We’re back, with another charity zine review! Today we continue our look into the Eleventh Doctor charity zine, A Pile of Good Things, edited by Ginger Hoesly. We’re picking up with a contribution by Paul Driscoll, titled The Birds of Sweet Forgetfulness. Here we catch the Doctor at a low point in his life—read on!
As always, there will be spoilers ahead! For my rationale regarding spoilers in charity and fan works, check out the first entry in this series. To avoid spoilers, skip ahead to the next divider. And with that, let’s get started!
The Doctor is alone—but it’s by his choice. In the wake of the exit—he refuses to call it a loss—of Amy Pond and Rory Williams, he has, at last, had enough. Now he parks his TARDIS on a cloud (on Earth, though, in the Victorian era; he can’t bring himself to let go completely even now) and hides from the multitude of distress signals the time machine brings in, and wishes he could forget. But that is the one thing a Time Lord can never do; forgetfulness is for humans and other races. Still, there is a place that may be able to help with that… And so the Doctor makes a short trip to the planet Galfaria, where he poses as a company executive to enter the rehabilitative facility known as Sweet Forgetfulness. There, in a combination of therapy and meditation and the strange mental effects of the large birds called Therapati, criminals can be reformed, and the past can be…well, if not fully forgotten, at least eased.
Of course the Doctor is never one to stay for too long—though he is determined to try it on his cloud! So, he returns to Earth, and parks his TARDIS; but now he has a plan to, at the very least, distract himself.
George Furman was once a burglar and petty thief, but that was long ago. Now, though he still lives in poverty, he is trying to be an honest man. At the least, he has found an outlet for his time and his mind: George trains songbirds. And as it turns out, there’s a new landlord, Mr. Smith, at the King’s Arms pub (now oddly renamed the King’s Giraffe), and the landlord has a thing for songbirds. That thing, specifically, being a competition. George can’t fail to enter his prize goldfinch, Joey; and now he is the finalist, up against the landlord’s oddly named “Murraygold”. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived competition; and George leaves in frustration, sans bird.
Still, he was attached to Joey, and he can’t just leave it at that. He’s no sore loser, but he must know that Joey is alright. That night, he dusts off his old lockpicking skills, and sneaks into Smith’s house and back garden to check on the bird. He is stunned to find Smith, with Joey in hand, walking up into the sky! A quick check reveals a nearly-invisible, but extravagantly bejeweled, spiral staircase. What the hell—George decides to climb up after Smith. At the top, he finds a strange blue box…and the doors open for him, admitting him.
Inside, the larger-than-life room he finds—the console room, had he known as much—has been transformed into an aviary, full of chirping songbirds of all types. Smith is furious to find George here; but stranger yet, he seems to be furious not at George, but at…the box? He insists that the TARDIS, as he calls it, is playing games with him, trying to remind him of his responsibilities. He has countered by filling the space with birds to drown out the distress calls. He closes the doors to keep the birds inside, and George as well, though unintentionally. He explains that the TARDIS wants George to be his companion, so as to shake him out of his funk—but he has no intention of giving in. The TARDIS, however, has other plans; and in a flash, it takes them across the galaxy. Grudgingly, Smith—no, the Doctor—realizes where they’re going, and gives in. After all, what better place for a struggling former criminal than the most perfect reformatory?
The Doctor gives George his psychic paper and sends him out into Sweet Forgetfulness. He’ll appear as a transfer from a prison, but the therapy will be good for him. He claims he has no plans to leave George there—but of course he does.
George, meanwhile, stumbles into a feeding of the Therapati birds. He’s struck by the wonder of it all, and already begins to feel the positive effects of this place. Afterward he is escorted back to the incoming group from which he ostensibly was lost, and goes through the sifting, the process by which those who are ready for rehabilitation are separated from those who are not. He passes the test; but he suddenly learns that the facility has been taken over by a criminal gang, and is being used to release allies and silence enemies. Due to the psychic paper, George has, thankfully, been taken for one of the former. Meanwhile, the Doctor struggles against the TARDIS, which has decided to play havoc with its navigation system, bringing him back to Sweet Forgetfulness every time he tries to leave.
George makes a break and returns to the TARDIS, and swiftly tells the Doctor what has happened. The Doctor snaps to life at once, and instantly hits on an elegant solution. He grabs the psychic paper and leads George back into the facility, where he claims to be from headquarters, with a new shipment of birds. Then, with George’s help, he whistles for the songbirds…and the TARDIS releases them. This has the effect of startling the large-but-tame Therapati into a frenzy, which creates a similar frenzy among the gang members, setting them on each other. In the end, they are sent running; the Doctor summons the authorities to reassert control; and the songbirds, including Joey, have a new home inside the facility, separate from the Therapati, which will be returned to their natural environment (with no predators).
The Doctor returns George to London, where he commits himself to campaigning for the welfare of songbirds. As he departs, the Doctor settles back onto his cloud, and grudgingly tells the TARDIS that she won this round…but only this round. He refuses to take on a new companion. She, on the other hand, is content; she’ll continue reminding him who he is.
I’ll credit this story with one fantastic quality: It feels very much like a Christmas special. I suppose that’s in part because of its placement; this story takes place shortly before The Snowmen, in which the Doctor meets the Victorian-era avatar of Clara Oswald. At any rate, it can best be described as “charming”, and I think that’s a fair term here.
We find the Doctor hiding out on a cloud, as in The Snowmen. The TARDIS, meanwhile, is having none of it, and making frequent attempts to pull the Doctor out of his depression and get things back to normal. Enter George Furman, potential (but ultimately declined) companion, a former petty thief and present bird tamer. The Doctor is cajoled into this adventure, with the TARDIS whisking him George off to the Sweet Forgetfulness rehabilitation center—where naturally, things aren’t all as they seem. It’s a quick fix for the Doctor, and a brief flash of his old self, and a happy ending for George. It’s not enough to bring the Doctor back to himself, but it does, perhaps, wear down his walls a bit, and set him up for the events of his meeting with Clara.
What can I say—a dose of whimsy is nice this time of year. If that’s not enough to interest you, there’s also some nice (and fourth-wall-breaking) references here, such as a reference to the Doctor’s own songbird as a “Murraygold”. The Doctor speaks birdish, now; move over, horse and baby! There are some continuity references, but only enough to establish the placement of the story; the Doctor refers to the events of The God Complex, and Amy and Rory’s exit in The Angels Take Manhattan, and the reboot of the universe in The Big Bang/The Pandorica Opens. He also makes a vague reference to other companions left behind, which can refer to any number of stories (maybe the Doctor has commitment issues?).
The thing I appreciate most here, however, is the view of the Doctor. He’s clearly seen to be struggling with his usual self. He’s clinging to his depression, but at the same time, his usual upbeat personality and desire for involvement can’t help leaking out; and he’s snarky and angry because of it. I’m somewhat reminded of his “And then I’ll have to find a new name” bit from The Beast Below in the way he seems frustrated, and the way his mood swings wildly here.
This is the first story we’ve had here with an actual villain and adversarial encounter, and I’m glad to have it. Not that I have any problem with the cozy vignettes we’ve had—the Whoniverse is full of them—but I like having both types of stories in the collection. It wouldn’t feel well-rounded without a few stories like this.
Overall: Quite fun, this one. A nice setup to the Clara Oswald era and the Impossible Girl arc. I’ve voiced my general dislike of Clara before; but I also enjoyed the early days of her time with the Doctor, and this story, though it doesn’t feature her, makes me want to rewatch. That’s not a bad sentiment. Check it out!
Next time: We’re quickly approaching the projected end of the sale period for this collection, so check it out while you can! I’ve been delayed a bit, most recently by a sick child at home, and so I don’t expect to finish before the end of the sale period. However, I do intend to finish the series, so stay tuned. To that end, next time, we’ll be reading The Stars and Their Promises, by Dana E. Reboe. See you there!
A Pile of Good Things is available here until 25 November 2019, in both physical and digital form.