ice Warriors listed under “Main enemy”. Certainly there’s precedent; they were on Peladon previously. But the Ice Warriors as seen here are not one-dimensional enemies. They’re seen as an honorable society with a certain degree of guilt that they must live with—which is, I think, a view very in line with their occasional portrayals in NuWho. And let’s face it: Doctor Who has enough villains who are always evil, or at least evil from the perspective of the Doctor and his companions. Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, the list could go on; we get the occasional individual whose nature is changed in some way, but as a group they remain villains. The Ice Warriors are better than that, and as such a bit more believable when portrayed fairly, as they are here.

Continuity References: So many that I certainly won’t be able to cover them all, which seems to be a thing with Gary Russell (not that I’m complaining!). In addition to the frequent references to previous Peladon stories, here’s a sampling: Mavic Chen (The Daleks’ Master PlanNeverland) becomes the Guardian of the Solar System. The Dalek War in The Daleks’ Master Plan is noted to be thirty years in the future. The Doctor mentions the events of The Ice Warriors as six hundred years ago (which may or may not be accurate). Space Station Zenobia is seen (The Mysterious Planet. Time Rings are a recent development (recent in Time Lord terms, anyway; Genesis of the Daleks; also Who Killed Kennedy, in which a dangerous prototype was used). The Horus ruins were recently discovered (Pyramids of Mars). Windchimes from Deva Loka make an appearance (Kinda). Cybermen appear to be extinct, although we know that’s not actually true; both New Mondas and Telos have been destroyed (Telos). A Felinetta appears in flashback, their actual first appearance (Invasion of the Cat-People). Various Federation species are mentioned: The Ogri (The Stones of Blood), the Lurmans (Carnival of Monsters), and the Cantryans (Destiny of the Daleks). Benny has memories of Mars that are not her own (Transit). Kaldor City (The Robots of Death) is mentioned as being on Japetus, which is contradicted by later stories. Sontaran fragmentation grenades first appeared in the novelization of Terror of the Autons. There’s a description of unarmored Ice Warriors which will much later prove to be consistent with their portrayal in Cold War. The Time Lord CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency) is mentioned in connection with Chancellor Goth (The War Games, et al.) The Pakhars—whom I haven’t discussed, but whom I find greatly entertaining every time they appear—have a legend about a Daemon asleep on their planet (The Daemons). The Diadem entity is compared to the Mind Parasite from The Mind of Evil. Draconians are mentioned (Frontier in Space). And none of this is getting into references to the recent books in this series!

There are also a few out-of-universe points worth mentioning. An in-universe book is authored by one Grith Robtts, a reference to Gareth Roberts. This story, like Sword of Orion, was originally intended to be audio in the Audio Visuals fan series (Sword actually was produced as an AV; the Orions get a mention in this novel). The TARDIS is seen to have a room that is very much a holodeck, a la Star Trek: The Next Generation, if not called that.

Overall: This novel is a continuity porn dream, something that fans in our fandom tend to love (myself included). Honestly, it amazes me that it’s Gary Russell’s first Doctor Who work (I’ve read others, but out of order), given how thoroughly connected it is. The downside is that it means it’s not very approachable for fans who aren’t well versed in classic Doctor Who. But then again, not every novel should be a jumping-on point for new fans; and there’s nothing wrong with having a story that caters to those of us who have been with the series since time immemorial. If you fall into that category, you’re going to love it. And if not, well, stick around; we have better options for you coming soon!

Next time: We’ll check out one of my favorites so far, and a good Benny story to boot: Justin Richards’s Theatre of War! See you there.

A prelude to Legacy can be found here.

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

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Charity Anthology Review: Regenerations, edited by Kenton Hall, featuring the War Doctor

Nearly seven years ago, I remember sitting in my bedroom with the television on and the lights dimmed. I had put my children—then ages seven and five—to bed early, and locked up the house, and silenced my cell phone, all so that I could watch, uninterrupted, something for which I had waited years: the fiftieth anniversary special of Doctor Who.

And it was worth it. In the years since, there has been much debate over the episode, much of it over on the /r/Gallifrey subreddit (where this post can also be found); but on that night I didn’t care about any of that. I watched and enjoyed the story for everything it represented–fifty years of wonderful stories, of colorful characters, of Doctor after Doctor after Doctor…and something unexpected: a new Doctor! And not even the next one, which we already knew about; but rather, a past Doctor, a hidden Doctor, one the Doctor himself couldn’t bear to bring into the light. Needless to say, I was caught up. (Full disclosure, of course: the actual reveal was in the previous episode—but we knew so little, it may as well have been in the special. I certainly wasn’t disappointed!)

John Hurt’s War Doctor became the glue that held the entire post-Time War continuity together. The Last Great Time War was the event that drove every incarnation of the Doctor, from Eccleston’s Nine to Capaldi’s Twelve; but it took Hurt’s War Doctor to show us just why, and how much, the Doctor loathed himself. So much so that he denied the very name; so much so that he managed to hide the existence of the War Doctor from every instance where he could have been expected to be revealed. But the past doesn’t always stay in the past, even if you’re the Doctor.

Unfortunately, John Hurt was taken too soon. He turned in a few glorious performances as the War Doctor in Big Finish’s audio format; and then he was gone. I one hundred percent respect the BBC’s, and Big Finish’s, decision not to recast him or otherwise continue his legacy. And yet, there’s a part of me, as a fan, that says what everyone was thinking: The War Doctor deserves more.

 

That’s where today’s review comes in. On 03 August 2020, a new War Doctor charity anthology was released; and we’ll be looking at it today. Published by Chinbeard Books, and edited by Kenton Hall, Regenerations is released in support of Invest in ME, a research organization studying treatments for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (the “ME” of the title). I will link to the charity at the end, as well as to the sale page for the anthology. In the meantime, you can view a short trailer for the anthology here!

Regenerations book cover

We’ve had other charity projects concerning the War Doctor before, most notably the Seasons of War anthology (an excellent read, if you can locate a copy; it is currently out of print, and not expected to return). Regenerations is a bit different; where Seasons of War is a compilation of stories that are in rough chronological order—as much as a Time War can ever be chronological!—but mostly unrelated to each other, Regenerations is more tightly woven. But more on that in a moment.

There will be some spoilers ahead! I have given a short and vague overview of the anthology’s entries, but even those clips contain spoilers. Further, afterward, I’ll be summing up the frame story, and will at minimum be spoiling who the major villain is, and a bit of how it is overcome. I am not going to try to spoiler tag such an extensive part of the post; but you can use the line dividers ahead as markers. You can read the next section, beginning with the phrase “Less like an anthology”, safely without significant spoilers. The two line-divided sections thereafter are spoiler-heavy, so if you want to avoid them, skip ahead!

With all that said, let’s dive in!


Less like an anthology, Regenerations reads like a novel, despite being the work of a group of authors. Its stories don’t simply have “the Time War” as their common thread; they mesh together for a purpose. There’s a frame story, penned by editor Kenton Hall, in which the War Doctor begins abruptly to sense that, in this war of changed timelines, someone is playing games with his own past. Suddenly, he’s not quite the man he has been—and he is dangerously close to becoming the man he used to be. That’s unfortunate, and quite possibly disastrous, because the change comes at a critical moment, a time when the universe seems to need the Warrior more than the Doctor. Now, he must work through his past lives and find the divergences, and somehow set them right, before he himself ceases to be. And if, along the way, he can find the parties responsible, it would be a wonderful bonus.

We’re introduced to two new Time Lords, newly minted Academy graduates (and CIA desk jockeys) Jelsillon and Dyliss. Their world is turned on its head when they receive a new mission from the CIA’s Coordinator—and instantly they know something is wrong. The Coordinator is a man they know—but not from the CIA. Rather, it’s a former classmate, Narvin (yes, THAT Narvin), who is suddenly seen to be much older and several regenerations along. Narvin sets them a mission: to disrupt the timeline of the famous (infamous?) Time Lord known as the Doctor. There’s just one problem: They don’t know who that is.

Jelsillon and Dyliss, as it turns out, live in a time long before the War, and even before the rise of the Doctor. This, it seems, makes them prime candidates for the mission; though they familiarize themselves with the Doctor, they have no preconceptions. All they have is a drive for adventure—and who wouldn’t want to save the world, after all?

From here, we launch into a series of tales, one concerning each of the War Doctor’s past lives. Each is an alteration of events familiar to us, the fans; each is a deviation from the timeline we have known. Between these stories, we see in short form the Doctor’s continuing efforts to get to the bottom of the situation.


Let’s take a look at the stories.

  • First Doctor: To get us started and set our course, editor Kenton Hall gives us our first tale, told in five short parts. In An Untrustworthy Child and The World That Was Different, we visit late 1963, where a policeman walks his beat near I.M. Foreman’s scrapyard; but his curiosity will cost him tonight. Elsewhere and elsewhen, on war-torn Gallifrey, the High Council under Rassilon banishes one of its own, and sets a dangerous plan in place. And two young Time Lords, Jelsillon and Dyliss, are sent on a mission to make that plan a reality, though they don’t know what they are getting into. In Exit the Doctor, the First Doctor mulls over his situation, and ultimately decides the time to leave 1963 London is fast approaching; but before he can act, he discovers the alarming presence of another TARDIS in the scrapyard, and goes to investigate. In The TARDISes, the Doctor isn’t the only one investigating; two teachers from his granddaughter Susan’s school are making their way to the scrapyard on a mission of their own. Meanwhile, the occupants of the new TARDIS, Jelsillon and Dyliss, have laid a trap, not for the Doctor, but for his granddaughter, Susan. A split-second decision will return Susan to Gallifrey, and turn everything on its head, as Jelsillon and Dyliss—not Ian and Barbara—join the Doctor on his travels. They have one goal: to ensure he never goes to Skaro, and never meets the Daleks. For, as the High Council believes, it’s the Doctor’s encounters with the Daleks that ultimately lead them to their vendetta against the Time Lords; if that can be averted, will not also the War itself? And in The Pawn of Time, the Doctor—now having traveled for some time with Dyliss and Jelsillon—has just taken on a new companion, one Vicki Pallister. Back on Gallifrey, the banished Cardinal is summoned to a meeting by the War Doctor; and on Earth, a somewhat traumatized policeman decides to put in for his retirement.
  • The Second Doctor: Dan Barratt’s Time of the Cybermen revisits the events of Tomb of the Cybermen, on the distant planet of Telos—until a sweeping wave of timeline changes carries the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria away to Earth, with aching heads and new memories… Here they discover a different tomb, as in the 22nd century they find that the Cybermen, not the Daleks, conquered Earth. Now, the last bastion of humanity, long sleeping in their own frozen crypt, is about to be discovered—and it’s all the Doctor’s fault!
  • The Third Doctor: Andrew Lawston revisits Day of the Daleks in The Paradoxical Affair at Styles. Events happen much the same, with a 22nd century assassin returning to kill Reginald Styles, only to be thwarted—but when the assassin is killed, he is determined to be the Doctor! Naturally, this is most alarming to the Doctor himself. He and Jo Grant find themselves transported into the future—but they miss the mark by twenty years, only to find themselves in the midst of the Dalek occupation of Earth. They receive unexpected aid from an old enemy: The Master—but not as they have known them. This Master claims to be from the future, in a time of universe-consuming war. In the end, his help only serves to perpetuate the loop, with the Doctor returning to the past to assassinate Styles…
  • The Fourth Doctor: Terminus of the Daleks, by Alan Ronald, takes us to the far future of Gallifrey, a time long past the disappearance of the hero known as the Doctor. We meet Ari, an actor, who is playing the role of the Doctor in his greatest adventure: his visit to Skaro at the very beginning of the Dalek menace (Genesis of the Daleks), where he asked the famous question, “Have I the right…?” and then answered with a resounding YES. And yet, here, now, with history solid and reassuring behind him, he must ask himself: How would the Doctor really feel? The question has weight, and so will the answer.
  • The Fifth Doctor: Shockwave, by Simon A. Brett and Lee Rawlings, picks up immediately after the death of Adric—but not the death we remember. After all, there were no Sontarans involved in Adric’s original death. Don’t mind the oddity though; as the Doctor says to Tegan and Nyssa, “as we’ve been dealing with a number of supremely powerful species discharging temporal energy in the same relatively localized area of time and space, normality may be too much to ask.” But there’s no time to worry about that, as the TARDIS has a close call with a VERY displaced Concorde—which leads them to a drastically altered Heathrow airport, an ankylosaurus in the shops, and a kidnapping by a quite unexpected old enemy.
  • Sixth Doctor: Revelation, by Christine Grit, opens with the Sixth Doctor landing on a world called Necros—or is it?—in the midst of an argument with his young companion, Per—no, Adric. Even the Doctor can detect that something isn’t right—just why did he come here, anyway? A funeral? An old friend?—but he can’t force his mind to sort it out. Which quickly becomes irrelevant, as he is captured and placed in a cage in a zoo, right between a dead Sontaran and a depressed-but-artistic Ice Warrior. Adric, meanwhile, escapes, only to fall in with a local band of (literally) shadowy rebels, led by a strange woman with a gravity-defying mermaid tail. Yes, that is a real sentence; just roll with it, it works out alright in the end. Before long, the roles are reversed; it is the Doctor who is free and siding with the young woman, while Adric is a prisoner…of a long-absent Time Lord called the Rani, and her modified Daleks.
  • Seventh Doctor: Enter the Rani by Nick Mellish picks up on the threads left hanging in Revelation. After disposing of Adric, the Rani’s plans have moved ahead, and she has found a suitable world in Lakertya. If only she hadn’t crashed on it! But given time—something she has in abundance—she shapes the rocky continent of her landing into something she can use, enslaving its people, building labs, conducting experiments. It isn’t long before her next targets—the Doctor and his companion, Mel—come along…only to crash as well. Strange. Well, the Rani is nothing if not an opportunist. She captures the Doctor, but is stunned to see that he has just regenerated, which will certainly throw a wrench in the plans. Mel falls in with the remaining natives, and organizes a rescue—and for once it works! The Rani is captured, the Doctor freed. Her plans continue, however—plans to destroy a strange matter comet and collect the chronons it generates, and use them to punch a hole in time and shape history—and evolution—to her own desires. But the mystery still remains: What is it that traps TARDISes on this world? As the moon turns blue, the truth proves to be stranger than fiction—but that won’t stop the end of the world from happening.
  • Eighth Doctor: Steven Horry’s The Edge of the War posits only a small change: What if the Master, in his deathworm morphant form after his execution by the Daleks, didn’t steal the body of Bruce the paramedic, but rather, the body of his wife, Miranda? Such a small change…and yet the consequences snowball, as this new Master kills Chang Lee rather than subverts him, and then steals the TARDIS, leaving the Doctor stranded on Earth—and out of the path of the inevitable Time War.
  • War Doctor–or not?: The Flight of the Doctor, by Barnaby Eaton-Jones, shows us a different view of The Night of the Doctor, one in which Cass and her crew safely escape the gunship’s crash on Karn…and the Doctor walks away from Ohila’s offer. After all, what does a war need more than a medic?

From here to the end of the book, we return to the War Doctor, Jelsillon, and Dyliss. For the War Doctor, this tale began on the world of Makaria Prime, which dealt with the War in a singularly impressive way: By removing themselves from it. Unfortunately, they did so by punching a hole through not only the time vortex, but the very fabric of the universe itself—and that hole became a superhighway for not only the Daleks, but also another, unexpected villain. Long ago, the Doctor encountered an artificial pocket universe called the Land of Fiction, which was ruled by a supercomputer called the Master Brain, using various human proxies. Now, the Master Brain itself has evolved sentience, just in time to find a way through the Makarian rupture and into the universe. And yet, it remains bound to the Land. Now, it seeks the Doctor, not just for revenge, but for a greater purpose: To cede control of the Land to him. This will give the Doctor the power to create what he always wanted: A universe without the Daleks. In turn, it will free the Master Brain to wander the universe and do as it pleases—much as the Rani once sought control over history. It is the Master Brain, using willing pawns in power-hungry Rassilon, Coordinator Narvin, Jelsillon, and Dyliss, who tampered with the Doctor’s past, all to bring him to this point. And to accomplish all this, it has possessed Jelsillon, taking control of his body—a control it plans never to relinquish.

When of course he refuses, the computer tortures him with visions of what may be. He sees his next life save London from overeager Chula nanogenes…by introducing them to regeneration. He sees the Tenth Doctor save Donna Noble from her memories, only to see her become an amalgamation of his own darker sides, calling itself the Valeyard. He sees a world where one Amy Pond didn’t follow her husband into the Weeping Angel’s touch, and mourns his death all the way to a world called Trenzalore. He sees his Twelfth incarnation stand at the top of a miles-long ship with two friends and an old enemy, and watches the villain take a blast for him that leaves a hole through her body. The Master Brain shows him these things not to hurt him (or, well, maybe a little to hurt him), but to show him the wealth of possibilities, if only he will give in.

And ultimately, he does exactly that.

But the Doctor—even as the Warrior—remains the Doctor; and as always, he’s done something clever. For he knows what the computer does not: That as much as anything else, this is a love story. Jelsillon and Dyliss’s story, to be specific—over the years, they’ve developed a bond much greater than classmates or coworkers. And that bond allows Dyliss to find Jelsillon, and with him, the Doctor and the Master Brain. Staser in hand, she offers the computer a way out: The Doctor will take ownership of the Land, and in return the Master Brain can go free—but in its disembodied form, where it can do no harm. At last it agrees.

The Doctor closes the tale with “a bit of a rewrite”. Going one step further than the Master Brain, he seeks out his Thirteenth incarnation, interrupting her battle against the Lone Cyberman at Villa Diodati, and enlists her help to set things right. Slowly he pieces his life back together, visiting points of divergence, preventing changes. Narvin’s call to Jelsillon and Dyliss is intercepted, much to Narvin’s anger. Changes radiate through his timestream as he makes them, a river resuming an old familiar course. Unfortunately, as he does so, the Doctor recedes, and the Warrior resurges. But that’s not such a bad thing—after all, there’s still the matter of the Makarians to deal with. Only a Warrior would help them escape the universe—and after all, the Doctor recently inherited a piece of extra-universal Land…

Back at their old jobs, Jelsillon and Dyliss talk over their experiences, before the timestreams cause them to forget. But some things—like the bond they created—will outlast even the changes of memory.

And in a future still to come, a weary Warrior trudges across a desert toward an old barn, a sack on his back, ready to bring about an end, and so many beginnings.


Most spoilers end here!

One never knows what to expect when beginning a story about the War Doctor. That’s chiefly because it’s impossible to do justice to the Time War, the inevitable backdrop of any War Doctor story. It’s a frequent complaint: Descriptions given by the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors paint a picture that is never fully realized, and understandably so—after all, a true Time War of the scale described would be beyond the comprehension of three-dimensional beings like us. Consequently many stories leave fans feeling a bit short-changed.

I don’t buy into that outlook, though. A bad War Doctor story is better than none at all; and if we can’t properly encompass the incomprehensibility of the Time War, well, neither can its victims. Therein lies the secret: You have to view it through the lens of an individual. When you do that, the smaller stories make sense, because that’s how the incomprehensible would filter down to us.

And if you’re going to do that, then you should run with it.

That’s what we have here in Regenerations. We see the War Doctor not as a force of nature, because forces of nature don’t make good stories (even a disaster movie is about the people it affects). We see him as a person. While we don’t get to see him in full Warrior mode—another frequent complaint—we do get to see him struggle between the two personas of Doctor and Warrior as they’re pitted directly against each other. He himself doesn’t know who he is, and he feels pulled apart by the struggle.

The entire book walks a line between earnest and tongue-in-cheek, sometimes dipping a toe in one direction or the other. There’s a serious story happening here, worthy of any other time-bending story in Whovian continuity; but there’s also plenty of jokes, and a wealth of references to past stories, far more than I could possibly cover here as I usually do. That’s above and beyond the fact that each story is a new take on a classic story—you get inside jokes, such as the War Doctor announcing “Im looking for the Doctor”; Graham declaring “You’ve certainly come to the right place”; and Thirteen leaping in to insist that “No he hasn’t! He’s come to entirely the wrong place and he knows it!”

I admit to being especially impressed at the continuity here. Sometimes I forget just how many threads of continuity one must tie together in order to keep a story in order these days. It’s especially complicated here, where not only do we have to track each Doctor’s timestream, track the changes we’re making, and make sure we’re not contradicting more obscure details; but also we have to bring in any number of sources—for example, Narvin from the Gallifrey audio series, the Doctor’s return to the Land of Fiction in the New Adventures novels, various television seasons, and even a hint about the Eighth Doctor being stranded on Earth with Grace Holloway in the Doctor Who Magazine comics. Somehow, despite spanning an entire stable of authors, it works.

In the final analysis, the book left me both satisfied with the outcome, and wanting more. I’m content with the end of this story; it’s fully resolved, and lingering too long would weaken it. But I wouldn’t mind seeing some more stories set in some of these alternate lives. In particular, Jelsillon and Dyliss are interesting characters, and I’d be interested to see more of their adventures with the First Doctor in place of Ian, Barbara, and Susan. Or, I would like to see more of the life of third-regeneration Susan as a Cardinal during the Time War—a different take than her appearance in the audio All Hands on Deck; a life in which she either never left Gallifrey with the Doctor, or was returned there from 1963 London by Jelsillon and Dyliss (her own memories of the event are in flux at this point). I’d like to know what happens to Seven and Mel and the Rani if and when they escape Lakertya. I wouldn’t mind a glimpse into the battle against Donna as the Valeyard.

We’ll leave that to the imagination for now, I suppose.

But, if you’re also into alternate continuities, or the War Doctor, or just the humor to be had in revisiting these adventures, check out the book. You’ll enjoy it, and you’ll give some support to a worthy cause in the process.

Thanks for reading!

You can purchase Regenerations from Chinbeard Books at this link. Please note that the limited print run has sold out, but the ebook is still available.

The trailer for the anthology may be viewed here.

For more information on Invest in ME Research, check out their website here.

Novel Review: Blood Heat

We’re back! After a bit of a delay, we’ll be taking a look at the next entry in the New Adventures novel series (“VNAs”, hereafter): 1993’s Blood Heat, by Jim Mortimore. This story is number nineteen in the VNAs. We’ve just concluded what I informally called the “holiday tetralogy”, in which the Doctor repeatedly and disastrously tries to take a vacation; now we move into another loosely-connected subseries, a pentalogy occasionally known as the “Alternate Universe” arc. And that’s where we’ll begin, so let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

Blood heat

An unexpected and unexplained attack on the TARDIS sends it crashing to Earth. A sudden encounter with living dinosaurs makes it seem as though the Doctor, Ace and Benny (the latter of whom has been lost in the landing) have arrived in the Jurassic period; but slowly it becomes apparent that, to the contrary, they have landed in the present day of 1993! It’s a very different 1993, though, and something has gone very wrong.

Two factions are soon realized: The Silurians have conquered Earth’s surface and bent it to their will; and the remaining humans, rare and in hiding, stage a resistance under the leadership of a craggy and embittered Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. The reception the Doctor receives isn’t what he expects, however; for, as he soon finds, the Doctor is the one responsible for this mad universe–by way of his own death!

It proves to be true. Years ago, in the Doctor’s third incarnation, rather than resolve the matter of the Silurians, he was put to death by them. Since then they have waged a war against the humans, and reclaimed the surface.  Now, the Doctor must find Benny, and gather what allies he can, and broker peace between the Silurians and the remnants of humanity while there is still time. With the help of old friends Jo Grant–here a feral former captive of the Silurians–and Liz Shaw, and the unwilling assistance of the Brigadier, the Doctor and Ace race to set things as right as they can, in a world that will never go back to the way it was.

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I did something with this novel that I don’t often do: I went in blind, or nearly so. Usually I have a good idea of where a novel will go before I read it; I don’t object to spoilers, and between fan discussions and wiki pages, I usually know how it will end. In this case, I’m glad I avoided those spoilers, because this novel leaves its characters in a very tense place at the end.

Far and away the biggest issue–from the perspective of the characters–is that their actions here come to nothing in the end. The Doctor, Ace, Benny, and their allies certainly save the day. But, this is, as I hinted, an alternate universe; the TARDIS enters it through a puncture of sorts in the vortex. It’s worse than that, though; slowly the Doctor becomes aware that this is an artificial universe. Someone managed to spin it off of the real universe, by preventing the Third Doctor from regenerating upon his death (an event which already deviates from the real universe even before the aborted regeneration!). That, in turn, steals energy from the real universe to maintain this one, meaning that the real universe will reach heat death billions of years early. Either the Doctor can allow both to live abbreviated existences, or he can eliminate this created universe to restore the main universe. He chooses the latter, which in turn will cause problems between himself and his companions…after all, it’s a cold decision to condemn an entire universe to death, isn’t it?

There’s another issue, much downplayed in the story, but conspicuous to any longtime fan: The TARDIS. Upon landing on Earth, the TARDIS almost immediately falls into a tar pit, from which the Doctor never retrieves it. Instead, he later takes the TARDIS left behind by his deceased third incarnation. That sounds like no big deal, perhaps, except that that TARDIS is lacking several hundred years of experiences and data–something that has the potential to come up again in many stories down the road. Slight spoiler: I understand from the wiki that he will eventually recover his original TARDIS, many stories down the road–but that creates another problem: The Doctor destroys this universe. Moreover he does it by time ramming his original TARDIS, destroying it, and releasing enough energy to destroy the universe.

It’s quite a busy story, with many moving parts, as it were; you’ll see that the continuity references section is quite full. And yet, despite the fact that the story is full of detail and fast-moving, it took me a long time to finish it. I don’t have a good explanation; it just felt very heavy and deliberate, I suppose. There are the usual VNA tropes; the Doctor is irritable, Benny gets sidelined for much of the story, Ace gets into an ill-advised relationship and gets angry at the Doctor, something bad happens to the TARDIS. Of much more interest are the alternate versions of old familiar characters. The Brigadier is not the man we knew; he’s been crystallized in terms of his worst characteristics, and yet he can still play the part of the old friend–which in turn makes him more dangerous than some villains. Jo Grant meets a bad end here (I won’t spoil how!), as does John Benton. Liz Shaw has survived mostly unscathed, despite a very traumatic life, and proves once again to be an underrated but valuable ally. The Silurians fall into a familiar pattern–military vs. science–but at least it’s handled fairly well. Most of the Silurians we meet here are holdovers from the Third Doctor television serial; but here they are given names, in keeping with the novelisation of The Silurians.

For once, I don’t mind the ending. It sets up well for the next few stories; the Doctor is left determined to get to the bottom of the situation, and find the person who interfered with time itself to trap him. One gets the sense that he’s offended at the meddling because it encroaches on his own territory–or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Likewise, I’m content with the tension between the Doctor and his companions here; after, for once, they have a good point–he did cause the death of a whole universe. It’s a catch-22 of sorts; there was just never going to be a good option. The Doctor did what he felt he must, but the truth isn’t clear; did he really make the right decision? We’ll see, perhaps.

Continuity References: This isn’t the only time we see the TARDIS fall through a puncture in the universal wall; we’ll see that again in Rise of the Cybermen. This story branches off from Doctor Who and the Silurians, picking up an alternate version of where that story left off. It draws several details, especially the names of the Silurians, from the novelisation of that story rather than the televised version. Ace’s friend Manisha–deceased in the real universe, but alive here–was first mentioned in Ghost Light, and elaborated upon in the novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks. Time ramming between TARDISes is first mentioned in The Time Monster. In the original-universe TARDIS, the Doctor appears to possibly be using the secondary control room (The Masque of Mandragora). The Doctor recovers his dead third incarnation’s sonic screwdriver, last seen (on television anyway) in The Visitation. The alternate TARDIS’s temporal grace function is operational (The Hand of Fear, et al) as is its chameleon circuit (many stories, notably Logopolis) and HADS (The Krotons). Ace again mentions having left Spacefleet (Deceit, et al). The Doctor mentions the Guardians (The Ribos Operation, et al), Rassilon (The Five Doctors, et al), and the Master (Terror of the Autons, et al). He mentions the Autons and Nestene Consciousness (Spearhead from Space) to Liz Shaw. A prelude to this story was published in Doctor Who Magazine #205; you can read it here. Also, not continuity, but worth mentioning: Jim Mortimore has also published a “Director’s Cut” of the novel, largely divorced from Doctor Who (that is, with distinctive characters and concepts renamed), and greatly expanding most aspects of the book; I have not read it nor have access to it, but interested fans may want to look into it.

Overall: Mixed feelings again! On one hand, it’s a good story, includes lots of action, and sets up well enough for what lies ahead. On the other hand…it was such a drag to get through. Nevertheless, a lot of things happen here which will be important not only for the rest of the Alternate Universe arc, but also for the VNAs in general, so I can’t recommend skipping this one.

Next time: We’ll continue the Alternate Universe arc in The Dimension Riders, by Daniel Blythe! See you there.

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

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: Gifts for Good, by M.H. Norris

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous posts via the links at the bottom of the post. Today we begin the fifth and final portion of the anthology, titled “Family”, with entry number eleven: Gifts for Good, by anthology editor M.H. Norris. Let’s get started!

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked below. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute. Sales of the anthology come to a close TODAY, 2 April 2019, so if you would still like to purchase a copy, act soon! (I will be finishing this series even after the sale period closes—we’re near the end now!)

Defending Earth (Cover)

Sarah Jane Smith loves a good show as much as anyone else; but she has no patience for charlatans, especially of the “psychic” variety. It’s no surprise, then, that she is grumpy as she takes her seat near the back of the grimy, worn theater; but her old friend the Brigadier is the one who invited her—as well as her son Luke and his friends Rani and Clyde—and so she bears it for his sake. The act, consisting of four young people who bill themselves under the name Mimir, from the old Norse mythology, aren’t bad as these things go; but Sarah is convinced their predictions for various audience members are just a product of cold reading, or perhaps—in this Internet-savvy age—careful research rather than any kind of power. She is less than enthused when one of their members, Lynx, stops and promises her that she will meet an old friend from a time of adventure in her past. After all, Sarah has had many adventures—but only one old friend comes to mind, and she’s already seen him again in recent years…

The Brigadier, for his part, is not disturbed by Sarah’s ranting. He patiently explains that a contact at UNIT has expressed some interest in the group: not enough yet for UNIT to take an active role, but enough to prompt some off-the-books investigation. Who better than Sarah Jane to handle such a job? After all, he muses, better her than those people down in Cardiff…and it’s not like Sarah is alone, even if her allies are children.

They are interrupted on the way back to Bannerman Road by a call from her living computer, Mr. Smith, who advises her to hurry—because a spacecraft has landed in her attic. Sarah Jane races home with her friends in toe and vainly warns the children to wait downstairs. She heads up to the attic, her senses on high alert…and drops her guard when, to her utter surprise, she sees a familiar, white-haired man.

The Doctor—her Doctor, the Third Doctor—has, after so many years, returned.

Over the course of the evening, catching-up ensues. The Doctor’s TARDIS has been pulled out of the vortex by a strange confluence of temporal influences. His Sarah—the much younger version—is away at the moment, visiting the 1970s version of Aunt Lavinia while the older woman is on a brief visit home. Sarah and the Brigadier introduce the children, who have of course heard all about the Doctor; and they catch him up on some of the things that have happened (but certainly not all—Sarah carefully avoids mention of any later incarnations, including the recent visit by the Tenth Doctor). Finally, as Clyde and Rani return home, and the Brigadier does likewise, the Doctor falls to discussing the situation with Mimir, mostly with the precocious Luke. He assists Mr. Smith with running and refining a program that will help them track any temporal disturbances associated with the group—which, it increasingly appears, is also what is holding him here. He recruits Luke to help.

Later, during the night, Luke approaches the Doctor and talks about a more personal matter. He describes his own situation, and the lessons he has learned in his time with Sarah Jane—and those he still needs to learn. The Doctor perceives that one thing Luke lacks is confidence; and so, to build the boy’s confidence, he gives him an impromptu fencing lesson. As the morning approaches, Clyde joins them.

In the morning, Mr. Smith’s efforts come to fruition: there are temporal anomalies surrounding Mimir. It all began when they mysteriously won a lottery jackpot more than a year before, which they have used since to fund their tours. However, in addition to the good coincidences surrounding them, others close to them are suffering unusually bad luck. The Doctor theorizes that one of the group may be a member of a temporally sensitive race—the Vainkrons, the Tiqai, the Cadels, or perhaps the Bulvins. Such races can manipulate probability by viewing a person’s potential futures, then nudging them toward a preferred outcome. But, whoever is doing so here, isn’t doing a good job of it.

They are interrupted by Mr. Smith. Another kind of anomaly has become apparent: a Sontaran has been spotted in downtown London! The children have met these aliens before, and know what they can do; and so Sarah warns them to stay behind while she and the Doctor tackle the threat. Of course, no one listens; but at least the children give her the courtesy of a head start before following her.

The Doctor and Sarah interrupt the lost and confused Sontaran, who is causing chaos and holding a female hostage—perhaps not coincidentally, another audience from the Mimir show, Sarah notes. She challenges the Sontaran, while the Doctor moves in to physically attack; but they seem to be outmatched. The situation is only resolved when Luke, armed with his fencing foil, charges out behind the Sontaran and lands a blow on its probic vent, knocking it out. It’s a great lesson for the boy…but of course, that won’t stop him from being in trouble with his mother for disobeying. A kid is still a kid, after all.

With UNIT handling the return of the Sontaran to its people, and the crisis averted, attention returns to the matter of Mimir. Sarah has arranged an interview with the group, and will be taking Luke with her. Meanwhile, the Doctor gives her a detector that will let him pinpoint the source of the temporal anomalies. He is almost certain now that the culprit is secretly a Tiqai, a humanoid race with temporal sensitivity. They can be identified by their golden eyes, though this one is probably wearing colored contacts.

While Sarah interviews the group, Luke notices that Lynx has wandered off. He finds him sitting on the theater stage—and realizes that the young man appears to be wearing contacts. He takes the plunge, and asks Lynx directly if he is a Tiqai. In the process, he confides the truth about his own alien origins. Lynx admits it, and reveals that he is an orphan, adopted by humans after his own world was caught in the crossfire of two warring races. He knows what he is doing—he only wants his friends to be happy—but he knows it isn’t working out right. He admits that he can’t fully control his powers. He also admits to knowing of Sarah Jane before coming to Earth; it seems she and the Doctor once, many years ago, visited a world near his own, and dealt well with a situation there. Tales of their exploits ultimately made their way to Lynx, though he never expected to meet Sarah Jane! But none of that helps with his problem.

Someone can help, though—and the Doctor joins them on the stage. He graciously offers to teach Lynx how to use his power without harm, and without getting on Time’s bad side.

Later, with the anomalies resolved, the TARDIS is back to normal, and the Doctor is free to leave. He says his goodbyes again to Sarah Jane, and the Brigadier, and the children. Over Sarah Jane’s nostalgic tears at the memories of their times together—both good and bad—he acknowledges what they both know to be true: That it’s the good times and the bad that made each of them what they are; and that, after it all, the world needs Sarah Jane Smith.

Norris Title Card 1

We’re nearing the end of our adventures with Sarah Jane! This story, the eleventh of fifteen, takes place during the events of The Sarah Jane Adventures–specifically, during Series Three, as it is stated to take place in 2009. This places it after the Tenth Doctor’s appearance in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, as she mentions early in the story.

Unlike some of the other spinoff materials referenced in this collection, I have watched some of The Sarah Jane Adventures, though I have yet to complete the series. I can say that this story is very much in keeping with the tone of the series; it’s lighter, more child-friendly, but still quick and action-oriented. It’s a bit of a reunion episode, bringing together not only Sarah Jane, the children, and the Brigadier—but also the Third Doctor, in what is most likely Sarah’s last meeting with him. If I have counted correctly, it makes for six encounters between the Doctor and Sarah in the era of the revived series of Doctor WhoSchool Reunion, Tenth Doctor; the Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, Tenth; The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, Tenth; an unseen encounter connected to The End of Time, Tenth (still in the future); this story, Third Doctor; and Death of the Doctor, with the Eleventh Doctor, also still to come as of this story. (If I’ve overlooked any, please comment below!)

I’ve always been a great fan of the Third Doctor; I think he may be a bit underrated in the face of such characters as the Fourth, the Eighth, and the revived series Doctors. It’s wonderful to see him again here, though it’s certainly bittersweet, knowing that there isn’t much room left in Sarah Jane’s life to have any more such encounters. There’s a poignant scene at the end where the Doctor, about to depart, wipes a tear from Sarah’s cheek, harking back to his regeneration scene—which, though history for her, is still to come for him. It’s haunting in its effect.

With all that said, this is still a fairly lighthearted, low-stakes story. It’s a bit contrived; it’s not really explained how the time-sensitive Lynx’s powers conspire to drag the TARDIS from the vortex, when it seems his powers are of a low-impact nature; and it’s never really explained how the Sontaran gets to downtown London. But if you get hung up on those details, you’ll miss out, because the story isn’t about those details. It’s a story about family, and memories, and hope, and—especially for Luke and Clyde—confidence.

There isn’t much in the way of continuity references here; while there are a few references to old adventures, they are to adventures that were created specifically for this story. However, there is an interesting bit, almost small enough to miss, where Luke tells the Doctor how he was created. The Doctor speaks with familiarity on the subject, and one gets the impression this may be a nod to the idea of Gallifreyan Looms—minor, but a nice touch, if that’s how it was intended.

Overall: A good segue into the “Family” portion of the collection. It’s both fun and sentimental, nostalgic and fast-paced. One would think those qualities wouldn’t go well together; but one would be wrong. Check it out!

Next time: The Circles of Drel, by Harry King! See you there.

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M. H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is available until TODAY only in ebook formats and a print edition (preorder only on print edition).

The Sarah Jane Adventures may be purchased on DVD from various retailers, and may be streamed on various streaming services.

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and Sarah Jane: Superstar! By Joshua Wanisko and Lillian Wanisko

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries via the links at the bottom of this post. Today we’re continuing with the “Investigations” portion of Sarah Jane’s life, with the seventh entry of the anthology: Sarah Jane, Superstar! by Joshua and Lillian Wanisko. Let’s get started!

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked below. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute. Let’s get started!

Defending Earth (Cover)

Aliens on Earth don’t have many places to congregate—the world isn’t ready for that—but a few exist. One such is the Black Light Tavern, described by its starfishlike bartender, Gleep-Glop, as the armpit of the universe (and a starfish should know about armpits, being possessed of five of them). The decrepitude of the place is deliberate—it keeps the humans away. Mostly, that is. A few still find their way in; but eventually the pub comes to a sort of equilibrium with them. Sarah Jane Smith finds her way to the Black Light (so named because all of its advertising is written in ultraviolet ink, visible to many aliens natively, but to humans only with the help of a black light) for an unusual reason. It seems the pub is putting on a show, and—strange as it seems—the show is all about her! Yes, it’s all about Sarah in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Croydon: The Sarah Jane Story (no, really). She can’t resist investigating, and so it is that she finds herself playing herself…as an understudy. Uh…can’t win ‘em all?

No one believes her when she says she is really Sarah Jane Smith; but that hardly matters. As the play—no, the musical–nears readiness, Sarah meets many colorful individuals in addition to Gleep-Glop (whose real name is a bit beyond the average human): the haughty and stereotypical Director, who learned his fashion sense from a collection of clichés; his assistant and stage manager, Elisabeth, who is the Director’s polar opposite in every way (and is one of the few humans around); a 6’3”, wiry, foxlike alien named Linx (playing a Sontaran and singing about potatoes, no less); a blonde bombshell (not quite human, but close), serving as the main actress for the part of Sarah Jane; and the mysterious Author, who wrote the script. However, Sarah—real Sarah, not stage Sarah—can’t shake the fear that someone knows too much for comfort about her life, as the musical seems to cover all her adventures with the Doctor in startling—but inaccurate—detail.

At last it’s too much suspense, and so she breaks into the Director’s office to find the Author’s notes. She gets more than she bargained for; the Author is there—and he knows who she really is. After a brief negotiation, he refuses to tell her where he got his information; but he takes her on as a consultant, checking the accuracy of the play.

With his help, the others accept her for who she really is, and the days race by. However, there are disagreements with the Author about the details that Sarah wants to correct; and finally, it comes to a head, and she quits the play and returns home. All seems well for a few days, until she receives an unexpected visitor: Elisabeth, the stage manager. The two have a long talk, in which Sarah reminisces about the Doctor, and muses about coming home from that life. Elisabeth confides that she wants to be an actress, not just the stage manager; but the Director considers her indispensable. Sarah advises her to make herself dispensable, if she wants to move up to the stage; and the best way to do that is by letting something in her job fail. In return, Lis gives Sarah what she wanted: the Author’s notes. And, reading them, Sarah realizes where he got his information!

She storms back into the Black Light, and demands to know how the Author got his hands on a copy of the Doctor’s diary. Chagrined, he admits that he found the pages, forgotten, in a copier in a copy shop (along with a receipt for scarf detangler and a barrel of jelly babies—it seems the Doctor is quite a character, as Sarah well knows!). Still, he insists, as fantastic as these stories are, sometimes real life needs a little…massaging in order to make a good story. Sarah doesn’t like it, but she is obliged to agree. The Author—perhaps not wanting his reputation besmirched—agrees to have Sarah back on the production, and agrees to her changes to the script; and in exchange, Sarah allows most of his artistic licenses to remain in place, insisting on only a few (goodbye, Brain of Morbius jello mold!).

The night of the premiere arrives, and Sarah sits in the audience, musing over all that has happened. Certainly this play represents another point of change in her own life, and maybe even in her attitudes…but what did the Doctor always say? Change is a part of life. She determines to face any change with laughter.

…Which is just as well, because the play is a massive flop. (I did say you can’t win ‘em all!) It flops so hard that the careers of everyone involved—except Sarah, of course—are massively diverted in new directions. Sarah thinks, much later, on the lives the participants are leading now; most of them sought new homes and new work, whether alien or human. None stayed with the stage—except, curiously enough, Elisabeth (what is her last name, anyway?), who goes on to become quite the star. Sarah, meanwhile, remains herself, and continues on, having learned and grown and, of course, laughed. And the Doctor, who—quite inadvertently—started this entire episode? He goes on, as well. Change is always a part of his life, but in the important ways, he remains the same. And, as always, he loves the Earth and its people. Sometimes they disappoint him—but when those times come, “he thinks of Sarah Jane Smith and he goes on.”

Wanisko Title Card

Every anthology needs at least one good meta-story! Preferably full of inside jokes and puns—the sillier, the better. Here, halfway through, Defending Earth delivers!

I was familiar—as many Big Finish fans will be—with co-author Joshua Wanisko for his audio Short Trip, Forever Fallen, the winner of Big Finish’s inaugural Paul Spragg Memorial Opportunity in 2016. That story is an earnest, serious, thoughtful Seventh Doctor adventure, one that will stay with its listeners for some time. This story—co-written by Joshua’s daughter Lillian Wanisko, for whom this is a first writing credit—is none of that; and that is exactly as it should be! Where that story is full of emotion, this one is full of humor, and utterly lighthearted. How could it not be? It’s Sarah Jane Smith: The Musical!

We’re still firmly in the K9 and Company era here, as confirmed by some of the background details; Brendan gets a mention, though he’s not present, and Sarah Jane still lives in her aunt Lavinia’s house. K9 himself puts in a momentary appearance, though again he is not named as such. Thus, this Sarah Jane is young and energetic, and still—perhaps a little bit—somewhat directionless in life. I’ve commented in other entries that these stories seem to chronicle formative experiences in Sarah Jane’s life; this story makes it explicit, pointing out that this is another moment of change and refinement for her—if not as drastic a change as some.

Not many of these stories have had continuity references (something I usually include in my reviews), other than a general reference to the Doctor or UNIT or—obliquely—K9. This one is different; as it contains an in-universe chronicle of Sarah’s adventures, it mentions several of them directly, often even by name! Notably, we see references to Planet of the SpeedosSpiders (not my error! And, uh…we need Wardrobe over here, please!), RobotThe Monster of PeladonThe Brain of MorbiusThe Hand of FearGenesis of the DaleksThe Sontaran ExperimentThe Ark in SpaceDeath to the DaleksThe Time WarriorRevenge of the CybermenTerror of the Zygons, and Pyramids of Mars. In fact, it’s every story of Sarah Jane’s original (televised) travels with the Doctor, except The Android InvasionThe Seeds of Doom, and The Masque of Mandragora (and to be honest, I may have simply overlooked those). There are also a few meta-references: notably, Sarah declines to talk about the dates of the various UNIT stories; and the character of “Elisabeth” bears a very strong resemblance to a certain Elisabeth from our world, with a very close tie to Sarah Jane Smith…what is her last name?! I’ll get it eventually.

Overall: Nothing but pure fun, here—but that’s exactly what it sets out to accomplish. Did this “really” happen (as much as anything in Sarah Jane’s story really happened)? Does it matter? What matters is that, whether you’re a lifelong fan, or this anthology is your first exposure to Sarah Jane, you’ll get a good laugh—and a little life lesson—out of this story. And that, my friends, is plenty.

Next time: We’re halfway there! We’ll be checking out story number eight of fifteen, with Little Girl Lost, by Tina Marie DeLucia. See you there!

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and “Swinging Londons” by Jon Black

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries starting here.

Defending Earth (Cover)

A quick—and very relevant—apology: I set out to post one review per weekday for the duration of this project; but, and I am sorry, I’ve already got behind on that goal. There’s a very good reason for that, though, which brings us to today’s entry. The story we’re visiting is Jon Black’s Swinging Londons; and this massive entry is the single longest contribution to the anthology. I’m reading the ebook version, and so my page numbers won’t match up to the print edition; so I’ll say that the story comprises more than a fourth of the entire anthology. As you can imagine, with my day job as well, this story took me some time to finish. I think you’ll see, though, that it was worth the time! The editor, in her introduction, compliments the author on his grasp of historical fiction, his primary field; and in this story, that specialty pays off. I agree with her assessment that the story should take all the time it needs, both in the writing and the reading.

As a reminder, this review will include spoilers, including a plot summary—you can see the first post for my reasoning as to why. Also, at the end, I’ll include a link to purchase the anthology, and a link to the charity it supports. With that said, let’s get started!

Black Title Card

1972: Sarah Jane Smith finds herself stranded in a traffic jam on the M4 motorway. When her curiosity gets the better of her, she makes her way to the front, and finds a UNIT roadblock. Ahead, London can be seen—or rather, can’t be seen, as it lies under an enormous dome of energy. Sarah is caught completely off guard by the sight of a dragon flying out of the dome! The dragon is quickly dispatched by UNIT troops, and Sarah—by order of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart—is whisked away by helicopter to one of UNIT’s bases. There she rejoins the Doctor for a briefing, in which the truth is revealed: London is the center of a large temporal anomaly. The Doctor compares it to a child’s tower of blocks; but in this case, the blocks consist of various alternate realities, other versions of London from throughout the multiverse, each of which is a product of a different chain of historical events. Those realities are continually swapping—or “swinging”, as Sarah will come to think of it—into the place of her own London. If left unchecked, the rate of swinging will increase, until a threshold is reached, and either one reality—not necessarily their own—remains, or all realities collapse into nonexistence.

Naturally, the Doctor has a plan to stop it, or rather, the beginning of one; but it will require entering the disturbance to map the temporal coordinates of eleven different realities, one for each of the eleven dimensions of spacetime. He wants Sarah Jane to join him.

Inside London, the Doctor begins his project, using a dimensional compass to map the coordinates. However, upon the first swing to a new reality, he is separated from Sarah. She finds herself progressing through various Londons, each time only retaining fragments of her memory, each time blending in and yet sure that something is not right here. Several times, a strange, cloaked figure tries to reach her; she only escapes when the next swing happens.

Sarah finds herself trapped for a longer period—days? Weeks? She doesn’t know—in a reality where mammalian life never arose. There she befriends a large, semi-intelligent horseshoe crab, calling it “Arthur”; and there her memories at last reassemble themselves. Ever after, she will experience some disorientation in various Londons, but she will never again lose herself. However, there is a problem: She appears to have stopped swinging to different Londons. She waits until she grows desperate; and suddenly the swings begin again. To her surprise, Arthur is transported along with her, having forged a bond with her. To her further shock, after a few swings, Arthur no longer stands out, and the locals—regardless of the reality—accept him as a native.

Sarah and Arthur at last manage to reconnect with the Doctor, in the company of no less a worthy than Salvador Dali, who is strangely aware—on his own—of their status as time travelers. The Doctor explains that he has discovered that they were separated because he is not a native of London; but he has created a garment that will “trick” the anomaly into treating him as one; therefore the problem of separation is resolved. Dali, meanwhile, helps them get back on track with their mapping, before the next swing pulls them away.

Along the way, Sarah makes friends of a band of Celtic warriors with a bizarre mix of modern and archaic weapons—rifles alongside swords. Later, she and the Doctor are at last intercepted by the hooded, cloaked figure—who reveals herself to be a strangely pallid version of Sarah Jane herself! The Doctor promptly dubs her Two, referring to his own Sarah Jane as One. The woman explains that she believes the anomaly stems from her own version of London. In that world, the sun has grown dim due to an apparently natural disruption in spacetime which is siphoning off its hydrogen. Over the two hundred years since, humanity has adapted to the dark and cold; their bodies have grown pale in the dimness, and their cities have become domed hives, Archologies as they are called, in which humanity tapped first the declining solar power, and then geothermal heat, to survive. But it wasn’t enough; and then, a group of scientists learned to tap the power inherent in the fabric of reality itself. More specifically, they tapped the potential power in the fabric of other, potential realities; all the while, their Director, who leads Archology One (their London), denied that those realities actually exist, or could be inhabited. Frustrated, Linus Venkatagiri, a scientist of Two’s acquaintance, conspired with Two to prove that the realities are inhabited—and thus endangered—in the only way available: By hijacking some of the generating apparatus to send Two into them to bring back proof.

The Doctor and Sarah’s completed mapping project confirms her words. Using the TARDIS, the Doctor takes Sarah Jane, Two, and Arthur back to Archology One, where they connect with Linus. The group lays plans to stop the energy-harvesting project before the realities collapse; but they are captured by the Director’s Security forces, led by a general…one General Alicia Lethbridge-Stewart, that is. Sarah Jane is shocked to see that the Brigadier’s counterpart is a woman, but keeps it to herself.

Confronted at last by the Director, the group tries to persuade him to stop the project, but the request is denied; the Director is willing to save Archology One at any cost, even that of millions of other Londons. He orders them executed; but with the help of General Lethbridge-Stewart, who has not trusted the Director for months, they escape.

The Doctor and Linus concoct a plan. If they can realign the harvesting system to draw power from one world only, they can create a stable tunnel to that world, allowing time for society to relocate and resettle. There is even a likely candidate world: Arthur’s world, uninhabited by humans. However, the Director will never allow it to happen; and so they plan to defend themselves. Gathering allies—a ragtag group of loyal Security forces, a group of janitors with criminal pasts, and Sarah Jane’s Celtic friends, plucked from their own London—they fall back to the control facility for the harvesting system, located in an old, well-defended manor.

The attack comes soon after, and Sarah Jane finds herself in the unexpected position of directing part of the battle. After all, this is a world that has been at peace for a very long time, and its people have a weak grasp of tactics. Ultimately, the defenders are pushed by sheer weight of numbers back into the corridors outside the control room, and at last into the control room itself. Hand-to-hand combat ensues, with even the Doctor and Arthur getting into the fight; but defeat seems imminent—until Linus throws the final switch…

Much later, the Doctor sits in conference with the Brigadier and other members of unit. Reality has been restored; the bridge between Archology One and Arthur’s world has been opened. The Director has been deposed, and plans are underway to transplant the population of Archology One’s dying Earth to their new home. But all is not well; Sarah Jane and Arthur remain missing. As the Doctor relates, the completion of the bridge occurred after the “event horizon” of the breakdown of realities. While it successfully restored things to normal, there was a momentary burst of reality-swinging at the moment of activation, in which anyone native to London—but not Archology One—would be hurled out at random into the mass of realities. The Doctor had already shed his native-illusion garment, in order to remain in place to ensure the completed transition; but Sarah Jane, Arthur, and the surviving Celtic warriors, all were lost in that moment. He has been searching for nearly a month for her, but has yet to find her.

He has just mentioned his plans to memorialize her, when the door of the conference room opens, and Sarah Jane enters, with Arthur at her heels, and with a story to tell.

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If I may draw an analogy which will be familiar to fans of Big Finish Productions’ Doctor Who audio dramas, I would consider this story to be the UNIT: Dominion of this anthology. The parallels are obvious: UNIT involvement, parallel realities, strange creatures, alternate versions of familiar characters…and of course, this is the longest entry, while UNIT: Dominion is Big Finish’s longest Doctor Who audio to date. I mean this comparison in the most complimentary way; I found this story to be very enjoyable. My summary above, constrained by time, would give the impression that this story is cramped and tumultuous, but it is neither. I think it’s fair to say that the length of the story is exactly what is needed to tell this story properly.

I’m a fan of the UNIT stories, and especially the classic stories involving the Brigadier, Benton, and the rest. I admit that when I started this project, I was not expecting any such stories; I expected anything directly involving the Doctor to be at a minimum, as the anthology focuses on Sarah Jane. This entry came as a pleasant surprise. In it I saw parallels with other stories: there’s a bit of Inferno from television, a bit of Genocide from the Eight Doctor Adventures novel line, a bit of Time Tunnel from the Short Trips audio range… At the same time, the story never copies from any of those sources. That’s the beauty of writing in this universe: there’s a wealth of material, and there will always be pleasant echoes, while at the same time having no need to imitate.

I will admit to having some trouble with the portrayal of the Doctor here—and, in conjunction with that, with placing the story in relation to the television series. Very late in the story, we for the first time get a description of the Doctor that can be positively identified; with a description of his white hair and clothing, it’s clearly indicated to be the Third Doctor. However, his behavior throughout the story, as well as his speech, is much more like the Fourth Doctor. For reference, I rewatched a few Fourth Doctor episodes (mostly Season 17) while reading, and found I could almost not picture anyone else in this story. Further complicating this is that Harry Sullivan is present at the briefing near the beginning of the story, which is also attended by Sarah Jane and the Doctor; Harry, of course, didn’t join the cast until Robot, the Fourth Doctor’s first story, and I am reasonably certain that the Doctor was unfamiliar with him prior to that story. Also, the chameleon circuit on the TARDIS works, albeit in limited fashion; it was the Fourth Doctor who would much later attempt to repair it, not the Third. I can only imagine that these are just mistakes on the author’s part, and they don’t greatly impact the story—I have no desire to split hairs over this—but they did make it harder to picture the Third Doctor in the role.

Still, as problems go, that one is minimal; and it’s the only issue I had. The story was a slow starter for me, but picked up quickly, and once truly begun, I found it hard to put it down.

There are a few bits of humor and meta-humor worth mentioning here. I mentioned that the story is set in 1972; but the society of Archology One is ahead of its time, complete with smartphones (under a different name) and even a form of the internet…that apparently includes a version of Reddit (!), as Two uses the term “TL;DR” at one point (with Sarah Jane laboring over what it means). (Full disclosure: I’m aware that the term, meaning “Too Long; Didn’t Read”, predates Reddit; but these days it’s almost ubiquitously associated with Reddit, and I can only assume the author had Reddit in mind when he included it.) Elsewhere, when Sarah Jane and her doppelganger suggest that the Doctor refer to them as “One” and “Two”, he snarkily comments about it:

“That’s not a little demeaning and dehumanizing?” the Doctor asked, “Referring to different incarnations of the same individual only by number?”

Point well taken, Three. Point well taken.

Overall: This story alone will make the anthology worth a look (though not to discredit the other stories, of course). It’s a fun, fast-moving, fast-shifting, self-aware story that features a great cast, sometimes in unexpected roles and places. Occasionally it may move a bit too fast, but those moments are rare; just enough to suggest that it would be just as good if lengthened into a novel. I’m not familiar with Jon Black’s other work, but I would be pleased to see him carry on producing material here in the Whoniverse.

Next time: Back to the shorter entries, we’ll check out Flow, by Niki Haringsma. See you there!

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.

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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: Time Tunnel

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Time Tunnel, the third entry into the fifth season of the Short Trips range. This Third Doctor story was written by Nigel Fairs and directed by Lisa Bowerman, and is read by Katy Manning. The story was published on 5 March, 2015. Let’s get started!

Time Tunnel 1

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

UNIT receives word of a problem at a railway tunnel in Sussex. Trains are entering the tunnel as normal, but emerging with the drivers and passengers dead—and not just dead, but long dead, as though they had aged immensely before death. This word reaches the Doctor and Jo Grant as the Doctor is making adjustments to Jo’s transistor radio, which is picking up some very odd signals. Nevertheless, they head to the tunnel to investigate. The tunnel already has an odd reputation; a legend has it that the devil himself is trapped beneath it, and that he is responsible for the huge rocks that loom over its entrance.

The Doctor, over the Brigadier’s objections, takes a train engine alone through the tunnel. He arrives at the other side a bit more aged, and very hungry, but with some interesting results: He believes he has been in the tunnel for a very long time. He claims that the only reason he survived was that, as a Time Lord, he was able to induce a sort of coma that let him survive. Now the Brigadier wants to destroy the tunnel, but the Doctor pleads for a chance to deal with the situation first; clearly there is more going on here than dynamite can address. The Brigadier has already received his orders, and set the demolition in motion; the Doctor has only a short time to work with. He prepares to enter the tunnel again—this time on foot.  He believes that the time dilation effect is only triggered when entering at speed; he expects no problems when walking. Unknown to him, however, Jo follows him in.

Her disobedience saves his life. She finds him suspended in a sort of energy barrier, in pain; and when he is able to back out of it, she catches him. Back outside, as the detonation is carried out, the Doctor explains what he learned. It seems that, centuries ago, something was buried under the mountain—but it wasn’t the devil; it was an alien ship. The alien aboard seems to live in a different sort of timestream than humans, one that moves at a much slower pace. With its ship damaged, it has sent out a distress signal—one that, as the Doctor demonstrates, Jo’s radio was picking up. The signal, when sped up, is a call for help, aimed at the alien’s own species. However, the problem in the tunnel is a result of leakage from the damaged engines—leakage of time energies. With the tunnel destroyed, it should no longer be a problem.

Still, one question remains unanswered. Why now? If the ship has been there for centuries, why is it only now intersecting with human reality? The Doctor admits that they may never know for sure…until “help” arrives, that is. But—and here the Doctor glances longingly at the TARDIS in the corner of his lab—he doesn’t expect any of them will be around to see it by then.

Time Tunnel 2

I’m fond of Third Doctor stories—although I grew up watching reruns of Tom Baker’s serials, I feel more affection for Jon Pertwee’s era, having watched it all in the years since. As well, as I’ve mentioned before, Katy Manning does a surprisingly good impression of the Third Doctor (cross-gender impersonations are always a roll of the dice, but she consistently delivers perhaps the best one I’ve ever heard). Therefore, I started this story with a few points already in its favor; and I’m glad I did, because it needed them in the end.

It’s an interesting premise: Trains go into a tunnel as usual, but emerge with everyone aboard not only dead, but horribly aged. It even proceeds well; the Doctor, being somewhat resistant to time-based effects, decides to take a train into the tunnel and, well, see what happens. Where it falls down is at the end; the Doctor doesn’t really do anything. And while that makes for realism—there will always be the occasional problem that can’t actually be solved—it doesn’t make for interesting storytelling.

I’m willing to overlook it, though, on one condition: That someone writes a sequel. There’s a good hook at the end—not quite a cliffhanger, because the eventual resolution is expected to be a long time in the future, but a hook. There’s promise for a better resolution later. I won’t spoil exactly what that hook is, but I’d like to see it delivered upon.

One thing is definitely consistent with the Pertwee/UNIT era: The difference between the Doctor’s approach and the Brigadier’s. The Doctor wants to research and negotiate; the Brigadier wants to blow things up. It’s not as dramatic as it is in, say, Doctor Who and the Silurians; our monster of the week—which we never actually see, incidentally—is heavily implied to be unharmed at the end. Still, we continue a fine tradition of the Brigadier destroying things over the Doctor’s objections (and blaming it on Geneva). It’s good to see some things never change.

There are—surprisingly for a Short Trip—a fair few continuity references, which incidentally help to place this story by way of the things we know have already taken place. Jo makes a comparison between the folly at the mouth of the tunnel and the castle on Peladon (The Curse of Peladon). Devil’s End and Azal get a mention, also by Jo (The Daemons). Mike Yates refers to “tentacled monsters” (The Claws of Axos). The Brigadier makes reference to having met three versions of the Doctor (The Three Doctors). Yates also mentions having served in the regular Army (The Rings of Ikiria). I should note that I discovered that last reference via the wiki, but hesitated to include it, because I am not sure of the chronological placement of that story (which I have not yet heard). Its entry mentions the Brigadier turning on Yates, but I am not sure if this is a temporary action as part of the story, or if it occurs during Mike’s downfall on the television series (From The Green Death to Planet of the Spiders). Therefore I don’t know yet if it is in Mike’s future at the time of this story. Perhaps someone reading this will know more.

Overall: A fairly weak Third Doctor story, which is a pity. I did enjoy it at first, but when I saw how it was progressing, it didn’t really hold my interest. On to the Fourth Doctor!

Next time: We’ll meet up with the Fourth Doctor and Leela in The Ghost Trap. 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.

Time Tunnel

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Audio Drama Review: Lost In The Wakefield Triangle

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today, we’re picking up our tour of the Short Trips range. When we last heard from this range, we were in the middle of Short Trips Volume IV, the last of four early volumes of short trip audio dramas. We pick up today with the Third Doctor’s contribution, Lost in the Wakefield Triangle. Written by Vin Marsden Hendrick, this story is read by Katy Manning, and features the Third Doctor and Jo Grant. Let’s get started!

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

Short Trips Volume 4 a

A man named Martin Chisom is moving rhubarb into his forcing shed. He hears a snapping sound, and realises to his surprise that it is the sound of the rhubarb growing. He discovers he is surrounded by something, and is captured.

Later, the Doctor and Jo Grant approach Martin’s home, intending to buy some rhubarb, which was advertised as being on sale. A woman meets them and asks if he is a doctor; naturally, he says he is, and the duo are shown inside. They are led to Martin, who is in the grip of a fever, having been poisoned with rhubarb leaves; he had been found by a couple named Brian and Claire Forest. The Doctor treats him for the fever, calming his thrashing; but from Martin’s words, he determines that something is wrong with the rhubarb. Suddenly he discovers that Jo is no longer in the room; Brian says that Jo—whom he has taken for a student nurse—has gone to the forcing shed. The Doctor runs after her.

Brian and Claire follow the Doctor into the shed, and they hear the snapping sounds. The Doctor lights a candle, and the noise stops. By candlelight, he finds a large, metallic insect, the size of a housecat. It shrieks at him before switching to English and speaking; it first says that it is claiming Earth by right of conquest, but then corrects itself and only lays claim to the shed. Surprisingly, the Doctor agrees that this is a reasonable demand.

The Doctor finds Jo, who says that she went into the wrong shed. He explains the end of the situation: Brian has negotiated a trade agreement with the aliens. Brian will supply manure to the aliens, and in return, they will provide “the tenderest rhubarb in the galaxy, grown at a rate unheard of on Earth.” It’s an oddly satisfactory deal; the aliens have no interest in expanding beyond the shed. In the meantime, the Doctor is leaving with all the ingredients for a great rhubarb charlotte.

Short Trips Volume 4 b

These early Short Trips tend to alternate among a few moods, from mystifying to whimsical to silly. This story is definitely the third. The Third Doctor and Jo Grant are on a walk in the countryside when they find a house offering rhubarb for sale; and that’s all it takes to get this story started. Add in a few small aliens with a misguided sense of scale, and everything is complete. It’s hardly saving the world; it’s more like saving one garden shed. No story too small, eh?

And yet, this isn’t so unusual for the Third Doctor. Perhaps more than any other Doctor, his stories run the gamut of scale, from inconsequential to world-breaking. Maybe that’s a side effect of spending so much time on Earth, but regardless, the effect is that this story, while silly, is believable. I can’t see the Fourth or the Ninth Doctors, for example, handling this situation with the same dignity and charm.

There are no real enemies here, so I’ll just refer to the aliens involved instead. Insectlike and small, they aren’t given a name, though they remind me a bit of the Rovie from No Place Like Home–delusions of grandeur, but a severe misunderstanding of what their ambitions might entail. At any rate, these childlike aliens ultimately settle, not for conquering the world, but for conquering a simple forcing shed. And yet, in that sense, they’re more successful than most invaders, as they immediately set up a profitable trade relationship with the humans—or at least, with one human. It’s not often we get a situation that the Doctor can safely leave alone, but it’s nice to see it happen every once in a while.

This story is read by Katy Manning, but her usual character, Jo, doesn’t serve much purpose here. She wanders into the story and immediately wanders out again, not to be seen again until the end. This is just my opinion, but to me that indicates that this is early in Jo’s time with the Doctor. The television series eventually gave her more maturity and awareness, but at first it was almost criminal in its treatment of her; she was vapid and mindless, mostly there just for her appearance. That’s how she comes across here; she gets lost walking from the house to the forcing shed, and ends up in the wrong shed, requiring perhaps an hour to make her way back. It’s a little disappointing; I’ve grown to appreciate Jo (though I disliked her at first), and I don’t like seeing her be portrayed as stupid. One detail I missed, however, may contradict my thoughts about the placement of this story: in Jo’s early stories, the Doctor was still restricted from TARDIS travel except when summoned by the Time Lords; but here, the local character Brian Forest has a cell phone, indicating this story occurs in more modern years. It’s not referred to as a cell phone or mobile phone, just as a phone, but it can be heard ringing when called, while Brian is in the room with the caller.

There are a few continuity references, which is unusual for these early Short Trips. The Doctor uses Promethean Everlasting Matches, seen in Venusian Lullaby and other prose stories. (Thanks to the TARDIS wiki for this one, as I have not yet read any of the stories featuring that item.) As well, the Doctor considers wearing rhubarb—a plant similar to, but unrelated to, celery—in his lapel, but decides it is too garish; behind the scenes, this is a bit of a jab at the Fifth Doctor, who routinely wears celery on his lapel. (Full disclosure: I didn’t catch this myself, because I had no idea what rhubarb looks like. I’ve heard of it all my life, but it’s not common where I live, and isn’t popularly used in cooking here, and therefore I’ve never seen it. Thanks to Google, it makes a little more sense now.)

Overall: Not a bad story, but an exceedingly short and inconsequential one. It’s a good way for us to ease back into this series after a few months’ break, but if you’re looking for more action, you won’t find it here. Still, it’s worth a quarter hour’s time.

Next time: We visit the Fourth Doctor, Romana II, and K9 Mark II in The Old Rogue! See you there.

All stories 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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