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 Day, Mistfall, 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.