Audio Drama Review: Zagreus

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today—finally—we have reached the fiftieth entry in the main range, which also serves as Doctor Who’s fortieth anniversary story: Zagreus, written by Alan Barnes and Gary Russell. The story was released in November 2003, fifteen years ago as I write this review, and was directed by Gary Russell. It featured every Doctor and companion actor to have performed in Big Finish’s productions to date, although nearly all appeared in new roles here. The story is famously bizarre and trippy; and, well, I will say up front that the rumors are both correct and unable to do it justice. I can’t promise that anything I say here will do it justice, either; it’s hard to even wrap your head around a story like this, let alone sum it up. Nevertheless, we’ll give it a try. Let’s dig in!

Zagreus 1

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

Due to the extreme length and detail of this story, I’m going to break my own pattern today and leave out the usual plot summary. Several good summaries already exist; therefore I will point you to the summary that can be found at the TARDIS wiki, or the summary at the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Zagreus 2

Yep, it’s exactly this weird. Credit to Roger Langridge, DWM 340.

Despite having discussed it many times on the /r/Gallifrey subreddit, and despite having listened to the audio dramas that lead up to it, I still didn’t truly know what I was getting into with Zagreus. For one thing, the story is very long; it’s the longest entry to date in the main range, at three hours and fifty-six minutes, and the second longest in all of BF’s Doctor Who audio dramas. (Only UNIT: Dominion–which is excellent, and which I hope to cover eventually—is longer, by a measly two minutes.) If the average main range audio is a serial, and the average Eighth Doctor Adventures story is a NuWho episode, then Zagreus is a feature film, or possibly a trilogy of films. For another thing, the story takes many familiar actors and scrambles them like eggs (via new roles); the resulting omelette is…well, it is definitely different.

Zagreus picks up where Neverland–which feels like a very long time ago to me; I covered it more than a year and a half ago)–left off, just after the TARDIS and the Doctor absorb the explosion of the anti-time casket. This transforms the Doctor’s mind into a strange, raging beast that takes the name and identity of the mythical Zagreus. Most of the story then proceeds inside the TARDIS, and also on a place called the Foundry of Rassilon, which is at least nominally located on Gallifrey. The Doctor, Zagreus, and the TARDIS all battle their respective foes and selves to establish their identities. At the end, it is discovered that there is another hand at work in these events; and in the end, the characters are—for the most part—saved from destruction. However, the Doctor still is not rid of the anti-time infection; and he cannot be allowed out into the universe any longer. If he makes contact with the normal universe, the infection will escape, and bring all of time to an end (or worse: a state of never having been). Instead, he chooses exile in the anti-time universe, called hereafter the Divergent Universe after the name of its dominant species, the Divergence. Unknown to him, Charley Pollard chooses to go with him.

Most actors appear in different roles, as I have mentioned; but a few appear as their usual characters. Lalla Ward appears as President Romana; Louise Jameson appears as Leela; John Leeson, as K9 (Romana’s K9, in this instance; Leela and Sarah Jane, of course, have their own, who do not appear here). Miles Richardson appears very briefly as Cardinal Braxiatel, and Don Warrington appears as Rassilon. Charley Pollard is the true central character of the story, and as such, India Fisher appears in her usual role; and Nicholas Courtney, while not appearing as the actual Brigadier, appears as a simulation thereof. As well, posthumous voice clips of Jon Pertwee (taken from the Devious fan production) were used to reproduce the voice of the Third Doctor, though he does not appear corporeally in this story. The entire cast, with roles, can be found on the story pages for Zagreus at the TARDIS wiki and at Big Finish’s site. Of special interest is that Big Finish’s site does not credit Paul McGann as the Doctor, but only as Zagreus, though he fills both roles. This is the first appearance in audio of both Leela and K9, though both will go on to figure prominently in the Gallifrey series and other places. Likewise, Braxiatel appears for the first—and only—time in the main range here, though he too will appear in Gallifrey. The story is a three-parter, and only four actors—Peter Davison, Nicholas Courtney, India Fisher, and Paul McGann—appear in all three parts. More sadly, it is Elizabeth Sladen’s only appearance in the main range, and her only work with any of the Doctor actors in Big Finish, due to her untimely death.

I’ve described this story as trippy, but I don’t want to give the impression that it’s hard to follow. It flows very directly, with two parallel plot threads (one for the Doctor/Zagreus, one for Charley). However, the story is filled with mindscapes and illusions and visitations by past Doctors; in that sense, it can be thought of as a sort of bookend for The Eight Doctors. Both the Doctor and Charley are subject to these visions; and, given that they provide the viewpoints for the story, it becomes a little difficult to know what is real and what isn’t. (Here’s the cheater’s version: almost everything in parts one and two is illusory—though valid and important; there are few red herrings here—while part three is reality.) At first the story feels as though it’s wandering; it tells several narratives that don’t seem to be related to anything. I didn’t have any trouble maintaining interest, though, as each narrative is well-told and interesting enough on its own. Soon enough, they all come together, as Zagreus—the monster, not the story—reaches its endgame.

The problems, I think, are twofold. First and foremost: this story is not what we were promised. Not that I’m saying that we, the audience, were literally promised anything; but the lead-up in the various preceding stories would have suggested something much different than what we ultimately got. Zagreus is supposed to be a universe-ending monster that consumes the unsuspecting and undoes time itself; but when you consider that the entire story occurs within the confines of the TARDIS (or the second location, which is also confined), with no one in danger but the Doctor himself, it quickly becomes apparent that Zagreus is sort of a joke. Were he to be unleashed on the universe, he might become the promised monster; as it is, he’s a Schrodinger’s Cat of unrealized potential. Indeed, the story itself uses the same metaphor in part one, and it’s very apt. It subverts the usual Doctor Who trope of the universe-ending catastrophe, but it doesn’t feel clever for subverting it; it just feels like we were a bit cheated. The second problem is related: this is, for better or worse, an anniversary story; and we’ve come to expect something exceptional from an anniversary story. (Well, perhaps not as much as we expect it after The Day of the Doctor, but still…) As the Discontinuity Guide puts it: “Oh dear. An eighteen-month wait – for this!” I’m not sure what I would have done differently; but I certainly wasn’t expecting this.

Still, it’s not entirely out of step with Big Finish’s other stories; and we did just come off of a run of experimental stories. Perhaps Zagreus is best thought of as the last of those stories, rather than as an anniversary story; in that regard it fits right in. For me, the worst part is that I greatly suspect that Zagreus–the monster, not the story–will turn out to be forgotten and never mentioned again. You can’t just create a universe-ending threat and then pretend it didn’t happen–but it won’t be the first time, and I doubt it will be the last. So much wasted potential!

Continuity: There are a great many continuity references here, and I can’t be sure I’ve found or compiled them all. Charley has met the Brigadier before, in Minuet in Hell; Romana also has done so, in Heart of TARDIS. This story proposes that Romana and Leela are meeting for the first time; but this contradicts the events of Lungbarrow, which takes place at the end of the Seventh Doctor’s life, and which makes it clear that they have known each other on Gallifrey for some time. The Doctor refers to the TARDIS briefly as Bessie (last seen in Battlefield). The Doctor finds a copy of Through the Looking-Glass; Ace previously read it in Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible. There are hints that Project Dionysus (seen in one of the simulations) was under the auspices of the Forge (Project: Twilight, et al). The Brigadier paraphrases the Doctor from The Five Doctors regarding being the sum of one’s memories—a quote he shouldn’t know, but…spoilers! The Yssgaroth get a couple of mentions (State of DecayThe Pit). The Doctor sees a vision of the planet Oblivion (Oblivion), the Oracle on KS-159 (Tears of the Oracle), the removal of one of his hearts (The Adventuress of Henrietta Street) and a crystal Time Station (Sometime Never, and possibly Timeless). The effect of all of these latter visions is to place the novel series—from which all of them are drawn—in a separate continuity from the audios, which allows for various noted contradictions going forward. Likewise, another vision shows the Time Lords with great mental powers (Death Comes to Time).

The Sisterhood of Karn appears, though not by name (The Brain of Morbius, et al). The TARDIS has a history of generating sentient avatars (A Life of Matter and DeathThe Lying Old Witch in the Wardrobe). Gallifrey has a watchtower (The Final Chapter). The statue from Sivler Nemesis is mentioned, as well as Rassilon’s various accoutrements and the De-Mat Gun (The Invasion of Time). The Oubliette of Eternity is mentioned (Sisterhood of the Flame). Cardington appears in a vision (Storm Warning). The Doctor mentions meeting Rasputin (The WandererThe Wages of Sin). Charley mentions the Doctor escaping from Colditz Castle (Colditz), which she did not witness, but the Doctor has mentioned. The Doctor refers to John Polidori (Mary’s Story). Charley and Leela have met before, but do not remember (The Light at the End). The Fifth Doctor paraphrases the Fourth Doctor from Logopolis: “I very much fear that the moment’s not been prepared for.” The Tower of Rassilon appears, along with the Death Zone (The Five Doctors). Fifth Doctor lines from Warriors of the Deep and The Caves of Androzani are also quoted, as well the Seventh Doctor from Survival: “If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!” Gallfrey will in the future be empty (Dead RomanceHell Bent). The Doctor suggest that power will corrupt Romana; this comes true in The Shadows of Avalon. The Doctor mentions a beryllium clock (TV movie). Vortisaurs are mentioned (Storm Warning, et al). Transduction inducers are first mentioned in The Deadly Assassin. The Rassilon Imprimature—mentioned here, but not by name—is first mentioned in The Two Doctors. The TARDIS has a back door (LogopolisGenocide). Various monsters are mentioned in quick succession—Mandrells, Hypnotrons, Drashigs, Daleks, Yeti, Quarks.

Overall: Not a bad story. I enjoyed it quite well. On the other hand, it’s definitely not what I expected—if I expected anything. Certainly it feels more appropriate as an experimental story than as an anniversary story, as I mentioned. Most importantly, it serves to get the Doctor and Charley into the Divergent Universe, where they will spend the next several adventures. It’s a story I am glad to have heard once, but I probably won’t come back to it. Still, it’s unique, and I can’t say I regret it. Moving on!

Next time: Well, that was a lot to take in. We’ll take a break with the Sixth Doctor (and introduce another popular character, Iris Wildthyme!) in The Wormery. 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 selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Zagreus

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Audio Drama Review: The Shadow Trader

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to The Shadow Trader, the Seventh Doctor’s entry into the Short Trips, Volume IV anthology. This story was written by Charles Williams, and features the Sixth Doctor and Ace, and is read by Sophie Aldred. 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.

Salim is a shadow trader. It’s an old profession, one practiced by his father before him, and dating all the way back to the old days on Earth. Some cultures have known for centuries that buildings—and in these days, spaceships—have souls of their own; it’s why a man may call his ship “she”, and put faith in its abilities. Those souls don’t happen; they are acquired by binding a shadow to the bones of the building or the ship. That’s where the shadow traders, like Salim, come in. It’s a little bit magical, but it always works—as Salim’s dying father taught him. Salim wasn’t the greatest at the job, but that didn’t matter; all his father asked of him was that he live, procreate, and pass on the skills to his son, who might do it better.

Fraser’s Rest, in orbit around the old colony of Sonos Prime, is a declining shipyard and trading post—once more powerful, but now diminished in the face of new settlements. Salim fits in here; he doesn’t stand out in this decaying realm of reduced activity. He finds a ship in the midst of construction, and watches the activity; it’s a luxury cruiser for a billionaire, quite a prominent addition to the construction yards of Fraser’s Rest, but that is because the billionaire grew up here, and feels some affection for the place. It is, perhaps, the last chance for the Rest. Salim has been staking it out for days, trying to determine what kind of soul—what kind of shadow—this ship should have. Even its name has not been decided; but the shipbuilders have been calling it the Defiance. Now Salim must search for a person to provide the shadow—someone who matches the character of the Defiance.

He finds it in a girl with a bulky jacket, a rucksack, and a ponytail. He follows the girl, Ace, as she rejoins a little man called the Doctor—or the Professor, as she calls him. They are here to watch a launch, but the Doctor ruefully notes that he may have brought them to the wrong year, as he remembers the places being more upscale. He admits there is nothing special about this ship launch, but that he just likes to watch them, and think about what adventures it may have. Ace isn’t interested, and heads back to their own ship, the TARDIS. Salim thinks on how to cut the girl’s shadow away.

Salim follows Ace down a lonely corridor, and sets a music box playing. Ace hears the music, which grows more and more complex; she finds it has caused her to be stuck in place. Salim confronts her, and she finds she cannot even approach him. He tells her that her shadow is holding him in place; it can’t move, and therefore neither can she. He produces a strange, circuitry-laden knife, and turns it on. He tells her to hold still, so that he can cut off her shadow; Ace threatens to kick him if he approaches. Salim is okay with this; they’ll be in a stalemate until she lets him take the shadow.

They are interrupted by the approach of the Doctor. Ace warns him away; the Doctor is unperturbed, and recognizes music box as a shadow lure. He states that it won’t work on him, to Salim’s surprise. The Doctor says this is because he has no shadow; and he knocks the music box from Salim’s hand, breaking it. Ace immediately kicks him to the floor.

The Doctor examines the knife, which is quite blunt, and says that it cuts shadows, not flesh. He recognizes Salim as a shadow trader, something he last encountered in nineteenth-century London. Salim defends his profession as noble; the Doctor counters that there is nothing noble about waving a knife at a girl in an alley, and says that Salim’s ancestors wouldn’t do it this way. They would offer a deal instead, though often not a favorable one. The Doctor explains that taking the shadow takes the person’s substance, causing their lives to go nowhere; past victims would end up in freak shows, or in bedlam. Salim objects that people must have sold the shadows willingly; the Doctor acknowledges that sometimes the downtrodden would do so, for the lure of being part of something great. Some people have felt that all they have to offer in life…is their shadow.

The Doctor leaves, taking Ace with him; without the lure, Salim may still be a parasite, but he’ll have to be a traditional one.

Salim watches the Defiance under construction, and thinks about his father, and about the many others who have desired to be part of something bigger. For a moment, he feels that desire as well…and then it is gone.

Short Trips Volume 4 b

I commented back in Volume II that the Seventh Doctor’s stories in these early anthologies seem to be built around the idea of teaching someone a life lesson. Saving the world—when it happens—is secondary to that purpose. The same holds true here, but with a twist that left the story a bit unsatisfying to me; I’ll get back to that in a moment.

The story finds the Doctor and Ace visiting a decaying shipyard for the purpose of watching a launch. In the course of it, they encounter a man named Salim. Salim is a shadow trader; he removes the shadows from unsuspecting individuals, and sells them to ship construction crews to be attached to the ship, thus giving it a “soul” of its own. It’s an ancient profession, going back to buildings on Earth, but it isn’t a very honest one. Salim gets more than he bargains for when he targets Ace’s shadow.

I say that the Doctor makes a point of teaching Salim a life lesson; in this case, that his chosen profession is dishonest, and leaves its victims with some severe consequences even if they agree to it. That’s standard for these Seventh Doctor stories, but the problem here is that nothing comes of it. We don’t see the effect it has on Salim at all; he’s still thinking about it when the story ends, but even that slips away from him. As far as we can tell, he’ll go on as he always has. While not every story has to have a happy ending, I think that it’s best when the actions of the story seem to count for something, whether it’s happy or not. That characteristic is lacking here, and it’s very unsatisfying. There’s potential, but it’s just not realized. (I should note that the wiki page for Salim’s character interprets the ending differently, but I think the author of the page is extrapolating a bit to reach the conclusion that Salim changes for the better. I do think that the author intended to show that Salim changes, but somehow that detail got omitted from the final cut.)

The presentation is decent, as usual; Sophie Aldred had been voicing Ace for Big Finish for a very long time by the time this story was released, and audiobooks seem to have been an easy transition for her. Her presentation of the Seventh Doctor is a little rough, but that’s only because her voice is (obviously) quite different from his; she captures his tone and mannerisms fairly well. There are no continuity references to speak of; the Doctor does mention having encountered shadow traders in nineteenth century London, and possibly at the construction of the Sphinx as well, but those references don’t seem to be attached to any stories.

Overall: Not the greatest of the Seventh Doctor’s anthology stories. It could have been better, but just didn’t hit the mark. We’ll see if things improve when we reach the individual Short Trips.

Next time: We’ll finally reach the last installment in the Short Trips anthologies! We’ll join the Eighth Doctor, sans companions, in Quantum Heresy. 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: The Riparian Ripper

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to the Seventh Doctor’s contribution to the Short Trips, Volume 3 collection, The Riparian Ripper. Written by Andrew Cartmel, and featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace, this story is read by Sophie Aldred. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 3 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 Seventh Doctor and Ace make their way to a crime scene along the Red River, where they encounter a reporter named Walter Orpheus. The Doctor—letting Ace call him the Professor—manages as usual to be taken for someone official, in this case from the nearby university. He produces a newspaper clipping about the situation—a series of nearly-deadly attacks near the river, perpetrated by an assailant who has been dubbed “the Riparian Ripper” (“Riparian” meaning “on or of the riverbank”). Oddly, none of the victims have died, despite their grievous injuries; but none of them can identify the attacker as well. The current victim, a teenage girl, is in St. Saviour’s hospital. Her name is Dolores Gorman, and her uncle, Stan Gorman, is in the crowd here at the scene. Stan intends to kill the Ripper if he can find him—or it, as the Doctor thinks it may be an animal instead of a human. The wounds, after all, don’t look like knife wounds.

At the hospital, the Doctor and Ace investigate the victims’ case histories. All have survived—but, with the help of Dr. Leonard Milroy, they learn that all the victims have had an organ removed, though without having actually had the proper surgery—but with surgical skill. More interestingly, prior to their attacks, they all suffered problems related to the organs, which were eased when the organs were removed.

The Doctor and Ace stay overnight in the university’s student halls. They are awakened to news: the Ripper has been found! Stan Gorman’s brother, Herb Gorman, was attacked in the early hours, and brought into the hospital. The Doctor correctly predicts that the wounds were to the chest and upper abdomen; Milroy had already stated that Herb suffered from lung cancer. Ace realizes that the Ripper is not harming anyone—he is performing successful surgeries! The problem is that no one will understand it—and that means the Ripper will be mobbed and killed if isolated.

They rush to the site of the Ripper’s entrapment: a nearby storm drain. There they find workers from Stan Gorman’s construction company, wiring the place with explosions. Stan confronts them, and says he intends to murder the “monster”; but the Doctor informs him that his brother is doing very well, and was not, in fact, tortured after all. Nevertheless, Stan intends to blow up the drain tunnels anyway. In spite, the Doctor leaps up and into the drain pipe; Ace and Milroy follow. The Doctor has Ace covertly cut the detonation wire; and then they head deeper into the tunnels.

Before they can find the Ripper, they hear sirens; but they are coming from the darkness ahead, not from outside. Something approaches; the Doctor manages to pull his companions aside, just in time to avoid something large and silver streaking past in the tunnels. The thing—the ship—shoots out of the tunnels and flies away; the Doctor, Ace, and Milroy make it outside just in time to see it vanish over the horizon.

The Doctor laments that their “friend” is gone; and indeed, he can’t blame the Ripper for leaving. On the bright side, Herb Gorman will go on to recover fully, free of tumors. As the Doctor and Ace depart, they gift Milroy with a telescope; he intends to watch the sky, hoping the silver ship will return. Ace is secretly sure it won’t.

Short Trips Volume 3 b

We seem to be on a theme in this collection. Every story so far, with the exception of The Five Dimensional Man, has featured a villain that isn’t actually a villain, and in most cases is simply misunderstood. I, for one, wouldn’t want a steady diet of such stories; but it is a nice occasional diversion. It’s inevitable, in a universe as large as that of Doctor Who, that species or individuals with radically different outlooks on life will pop up; and it suits the Doctor’s character very well to defend them as well as humanity. This is a concept that goes back at least as far as Doctor Who and the Silurians, and probably much further (I’m a little short on time right now, and don’t have the time to look into it). We see it here, when the titular Riparian Ripper—whom we never actually see or identify—isn’t at all what he appears to be at first; and he nearly dies for his trouble, when in fact he is here to do good for the humans in the area. Unfortunately, that’s also a common theme in Doctor Who: that humans can be heavy-handed and insensitive to anything different and/or wondrous. (Related: The Ripper’s species and homeworld are never revealed, either; that wonderfully obscure word, “riparian”, means “of or on the riverbank”, which is where the attacks in this story take place.)

At just over sixteen minutes, this is one of the shorter entries in the collection. After the painful voice acting in the last two entries—at least where Peri Brown was concerned—hearing Sophie Aldred read this story is something of a relief; she doesn’t try to imitate the Seventh Doctor precisely, but settles for a suggestion of his brogue, which is all that’s really necessary. This story is told in first person from Ace’s perspective, which while unusual, is a good mode for Sophie Aldred’s narration. As is common in Seventh Doctor stories, there’s no real hint of any framing events; we don’t see the Doctor and Ace arrive or leave, and the TARDIS isn’t seen at all, nor do we get any indication of why they came here at this time. I always find that a little odd, given that the Seventh Doctor has such a reputation for manipulating events and scheming behind the scenes; nevertheless a lot of stories seem to happen in that way.

Overall: A short, pleasant story, and a nice change from the body horror and pain in recent entries (although, if “organ removal” counts, one could say there’s body horror here as well—but at least we don’t have to watch it happen). It’s almost a little too short, too easy; I would have liked to see the Doctor and Ace be involved in tracking down the Ripper, but that event is handled elsewhere and essentially handed to them. Otherwise, not bad at all.

Next time: We’ll wrap up with the Eighth—wait, no, we won’t! We’ll listen to the Eighth Doctor’s entry, All the Fun of the Fair, featuring Lucie Miller; but don’t forget, we’ve also put off the first Doctor’s entry, Seven to One, which is split among the various parts of this collection. We’ll try to get in both stories tomorrow, and start fresh on Monday with Volume Four, if possible. See you then!

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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Audio Drama Review: The Dark Flame

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week we’re returning to the Main Range with 2003’s The Dark Flame, release number 42 in the range. Written by Trevor Baxendale, this story features the Seventh Doctor. It’s part of Big Finish’s sporadic “Sidestep into Virgin Territory”, a very occasional series of stories set in the continuity established by the Virgin New Adventures line of novels. (While it can be argued that the VNAs fit into the same continuity as other stories, Big Finish usually refrains from setting stories during that portion of the Seventh Doctor’s life.) As a result, this story also features Ace McShane and Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, and takes place between the novels All-Consuming Fire and Blood Harvest (which I have not yet reviewed). It is the second and—so far—the last Main Range story set in the VNA continuity, although some Companion Chronicles have followed, as well as several novel adaptations. With that background, let’s get started!

The Dark Flame

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:

En route to the Orbos research station to pick up Bernice, the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits are struck by a massive cry for help—and it comes from an old friend of the Doctor, an elderly researcher named Remnex. This interruption leaves the Doctor and Ace with visions of black flames. Remnex, not so coincidentally, is stationed on Orbos, where he and two colleagues are experimenting with black light—a dangerous phenomenon of its own, separate from ultraviolet, which the Doctor has encountered before.

On Orbos, which orbits the dead and volcanic planet Marran Alpha, Remnex is alive and unharmed. He discusses with his colleagues Lomar and Slade—as well as Benny—the imminent arrival of the Doctor, who may be able to help with their experiments. However, Benny is more concerned about another friend, archaeologist Victor Farrison, who was supposed to have met her here by now. As it turns out, Victor is down on the planet with his android servant Joseph, excavating a burial pit. In it they find a seemingly human skull; though it is ancient, it feels strangely alive to Victor. They are met by their employer, a man named Broke, who demands the skull; Victor demands answers first. In reply, Broke knocks him out and takes the skull, despite Joseph’s concern for his master. Broke reveals he is a servant of the Cult of the Dark Flame, and the skull is that of the cult’s founder, Vilus Krull.

The TARDIS arrives on Orbos, and while Benny and Ace catch up, the Doctor chats with Remnex. At Lomar’s request, he examines their experimental apparatus—they are attempting a controlled black light explosion, something never done before. The Doctor uses his sense of time to determine that their control element, an isochronyte crystal, is unstable; they need one that exists partially outside the spacetime continuum. Slade insists it will work until they find a better one, and explains that Remnex is responsible for the first stage of the experiment—the creation of an artificial sun to power the explosion. The Doctor goes in search of Remnex again.

Benny enlists Ace to help with rubbish disposal. To that end, they dump the rubbish into a rather shoddy transmat, which sends it to the volcanic surface of the planet. Ace is concerned the transmat might be leaking exotic particles, and her fears seem confirmed when Benny experiences a migraine—but when it turns into a vision of black flames, she seeks out the Doctor.

The Doctor, meanwhile, hears a more natural scream from Remnex; and he runs to Remnex’s cabin, but finds it locked. Ace also arrives, at the same time as Lomar, and smashes the door open. Remnex is dead, stabbed through the left eye. Slyde and a now-recovered Benny arrive as well, as the Doctor sees that Remnex is holding the isochronyte crystal; its temporal properties seem to be what sent his scream rocketing through time, prompting the visions. The group confers on their experiences, and Benny remembers an ancient cult, the Cult of the Dark Flame, which seems related. The cult worshipped a being from outside the universe; but they died out centuries ago—or did they? Meanwhile, Slyde accuses the Doctor and Ace of killing Remnex. His allegations are dismissed by all, and Ace and Benny storm off. Slyde leaves as well; after some discussion with Lomar, the Doctor goes to speak with Slyde. Slyde catches up to Ace and Benny in the transmat room; as the Doctor approaches, he hears a struggle, and when he arrives he finds only Ace. She is disoriented, but claims that Slyde overpowered her and pushed Benny into the transmat; she is likely on the surface, and more likely dead.

Part Two:

Lomar confirms that the transmat was just used. The Doctor concludes that Ace was shot with a stunner, and takes her to sickbay; fortunately, her customary combat suit diffused most of the blast. He hypnotises her and makes her sleep, then goes in search of Slyde. Slyde, however, is not on the station; he has transmatted himself along with Benny, to a cavern beneath the surface. He meets Broke there, and locks Benny in a cell with Joseph and Victor. He intended to use Benny’s archaeological skills to find the skull, but it won’t be necessary, as Victor already found it. Slyde quickly returns to Orbos, then brings back the body of Remnex, which will be used as a host for the resurrected Emissary of the Dark Flame—Vilus Krull. Broke brings Benny and Joseph to watch as Slyde uses the skull to bring life to Remnex’s body—but it’s no longer Remnex inside it.

While the new Emissary is distracted, Benny, Joseph and Victor steal the skull and run. Benny and Joseph are quickly recaptured, while Victor is shot with the stunner on full power; he manages to crawl into the transmat with the skull. Meanwhile, on the station, the Doctor finds that Remnex’s body is missing. Over Lomas’s objections, he wakes up Ace to help him investigate. As they talk, they encounter Victor near the transmat; he hands over the skull, but succumbs to his injuries and dies. The Doctor experiences something like a seizure when he touches the skull; he realizes it is parachronic, partially outside time—and this has horrific implications for the black light explosion. He gives the skull to Ace, who is unaffected. He tells her to guard it, and sets off for the transmat, which he suspects has been altered for safe transport. As soon as he reaches the cavern, he meets Joseph—who reveals that, unfortunately, the Doctor has walked into a trap. The Doctor is brought before the Emissary.

Slyde returns to the station in pursuit of the now-deceased Victor, and accosts Ace, demanding the skull. She breaks free and runs. She reaches Lomar, and warns her that Slyde is a member of the Cult of the Dark Flame—but as Slyde arrives, Lomar reveals that she also is a member of the Cult.

Part Three:

Ace has hidden the skull, and uses its location as a bargaining chip for her life. She then uses a smoke grenade to cover her escape, and hides in the dark light laboratory. Slyde and Lomar find her there, but it becomes a standoff; she threatens to detonate the smart bombs she is carrying if they attack her.

In the caverns, Broke locks up the Doctor and Joseph along with Benny. Joseph apologizes for trapping the Doctor, but says that Broke would have killed Benny otherwise. Broke returns and takes the trio for an audience with the Emissary. Benny mocks the Emissary, disbelieving his claims—until he reanimates the long-dead bones around them, giving them life and strength, if not flesh. He explains that he requires the skull of Vilus Krull—his own skull from his original life. The Doctor explains that Victor died to get it to safety, and it is now hidden. The Emissary threatens to burn the information free of the Doctor’s mind, but refrains, and puts them back in the cell. There, the Doctor explains that the Time Lords believe the Dark Flame to be an energy source from a pocket universe, which will be created far in the future at the death of this universe; the bizarre physics of that time will allow it to function backward in time to this day and beyond. The parachronic skull connects to that universe, making the black light explosion very dangerous indeed—it will spread the flame’s power throughout all of space and time.

Lomar reports to the Emissary about Slyde’s standoff with Ace. The Emissary gives the Doctor ten minutes to retrieve the skull, or else his skeletal troops will kill Benny. Back on the station, the Doctor tries, but fails, to reason with Lomar. In the lab, the Doctor convinces her and Slyde to let him talk to Ace alone; he uses that opportunity to fill her in on a plan. Meanwhile, in the cells, Broke antagonizes Joseph over Victor’s death, until the robot flies into a rage and attacks Broke, gravely wounding him. However, Joseph is shocked at his actions, and allows Broke to deactivate him. Elsewhere, the Emissary forces Benny to look into his eyes—and takes control of her.

Ace takes the Doctor and Lomar back to the transmat, and hands over the skull. She expresses concerns again about the safety of the transmat; to set her mind at ease, the Doctor adjusts its focusing coil. Once in the caves again, they are reunited with Benny. The Doctor breaks away and grabs the skull, tossing it to Ace, who throws it to Benny. The Doctor tells her to throw it into the transmat, which has been recalibrated to destroy it completely—but Benny hands it over to her new master, the Emissary.

Part Four:

The Doctor doesn’t believe Benny has really surrendered to the Dark Flame. To prove it, the Emissary has the skeleton creatures hold Ace down while Benny beats her. The Doctor gets him to stop, but remains unconvinced; he is sure Benny is being controlled by force. Meanwhile the injured Broke arrives, and offers himself as a new body for the Emissary, whose current body is decaying; the Emissary declines, and orders Broke to fix the transmat. The Doctor asks to follow the Dark Flame as Benny has done, but the Emissary refuses. When the transmat is fixed, the Emissary leaves Broke to die and takes Slyde, Lomar and Benny back to Orbos. He intends to kill Benny and take over her body; and there is still the explosion to oversee.

Broke destroys the transmat controls, and then dies. The Doctor is sure that the Emissary is not strong enough to control him as well as Slyde, Lomar, and Benny; that is why he refused the Doctor’s surrender. The Doctor reactivates Joseph and recruits him to help repair the controls. However, the control processor is ruined. Joseph offers his own processor—his “brain”—to replace it, knowing he will essentially die in the process. Reluctantly the Doctor agrees, and says goodbye to Joseph before pulling out the processor. He and Ace then transmat back to the station.

Slyde and Lomar prepare the experiment, and install the skull. They activate the solar generator, creating the artificial sun; Benny then activates the converter, and the light from the artificial star begins to darken. The Doctor and Ace arrive as the black light explosion begins. The cultists begin to feel the Dark Flame burning inside them. However, Benny is shocked back to awareness, and sees her hand on the converter withering with age. It’s too late to shut it off, however. Ace tries to shoot the Emissary, but he shuts down her weapon with his mind. He then freezes the Doctor in place; as the Doctor screams in pain, the Emissary gloats that with the Dark Flame’s arrival, he is now strong enough to control even the Doctor. Ace knocks the Doctor out in order to save him, and she flees with Benny. However, this was all part of the Doctor’s plan; and now Ace has had a good look at the converter.

As the Doctor recovers, he taunts the Emissary; he insists that the Dark Flame is not a being, but a simple force of nature. It has no will; it simply obeys Krull. He challenges Krull to a battle to prove it; they will both put their hands on the skull and battle for control of the Flame’s power. Enraged, the Emissary agrees, and joins battle with the Doctor. However, the Doctor had adjusted the transmat after using it; and now Ace and Benny use it to teleport back into the lab, catching the others off guard. Benny deactivates the converter, and time twists back on itself, wiping Krull from existence. The artificial star returns to normal, and Benny’s hand is restored. Slyde and Lomar are knocked unconscious.

Lomar awakens to find things changed. She and Slyde are now free of the Flame’s control; Slyde is naturally unpleaasant, but no longer directly dangerous. However, the Doctor suggests that his researches be redirected. The Doctor explains that he tapped the Flame’s power briefly; he fought down the temptation to set everything right—a level of power even he should not wield—but couldn’t help fixing a few things—like Benny’s hand, and Remnex’s death. No, the old researcher is not restored to life; but his death was peaceful, in his sleep. The skull has been sent out into the continuum forever, and Krull is no more.

Before the Doctor and his companions depart, he takes the omnitronic processor—all that is left of Joseph. In honor of Joseph’s bravery, he intends to take it to someone who can try to salvage Joseph’s memories; and he hints that Benny may need Joseph’s help again someday.

The Dark Flame 1

While this story isn’t a direct port of the New Adventures—we’ll get to those eventually with the Novel Adaptations—it feels like one. Those adventures, I find, tend to be a bit darker and grimmer than the average televised story (and by extension, the average Big Finish story), though not terribly so. They often feature large, world- or universe-ending threats, often involving ancient resurrected evils and paranormal phenomena, some of which are explained away in scientific terms, but very often not. All of those points are present here. While I often find myself getting impatient with the New Adventures, I didn’t feel that way at all here; I think that’s largely because of the format change instead of the content. The novels are brooding and slow, often leaving the action behind to examine what’s going on in the characters’ heads—this seems to be true regardless of which author we’re reading. Audio doesn’t lend itself well to that kind of literary indulgence, and so we’re forced to cut the story back to its essential action; and Doctor Who thrives on action! We end up with a story that’s very much a New Adventure in tone and content, but very much the Main Range in execution, and that’s a great combination.

The story deviates a bit from the typical pattern with regard to its major villain, the titular Dark Flame. Typically, when Doctor Who stories set up an overpowered or supernatural villain, they follow through; the Doctor’s ingenuity may be what triumphs, but the threat is real. Less often we get a story like this, where the villain is not at all what it seems—still dangerous, perhaps, but not what was advertised. There’s potential to fall flat in stories like that, but here it’s an integral part of the plot, and it’s played triumphantly. The final confrontation is a bit abbreviated, but the lead-up is fantastic.

The voice acting for the secondary villain, the Emissary of the Dark Flame (and also for one of his henchmen, Slyde) is a bit over the top, but it’s easy to forget about that once you reach, say, part three. (I’d say part two for Slyde; however the Emissary doesn’t actually show up until part two.) The other supporting characters are decent; and Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, and Lisa Bowerman all turn in their usual great performances.

Continuity gets a bit tangled in this story. It ties into not only the Doctor’s portion of the New Adventures, but also Benny’s, as well as other audio dramas, especially regarding the character of the android Joseph (whom, incidentally, I can’t help picturing as Michael Fassbender in the role of the android David in Prometheus). Much of this tangled continuity involves stories I haven’t read or heard yet, and so I’ll borrow a summary quote from the Doctor Who Reference Guide:

Joseph the porter (whom we shall refer to here as Joseph-2) was first introduced in the [Bernice] New Adventure Oh No It Isn’t!, which on the face of things suggests that the Doctor supplied Joseph-1’s omnitronic processor to the University of Dellah. However, in Tears of the Oracle it is revealed that Joseph-2 was in fact a front for the People’s [The Also People] ship J-Kibb, which therefore suggests that the Doctor instead gave the omnitronic processor to the People for them to incorporate into their fake University porter. However again, J-Kibb and Joseph-2 were destroyed, and thus in The Doomsday Manuscript Irving Braxiatel gave Benny a new porter whose personality and appearance were based on Joseph-2. Since Joseph-3 in The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy and The Green-Eyed Monsters is performed by the same actor who voiced Joseph-1 in The Dark Flame, it’s at least possible that the Doctor in fact supplied Joseph-1’s omnitronic processor to Braxiatel for use in Joseph-3, and simply advised on the programming of Joseph-2 in order to maintain the historical balance. In any case, one thing is clear: for any of this to work, the Doctor most likely already knew something of Benny’s future by this point, devious little git.

All in all, it sounds like I have my work cut out for me in catching up with the novels.

Other continuity references: Black light was first encountered in The Mysterious Planet. Ogrons, mentioned here by Benny (but not actually seen), first appeared in The Day of the Daleks. The Cult of the Dark Flame will reappear in another Benny story, The Draconian Rage. The Doctor mentions Chelonians, which first appeared in the VNA The Highest Science; his actual line, “Sleep is for Chelonians”, is an oblique reference to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, where the Fourth Doctor commented that “Sleep is for tortoises” (the Chelonians are a tortoise-like race). In conversation with Remnex, the Doctor mentions that Mel is traveling the universe with a con artist (Dragonfire; Remnex gets the Best Comeback award here, when he remarks to the Doctor that “nothing has changed, then”). Ace’s military and paramilitary career (Deceit) gets a reference. In trying to wake Ace, the Doctor says “We’ve got work to do” (a reference to his last line in Survival); he uses her surname “McShane”, which originated in the VNAs (sorry, could not track down which novel specifically revealed it), and finally succeeded in waking her by calling her “Dorothy” (Dragonfire).

Overall: After the lackluster Nekromanteia, it was nice to get back to a story that was genuinely enjoyable. While I do, as I said, get impatient with the New Adventures, I mostly enjoy them; and this story is a refreshing take on the kind of material we get in that series. Ace has always been one of my favorite companions; Bernice, not as much, but she’s at least entertaining when she’s not being mind-controlled (wait, no, that happens to her here as well…never mind). Well, at least Bernice is very well represented here. Although the New Adventures tend to be a bit cut-and-paste in their broad strokes, this story breaks away from that a bit by giving us a unique adversary, and a very comfortable running time as well. I wasn’t expecting this to be a great story—it doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s list of the best Main Range audios—it was surprisingly good. It’s worth checking out, if you haven’t already.

Next time: We’ll check out something unusual: a Doctor Who musical! The story in question is Doctor Who and the Pirates, featuring the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe. 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 selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

The Dark Flame

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Audio Drama Review: Critical Mass

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re continuing our listen of Short Trips, Volume 2 with the Seventh Doctor’s story, Critical Mass. Written by James Moran and read by Sophie Aldred, this story features the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume 2

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

The Doctor is repairing the TARDIS console, while Ace waits impatiently. She is ready for an ocean vacation, but the Doctor has other ideas: a secret military bunker, where hopefully they won’t get arrested this time!

The TARDIS lands somewhere on the continent of Caluma on the planet Calarnus. The continent is at war with neighboring Alidia, and their weapons development has reached a point that worries the Doctor. Before they can discuss it further, they are interrupted by a scream. Its source—a ghostly humanoid figure—steps out of a wall, and then dissolves away on the floor. The Doctor and Ace go in search of answers.

In a meeting room, the Doctor finds the base’s High Commander, Louise Ryan, in session with her aides. She is unperturbed by the presence of the Doctor and Ace, taking them as representatives of the Bureau, whom she was expecting. She shows a schematic of an implosion device—not quite a bomb, but a compressor of organic material within a range. Its effect is essentially to make its targets melt. The Doctor overrides Ace’s objections, and learns that the device has switched itself on, inside the base. Three hours earlier, the guard on the storage room holding the device vanished in screams; two hours ago, readings indicated the device was charging. As they walk the hallways toward the storage room, more screaming ensues, and more ghostly figures. Ryan explains they have been seeing them all over, but that she does not believe in ghosts; she correctly surmises it has something to do with the device. She leaves them to work.

The Doctor is angry at Ryan’s cavalier attitude about the impending deaths; he muses over the possibility of letting the device detonate inside the base, but rejects it. As well, the real Bureau representatives are due in less than an hour, which means they don’t have much time to work.

Through the storage door, they can hear the guard giggling. He whispers about something “going to eat you”, and in fact going to eat any flesh. The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to open the door, and they enter. They find the guard sitting in the corner, giggling, with his gun dismantled. All of the circuits from the device have been stretched across the floor, but not actually disconnected, so that the device cannot be moved. Nor can it be reassembled; it is stuck in a feedback loop, and will detonate if tampered with. The Doctor realizes, to Ace’s horror, that the device will interpret any carbon-containing substance as flesh; in essence, this means that if it detonates, the entire planet will implode in a massive chain reaction. Its range is also grossly exaggerated; it will encompass the entire solar system. An implosion that big will rip a hole in time; the ghosts, it seems, are echoes of the future dead. The guard, having been at the epicenter, can hear billions of them screaming in his head. Ace offers to blow it up, but she can’t do it thoroughly enough to ensure it won’t detonate. The Doctor, for once, is at a loss.

Ace suggests plugging it into the main power supply of the base, hoping to blow its fuses and stop it from charging. The Doctor objects that it doesn’t have fuses—but her suggestion catches his attention. She explains she once fried the fuses in her house by doing the same with a battery-powered radio. The Doctor sees genius in the idea, and runs off with Ace in tow.

Back in the briefing room with Ryan, the Doctor lays out the situation and his plan: give the machine all the power they can give it! It is building toward a certain power level, but if they can overload it, it should shut down instead of detonate. Ryan is understandably skeptical. The Doctor loses his temper at her, and yells at her about her attitude toward the victims of the device. She thinks only her people matter; but, as the Doctor says, everyone matters.

At last, Louise, chastened, relents and agrees. She sends her scientists to complete the overload.

Ace objects to sticking around to watch, but the Doctor tells her to have faith. As all the power is diverted, even the lights go out. The last of the countdown ticks away…and the device enters its detonation sequence. The Doctor screams about his failure, and Louise falters and asks how long they have.

And then the device shuts down.

The Doctor tells her that he screamed on purpose, to give Louise a moment of utter despair, though he knew the plan would work. Now, it is up to her to take that moment, and learn from it.

Back in the TARDIS, Ace confronts the Doctor: he had known all along! He apologizes for not telling her, but explains that Louise and her people needed a scare to correct their course. And in the meantime, he and Ace can visit the ocean planet—Karfala 6, an entire resort world covered in water, but only four feet deep. And they can go there next…well, after a little detour.

Short Trips Volume 2 1

There’s a certain pattern that seems to crop up often in stories featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace. They drop in on a potentially world-ending situation, and with a combination of the Doctor’s technical skills and Ace’s human experience, they quickly resolve the crisis; but in the process it becomes clear that the Doctor’s real purpose here is to teach a life lesson to someone with whom he is interacting. This isn’t unheard of in stories featuring other Doctors and companions; but no one, I can honestly say, does it quite so well as Seven and Ace. We often say that the Seventh Doctor is manipulative, and it’s implied that this is a sometimes-dangerous and often-shady quality for him to have; but this is a form of manipulation as well—it’s simply a benign form. One gets the impression that the Doctor is working toward some ultimate goal via small good deeds (I’m reminded of Quantum Leap, with Sam Beckett’s leaps adding up toward some better future that we unfortunately never got to see), though we never see it actually reach fruition. (For another great entry, check out the Short Trip Forever Fallen, by Joshua Wanisko, the winner of the inaugural Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trip competition.)

This story is a prime example of the above. The Doctor and Ace drop in on the warring state of Caluma on the planet Calarnus (I’m borrowing the wiki’s spelling here, though it sounds different to me in the audio). Caluma has constructed a rather unusual superweapon: an implosion device that will affect any organic matter in its range, causing living things to melt. Three problems are apparent: for one, the range has been incorrectly set to include the entire solar system; for another, the device interprets any carbon as organic matter, meaning the planet itself will be destroyed; and finally, the device is inexplicably powering up while it is still in storage! Along they way, they deal with inexplicable ghosts in the corridors—but the real issue here is the attitude of the Calumans toward their victims, embodied in base High Commander Louise Ryan. The Doctor and Ace save the day—I won’t say how—and in the process, teach Ryan and her people a much-needed lesson in human compassion.

I have to admit, it’s a welcome adjustment for the Seventh Doctor. I had gotten accustomed to the version presented in the New Adventures (VNAs) novels, where his grim side is quite apparent, and where his plots are very complex. Likewise, Ace in the VNAs tends to be a brooding and violent character, with a lot of fixation on her terrible family history. This quick, in-and-out, reasonably happy type of adventure is a good take on the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Their adventures in any medium tend to be continuity-heavy, but there’s none of that here, and for once I don’t mind.

Next time: We’ll wrap up Short Trips Volume 2 with the Eighth Doctor’s installment, Letting Go. I hope to post that entry today, as well; I’ll be out of town and away from my computer for the next week, meaning that I’ll be able to read and comment but not post. I’d like to have Volume 2 wrapped up before I leave. When I return, we’ll try to get moving with the main range again, as well. 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 selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Short Trips, Volume 2

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Audio Review: Police and Shreeves

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today, we’re listening to Police and Shreeves, the Seventh Doctor’s contribution to the Short Trips, Volume I collection. Written by Adam Smith (not to be confused with the director of the same name, who directed several Eleventh Doctor episodes), and read by Sophie Aldred, this story features the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Let’s get started!

Short Trips Volume I

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

A woman named San works in a hospital cafeteria. A new girl, Ace, has joined the cafeteria crew, and San watches her curiously. Ace claims to have done this work before, at a place called Iceworld; but she has the long, jaded weariness of someone who has been at this job for a long time rather than three hours on her first day. Her entire bearing bespeaks wariness and readiness, after a sort of military fashion. In short, she doesn’t seem to be from around here. But that’s alright; San isn’t from around here, either.

In fact, she is a Shreeve, and she has been here since childhood. Shreeves are aliens to Earth, despite being humanoid; however, they are shapeshifters, and take the form of a member of the dominant species on whatever world they inhabit. She and twenty of her siblings were dropped here two decades ago. She could use it to her advantage, but that is not the way Shreeves live; they just want heat, humidity, and the proximity of electric devices—since Shreeve bodies absorb electricity. Her form, therefore, isn’t a mimicry of anyone in particular, but a unique creation; and yet she has designed it to be ordinary and forgettable. She has no interest in bonding with the humans.

And yet, Ace fascinates her; and so, behind Ace’s back, San experimentally mimics Ace’s form. Ace, however, isn’t as oblivious as expected; and she instantly grabs on to San and holds a knife on her. Worse, she knows that San is a Shreeve! She forces San to revert to her usual human form, and walks her outside. In the nearby Underground, she buys tickets, and escorts San to the platform. Ace explains that they will be meeting a colleague at a secure location; the colleague wants a word with San, and “Resistance is futile.”

San doesn’t plan to resist; even aside from the affable Shreeve nature, she knows how strong Ace is. They get on the train.

Soon, San finds Ace taking her into the back room of a betting shop. Her companion is an alien as well, and not just any alien—he is a Time Lord, a race known to the Shreeves. He calls himself the Doctor. He seems to have based himself here to some degree, and has gathered quite a bit of alien technology in this office. He is reading a file prepared for one Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, but breaks away to greet the newcomer.

As it turns out, it isn’t San whom he wants; it’s one Steven Harper. That particular individual has made a career of breaking into—and looting—government offices, including some military establishments. It is relevant to San, however; for Steven Harper is her landlord, and the one dark spot in her life. She had saved his life from an accidental death last year, by absorbing the electricity from a cable through which he had cut; but in the process she had revealed her abilities to him. With a little creative blackmail, he then forced her to help him in his criminal endeavours—shutting down cameras and electric fences, mostly. She doesn’t have any particular objections, but she does realize it could be a problem; and besides, Harper is not a good man. Therefore, as her interests mostly align with the Doctor’s, she agrees to his plan.

Two nights later, San helps Harper with another break-in at an office. He drops her off at home, and excitedly heads to his next illicit meeting with some mysterious, big-league criminal contact. The contact is one Pete Lambert, and Harper meets him at Lambert’s BMW near the bay. Lambert is oddly unmoving even as Harper approaches—perhaps even hypnotized. As Harper waits uncertainly, Ace creeps up and gets him in an armlock, and the Doctor gets out of the back of the BMW. One neat bit of hypnotic suggestion later, and Harper is reconsidering his criminal career in favor of charitable work instead.

Later, between cases, the Doctor and Ace pay a visit to the Brigadier, who was the one that put them onto the case of the Shreeves. They assure him that there is nothing to worry about, and the aliens are no threat; meanwhile the attendant criminal case has been dealt with. After they exit, the Brigadier heads to his car, reflecting on the day’s events.

At home, San telepathically laughs with her siblings about the fun she’s had. The story will be retold for years to come.

Short Trips Volume I 1

It’s generally accepted that the Seventh Doctor is the manipulative one (well, more so than the others, anyway; I’d argue that they all do it to one degree or another). An interesting pattern I see with him is that he is manipulative on the small scale as well as the large; and this seems to happen fairly often in his Short Trips. To that end, I found this story to be reminiscent of 2016’s Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trip story, Forever Fallen. Both stories center on efforts by the Doctor and Ace to change the course of a criminally-minded individual, without any large-scale, galaxy-changing effects. Both stories have them mysteriously dropping into the lives of bystanders and then disappearing without much explanation at the end—again, something all Doctors and companions do, but in a way that is characteristic of this pairing.

This story is mostly from the point of view of San, a shapeshifting alien called a Shreeve. There’s nothing particularly nefarious about San, or about Shreeves in general. They are aware of the Time Lords, and seem to be a standard, civilized race. They do have a habit of inserting family groups into other societies, but not for any suspicious purpose; they simply seem to want to spread out through the galaxy, and no one seems to consider this a problem. If anything, they’re the introverts of the universe; they mostly want to keep to themselves, and live simple lives. San, herself, only goes out and interacts with humans as much as is necessary to maintain her lifestyle; she’d rather stay home and telepathically engage with her own people. Still, she finds herself caught on the periphery of the criminal enterprises of our would-be antagonist, Steven Harper, as he is also her landlord. Thus the Doctor, with Ace’s help, brings her in and recruits her to set up Harper for a little intervention.

Nobody dies in this story. That is hardly anything new in these early Short Trips—thus far, the only deaths we’ve seen have been the equine race in Rise and Fall, and Leela (temporarily!) in *The Death-Dealer. What’s interesting about it is that the Seventh Doctor’s era is known to be bloody—people die around him all the time, often as a result of his machinations. It’s nice to take a break from the usual violence; this is a cozy, small-scale story, with a decidedly happy ending. I wouldn’t want all of the Seventh Doctor’s adventures to be that way, but it’s a nice occasional change.

Next time: We have one more entry in Short Trips, Volume I. We’ll visit with the Eighth Doctor in Running Out of Time, read by India Fisher, to wrap up the collection. We’ll also close out I, Davros with the fourth and final entry, Guilt. 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 selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Short Trips, Volume I

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Audio Drama Review: The Rapture

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to the Main Range #36, The Rapture. Written by Joseph Lidster, this story features the Seventh Doctor and Ace on a fateful return to Earth. Let’s get started!

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

The Rapture 1

Ibiza, 14 May 1997: A new club, the Rapture, has opened on the Spanish island of Ibiza. Its owners and DJs, Gabriel and Jude, call it a spiritual experience.  In the crowd are Liam and Caitriona, two young partygoers; Caitriona is already high on a mix of pills, though their guide, Brian, thinks the drugs are unnecessary—the Rapture is an experience on its own.  He may be right; the music and the laser show synchronize with the sunset over the smaller island of Es Vedra, making it practically entrancing.

Ace and the Doctor arrive in the evening. Ace continues to struggle with the deaths of the Nazi Kurtz and the art patron Madame Salvadori in their recent adventures, and she worries that her travels with the Doctor have inured her to all the deaths.  Trying to distance herself from that aspect of her personality, she has given up her nickname, and chooses to be called by her surname, McShane.  The Doctor takes her to Ibiza to rest and recover, and introduces her to a time-displaced friend, Gustavo Riviera, whom the Doctor once rescued from the Spanish Civil War.  He runs a bar in Ibiza now; and he suggests to McShane that she might find some rest at the Rapture.  She leaves the Doctor with Gustavo and goes to visit the new club.  Meanwhile, Gustavo describes the two DJs as “angels”, a term they use for themselves; the Doctor is not reassured, as those who call themselves angels are often the opposite.  The Doctor goes to see the club for himself.

At the Rapture, McShane meets Brian and hits it off with him, drinking and talking. Liam and Caitriona are on the dancefloor; Caitriona is having a good time, but Liam has his concerns.  He is interrupted, however, when he sees McShane across the room.  He recognizes her as Ace; and he shows Caitriona a picture of her for identification.  She urges him to speak with Ace alone and introduce himself.  The duo introduce themselves; Caitriona nearly gets into a fight with another clubgoer, but Liam stops her, and with McShane they head onto the dancefloor.  Above, in the DJ box, Gabriel watches the crowd with doubts of his own; his brother Jude reassures him, and refocuses him on their mission and the faith necessary for it.  They are spreading the word of the Lord; and soon He will descend and save the believers.

Liam tries to find out more about McShane’s life for the past decade; entranced by the music, she doesn’t notice. Over the speakers, Gabriel begins quoting scripture as the sun sets beyond the club’s windows; he talks about the biblical Rapture before cranking up the music. The crowd is enthralled, including Brian, who does not drink or use drugs.  As the music peaks, the clubgoers become silent and fully entranced.  Alarmed, Brian goes to the DJ room to try to stop the situation—but only Jude is there.  The self-proclaimed “angel” shoots him with a laser pistol for interfering.

Outside, the bouncer will not let the Doctor in—until the bouncer too falls under the spell of the music. Slipping inside the club, the Doctor finds he cannot rouse any of the audience—and Gabriel is starting up the music again.

The music climaxes—and suddenly returns to normal. The crowd awakens with no memory of anything unusual.  The Doctor tries to warn McShane, but she takes it as more manipulation, and loses her temper at him.  Reluctantly, he leaves her alone.  Brian is nowhere to be found, and Liam is sick in the restroom; Caitriona is still partying, and so Liam and McShane leave together.  Meanwhile, Gabriel finds Brian’s body on the floor of the DJ room, and is upset; Jude says that the man lacked faith, but that Gabriel is doing well.  When Gabriel leaves to play more music, Jude calls their unseen benefactor and assures him that all is going well.  When the club at last closes for the night, Jude awakens Brian—who was only stunned—and promises to make him immortal.  Brian begins screaming.

At Liam and Caitriona’s apartment, Liam explains about his relationship with Caitriona, who suffers from mood swings. However, he slips up and calls McShane “Ace”, a name she has not told him. She becomes furious and confronts him; her rage grows when she sees he has a picture of her.  She assumes he is manipulating her like so many others—but he stuns her to silence when he reveals the truth: his name is Liam McShane, and he is her younger brother.

With the Rapture closed for the night, Caitriona visits Gustavo’s bar for something to eat. In line, she meets Gabriel, and eventually leaves with him, just missing the returning Doctor.  The Doctor discusses the odd happenings at the Rapture with Gustavo; Gustavo brushes off his concerns, saying that the youth are looking for meaning in the music and the atmosphere—much like a religious experience.  Gustavo reveals his concern for the youth of the day, who have nothing to believe in or fight for; do they not need guidance from their elders?  The DJs may not be the angels they claim to be, but they offer guidance.  Then again, Ibiza has been visited by angels before…a 19th-century monk named Francisco Paolo claimed to have been visited by angels on Es Vedra.  Meanwhile, Caitriona is talking to one of the erstwhile angels.  She admits that she is very depressed, and hates herself, though for no apparent reason; she claims that Gabriel’s music is the only thing keeping her going.  He insists he is really an angel, and offers her “angel dust” to help her fly to Heaven with him.  She accepts the dust.

Liam explains that he was born when Ace was four years old. Shortly afterward, their mother Audrey was caught by their father Harry having an affair with Harry’s best friend.  Rather than stay to retaliate, Harry simply snatched up the infant Liam and left, never to return; he only left Dorothy—Ace—behind out of necessity, as she was at playschool at the time.  Liam never knew about her until four years ago, when Harry had a heart attack and revealed the truth.  He left to find his mother and sister, but when he found Audrey, she revealed that Ace had been missing for several years.  When he returned home, Harry was dead; Liam missed his father’s death by an hour.  He produces a letter from their father as proof, and Ace breaks down, realizing her life could have been very different.  She tells him about her life—but then shuns him, insisting there is no room in her life for a brother.  Angry and hurt, he storms out, leaving her to sleep on the couch; she wrestles with her own hurt and guilt.  Meanwhile, Caitriona is very high; she sees a rainbow of colors, and hears hints of Liam and Ace’s argument.  Gabriel leads her through these alleged revelations, but she is confronted with her own dark side and worst fears.  She sees the Doctor as well; in her visions he is cast as the evil, soul-devouring Sandman.  She feels herself falling, and the vision tells her to kill Ace to save herself; under the force of her will, she sees the apartment collapsing, crushing Ace to death.

15 May 1997: In the morning, Caitriona awakens with a headache and no memory of the end of her evening. She thinks nothing odd of this as Liam returns.  Ace is gone, and so Liam takes Caitriona to Gustavo’s for breakfast; Gustavo tells her she left with Gabriel.  Liam suggests returning to the Rapture to piece together what happened to Caitriona.

Ace meets the Doctor on the beach, and makes up with (temporarily at least); they see Gabriel putting an odd parcel onto a boat. They slip aboard the boat, which heads for Es Vedra.  En route, he reveals that he met Liam during the night.  He suspects that Ace uses the TARDIS to hide from real life; this is why Kurtz, who died in the TARDIS, hit her so hard—it was within her safety zone.  She is not convinved; but someday she must stop running.  On Es Vedra, they follow Gabriel into a cave, as the Doctor fills her in on the biblical doctrine of the Rapture, which the alleged angels are abusing.  They witness Gabriel speaking to what he claims to be God, via a large glowing orb; he voices doubts, and explains that he is haunted by memories of a war that never happened.  He has come to present a sacrifice: the still body of Brian.  Ace slips and gives away their presence; Gabriel confronts them.  Ace covers by claiming they are here seeking salvation.  He is pleased, and offers to take them back to the Rapture, his “church”; however, they will have to take the boat, as he is out of angel dust, which would let them fly.  He explains that tonight is the night of the ultimate communion, in which everyone in the Rapture will be, well, enraptured; the Doctor suspects this is cover for a planned mass kidnapping.

Liam and Cat split up inside the vacant Rapture. Liam goes to the office, and meets Jude, who claims he is here to save the world’s youth.  Liam counters with his own faith in God, which tells him this angel is an imposter.  Jude admits as much—but before he can act further, Gabriel arrives with the Doctor and Ace.  Jude sends Gabriel to prepare for tonight’s activity, leaving the Doctor and Ace behind to be “baptized”. The Doctor confronts Jude, and reveals that the “angel dust” is the drug by that name, also called PCP or Phencyclidine—this explains Caitriona’s visions last night.  However, he is confounded by the fact that Gabriel really believes himself to be an angel.  He threatens to reveal the truth to Gabriel, forcing Jude to confess.  They are aliens, exiles from the Euphorian empire; their peaceful society was attacked and overrun by the Scordatura.  Though they fought, they were beaten, leading to the conscription of non-soldiers to fight, including composers such as Gabriel.  Gabriel could not cope, and went mad, killing his commander; Jude rescued him from court-martial.  They knew of a dimensional portal which led from their world to Es Vedra; they had used it as children, leading to the “angelic” encounter recorded by Francisco Paolo.  They escaped to 1997 Ibiza to recover; and there, Jude decided to take new recruits from the local population to become soldiers for the Euphorians.  He combined the drugs and the music to give Gabriel a new personality; but now it is failing.  Adapting texts from the Bible that Paolo had long ago given him, he created the Rapture and its dogma to bring in the youths who would become their soldiers when they inevitably return home.

Although the Doctor is disgusted by Jude’s choices and methods, he is sympathetic to the cause, and offers to help Gabriel in some other way—but he won’t allow the kidnapping and conscription. These guideless children of Earth will soon enough have their own wars to fight.  Jude is intrigued by the offer; but as the Doctor and Ace leave, Liam threatens to kill Jude if anyone he loves is hurt by this situation.

Downstairs, Gabriel finds his recent disciple Caitriona. He leads her to the dancefloor, then retreats to the booth to play music for her; the music has the sound of Brian’s screams cut into it.  It overwhelms her, and she begs Gabriel to save her from madness.  She falls into a trance as the Doctor, Ace, and Liam arrive.  Gabriel offers to introduce the Doctor to their benefactor, who made this possible; the Doctor is horrified to see Gustavo enter the club.

Gustavo explains that he funded the Rapture in the belief that Jude and Gabriel would bring purpose to the youth of Ibiza. He expected them to persuade the young people, not enslave them.  Gabriel summons Caitriona to the DJ booth; seeing that she is entranced, Gustavo realizes the truth.  The Doctor tries to calm Gustavo while Jude tries to explain to Gabriel about the change in plans; but they are interrupted by Ace, who has realized that the screaming in the music is a recording of Brian’s death.  Gustavo declares Gabriel to be evil, and attacks him; both of them fall burst through the glass of the booth and fall to the dance floor—and their deaths.  Gustavo holds on just long enough to give the Doctor a CD prepared by Gabriel.  Jude is grief-stricken; the others retreat to the office to give him a moment to mourn.  This proves to be a mistake; for Jude decides that humanity must pay for his brother’s death—and they will suffer through Gabriel’s music.  He locks the Doctor’s group into the office.

The Doctor realizes he has misunderstood Jude. The key is Ace; just as she has hidden from her reality in the TARDIS many times, Jude used his extensive care for Gabriel’s madness to keep his own madness at bay.  Now, it can be unleashed.  There is one chance: the CD left by Gabriel and given to the Doctor by Gustavo.  As evening arrives, the club’s doors open, admitting thousands; and with this event’s publicity, millions more will listen in by radio.  Liam locates a ventilation shaft, and helps the Doctor to escape through it; the Doctor promises to save Caitriona, and heads for the DJ booth.  Meanwhile, Ace and Liam try to shout warnings to the clubgoers, but they can’t make themselves heard.  Jude begins to play Gabriel’s last composition—but he has remixed it, and now it will make the hearers die in pain.

The Doctor arrives in the DJ booth and tries to reason with Jude. Jude will have none of it, and sends Caitriona to retrieve Ace and Liam, whom he calls “Satan’s disciples”.  Caitriona places them in the lift while Jude makes his point: the Doctor wants him to forgive his brother’s killers, but would he do the same if Jude forces Caitriona to murder Liam and Ace?  He starts the final segment of music, and orders Caitriona to use his laser pistol and kill them; but she cannot bring herself to do it, and turns the weapon on herself.  In a rage, Liam attacks Jude, who overpowers him; Jude grabs Ace and dangles her over the dance floor.  If he lets go, she will die like Gabriel.  The Doctor begs him to wait; he produces the CD, and promises that it will restore Jude’s faith.  Jude allows it, and the Doctor stops the music, waking the clubgoers from their trance.  He plays the CD, and reveals that it contains a confession, made by Gabriel to Brian after Brian’s murder.  Gabriel admits that he killed Brian to save him, because Jude had taught him that the dead would rise during the Rapture.  The thing he wanted most was for Jude to be proud of him.  He reveals that despite his delusions, he was aware that Jude was saving him from a madness even worse, and he felt that Jude might resent him for it.  In Caitriona he had found a kindred spirit, and so he was drawn to her; if he could save her, he could make Jude stop regretting his relationship with his brother.  Jude is abashed; he in fact never regretted having a brother.  Confronted with what he is doing, he realizes that if he kills Ace, he is inflicting the same fate on Liam that has been visited on him—a life without a sibling.  He lets her down safely, giving them a chance.  Jude declares that he will return to his homeworld and face justice; Ace argues against it, saying it will allow him to get away with his crimes here—but he slips away while she argues.  Caitriona then awakens; the Doctor reveals that he had seen her subconsciously set the gun on “stun” before she used it.  Even in her trance, on some level she had still been herself.  The Doctor starts to address the crowd—but Ace cuts him off by simply turning on some more Earthly dance music and restarting the party.

Over a few days, Liam and Ace grow acquainted, but he chooses not to join her in her exotic life. He stays behind with Caitriona.  Ace, meanwhile, will keep on—but now she has something to look forward to at home.  The TARDIS departs, having seen the last of Jude…or maybe not.  Later, an office worker in London receives an email with a music file attached—and when she plays it, the minds of all the office workers are blown.

The Rapture 2

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this audio drama. I had heard mixed opinions about it; and more to the point, I have exactly zero experience with the club scene in any decade or country (and probably outed myself as an old man by using the phrase “club scene”). I don’t feel that I’m in a position to evaluate how convincing it is, because any depiction of such a setting feels over the top to me. I’ll have no choice but to limit my observations to what I do know: the characters, and the presentation.

This is, without a doubt, Ace’s story—as most of her appearances are. The Doctor takes a backseat to her, coming out chiefly to provide her with a reason to fly into a rage. This seems to be a trend with Ace in the middle era of her life (and I don’t mean middle age; perhaps I should say the middle era of her stories). If the suggested order found on Ace’s page of the TARDIS wiki is to be trusted, this story occurs after she has already left the Doctor and returned multiple times (all of her early audios fall in this time period, actually). At this point, she’s been fighting with herself over her family history and her relationship to the Doctor for quite a long time; both problems seem to rear their heads periodically throughout her life. Both problems show up here; her recent adventures, notably Colditz and Dust Breeding, have left her traumatized and wondering if she is overly jaded to the deaths that follow them around. As well, she still fears the Doctor’s manipulation of her; and her family drama reappears from an unexpected direction: a brother, Liam McShane, whom she never knew she had. As he explains, their father caught their mother in an affair, and took the infant Liam with him when he left, never to return. Ace—or Dorothy, at the time—was left behind because she was at playschool when it happened. I suppose it’s possible Liam may appear again, but I haven’t found any indication of it as yet. (In the course of researching the placement of this story, I was surprised to note that, if the suggested order is correct, Ace has met the Doctor out of order on multiple occasions. For example, her encounter with him on Gallifrey in Lungbarrow, which is immediately prior to his death in the television movie, predates this story from her perspective.)

The Doctor does very little here, as I mentioned. Although he is instrumental in saving the lives of the major characters at the end, as well as the crowd in the Rapture nightclub, he does so only because the tools were prepared by one antagonist and given to him by another. While he puts in a good performance, he doesn’t contribute much here.

The story is cleverly put together, if a bit gimmicky. It uses rapid scene breaks and cutaways to create drama, in that the end of a conversation in one scene flows directly into the next, otherwise-unrelated scene, as if disparate characters were finishing each other’s sentences. It’s amusing at first, then tedious later on; and indeed, the writers seemed to realize it as well, as they cut back on it in later tracks.

Although this is Ace’s story, I didn’t care for her portrayal here. She comes across as if throwing a temper tantrum through most of the story; while Ace has always been a dramatic character, it’s difficult to picture her being this whiny and arrogant. I’d love to blame it on the drugs, but she isn’t using any; as the story is set in a nightclub, many of the supporting characters are using them, but not Ace.

Continuity references: Ace left Perivale ten years ago, Earth time (Dragonfire; this story is set in May, 1997). It’s not clear how long she’s been gone with regard to her own lifetime. (Incidentally, we get a very precise date in this story—14-15 May 1997—and by coincidence I happened to be listening to it on 14-15 May 2017, exactly twenty years after the setting.) She mentions the death of Feldwebel Kurtz (Colditz) and Madame Salvadori, as well as the Krill (Dust Breeding). She mentions Fenric (The Curse of Fenric). Supporting character Caitriona’s visions show her a man in a gold mask, i.e. the Master as portrayed in Dust Breeding. Britain’s manned Mars missions are mentioned (The Ambassadors of Death). A television series called Professor X is mentioned (No Future, Return of the Living Dad). Mike Smith (Remembrance of the Daleks), Captain Sorin (The Curse of Fenric), and Karra (Survival) are all mentioned. Killer seaweed is mentioned (Fury from the Deep). The Doctor’s proficiency at playing the spoons is mentioned (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Time and the Rani).

Overall: Not a bad story, but an awkward outing for Ace. Worth mentioning: this is the final audio with the Seventh Doctor and Ace alone until 2013; their next appearance will introduce a new companion. Looking forward to it!

The Rapture 3

Next time: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe return in The Sandman. 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 selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

The Rapture

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