Audio Drama Review: Master

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Master, the forty-ninth entry in the Main Range, and also the penultimate entry in the tetralogy of villain-centered audios which ends with Zagreus. Released in October 2003 (just in time for Hallowe’en!), this story was directed by Gary Russell, and features Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and Geoffrey Beevers as the Master. 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.

Trailer: A Doctor John Smith reads off a letter he is sending to some dear friends, inviting them to a celebratory dinner at his old and expansive manor house.

Part One: An old man awakens from a nightmare of evil voices promising death. Elsewhere, overlooking a parade and a large crowd, an assassin waits for his target. However, he is interrupted by the arrival of a strange little man, who offers him a story—and all the assassin must do is wait. The assassin begins to listen to the story:

In an imitation-Edwardian village called Perfugium, on a colony world of the same name, Dr. John Smith meets his guests at the door. They are Adjudicator/Inspector Victor Shaeffer and his wife, Jacqueline, who is a well-known philanthropist. They are met by John, and also by his maid, Jade. They talk of various local matters; but later, as Jacqueline goes in search of a kitchen knife to replace hers (which has gone missing), Victor reveals that there has been another murder. It is the latest in a series of murders of young women, mostly prostitutes, though this one was not. Victor is quite unsettled by the deaths,  They are interrupted by Jade’s cat. Meanwhile Jacqueline speaks harshly to Jade, assuming that Jade has romantic designs on John Smith. She reveals that John has amnesia, and doesn’t remember anything before his arrival here ten years earlier; she suspects an accident, perhaps fire, which would explain not only the amnesia, but the disfigurement of his face. Nevertheless Jade has no such designs. After dessert, Victor suddenly grows moody and has a brief outburst against John, which nearly turns to violence; but it passes, and the group returns to their talk. Jacqueline gives John a birthday present—a sort of primitive Ouija board. Against everyone’s better judgment, they try it out; it spells out the letters D-O-C-T-…and suddenly there is a crash of thunder, followed by two screams.

Part Two: One scream is Jacqueline; but the other is from a man outside the window. John and Victor bring him in, finding he was struck by lightning; he is incoherent at first. Meanwhile, the assassin argues briefly with the storyteller about the veracity of the story, before letting him continue. Victor and Jacqueline temporarily withdraw, letting John work on the man; the man recovers, and seems to be healing quickly. After some awkwardness, the two begin to discuss the murders, and find much common ground. The man calls himself Dr. Vaughn Sutton. They discuss the nature of evil in the heart, and whether a man can be purely evil without motive. The Doctor—for that is who Dr. Sutton really is—tells Smith about a truly evil man he once knew, called the Master. Pushing the issue, Smith reveals his own evil impulses, for which he cannot account, but which he steadfastly resists. Does this make him evil?

John is taken by a sudden fit; and a new voice speaks through his mouth, promising death to all present if the Doctor does not do what he came to do. As John revives, a book–*Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde*–falls off the bookshelf. John goes to check on the others, and the Doctor picks up the book, getting the point at once; the voice speaks again, telling him he has one more chance to keep his word, or everyone will die.

Part Three: The assassin wants to know if John Smith really is the Master, as the storyteller—who is obviously the Doctor—implies. And what other force is at work here? The Doctor resumes his story.

Jacqueline thinks the newcomer is dangerous; but regardless, some force is at work, as she slaps Jade and drives her out of the room. However, Smith tells them that the Doctor will be staying the night, as will they, due to the storm outside. They are interrupted by Jade’s scream; her cat is dead, its throat cut and its heart removed—just like the murder victims. Victor believes the killer is taunting him personally now. They gather with the Doctor, who now claims to have been attacked by books in the library—and indeed, the library is a wreck. In the midst of it all, John admits to having invited his friends over to test the alleged curse on this house—but now he regrets it, because they all seem to be in danger. John becomes convinced that the Doctor knows him from his past life, but why won’t he admit it? Smith feels something evil inside him—and he happens across Jacqueline’s missing kitchen knife. The Doctor tries to get Victor and Jacqueline to leave, but John interrupts by taking Jacqueline hostage with the knife, and demanding to know the truth. The Doctor gets him to relent by agreeing to talk—and talk he does.

He tells the story of himself and the Master as children. They were bullied by an older boy—but one day, one of them had enough. In the midst of the bullying, he killed he bully. The two boys burned the body together, but after that, the killer become more distant and angry, full of guilt, while the other went on to be a good man. One became the Doctor; the other, the Master. And John, he reveals, is the Master—though he does not remember it. Worse, the Master’s innate telepathy has projected that evil onto those around him, affecting their actions tonight. Jacqueline defends him; the Doctor offers to take them all away from here. However, they are interrupted by Jade—who reveals her true identity: Death itself.

Part Four: Jade—no, Death—mocks them all, and especially the Doctor. She quickly shares everyone’s secrets: the Doctor is here to  kill the Master; Jacqueline is in love with John; and Victor is the murderer. Victor flees the room, screaming from the revelations, and the lights go out. In the dark, Jacqueline admits that she has always loved John, and still does—but he rejects her, accepting the revelation of who he is. He cruelly dismisses her, and she leaves in tears, leaving only John and the Doctor. The Doctor says that he knows John truly loves Jacqueline, and ran her off to save her from Death. He says that the Master has been Death’s servant—her Champion—but that, ten years ago, he struck a deal with Death. For ten years, Death would release the master, allowing him a normal life, but at the end, the Doctor had to kill him. She arranged tonight to push the Doctor to do just that, perhaps in punishment for his past role as Time’s Champion. The Master urges him to do it, and hands him the kitchen knife. Meanwhile Jacqueline finds Victor in the scullery, and talks with him about whether anyone is truly too hopeless to be saved.

The Doctor refuses to kill him. Instead he realizes that John’s love for Jacqueline—which Death never anticipated—could save John from the Doctor’s deal…but only if they get to Jacqueline first. They head for the scullery. However, Death is whispering to Victor, and ultimately he kills Jacqueline. The Master shrieks in despair.

Death pauses time so she can gloat over her victory. The Master—with his true personality revealed—scoffs at Death’s influence; he is evil of his own will, regardless of her actions. However, she reveals the truth: Even the Doctor has forgotten that there was an earlier deal. It was not the Master that killed Torvic, but the Doctor. Death gave the child Doctor a choice: remember his guilt and serve her, or let it pass to his friend. The Doctor chose to let his friend serve death…and the rest is history. The innocent suffered, and the guilty forgot. However, the remnants of John Smith forgive the Doctor; after all, they were only children. Death gives John a choice: Go back and save Jacqueline by killing Victor first. However, he sees the trap: if he does so, he will become Death’s servant again, but if he does not, Jacqueline will die. John again forgives the Doctor, and chooses—and Death sends the Doctor away before he can learn the decision, as punishment for breaking their more recent deal. The story ends where it began, with the guests arriving; but John threatens Victor with death.

The assassin wants to know what he chose, but the Doctor does not know, and cannot tell him. However, the assassin knows why the Doctor is here now; he has been sent by death to fufill his bargain another way, by killing an innocent—and he is to take the place of the assassin to do it. The assassin offers him the gun, but the Doctor refuses; this again breaks his bargain. The assassin reveals himself to be Death in a new guise, and resumes Jade’s form to mock the Doctor again.  She promises to find new ways to punish him, and stalks off to kill an innocent. Meanwhile the Doctor vows to someday find and free his old friend.

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The Doctor doesn’t lack for enemies who want to compare him to themselves. There’s Davros, as we mentioned last time; the Daleks and Cybermen have done it; many others wait their turn. And of course, there’s the Doctor’s oldest friend, the Master. In this story it’s a little more on-the-nose than usual; there’s a twist near the end that reveals that the two are more alike than either of them thinks. I won’t reveal the twist, but it caught me by surprise.

We start out the story with a man named John Smith—usually one of the Doctor’s aliases, but here used (if unknowingly) by the Master. I don’t think it’s a great spoiler to say that Smith is the Master; for anyone even slightly familiar with the character (or even the title of the story!) it will be obvious almost instantly. It’s the Master who doesn’t know, and I found that fascinating. Of course, in the years since this story was released, we’ve had such an occurrence on television (Utopia, etc.), but this version takes a different view; for one, the Master didn’t put himself in this situation, and for two, unlike Professor Yana, John Smith doesn’t want to go back to being the Master.

I want to call this another character study, but that’s only on the surface. The real story here is of the relationships among the Doctor, the Master, and Death itself—that’s Death as an incarnate being, as previously portrayed in Timewyrn: Revelation and other novels. This is her first appearance in an audio, however. It’s long been established that the Doctor is Time’s Champion; here it’s confirmed that the Master is Death’s Champion. What matters is how it came about—but, that strays into spoiler territory! I will say, however, that the explanation for the Master’s life choices is quite different from (though not entirely incompatible with) the version we saw in The End of Time, regarding the drumbeats; or the version from The Sound of Drums regarding the Master’s look at the Untempered Schism. The guy really can’t catch a break.

One thing is certain: Missy was right. The Doctor really is her truest and oldest friend. Listening to this story adds considerable depth to the Twelfth Doctor stories where their friendship is discussed. (She’s still a liar with regard to him being a little girl, though; when the Doctor and Death tell a childhood story, they both refer to the Doctor and the Master with male pronouns. Score another for the Doctor not having faces prior to the Hartnell incarnation, I guess?)

At any rate, I have much greater appreciation for the Master as a person here, though he is still evil, of course. I’m also okay with the level of ambiguity with which this story end; the Doctor doesn’t know how it ends, but we can surmise the answer, because we know that the Master lives to fight another day—and we know which side he fights for.

The acting here is average for the most part; but I want to take a moment to compliment two aspects of it. First, Charlie Hayes as Jade does double duty as Death; and the transition between the two roles is just amazing. Compliments for both roles; it’s excellent work. Second, the trailer for this story is unusual; instead of clips from the story, it consists of John Smith reading out loud the letter of invitation he is preparing for his dinner guests. It’s simple and not at all scary—and yet, having an inkling of what is to come, you’ll still feel a chill. Very well done. (The trailer can be found on the story’s purchase page at the Big Finish website.)

Continuity References: The Doctor is referred to as Time’s Champion (Love and War); this is slightly expanded on, when Death reveals that she wanted the Doctor as her champion, but “someone had other plans”. The Doctor mentions Traken (The Keeper of Traken) and Duchamp 331 (Dust Breeding), where he previously encountered this version of the Master. (The Master’s history is a bit complicated, here, and there may be some contradictions with other stories, notably First Frontier, which I have not yet read.) The Doctor uses the alias “Vaughn Sutton”, which refers back to a character in Excelis Decays (although I have not listened to that audio myself yet, I found an indication that for the Doctor, it is recent). The Doctor mentions having known other Adjudicators (Original Sin, et al.). He mentions being disowned by his own family (Lungbarrow). He quotes a line from Primeval: “Exposure to evil, even the smallest amount, can corrode the soul.” Death mentions the Seventh Doctor’s mixed metaphors and playing the spoons (Time and the Rani); however she says that now he is busy destroying planets and old enemies (Remembrance of the DaleksSilver Nemesis, et al.) Death appeared personified in several previous novels (Timewyrm: RevelationLove and WarHuman NatureThe Also PeopleSo Vile a Sin), but never before in an audio drama. In fact, this entire story has several parallels with Human Nature. One of Bernice Summerfield’s books is mentioned here, though it doesn’t seem to be a reference to any particular Benny story. John Smith’s request to the Doctor to “end my life” parallels the Doctor’s conversation with an assassin in The Happiness Patrol, though that may be unintentional. And—most relevant to this tetralogy—Jade recites a version of the Zagreus poem, then wonders what put it in her head.

Overall: Not the typical Doctor/Master encounter at all! And yet, it foreshadows—quite unintentionally—the interactions of the Twelfth Doctor and Missy (and also the Simm Master from recent times) in years to come. That’s a very nice bit of serendipity there, and it’s all the better for being completely unintentional—as far as I can tell—on the parts of every writer involved. Besides that, it’s a great story, and perfect for the Hallowe’en season: Spooky old (possibly cursed) house; a series of murders; a thunderstorm, lightning, screams; Death incarnate (!); and of course, the Master—what’s not to love? I’m very glad to have heard this one.

Next time: And now, for something completely different! Finally we reach the famous and infamous fiftieth Main Range audio, Zagreus. It’s been a long time coming. See you there!

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other stories may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Master

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Audio Drama Review: All the Fun of the Fair

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today, we’re examining the Eighth Doctor’s contribution to the Short Trips, Volume 3 collection, All the Fun of the Fair. Written by Bev Conway, this story features the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller, and is read (oddly enough) by India Fisher. 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.

A carnival barker calls fairgoers into a futuristic ride: a strange box marked “Police Public Call Box”. Pay your coins, step inside—and arrive in the future!

The barker, one Mister John Smith, doesn’t mind the wheezing, groaning sound of the box—it attracts more customers. There was a bad moment when a real police constable, one Herbert Arthur Jones, came by yesterday; but John Smith handled things by offering a trip to the future to the constable. The constable steps inside…and that was the last of him. Just as well; the fair is winding down, and John Smith is mulling over how he’ll get the box moved. But no matter; he has plenty of money for that. If only he knew where the customers actually went…

Next morning, Smith is thinking over ways to make more money on the box; but his mind drifts over to why he claimed it goes to the future in the first place. It was that strange couple who first mentioned it—the young lady, and the odd man she called “the Doctor”. Perhaps he was a doctor, too, though it seemed unlikely. At any rate, that doctor fellow disappeared into the box and didn’t come out; the girl was outside yelling at him about not getting the controls right.

Smith is broken out of his reverie by a young gentleman who calls him by name. Smith offers the boy a ride in the “magic box”, but the boy declines. He calls himself Detective Miller, and tells Smith that he is following up on the testimony of Constable Jones, regarding a number of missing persons. He cites testimony from several of the neighboring shopkeepers; Smith concludes that this is a dangerous situation indeed, and redoubles his attempts to get Miller into the box. Miller agrees to open the door of the box; but as soon as he does so, he slaps a handcuff on Smith, and tells him that they will investigate the box together. Miller then calls for someone named Lucie—the girl who had been with the Doctor! She insists on going in as well, calling the box the TARDIS.

Inside, they close the door, and the wheezing sound is heard; and when Lucie opens the door, they are in the future. All of Smith’s victims are gathered outside, along with the Doctor; and none of them are happy to see Smith. They berate him, until the Doctor intervenes.

Detective Freddie Miller, Lucie reveals, is one of her own distant ancestors, recruited by her to help. He helps them get the missing persons back into the TARDIS. The Doctor tells Smith that Detective Miller will be taking charge of Smith to prevent any further troubles, and then takes them all back to the fair. It seems everyone gets to go home…except the Doctor and Lucie.

Later, Smith reflects that this was the beginning of a friendship between himself and Miller, with Smith eventually becoming godfather to Miller’s child.

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I have yet to find an Eighth Doctor/Lucie Miller story that I dislike; but I have to admit that this one is an oddity. First, there’s the narration. India Fisher does a great job narrating, as usual; but this story features Lucie Miller, not Charley Pollard, and it’s very odd to hear Charley’s customary actress dictating Lucie’s lines. I realize that Sheridan Smith, who customarily plays Lucie, may not have been available for this recording; but it seems it would have been a simple matter to alter the story to feature Charley rather than Lucie. The only change of any substance would have been the reference to supporting character Detective Miller as an ancestor of Lucie, and that change would only involve a single line.

Secondly, and more conspicuous to me, is that this story feels very incomplete. One gets the impression that this is a fragment of a much longer story—the resolution, perhaps, but still only a fragment. The story centers around a carnival barker who has somehow acquired the TARDIS and is using it in his show—but how did he acquire it? How did he manage to separate the Doctor from it? What’s wrong with the TARDIS, that it sends people to the future and locks them out—and how does it do that without ever leaving its spot at the carnival? There’s so much that could be told here, and even begs to be told, but isn’t.

It’s not a terrible story, and it’s performed and executed as well as possible under the circumstances; it simply feels incomplete. It’s also the shortest entry in this collection, at about twelve and a half minutes. We do get a single continuity reference here; Lucie mentions Gallifrey in passing, leading the barker, Smith, to speculate that Gallifrey is in Ireland (a gag that appears numerous times; the TARDIS wiki cites at least four occurrences, as far back as The Hand of Fear).

Next time: Back to the beginning! Sort of, anyway. We’ll wrap up Short Trips, Volume 3 with the First Doctor’s scattered contribution, Seven to One. 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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Seasons of War Mini-Review 21: Guerre

In memory of author Alan P. Jack, whose passing on 18 April 2017 was announced yesterday, I am taking a step out of the normal order today and looking at Mr. Jack’s entry in the Seasons of War anthology, appropriately titled Guerre. The story is currently available online here. (For the sake of clarity, I’ve assigned this review the number it would have—21—if I were reviewing it in its proper place in the final edition of the anthology.)

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The War Doctor is fleeing yet another battlefield. As he takes shelter in his TARDIS, he takes a glancing blast to the hand from a Dalek, but manages to escape. He lands in a field, and manages to stagger out before the pain overtakes him, and he blacks out… Later, he awakens in a country barn, in the company of a Frenchwoman named Corrine. The year, he learns, is 1917, and Europe is engaged in the Great War. Corrine lives alone on her family farm, her mother having passed away the previous year. Her brother, Vincent, has gone to the war. She takes the War Doctor—who calls himself “John Smith” for an English soldier lost from his platoon. She binds his hand, and escorts him to the farmhouse for some soup; but along the way, he notices bootprints in the snow, prints that match neither Corrine nor himself. Inside, Corrine is overjoyed to find a young, wounded man at the table: her brother, Vincent, returned from the front. When he learns of the “Englishman”, John Smith, he calls him a deserter; in the face of the hostility, the Doctor bows out. He stops, however, when the young man calls him “Doctor”, and mentions his TARDIS.

The Doctor warns Corrine away from the young man, who is not what he seems. Confused, she refuses to run; it costs her life. The young man begins to twitch, and a black Dalek eye bursts from his forehead. A blaster emerges from his hand, and before the Doctor’s eyes he exterminates Corrine. The Doctor confronts him, knowing what happened; a Dalek flice, filled with nanodevices, followed him into the TARDIS, and then here. From there, it found, infected, and possessed Vincent, who was returning from the front. It ignored Corrine, however, because it was not sent to kill the Doctor, but to manipulate him. The Dalek Emperor possesses a possibility engine, which predicts that the Doctor can be made to serve the Daleks in a future battle, based on what happens here. Having reached the end of its mission, the converted Vincent extrudes a small explosive, which blows up before his face, badly wounding him. At the same time, the Dalek tech in him time-shifts back into the vortex, leaving him bleeding from his wounds. However, the Doctor realizes that his life signs are in fact strengthening; some residual tech will keep him alive, but suffering. More, it is causing Vincent to relive what happened, providing constant psychological torture—and worse yet, he has also been implanted with knowledge of future wars on Earth, and of the Time War itself, adding to his horror and agony.

There is no way to save him, and he begs the Doctor to put him out of his misery. This, then, is the trap laid for the Doctor by the Daleks. To prepare him to serve them, they must break him; and to that end, they have set him up to face the one thing the Doctor can never do: kill an innocent human, and worse, one who begs for it. But, the Daleks have failed; for there is one thing they have not considered: The Doctor is not here. Only the Warrior remains. Taking the iron grate of the nearby stove, he beats Vincent to death; and in the nearby village, the sound is heard, so loud that the villagers suspect the war has reached them at last. They will never know how right they are.

I was not fortunate enough to make contact with the author, Alan Jack, before his death; as it occurred almost a month before it was made public, there was little chance of that. By all accounts he was a wonderful and thoughtful individual, and will be greatly missed. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that this story is one of the saddest entries in the anthology. If ever we needed confirmation that the Warrior is truly not the Doctor—as he said—it is here; but that is no cause for celebration. It’s a cause, instead, for mourning. It’s a curious thing, but we rarely see the War Doctor actually fight, personally; it’s often implied that he does so “off-camera”, but truthfully he is more strategist than warrior. It’s not so here; he very much takes matters into his own hands, and kills with those hands. I’m not sure I’d call it a battle, but it’s still a blow struck at the Daleks, by defying their plan.

I like this story because it’s something of a link between the past and the future. Although the Classic series certainly gave us human slaves to the Daleks, and even gave us humans converted INTO Daleks, it was NuWho—the revived series—that gave us the human-Dalek sleeper agents, with eyestalks forming from the forehead and blasters in the hands. This, then, would be chronologically our first look at such a thing, although the Doctor is clearly familiar with the technology. The story even gives us an explanation of how it’s done; the Dalek Infiltration Flice is a drone which infects the target with nano-pods that covert and create on a molecular and cellular level, much like the Borg in later versions of Star Trek. It’s a perfectly sensible idea; I suspected something of the sort as far back as the sleeper agents’ appearance in The Time of the Doctor. The story is also notable because it name-drops a number of important Time War events, some of which have been covered in this anthology, and some still to come: the massacre at Karn (Karn), the Battle of Infinite Regress and the Battered Bride (Corsair), the Butcher of Brisbane (not a Time War story, but another atrocity found in the audio drama The Butcher of Brisbane), the Nightmare Child (The Nightmare Child, still to come, with mentions elsewhere), the Horde of Travesties (Prologue – The Horde of Travesties, still to come, mentions elsewhere), and Moldox and a Possibility Engine (Engines of War). There are hints of things to come, some of which have been suggested ever since the earlier mentions of the Time War in the revived series; but here, we will finally get some payoff. It’s worth noting that some of these things are still in the future for the Doctor, as well.

Overall: A very sad, but very captivating story. It’s unfortunate that we have occasion to look at it today, out of order; but I can only credit the author with producing a fantastic piece of work. I’m just sorry he can’t be here to appreciate it with us.

Guerre was co-written by Alan P. Jack and Declan May. Next: We’ll get back to the regular order with Here Comes the Doctor, by Christopher Bryant (and if you’re reading this on my website rather than on Reddit, I’ll ensure that the previous and next buttons maintain the correct order of the anthology once I have the relevant entries posted). See you there.

Seasons of War: Tales from a Time War is now out of print, but more information can be obtained here, here, and here.

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Audio Drama Review: The Thousand Worlds

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re continuing our look at the first War Doctor box set, Only The Monstrous. Last week we listened to the first entry, The Innocent; this week, we’re listening to The Thousand Worlds. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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After the Doctor’s extraction from Keska, Rejoice meets with her father, and tells him that the Doctor is gone.  She mourns his loss, but her father is glad she was left behind.

From the Doctor’s perspective, the story continues immediately.  He meets with Cardinal Ollistra, who orders him onto a strike team led by Veklin, the agent who came for him on Keska.  Also on the team are Bennus and Arverton, the two agents whom the Doctor rescued from the Time Destructor before landing on Keska.  Ollistra wants them to go behind enemy lines—that is, into an area of space called the Null Zone, which is held by the Daleks.  The area is so called because time travel is impossible inside it; only spaceflight can be completed.  They will be looking for a missing Time Lord strategist named Seratrix.  The Doctor—who still declines to be called by that name—insults Ollistra and Veklin, then summons his TARDIS and escapes, refusing to be part of any team.  Veklin, Bennus, and Arverton follow him in a Battle TARDIS.  Meanwhile, the Daleks are preparing to execute their plan.

The Doctor hits the border of the Null Zone, and is forced to land on Keska, although he doesn’t know that’s where he is.  He finds himself in a slave camp, and meets a man named Garv, who informs him of the planet’s identity, leaving him stunned.  The Taalyens have somehow conquered the planet; and now, a massive drilling machine is being built.  But why? And how?  Moreover, there are a thousand worlds in the Null Zone, and all of them have received the same treatment.  Meanwhile, Veklin’s team also lands, though not nearby, and finds several life signs: Keskan, Taalyen, Gallifreyan…and Dalek.

The Doctor promises Garv that he has fought the Daleks before, and will defeat them here.  When asked for a name, he calls himself John Smith.  He is separated from Garv’s slave group, who are sent down to the drill level.  The Daleks mention a pre-launch sequence, sparking the Doctor’s curiosity.  Veklin and her team pursue the Doctor—and, hopefully, Seratrix—into the machinery, carrying demolition packs.

The Doctor meets a Taalyen guard, and passes himself off as a slave elite.  The guard challenges him, but he is saved by a real slave elite, the woman in charge of that group of slaves.  Once free of the guard, she becomes emotional, because she recognizes the Doctor, though he does not recognize her at first…it is Rejoice.  They bring each other up to date, but Rejoice thinks he cannot save the planet this time, as the Daleks are supporting the Tallyens—in fact, it was the Daleks who helped them get inside the planetary shield.  The Doctor assures her that there is a connection between the situation here in the thousand worlds and the greater Time War…and he intends to figure it out.

Veklin’s team infiltrates via the fuel-pumping tunnels of the machinery, but they must hurry; periodically, fuel is purged through the tunnels, and will kill them.  They are detected by the Daleks, who send a Taalyen squad in after them.  They defeat the squad, but are caught by a fuel purge; Arverton sacrifices himself to get them to safety.  He refers to Bennus in his last moments as “brother”; this piques Veklin’s curiosity.  Bennus attributes it to a unit they served in, under Seratrix and Ollistra.  Meanwhile, the Daleks think they were all killed in the purge.

The Doctor and Rejoice help serve food at a celebratory feast for the Taalyen leadership; the Prime Dalek is also there, with the Taalyen commander, Traanus.  Seratrix is also there; the Doctor learns, to his horror, that Seratrix is working with Traanus and the Prime Dalek.  He is outed as a Gallifreyan, but Seratrix vouches for him and saves his life; he knows that if the Daleks recognize him as the Doctor, they will kill him.

The drilling machine is launched.  It will drill into the planet’s core, and destroy the core; it’s a plan the Doctor has seen before.  Seratrix insists that he is working for the greater good; this plan will lead to peace with the Daleks, who now rule the Null Zone.  The Doctor is shocked to silence, as the Daleks chant “Peace in our time”.

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It must be mentioned up front that this story, unlike The Innocent, can’t stand on its own. It very clearly represents only half a story; technically it’s the middle third of a three-part story, but parts two and three together can stand reasonably well as a unit. As such, it’s fairly short on action, and consists of a considerable amount of setup for what is to come; it relies more on dialogue than its sequel. Again, obtaining a precise date is impossible; in local terms, it’s a few decades after The Innocent, but in terms of the overall war, it’s impossible to say. From the Doctor’s view, only hours at most have passed since he left Keska, but from Rejoice’s perspective, it’s been many years. It’s a stark contrast, given that he spent nearly a year on Keska in the previous story; here, it all happens in hours at most. Keska itself is a study in contrasts; it was peaceful, sunny, and pastoral in the previous episode, but here it has been rendered an industrial wasteland. One gets the impression that this story takes place at night, but that can’t be confirmed.

My character sketches from the previous entry still stand, and I won’t repeat them here; however, we begin to get more information about everyone. There is more than meets the eye with the Time Lord soldiers Bennus and Arverton; there’s a shared history that we haven’t discovered yet, with only the barest hint given. (If I may be allowed a small spoiler: when the first of these characters dies, there’s no hint of any chance of a regeneration, which may indicate that they’re Gallifreyan, but not Time Lords–if, that is, the theory that common Gallifreyans don’t regenerate like fully trained Time Lords is true.) Their team leader (and Ollistra’s agent) Veklin, meanwhile, is not as shallow as previously presented; she’s still very straightforward, ambitious, headstrong, and rude, but she’s also clever, though not nearly on the level of the Doctor. We get a new character in the Time Lord strategist Seratrix, who only briefly appeared in The Innocent; we don’t get enough about him here to say much, but he has the air of a cult leader, charismatic and totally sold on his vision. What exactly that vision is…well, wait and see.

The Dalek chant at the end, “Peace in our time”–which isn’t much of a spoiler when taken out of context like this–would instantly trigger any history buff. It’s a misquotation of former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (the original line is “Peace for our time”), who used the line in a famous speech regarding the 1938 Munich Agreement. That agreement, of course, fell apart within a year when Germany invaded Poland, leading the UK to declare war. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement toward Germany, much ridiculed in history, is mirrored here in Seratrix’s peace efforts with the Daleks. We’ll have more about that in part three.

The Doctor continues to reject that name; throughout this box set, anytime he is addressed as “Doctor”, he has an angry outburst. Those moments are notable; they are played up with sound effects, and the effect is similar to Gandalf’s angry speech to Bilbo Baggins in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf seems to grow more imposing. The Doctor doesn’t comment on it much here, as he did in The Innocent; but he still believes himself to be a monster. Eventually, in Engines of War, he will come to apply that view to the Time Lords as a whole, considering them no different from the Daleks.

As with The Innocent, references are few and far between; this story refers back to The Innocent a fair bit, but not so much to stories outside the Time War. The “John Smith” nickname dates back to The Tomb of the Cybermen, and has been used in many stories since. The drilling plan was used by the Daleks previously in The Dalek Invasion of Earth; this occurrence is also addressed in audios Lucie Miller/To The Death and The Mutant Phase.

Overall, my only real complaint here is that this story feels very short. That’s to be expected, I suppose; after all, it is only a connector between parts one and three, where the real action takes place. Still, it seemed to go very quickly, with not much happening. Otherwise, it’s not bad; it’s a greater window into the character of the War Doctor, but doesn’t add much.

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Next time: We’ll wrap up the first War Doctor set with The Heart of the Battle! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this audio drama’s purchase page is linked below.  The Thousand Worlds is not available separately, and may only be purchased as part of the listed box set.

Only the Monstrous

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Messiah Figures and Angels: New Doctor Who Rewatch, Series Three, Part Four

I didn’t finish in time to post this on Friday. Sorry about that.

We’re back, with our new Doctor Who rewatch! Today, we’re nearing the end of Series Three, with three of the Tenth Doctor’s most highly-regarded episodes. We’re looking at the two-part Human Nature and The Family of Blood, and the introduction of the Weeping Angels in Blink. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not seen these episodes!

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In Human Nature, the Doctor and Martha are being chased through time by a violent but unseen enemy. The enemy is using a stolen vortex manipulator to track the TARDIS, meaning they cannot be outrun. Therefore the Doctor executes a desperate plan: he uses the TARDIS’s chameleon arch…and makes himself human.

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Hiding on Earth in 1913, “John Smith” is now an instructor at a secondary school for boys. Martha works as a maid, keeping an eye on him. She remembers the truth, but he does not; but he carries a fob watch that contains all of his memories, his personality, his biodata—everything that makes him the Doctor. Without it, he is just a man—a man, that is, who is falling in love with the school’s nurse, Matron Joan Redfern, much to Martha’s consternation.

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Secretly, Martha uses the TARDIS, which is in low-power mode, to watch for the enemy that drove them here. They are the Family of Blood, a group of four non-corporeal aliens with short life spans. If they can capture and consume a Time Lord, they will gain his life span; otherwise, they will die less than three months from the time their chase began. Elsewhere in the school, a schoolboy named Timothy Latimer is tormented by another boy, Baines. Latimer has some psychic ability, and gets flashes of the future, but has learned to conceal it.

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At night, Martha and a friend witness a meteor crashing to Earth. Martha suspects it may be their pursuers, and she is right. Elsewhere, Baines encounters the meteor in the woods, and finds it is a spaceship. Inside, he is possessed by one of the Family, Son of Mine. The family then proceeds to take other hosts—Father of Mine, a local farmer; Daughter of Mine, a young schoolgirl; and Mother of Mine, Martha’s friend Jenny. They begin to infiltrate the school, leaving Father of Mine to assemble an army of animated scarecrows.

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Smith is overseeing the school’s defense training, where the boys train in military skills, including weapons. Later, he asks Joan to the school’s dance that evening. Martha, realizing that the Family have arrived, runs to get the watch and get the Doctor to open it; but it is missing, as—unknown to everyone—Timothy has been drawn to it, and has taken it. He can hear the Doctor speaking to him from inside it. Smith doesn’t believe Martha’s claims, and ridicules her, as does Joan.

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At the dance, the family invades in force, using the scarecrows to control the students. They pull energy weapons against Smith, and order him to change back to himself; if he doesn’t, they will kill either Joan or Martha, and the choice is up to him.

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The Family of Blood picks up immediately. At the besieged dance, Timothy briefly opens the watch, disorienting the Family and allowing Martha to snatch one of their weapons. Smith is able to evacuate everyone, though Martha loses the gun to one of the scarecrows. Smith and Headmaster Rocastle organize the students to defend the school, while Daughter of Mine—who had not participated in the invasion—arrives to spy on them. Joan is beginning to believe that Smith is really the Doctor, and she is unhappy—but more than that, she doesn’t want him to lead the students into battle. Daughter of Mine encounters Timothy, who opens the watch to expose her to its light; this allows the rest of the Family to track him. They send the scarecrows to attack, and the boys shoot them, but are relieved to see that no one is inside. They attack again, and Timothy again uses the watch to disorient them, allowing the boys to escape. Daughter of Mine shoots and kills the headmaster, along with a few others.

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The family find the TARDIS and move it to the school, and taunt Smith with it. They begin bombarding the school with their ship’s weapons. Martha, Smith, Joan, and Timothy hide in a cottage, and Martha recovers the watch, which still says to Timothy that it is not time. She tries to get Smith to open it, but he will not, although he gets flashes of the Doctor’s personality from it. He realizes it is all true, but he doesn’t want to change back; he considers it death for himself if he becomes the Doctor. He and Joan have a vision of his remaining life if he doesn’t change, but he seems unconvinced. He decides—to Martha’s horror—that he will give the watch to the family.

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Smith goes to their ship, and gives them the watch as they mock his humanity as he falls against the console. However, when they open the watch, they find it is a fake; he has already opened it, and is the Doctor once more. And they just allowed him to set the controls to overload. The Family and the Doctor escape the ship—but they cannot escape him.

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Son of Mine narrates the family’s fates at the hands of the Doctor. He trapped Father of Mine in unbreakable chains; Mother of Mine in the event horizon of a dying galaxy; Daughter of Mine in mirrors; and Son of Mine in a scarecrow. None of these fates allow them to die, giving them what they want, but in horrifying fashion.

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There’s considerably more about this story than I will have room to say here. It’s based on a Virgin New Adventures novel, Human Nature, by Paul Cornell, in which the role was played by the Seventh Doctor rather than the as-yet-nonexistent Tenth, with Bernice Summerfield as the companion of the day. I unfortunately haven’t read this novel yet, though I have a copy; I should get there in about seven months, and we’ll revisit at that time, hopefully. This episode (and presumably the book as well) introduces the chameleon arch, a bit of technology which can turn a Time Lord into another species on both physical and mental levels, storing the original memories and biodata in a token object, in this case a fob watch. The fob watch will be a sort of recurring motif, as we’ll soon see a similar one in the season finale; but I’ll discuss that when we get there.

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It’s a very different performance for David Tennant. The human John Smith is most definitely NOT the Doctor. He’s a good man, and strong in his way, but he’s also panicky and subject to denial; and at the end, although he ultimately does make the right decision, he’s very close to making the wrong one, and doing so willfully. This is a story about character: not the literary kind, but the moral and ethical kind. Is he still the Doctor when he lacks the TARDIS, the two hearts, the sonic screwdriver, and the technical knowledge? What MAKES him the Doctor? I propose that it’s his character, and I believe the series agrees with me on that. It will be borne out some years later when the War Doctor—along with this same Tenth Doctor—explains the nature of the Doctor in his own words:

Never cruel nor cowardly,

Never give up; never give in.

If all that is true, then this is truly a crisis of identity for the Doctor in more ways than one. Beyond just “human or Gallifreyan”, he has to decide if he will keep that promise or not (though he doesn’t remember literally making it). John Smith has his cruel moments, when he sends the boys out to die; his cowardly moments, when he’s desperately searching for a way to avoid opening the watch; his moment of giving up, when he is tempted to stay and be human forever with Joan; and his moment of giving in, when he decides to give the unopened watch to the Family. But, he overcomes it all, and opens the watch, and becomes the Doctor again.

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If I may expand on this just a bit: it’s a little bit of a Christ parallel. Using the arch is his death; he’s even visibly hanging from the thing, as if on a cross. He is resurrected when he opens the watch, and he does it offscreen, just as the Bible doesn’t literally show us the actual moment of Christ’s resurrection through the eyes of witnesses. And, the events of the Family’s battle at the school are his temptation. (That event is not in the correct order for the biblical account, but we can forgive that, I suppose.) All of this is going to matter immensely in the series three finale, when he is clearly portrayed as a messiah figure—more on that next week.

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There’s some exploration of racism here, but I feel like it is not so much commentary as a simple depiction of how it would have been in this time period. Martha’s means of displaying her physician training (listing the bones of the hand) is a bit silly, and really is unnecessary; at this point it doesn’t matter if Joan believes her or not. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to put up with such prejudice after coming from a future where it’s just not like that anymore; but Martha handles it with aplomb, most of the time anyway. However, the depiction of the race issue here is useful in the greater story arc for one thing: it highlights Martha’s growing feelings for the Doctor. I remember at this point thinking “oh no, she’s turning into Rose!” But we’ll see in a few episodes that there’s a different end in mind. Still, she actually voices her feelings here, though she downplays them later. That TARDIS is getting a bit uncomfortable, I imagine.

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Some references: The big one is John Smith’s sketchbook. It includes sketches of the first, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth Doctors; the console room, the sonic screwdriver, a Dalek, Moxx of Balhoon (The End of the World), Autons (Rose, also in flashback in Love and Monsters), Rose, the Clockwork Droids (The Girl in the Fireplace), a Cyberman (Cybus variant, last seen in Doomsday), Jack Harkness (last seen in DW in The Parting of the Ways), a Slitheen (Boom Town), a gas mask (The Doctor Dances). (Yes, I copied that list from the wiki, but with annotations added.) Notably, the book is also the first visual representation of past (i.e. pre-Ninth) Doctors in the new series, although they were referenced in School Reunion. The Doctor mentions perception filters, which figure prominently in Torchwood (Everything Changes) and will soon appear again on Doctor Who (The Sound of Drums). When the watch is opened, the Doctor’s voice says “You are not alone” (among other things), which were the last words of the Face of Boe (Gridlock), and will soon appear again (Utopia). His conversation with Joan about the location of Gallifrey is a reference to a similar conversation in The Hand of Fear. Chains made of dwarf star alloy also appeared in Warrior’s Gate. There’s also a meta-reference, which I have mentioned in other posts; when John Smith talks about his family, he says his parents were Verity and Sydney, which is a reference to Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, the creator and first producer of Doctor Who.

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In Blink, we meet photographer Sally Sparrow. While photographing an old house, Wester Drumlins, she finds a message behind the wallpaper—a message aimed directly at her, from the Doctor, dated 1969. Freaked out, she visits a friend, Katherine Nightingale. In Kathy’s apartment, she sees a strange video of a one-sided monologue from the Doctor, whom she doesn’t know. The video belongs to Kathy’s brother, Larry. In the morning, Sally and Kathy return to Wester Drumlins, where they see a statue of a weeping angel—and Sally says it has moved from the last time she saw it. On the way out, Kathy vanishes. Minutes later, Sally is met by a young man, who gives her a letter from his deceased grandmother…who proves to be Kathy. Sally doesn’t believe it, but then she finds more angel statues, and one of them has a key—the TARDIS key—in its hand. She takes the key. In flashback, we see Kathy arrive in 1920, beginning a new life.

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Sally finds Larry, who works in a video shop. He tells her that the video of the Doctor is an Easter egg on seventeen different DVDs, and he gives her a list. She can’t explain it all, so she goes to the police. There she tells her story to a detective, Billy Shipton, who shows her a garage of vehicles left by missing persons—and one of them is the TARDIS. He also asks her out on a date. She gives him her number, and leaves. Billy is then touched by another angel statue, and vanishes. He arrives in 1969, where he is met by the Doctor and Martha. The Doctor explains that the angels sent him here, and he is without his time machine. He wants Billy to give Sally a message—but it requires going the long way around.

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Sally gets a phone call, summoning her to a hospital. There she meets Billy, now aged and dying. He delivers the Doctor’s message—“look at the list of DVDs”, which coincidentally are all the DVDs Sally owns. He admits that he went into publishing, and video publishing, and was responsible for placing the Easter egg. He dies thereafter, but with no regrets.

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Sally meets Larry at Wester Drumlins and watches the full video. She finds that it interacts with her, word for word; Larry writes down her words, creating a transcript. The Doctor admits to having a transcript with him, as well. He explains about the weeping angels: quantum-locked predators that feed on the potential time energy of living creatures. To access this energy, they send the individuals back in time, thus negating their remaining life in their own time; otherwise, however, they do not harm anyone. All that is required is a touch. They are inhumanly fast, but they can only exist when unobserved; if you look at them, they turn to stone. Therefore, when facing them: “Don’t blink.” And unfortunately, they have the TARDIS.

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Sally and Larry are interrupted by four angel statues. They try to not let them out of sight, but it’s nearly impossible. The creatures chase them into the cellar, where they find the now-relocated TARDIS. As Larry desperately tries to watch the statues, Sally tries the key, and they get inside, locking the door. A hologram appears, and says they are carrying a control disk; Larry puts the DVD in the console, and the TARDIS dematerializes, headed for 1969—leaving the two of them behind. They are terrified of the angels outside—but they suddenly realize that the disappearing TARDIS left the four angels facing each other. Now observing each other, they are all quantum-locked forever, or at least as long as they are not moved.

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A year later, Sally and Larry are now operating the video store together. She has a folder with everything from her adventure in it. She sees the Doctor and Martha run by in the street, and she stops them—but realizes they are from an earlier point in their own history, and for them, it hasn’t happened yet. She gives them the folder, and tells the Doctor to make sure he has it on him when, one day, he is trapped in 1969.

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Here we have it: possibly THE most famous episode of the revived series. Often people will cite Blink as the episode they show to non-fans to get them interested in Doctor Who; that seems strange to me, as it’s very different from most episodes. Still, whatever works, works, I suppose. This is Series Three’s “Doctor-lite” episode (and companion-lite, too, now that I think of it), allowing filming of two stories at once by two different units. It also introduces one of the most popular and controversial modern villains: the Weeping Angels. (Interestingly, Sally is the one who calls them that here; while the Doctor will confirm the name later, what a coincidence!) The angels are simply terrifying here; it’s the only, and I do mean only, episode of modern Doctor Who that has ever scared me. Others are tense and suspenseful, but I’m nearly forty years old, and jaded about television; but this one, in my first viewing, got to me. (Well, I suppose I was younger then, but you get the idea.) For better or worse, the angels are not as scary in all subsequent episodes. It’s what I jokingly call the M. Night Shyamalan Effect: Once you know the twist, it’s not scary anymore. It can only get you once. Here, though, they are at their best, and it’s glorious. I remember thinking about the sheer beauty of the resolution—yes, Sally and Larry got left behind, but the Doctor, without even being there, trapped the angels into looking at each other. It’s a work of art.

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There’s a bootstrap paradox, but a weak one. Sally and Larry record the Doctor’s words into the transcript, which is why he knows what to say…where did the words originate? It’s not as egregious, though, as some other paradoxes we’ve seen, and besides, it’s not complete; Sally’s words originate with her, onscreen. It’s only the Doctor’s words that are impossibly scripted.

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I’ve heard it suggested that Sally Sparrow should be a companion. It’s a fair point; she has all the makings of one. Still, I’m glad she isn’t. I like the thought that there are companion-worthy people in the Doctor’s sphere who get to go on being normal, especially since companions tend to have their lives upended in spectacular fashion. I don’t know anything else about Carey Mulligan, who plays the role, but she is perfect for this part; Sally is a great character. My favorite one-off character, though, is Billy Shipton, the detective who flirts with Sally before being caught by an angel. He’s played by Michael Obiora in his younger version, and by Louis Mahoney in his elderly version; both actors play the part so consistently that you would believe they really are the same person. ( I suppose I should admit that Old Billy’s accent is a bit thicker, but that’s not unreasonable over five decades.)

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There aren’t many references to speak of. The “Timey-Wimey Detector* will appear again in a couple of novels, Ghosts of India and Touched by an Angel (actually a different model in the latter). Sally successfully takes a photo of the angels, but this will be retconned in The Time of Angels, where it’s a supremely bad idea to do that. However, this episode gives us two of the most famous tenth Doctor quotes, ranking right up there with “Allons-y!”:

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.

Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead. They are fast. Faster than you can believe. Don’t turn your back. Don’t look away. And don’t blink. Good luck.

I’m running out of space, so I’ll leave it there for this week. Great episodes, all around.

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Next week: We’ll wrap up Series Three with a three-part finale, involving my favorite villain, the Master! Join me for Utopia, The Sound of Drums, and Last of the Time Lords! See you there.

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

Human Nature

The Family of Blood

Blink

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