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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Audio Drama Review: Seven to One

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

Short Trips Volume 3 a

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

Part One:

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

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

Part Two:

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

Part Three:

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

Part Four:

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

Part Five:

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

Part Six:

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

Part Seven:

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

Part Eight:

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

Short Trips Volume 3 b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Trips, Volume 3

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Audio Drama Review: Pop-Up

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Pop-Up, the Third Doctor’s contribution to 2011’s Short Trips, Volume 3 collection. Written by Dave Curran, this story is read by Katy Manning, and features the Third Doctor and Jo Grant. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 3 a

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

The Doctor and Jo Grant are hurrying back to the TARDIS, having just finished facilitating a peace conference on a remote asteroid in the Epsilon Cluster. The Cluster is an advertising haven; it is completely saturated with advertisements in every direction, and the Doctor is not pleased with this development. Even the TARDIS has been covered in posters, which are still being placed by tiny advertising robots, or MSRs, for “Micro-Servo Robots”. As the Doctor clears the TARDIS, Jo takes pity on a damaged MSR, and collects it. She takes it with her in her pocket as they enter the TARDIS and depart.

Jo wanders the TARDIS as they travel, examining odd storerooms; she happens across the TARDIS food machine as she does so, but thinks nothing of it as she reminisces about other adventures. In a disused bedroom, she takes out the robot and makes some impromptu repairs, and the robot returns to life. The robot immediately heads for a UNIT-property computer bank in the corner, and plugs itself in. It immediately starts displaying advertisements on the computer’s screen—and Jo quickly finds she cannot turn it off!

Jo disconnects the robot—breaking it again in the process—but it makes no difference; the advertisements continue. She calls for the Doctor, who is alarmed to find the robot inside the TARDIS. His sonic screwdriver disables the computer, causing it to burst into flames in the process. Jo apologizes for bringing the robot aboard; the Doctor gently scolds her for being taken in by it—and then crushes the robot. He warns her that, had it reached the TARDIS’s central computers, it could have been disastrous.

They are interrupted by the sound of more advertisements activating, even though the computer has been destroyed. They follow the sound out to the next room along the corridor—where the food machine is ejecting slices of toast that have advertisements burned into them! The Doctor shuts off the machine…and then other rooms, leading all the way back to the control room, begin beeping with adverts!

The scanner in the control room is alive with advertisements. The Doctor is completely unable to stop it, and the advertisements begin to spread to other equipment, sending the console room into chaos. Jo yells for it all to stop—and the Doctor gets an idea. He finds a button hidden under the console, and—despite the risks involved—hits it. The adverts slow and stop…and then everything else on the TARDIS does the same.

Lit now only by emergency lights, the Doctor tells Jo what he has done. They still have gravity and air, but the TARDIS is, for lack of a better term, sleeping. They are adrift in space—and now they must get the TARDIS back online, somehow.

Hours later, the Doctor is sitting on the floor, surrounded by many sometimes-archaic forms of data storage, as well as a number of manuals. He explains that the TARDIS is a bit cobbled together at this point; and almost all of these systems are now infected by the robot, and need to be reinstalled. Unfortunately, they have evolved over time, and his past selves haven’t exactly been organized about their work. Still…he dives into the innards of the console, and begins to work. And suddenly, there is success—at least for the scanner!

He finds that they have just escaped the range of the Epsilon Cluster, and now there is at least some hope, as no more advertisements are apparent. While he works, Jo organises the manuals and storage media—but in the process of doing so, she finds an odd box…marked “Antivirus Software”.

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This Third Doctor story is a short one, clocking in at approximately sixteen minutes, making it the second shortest in the collection (topped only by the Eighth Doctor’s entry, which comes in at a positively abrupt twelve and a half minutes). It’s very self-contained; the only characters in the story are the Doctor and Jo Grant, plus a single tiny robot that infiltrates the TARDIS. Perhaps “infiltrates” is not the right word; Jo carries it aboard. That proves to be a mistake.

This story struck me as a bit of a tribute to the early eras of Doctor Who, when continuity—and even such details as the structure of the TARDIS itself—hadn’t been nailed down. There’s a scene involving the TARDIS food machine, which on television hadn’t been seen since (I think) the First Doctor’s era. As well, there’s a scene near the end where the Doctor sits surrounded by various TARDIS components—and we see that many of them are scavenged from a hodgepodge of non-Gallifreyan sources. The Tenth Doctor would feel right at home. The Doctor admits that not only has he cobbled together various systems during his travels, but also the TARDIS itself has evolved beyond the original specs of any of its parts. He also admits—to his own chagrin—that his past selves weren’t very organized as far as tracking the work they did to the ship (although, of course, HE would never be so disorganized!).

It’s a commentary, as well, on the pervasiveness of advertisements in the internet era (though the story doesn’t seem to take place in modern times, nor is Jo aware of the internet). We live in an era where we can receive intrusive ads on any number of devices; we may not yet have reached the point where we have to find them burned into our toast, as happens here, but we’re uncomfortably close. The twist at the end is emblematic of the internet age as well, as—long after the Doctor has solved the crisis the hard way—Jo stumbles upon a box containing antivirus software that could have fixed everything in seconds. Check your hard drives often, kids!

Katy Manning’s impersonation of the Third Doctor remains as apt as it’s possible to be, given that she is a woman impersonating a man. One gets the impression from her performances that she has many fond memories of working with John Pertwee (though I admit that I don’t have any evidence to back up that guess). At this point she’s been working with Big Finish for a long time, and it shows; she has it down to an art.

We actually get a bit of continuity in this story. I’ve already mentioned the food machine (last seen in The Daleks)and the Doctor’s references to his past selves (most recently seen in The Three Doctors; we can assume that that story takes place before this one, as that story marked the end of the Doctor’s exile to Earth—this story takes place on and near an asteroid in the Epsilon Cluster). Also, according to the TARDIS wiki, “One of the adverts announces the planet Florana using the same words the Doctor used to try to convince Sarah Jane to join him for a trip to the planet” (Invasion of the Dinosaurs). I don’t usually include references to future stories, but as it’s unlikely I’ll be covering Invasion of the Dinosaurs again anytime soon, I think it’s appropriate to include it here.

Overall: Another cozy, self-contained story. Perhaps it’s nothing to write home about—it’s certainly not a story filled with action—but it’s fun, and it’s well-recorded. That’s good enough for me.

Next time: We’ll join the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith in The Wondrous Box! Also, just a reminder, we’ve skipped the First Doctor’s entry for now, as it is broken up over the course of the collection; we’ll cover it at the end. See you there!

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

Short Trips, Volume 3

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Novel Review: The Eight Doctors

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! It’s been awhile since we looked into the world of Doctor Who novels, but here we go again. I set out to review Vampire Science, the second of the Eighth Doctor Adventures novels, but then discovered to my embarrassment that I never covered the first. It’s been several months since I read it, so my observations may be less thorough than usual; but, without further ado, let’s get started on The Eight Doctors (1997), by Terrance Dicks!

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

Immediately after the events of Doctor Who (the 1996 television movie, which gave us the regeneration of the Seventh Doctor into the Eighth), the Doctor returns to his TARDIS. He finishes reading The Time Machine (begun during the movie), then checks the Eye of Harmony—where he falls victim to the Master’s final trip. It erases his memory, leaving him in possession of his name—“the Doctor”—and orders to trust the TARDIS…but nothing else.

The TARDIS lands on its own at 76 Totter’s Lane in London in 1997. He intercepts a teenager named Samantha “Sam” Jones, who is running from some drug dealers led by one Baz Bailey; Baz correctly thinks that Sam told the police about his activities. Baz intends to force Sam to take cocaine, causing an addiction that will both punish her and ensure her silence. The Doctor rescues her, but is then caught himself by the police, who believe he is the one dealing the cocaine (as he had it in hand when they arrived). Meanwhile, Sam escapes to school, but tells two of her teachers the story while explaining her tardiness; she takes them to the junkyard to prove her story. At the same time, Bailey and his gang attack the police station to attempt to recover the drugs (as their own suppliers will not be pleased with the loss). The Doctor escapes during the attack, and takes the cocaine back to the TARDIS for disposal…but as the ship dematerializes, Sam is left on her own to deal with Bailey.

Flying more or less on its own, the TARDIS lands on Earth in 100,000 BC. The Eighth Doctor meets the First, just as the First Doctor is about to kill a caveman. He stops his past self from this heinous act, and the two psychically link, restoring the Eighth Doctor’s memories up to this point in the First Doctor’s life. These events have occurred in a time bubble, which allows them to converse without being noticed by anyone; but the First Doctor tells the Eighth to go before the bubble bursts and damages the timeline. The Eighth Doctor takes off again in his TARDIS.

His next stop takes him to the events of The War Games. Here he lands in the vicinity of the survivors of the Roman Legions, and is captured and sent to the headquarters location at the center of the war zones. He meets the Second Doctor, Jamie McCrimmon, and Zoe Heriot. Another time bubble forms, allowing him to make psychic contact with his past self, and restores the next segment of his memories; then he advises the Second Doctor to contact the Time Lords for intervention in the War Lords’ plans. He departs again.

Returning to Earth in 1972, the TARDIS lands at UNIT HQ. The Third Doctor and Jo Grant, meanwhile, having just defeated the Sea-Devils, have tracked the Master back to his previous haunt of Devil’s End, where his TARDIS awaits. After a brief standoff with white witch Olive Hawthorne, the Master escapes in his TARDIS. The Third Doctor and Jo return to UNIT HQ, where they discover the Eighth Doctor. The Third Doctor shares a psychic link with his Eighth self, but not willingly; he blames his previous encounter with the Eighth Doctor, during his second incarnation, for the circumstances that led to his exile. The Eighth Doctor—whose memories are starting fill in the gaps as more segments are added—assures the Third Doctor that he will be released from exile, and will even end his life with a noble sacrifice one day. They are interrupted by the arrival of the Master, who attempts to kill the Third Doctor; but the two of them are able to overpower him and drive him off. In the process, the Third Doctor captures the Master’s tissue compression eliminator, and threatens his other self with it, stating he could demand the Eighth Doctor’s working TARDIS…but he relents and gives his other self the weapon, choosing to stay.

The TARDIS next takes the Eighth Doctor back to a time prior to the destruction of the Logopolitan CVEs, and into E-Space, where he meets his Fourth self on the planet of the Three Who Rule. The Doctor has just killed the great vampire, but a few lesser vampires remain…notably one Lord Zarn. He captures Romana and uses her to lure in the Fourth Doctor, intending to transform them into a new king and queen of the vampires. The Fourth Doctor rescues her, but is caught himself, and nearly drained of blood before the Eighth Doctor can find him. He provides an emergency blood transfusion as the local peasants arrive and finish off the vampires. With more memories intact, he departs.

Interlude: On Gallifrey, the Doctor’s timeline-crossing has not gone unnoticed. Flavia, who is currently president after the Sixth Doctor’s sham trial some years ago, refuses to execute the Doctor for this crime, but keeps him under observation. A political rival, Ryoth, grows angry at this decision, and surreptitiously contacts the Celestial Intervention Agency. They refuse to get involved, but offer to secretly support him; they give him access to the Time Scoop. He uses it to send the Raston Warrior Robot (still in the Death Zone after The Five Doctors) to the Eye of Orion, where the Fifth Doctor is trying to take a vacation with Tegan Jovanka and Vislor Turlough. However, the Eighth Doctor arrives, and the presence of identical brain patterns in two places confuses the robot, leaving it immobile. Ryoth then sends a Sontaran patrol to the planet. The patrol apprehends the Doctors, but they convince the leader, Vrag, to reactivate the robot. It immediately begins slaughtering the Sontarans. Quickly the Doctors put together a device to generate temporal feedback; Ryoth’s next target, a Drashig, is redirected into the Time Scoop chamber. It promptly eats both Ryoth and the Time Scoop, before being destroyed by the guards.

The Eighth Doctor then lands on the space station where the Sixth Doctor’s trial is just ending…in his execution. The resultant time bubble allows both Eight and Six to escape, but they realize something is wrong. This timeline, in which the Sixth Doctor was found guilty, is not the real one; it has been forced into existence by the Valeyard. Somewhere, the actual trial goes on. As that false timeline has been interrupted, this version of the Sixth Doctor will soon also vanish. They rush to Gallifrey, and speak with then-president Niroc. [I have to step out of character for a second here. Gallifreyan presidency rarely makes sense. Flavia became president at the end of Trial of a Time Lord, and then was forced to step down for political reasons; she was replaced by Niroc, and then later re-elected, bringing us to the point at which we met her earlier while monitoring the Doctor’s progress. Whew!] They force an inquiry into the legitimacy of the trial, and enlist former president Flavia to help. In so doing, they step into a brewing rebellion among the Shobogans in and around the capital. The Sixth Doctor finally vanishes during the inquiry. The inquiry exposes a conspiracy among the Valeyard, Niroc, and the Celestial Intervention Agency—with the Master thrown in just for chaos’ sake. As the rebellion erupts, the Sixth Doctor’s real timeline reasserts itself, and it is seen that he has defeated the Valeyard inside the Matrix. The Eighth Doctor visits Rassilon’s tomb and persuades Rassilon’s ghost to release Borusa from his imprisonment; he takes Borusa, who is now very much absolved of his previous crimes, to the Panopticon, where he quickly asserts control of the situation and leads the Time Lords and Shobogans to a peaceful solution.

With Gallifrey sorted for the moment, the Eighth Doctor heads off to locate his Seventh self. The Seventh Doctor has become depressed in the knowledge that his life will soon end (thanks to his experiences in Lungbarrow), and has retreated to Metebelis 3 for contemplation. There he is captured by one of the giant spiders, who remembers the Third Doctor’s destruction of the spider colony. He is rescued by the Eighth Doctor, and a final psychic link fully restores the Eighth Doctor’s memories. The Eighth Doctor’s sympathy overrides his good sense, and he warns his past self not to answer a call that will soon come from an old enemy (that is, the Master, who wants the Doctor to carry his remains home—failing to do so would change the Eighth Doctor’s timeline). However, the Seventh Doctor, having become encouraged, decides to go anyway.

Meanwhile, the Master, ever one to lay a trap, visits a tribe called the Morgs. He obtains from them a deathworm, which allows them to survive death, but at the cost of their bodies and forms. He uses the deathworm on himself, then travels to Skaro, where he will be executed.

The Eighth Doctor returns to Rassilon’s tomb, and implies that Rassilon guided his journey. Rassilon congratulates him, and confirms it; this adventure allowed some loose ends to be tied up, most notably the infamous Ravolox incident (as Ravolox, aka Earth, has now been put back in place). But one loose end remains…

The Doctor returns to the scrapyard in 1997, and quickly rescues Sam from Baz Bailey, handing both Bax and the cocaine over to the police. Just as he prepares to leave, Sam leaps into the TARDIS. He doesn’t want to take her at first, but she insists on at least one trip to see the Universe. He tells her his name is Doctor John Smith; she points out that with names like Smith and Jones, they are perfect pair.

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There’s a distinct difference between a good novel and an entertaining one, and few Doctor Who stories illustrate that as well as this one. The novel is almost one hundred percent fan service (and not in the sexual sense; in the sense of things that fans routinely want, such as past-doctor appearances). I love that kind of thing as much as the next person (and probably considerably more); but even I have to admit that this story serves as a cautionary tale about why such things are only good in moderation. I’ll say ahead of time that the book was a lot of fun to read; it has that going for it, and there’s nothing wrong with that—if you’re not reading for enjoyment, why are you reading? Now, with that said, let’s tear it apart.

Since this book is almost completely composed of continuity references, I won’t be able to list them all in a neat paragraph as I usually do. We’ll look at them from the perspective of the problems they cause, and other references will be scattered throughout. The book tries to serve as a bridge between the television movie (which left the Doctor with a blank slate and no companions) and the rest of the Eighth Doctor Adventures novels—which, let’s not forget, were the only major Eighth Doctor stories for a long time. (I know there have been comics, but I’m not sure how they fit into the publication timeline.)

The book plays havoc with Gallifreyan presidential succession. It tries to salvage the notable character of Flavia from the end of The Five Doctors; that’s admirable enough, as Flavia is an interesting character with potential. However, it casts her as president, then promptly throws the succession into confusion with President Niroc, who is stated to be president during Trial of a Time Lord. It explains the proper succession, but the explanation is elaborate enough for its own bout of confusion. None of this, of course, deals with the fact that Lungbarrow–to which this book clearly refers—establishes that Romana should be president at this point in the Eighth Doctor’s life. (There’s a very short time between the end of Lungbarrow and the television movie, and this novel proceeds immediately thereafter; it’s unlikely that Romana was deposed and Flavia elected during that time. The events of Flavia’s term seen here could take place before the Eighth Doctor’s timeline; but then why, when monitoring him, does Flavia treat his Eighth incarnation as the current one? It’s never addressed.) This also contradicts a previous novel, Blood Harvest, which was also written by Terrance Dicks. It’s partially explained away by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum in Unnatural History, where they explain that Rassilon has made improvements to the patterns of history…but it’s Lungbarrow that gets undone, not The Eight Doctors. (And what a pity! Lungbarrow is a much better novel.) Yet more layers of contradiction take place in The Shadows of Avalon and The Ancestor Cell (which I haven’t read yet, so bear with me).

There are lesser contradictions to other stories as well. Sam Jones mentions “silver monsters” having been seen once in Foreman’s Yard; this is a reference to Remembrance of the Daleks, but the Cybermen didn’t actually appear there in that story. The Eighth Doctor, when meeting the Brigadier with the Third Doctor, doesn’t realize he’s been promoted up from Colonel (post-The Web of Fear). However, even the Second Doctor should have known that, as he met him at the rank of Brigadier in The Invasion; therefore the Eighth Doctor should know, having already acquired the Second’s memories. The VNA Blood Harvest states that Borusa was still imprisoned in the Seventh Doctor’s time; to be fair, it also implies he may return to imprisonment voluntarily after a short freedom. The method of “vampirization” (for lack of a better word) seen during the Fourth Doctor’s scenes here contradicts other versions, including Blood Harvest, Goth Opera, and the soon-to-arrive Vampire Science; however, most of those stories are careful to observe that different versions of vampires may reproduce in different ways.

The largest issue I have with this story is that it is the novel equivalent of a clip show. A clip show (and I don’t know if the term is common in the UK as it is in America) is a late-series episode composed mostly of flashbacks and clips from past stories. It’s meant to provide a cheap, easy, filler episode, while bringing later viewers up to date. I understand why the EDA line would begin with such a story; Doctor Who was at a fragile point, having just finished up the VNA line, and just coming off a failed television movie. I imagine there was a perception of not having much to work with, and therefore any effort to tie this new series to the Classic Series in its heyday would have seemed like a no-brainer. One must establish that yes, this is the Doctor, and we will be going forward with him in this incarnation; but he is the same Doctor he’s always been. The problem is, clip shows don’t make good stories; and this one meanders from place to place. It dabbles in the First Doctor’s story, while diving deep into the Sixth; this kind of variation is everywhere throughout the book, and so it feels very uneven and unpredictable. It may have been the only way to begin the novel line, but it was not a good way.

With far too many continuity references to list, I’ll stop there, and just refer you to the TARDIS wiki for more information. Instead, let’s take a glance at our newest companion: Samantha “Sam” Jones. I am aware that there’s far more to Sam than meets the eye, with some interference in her history and timeline yet to be revealed; but none of that is apparent yet. She’s very much a television version of a 1990s teenager: bright, almost manic, witty, high-energy, and highly involved. I was reminded instantly of Lucie Miller from the Eighth Doctor Adventures audios, and having already read the next book, I’m convinced that Lucie’s character is directly inspired by Sam’s; the two could practically be twins. Sam is very much a character, though; she’s not very realistic, but she’s very well written. She’s exactly how I imagine an older adult writing the character of a teenager in the 1990s—and of course, that’s exactly what she is. Terrance Dicks is a fine author, but he’s no teenager, and there’s a little bit of “uncanny valley” when looking at Sam…she’s almost, but not quite, normal. Add in the scenes with the cocaine and drug dealers, and the sense of being a little disconnected with the 90s—but still familiar with its pop culture—deepens.

As for the Doctor, we don’t yet know what kind of man he will be. He’s certainly high-energy, but beyond that, he’s still a blank slate. He spends most of this book playing off of the characterization of his other incarnations, which is something that Terrance Dicks nails (and he should, by now, with the stacks of books he’s written). It’s been mentioned that you have to ask which Eighth Doctor you’re dealing with in any given story; the answer here is, “we don’t know”. I’ll report back as I finish more of the series.

None of this makes the book a bad read, and it’s worthwhile at least for introducing Sam’s character, although one should keep in mind that Sam’s involvement is only the frame to the rest of the story. When we meet her again, she will have been traveling with the Doctor for an undisclosed time, and he will also have had some independent travel in the middle of her time with him. While I can’t completely recommend the book, the completionist in me says that you should read it; but feel free to skip it if your tolerance for weak storytelling is low.

Next time: We’ll continue our Short Trips audios, and we’ll look at the next book in the Eighth Doctor Adventures: Vampire Science! See you there.

The Eighth Doctor Adventures novels are currently out of print; however you may find them at various used booksellers.

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Audio Drama Review: Walls of Confinement

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re continuing our journey through Short Trips, Volume 2 with Walls of Confinement by Lawrence Conquest. Read by Katy Manning, this story features the Third Doctor in his early UNIT days, and also features Liz Shaw and the Brigadier. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 2

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

In a zoo, a tiger paces in its cage, which only allows it ten steps in each direction. It is uncomfortable, but most don’t see it. One man watches it intently from a bench…he is the Doctor. He feels sympathy for the tiger, as he is just as trapped as it. The Time Lords have trapped him on Earth, and he feels the restriction keenly.

Earlier, in the Doctor’s lab, Liz Shaw bears witness to another blowout between the Doctor and their mutual superior, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The Doctor insists he is only here as a favor; but the truth, as he admits, is that he is at an impasse with repairing his TARDIS. Therefore, he can’t object overmuch when the Brigadier wants him to get out of the lab once a week. In fact, he has a place in mind…

Liz finds the Doctor on the bench at the zoo, and is surprised to find him there. However, they are interrupted when they see that a small boy has managed to get into the tiger pen! The Doctor doesn’t hesitate; before Liz can react, he scales the open-topped cage and slips inside, sending Liz to find a zookeeper.

The Doctor sees, to his horror, that the boy’s hand is in the tiger’s mouth. The Doctor soothes the child, then makes his way slowly forward. The tiger begins to growl as he approaches. The boy says that his hand is uninjured, but the tiger won’t release him, and in fact bites harder as the Doctor approaches. The Doctor stops.

At that moment, Liz returns with three zookeepers, armed with rifles. They enter the cage, but the Doctor warns them not to resort to violence. The Doctor begins to gently explain to the boy that he must save himself. The boy must have come in some way other than over the top of the cage; and so the Doctor tells him to repeat what he did at first. He correctly guesses that there is an item in the boy’s unseen hand; and he tells the boy to turn the dial on it. When he does, a sound like the TARDIS is heard, and the boy fades away—to the shock of everyone watching.

The Doctor runs out, and the keepers secure the cage. The boy suddenly appears beside the Doctor. The Doctor demands his property back; and the boy surrenders the device—a piece of the TARDIS’s dematerialization circuit, pickpocketed from the Doctor. Liz scolds the boy, and asks after his parents; but he says they are in Aberdeen. The Doctor sheepishly admits that he is the one looking after the boy while they are away.

At UNIT HQ, the Brigadier is furious; the boy, named Albert, is his godson, and the Doctor apparently nearly got him killed. The Doctor grudgingly admits to some fault. When the argument settles, the Brigadier makes his version of an apology; but then he explains that he put the Doctor on this assignment, rather than anyone else, for the Doctor’s benefit. He wants the Doctor to occasionally get out of the lab and get to know the people of this Earth that the Doctor wants to flee, because those people are what UNIT exists to protect. To this, the Doctor has no answer. As the Brigadier says, the Doctor, for all his brilliance, could stand to learn a little humanity.

The Doctor thinks it over; and then he asks if, as a UNIT employee, he can claim some expenses. The Brigadier misunderstands for a moment, thinking the Doctor is simply concerned with money; but it’s the plans he has for the money that count.

Several weeks later, Liz again finds the Doctor at the zoo; but he is clearly dejected. The Doctor’s donation—the expenses for which he asked—has paid to renovate the tiger enclosure, making it more like the outdoors; but the tiger still paces restlessly, marking out the bounds of its now-removed cage. The tiger’s mind has broken under the stress of captivity; and the Doctor must be sure that the same does not happen to him. When he regains his freedom, he is determined that he will not just retrace the bars of his captivity. His final words haunt Liz; he remarks that the Earth may be a nice place, but he can’t imagine getting attached to it.

Short Trips Volume 2 1

I commented yesterday that Walls of Confinement is one of my favorite Third Doctor stories. His entire character arc is fascinating to me; in the space of a few years on Earth he goes from disgruntled prison inmate to gentle humanitarian. We’re early in that process here; this story has to take place within his first year at UNIT, as Liz Shaw (one of my favorite companions) is present. It becomes apparent here that the Doctor isn’t left to his own devices for his character growth; the Brigadier, especially, takes an active hand in helping the Doctor along. Without too many spoilery details, I’ll say that there is a twist at the end, and perhaps the Doctor doesn’t take the lesson as readily as one might expect. It’s cleverly and subtly disguised, but this is not a happy ending with regard to the Doctor’s growth; however, we in the audience know that he eventually gets better. Thus this story fits very well into its place in continuity. (A bit of personal promotion here: the story I submitted for this year’s Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trip Opportunity—which clearly didn’t win, or I wouldn’t be linking it here—builds off this view of the Doctor’s growth and human concern, and shows him a little further along in the process. A link will be available at the end, if you’d like to read it.)

Katy Manning has done an excellent job with this entry; it’s better, in my opinion, than her reading of A True Gentleman in Short Trips, Volume I. It’s a bit strange to hear Jo Grant’s voice applied to Liz Shaw’s character, as they are such opposites; but the moment passes quickly enough. She captures the Third Doctor especially well. His distinctive vocal traits are less in his voice, I think, and more in his diction, vocabulary, and tone, and those are all things she captures easily. Credit, of course, goes also to Lawrence Conquest for capturing the Doctor so well; it’s worth noting that his other writing credit in the Whoniverse is for Iris Wildthyme, who is also played by Katy Manning (though it was a print story, not an audio–How to Play Four-Dimensional Chinese Checkers, and Win, in the 2010 anthology Iris: Abroad, if anyone is curious).

Continuity References: There are few specific references, but the presence of UNIT, the Brigadier, Liz, the somewhat-disassembled TARDIS, and the broken dematerialization circuit, all place the story in the first year of the Doctor’s imprisonment on Earth (1970, if we can take the television season as occurring in its year of broadcast). The only other major character, the Brigadier’s godson Albert, appears only in this story.

Next time: We’ll visit the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith in a rather unique story, Chain Reaction! 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.

Short Trips, Volume 2

Chasing Humanity (2017 Paul Spragg Memorial Opportunity Entry)

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