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: 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!

Master 1

 

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.

Master 2

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: Flip Flop

We’re back, with another Big finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to the forty-sixth entry in the Main Range, Flip Flop. This story continues Big Finish’s brief experimental period in the Main Range; this story consists of two discs, one white and one black, each consisting of two episodes. You can listen to either disc first; the story plays with timelines and events in such a way that the order doesn’t matter. I was listening on Spotify, which puts the white disc first, and so that is the order in which I listened, though that should have little effect on this review. The story features the Seventh Doctor and Mel, landing on the planet Puxatornee; it was written by Jonathan Morris, and directed by Gary Russell, and released in July 2003. Let’s get started!

Flip Flop 1

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

White Disc, Part One:

The Doctor and Mel arrive on Puxatornee on Christmas Eve, 3090, in search of Leptonite crystals, for use in dealing with the Quarks in another system. They are immediately arrested by security agents Reed and Stewart, who accuse them of being spies for the Slithergee—and they insist that the two have already confessed! However, they are soon rescued from their cell by…Reed and Stewart?! Not the same Reed and Stewart, as it turns out—but before they can explain, they are killed. Still, something weird is going on; everyone seems to know who the Doctor and Mel are. The rather paranoid President, Mitchell, sends his security forces through the city to find them. The Doctor and Mel discover a Professor Capra, who has invented a time machine; but it can only work once, and only in one direction—to the past. He reveals that, thirty years earlier, the planet was approached by the Slithergee, who asked for asylum on one of the planet’s moons. However, the then-President, Bailey, was assassinated by her secretary, Clarence, which led to a war with the Slithergee. While the humans won the war, their planet was ruined and poisoned, and soon everyone will die. Capra—with Mitchell’s blessing—plans to send agents Stewart and Reed back in time to prevent the assassination. The Doctor determines not to let that happen; the humans must not change their own history. In the struggle, Stewart and Mel are sent back in time; the Doctor and Reed follow in the TARDIS. Behind them, Capra’s machine overloads, destroying the entire planet. The Doctor and Reed find Mel and Stewart, but fail at stopping Stewart from killing Clarence before the assassination.  Reed and Stewart then tell Bailey that she must make peace with the Slithergee, in order to prevent a terrible war.

White Disc, Part Two:

Reed and Stewart’s mission is finished, and so they demand that the Doctor take them forward. He takes them to Christmas Day, 3090. Things have changed; the war never happened, but all is not well. Bailey is now called “The Great Appeaser”, having given in to the Slithergee’s demands. This eventually brought the Slithergee to occupy both moon and planet. Subsequently, through various maneuvers, the Slithergee have enslaved the humans. This is not the outcome Stewart and Reed wanted, and so they order the Doctor to take them back to the previous note so they can stop themselves from leaving to the past. The Doctor does so, but they are dismayed to learn that they cannot return to their original timeline; it no longer exists. Their story ends when they are killed by Potter, who was an agent under them in their original timeline, but here is a Slithergee collaborator. However, the Doctor and Mel then run into the other Reed and Stewart, who are freedom fighters against the Slithergee. This is an earlier moment in their timeline, and they do not recognize the Doctor or Mel; but they quickly discover that the duo has a time machine. Meanwhile the Doctor realizes that, just as there are doubles of Stewart and Reed (and Potter, as well), there will be alternate versions of themselves, who will probably arrive soon. The problem: they will most likely land their TARDIS in the same spot as the current version—and that would be disastrous! With their Leptonite crystals in hand, they hurry back to their TARDIS and leave; the Doctor refuses to stay and help, trusting that his alternate self will figure things out.

Black Disc, Part One:

The (other) Doctor and Mel land on Puxatornee on Christmas Eve, 3090, attempting to obtain Leptonite crystals to deal with a Quark incursion in another system. They find a world that is both occupied and enslaved; the Slithergees, in their weird hivelike buildings, have made slaves of the humans. They are promptly arrested by Slithergee collaborator Potter, who takes them to Professor Capra for interrogation. This Capra has not built a time machine, but rather, a Leptonite-powered torture device. The Doctor and Mel are freed by two freedom fighters, Reed and Stewart, who somehow know who they are. More strangely, they know that the Doctor has a time machine, and they want to use it to go back and kill President Bailey before she can begin the peace process that led to the Slithergee occupation. Meanwhile, Bailey suspects that her deputy, Mitchell, is secretly a Slithergee agent; she thinks he staged the failed assassination attempt that led to the peace process, so as to keep her from going to war. She confronts him, and ends up dead for her trouble; Mitchell calls it suicide. The Slithergee Community Leader designates Mitchell the new president, but then kills him, taking direct control of the planet. Meanwhile, Stewart threatens to shoot Mel if the Doctor won’t transport them; and he reluctantly agrees. He takes them back thirty years, where they kill Bailey’s secretary, Clarence. They then kill Bailey to prevent the peace process, and stage the scene so as to frame Clarence for the murder.

Black Disc, Part Two:

The Doctor then takes them forward to Christmas Day, 3090, where they find things changed. Mitchell, having assumed power after Bailey’s death, believed Clarence was a Slithergee agent, and so he went to war against the Slithergee. While the humans won the war, it left their world a wasteland, and soon the remaining humans will die. Potter—here a security agent under agents Stewart and Reed—arrests the Doctor and Mel as enemy agents; but the rebel Stewart and Reed pretend to be his superiors, and take the time travelers into their custody. This is not the future they sought, and so they demand that the Doctor take them back to last night, so that they can stop themselves from going back to complete the assassination. He does so, but they find that this is still the new timeline; and they leave, disappearing into the city. However, the Doctor and Mel run into agents Stewart, Reed, and Potter; from the agents’ point of view, this is their first meeting. The Doctor remembers that tomorrow, Potter will arrest them as spies, and so he confesses to being such, in order to preserve the timeline. Once in a cell, Mel realizes that they, too, must have counterparts; the Doctor realizes that their counterparts will soon land, in the same spot as their own TARDIS—a catastrophe in the making. He gets them out of the cell, and they rush to the TARDIS to depart, trusting that their other selves will set things right.

Flip Flop 2

I have to say up front, I appreciate what they’re trying to do here. Flip Flop is actually a very clever application of alternate timelines. We have the Doctor and Mel from one timeline contributing to the actions that create the other timeline—and this happens in both directions! That’s very clever; but in practice, it’s a mess, and hard to follow. There’s no shame in needing a few runs through this story in order to follow along!

I love stories about alternate timelines, not just in Doctor Who, but in other franchises as well. While trying to piece this one together, I realized that it conforms with a theory of my own. If you follow the idea that any choice can result in a new timeline splitting off, you have the basis for multiverse theory. However, when we’re talking about time travel, we have to ask: what happens if you go back to a point before the split? I theorize that it only makes sense if each new timeline also happens retroactively, splitting off both forward and backward in time. There’s no such thing as a unified timeline before the split (sorry, Legend of Zelda fans—of which I am one, so I’m apologizing to myself, too). This story must follow that notion, because there are two versions of the Doctor and Mel. While their timelines were identical up to the events on Puxatornee, they differentiate at that point—but the split must be retroactive, or else we’d only have one TARDIS team here. Interestingly, the story ends with each team in the opposite universe from the one in which they started!

Confused yet? Yeah, me too.

With all that said, I reiterate my initial point: I appreciate what they’re trying to accomplish, but in execution, it doesn’t work out so well. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m looking forward to getting past this experimental phase in the Main Range. Everyone has an adolescence; I suppose this is Big Finish’s. On the plus side, the voice acting is pretty good; I never had trouble discerning which version of each character was being portrayed. In a story like this, that’s priceless.

We do get some continuity references here. The Quarks (The Dominators) get a few mentions; they represent the inciting incident for the story, as the Doctor and Mel (in both timelines) come to Puxatornee to obtain Leptonite crystals, which cause Quarks to explode. (According to the Doctor Who Reference Guide for this story, the Quarks mentioned here—being mentioned sans Dominators—are more likely a reference to the 1960s comic strip stories Invasion of the Quarks and The Killer Wasps (and others; I don’t have a complete list) than to The Dominators. In those strips, the Quarks were billed as a conquering race on their own. However, I’m not familiar with those stories myself, so I can’t comment.) The Doctor mentions the musical group “Pakafroon Wabster” here; I don’t usually mention future references, but as I am not likely to reach the referenced story anytime soon, I’ll say that they will be mentioned a few times in the future before actually appearing in the comic story Interstellar Overdrive. The Doctor mentions “anti-radiation gloves” invented by a previous incarnation; this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to The Daleks, where William Hartnell mistakenly said “anti-radiation gloves” instead of “anti-radiation drugs. The cloister bell is heard when the two TARDISes are at risk of colliding (Logopolis, et al.) The Doctor quips several times that “I’ll explain later”; while I haven’t identified the first appearance, this line has appeared as a running joke on many occasions. I should also mention that the planet’s name, “Puxatornee”, is a slightly-altered reference to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which is the setting for the film Groundhog Day (and coincidentally, a few hours from my hometown, though I haven’t been there). That film, like this story, focuses on repetitive sequences of time, though the resolution is much different.

Overall: The story is ambitious, and it does, I suppose, accomplish its goal. For the listener, getting there is a mess. I applaud the attempt, but I don’t think I’ll come back to this one.

Next time: We begin the villainous countdown to the fiftieth Main Range entry, with Omega! 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.

Flip Flop

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Audio Drama Review: Project: Lazarus

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re continuing the Main Range of audios with the forty-fifth entry, Project: Lazarus. This story was written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, and features the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables), as well as the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). It resumes the story of Nimrod, Cassandra “Cassie” Schofield, and the Forge, as begun in Project: Twilight. It was released in June 2003. Let’s get started!

Project Lazarus 1

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

Part One:

The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn are searching for missing vampire Cassie Schofield, last seen in the wake of the Forge’s Project: Twilight. A bit belatedly, the Doctor has found a cure for her condition, the Twilight virus. They locate her in Norway in July 2004, just as she is also found by a hunter called Professor Harket; but as it turns out, Harket isn’t seeking Cassie at all. Instead, he is seeking a rather unusual alien, which he dubs the Huldra, after a local legend. He knows he is on the trail when he finds a body covered in a venomous blue slime, produced by the Huldra. He goes to try to make a call to his university. Meanwhile, the Forge is not dead; and its central computer, Oracle, receives notice that an agent named “Artemis” has at last made contact with “Lazarus”. The head of security, Sergeant Frith, and the head researcher, Dr. Crumpton, exult over this message, and send extraction teams to bring them in. Back in Norway, the Doctor and Evelyn are shocked to learn that Cassie is quite bitter toward them, as it has been some time since they left her behind. Moreover, she is now working for Nimrod and the Forge! She considers them her family now, which doesn’t sit well with Evelyn. They are interrupted by Harket’s return; he has located a Huldra. Cassie overpowers the creature and stuns it, just as the extraction team arrives. When Harket protests, Cassie takes some of the creature’s slime and forces it into his mouth, killing him almost instantly. Nimrod arrives and refers to Cassie as Artemis, and takes the Doctor, Evelyn, and the Huldra captive.

Part Two:

Nimrod’s team takes the TARDIS as well as the captive, and flies them by helicopter to Dartmoor. The Forge’s headquarters awaits, situated below ground under an abandoned asylum. Nimrod, now the Deputy Director of the Forge, sets Crumpton to studying the alien, while Nimrod gives the Doctor and Evelyn a tour. Frith, meanwhile, is repulsed by working with the alien, but he has no choice; no one leaves the Forge voluntarily. Crumpton uses Oracle to research the figure called Lazarus. Meanwhile Nimrod assures the Doctor that he only intends to analyze the alien venom for development as a stun weapon, and that he ultimately intends to help the creature get home; he has the wreckage of its ship here in the labs. He also claims that Cassie’s service is voluntary. Evelyn sits with Cassie and talks about what has happened to her; Cassie blames the Doctor for abandoning her, though Evelyn insists it was unintentional. Oddly, she does not remember her son, Tommy, at all, and denies that the child exists; the Forge is her only family, she insists. She changes the subject; she can hear Evelyn’s heartbeat, and knows there is something wrong with her. Evelyn admits to a heart attack before meeting the Doctor, and begs Cassie not to tell him, as she knows he will take her home if he finds out. Meanwhile Nimrod shows the Doctor the main archive, full of dead aliens and stolen technology; the Doctor is appalled, but Nimrod assures him that a function called the Hades Protocol will destroy it all if it ever becomes dangerous. Frith arrives, and the two cease being polite, and force the Doctor into confinement in a lab; they plan to study the Time Lord regenerative ability—even if it means killing the Doctor. Project Lazarus—named for another man who evaded death—has begun. As they torture the Doctor, Evelyn pushes Cassie to remember Tommy; and suddenly the block on Cassie’s memory breaks, and she remembers. Shrugging off the pain, she takes Evelyn to the lab and rescues the Doctor from his torture, and leads them to the storage room where the TARDIS has been placed. Nimrod closes the emergency bulkheads along the way, forcing Cassie to rip open the control panels; this slows them down, and lets Nimrod get there first. Cassie delays him while the Doctor and Evelyn get into the TARDIS; but before she can join them, Nimrod puts a crossbow bolt through her heart. She dies in a burst of flame. The TARDIS escapes; but Evelyn is grief-stricken, and the Doctor knows this pain will last for a long time.

Part Three:

Many years later, the Seventh Doctor is traveling alone when his TARDIS is hit with temporal energy. He traces it to a place he never expected to see again: The Forge’s Dartmoor headquarters. The Forge is under attack by the Huldra; Crumpton manages to deter the attack, but in the course of it, the TARDIS’s arrival is detected. This Doctor hasn’t been here before, but his image matches file footage from elsewhere. It seems Lazarus has returned. Nimrod brings the Doctor inside, where he makes a bad first impression on Frith. The Doctor is still angry at Nimrod, but agrees to help him solve the time disruptions that led to the burst of energy. He is shocked to see his own sixth incarnation working as scientific advisor to the Forge! Nimrod insists the Sixth Doctor is voluntarily serving, but the Seventh Doctor cannot remember it, and doesn’t believe it. [Note: For convenience, I will refer to the Doctors simply as “Six” and “Seven” for the remainder of this summary.] He accompanies Six to Crumpton’s lab, and examines the data from the attack—the latest in a series of attacks, all centered on the captured Huldran ship, which has been cannibalized by the Forge. The captive Huldran has long since been killed. The Doctors speak privately; Six explains that the Earth is under attack by Huldrans, apparently for revenge. Six claims to have offered his services to combat the Huldrans; in order to prevent Nimrod and Crumpton from analyzing his TARDIS, he removed a component, leaving only the outer shell accessible. However, he wants to escape now in Seven’s TARDIS—which is puzzling, as the Huldran problem is still unresolved. He offers to help—but with diplomacy rather than violence. Nimrod and Crumpton explain that the Huldran ships actually travel by means of a self-contained portal; the temporal discharge was the result of the Huldrans attempting to breach the portal from the captured wreckage. Nimrod refuses to shut it down while it could be useful, but says that with a sample of the TARDIS’s exo-shell, they could make the portal impervious to attack. Seven reluctantly agrees to help, though Six—in a passable imitation of Nimrod’s voice—mocks him at first. Nimrod confers with Six about disposing of Seven once they have the TARDIS. Seven interrupts them and asks why, if they have Six’s TARDIS shell, they don’t just take a sample from it? When Six cannot answer, Seven realizes he is an imposter; and he darts away to talk with Crumpton. He demands to know what is really going on, and urges Crumpton to be a scientist and question authority. When the Huldrans attack again, he urges her to shut off the defences and let them in; and to Frith’s shock, she does so. A troop of Huldrans, bearing swords, pours into the facility. Nimrod sends Six to greet them, and they cut him down.

Part Four:

Seven intervenes, and somehow calms the Huldrans. Crumpton closes the portal, and Frith takes the Huldrans captive, placing them in holding cells. Nimrod sends Six to the sickbay; but among his injuries, his arm has been severed. This confirms for Seven that this is not the real Sixth Doctor. He tries to reason with Frith, who doesn’t really want to be here at all; when Frith tries to lock him up, he knocks Frith out and goes to speak with Six. Meanwhile Nimrod reactivates Project: Lazarus and tells Crumpton to dissect the Huldrans; Crumpton is not willing, but has no choice to obey. She is interrupted by Oracle, which has detected an energy spike, but not from the portal. Seven awakens Six, and asks why the trauma did not spark a regeneration. He forces mental contact with Six, and learns that Six is a clone, created from a blood sample taken during the real Sixth Doctor’s torture last time. Six claims to be the last survivor of three clones, which demonstrated enough of the real Doctor’s traits that Nimrod took him on for scientific assistance. However, the clones were never truly stable; and with this trauma, his genetic deterioration is accelerating. However, the contact between them brought out more memories; and Six takes Seven to investigate. Meanwhile Crumpton reads the data, and determines that there is a telepath in the Forge—it can only be Seven, and Nimrod expects he will have communed with Six. The Huldrans are also reacting to the telepathy; they are a telepathic gestalt, sharing one mind. The death of their missing member, then, would have driven them into a frenzy. Crumpton refuses to kill them at Nimrod’s orders, and so he kills her. Meanwhile, Six leads Seven to a room—the same one where Cassie died, actually—where they find dozens of mutated Sixth Doctor clones, all begging to be killed. Seven finds notes indicating that Six is not three years old as he believed, but only several days—there have been many like him, as the process burns through clones at an incredible rate. The process is cumulative, and the degeneration is indeed increasing. Six is driven into a frenzy; and he imitates Nimrod’s voice and activates the Hades protocol, which will destroy the facility and everything in it.  He gives Seven six minutes to rescue the Huldrans and escape. Seven flees, and finds Frith organizing an evacuation. He talks Frith into helping him with the Huldrans; if they die, the rest of their kind might consider it an act of war. Nimrod, furious, confronts them and orders Frith to kill the Doctor and save the items in the archive instead; he then departs. Frith knows he has been left to die, and joins the Doctor. Nimrod goes down to find Six, who is nearly mad with pain now thanks to the telepathic cries of  the other clones; Nimrod tells him that he is worthless, only one of an unknown number of failed experiments. However, Six will have his revenge; he is destroying the facility. Nimrod shoots him, then leaves. Seven and Frith find Crumpton dead in the lab; Seven sends Frith to open the portal while he sends the Huldrans through. They then race for the exit, but find Six dying; Six refuses to let Seven save him. As the minutes tick away, they race for the lift; and at the last second, Firth pushes him into it. The Doctor escapes, but Frith does not. Sadly, he departs for the TARDIS, content at least that the forge has been destroyed. But elsewhere, Oracle awakens in a new system, and the Forge’s beta facility is activated.

Project Lazarus 2

A multi-Doctor story! …Or not. I won’t spoil it, but let’s say that all is not what it seems, in this story that features both the Sixth and Seventh Doctors. I will suggest that those who have listened to Jubilee will figure out the twist to this story in short order; the stories aren’t similar overall, but there is one plot element that serves as a giveaway here, after having previously been used in that story. Regardless, it’s always interesting to see the Sixth and Seventh Doctors onscreen (or, well, the audio equivalent) together; I find that the two aren’t so different, and work well together. If we theorize that each regeneration is a reaction to the previous incarnation, then this makes sense; the Sixth Doctor is quite pleased with himself most of the time, and wouldn’t want to change much about himself (much as, later, the Tenth Doctor and the Eleventh Doctor would be very similar). I do think it’s worth noting, as well, that the Seventh Doctor doesn’t seem to have any of the memory issues that ordinarily accompany an encounter with his past self…

I’ve been given to understand that Big Finish was going through an experimental phase around the time of this story’s release; in just the last few stories, we’ve seen a story inspired by the New Adventures novels (The Dark Flame), a musical (Doctor Who and the Pirates), and a non-linear story (Creatures of Beauty). The trend continues here; this story is broken in half, with the first half featuring the Sixth Doctor, and the second half featuring primarily the Seventh. I understand it will continue, as well, in the next entry, Flip-Flop, in which the two halves of the story can be played in any order. As far as placement goes, the first half picks up the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn’s adventures where we recently left off, and sometime after Real Time, which I have not yet experienced (as indicated by a reference to the Doctor’s new suit). The Seventh Doctor’s story occurs late in his life, possibly near his death in the television movie, as he is traveling alone and considers “going home” to Gallifrey at the end of this story. Of particular note: Project Destiny, which wraps up the Forge trilogy (and which I haven’t reached yet), occurs earlier in the Seventh Doctor’s life, though its events aren’t mentioned here.

Project Lazarus 3

I enjoyed this story immensely; it was a nice change after Pirates, which didn’t interest me, and after Creatures of Beauty, which was hamstrung by its own novelty. Nimrod and the Forge make for dynamic enemies and great action; and this story wastes no time jumping in, as halfway through, we get the death of a major character from the previous entry. The only downside—and perhaps this isn’t a criticism, just a sad observation—is that there is a definite downward spiral to the Doctor’s relationship with Evelyn, as she experiences one tragedy after another. If her story leaves me crying in the end, I may have to stage a riot.

We’re heavy on the continuity references here, even leaving out the obvious connections to Project: Twilight. Cassie Schofield is indicated to be the mother of Tommy Schofield, better known—and much later—as Hex, the Seventh Doctor’s companion (The Harvest). Reference is made to the Seventh Doctor’s appearances in Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield. While I don’t usually refer to connections to future stories, I’ll make an exception for Project Destiny; as I previously noted, that story occurs earlier in the Seventh Doctor’s timeline, and features Ace and Hex visiting the Forge’s beta facility. The Sixth Doctor makes reference to the Record of Rassilon (State of Decay) and the Time Lords’ war against all vampires. The Doctor makes telepathic contact with himself, signified by the “Contact!” catchphrase, previously seen in The Three Doctors and others. The Forge’s archive room contains Zanium (The Twin Dilemma) and Axonite (The Claws of Axos).

It’s worth mentioning that this is the first story to receive multiple covers. (I have only linked one of three, above; the rest can be found on this story’s wiki page.) One cover featured the Sixth Doctor; one featured the Seventh; and one featured both equally. It’s also one of only eight audio dramas so far to feature both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. The voice acting from both is on point as usual—in fact, all the acting in this story is exceptional.

Overall: A very good entry as we begin the lead-up to the fiftieth Main Range entry. I strongly recommend a refresher of Project: Twilight before listening to this story—I wish I had done so myself—but regardless, it’s a fast-moving, action-packed story, and a great listen. Free on Spotify, as well—if you haven’t already, check it out! (Unfortunately, as I discovered, the Spotify edition of this story is missing the final track. However, the story is available for download from Big Finish Productions for $2.99.)

Project Lazarus 4

Next time: One more experimental story before we start the iconic villain stories leading up to the fiftieth entry. We’ll join the Seventh Doctor and Mel in Flip-Flop! 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.

Project: Lazarus

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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: Bang-Bang-a-Boom!

We’re back with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #39, Bang-Bang-a-Boom!. Written by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman, and released in December 2002, this story features the Seventh Doctor and Melanie “Mel” Bush. Let’s get started!

bang bang a boom 1

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

The aging space station Dark Space 8 is mostly retired from saving the universe, much to the chagrin of its crew; but it is busy today, hosting the 309th Intergalactic Song Contest, which is being broadcast live to the galaxy under the leadership of famed presenter Logan.  It includes two worlds with a history of war: Angvia, and the gestalt entity Gholos (whose representative is also called Gholos, as per its hive mind nature).  Complicating things is the fact that Dark Space 8 is without a commander, Commander Paul Keele having died of Orion flu against the efforts of medic Eleanor Harcourt.  A replacement, Commander John Ballard, is en route by shuttle—but Lieutenant Strindberg can’t contact it, and Professor Ivor Fassbender detects fluctuating chronon energy around it.

The TARDIS materializes aboard the shuttle, a long way from its intended destination of Paris. The Seventh Doctor and Mel find two bodies aboard, and a bomb attached to the shuttle.  They try to flee to the TARDIS, but fail to make it in time—but Strindberg teleports them aboard Dark Space 8 just in time, as the shuttle explodes.  Eleanor, the officer in charge, assumes they are Ballard and his pilot, and they play along for now.  She shows them to “their” quarters, but en route, they encounter the Gholos representative—which looks like candy floss and does not speak English—and its human translator, Loozly.  For once, even the Doctor is stymied by a language, and must rely on Loozly.  Loozly demands an explanation for the explosion, and claims that its blast pattern indicates it was an Angvian scatter bomb.  As Queen Angvia arrives, Loozly, along with another contestant from Cyrene, accuses her of attacking the Commander, and of threatening Gholos.  Angvia dismisses this, but complains that her billing in the contest is too far down in the order.  The Doctor, in his assumed role as commander, changes the running order to alphabetical, then heads for his quarters with Mel.  He explains about the war between Angvia and Gholos, and says that this is a crucial moment; the two combatants are holding a peace conference on the Achilles 4 station.  Mel suggests that the Doctor have Fassbender—who is oddly distracted—scan the shuttle wreckage and find the TARDIS.  She also warns the Doctor that the real murderer of Commander Ballard may assume he failed, and target the Doctor.

Contestants continue to arrive as Logan provides commentary and Eleanor makes a log entry. Mel checks in on Fassbender while the Doctor is summoned to the command deck to deal with Angvia, who is complaining about being quartered next to Gholos.  The contest’s arbiter, the mouselike Geri Pakhar, is  also on hand, and helps the Doctor change up the housing arrangements; as they do so, Gholos and Loozly arrive to complain about the arrangements, but leave when they find it is already resolved.  Eleanor takes the opportunity to cozy up to the “Commander”.  Meanwhile, Fassbender tells Mel he found nothing in the scans; he promises to keep her posted, but she suspects he is hiding something.  On her way out, she meets a young man named Nicky Newman, Earth’s representative to the contest.  He is delighted to learn she doesn’t know him, as he is used to being universally recognised, and he becomes enchanted with her.  Meanwhile, Geri compliments the Doctor, and admits that she is concerned for her sister Teri, who is an observer of the conference on Achilles 4.  Suddenly an alarm goes off in the guest quarters.  Mel and Nicky respond, and find the Cyrene contestant dead—and it is clearly murder.

Eleanor, the Doctor, Geri, and Fassbender all respond to the alarm, meeting up with Mel and Nicky. Geri asks “the doctor” what has happened; the Doctor nearly answers before realizing it was addressed to Eleanor.  Eleanor insists there was no foul play, but the Doctor finds two puncture wounds.  Eleanor takes her to sickbay, while the others go to the guest lounge.  Gholos, Loozly, and Angvia arrive; Loozly—on Gholos’s behalf—accuses Angvia of the murder and demands the contest be cancelled.  The Doctor refuses, knowing this news could also disrupt the peace conference.  Loozly and Gholos leave in anger, and Angvia warns the Doctor about the Gholos’s infamous “blue sting” which has allegedly killed many Angvians.  Nicky speculates that this is what killed Cyrene, but the Doctor withholds opinion, and the group disperses.  Nicky arranges to meet with Mel again later.  Fassbender returns to his lab, but remarks on how odd it is for a Pakhar—who are top-level diplomats—to be judging a simple competition.  Geri takes offense, calling the appointment prestigious.  Meanwhile the Doctor sends Mel to search Cyrene’s quarters, and sends a cover story to Logan so as to conceal the death.  Eleanor cannot identify the poison in Cyrene’s system, and the TARDIS is still missing.

In Cyrene’s quarters, Mel is approached by Gholos, who turns red and becomes loud in its native language. Loozly arrives and calls Gholos off, claiming that he too was searching for evidence, but took Mel’s presence as an attack.  When she refers to Gholos as a “thing”, Loozly becomes offended, and departs with the still-noisy Gholos. Nicky arrives, and Mel tells him that Gholos tried to kill her.  Meanwhile, Fassbender is working on the cause of the shuttle explosion, while Eleanor subtly comes on to the Doctor, ensuring him that she is available to him as she was to the previous commander.  Strindberg announces that Achilles 4 is under attack by Angvian separatists, dooming the peace conference.  What is there to do, then, but make this contest the best it could be!

Lounging in the station’s pool, Nicky and Mel talk; he begins to rant about his life and its lack of privacy. The constant screaming fans cause him headaches; but on the flight over to Dark Space 8, Loozly was kind enough to give him an aspirin for it.  He admits that this career path makes him cripplingly anxious, but he has too much invested to stop now.  He is summoned to an interview, and Mel advises him to ignore it, prompting him to snap at her for not understanding.  She returns to the guest lounge, where Loozly sits, listening to Logan’s commentary.  Logan comments that critics have panned him for commenting on songs when he can’t pronounce the names, but to combat this, he has built his own translation device this year.  Loozly says that Gholos is resting, and shows Mel a device for monitoring Gholos’s vitals, as separation from the gestalt can be stressful.  He apologizes for his rudeness, but admits that he is uncomfortable with humans, and is only happy on the Gholos world, a planet of gestalt mental energy.

The Doctor goes to his ready room, and learns that the attack on Achilles 4 has been repelled. Mel joins him, but shortly thereafter, they receive a note under the door, which says to “beware the pits of Angvia”—an odd reference, as there are no actual pits on Angvia.  Mel decides to search Fassbender’s lab, while the Doctor meets Angvia in the dining hall at her request.  To his shock, she declares her romantic intentions toward him, and drags him across the table to kiss him—and to his further shock, he finds himself reciprocating.  Meanwhile, Mel meets Nicky coming out of the sickbay, where Eleanor has given him pills for his anxiety and its symptoms.  He apologizes for his rudeness, and Mel recruits his help.  They break into the lab—but then Logan staggers in, and falls to the floor, dead from a stab wound in the back.

The Doctor is completely taken in by Angvia; but before he can consummate the relationship, Strindberg interrupts and calls him to the command deck. He promises Angvia to return, but he remains affected by her; he shows little interest at the report of Logan’s murder.  Eleanor decides she may need to snap him out of it with her own romantic charms…but first there’s an autopsy to complete.  Mel also notices the strange behavior, but is busy with Nicky, who is unexpectedly happy at the idea of stopping the contest.  However, Loozly no longer wants to stop it; or rather, as he insists, Gholos wants it to go on.  Meanwhile Eleanor’s tests on Logan are inconclusive; and the Doctor orders that the contest proceed.  Nicky returns to his quarters to relax, as his medicines have not helped.  Gholos and Loozly also go to prepare.  Mel pulls the Doctor aside and interrogates him; he slowly begins to realize that he is acting bizarrely, especially with regard to Angvia; some things he simply never does, and with her?!  He snaps out of it to assess the murder, and quickly deduces the motive—but he keeps it to himself, to Mel’s irritation.  Mel leaves to find Fassbender, who is still missing.  The Doctor questions Eleanor about Fassbender, and she insists she trusts him.  She leaves when Angvia arrives; the queen attempts to resume her seduction of the Doctor, but he reluctantly rejects her.  She is shocked at this, and bursts into tears before leaving.  The Doctor sets his mind to why he is apparently falling for her.

Strindberg—who has no public speaking experience—fills in (badly) for Logan as commentator. Nicky apologizes with roses for Mel, who then recruits him to find Fassbender.  They find him at the back of the main hall.  Mel tries to accuse him of killing Logan and falsifying his sensor scans, but he isn’t listening; he is babbling to himself.  Mel and Nicky take him to Eleanor in sickbay.  While Eleanor prepares to run tests, the Doctor reaches a simpler conclusion: Fassbender is gesturing at his neck, where puncture wounds are found.  It seems he has been poisoned—not a murderer, then, but a victim.  Before he dies, he admits the truth: for years, he’s been just spouting gibberish and technobabble instead of actual useful information, and in point of fact he’s spent most of their adventures drunk.  However, before he can reveal the murderer, he dies.

The Doctor locks down security, but mystifyingly, he allows the contest to proceed. He takes Mel back to the ready room to confer.  They conclude that, if Fassbender couldn’t run a proper scan, the TARDIS is probably still out there.  He sends Mel to watch the concert hall.  Gholos arrives, appearing very distressed, but Loozly arrives to translate, and claims that Gholos is accusing Angvia of murdering Fassbender.  The Doctor promises to investigate, and the duo leaves.  As they do so, Geri calls the Doctor and says that Angvia has been knocked out in her dressing room.  Meanwhile the contest is beginning.  Nicky remains ill, and is not helped when Geri rushes past, revealing to Nicky and Mel that Angvia has been attacked.  Mel begins to suspect Geri; after all, who would?  Thus making her a suspect that no one would, well, suspect.  Mel and Nicky follow Geri to an empty corridor, and witness her contacting her home base against the Doctor’s lockdown order.  She reassures her superiors that everything is going to plan.  This convinces Mel that she is responsible, and Mel tries to restrain her; but in the struggle, Geri hits her head on the floor.  Has Mel killed the arbiter?

Eleanor has been unsuccessful at reviving Angvia. In fact, as the Doctor notes, she is generally unsuccessful at everything she attempts.  He steps in and uses smelling salts to revive Angvia.  In delirium, Angvia talks about trade sanctions and Gholos incursion into Angvian space—information which might be crucial, but is too late in coming; Mel is bringing Geri to Sickbay.  Angrily, the Doctor sends Nicky to prepare for his song, and then berates Mel for attacking Geri, whom they need.  He explains the presence of Geri, a high-ranking Pakhar diplomat, at a simple competition: it’s no simple competition.  The peace conference on Achilles 4 is a decoy, and the real peace conference…is here.

The Doctor explains that Angvia’s ramblings revealed the truth. The Achilles 4 conference was a decoy for the terrorists to attack; instead, Nicky, Angvia, and Gholos carry psychic imprints of the real delegates in their subconscious minds.  Using telepathic abilities, the imprinted delegates have been conducting the real peace conference all this time, under the cover of the contest.  Geri’s presence is not actually intended to mediate the contest, but rather, the peace conference.  The Doctor announces that he knows who the murderer is, and gathers everyone in the guest lounge—including Geri, whom Eleanor has just revived using the Doctor’s smelling salts.  Angvia, however, must go onstage first, as her turn has arrived.  The Doctor stops to chat privately with Geri before entering the guest lounge.  Angvia makes her performance, and then joins them.  When the Doctor and Geri arrive last, they are bearing a strange device.

The Doctor explains the truth about the conference. He then exposes the truth about Eleanor, who is not a real doctor after all.  She admits it; she came to Dark Space 8 as a stowaway years earlier, and then lied about her qualifications.  She was as surprised as anyone when she was taken at face value; and she eventually become chief medical officer.  She denies involvement with the murders, however, and the Doctor concurs.  He then confronts Nicky, who is still suffering from his fears; he agrees that Nicky is not the murderer, but suggests that Nicky should realise that his fears are trivial.

This still leaves the killer unrevealed, however. The Doctor reveals that the shuttle was destroyed by an Angvian scatter bomb; Angvian poisons killed Cyrene and Fassbender; and Angvia used her race’s impressive pheromone array to seduce the Doctor.  That was the purpose of Geri’s note about the “pits of Angvia”; the queen’s pheromone glands are located in her armpits.  Of course this makes Angvia the obvious suspect—but perhaps it’s too obvious.  Thus, the Doctor activates the device: Logan’s translator.  Gholos can now speak without Loozly’s help, albeit in Logan’s voice.  The gestalt entity instantly accurse Loozly of the murders.  Loozly admits it; he is strongly opposed to peace with Angvia, perhaps more so than Gholos himself.  His contacts back in Earth Security had leaked the truth about the conference; and so he arranged to accompany Gholos and began sabotaging the conference.  However, his attempts to frame Angvia failed, not through his own incompetence, but through the incompetence of the medical officer and science officer who should have noticed his planted clues.  Gholos admits that earlier, he was not attacking Mel, but trying to warn her; unfortunately no one could understand him.  Loozly’s alleged health-monitoring device was actually compelling obedience from Gholos.  Loozly killed Logan in order to prevent the commentator from using his translator on Gholos.  Fassbender, it seems, had somehow managed to work out the truth, and thus was also killed.

Loozly insists his actions were to preserve the Gholos gestalt from corruption. He takes Angvia hostage, and insists that he has the detonator for a bomb that will destroy the station.  Gholos steps in and kills him using the “blue sting of Gholos”, thus freeing Angvia and dealing out justice for himself.  Angvia offers to consider peace with Gholos.  Nicky is still anxious, but is ready to go onstage.  Gholos and Geri return to their duties, and the Doctor—unhappily—has Eleanor arrested for impersonating a doctor.  It’s time for he and Mel to leave, and the ending theme plays…

…Until Mel stops him. It’s all been too easily concluded, but there’s still one question: Where’s the bomb?  Security fails to find it anywhere.  Angvia says that an Angvian personal destructor would work perfectly; it consists of a tiny fragment of black star matter inside a pill.  When swallowed, it attaches to the digestive tract.  When the carrier is agitated enough, the pill dissolves, and the fragment explodes with the force of fifty Angvian scatter bombs.  Mel makes the connection at once: en route to the station, Loozly gave Nicky a headache pill.  And Nicky is about to go on stage, where his anxiety will skyrocket.

The crowd is singing the Earth anthem, I Will Survive, giving the Doctor and Mel just enough time to catch Nicky. The Doctor sends him with Mel back to his cabin.  Nicky, thinking that Mel is coming on to him, begins to get equally excited in a different way; and Mel gives up and knocks him out.  Meanwhile, the Doctor goes onstage in Nicky’s place, and plays the spoons to a techno-pop background song—and against all odds, the crowd goes wild.  After the performance, the Doctor runs and retrieves Eleanor.  Despite her lack of qualifications, he insists that she has enough practical experience that she is the only one who can remove the bomb from Nicky.  She manages to do so; and as Nicky’s imprint isn’t available to finish the negotiations, the Doctor steps in and does so.  The negotiations are successful, and after centuries, both sides agree to peace.

The contest has entered the voting phase as Mel locates the TARDIS and has it brought aboard. She assures Nicky that he can handle the uproar from his failure to appear.  The jig is up, however; Geri receives a message from Earth with an image of the real Commander John Ballard, and the Doctor is clearly not him.  He tells the truth, which explains to Angvia why he could resist her; he isn’t human, and she never expected to seduce one of the legendary Time Lords.  The contest ends most unexpectedly: the Doctor, or rather, “Commander Ballard”, wins!  He takes this opportunity to get Mel into the TARDIS and slip away.

In the aftermath, Eleanor is found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison, but her sentence is mitigated by her efforts in saving Nicky’s life. Upon release, she enrolls as a student in a teaching hospital…and forges a close relationship with her department head.

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Credit to Simon Hodges, (DeviantArt’s HiSi79). Used without permission, not for profit.

I won’t have a lot to say about this story, not because of anything bad about it, but for two reasons. First; it’s been a few months since I listened; if you’re reading this on my blog, the plot summary above was written at that time, but this review segment comes from perhaps three months later. The story’s gotten a bit cold for me since then, but I want to be able to move on, and so I’ll go ahead and give you what I can. Second, to quote the TARDIS wiki:

As with the prior Mel story, The One Doctor, it was in many ways a parody — though this time of Star Trek, the Eurovision Song Contest and the classic Gerry Anderson 1970s show Space: 1999. Indeed, the title itself is a pun on “Boom Bang-a-Bang”, the 1969 song by Lulu that gave a rare Eurovision win to the United Kingdom.

Of those three references, I’m only personally familiar with one, that being Star Trek. (If it wasn’t previously clear, I live in the USA, where Eurovision is not exactly a familiar thing; and while Space: 1999 is on my list of shows to watch someday, I haven’t seen it yet.) Therefore, I imagine that much of the humor is lost on me, though I still found the story to be very funny.

And funny, it is! That’s by design, perhaps more than usual; Big Finish went through a period of releasing comedic stories for Christmas, with this story being the second in that unofficial series. The first was 2001’s The One Doctor, which also featured Mel as a companion, though with the Sixth Doctor instead of the seventh. Mel seems to be a good hook on which to hang this type of story; unlike many companions, she’s not inclined to simply take the Doctor’s shenanigans for granted and play along. This, when coupled with a Doctor who isn’t necessarily acting like himself, puts her in the strange-but-effective position of being the straight woman to the Doctor’s comedian. She calls him out on a regular basis; here, it’s most visible in the false ending in Part 4, where we go so far as to have the ending theme begin before she cuts it short and declares that the ending was too easy. (As, in fact, it was!) She tries her best to impose order as the situation descends into increasingly-more-hilarious chaos. Even Mel seems to know this is not normal; she wants the Doctor to step up, take charge, and be authoritative. He’d like to, as well, if he didn’t have problems of his own at the moment.

After the opening’s narrow escape, the Doctor finds himself playing the role of the space station’s new commander—but he may have bitten off more than he can chew, as he finds would-be love interests throwing themselves at him. Captain Kirk may handle such things smoothly (and possibly “NSFW”), but the Doctor is no Kirk, and he’s caught completely off guard. He becomes more alarmed when he finds that this time, there’s a woman he can’t resist! It’s very out of character for the normally asexual Seventh Doctor, but that’s the point; and it becomes a major plot point.

I’d be remiss not to list some of the references to other works. The title comes from 1969’s winning Eurovision song, “Boom-Bang-a-Bang”; as I said, I’m not familiar with it myself, but the wiki tells me that the UK’s wins, like this one, have been rare, making this song an appropriate choice. The commentator for the story’s Intergalactic Song Contest, Logan (played by David Tughan) is a direct spoof of Eurovision’s BBC commentator, Terry Wogan. Dr. Harcourt refers to the contest as “the last, best hope for peace” for the warring systems of Angvia and Golos, which is a quote from Babylon 5’s early-season opening monologue; however (again according to the wiki) the presentation is a subtle reference to Dr. Helena Russell, a Space: 1999 character. Dr. Harcourt is modeled after Dr. Russell in other ways as well, most notably her relationship (which here is a bit lurid) with the base commander. The space station’s name, Dark Space 8, is a likely reference to Star Trek: DS9’s Deep Space Nine station. The story’s cover art is deliberately cast in the same color scheme as the promotional posters for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The frequent crew voiceovers are reminiscent of Star Trek’s log entries, and the musical cues also echo Star Trek. As well, many of the in-universe references to past missions and events echo similar stories in Star Trek’s history, such as a reference to a sweat vampire (the salt vampire from TOS episode The Man Trap). I can’t confirm, but I would assume the same is true for Space: 1999.

Underneath the humor and sci-fi trappings, this story is a “whodunit” murder mystery—actually, given the closed population of Dark Space 8, it’s similar to a locked-room mystery. It’s a great story in that regard; I may be a bit biased, though, because I love a good mystery. It’s only made possible, though, by suspending one of Doctor Who’s usual tropes—the Doctor’s understanding of languages. He is unable to understand or speak the language of Golos, a hive-mind character who participates in the contest. Had he been able to communicate with Golos, who possesses critical information, the story would have been over in minutes; in fact, it is Golos who brings about the resolution, once communication is finally established.

Rare for a Doctor Who story: almost everyone gets a happy ending. There are only a few murder victims, and most of the cast survives and goes on to a good life afterward. It may not be typical of this series, but it’s worth it to see the Doctor sing “I Will Survive”. Some things have to be seen (heard?) to be believed.

There are a few continuity references as well, although the nature of this story lends itself more to the external references I’ve already mentioned. The Doctor refers to the Masterbakers of Barastabon, who were previously referenced in The Church and the Crown (the story immediately before this one, with the Fifth Doctor and Peri) and The One Doctor (the preceding Christmas comedy). The Pakhars appear here, having first appeared in Legacy. The Doctor mentions Mel’s trouble with lifts (Paradise Towers). He previously impersonated a commanding officer for the sake of a peace conference in his third life in The Curse of Peladon. The Breeble race and the anthem of Earth both appear here; they were among the Super Brain trivia questions in The One Doctor. Contestant Nicky Newman, who does not get to compete here, subsequently wins the Intergalactic Song Contest in the Iris Wildthyme audio The Sound of Fear (I ordinarily try to exclude references to future stories here, but as it will be a long time before I get to Iris, I’ll make an exception).

Overall: A good story, managing to mix comedy and storytelling better than its predecessor, The One Doctor, managed to do (although I enjoyed both stories). With so many external references, a generous dose of humor, and a great mystery, there’s something for everyone here. It was good to step away from the intensity of the regular main range stories for a bit, especially after the information-dense The Church and the Crown; here is a story that can simply be enjoyed without much investment. It’s still available on Spotify; check it out!

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Credit to Simon Hodges, (DeviantArt’s HiSi79). Used without permission, not for profit.

Next time: I’m continuing the I, Davros spinoff series with part 3, Corruption; and when we return to the Main Range, we’ll look at Jubilee, featuring the Sixth Doctor, Evelyn Smythe, and the Daleks! 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.

Bang-Bang-a-Boom!

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