Novel Review: Strange England

We’re back! And hopefully we’ll stay caught up now! Last time, we looked at #28 in the Virgin New Adventures series of Seventh Doctor novels, Blood Harvest. Today we’re examining #29, Simon Messingham’s only contribution to the line: August 1994’s Strange England. Judging by that cover, it’s going to live up to its name—so, let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead! For a more spoiler-free review, skip ahead to the dividing line below.

Anytime the TARDIS takes its crew to a peaceful place, you can rest assured that trouble is on the way. This newest destination, a Victorian manor in the country, is no exception. Almost immediately, the first person the Doctor, Ace, and Benny meet—a young girl named Victoria (no connection to the former companion of the same name)—is killed by a large, vicious insect lodging itself in her throat. Other deaths are happening elsewhere among the household staff: the groundskeeper is killed by a tree, the gardener by his roses. Ace goes to find help, and the Doctor and Benny carry Victoria back to the house, where they meet another resident, Victoria’s sister Charlotte, as well as the housekeeper. Along the way, Benny sees a man by the lake, smoke spewing from his body.

It quickly becomes apparent that the household have no concept of time, of death, of change–as though they live in a sort of stasis. They’ll learn soon enough, though, as the deaths begin to mount. Meanwhile, Ace finds herself in a village, where she encounters Arthur, another member of the household, who is very unwell. The pair run afoul of Dr. Stephen Rix and his thugs, though Ace finds an unexpected ally in future author Richard Aickland, whose books she once read. She finds Rix to be a sadistic, focused psychopath, determined to punish God Himself for perceived slights against him; when he fails to use Arthur and his burgeoning powers for that purpose, he sets out to find the rest of Arthur’s household and accomplish his aims.

While the Doctor tries to solve the mystery of the house and its inhabitants, he sends Benny and Charlotte—who is now rapidly aging—to investigate the smoking man. Thus they discover another piece of the puzzle: the figure calling himself the Quack, who claims a relationship to the Doctor via the Doctor’s dreams. The Quack invades the house, causing it to begin to tear itself apart; and Benny is struck down by one of the insects that killed Victoria.

But all of this has a familiar ring to the Doctor. As the threads of this story converge—and, fortunately, Benny is saved from an untimely death—the Doctor at last pieces it together: The world of the house, and all its people, is not the real world at all. It’s the manipulated interior of a TARDIS. And not just any TARDIS: this one belongs to an old acquaintance of the Doctor. Her name is Galah, and she is dying.

Galah has a bone to pick with the Doctor, dating all the way back to her school days—and now that her life is ending (prematurely, it seems—something went wrong with her regenerative process), she’s come back to make her final point. While the Doctor has always believed that good and evil are choices we make, an act we carry out, Galah believes them to be a state of being. To prove her point, she has linked her dying mind to her TARDIS, and used its architecture system to create the artificial world of the house, linked to a corresponding spot on Earth like an anchor. It’s static, benign, and good—and it’s utterly failing.

But before the Doctor and his friends can do anything about that, there are Rix and the Quack to deal with. The problem of Rix solves itself; when Rix comes face to face with the Quack, who is now a monstrous and vengeful creature, he is overwhelmed, and kills himself. However, his death becomes the key to the Quack’s power; the Quack is a facet of the TARDIS, and is attempting to absorb everyone inside. Because Rix died before being absorbed, his consciousness is not assimilated, and in death he—now merged with the Quack—gains control of the interior of the TARDIS, cordoning Galah off into a corner.

The Doctor, Benny and Ace escape in their own TARDIS, using it to approach Galah’s from the outside, and entering the control room, where Galah’s dying body sleeps. The Doctor connects himself to the TARDIS, joining her on the inside, while Benny and Ace take a different route in to try to rescue Charlotte and Aickland, the only survivors from the house. They defend Charlotte and Aickland from Rix’s torture; meanwhile, the Doctor manages to rouse Galah to help him, and together, they erase Rix from the TARDIS’s protyon core, destroying him forever.

Galah at last admits that the Doctor was right: Good is a choice, as is evil—a life that one leads, not what one is by definition. She is dying; but at the Doctor’s suggestion, she uses the last of her energy to change Charlotte and make her real, so that she can survive outside the TARDIS. The Doctor takes Charlotte and Aickland back to Earth, the real Earth; they will later marry, and Aickland will write the books of ghost stories by which Ace knew him.


Strange England is the story of a world that never changes—until it does. On the surface, it’s a normal Victorian manor and village; but when did Doctor Who ever stop at the surface? And things are not what they seem here. As the situation deteriorates, things become progressively more bizarre, until the Doctor reaches the core of things—and takes a trip down memory lane, all the way back to his academy days.

We’ve met the Doctor’s old schoolmates before. The Rani, the Master, others—it’s a group of misfits worthy of any adventure. Galah, though, strikes me as a bit of a misfit even with that group—she’s the bookworm among the jocks, the Luna Lovegood among Harry, Ron, and Hermione. She’s a late arrival in the story—we get her name early, but we find out nothing about her until the final third of the book. I feel some affinity for her—I was a nerdy bookworm myself in school, at a time when being a nerd would still get you beaten up. And we get hints that the Doctor himself didn’t treat her well in the Academy—imagine that, the First Doctor being rude!—but he seems to regret it now.

I struggled with this book, I will admit. It was a very slow starter. It redeems itself in that final third, but you have to wade through a lot of meandering to get there. It’s not very surprising to learn that the author himself doesn’t think highly of this book; he’s even gone on record as saying that he hates the ending, and would change it. I should point out that the ending, as he is referring to it, is everything about the character of Galah; originally he wanted the Doctor to conclude that he was responsible for the problems in the House, and simply be forced to walk away, the “ultimate anti-climax”, as Messingham put it.

But that, as it turns out, leaves me with mixed feelings—because Galah and the ending are the best things about this story. I can agree with Messingham that the book isn’t great; but the part about which he is the least happy, is the part that went the furthest toward redeeming the book, in my opinion. There’s something to be said for having these characters live in the shadow of what is essentially their high school drama; to see what happens when someone just can’t let go and move on, and see the tragedy that results.

Oh well; can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

Messingham would not write for the New Adventures again. He would, however, go on to write several Doctor Who novels in other lines, all the way up to the Tenth Doctor Adventures. I have yet to read any of his other works, but I hope to get there eventually, at least with his Eighth Doctor Adventures contributions, and see how far he may have come.

The other major issue that bears addressing here is the use of TARDISes (and I’ll try not to spoil the punchline for those who didn’t read the summary above). It’s not the first time we’ve seen a situation like this—Ace even makes reference to the rather bizarre events of Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, which are admittedly far more extreme than what we see here. However, I find the situation in this novel to be much closer to the depiction of the TARDIS’s architectural capabilities as displayed in the revived television series, and it’s a nice little bit of unintentional foreshadowing. (Still no protyon cores in the new series, though!)

This story, in my opinion, isn’t particularly groundbreaking for any of our protagonists. Messingham did try to subvert some of the usual tropes: the Doctor runs from a desperate situation (temporarily) instead of helping; Ace gets her fingers broken (temporarily) and thus can’t fight; Benny dies (temporarily) instead of getting captured…okay, she’s also captured, sort of, so never mind that. But, overall, the focus here is much more on the strange situation than on the characterization. It does work, sort of; it’s just that the story takes so long to come together, and so the full effect of that situation is diluted.

Continuity references: Not too many, this time, and some of these are a bit thin. The Doctor believes evil to be a force (The Guardians of Prophecy). Benny mentions the events of Birthright; Ace mentions those of Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible and Timewyrm: Revelation. The Matrix gets mentioned, but this isn’t the Gallifreyan Matrix; rather, it’s the Matrix in a TARDIS, the data system that makes up its programming and personality (The Doctor’s Wife). Bernice recalls the Land of Fiction (Conundrum). Ace reiterates that she’s had enough of Victorian England and angels (Ghost Light). The Architectural Configuration Program is mentioned (Castrovalva, and in the future, Journey to the Center of the TARDIS). The Doctor plays the spoons (Time and the Rani). Benny thinks of the planets Heaven (Love and War) and Lucifer (Lucifer Rising). The Doctor thinks of Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith.

Overall: Well, that was…something, anyway. I don’t hate it—it’s no The Pit—but it’s hardly a top-of-the-line entry. It did pick up near the end, and Galah makes the whole story poignantly tragic; I wish we’d had more of that, and less of the wandering aimlessly. But, if you’re into the foibles and secrets of TARDISes, you might still want to check this one out.

Next time: We’ll head back to a more modern (well, 1950s modern) Earth in David A. McIntee’s First Frontier! See you there.

A prelude to Strange England was published in DWM 125, and can be read here.

The Virgin New Adventures series is out of print, but may be purchased from many resellers.

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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!

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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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Tin Dogs and Clockwork Robots: New Doctor Who Rewatch, Series Two, Part Two

I made my last post early; this one is late.  Although I got it written on Wednesday before the Thanksgiving holidays, I wasn’t able to get it posted that day.  My apologies; hopefully we’ll be back on schedule this week.

We’re back, with our new Doctor Who rewatch! Last week, we reviewed the first two episodes of Series Two: New Earth and Tooth and Claw, which took Rose Tyler and the Tenth Doctor into the past and the future, and to another world. Today, we’re looking at School Reunion, which reintroduces some old friends (and also sets up for another spinoff series), and The Girl in the Fireplace, with a new enemy! We’re also looking at the related TARDISodes, mini-episodes which accompany each episode of Series Two. Let’s get started!

As a reminder, each series in the new show tends to have considerably more stories than the classic seasons; therefore we’re splitting each series into parts of two or three episodes each for the sake of length.

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has never seen these episodes!

School Reunion’s TARDISode, #4 in the series, finds Mickey Smith on the internet, where he’s researching strange happenings at a nearby school, Deffry Vale High School. He’s stonewalled by Torchwood’s software at one point (and again during the actual episode), but he finds enough to call Rose and the Doctor, and ask them to investigate. We end with a glimpse of one of the show’s monsters.

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The episode finds Rose and the Doctor already on scene, having infiltrated the school via some time-travel-related shenanigans a few days earlier. The Doctor, in his John Smith persona, is acting as a physics teacher, while Rose is filling in for a lunchroom attendant (and eating an exorbitant number of chips). The Doctor immediately discovers that certain students are exhibiting intelligence and knowledge—especially computational skills—far beyond the level they should have obtained.

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The headmaster, Mr. Finch, introduces the staff—including the Doctor—to a journalist who has been assigned to write a profile about him: one Sarah Jane Smith. The Doctor immediately recognizes her; she has aged since he last saw her, but is still the same to him. She doesn’t recognize him, however. Meanwhile, he discovers that a total of fourteen staff—including the headmaster and seven teachers—were recently replaced, prior to his arrival with Rose. At the same time, a child named Kenny enters the wrong maths classroom, and glimpses a batlike monster…which seems to become one of the teachers.

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Sarah Jane, being Sarah Jane, is here for more than what she says. She breaks into the school that night, unaware that the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey have done the same; the Doctor sends Mickey to investigate a rumor about the maths classroom and its odd computers. They meet, and introductions are made; immediately there is tension between Sarah Jane and Rose. Together, they then discover something horrifying: thirteen batlike creatures, asleep in a classroom. One of them awakens, unseen, and follows them out.

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Rose has discovered there is something sinister about the oil in which the food is being cooked. The Doctor says they will need to return to the TARDIS to analyze it, but Sarah Jane calls him off; she has something that will help. In her car, she reveals another old friend: K9 Mark III, now deactivated. He lived with her for years, but eventually broke down, and she lacked the parts to repair him. The Doctor does so, and K9, now reactivated, determines the oil is Krillitane oil—a byproduct of a biologically-composite race called Krillitanes. The Doctor also talks with Sarah about why he left her behind long ago; in the process, he reveals he is a Time Lord. The lone Krillitane, watching, relays all of this to Finch, who is their leader.

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The next day, they return to the school. The Doctor sends Sarah Jane and Rose to look more closely at the computers, and puts Mickey on sentry duty outside with K9. The Doctor goes to confront Finch. Finch reveals himself to be a Krillitane called Brother Lassar, and admits he has permanently adopted human form, unlike the others. He says that the Doctor will soon join him. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane have an argument over the Doctor, but quickly realize their foolishness, and begin to get along better.

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Lassar and the Krillitanes lock down the school with the children inside, moving to the final phase of their plan. They then devour the remaining human staff. The Doctor finds the computers are all deadlocked sealed. The Krillitanes get the students working on the computers, deciphering a strange formula that the Doctor recognizes as the Skasis Paradigm. If solved, it will grant its user godlike powers over reality, space, and time. Lassar tempts the Doctor, saying that with it he could resurrect the Time Lords. The Doctor is tempted; but Sarah Jane talks him down, and he leads Sarah Jane and Rose to try to escape.

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K9 persuades Mickey to use Sarah Jane’s car to break through the doors and into the building. He and Kenny run to get the other students out, shutting down the program. As the students flee, Mickey and Kenny meet up with Rose, Sarah Jane, the Doctor, and K9 in the cafeteria, where K9 holds off the Krillitanes, but dangerously depletes his power. The others hide in a lab. The Doctor realizes the oil is the key; the Krillitanes have evolved so much that their own oil now harms them. He gets everyone out except K9. K9 volunteers to ignite the oil, but he knows it will be a sacrifice; he will have to be close when it explodes. The Doctor says his goodbyes, calls him a good dog, and leaves. As the Krillitanes and Lassar arrive, K9 shoots the barrel of oil, detonating it and destroying the school, himself, and the Krillitanes.

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Sarah is heartbroken for K9, but she acknowledges his sacrifice. Later, at the TARDIS, the Doctor offers her the chance to travel with him again, but she declines, choosing to find her own life instead. However, Mickey asks to go instead; this time, the Doctor accepts, though Rose is not happy with it. As the TARDIS leaves, Sarah sees something left behind: A brand new K9, with the memories of the old, but updated systems. Overjoyed, she takes him home—after all, they have work ahead of them.

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I will unashamedly say that this is one of my favorite episodes of new Doctor Who. This is mainly because I’m a huge classic series fan, and Sarah Jane and K9 were some of the earliest companions I recall from my childhood; but the episode is good in its own right as well. It was one of the earliest NuWho episodes I saw (though not the first—that honor goes to the next episode), and I’ve been delighted with it ever since. It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing old favorite characters again after so many years; I felt something similar when the Master returned (albeit in a different body) in Utopia and when the Brigadier (albeit dead, sort of) made a cameo in Death In Heaven).

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This story is littered with references, so I’ll try to be brief. Most of them come from Sarah Jane’s argument with Rose: Mummies appear in Pyramids of Mars; robots from a variety of episodes, but most notably Robot; Daleks from Genesis of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks; anti-matter monsters from Planet of Evil; dinosaurs from Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and the Loch Ness Monster from Terror of the Zygons. Rose counters with ghosts (The Unquiet Dead), Slitheen (Aliens of London/World War Three), the Dalek Emperor (The Parting of the Ways), zombies (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances), the year five billion (The End of the World), and werewolves (Tooth and Claw). The Doctor mentions the year 5000 in connection with K9 (The Invisible Enemy), and the Sycorax ship (The Christmas Invasion). The TARDISode and the episode both show Torchwood software blocks on Mickey’s computer, a reference that will later play into the spinoff series. Sarah Jane makes reference to the car she drove in K9 and Company, the failed spinoff which established how she acquired K9. She hints at adventures that were never seen onscreen; the Doctor also says he has seen Krillitanes before, in a different form. He says he has regenerated a half dozen times since he last saw her (though some spinoff materials contradict this, as does The Five Doctors); this would naturally not include the War Doctor, whose memory he has suppressed. The Skasis Paradigm seems very similar to the Block Transfer Computations used by the Logopolitans; indeed, the techniques the students use to decode it, though executed via computer rather than by hand or verbally, seem very similar to those of the Logopolitans. Finch is aware of the Time Lords, and that the Doctor is the last, but doesn’t seem to know about the war; he still thinks of the Time Lords as peaceful and indolent, as they were before the war. K9 recognizes the Doctor despite his regenerations. There were also several tie-in websites in the real world; both Deffry Vale High School and its fictional surroundings had sites, as well as Mickey’s website, which featured tie-in material in an in-universe style. Most of all, though, this episode sets up for the eventual spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures.

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Some great lines: “Oh my god…I’m the tin dog!” from Mickey; this realization prompts him to take a more active role and travel with the Doctor, which will cost him soon. He gets another great line when Sarah Jane and Rose are arguing: “Oh! The Missus and the ex. Every man’s worst nightmare!” The Doctor calls K9 a good dog just before his death, and he replies with Affirmative; moments later, Finch calls him a bad dog, and he gives the same reply, smugly, I might add. Sarah Jane’s farewell speech is also an emotional moment; she tells K9 that the Doctor replaced him with a new model, and then reflects, “He does that”. The Doctor tells her earlier in the episode that the reason he left her is because humans age and die, but he never does, and he can’t watch that over and over. It’s a harsh and well-done line, but a terrible reason.

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The Girl in the Fireplace picks up shortly thereafter; Mickey comments that this is his first time traveling with the Doctor. It is the 51st Century, and the TARDIS has landed aboard a heavily-modified spaceship; but no crew are to be found. They quickly find a curious anomaly: an 18th-century French fireplace, leading…somewhere off the ship. A child appears on the other side; her name is Reinette, and she says the year is 1727, in Paris. She is surprised to see the Doctor, and more surprised when—weeks later from her perspective, but only minutes later from his—he comes through and awakens her. He finds a menacing, clockwork android under her bed; it wants to kill her, but says she is not complete yet. He tricks it into returning to the ship, then freezes it with a fire extinguisher. It soon recovers and teleports away.

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The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey begin to investigate, with the Doctor periodically returning through the fireplace. Time is moving on the other side, but very quickly, covering years in what amounts to minutes on the ship; each time, he finds that she has aged by a number of years, and is now a young woman. He learns, too, that she is not just any woman; she is Reinette Poisson, the future Madame de Pompadour, future mistress of King Louis XV and uncrowned queen of France. She is also falling for him. To her view, she has known him all her life.

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He finds that in addition to the fireplace, which allows time to progress for monitoring of Reinette’s life, there are various “time windows” on the ship, leading to different points in her life. When the droids find the correct one, they will come for her. Rose and Mickey find that the ship is riddled with human organs, serving as replacement parts. The Doctor deduces that something happened to the ship and crew; the droids are repair droids for the ship, who butchered the crew after the accident to use them as organic spare parts. They lack only one part: a brain for use as a processor. For this, they want Reinette…but why her? And why must she be a certain age?

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That age is 37. The group finds a window leading to that moment; but so do the droids, who move in to claim Reinette. The Doctor sends Rose through another window, five years earlier, to warn her; but she follows Rose back onto the ship, and is duly alarmed by what she sees and hears. She chooses to return and wait. Meanwhile the Doctor finds that the ship is 37 years old, hence the correlation in age—but still, why Reinette?

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He finds the window to the correct time closed. He can break through, but doing so will break the connection to the ship for all the windows, and will trap him there. And, because he is already part of events, he can’t use the TARDIS to infiltrate the time stream. He chooses to go anyway, using a horse that wandered aboard ship to break through, interrupting a party at which the droids are attacking. He tells them they are trapped as well, and have failed; with no purpose left to them, they deactivate.

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Later, while talking with Reinette, he admits that he chose to be stranded so as to save her. Then, she reveals that she has kept the fireplace from her childhood, and transported it to the palace in one piece. Moving it broke its link to the ship, prior to his destruction of the windows…he is able to reactivate it and return. Before he goes, he offers to take Reinette with him, and she accepts.

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He returns minutes later…but it is too late. From Reinette’s perspective, five years have passed…but history records that she died of an illness at age 42. He misses her funeral procession by five minutes. She left him a letter, though, saying goodbye, but pleading for him to return while there is time. He cannot do so.

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On the TARDIS, he severs the link between times, closing the fireplace. As the TARDIS dematerializes, we see what the Doctor never knew: a portrait of Reinette on the ship’s wall, and outside, the name “SS Madame de Pompadour” on the hull. This is why the droids considered Reinette to be the same as them; the ship was named for her.

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The TARDISode gives us a flashback to the event that damaged the ship, and shows the droids beginning to cannibalize the crew.

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This episode is the first NuWho episode I saw, though I missed the ending at the time (I was running late for something). It was great then, and I still think it’s great now, although it’s a bit of a disaster for internal continuity (seriously: That fireplace portal is absolutely inconsistent regarding the passage of time! Two minutes at the beginning equate to a few months of Reinette’s life, but at the end, an equal time equates to about five years. Also it synchronizes with Reinette’s flow of time when he is speaking through it, but only then. This sort of thing happens continually.)

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This episode is the first historical for the Tenth Doctor, although perhaps that’s overstating it, given its split time periods. It does, however, involve an actual historical character, in Madame de Pompadour, which adds some credibility. It also plays havoc with the idea that the Doctor can’t go back and change events he is part of; he says he can’t take the TARDIS back to France, but there seems to be no reason for that to be true. He can’t go back and change things already established further back in Reinette’s past, certainly, but he should be able to go to the moment of the party at the end, given that he hasn’t been there or done anything to contradict its events. Fortunately, this aspect of the “part of events” rule seems to have been discarded in later episodes. Clearly this is an episode that is better for the sake of story, but demands that you not look too deeply into the technobabble.

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Reinette’s story is a sad one; although the Doctor saves her, he loses her in the end, and more to the point, she loses him. It’s our first indication that the Tenth Doctor is far from perfect, and indeed, makes mistakes quite well, a theme that we will see come to a head in The Waters of Mars a few series down the road. Indeed, sometimes I think his entire run is setting up for that story, in small ways; in the last episode, we had him drawing a distinction between himself and humanity for Sarah Jane, setting up for his eventual “Time Lord Victorious” moment. Here as well, he calls himself “the lord of time”; it’s tongue-in-cheek now, but foreshadowing worse things to come. This is a very fallible Doctor we are dealing with.

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We are lacking in references here, perhaps making up for the glut of them in School Reunion; but Rose does reference the TARDIS translation circuits, last discussed in The Christmas Invasion, and calls the Doctor the Oncoming Storm (The Parting of the Ways). The Doctor mentions using Zeus plugs as castanets; these items appeared in The Hand of Fear, incidentally the final Sarah Jane episode of the classic series (with the exception of The Five Doctors). He mentions Cleopatra, but his encounters with her have been offscreen thus far.

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Overall, both episodes are good, and I don’t have many complaints other than the fireplace’s issues. The Clockwork droids will appear again in slightly different form in Deep Breath; the Twelfth Doctor clearly connects them to this incident. Sarah Jane and K9, as well, will soon have a spinoff, and will appear again here in crossover format. These are well worth your time.

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Next time: A two-parter gives us the return of the Cybermen in Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel; and if we make it there, we’ll also cover The Idiot’s Lantern! See you there.

All episodes may be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.

School Reunion

TARDISode 3

The Girl in the Fireplace

TARDISode 4

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End of an Era: Classic Doctor Who Rewatch, Season Twenty-Six

At long last, we’ve done it! We’ve reached the end (or almost, anyway) of our Classic Doctor Who rewatch! I say “almost”, because my plan is to include the 1996 television movie with this rewatch, and also to make a “final thoughts” post (or possibly two, if it gets too long). Today, however, we’re looking at the twenty-sixth and final season, with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. Let’s get started!

Let this be our last battlefield!

Let this be our last battlefield!

It’s goodbyes all around, as we open with Battlefield, and say goodbye to UNIT. It’s Carbury, England, in the year 1997 (coincidentally, the year I graduated high school), and strange happenings are afoot. It’s Doctor Who’s take on the King Arthur legends, but oddly, it doesn’t deal much with Arthur at all; he’s seen to be in stasis, and then at the end, it’s revealed that he was dead all along, and his prophesied return was just hype. Instead, we deal with Morgaine and Mordred, plus a number of knights in their services, and a summoned demon called the Destroyer. Helping the Doctor and Ace is the loyal knight Ancelyn (I really hope I’m spelling these correctly…); and the Doctor, as it turns out, is Merlin. Of course there’s a catch: He himself doesn’t remember being Merlin, as—it’s suggested—those events are still in his future, and even in a different regeneration.

Gotcha!

Gotcha!

There are some great moments: Ace pulling Excalibur and playing Lady of the Lake; Bessie making a reappearance; and Morgaine meeting Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart for the first time, at the business end of his gun. Oh, did I mention him? Yes, the Brigadier makes his final classic appearance here! He’s retired now, from both UNIT and his teaching career, and happily married to his second wife, Doris (not Kate’s mother); but he is recalled by the new head of UNIT in Britain, Brigadier Winifred Bambera, who is NOT prepared to deal with the Doctor. (Nicholas Courtney will reprise the role in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode Enemy of the Bane; and after Courtney’s—and the character’s—death, he’ll be revived in Cyberman form in Death in Heaven, for one final salute.)

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The Doctor’s darker side begins to show here, as he is quite ruthless regarding Morgaine and her troops. He makes frequent references to his past, and even to his future. The serial contains the final scene in the TARDIS interior; the console room is darkened during the scene. Behind the scenes, this was because the wall flats had been accidentally junked after last season; the walls seen here were hasty, cheap replacements, and the lights were dimmed to hide the reality. This scene gives us the “across the boundaries separating one universe from another” line, which was used in the “freezing Gallifrey” scene in The Day of the Doctor. On Earth, the Doctor uses his and Liz Shaw’s now-outdated UNIT ID cards to get himself and Ace inside the perimeter; but it doesn’t work as planned, leading to the Brigadier’s recall.

Goodbye, Brigadier! And RIP Nicholas Courtney.

Goodbye, Brigadier! And RIP Nicholas Courtney.

For reasons unknown to me, this serial is the lowest rated (in original run) of the entire classic series. It’s quite a shame; I thought it was a great story, and a lot of fun to watch. It was a little sad to watch the Brigadier’s final appearance; but it was good to see that UNIT is in good hands.

What an odd house.

What an odd house.

An oddity of this season, and something not seen since the Third Doctor, is that nearly the entire season occurs on Earth. For Ghost Light, we travel back to 1883, to Ace’s hometown of Perivale, and specifically to the large house called Gabriel Chase. We learn that, in her own time, Ace burned this house to the ground, due to an evil presence she felt there. That presence proves to be an incorporeal alien called Light, who, when defeated by the Doctor, dissipates into the house. It’s the story of three aliens from the same mission, each of which has very different plans for the Earth and its inhabitants. It’s a bit of a protest against the idea of evolution, as all three aliens react to the concept in different ways. In the end, Ace must face down some of the literal ghosts of her past.

Even the ghost wonders what he's doing in this story.

Even the ghost wonders what he’s doing in this story.

This serial was the low point of the season for me, and I found it a little hard to maintain my interest. To be fair, it’s the only serial I didn’t care for this season. In tone and subject matter, it’s very reminiscent of the NuWho episode The Unquiet Dead. Interestingly, it’s the final serial to be produced; the order of the season was reshuffled during production. As a result, the following serial has Ace mentioning “an old house in Perivale”; this was supposed to be foreshadowing, but was negated by the switch.

Wow, you guys don't look so good.

Wow, you guys don’t look so good.

We’ve been building up to it for three years, and now we get some answers in The Curse of Fenric. The Doctor and Ace arrive at Maiden’s Point, a secret military base in Northumberland, in May 1943. It’s hard to believe now, but this is the first (and only classic) serial to be set in World War II; it will be followed by several NuWho stories, including The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Victory of the Daleks, and Let’s Kill Hitler! The enemy is Fenric, an ancient evil who is established in spinoff media to be a Great Old One, one of several beings from a previous universe (similar to the Animus from The Web Planet and, possibly, the Celestial Toymaker). The Doctor fought Fenric in the third century, and using a chess gambit, imprisoned him in the Shadow Dimensions (interfacing with our world via an oriental flask). Here, at long last, he escapes and challenges the Doctor again; and he doesn’t come alone. He brings with him the Haemovores, vampires from a terrible alternate future of humanity, who are led by the Ancient One, a hideously mutated and powerful Haemovore from the future.

Bad touch! Bad touch!

Bad touch! Bad touch!

Fenric, as it turns out, has been manipulating the Doctor’s path via the people around him. It was Fenric who caused Ace to be transported to Iceworld, and who enabled Lady Peinforte to time-travel in Silver Nemesis. (The chessboard in that episode was also intended as foreshadowing.) Those individuals, plus several others present in this story, are “Wolves of Fenric”—descendants of an individual who was touched by Fenric’s curse, and thus they can now be manipulated by him. Ace, in fact, establishes her own timeline here by saving the life of a woman named Kathleen and her baby, Audrey…who turn out to be Ace’s grandmother and mother, respectively. Fenric’s manipulation is matched by the Doctor, however; the Doctor let’s his darker side show when he insults Ace to break her faith in him, allowing the conflict to come to a resolution. Though he makes it up to her later, it was a cold trick to play on her, especially given that he couldn’t have known it would work out as it did, with the Ancient One turning on Fenric and destroying them both.

Uhh...anyone want to help us out here?

Uhh…anyone want to help us out here?

The backdrop for all of this is the creation of the ULTIMA machine, a codebreaking machine loosely based on the real-life Enigma machine, the German enciphering device broken in large part by Alan Turing. It’s a decent idea; however, a part of the plot is that the Soviets intend to steal the machine from the British. That makes little sense to me, as the British and the Soviets were allies during the war. Still, we can handwave it, given that this is a fictional universe. In the end, there’s much more that could be said—it’s a complex plot and a convoluted serial—but we’ll move on. I will say that I greatly enjoyed this story, and was sorry to see it end.

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Finally, we come to Survival, the last and final serial of classic Doctor Who. It’s an apt name, I’ve always thought, as the series went into “survival mode” after this, living on in novels and comics and—later—audio dramas. It’s the final appearance of the last of the three great perennial enemies of the Doctor: The Master. (We’ve already said goodbye to the Daleks and the Cybermen in season twenty-five.) For this serial, we return to Perivale, but in the present day (1989, that is); I think it’s fitting that the series should end with a contemporary story, as that’s how it began. (Or I should say, almost contemporary; it was broadcast in November and December of that year, but the visible setting appears to be late summer/early fall.) Interestingly, the serial itself doesn’t state that it’s 1989, though context makes it likely; confirmation of the date is found in the New Adventures novel, First Frontier.

A colder, more deadly Master.

A colder, more deadly Master.

The Master, it seems, is trapped on an unnamed planet; his TARDIS is nowhere to be seen, so presumably it has been lost. It’s a unique world; it has the power to transform its inhabitants into feral, catlike Cheetah people, and in very short order. The Master himself is infected with this transformation, visible in his now-catlike eyes and fangs. He is able to send Cheetah individuals to Earth, but can’t leave himself. Once there, they hunt and abduct humans as prey, teleporting them back to the Cheetah world. He seeks the Doctor for assistance in escaping; if successful, he will carry the planet’s contagion everywhere he goes. The planet is tied to its people; their violence is reflected in the planet’s geological violence. The situation is complicated when Ace, too, is infected. She is freed when the Doctor returns her to Earth, along with some of her kidnapped friends. The Master, too, escapes, but is intercepted by the Doctor and transported back to the planet, where they fight their final battle. In the end, the planet breaks apart, and the Doctor escapes, leaving the Master ostensibly to die.

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Of course, we know that he doesn’t die; he’ll be seen again as early as the television movie. That film uses the cat-eye motif as a symbolic connection to the end of the series, as the Master himself is free of the contagion by then. (In fact, he frees himself of it, and gains a new body, in the aforementioned First Frontier.) However, this is Anthony Ainley’s last on-screen appearance in the role, as he does not appear in the movie.

Goodbye, Doctor, and goodbye, Ace.

Goodbye, Doctor, and goodbye, Ace.

There are some great moments in this episode. Ace, commenting on the Master’s connection to the Doctor, asks the Doctor, “Do you know any nice people? You know, ordinary people, not power-crazed nutters trying to take over the galaxy?!” (Which, in my opinion, pretty much sums up all of the Doctor’s old relationships…) All the Doctor can say is “I don’t think he’s trying to take over the galaxy this time…” There’s a great moment where the Doctor asks Ace where she wants to go, and she simply says “Home”…then, seeing his crestfallen face, she adds “You know, the TARDIS!” And of course, there’s the famous final monologue, which I’ve included below. It was written by Andrew Cartmel, and dubbed over the final scene; notably, it was recorded on November 23rd, 1989, 26 years to the day after the premiere of Doctor Who. I can’t think of a better way to go out.

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold! Come on, Ace — we’ve got work to do!”

"That's my fetish!"

“That’s my fetish!”

This story, naturally, has some “lasts”, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned. It’s the final of only three serials to be filmed entirely on Outside Broadcast Video (the others being The Sontaran Experiment and The Curse of Fenric) and the final of five to be filmed entirely on location (the two previously mentioned, and Spearhead from Space and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy). It’s the last to use the most recent opening and theme; the last to use the TARDIS prop that had been in use most recently; and the last to feature the Doctor’s face in the opening until NuWho’s The Snowmen, with Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. Notably, one of the supporting cast Lisa Bowerman (playing the Cheetah person Karra) will go on to voice Bernice Summerfield, a popular companion and spinoff character in the audios. Overall, it’s a great story, with a great and menacing take on the Master; despite being the televised equivalent of a furry convention, it’s a great way to end the classic run.

Next time: The Wilderness Years, and the 1996 television movie, in which we meet Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor! See you there.

Dimensions in Time 1

Bonus: I took a few minutes and watched the 1993 Children In Need special, Dimensions in Time. It’s twelve minutes of glorious nonsense, and I won’t dwell long on it, since it’s almost universally deemed to be non-canon. Taken in that vein, it’s a nice little coda to the series; it features all of the Doctors (with Hartnell and Troughton appearing only in still cameos, as they were both deceased by this time) and a laundry list of companions: Susan Foreman, Victoria Waterfield, Liz Shaw, Mike Yates, Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, Nyssa, Peri Brown, Mel Bush, K9 Mark I, Romana II, and the Brigadier. It’s rather short; its two parts run five and seven minutes respectively, with about five minutes of framing broadcast that featured John Pertwee. Its villain is the Rani, who brings her own companion, named Cyrian. Her plan involves pulling the various Doctors and companions from their timelines; as a result, the Doctors and companions keep randomly switching places, creating some odd pairings. The Rani’s “menagerie” includes a Cyberman and a Time Lord; the Daleks would have appeared, but the scenes were deleted due to a dispute with Terry Nation’s estate. There are some references back, including the “Doctor Who?” and “When I say run, RUN!” running jokes, and an appearance by Bessie. The special was a crossover with the show EastEnders, which I have often heard of but have never seen, therefore those jokes were lost on me. (Interestingly, it’s that show that most strongly makes this special non-canon, as Army of Ghosts makes it clear that EastEnders is a television show in the DW universe.) There was a phone-in voting element to determine the outcome of the story; scenes were filmed for the losing option as well, but never used. Overall, however, it must have been a success, as it raised 101,000 pounds in one night.

All episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.

Battlefield (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Ghost Light

The Curse of Fenric (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Survival (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Dimensions in Time

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