Audio Drama Review: The Toy

We’re back, with another Doctor Who audio drama review! Today I’m starting a new range of audios–or rather, new to me: Big Finish’s “Short Trips Rarities” range. This limited range consists of stories that were previously subscriber-exclusive bonuses, but have now been released for individual sale. (They are also still available as subscriber bonuses, as well—but don’t think subscribing is no longer worth your while! These releases only constitute about half of the subscriber Short Trips; the rest must be obtained via subscription bonus.)

Like all of Big Finish’s Short Trip audios, these entries are audiobooks rather than full cast audio dramas; they are usually read by a supporting cast member rather than the relevant Doctor actor. They’re also, as the title suggests, short, usually about a half hour long. Currently there are fifteen stories in the range, broken into three “seasons” of five each; however there is no direct connection between stories, and they range over various Doctors and companions without much organization. As a consequence, I can just drop in as I see fit, and you, readers, don’t have to worry about catching every post.

We’ll start at the beginning, though, and that is October 2015’s The Toy. Written by Nigel Fairs, and read by Sarah Sutton, this story focuses on the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and Adric, with cameos from the first four classic Doctors as well as Susan. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this story! For a less spoiler-filled review, skip down to the line divider. However, some spoilers are inevitable in the discussion below. Read on at your own risk!

Nyssa of Traken is determined to lock away her memories of her lost home—but in her dreams, they return unbidden.

Nyssa finds herself dreaming of her childhood on Traken, and the scent of a much-loved flower, and a forbidden archway. The dream turns dark when she sees, and is chased by, the burned and ravaged face of the man who stole her father’s body—the Master. It’s not the first time, but it’s never been so strong; and this time, the memory is fresh when she awakens. She tries to tell the Doctor and her friends about it, but finds them arguing, and so she heads deeper into the TARDIS, looking for a place to think. She is surprised when she finds the doorway from her dream inside the TARDIS—and even more so when she hears a voice from behind it. The sign on the door says not to enter, but she disregards it, and steps inside.

Inside, she finds a number of old but wonderful things. She is drawn to a small chest containing a  brilliant red jewel; and from that jewel she hears voices, calling her by name, asking to be her friend. When she touches it, she is carried away, and finds herself on a planet of red soil and orange sky, with an old man who calls her “Susan”…a man she knows as Grandfather. They visit a great domed city called Arcadia, the man showing her around. She is confused, at first certain she is not this Susan, but soon becoming unsure. Another man appears, his face changing its age, sometimes even resembling her father—if she really even remembers her father?. The man speaks smooth, comforting words to her, offering her a way out of her troubles, if only she will help him, and tell him where she is.

She is about to do as he asks, but the first man speaks up and begs her not to do it. He has changed now, and continues to change—first becoming a younger, shorter, dark-haired man, then a tall white-haired man—but all the while his kind eyes remain unchanged. At last he turns into a face she knows, the face of the Doctor as she knew him before, at Traken and Logopolis. Finally he becomes the Doctor she knows—and he reveals that the other man is none other than the Master. Nyssa fights with the Master, trying to get away, taking injuries in the process…

She struggles awake, finding herself on the floor of the room beyond the archway. The Doctor is there, with Tegan and Adric. At first the Doctor is angry at her for being taken in by the Master’s ruse, but Tegan and Adric talk him down, and tell Nyssa how he went running to find her so quickly that they could barely keep up. Finally the Doctor explains that the jewel is a toy given to his granddaughter—Nyssa knows her name without being told—by an old family friend. It is a node in a telepathic communication network that transcends both time and space. Susan, he says, once become addicted to its use, and he was forced to lock it up for her safety. Nyssa asks if the family friend was the Master, and the Doctor reluctantly admits it was so. She asks if he could still be alive after their last encounter with him; he admits that the Master has a way of surviving the impossible—but, he insists, the Master she contacted via the jewel was a past version, from many years ago. It is very fortunate that she didn’t tell him where to find them; for no good could come of the Master having knowledge of his—and the Doctor’s—own future. And with that, he puts the “Do Not Enter” sign on the door, and leads the way back to the console room.


The Toy is a story that wants to be several things. It wants to be a multi-Doctor story, for one. It’s never confirmed that any of what Nyssa sees in the visions she receives in this story is real; so it’s unclear whether she really met the various past Doctors in any sense. (As an aside, I should mention that the wiki for this story says that the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Doctors also appear; but that doesn’t fit the plot, isn’t mentioned in the wiki’s plot summary, and I don’t remember it, so I’m going to call that an error until proven otherwise. For this release, I don’t have the script—I bought my copy separately rather than as a subscription bonus—and confirming would require more time than I have at the moment.)

The story wants to be a cautionary tale as well. Near the end, when the Doctor describes how addictive the red jewel—the titular “toy”—can be for anyone with a degree of psychic talent, Adric compares it to “The Facebook”, a computer program alleged to have been banned in the 21st century for “turning people into mindless, incommunicative zombies”. But the story doesn’t commit to that take; it’s very much tacked on at the end, with no foreshadowing. It’s actually the one thing I didn’t like about this story, not because I have any particularly strong feelings about Facebook—I don’t—but because it’s shoehorned in so awkwardly.

What the story is, is a character study for Nyssa, albeit a brief one. Now, I will admit that I have many stories with Nyssa still to go, and so my information is incomplete; but until now, it’s been my impression that writers have largely avoided dealing with Nyssa’s feelings about her lost home, Traken. And that’s understandable; Nyssa is much more useful, in a dramatic sense, as a counterpoint to Tegan (who later goes on to be the same for Turlough); and as a counterpart to the Doctor, filling the role that Romana left open. And there are plenty of great stories to be told from those angles. But The Toy takes a direct look into Nyssa’s feelings for her lost world and her family, and it’s haunting.

This phenomenon of leaving Traken undiscussed is even acknowledged in the story. Nyssa comments at one point in the opening that for once, she’s going to avoid the Doctor, Tegan, and Adric, and sit out the day’s adventures, and avoid the battles to be fought, and just find a quiet place to sit and think about Traken. And she should; trauma like hers can haunt a person forever. It’s a wonder she carries on as well as she does.

Of course, the Master—the villain of this piece—can never leave well enough alone, and he turns her memories against her. It’s a crime of opportunity; this is not our Master, the one we last saw in Castrovalva, but rather, an earlier version. It’s not confirmed just how much earlier, but it’s hinted that it may be the Master from a time just after the Doctor and Susan fled Gallifrey. As a result, he doesn’t even know who Nyssa is; and as she has been overtaken by the echo of Susan’s identity, he at first thinks it is Susan. But his interference gives Nyssa something unique: A glimpse into the past of the Doctor, the Master, and Susan, and a suggestion that the Doctor, too, has known the loss of people he loves. The Doctor even suggests that the Master may feel the loss as well; he says that the Master perhaps couldn’t bear the thought of a universe without the Doctor to cross swords with, and may have left Gallifrey for that reason. (There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for you—they’ll literally cross swords soon enough, in The King’s Demons!)

In the end, it works out well enough for everyone—no great harm done here. Nyssa and the Doctor each come away with a little more insight, so we’ll call this one a win. (Tegan, ever the counterpoint, comes away with a hint of jealousy toward Nyssa; when Nyssa comes up with Susan’s name before the Doctor can say it, Tegan thinks that perhaps it’s another thing he’s told Nyssa without telling the rest of them. Can’t win them all, I suppose.)

Continuity references: A pleasantly higher number than I expected from a Short Trip! Aside from non-story-specific references to past Doctors, it’s mostly references to other Fifth Doctor stories. Nyssa sees the Melkur in her dreams, as well as her parents and the decayed Master (The Keeper of Traken–as if there was any doubt that this one would be mentioned). She mentions the destruction of Traken (Logopolis). Her vision of the other Doctors takes her to Arcadia on Gallifrey (The Last DayMistfall, et al). She sees snow on Gallifrey (Gridlock), and members of the Prydonian Chapter (The Deadly Assassin, et al). She mentions Tegan’s bad dreams and possession by the Mara (Kinda). She sees a future snake-like version of the Master (TV movie). Susan’s psychic powers are mentioned (The Sensorites).

Overall: Not a bad start to this range! Almost, but not quite, a bottle episode, it’s still a cozy story with many references to old familiar territory. You can do worse for a Short Trip. Check it out if you get a chance.

Next time: The next entry in this range is Museum Peace, an Eighth Doctor story with strong ties to the Dalek Empire range. We haven’t covered that range yet (it’s on the list!) but we’ll do our best! Also, after much pandemic-related delay, I hope to get back to the Monthly Range soon as well, with The Wormery. See you there!

The Toy and other stories in the Short Trips Rarities range are available for purchase from Big Finish Productions. Its purchase page is available here. You can read the TARDIS wiki’s entry for The Toy here.

Next

Novel Review: Scratchman

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Stepping out of the New Adventures series for a moment, today we’re looking at a more recent, and more unique, novel: 2019’s Scratchman, written by Tom Baker himself!

…Well, not exactly. Baker is certainly credited as the author; and along with Ian Marter, he wrote the original movie treatment from which the novel is adapted. (In some sources, Marter gets a credit on the novel as well.) But the actual writing was handled by James Goss, and he deserves credit as well, so I’m acknowledging him here.

Cover of the print novel

However, Baker did do the reading of the novel; and it’s for that reason that this time, I chose the Audible audiobook version. I’ll go ahead and say, you should too; if you want to experience this novel, do yourself a favor and pick up the audio. Tom is clearly having the time of his life, and it shows; you won’t be disappointed.

This novel features the Fourth Doctor, along with companions Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan (placing it sometime early in the Fourth Doctor’s era—we’ll try to get a better placement later). Further, it’s told in the first person perspective, by the Doctor himself. And so, let’s get started!

Novel print back cover

SPOILERS AHEAD! A brief summary begins here, and contains spoilers. If you want to avoid them, skip down to the line divider, below. However, be aware that some minor spoilers may happen in the later remarks as well.

The Fourth Doctor is on trial. The Time Lords have summoned him to Gallifrey to account for his recent actions; and this time, they aren’t playing around. He is accused of interfering in universal affairs—a rather broad charge, and that’s the point, isn’t it? The penalty, should they find him guilty, is to be wiped from existence—but the Doctor isn’t going to roll over and die. Instead, he’s come to teach the Time Lords a lesson in fear—and to do that, he’s going to tell them the story of his recent encounter with the Devil himself: Scratchman.

The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry arrive on an island somewhere off the coast of Scotland (or is it? It’s suggested, but not confirmed), in a recent but unconfirmed year. It seems like a nice place for a break; but as usual, something is very wrong here. It doesn’t take long for the Doctor and his friends to find that strange living scarecrows have infested the island, and are slowly killing the villagers. Or…are they? It soon becomes apparent that they aren’t killing the locals; they’re transforming them into more scarecrows!

The travelers gather the remaining locals into the village church. The Doctor deduces that a virus is the vector for this strange plague, and that the scarecrows spread the virus by touch; but if he can keep them from getting infected, and can destroy the scarecrows, he can stop it. To the latter end, he constructs a machine that will create an evolutionarily targeted breed of moths, which will devour the scarecrows’ outer shells, killing them. He sends Harry out for parts, and sends Sarah to the TARDIS to retrieve an Artron power pack for the device. Harry is infected while out, though he doesn’t realize it. Sarah accidentally allows a scarecrow into the TARDIS; she confronts and defeats it, but not before it infects her—and what’s more, it infects the TARDIS itself. Along the way, the Doctor himself is infected, though he is able to resist it longer.

A battle in the churchyard leads to the deaths of the remaining locals; although the moths do the job, it’s too late, and the scarecrows capture the Doctor and his friends. They take them to the beach, where they are confronted by the power behind the scarecrows: The Cybermen. However, the Doctor figures out that the Cybermen aren’t the problem here; they, too, are tools. Some other power has gifted them with the scarecrow virus, promising them an easy army; that power now has what it truly wants: The Doctor. It appears on the beach in the form of a humanoid at a distance, as the Cybermen leave the scene and walk into the ocean. The figure tells the Doctor to come to him, and turns Harry and Sarah into scarecrows.

The Doctor lands the TARDIS in a strange volcanic world; as soon as he exits, the TARDIS is consumed by vines. He meets a taxi driver named Charon, who takes him on a drive to meet the ruler of this land. The Doctor has already forgotten much, including his own identity and mission; Charon says this is normal here in the land of the dead, and that it will come back to him eventually. Along the way they suffer an attack from the Cyberleader from the island, who apparently is now also dead. Charon drops him near a castle floating in the sky, which the Doctor enters. He suffers another attack on his identity, but refuses to believe he is dead; the memory of Sarah and Harry returns to him and strengthens him. He finds them in a strange ballroom, dancing among a crowd; but this all serves to try to convince him he is dead, and therefore no longer the Doctor. He sees Harry and Sarah leave with a young man, purportedly his next self; and he begins to lose heart. However he meets a young blonde woman—his Thirteenth self, though he doesn’t know it—who distracts and frees him from the influence of the place.

The Doctor then meets the local ruler, Scratchman, who is ostensibly the Devil himself—which makes this place Hell. Scratchman offers to return the Doctor to his own universe and place, if the Doctor will open the way for Scratch to follow—after all, he claims he has made this a better realm, and claims that, much like the Doctor, he would like to do the same in the Doctor’s universe. The Doctor refuses, leaving a battle between them as the only alternative. He recovers Harry and Sarah, but they find themselves battling Scratchman on a huge game board, which is defined by Harry’s memories and thoughts. The Doctor forces a stalemate before Scratchman tries to change the rules. He loses Harry; but Harry makes his way inside the castle, and sabotages the engines that keep it afloat. The Doctor nearly dies in the crash, but is rescued by the Cyberleader; it tells him that its own form of Hell is being forced to do good deeds, and feel the emotions thereof. It states it will not do so again, and then disappears.

The Doctor now knows Scratch’s secret: He feeds on dreams and feelings and memories. The engines were powered by the consumption of the dreams of those trapped in this world; but that source of power is running out. Scratch begins to consume the world itself in an effort to destroy the Doctor; he creates replicas of many creatures the Doctor has faced and defeated, and sends them after the Doctor. He also creates scarecrow replicas of the Doctor’s previous three incarnations, to judge and dishearten the Doctor. The Doctor and his friends meet up with the islanders who died as scarecrows; the islanders know they’re doomed, but they choose to go down fighting, and stand against the army of monsters, allowing the Doctor to make it back to Scratch’s office in the ruins. Scratch reveals that what he really wants—the thing he believes will give him true power over the Doctor—is to know what the Doctor is afraid of. The Doctor tells him (although we, the readers, are not told). Whatever it is, Scratch is overwhelmed by it, and falls into fear himself. He flees from the remains of the monster army, before falling into a chasm to escape them. Quiet falls over the remains of Hell, and the three travelers—the only survivors—find the TARDIS, now restored, and return to their own universe.

Back at the trial, the Time Lords are unhappy with the outcome; but as the Doctor did save the universe again, and sealed the rift to Scratchman’s universe, they have no grounds to convict him. The Doctor concludes his lesson to them by telling them that what Scratchman wanted was not truly the Doctor’s fear, but rather, the Time Lords’ fear. He tells them they are afraid of change; and tells them to take action when the universe is under threat. He then walks out of the courtroom.

Later, while taking a much-belated break, the Doctor talks with Sarah about her experiences in the infected TARDIS, and about the future, and the knowledge of it. He meets briefly with the Thirteenth Doctor again, and talks about their own mutual future. He ends, much later, with a reading of a note from Sarah Jane, who is no longer with him.


I’m going to change up my usual order of things, and list continuity references now, rather than at the end. There’s a method to my madness, so bear with me:

Continuity references: The Doctor has previously been tried (The War Games), and will be again, several times. He mentions the Master’s doomsday weapon (Colony in Space). He mentions several recent encounters: professors (Robot), giant wasps (The Ark in Space), “militant potatoes” i.e. Sontarans (The Sontaran Experiment), mad scientists (Genesis of the Daleks), shapeshifters i.e. Zygons (Terror of the Zygons), and androids (The Android Invasion). Sarah Jane has her own mentions: her aunt Lavinia (The Time Warrior, later in A Girl’s Best Friend), a space station (The Ark in Space), a minefield (Genesis of the Daleks), a mummy (Pyramids of Mars), an android duplicate (The Android Invasion), a stuffed owl (The Hand of Fear), a garden centre (A Girl’s Best Friend–Sarah is seeing possible futures at this point), an exploding school (School Reunion) and a young boy (Luke, Invasion of the Bane et al.). She believes, erroneously, that the Jigsaw Room floor is a tile trap (Death to the DaleksThe Pyramids of Mars). The Doctor mentions the Loch Ness Monster (Terror of the Zygons) and thinks about the Daemons (The Daemons). Scratchman pulls several monsters from the Doctor’s memories: Giant spiders (Planet of the Spiders), Macra (The Macra Terror), Mechonoids (described but not named; The Chase), a giant robot (Robot), giant maggots (The Green Death), brains in jars (The Keys of Marinus), and a metal city of Daleks (described but not named; The Daleks).


Audiobook cover

How many times has the Doctor met the devil?

It’s a good question! And admittedly, one that’s difficult to pin down. A statement that repeatedly comes up in Doctor Who is that Earth’s history of belief in the devil has been greatly influenced by outsiders. The Daemons from the planet Daemos are once source (The Daemons), as were the Demoniacs (Mean Streets). The Greek immortal Hades called himself Satan (Deadly Reunion), as did Sutekh (Pyramids of Mars). The Beast claimed to be Satan, and certainly looked the part (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit). (This information taken from the TARDIS wiki, not assembled by me.)

And here we meet another candidate, Scratchman. This being comes from outside our universe, from a related realm that poses itself as the Land of the Dead. It’s actually unclear whether Scratchman originated there, or whether he came from somewhere else; the Doctor makes it clear that Scratchman’s rule had a definite beginning, and Scratch himself doesn’t deny it.

Scratch’s claim to being the devil is pretty good, as compared to some of the others. The dead really do appear to go to his realm (or at least some of them; this isn’t the only afterlife we’ve ever seen); while there, the Doctor meets the dead villagers that he previously encountered in life, and both he and they seem convinced that the villagers are both real and dead. Even more convincingly to me, the Doctor never denies that Scratch is exactly what he says he is; in fact the Doctor supports that claim, treats him as though he is in fact the Devil, and even later warns the Time Lords that they should fear Scratchman. When the Time Lords mock him for this, he doubles down. Is Scratch truly the devil? It’s up to the reader in the end; but the Doctor himself seems to think so, at least to the limit that he acknowledges that the devil could be real at all.

The Doctor purports to give the Time Lords a lesson in fear; indeed, all the interludes set during the trial are themed around various aspects of fear. The overall lesson seems to be that fear is a tool, and if you can’t overcome it, someone will use it. That lesson cuts in two directions; the Doctor urges the Time Lords to overcome their own fear of change and inactivity so that it can’t be used against them, and so that they don’t fail in their responsibilities to the universe; but at the same time, it’s clear that he overcomes his own fear. He does this not by denying it, but by embracing it and using it to motivate himself. We’re never told exactly what the Doctor fears, but it must be something great indeed, if in the end it drives even his enemy to extremity. (The novel doesn’t take the easy way out here; it would be so simple to say that “The Doctor fears losing his friends” or something sentimental like that, but the book explicitly avoids that option—rather, he makes it clear that he loves his friends, and that love is a potent force for good.)


Now, a bit of theorizing. Let’s think about when this story takes place. Based on the list of continuity references above, it’s clear that this story happens near the end of Harry’s travels with the Doctor. In fact, his last televised adventure, The Android Invasion, has already taken place; but the next story, The Brain of Morbius, does not feature Harry, and gets no mention here, implying this story takes place immediately between those two adventures. (There are mentions of later episodes, but they are explicitly images of possible futures, not memories of things already past.) I think that the Doctor’s “lesson” to the Time Lords here is specifically a reaction to the events of Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor has always considered the Time Lords to be stagnant, standoffish, and set in their ways, qualities he abhors. I think that when they began to interfere by proxy, during his third life, he grew frustrated with their efforts to use him to do things they themselves considered beneath them; and I think this came to a head in Genesis, where he finally refused to comply. Thus he comes here and lectures them about their habit of ignoring their responsibility to the universe, because even in sending him out to do their dirty work, they’ve been refusing to get involved themselves—using him as an “out”, as it were.

But: remember that there’s also a popular theory that the events of Genesis constituted the opening blow of the Time War. My addition: What if the reason the Time Lords began to fight the war directly, is because of the Doctor’s speech here? What if he prompted them to take direct action—and in typical Time Lord fashion, they screwed it up, and started a war they couldn’t win? Essentially, the Doctor called them cowards and dared them to do it. A lesson in fear, indeed! Or at least it’s frightening to think of in hindsight.


The highlight of the story is the perspective. The first person perspective is a unique addition to this story; and with the Fourth Doctor as a narrator, it becomes an interesting look into his thoughts. He’s conceited, there’s no doubt about that; but when coupled with his obvious love for life and sense of humor, it comes across as charming rather than arrogant. This is the Doctor in his youth; I’ve long suggested that given Time Lord lifespans, the fourth incarnation is the Doctor’s adolescent period, where he’s rebellious and wild, but also still has much to learn. This story seems to bear that out. He’s not the jaded and cunning Doctor of future incarnations; he’s sarcastic but not cynical, and even in some ways naïve. It’s refreshing, but it’s not the view of the Doctor that we would get through companion eyes.

Overall: What a fun story! It’s not the most serious adventure out there, though neither is it absurd, despite the premise; it’s just serious enough. And that’s a good place for a Fourth Doctor adventure to be. It’s also highly sentimental; one gets the impression it’s Tom Baker’s memorial to Ian Marter and Elizabeth Sladen, both of whom are referenced fondly, both in and out of character. If you have the opportunity, check it out, and enjoy the trip.


Next time: Well, this isn’t part of a series, and standalone novels are rare among my reviews, so…we’ll see? I may cover the Nest Cottage trilogy; for anyone interested, you can obtain the entire set for one price on Audible, or if you have an Audible membership, for one credit. Regardless, whatever we cover, see you there!

Doctor Who: Scratchman may be purchased in print form from Amazon and other booksellers, and in audio form from Audible and other audio distributors.

The TARDIS wiki’s treatment of the novel may be found here.

Novel Review: Blood Harvest

We’re back! And finally caught up! Today we’re looking at the twenty-eighth entry in the New Adventures series: Blood Harvest by Terrance Dicks. Published in July, 1994, this entry features the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Benny (I know I say that a lot, but eventually companions will be swapped out, so bear with me), and serves as one of several sequels to the Fourth Doctor serial State of Decay. Not at all coincidentally, it’s also a prequel (of sorts) to the Fifth Doctor novel Goth Opera (because this is Doctor Who, and who said sequels have to come in order?). That novel is the first in the then-newly-launched Past Doctor Adventures line, and though I have read it, I haven’t covered it; but I may try to do so soon, just for continuity’s sake. (I don’t plan to start regular coverage of that line just yet; I’d like to finish the VNAs and the EDAs first.)

At any rate, Terrance Dicks never truly disappoints, and this is no exception—so, let’s get started!

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

Chicago, 1929. Old-school gangland at its finest, and maybe worst. Infamous (but oh so polite) mobster Al Capone runs most of the city, and wages occasional war on rival gang leaders, all under the shadow of Prohibition. Tom Dekker is a private eye, but he may be in over his head when Capone himself hires him to investigate a new speakeasy and its owner, a strange little man called “Doc”…

For “Doc”, Chicago isn’t a playground—but it is deadly. Doc would like nothing more than to see the mobs stop killing each other, and with the help of a gun-toting woman named Ace, he plans to do exactly that—even if it means helping Capone. But something is wrong: every time Doc and Capone get a handle on the situation, something sends it off the rails. It’s as though someone is sabotaging their work—and that someone may not be human.

Far from Chicago, Earth, and even the known universe, Professor Bernice Summerfield is investigating a quiet backwater planet. Its feudal society seems peaceful enough, beyond the parochial struggles between the peasants and the nobility—but the locals tell stories of long-slain Lords with a taste for blood. It doesn’t take Bernice long to find out just how true the stories are. She’ll soon learn that events here in E-space have an unexpected connection to 1920s Chicago—and that someone is pulling all the strings on two worlds, laying a trap for the Doctor. And that’s not even counting the problem of the vampires themselves!


I mentioned in passing a few days ago that this novel was a real page-turner for me, and it was; I finished it in two nights, most of it in one. It’s not that it’s the best novel in the series so far—I’m not sure which that would be, but I’d make a vote for Timewyrm: Revelation–it’s just that it’s like good comfort food. For one thing, I’ve been a fan of Terrance Dicks’s work very nearly my entire life. I grew up reading novelisations of Doctor Who even more than I watched the series, and Dicks wrote most of them (or rather, most of the ones I had access to—he wrote about a third of the novelisations of the classic series). He is almost certainly the only DW author whose name I knew prior to the modern era. Recently I saw a video review of Timewyrm: Exodus, Dicks’s first contribution to the VNAs, and the reviewer commented that, although Dicks was more than willing to write the book, he wasn’t very familiar with the Seventh Doctor at this point. Consequently he defaulted to the Doctor’s core characteristics as he understood them, rather than the personality specific to the Seventh Doctor. I think that’s a fair argument; but I mention it to say that things have changed by now! Blood Harvest’s Seven is much more himself—you can almost hear his accent in his dialogue.

For a second point in favor, this book follows closely on the heels of State of Decay, which is one of my favorite stories. Of course, for the Doctor, it’s been three regenerations and who knows how many years; but for the residents of the vampire planet, it’s been no more than perhaps a decade (characters who were elderly in State of Decay are still alive and active). Romana makes her first of half a dozen appearances in the VNAs; she’s still in E-space at this point, not exactly trapped, but here by choice. This book marks a turning point for her; she makes her return to Gallifrey. (K-9 is conspicuously absent; Romana mentions that he is serving as Lord High Administrator to Biroc, the Tharil leader, as the Tharils become a spacefaring species again. He will, however, rejoin Romana on Gallifrey at some point, possibly offscreen.)

If I have any complaint about this novel at all, it’s that its two storylines seem forced together. Either story could have stood alone, and there’s no good reason for them to be connected. The insertion of the villain that ties them together feels like exactly that—an insertion. I’m willing to overlook it, because both stories are good; the Chicago story ends a bit abruptly, but that has more to do with the historical events described (the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the other killings surrounding it) than the Doctor’s involvement.

You can probably imagine that this is a particularly bloody story. There’s a great deal of killing in the Chicago sequences, consistent with real world history (and maybe a bit more—that’s the point of the story). But there’s also events on the vampire planet, from exsanguinated bodies to large tanks of collected blood to a rather savage battle between humans and vampires. Doctor Who is known for the deaths of incidental characters, but it’s taken up a notch here; besides the large number of deaths, the deaths are graphic and visceral. I can’t see it having ever getting made for television in the classic series, which is a pity, because it’s a decent coda to State of Decay.

Continuity references: In addition to the obvious callbacks to State of Decay, the Fourth Doctor and K-9 make an appearance in a flashback to the end of Warrior’s Gate; the Doctor mentions Adric as well. The PI Dekker will reappear in Players, meeting a younger Doctor (the Sixth) and Peri. The Doctor has both a Reichinspektor General’s badge and Castellan Spandrell’s Gallifreyan Army Knife (Timewyrm: Exodus). Borusa is freed from imprisonment in the Tomb of Rasillon (The Five Doctors); this account will later be contradicted by another release in The Eight Doctors. (That event occurs earlier; it’s possible, given the way he behaves in this story, that he felt he hadn’t served his time yet, and returned voluntarily, to be released again here.) The character of the Time Lady Ruathadvorophrenaltid (Ruatha or Ruath for short) appears briefly at the end; she is a pivotal character in Goth Opera. The Doctor quotes himself from Timewyrm: Exodus (“In an authoritarian society, people obey the voice of authority”). Agonal may be an Eternal (this is suggested in Goth Opera, but that novel is tied tightly to this one), as seen in Enlightenment. Flavia is president of Gallifrey (The Five Doctors), and Spandrell is Castellan (The Deadly Assassin). The Doctor receives a dose of the Elixir of Life (The Brain of MorbiusNight of the Doctor). One of the Gallifreyan Committee of Three is the younger brother (or possibly cousin) of Goth (The Deadly Assassin). Benny mentions Metebelis III (Planet of the Spiders), Ellerycorp Foundation (Love and War), Draconians (Frontier in Space, et al.), and Dulkis (The Dominators). Omega (The Three DoctorsArc of Infinity), the Shobogans (The Invasion of Time), and a Drashig (Carnival of Monsters) all get a mention. It’s also worth mentioning that State of Decay stated that there was only the one village on the planet, whereas this novel states there are many others (not established in the interim, but always present).

Overall: Eh, I’ve already said I liked it. If you want a good, comfortable Doctor Who story—with a little more violence thrown in for spice—this is your book. Things will no doubt pick up again soon, so enjoy the break while you have it.

Next time (if I can manage to finish it): Simon Messingham’s Strange England! See you there.

A prelude to this novel can be found here.

The New Adventures series is out of print, but may be purchased from Ebay and other resellers.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Regenerations book cover

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

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

With all that said, let’s dive in!


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

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

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

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


Let’s take a look at the stories.

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

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

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

And ultimately, he does exactly that.

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

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

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

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


Most spoilers end here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

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

The trailer for the anthology may be viewed here.

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

Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: When the Stars Come to Man, by William J. Martin

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing on our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries via the links at the bottom of the post. Today—after some delay due to a power outage in my area–we’re concluding the “Investigations” portion of Sarah Jane’s life, with the tenth of fifteen stories in this anthology: When the Stars Come to Man, by William J. Martin. Let’s get started!

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

Defending Earth (Cover)

A star made of metal falls on upstate New York. The ship—for of course it is a ship—is a loss; but four spacesuited figures climb out. Very soon, the site is claimed, and developed.

Far away, and years later, Sarah Jane Smith, former investigative reporter and sometime savior of Earth, sits at lunch with her friends, Joshua Townsend and Natalie Redfern. Joshua, no stranger to Sarah’s investigations—especially into the mysterious White Chapter and Red Chapter—has brought news of a new topic of interest: A strange US Air Force base in upstate New York, that is showing strange signs of activity after five decades of abandonment. Two urban explorers are missing—and this is exactly the kind of thing Sarah and her friends investigate. Soon, they are on their way across the ocean to New York.

The former Baxter Air Force Base is quiet, overgrown with trees that have reclaimed the property—except that several large hangers, and a new gatehouse, show a surprising amount of upkeep. Outside the fence, Sarah dispatches Joshua and Natalie to check various spots. Natalie finds the gatehouse empty of life, but filled with computers with a strange atom logo on the screens. Joshua finds an opening through the fence—and is knocked unconscious, and taken away. Shortly thereafter a strange aircraft lands, and four people—much stranger than the craft itself—climb out. The four are possessed of strange abilities: one, introducing himself as Stephen Sinclair, can manipulate the atoms of his body into any shape and size, allowing him to stretch his body at will; his wife, Debbie Sinclair, can create energy shields and manipulate the density of her atoms. The third, Debbie’s brother Danny, calls himself Starblaze, and has the power to transform himself into photons and energy; and the fourth, the family’s friend Jacob, has phenomenal strength—but at the appearance of having his body transformed to living stone. This unlikely group of superheroes calls themselves the Quintessence Quartet…and Sarah Jane has encountered them before, if not in person. She explains to Natalie that they have been active since the 1960s, but suddenly vanished—or went underground, as Debbie explains.

At the revelation that Joshua is missing, the group allows Sarah and Natalie to join them, and Sinclair produces a life sign detector for finding Joshua. It reveals several lifeforms…all underground, beneath the hangars. The group moves to investigate. They quickly find that all the buildings are flimsy, looking to be not much more than movie sets, but that they each contain a tunnel that leads down, eventually converging into a master tunnel.

Meanwhile, Joshua awakens and finds himself a captive of the Red Chapter, which is bent on the fated destruction of humanity. He is quickly identified as the son of the leader of the White Chapter, which believes much the same as the Red, but seeks to save the world from destruction. Their differences are irrelevant right now, however, as it is revealed that the Red representatives here serve a greater power: the Mandragora Helix. And the Helix has detected intrusion. It quickly sends its minions to stop Sarah and the Quartet, transforming them into powerful warriors in order to meet the threat. Further, it is enraged to find Sarah jane, whom it calls the Herald of the Helix, and it vows to destroy her.

With battle joined, Sarah and her friends are overrun. Jacob and Danny volunteer to stay behind and handle the enemy, allowing the others to press on. They eventually find their way to a large control room, now vacant except for a groggy Joshua. As Sarah and Natalie help him up and free him, Sinclair and Debbie begin to activate the various computers in the room. They get a shock when they learn that the entire place is being controlled by an old familiar ally: an artificial intelligence named Gordon. Sinclair explains quickly how they got their powers: in the earliest days of the space race, he arranged a mission into space for himself and his three friends, anxious to get there before the Soviet Union; but their ship was exposed to a strange energy, and crashed back to Earth. The team survived, and found they were blessed with new powers. However, the ship was unrecovered, on this very site—and indeed, it appears it still exists, further down in the base. That ship was co-piloted by Gordon, who has somehow survived; and, augmented by the energy that struck the ship, he has begun to develop.

But that isn’t all. The files reveal that the energy isn’t just random; in fact it is an old enemy of Sarah Jane: the Mandragora Helix. The Doctor warned her, many years and some centuries ago, that the Helix would return—and so it has. Now, it seeks to control Gordon, and through him the entire area, right down to its very fabric, its stone and soil, to establish itself and control the world. It must be stopped.

Debbie quickly concludes the obvious: That means that the Quartet’s powers are also the work of the Helix. Sarah Jane concurs, but points out that this is cause for hope: After all, they’ve controlled it for decades, rather than the other way around.

Sinclair chooses to stay and continue trying to disrupt the Helix from here, sending Sarah, Josh, and Debbie on ahead to try to reach the ship and shut everything down. Natalie, quite adept at a computer herself, chooses to stay and help him. Meanwhile, up above, Danny and Jacob are in the fight of their lives—and slowly, they are losing. The enemies are closing in on the rest of the team.

Sarah, Josh, and Debbie make their way down to the deepest point of the base—and there they find the wrecked spaceship. It is guarded by a field of energy—and by two ominous jars containing badly mutated fetuses. Sarah realizes that these are the bodies of the two missing explorers, heavily twisted by the Mandragora Helix in its attempts to give itself a body on Earth. Leaving Debbie outside to stand guard. Sarah and Joshua push on inside, and confront a fully corrupted Gordon, serving as the mouthpiece for the Helix. Once he brought man to the stars…now he brings the stars to man. The Helix, speaking through it, is angry at Sarah, remembering her past involvement in its defeat.

Outside, one of the jars shatters, and Debbie—following a purpose she doesn’t fully understand—sends the mutant into the blackness that borders the ship.

Sarah confronts the Helix. She is no longer the young woman she once was, and she is no longer frightened of this being or its plans. She challenges it, and forces it to name its two victims, the explorers—and forces it to explain its plans. It acknowledges it wants to give itself form and walk the Earth before bringing about destruction. But it is interrupted by the arrival of the mutant child. The Helix screams in terror as its own creation comes to it, looping its own power back onto itself—an act that will be sufficient to force it back on itself, out to the stars where it belongs. Sarah and Josh try to flee, but cannot.

But all is not lost; for Natalie has determined the truth: the entire base, its buildings, even its soil, consists of Helix energy. Gordon has been controlling it, but his control is slipping. However, a human mind can do it, at least briefly. Sinclair knows the kind of control necessary—he’s been living it for years with his own treacherous body—but, as Nat points out, he can’t be the one to carry this burden. He has been sufficient to control the Helix energy in his body; but this amount, added to his own, will overwhelm him. It will take someone without any previous touch of the energy; and Natalie is the only one able to do so. She connects herself to the system.

Sarah and Joshua—along with the others—find themselves in a vast, constructed pit of sand and statues. Sarah sees that the slaves of the Helix are here as well; but the humans, Red Chapter though they may be, are fighting their master for control of themselves. They approach the monolith that represents the Helix. Sarah confronts the creature, and tells it of its ultimate defeat—and then the slaves release their store of Helix energy back into the monolith. This is the final step needed to banish the Helix. Creation explodes around them, and all goes dark.

One by one, Sarah and her friends awaken in the forest. Of the pit, and the base, there is no sign. Only a long trench is visible, at the end of which they can see the ruin of a spaceship. In the absence of the Helix energy, the area has reverted to the state it was in on the night the Helix came to Earth: the night of the crash, more than fifty years ago.

With the Helix vanished, Sarah and her friends bid the Quintessence Quartet goodbye, and watch them leave, taking the ruined ship with them. Then, they turn to make their own way home, another battle won. The White and Red Chapters may continue their war; but for now, the Helix is gone, and the Earth is safer than it was—and that is reward enough.

Martin Title Card

One of the difficulties of the charity anthology”scene”, if you will, is that we readers must really keep up. Anthology authors, like any other authors, will often want to have some continuity between their own stories, perhaps introducing characters or settings that will continue from one story to another. With licensed works, this usually isn’t an issue. Stories tend to remain available in some form, and there are resources such as the TARDIS wiki which can be consulted. Anthologies, on the other hand, tend to have print runs that are limited in both number and time; once it’s gone, it’s gone, as these books usually don’t get much resale traffic either. Nor are there encyclopedic references for charity works, such as there are for licensed works. So, when an author introduces a unique character, he or she has to either work hard at making each story stand alone, or just hope that the reader can keep up.

We’ve encountered some of this already: for example, our very first entry, The Sparks, included the character of Lola, who it seems has appeared in at least one more of the author’s stories; and also a meteor shower was mentioned, which the author covered elsewhere. Thus far the effect has been minimal, and the stories have been perfectly capable of standing alone. That changes today, with the introduction of the Quintessence Quartet.

I want to go on record immediately as saying that I am not, in any way, complaining about the characters. I found this story to be a rollicking good read, owing much to the comic books from which it takes inspiration. I’m only complaining (if I even want to use that word) that there’s clearly history here that I most likely won’t be able to appreciate, because it comes from a source that I won’t be able to track down.

The Quintessence Quartet are best described as a tribute to Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four. Their powers, appearances, and names are tweaked enough to not be a direct copy; but it’s overwhelmingly obvious what they represent. Even the name of the airbase in the story—Baxter Air Force Base—is a Fantastic Four reference, as the Fantastic Four have long worked out of a skyscraper called the Baxter Building. (I’ll admit I was testing my memory to come up with that fact; it’s been a great many years since I last read any Fantastic Four comics, and, well, we’re still waiting for a good movie treatment, in my opinion.) They’re a good tribute, though—a respectful one, saturated in the wholesomeness of Silver Age comics.

I suppose it didn’t help me, in my grasp of this story, that it takes place during the events of Big Finish’s Sarah Jane Smithaudio series. This, too, is an era that I am unfamiliar with, although some research helped. The series, from what I have read, revolves around the battle between the White Chapter and the Red (or sometimes Crimson) Chapter, two offshoots of a single organization, both of which believe the end of the world is imminent. The Red Chapter seeks to hasten the end; the White Chapter seeks to prevent it. The Red Chapter appears here. The author deftly weaves it together with another established villain: the Mandragora Helix, from the Fourth Doctor serial The Masque of Mandragora (one I have seen, at least!). That serial predicted the return of the Helix at or near the end of the twentieth century—a thread that has been tugged in a few licensed stories, but never again on television. (For reference, compare the novels Beautiful Chaos and The Eleventh Tiger, and the comic The Mark of Mandragora.) The connection between the Helix and the Chapters is implied in the audio series, but not so explicitly as describe here (or so my sources indicate—I really should listen to the audio series).

But, enough complaining! Now for the good. For any fan of either the audio series or Marvel comics, this story is going to be pure fun. It’s long, one of the longer entries in the anthology, though much shorter than Swinging Londons; and yet it moves quickly, never lingering, much as the comics to which it pays tribute. Moreover, it’s upbeat—the characters, including Sarah Jane, are confident, peppy, and strong, without being annoying. More than any story I’ve read so far, this is a feel-good story, with none of the darkness and tragedy that usually accompanies a story in the Doctor Who universe. It makes me want to read more. (If anyone has experience with the author’s previous work involving the Quintessence Quartet, feel free to join in the comments!)

Overall: I was a little dismayed at first. Who are these people? What’s going on? There’s some explanation for each story in the editor’s introduction to the anthology, but even that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the way this story jumps right in. As well, I was concerned about the introduction of superheroes into the Doctor Who universe…until I was reminded that the television series already covered this ground, in The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Nevertheless, I’m glad I stuck with it. It made the teenage comic book reader inside me quite happy, and brought back good memories. Perhaps it will do the same for you.

Next time: We start the final section of the anthology, “Family”, with a contribution by the editor, M.H. Norris: Gifts for Good. 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.

The Sarah Jane Smith audio drama series may be purchased here.

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and The Name of Universes, by James Bojaciuk

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries via the links at the bottom of this post. We’re looking today at the fifth story in the collection, set during Sarah’s travels with the Fourth Doctor: The Name of Universes, by James Bojaciuk. Let’s get started!

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

Defending Earth (Cover)

Out on the edge of space and time—in fact, outside it—other universes, other realities wait. More than that, they move and live, sometimes on their own, other times full of life. But there are predators even beyond the universes—and sometimes they prey on universes themselves.

The Doctor, with Sarah Jane Smith at his side, discovers just such a circumstance. A great predator, moving without malice, moving on instinct—which can be just as deadly—closes in on a universe in a chase so grand as to defy imagination…and yet so fragile as well. It is up to the Doctor and Sarah to stop the chase, to save this lesser universe from its fate, for the sake of all life inside it.

To do so, the Doctor will take his TARDIS outside the boundaries of N-Space, out of the universe itself—out of all the universes, in fact—something ordinarily not possible, but possible here, with enough finesse. He must bring time and space to a place where they do not exist, impose laws of cause-and-effect and topography where they are foreign. Once he has done so, he can divert the universe out of the path of its predator (which, disdaining to compare it to a shark, he calls a “coelacanth”, that ancient, archaic fish once thought extinct on Earth). To do so, however, he must turn the TARDIS inside out, empty its cargo of space and time into the void—and this will be dangerous for him, but utterly inimical to a short-lived mortal like Sarah.

To both complete the mission and shield Sarah from harm, he sends her on a task. He activates the process from the console room; but to complete the required circuit, she must activate another control, in the TARDIS’s distant engine room. To that end, she sets out through the many and twisting corridors of the TARDIS, deep into its core, all the while keeping the Doctor in remote communication. Even in this desperate circumstance, their banter is light; they debate the question of what one calls a group of universes. A swarm? A litter? The Doctor suggests a “vagabond”, a “gadabout”, or—all heavens forbid—a “gazingstock” of universes.

Soon, however, Sarah finds it hard to concentrate on the game, as the TARDIS begins to come apart around her. Her perception of space, of time, of gravity, of the very relation among parts, is twisted and tested. As a final challenge, she must make a leap across a yawning void to reach the engine room…and she misses. However, the TARDIS itself rewards her courage, as it gently refolds its own geometry to land her safely in the engine room. She activates the controls…

…and finds herself back at the console room. All is well. The universe—no, the universes–are saved. The TARDIS is back to normal, and the mission is complete. And to what purpose? The Doctor opens the TARDIS doors, and shows her: A procession of many universes, receding out away from them in stately order, all radiant and beautiful and worth saving.

The Doctor suggests a final name for a group of universes: A “Mystery” of universes. Sarah, thoughtfully but kindly, corrects him: The only proper name of universes…

…is a Miracle.

Bojaciuk Title Card.png

I don’t have much to say about this story, but that is for an excellent reason: It speaks so well for itself. My description hardly does it justice; it should be experienced. It is as much poetry as prose; in fact, very little actually happens here, and so the plot is a bit sparse. But, it’s a beautiful story regardless. Sarah Jane and the Doctor seek to save a minor universe—or, put another way, all universes, in a representative sense—and in the process, Sarah gets a glimpse of the beautiful reality for which they so often fight.

And yet we need this sort of glimpse. For us, the readers, it’s a double insight. We get the opportunity to see what Sarah sees here—the beauty of the multiverse—but also we get to see a bit of her growth. Determination—which, we already know, the Sarah Jane of later years will have in abundance—grows out of moments like this, when one gets to see what one is fighting for. I mentioned in my first post that Sarah has had many formative moments; this, then, is one of them. Call it a “booster shot”, if you will; it’s something of a course correction that will carry her into her later life. It’s a short story, and a short episode—the second shortest in the collection; we’ll cover the shortest later—but it’s a crucial moment for her. I’m glad to have read it.

I think I’ve already covered my “Overall” section, and so I’ll move on to the “Next Time”. We’ve finished a third of the stories in the anthology, and three of five parts of Sarah Jane’s life (!); next time, we’ll begin the “Investigation” section, with Sarah Jane in an Exciting Adventure with the Fauxes, by Anna Maloney. See you there!

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

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and “Cuckoo Clocks That Work” by James Macaronas

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 beginning here, or via the “Previous” and “Next” links at the bottom of each entry. We’re looking at the fourth story in the collection, set during Sarah’s travels with the Fourth Doctor: Cuckoo Clocks the Work, by James Macaronas. Let’s get started! As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked above. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute.

Defending Earth (Cover)

Sarah Jane Smith is only beginning to get used to this new version of the Doctor. So perhaps she can be forgiven for panicking a bit when the TARDIS turns upside down and is yanked from the time vortex.

As the Doctor fights to stabilize the ship, he explains that something large—an entire world, as it turns out—has been removed from the vortex, leaving a sort of hole. The TARDIS has been pulled along in its wake. That should be impossible—but yet it has happened. The Doctor manages to bring the time capsule to a halt on the planet’s surface, and Sarah Jane follows him out.

They find themselves in the residue of a missile strike. A ruined city sprawls around them. As they explore, the city rumbles and quakes—and suddenly, it changes. Now the city is whole, and populated with people in garish clothing. The city, they learn, is called Tenzin, the only city on this planet, which is one of Earth’s far-flung colony worlds. It is only fifty years old, they are told. Suddenly the Doctor doubles over in pain—something, he says, is wrong with time itself. The city and its people are torn away, disappearing in pieces, revealing a new scene—one of cracked Earth and grass, and no other signs of life.

The Doctor insists that it is not they who are moving through time—it is the planet, impossible though that may seem. The world has been cut out of the vortex, and now it wanders through its own timeline. Or, perhaps, it is being led through its timeline. The Doctor’s pain increases, and Sarah helps him back to the TARDIS. As they run, the scene changes again, this time to a war zone, and they are chased by soldiers and a tank. They make it safely to the TARDIS, if only just barely.

The Doctor quickly insists that they must do something before the time distortion tears the planet apart. He reveals something that Sarah failed to notice: In all the scenes they saw, it was never night. But, he explains, it is unlikely that the planet’s star was stolen with it, as that would take considerably more power. He puts the planet’s light source on the scanner…and reveals it to be a ship. Specifically, a time ship of some sort.

The TARDIS takes them inside the time ship, and the duo set out exploring. They find a bright room containing a television, a chaise lounge—and a young woman, dancing. She introduces herself as Naia, and asks if the Ophanin sent them. In fits and starts, she explains that the planet below, her home, fought for its independence. She is interrupted by the arrival of the Ophanin, vaguely humanoid creatures with faces of fire, who say that they did not bring the Doctor and Sarah aboard. They render Sarah unconscious, and take the Doctor prisoner.

When Sarah awakens, Naia is still dancing. She allows Sarah to watch the Doctor’s interrogation on the television. Naia explains that the Ophanin saved her life, and gave her a second chance—but at what? Meanwhile the Doctor argues with the Ophanin, who claim to know what they are doing to the planet below—and claim to be the masters of time. They say they intend to destroy the Doctor after they finish him. Naia claims that she is the one responsible for the destruction of the planet, not the Ophanin. For the Ophanin, it is an experiment; for Naia, it is personal. She reveals that she lost her younger sister, Elen, during the rebellion, and due to her own foolishness in leaving the child unattended. This experiment will bring her back…and if it destroys the planet in the process, so be it.

Sarah reveals that she, too, has a tragedy in her past: the deaths of her parents. She reveals that she has wrestled with the thought that the Doctor, a time traveler, could take her back to see them, perhaps even save them—but she knows the Doctor would refuse. Why? Because he, like Sarah herself, knows that there’s no going back. One can only learn from the past, and press on, and forge something new. She begs Naia not to dishonor the memory of Elen by destroying the only home the girl ever knew.

Swayed at last, Naia calls the Ophanin, and demands to see Tenzin. After some argument, they relent, and show her a view of the planet…and chaos. Time is breaking down, and minutes flow into each other out of sequence. The inhabitants live and die in moments, filled with terror. Horrified, Naia tells the Ophanin to stop the experiment. The Ophanin refuse, and invade Naia’s mind, forcing her to continue her dance. Sarah Jane confronts her, and talks her through the pain, to thoughts of the future, and of freedom—and the ship starts to come apart.

Sarah and Naia confront the Ophanin, and rescue the Doctor. The Ophanin move to attack—but are stopped by Naia. She holds a bloody piece of circuitry, pulled from her own body, and the Ophanin recognize it as the key piece of their machine. As they watch in horror, she shatters it on the floor, leaving the Ophanin to die in the ruins of their machine.

The Doctor returns Naia to Tenzin; and she comments that it looks different from when she left. He leaves her with a bit of hope: Maybe all the tampering has removed the conflict entirely. Maybe it has always been free. Sarah and Naia say their goodbyes, and Naia assures her that she will forge ahead. After all, time is what you make of it—which is a lesson she taught herself.

Macaronas Title Card

I’ve often been fascinated by those companions who are with the Doctor at times of regeneration. Often he hasn’t warned them of this strange and frightening transition that will come over him, and their reactions range from stunned silence to terror. Sometimes they are aware—our heroine here, for example, had witnessed the regeneration of K’anpo Rimpoche, and had some idea of what to expect—and thus things go a little smoother. Nearly all struggle with dealing with the strange new figure of Doctor after the regeneration, and Sarah Jane Smith is no different. Thus she begins our story mulling over whether she’ll ever get to understand this new Doctor, and whether she’ll ever even make it home.

As an aside, I should mention that this isn’t immediately after his regeneration; in fact, it’s a full television season later. Harry Sullivan has left the TARDIS, and Sarah Jane thinks of having “left Scotland”, presumably at the end of Terry of the Zygons. The phrasing is such that it allows for some additional adventures in between, but no known stories are confirmed. I would suggest that it at least takes place after Planet of Evil, but only shortly thereafter.

Regardless, Sarah’s prime reaction to the strangeness of her situation here is to take charge and make her own decisions. Here we see her not only resolve the situation at hand, but also save the Doctor’s life, and save an entire world from destruction. It’s a moment of bravery and passion that bodes very well for her future, especially when—further down the road—she will begin to have her own adventures, sans Doctor.

James Macaronas does an excellent job of capturing the banter that is so common between Sarah and the Fourth Doctor, especially at the beginning of the story. His portrayal of Sarah and her demands for explanations of the time phenomena sits well with everything else we know about her; and he gets the charming, somewhat off-the-wall humor of the Doctor. The duo don’t get a lot of dialogue with each other here, but the dialogue we do see is just right. Macaronas also plays up a less-well-explained facet of our favorite Time Lord: his sensitivity to time itself. This will get more screen time with the Seventh and Eighth Doctors, years later; but it’s used to good effect here in highlighting the crisis in the city of Tenzin.

More than anything, this story is quick. You can consider this both a positive and a negative. On one hand, the story flows so well that it’s a pleasure to read; on the other hand, I was finished in perhaps fifteen minutes, and was left wishing for more. To be certain, it says everything it needs to say in that short span; but it says it so quickly that you have to wonder if you missed anything. This is all the more strange in that it’s not a short story on the page; I’m reading the ebook edition, where pages are surely shorter than in the print edition, but even so, this story was eighty pages long, just a bit shorter than the previous entry, but twice the length of the next story. (More on that, of course, tomorrow.)

Overall: It’s a good story, perhaps hampered a little by how quickly it moves, but otherwise interesting. I won’t call it “fun”, as I’ve called other stories, because the Doctor and Sarah Jane are in a high-stakes situation, and the mood is tense. I will, however, call it compelling, and I suspect other readers may do the same.

Next time: We’ll move on to The Name of Universes, by James Bojaciuk! See you there.

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

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Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology, and “Flow”, by Niki Haringsma

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 here and here. We’re looking at the third story in the collection, set during Sarah’s travels with the Fourth Doctor: Flow, by Niki Haringsma. Let’s get started! As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked above. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute.

Defending Earth (Cover)

The TARDIS lands in a most unusual cupboard. The room vibrates with motion; but stranger still, it appears to be made of silk, much like that of a spider or silkworm. Poking their heads out, they find that the odd room is being carried by a mothlike, only mildly humanoid woman, who calls herself Arren, and who is very shocked to see her unwelcome passengers. Below them, there seems to be no solid land, only floating islands and a vast amount of space on this large world. Their presence does not go unnoticed; Arren is swiftly attacked and captured—no, arrested–by similar creatures whom she calls “drones”. She calls out defiance against something she calls the Ascendant. And in the struggle, Sarah falls out.

Death seems imminent—but Sarah is saved when another mothlike woman swoops in and catches her in a web of silk. This is Jianna, Arren’s lifemate, who was telepathically summoned by Arren to save Sarah. She takes Sarah to a nearby island, where the ground opens to admit them into a sort of hive. Finally finding a moment to talk, Jianna tells Sarah that she and her fellow workers are struggling for freedom from their rulers, the Ascendant, for whom the drones work. It was all going well…until the plague came. A strange disease that spreads as a red flush in the skin and veins, it infects both drones and workers, but kills the workers. Now their kind are dying out—and even as they search the hive, they find that all their allies here have died. Only Jianna and Arren remain.

And Jianna is infected.

Against Jianna’s fatalism and fear, Sarah takes the initiative. Determined to get the Doctor and Arren back, she begs Jianna to call out to Arren and locate them. Jianna insists it is too far for normal telepathy; but, pressing her face to the earth, she is able to set up a resonant psychic scream, which reaches Arren, but also reaches the drones, and summons them all alike. Sarah passes out under the psychic onslaught.

She awakens in a wooden, cagelike cell, guarded by drones. The Doctor, Arren, and Jianna are there; Jianna is unconscious from the plague. Arren frantically tries to take the plague from Jianna’s body into her own, but only succeeds in lessening the burden, not relieving it—and infecting herself as well. Sarah and the Doctor brainstorm, but are unable to find a plan that will get them out.

But, there is hope; for the Doctor doesn’t realize the natives are telepathic. When he learns this fact, he is able to open his own mind and tune in to them; and he finds the psychic speech of the Ascendant. He learns—to the shock of everyone involved—that the Ascendant are the plague! In seeking to abdicate their responsibilities toward their underlings, they shrank themselves to microscopic size, and invaded the veins of the other classes. Now, however, they sense the Doctor—and find him to be a far better host. They begin to make plans to invade his body.

Locked in a trance, the Doctor lets them in. Moreover, he draws them in, before they are ready. They are unable to seize control of him—and before they can regroup, the Doctor ejects them, and Sarah traps them inside a mascara bottle, sealing them in. The crisis is averted…and before returning to the TARDIS, they decide that it is only right to let the workers and drones—who are now free of the control of the Ascendant—to decide their fate.

Haringsma Title Card

This is a short and fairly light entry in the anthology, and I’m inevitably reminded of the early Big Finish Short Trips anthologies. Those stories were known for being small, well-contained plots, with minimal casts of characters and small crises. Haringsma’s story puts us on a world that seems to be sparsely populated, with species reminiscent of the Menoptera of The Web Planet; in fact, were it a solid planet rather than one composed of sky islands, I’d be tempted to say it’s the same world. That story, however, is underrated, in my opinion; people sometimes judge it by its visual quality rather than its story. I would not like to see the same thing happen here—the setting is unusual, almost fairy-tale, but the story is interesting despite its brevity.

I wondered when I started this anthology if any of the stories would turn out to be more about the Doctor than about Sarah Jane. Not every story, of course, will feature him at all, as with The Sparks; and not all will fall into this pattern, as we saw with Swinging Londons. This story, however, is definitely the Doctor’s story, although it’s told from Sarah Jane’s point of view. I’m not complaining, though. The Doctor is, after all, a big personality, and one that’s hard to upstage. Dozens of companions over the years bear witness to that fact, and that includes Sarah Jane. Therefore I think it’s fine that he takes center stage here. The fun, for us, is in watching him (as well as the situation) through Sarah’s eyes. We see how much she invests herself in the situation; how quickly she feels empathy for the moth people; how much she fears for the Doctor when he is invaded by the Ascendant. I wouldn’t say Sarah Jane is prone to snap judgments; but when she commits to a situation, she commits. We see that in action here, and it’s glorious.

If anything at all can be said against this story, it’s that it’s too short. I find myself wanting to know more about this world and its people. Of course we have everything we need in reference to the problem at hand; but I would love to see more. Near the end of the story I realized that we never find out the planet’s name, or the name of the species; that’s unusual, and it leaves me wondering.

But, overall, it’s a swift, graceful story, and it accomplishes its goals quickly and with aplomb. It was a pleasant reminder of all the great adventures Sarah and the Doctor have had together…there’s a reason why they are one of the most fondly remembered Doctor/companion pairs. We get to revisit that here, and it’s exactly as it ought to be.

Next time: We’ll be looking at Cuckoo Clocks that Work, by James Macaronas. See you there!

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

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Audio Drama Review: The Old Rogue

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re continuing our look at Short Trips Volume IV with the Fourth Doctor’s entry, The Old Rogue. Written by John Grindrod, and read by Louise Jameson, this story features the Fourth Doctor, Romana II, and K9, with an appearance in flashback by the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 4 a

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

The proprietor of The Old Rogue café in Catford, Sid, muses on his life here in this little empire, when outside he hears a familiar and unwelcome sound. He watches the windows for sight of him—the alien he hates most to see. He is oblivious to the ministrations of his waitress, Katya, as he thinks for a moment about killing her, and how it would cheer him up…but his killing days appear to be over, as something in him has changed.

He is interrupted by the bell at the door, and he knows it is him. This man visits every ten years, but he is never the same; ten years ago he was a cricketer with several young people, and ten years before that he was an older and dignified man with a young woman. Today he’s an odd man with a long scarf, accompanied by a refined young woman…and a robot dog? The woman is Romana, and the dog is called K9. The man—the Doctor—spouts nonsense and places an order as he confronts Sid; and Romana says they intend to stay. The Doctor and Romana take a table and some tea as K9 waits outside. They place an order; as Sid goes to fill it, Romana asks if this is really the former galactic emperor Arkinen. Sid denies it, a bit grumpily.

The Doctor asks after Arkinen’s welfare, trying to elicit a response. Business is going well, Sid—no, Arkinen—meets them at the table, and the Doctor and Romana review his crimes; he once destroyed all life in the Helix Nebula just for kicks. However, his empire is getting along fine without him—as is his original body, now occupied by the real Sid. It seems that, forty years earlier, the Doctor punished Arkinen by transferring his consciousness into the body of a café owner named Sid—and allowing Sid to run Arkinen’s empire. Now, he has regular checkups with the Doctor, to ensure that he’s up to no mischief during his rehabilitation. However, human lifespans are shorter than those of Arkinen’s race, and he must be nearing the end of it. This enrages Arkinen, but the Doctor suddenly turns cold, reminding Arkinen that his crimes merited so much more punishment than he has received.

Arkinen thinks back on his crimes, which involved killing a huge population with a so-called “understanding device”; and he also thinks on his capture by the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. The Second Doctor witnessed as Arkinen fired the device; but Arkinen quickly found that the Doctor had modified the device to focus on only one person—Sid, the café proprieter—instead of the entire world. Jamie then shoved him into the other end of the device’s beam…and Arkinen awoke in Sid’s body, in Catford, as a side effect of the device. Still, all’s well that ends well; Sid has redeemed Arkinen’s reputation, doing great things in the dictator’s name. Meanwhile, Arkinen sits and stews in his limitations…but he still does not feel any remores for his actions, only for getting caught.

Romana gets up to rescue K9, who in the interim has gotten into a scrap with some teenagers outside (and held his own admirably but chaotically, as well), but the Doctor stops her—they haven’t paid for their tea yet. Arkinen grumbles that it is on the house. The Doctor and Roman say goodbye and leave as Arkinen watches. Katya comes to comfort him, and he for once relishes it; perhaps these humans weren’t so bad after all, and being an emperor was such hard work.

Arkinen is surprised, however, when Katya calls him by his real name. She claims she has searched the galaxy for him, and now the Doctor has given her the confirmation she needed. She claims to be with a band of mercenaries who want his expertise in killing…and they offer to restore him to his empire of blood and fire. Arkinen takes a long moment to think, and then tells Katya that she has the wrong man…he is Sid, and this is his café.

Short Trips Volume 4 b

Recently I reviewed the Fifth Doctor Main Range audio Creatures of Beauty. The hook of that story—though found at the end, as the story is non-linear—is that the Doctor never knows the true impact of his presence. That story ends gloomily, as the Doctor’s primary effect is a catastrophe. There’s something similar here, however, in that the Doctor (and Romana and K9) will never know the full effect of their presence here—but this time, the effect is one of goodness.

The story portrays the Doctor making a ten-year visit to a man named Sid, who is secretly Arkinen, a one-time galactic emperor guilty of horrendous crimes. Arkinen was unintentionally transplanted into the body of café owner Sid, who now sits on Arkinen’s throne (and does quite well with it). The Doctor is here just to check in on Arkinen’s rehabilitation; and he leaves convinced that even after four decades, the man has not changed. However, a final test, after the Doctor leaves, proves that he may just be wrong—and happily so.

I’m heavily reminded of a story that I haven’t covered yet, but will eventually: Joshua Wanisko’s Forever Fallen, the winner of the first Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trip Opportunity. That story also features the Doctor (the Seventh, along with Ace, to be precise) making regular visits to a former tyrant in a new life, and conducting the visits in a café. Where this story only gives us one visit, that one gives us several, spread over several years, and so we get to see the growth of the character. In the end, the stakes are different, and the ending is not immediately happy—but the payoff is much greater. I’m not trying to insinuate that one story is better than the other; both are great, and I think that they’re worth your time (a collective 45 minutes will get you through both, and Forever Fallen is available for free from Big Finish’s site). While I’m in no way suggesting that it’s plagiarism or any such thing, I wonder if the author of Forever Fallen was inspired by this story.

I always find it a little strange to hear Louise Jameson voice stories that don’t involve Leela. I understand that it’s a matter of who is available for the recording, but it strikes me as odd to hear Leela’s voice applied to Romana’s lines, and doubly so given that I know that both Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward appear in the Gallifrey series. Still, she’s quite practiced now at these audios, and this one is well done. Really I have nothing to complain about here.

Continuity references: Arkinen remembers previous visits of the Doctor, including the Fifth along with a “group of sulky teenagers”, which could be any combination of Adric, Nyssa, Tegan, and Turlough (or even possibly Peri and Erimem, though I wouldn’t have used the word “group” with just two of them), placing that visit nearly anytime in the Fifth Doctor’s run. He also mentions “a tall chap in velvet,” with “a dizzy dolly bird”; this must be the Third Doctor and Jo Grant, placing that visit between Terror of the Autons and Planet of the Spiders. In a flashback, we see the Second Doctor and Jamie; if they were traveling alone, as it appears, then this would have taken place either during the comic era between Fury from the Deep and The Wheel in Space, or during the hypothetical “Season 6B” after The War Games. The Doctor also mentions having met Torquemada; this may be a reference to the Missing Adventures novel Managra, though I haven’t read it, and therefore can’t be sure (the description found on the TARDIS wiki page isn’t clear enough to say). However, in that story, the Fourth Doctor mentions having met Torquemada once before, in his first incarnation along with Steven and Vicki, in The Empire of Glass. (This may be the incident to which the Doctor refers here, as well.)

Overall: A pretty good entry. I like these quiet, thoughtful stories, in which it’s less about action and more about the individuals. This story is a good example of that type of adventure—if you want to call it an adventure. I do think there’s potential for the character of Arkinen to appear again, and wouldn’t mind it, though to my knowledge he does not.

Next time: We’ll check in with the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa in The Lions of Trafalgar! See you there.

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

Short Trips, Volume IV

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Audio Drama Review: 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!

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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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