Titan Comics has announced their upcoming content for the “Time Lord Victorious” story comprising of two over-sized comic issues landing 2nd September.
Review story this episode: The Key to Time Part 1 – The Ribos Operation
It’s time for The Key to Time Who fans. We’re starting a 6-week review kicking-off with Part 1 – The Ribos Operation. Often touted as a slow start but has some time since the last watch graced it with some newfound love?
Coming next week: The Key to Time Part 2 – The Pirate Planet
More Doctor and Romana adventure for Part 2 as they face-off against Xanxia to nab the second segment of the Time Crystal.
Thank you all for listening, and until then have a great week, take care of yourselves, stay healthy and remember – Allons-y!
In the days since it’s release, Big Finish has been retweeting a lot of praise for Stranded from listeners. Much of it has likened the Earthbound boxed set to how Derrick Sherwin reinvigorated Doctor Who in the 1970s by exiling the Third Doctor to Earth and then handing over to Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts. And yet, that comparison feels reductive.
Stranded is a much different proposition. There are no nefarious corporations doing great harm to the planet, no dodgy drilling operations, no Mars probes. The worst that the Doctor has had to contend with is an armed robber, the rest of the time it’s dodgy tellies, spotty Wi-Fi and dilapidating kitchens.
The Doctor is no longer a scientific advisor, he’s a landlord, a member of a community, and that’s clearly taking a toll. Indeed, in this closing story – David K. Barnes’ Divine Intervention – the Doctor states that his current exile is more of a struggle because he doesn’t have UNIT to work for, given that they’ve been defunded. As an aside, Chris Chibnall’s gag in Resolution that UNIT has been mothballed due to a lack of alien invasions is hands down the greatest, most incisively satirical moment of his tenure. It gets funnier as we get further away from it. All you have to do is look at the various cutbacks Trump and Johnson made to their pandemic response teams prior to COVID-19 to see just how perfect that gag is for our current time.
As Divine Intervention opens, the Doctor has come up with a new plan to repair the TARDIS that involves winning TV gameshows and making some shrewd investments with the prize money. As a plan, it sounds like an amazing Doctor Who story, but it’s shot down fairly quickly by a frustrated Liv and Helen. To make matters worse, he soon finds himself the target of some alien assassins intent on protecting themselves from a terrible future. Meanwhile, Helen and her new charge, the young, continually-abandoned Robin are accosted by Divine Intervention – a strange organisation offering direction and purpose to today’s disaffected youth and are also the most transparent Scientology allegory since Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Some time has passed since the cliffhanger to Must-See TV and, as such, a confusing pall falls over the first ten to fifteen minutes until Mr Bird’s message is re-addressed. I had to quickly jump back and reassure myself that the previous story wasn’t a two-parter to which I’d missed the conclusion.
So with alien assassins, warnings from the future and a tantalising mystery for the Doctor, it’s here that the series arc properly arrives. However, with the mysterious Mr. Bird, the mysterious Tania, the mysterious Ron and Tony and the mysterious Divine Intervention, it’s becoming a little hard to see how all the pieces fit together.
Which is the main issue with Divine Intervention, there are a lot of dangling threads left hanging, which will presumably be tied up in the following sets but don’t make for a particularly satisfying closing story to Stranded 1. For good or ill, this is very much audio Doctor Who for the Netflix generation with overarching stories, cliffhangers and mysterious characters all enticing you to click preorder on Stranded 2.
That said, whilst it has very different concerns – placing character, relationships and emotion over alien invasions and mad scientists – Stranded has reinvigorated the Eighth Doctor range in a way similar to the Pertwee era, purely in changing the types of stories that can be told. It’s certainly provided a welcome change of pace from the Gallifreyan lore heavy trilogy of Dark Eyes, Doom Coalition and Ravenous. I still have some niggling concerns over the need to include Torchwood (the SERCO of alien incursion solutions) in a prior doctor’s story, and whilst it’s terrific to have such a rich cast of characters at Baker Street, there is a worry that a few residents are starting to become surplus to requirements. Hopefully, none of them will have to sit out a future story with a migraine.
Overall, Stranded is a bold step in a new direction for audio Doctor Who that suits the Eighth Doctor very well indeed. Pertwee’s second series introduced the Master as the personification of the Doctor’s dark impulses, I wonder if Stranded 2 will lean further into just how far the Doctor is willing to go to repair the TARDIS. We’ve had glimpses and warnings here, and the signs for our hero’s psyche aren’t good…
You can buy Stranded 1 here or purchase/preorder all four boxed sets here.
When it launched towards the end of 2006, Torchwood was described by creator Russell T Davies as “The X-Files meets This Life“. For this reviewer it never came close to the quality of either of those shows, however, Davies’ description could easily be applied to Big Finish’s Stranded. Nevermore so than in Lisa McMullin’s Must-See TV, which deftly balances sci-fi shenanigans with petty politicking between the housemates.
Some time has passed since the end of Wild Animals – Liv and Tania’s relationship is blossoming and the Doctor is making more of an effort to integrate now that his old room is occupied by the (overly?) helpful Mr Bird. Paul McGann gets some really lovely little moments in this, the standout one being a heart to heart about childhood loneliness with Robin, again abandoned by his father. It calls to mind a similar moment for Patrick Troughton in The Tomb of the Cybermen whilst also containing the romanticism and wonder that has defined McGann in the role. He also brilliantly plays the Doctor’s jealousy and suspicion of Mr Bird, his begrudging deference to his new neighbour’s lemon drizzle cake is one of a number of hilarious one-liners peppered throughout Mullin’s script.
Is the Doctor right to be suspicious of his new neighbour? If you’ve been watching, listening and reading Doctor Who for a while then you probably know the answer to that. That said, Clive Wood plays the character with such ingratiating charm that you do wonder if the Doctor’s still looking for problems to keep himself occupied. Soon enough, the televisions in the building start malfunctioning and the Doctor, his companions and his tenants are soon thrown into a plot involving alien surveillance technology and a shadowy company that specialises in furnishing rental flats. It’s the sort of Doctor Who story you could imagine RTD writing in an era of Alexa and algorithms, and Lisa McMullin’s script really delivers on the comedy and creepiness that you would expect from that period. The creepy atmosphere is achieved by both Benji Clifford’s sound design – all electrical fizzing and popping – and Jamie Robertson’s discordant music.
Must-See TV is proper stripped back Doctor Who that again shows what’s possible with the new set-up. So it’s disappointing to find Torchwood’s Sergeant Andy Davidson knocking at the door of Baker Street. This is maybe the reviewer’s own bias, but Andy was never the best character in Torchwood (no mean feat in a series that had Owen Harper in it) and he’s just as much of an irritant and an obstacle here. Having not listened to any of Big Finish’s continuing Torchwood series, it’s difficult to figure out why they’re so interested in the Doctor again. It feels like the Torchwood Institute of the 2006 series, though in 2020 they seem a bit more coy about amorous relations than Captain Jack and his bed-hopping team ever did.
This is the first of a two-part story that will bring the first boxed set to a close, so perhaps it’s unfair to question the merit of including Andy and Torchwood in the ongoing Stranded arc at this early stage. Big Finish has taken a much freer “timey-wimey” approach to their storytelling in this post-MCU period which can often yield interesting results. (Legacy of Time‘s Third Doctor and modern UNIT story being an absolute belter, for example) With the Torchwood Institute, however, there is the suspicion that we’re going to have 13 hours of Doctor Who in which everyone stops talking about Torchwood when the Doctor walks into a room.
It would certainly be a shame as Must-See TV is another fine example of what Doctor Who can do as a flat-share comedy-drama. It occurs to me that, if McGann had gone to series, something like Stranded wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 90s TV landscape of Friends, Coupling, This Life and Cold Feet. The added benefit of it taking place in the 1990s would be that bloody Torchwood wouldn’t be knocking on the door. Early days though, and I hope to be proved wrong as we reach the closing story of the set – Divine Intervention.
To Be Continued…
Still no news this week.
No merch either.
Review story this episode: SJA – The Gift
We’ve come to the end of Series 3 and the Slitheen are back along with another scheming family – the Blithareen. A good finale or the first SJA clanger?
Coming next week: The Key to Time Part 1 – The Ribos Operation
We’re kicking off our “The Key to Time” season with part 1 of the Fourth Doctor’s long arc from Series 16. This one rockin’ n rollin’ out the gate or is this a slog already?
Thank you all for listening, and until then have a great week, take care of yourselves, stay healthy and remember – Allons-y!
What does life look like once you’ve stopped travelling with the Doctor? It’s a question that Doctor Who never really considered until its 21st century incarnation when it reunited Sarah Jane Smith with the Tenth Doctor.
School Reunion showed us that the readjustment may have been hard, but that Sarah is still continuing the Doctor’s good work on Earth. As she memorably notes in The Sarah Jane Adventures: “Life on Earth can be an adventure too – you just need to know where to look!” In this second episode of Big Finish’s new Stranded series, the Doctor and his companions learn the hard way about what happens when you’re looking for adventure in the wrong places.
John Dorney’s Wild Animals is about what it means to be the Doctor and his companions in a world where to quote Helen at the episode’s end, “there are no villains, only normal people making bad choices.”
The TARDIS crew are still adjusting to daily life in London – Liv, despite herself, is enjoying her new job in a local shop given that her futuristic med-tech training makes her a bit over-qualified for the NHS. Helen is enjoying winding Liv up and cooks dinner for the neighbours whilst the Doctor has taken to moping around Regent’s Park. There’s a palpable sense of unease during these opening scenes as you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop because this is Doctor Who and some threat or other is surely about to rear its ugly head. Sure enough, this relative peace and quiet are soon shattered by a brutal and shocking crime.
Real-world violence is always quite jarring in Doctor Who, think of poor Fariah being gunned down in The Enemy of the World or the great HMP Stangmoor massacre in The Mind of Evil. Shocking moments that often carry more dramatic heft than ray guns or tissue compression eliminators. It’s the same here, the abrupt snuffing out of life is all the more affecting because it’s not the sort of thing you’re used to in Doctor Who. As a result, it’s less easy for the Doctor to spring into action as the smartest guy in the room, his (admittedly very funny and Doctorish) attempts to offer his services as a consulting detective come across more like a grieving relative demanding justice than it does Sherlock Holmes. Paul McGann is the standout performer here, and movingly portrays our hero’s desperation to do something, anything to feel like the Doctor again. There’s also underlying guilt over how he’s still putting his companion’s lives at risk in the most banal environments.
Both Liv and Helen are reckless here, throwing themselves into dangerous situations without a second thought. It’s what they do, right? And yet, isn’t it much more dangerous to do that in a 21st century London where muggers lurk in bushes and gunmen roam the streets? There’s something fascinating about that dichotomy – why is it more dangerous for the Doctor’s companions to put their lives at risk on contemporary Earth than it is when faced with a Dalek or a genocidal Timelord? Perhaps because by removing the TARDIS from the situation, the magical, fantastical elements of Doctor Who have also been removed. This isn’t a silly old sci-fi show where everything’s going to find in the end, this is real life and it’s very rarely free of life-threatening danger.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are some light moments for Liv and Tania as their potential relationship steps up a gear. Nicola Walker and Rebecca Root have a great deal of chemistry together and play their roles with a good deal of tentative tenderness. The episode also ends on a brilliant gag which shows us that the Doctor hasn’t quite given up on righting wrongs just yet.
John Dorney expertly manages the tone of the story, so that the jokes and lighter scenes never undermine the more affecting drama of the piece. Dorney has been writing on the Eighth Doctor range for years now so by breaking down exactly who the Doctor and his companions are, and what it means to leave that life behind, he gives us the best example yet of the dramatic and creative potential of Stranded’s format.
That being said, I’m still uneasy about Torchwood’s PC Andy joining the team in the next story…
To Be Continued…
As we continue to delve into the back catalogue of Big Finish review’s its time for another couple of re-introductions. This time making their audio-debut is the Seventh Doctor and Ace in The Fearmonger and in The Marian Conspiracy we meet not only one of the best audio-companions but best Sixth Doctor companions to ever have existed, the indomitable Evelyn Smythe.
Written by: Jonathan Blum
Given how following the cancellation of the series in 1989, the Seventh Doctor’s era continued in the form of the New Adventures range of books, it’s perhaps to be expected that the first proper Seventh Doctor audio adventure would follow the same format. The Fearmonger is as dark and gritty as any book from the New Adventures line while managing to be more entertaining than some of them I’ve read and it remains surprisingly topical and up-to-date, despite having been released in 2000.
Twenty years later, the idea of where does fear come from, are the politicians making the decisions, the media spinning stories to their agenda, protests that get out of hand or the police who have no one to govern them, remains topical, just look at the world outside today, the only difference is that the Doctor and Ace aren’t around to save us. In many ways, this is a story where the titular villain, The Fearmonger is as much a metaphor as anything else.
The late-great Jaqueline Pierce puts in a brilliant performance as Sherilyn Harper a political candidate who runs the group New Britannia, whose ideal sound like the basis of UKIP, before UKIP existed. She’s opposed by people who seem to be just as bad as she is, and while the Fearmonger is a real villain, before the time it appears, Blum does keep you wondering who the real villain is here.
For listeners expecting this to be a near-perfect continuation of the tone of the series before it was cancelled will be disappointed, like I said above, this audio can thank the New Adventures for its darker tone, but it’s a story that has a lot of undertones, messages and psychological depth. Blum’s plotting is excellent too, nothing here feels too long or too short and we spend enough time with each of the characters to really get a feel for what they are like.
And what about the two main characters? Sophie Aldred slips effortlessly back into the role of Ace and it feels like she’s time travelled from the end of the making of Ghost Light, the last story to be recorded in the original run, right into the audio recording, she sounds like she’s never been away. This is the Ace we came to know and love on screen, with some of the character development she got in the New Adventures books behind her. It’s a much stronger take on an already amazing companion.
Sylvester McCoy though doesn’t feel as strong. It feels like he wasn’t certain about the audio format and like Sarah Sutton in Land of the Dead, you get the sense of him getting used to things by the time the story rattles to its conclusion. However, this is still the Seventh Doctor we all know and love, he’s still mysterious and manipulative and it poses the question of whether he is a good man, long before Steven Moffat used the Twelfth Doctor to ask the same question.
The Fearmonger is another early hit. It might not stand up to some of the audios we’ve come to love since then but as only the fifth release in 2000, it does little wrong. And the fact that it still topical twenty years after its initial release shows how strong a story it really was.
The Marian Conspiracy
Written By: Jacqueline Raynor
It seems that even in its early days, fans had no idea where to start with Big Finish’s output. For fans who are still wondering now, I would highly recommend The Marian Conspiracy is a great place to start. It’s a historical adventure with a few timey-wimey elements thrown in and has the introduction of a great companion.
I love history and I love it when Doctor Who does fairly straightforward historical adventures. I also find the Tudor era very interesting, despite never having really learnt much about Mary the 1st at school. It was really nice to hear a little about her time on the throne. Following a problem in time, the story wastes no time in bringing the Doctor and Evelyn together. The Doctor quickly discovers that it is something in Evelyn’s past that is going wrong and they both follow the problem back to Tudor England.
Raynor handles the story brilliantly, mixing dark history like Mary’s habit of burning people at stakes as heretics with Evelyn humorously introducing cocoa to Tudor times. Raynor keeps things going nicely, never resting on her laurels and keeps the action moving. It’s funny to hear the Doctor fall into the Queen’s favour and then manage to become a relative of Evelyn’s. Luckily for Evelyn though, the marriage doesn’t go through and she doesn’t find herself related to the Doctor but its a humorous moment and performed excellently by Maggie Stables and Colin Baker.
You might have guessed that I loved Evelyn and its such a shame that the actress, Maggie Stables passed away a few years ago. Here, she gets a strong introduction, she’s intelligent, full of sarcasm and yet comes across quite motherly. She’s a history professor and likes to form motherly bonds with her students. In many ways she’s the Doctor’s equal and had they given her a television appearance, I wouldn’t be surprised if she could have stood up to some of the best onscreen companions.
Set after The Trial of a Timelord, this story sees the Sixth Doctor a lot calmer and as the second Sixth Doctor audio story, Raynor manages to blend his characteristics of being abrasive and a little arrogant with the strong moral centre that the Doctor has always had. Colin Baker also rises to the occasion nicely, clearly enjoying the script and loving the fact he has a new companion in tow, the Sixth Doctor is at his best here.
In typical Raynor style, The Marian Conspiracy is a fairly light Big Finish audio. However, it does delve into some darker elements of history, in this case, the clashing of faiths and the battles fought because of that. That’s a theme that’s nice to see here as the television series would never have touched that subject. From the storytelling to the acting, to the introduction of Evelyn, The Marian Conspiracy is still a fantastic story to listen too and still a great jumping-on point for new listeners.
Next Time: The Genocide Machine and Red Dawn
In one respect, Stranded has been released at exactly the right time, given how it deals with our heroes being locked down and unable to do many of the things that they enjoy. You see, a terrible calamity has struck the TARDIS and it’s forced the Doctor, Liv and Helen to live day by day in modern London.
In the other respect, the intention to write Doctor Who that better reflects 2020 has been blown out of the water by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. No matter, the Eighth Doctor is no stranger to diverging timelines and there’s a suggestion in this first story that things aren’t quite going to plan, web-of-time wise.
So, in the first of four daily reviews, let’s stick on our headphones and visit a slightly different 2020 London, where the only obvious upheaval is a strange blue box that has appeared on Camden High Street.
Matt Fitton’s Lost Property is very much a pilot for the new style of Doctor Who we’ll be listening to over the next four boxed sets. As such, it has a lot of elements to juggle – firstly, introducing the Doctor’s new home and its diverse range of residents. It’s a rich tapestry over at Baker Street, there’s a pair of bickering sisters, a slightly crotchety old couple, and a father and son dealing with an absent wife and mother.
The standout is Rebecca Root as Tania, billed as the Doctor’s first trans companion, she’s a welcoming and friendly neighbour who’s clearly taken a shine to Liv. It’s a feeling which may very well end up being reciprocated, though it’s soon clear that Tania is hiding something potentially sinister from her neighbours and her new friend.
Secondly, Fitton has to reintroduce the main characters and establish new tensions between them. The Doctor is struggling in his new role as Landlord, and dealing with the concerns of his tenants requires him to do a lot more admin than he’s ever had to do when out saving planets. Liv is making do, enjoying local bakeries, chatting up the neighbours and avoiding getting a job. This puts an added strain on Helen, the only Earth native in the TARDIS team to deal with forms, rising housing costs and parking permits.
Not only that, but the Doctor is a little too desperate to move on, bringing out a slightly reckless streak that suggests his inability to accept his current predicament that may lead to further tensions later on.
Then thirdly, Lost Property needs to obliquely set up the series arc. Lucky for Fitton, he has the gift that is Tom Baker to handle a lot of the mystery and portent, returning as the Great Curator. His scenes with Hattie Morahan as Helen, in particular, fizz with Baker’s natural charm as the pair riff on the infamous John Cleese and Eleanor Bron scene from City of Death – “Some say it’s art, others say it’s fly-tipping.”
It’s the best, and most magical moment in an episode that often buckles under the weight of continuity. For as much as this is a fresh start, there are various references back to previous Big Finish characters, plays and a tall, grey-haired Scotsman in a velvet coat.
Big Finish wants Stranded to answer the question: “What would Doctor Who be like if you took the Doctor Who bits out?” And yet, the Doctor Who bits are still very much in evidence. I hope that now the stage is set, the writing team have the confidence to run with this question and explore the new possibilities it presents. Though, with PC Andy from Torchwood due to pop by Baker Street, I’m a bit sceptical over how Doctor Wholess this series of boxed sets will actually be.
For now, though, Lost Property is a promising pilot that sets up some interesting questions, chief amongst them: Can the Doctor live one day at a time in his role as London’s only benevolent landlord?
To Be Continued…
Continuing our coverage of the Virgin New Adventures range, published in the early 1990s, No Future sees another arc come to a close and we learn who is behind the recent events in the Doctor’s life. One character I was expecting, the others I wasn’t. And Tragedy Day sees the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Bernice finally getting along! Oh, the relief, it’s only taken over ten-books, but we’ve finally gotten there!
Written By Paul Cornell
Over the course of the range, I’ve read so far, I’ve come to really enjoy Paul Cornell’s writing. I really liked Timewyrm: Revelation and Love & War. Revelation wrapped up the Timewyrm saga in a surprisingly dark yet stylish way, so I was really looking forward to No Future and was expecting it to be as dark and stylish as Revelation was, despite the cover looking rather drab this time around. It’s taken me ages to register that its Ace and Bernice at a bar! The Doctor dancing with Death this is not.
By his own words, Cornell describes No Future as “A shoddy collection of in-jokes and continuity references,” and he isn’t wrong. Sometimes this isn’t a bad thing, there is a lot to enjoy from in-jokes and stories being made around them. But I always found writers like Craig Hinton were better at doing stuff like that, Cornell seems to work best when he creates something wholly original, look at how amazing his future book, Human Nature was, that was made into a television serial. I don’t think anyone would be rushing to adapt this one. Around the time of No Future‘s publication, Doctor Who was celebrating its thirtieth anniversary but rather than creating something new and fun, No Future seems to ignore the character writing and unique imagery that Cornell can usually conjure up. Had this book been on its own, not part of an arc, then perhaps I would be more forgiving. It is quite fun, but wrapping up the recent plot and giving one character some resolution she needed, there are a lot of elements here that feel bodged.
For people who are familiar with this range of novels or had been reading them back in the day, then perhaps the big reveal of villain 1 shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. And one wonders why it took the Doctor so long to work it out. But maybe because he had only featured in two-William Hartnell television adventures, then the Meddling Monk had been somewhat forgotten by the fans and it seems, the Doctor himself. The strength of the Monk is that he hasn’t been overused throughout Doctor Who, even though he didn’t have much to do here except taking revenge on the Doctor, which isn’t really a very original motivation for a baddie.
The second returning baddie is certainly one I’m not sure people remember. Let’s go back to The Invasion of Time, its 1978 and the Sontarans have just invaded Gallifrey, except, what was the name of those tin-foil things and then later, slightly overweight men in tight lycra-jump-suits that shouldn’t be forced on anyone? The Vardans? That’s right, the returning villains are the Vardans. Now, while I wasn’t expecting it to be some big monster like the Daleks or the Cybermen, I was very underwhelmed by the return of the Vardans. Couldn’t Cornell put in a better creature? Sure he does give them some backstory and explains how they can travel around looking like rattling tin-foil but they are such an underwhelming villain that nothing Cornell does makes them any-less of an absolute joke.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about No Future, apart from the Vardans, is that it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Set in the late 1970s, there is some political commentary as well as a look at the emerging punk-rock culture. But most of it is quite uninteresting and went in-one-ear-and-out-the-other. The most interesting part is that about anarchy, something the group, Black Star, is all about the control that comes with that. There should be a terrific story in that sentence above, I don’t think Doctor Who has ever done anything like that where it explores the power people have over one-another when a terrorist act is committed, a random act of violence which is inflicted on another. Maybe that’s too dark for Who, but the Virgin New Adventures were famously adult and dark, so maybe they could have done something with that?
Instead, No Future seems content to focus its time on a shoddy plot about invading aliens, a Monk out for revenge and spies. Even the inclusion of the Brigadier and Benton can save this one, even if you can hear Nicholas Courtney and John Levene saying the lines.
What Cornell does well is his handling of Ace. Though I am sick of her attitude towards the Doctor and Bernice and you have to wonder why they haven’t just left her somewhere, Ace does get a lot better here and her bad attitude gets nicely rounded out, the Ace at the end of the book feeling really different to the Ace we have the beginning. Bernice likewise has some good moments but she feels entirely secondary to the events unfolding in the story. Given how Paul Cornell created her character, he doesn’t give her much to do. And given how strongly he wrote for her in Love & War, his treatment of her character here is more than a little poor.
No Future feels like it is trying to do something meaningful for the Doctor and Ace. In many ways, this would have worked as a finale for Ace’s character, though Tragedy Day does bring her back to the Ace we all know and love, No Future would have been a decent conclusion for her character. It’s a shame then that it feels like the writing team got a little carried away with trying to make it a nice celebratory novel, which ends up feeling completely not like that at all.
Despite it sounding like all I’ve done is criticise it, No Future is a book that’s hard to really dislike. Some of the in-jokes do land nicely and it’s great to see the Brigadier and co back in a way that treats them better than Blood Heat did. No Future is also a nice conclusion to the use of arcs in this book, although there are loose arcs to come, they don’t get as involved as this recent one did. In many ways, you’ve felt this range of books regenerating itself a few times already and as this book paves the way into standalone books for a while, its a nice goodbye to the previous way of storytelling.
Written By: Gareth Roberts
Like I said in my look at No Future, Tragedy Day marks a shift in the Virgin New Adventures‘ way of storytelling. Gone are connected stories like Birthright & Iceberg and the quad-trilogies like Timewyrm, Cat’s Cradle and the Alternate Universe arc. Instead, we’re back to a different story every book way of adventures. And given how Roberts’ first book, The Highest Science was fairly well received at the time, it’s not surprising that they gave him the task of kicking off this new era of Seventh Doctor stories were the Doctor and companions actually get along!
We all know that Roberts has gotten into some big trouble over the last few years because of his political views, though that doesn’t change that some of his books, mainly for the Virgin Missing Adventures range are pretty decent reads. Tragedy Day is much the same, a fairly decent read and like The Highest Science, sets out to be something a little different from the rest of the range. Though not necessarily a comedy, indeed some of the jokes didn’t stick at all, you can tell instantly this feels more like a ‘traditional’ Doctor Who story to what had come before in this novel range.
However, while this might feel like a traditional Doctor Who story, there are still some of the Virgin range influences and Roberts kills off characters like he’s Eric Saward on steroids. There are quite a few characters in this book and most of them get killed off in numerous explosions, gas attacks, assassins, anti-matter club dancefloors, dubiously named aliens called the Slaags and murderously violent policemen, something that still rings true in this day age, proving that some things never seem to change. Most of the book looks at how media can alter people’s perceptions and much of the action seems to take place at a television studio, despite all the deaths, which you don’t feel anything for the characters, there is a distinct air of black-comedy to the whole thing which does give the book a bit more of readability, even if the same level of black-humour that an author like Robert Holmes would have been able to create.
With not a lot of the jokes really landing, Roberts also throws in an assassin who is a man-sized spider, out to kill the Doctor. He wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a northern accent. Roberts seems to have a thing for giving his monsters a resemblance to creatures on Earth, the Chelonians looked like tortoises. But the spider doesn’t have the same charm as the Chelonians and his inclusion feels entirely secondary to the main plot. Speaking of the main plot, the villain of the piece is a waste of space too. Its certainly a surprise to find that its a child gone mad, but then he has a mental breakdown towards the end, which doesn’t add to the story, neither do you feel sympathy for him nor is it handled in a good way. Instead, it feels like the Doctor, Ace and Bernice are trying to stop a brat from having a temper-tantrum.
It’s a shame too because there are some good ideas on offer here. We’ve got the displaced Vijians, which feels like a commentary on colonialism that goes absolutely nowhere. There are the citizens of the city Empire City, who live in poverty and who wait in line for death because there is nothing better for them, something else which goes nowhere. There are the slaves of the Friars of Pangloss, people subjugated for so long that they haven’t realised that their mighty overlords have lost their power. And then there are the big-big baddies of this book, The Friars of Pangloss themselves who appear in the last thirty-something pages, do nothing and then get sent back to their own dimension in the most ridiculous way possible. Had these ideas been developed a little more, then perhaps Tragedy Day would have been a story to remember, instead, Roberts focuses his book in all the wrong places and on the wrong characters.
Where Tragedy Day shines though is in its world-building, so much so that one wonders if Roberts cared more about the world than he did about the characters and how they interact with the world around them. The book begins with a little flashback to the First Doctor and Susan who visited this world in its infancy and took away a piece of red-glass, something which the natives thought had cursed them. Even though it lasts no more than three-pages, its virtually more interesting than the rest of the book. The book looks at the history of the planet since the Doctor and Susan visited and gives us a good feel for the world the TARDIS crew find themselves in now. At first glance, I thought that the titular ‘Tragedy Day’ was going to be something similar to The Purge. Maybe that would have worked better, every year or so, the people of this world get to do whatever they want. It’s an interesting read to see how the Doctor and Bernice travel through Empire City even if on page 127 Bernice remarks to Ace that all she and the Doctor have done is wander around and then booked into a hotel.
Despite reading this book in the glorious sunshine in a couple of days, it was a read I found hard-going, mainly because Roberts focuses his attentions on all the wrong places and things. Despite the fact that he’s clearly enjoyed the world building here, it’s not an interesting place for the characters to be, nor is it an interesting place for the reader to be. But I did like that the TARDIS team are finally getting on, we don’t get any tantrums from Ace and Bernice finally feels like she is settled down into TARDIS life. It’s nice that everyone is finally getting on and everyone gets a nice slice of the action, but that isn’t enough to get this book off the ground. Instead, its a book that tries to reach for the more successful looks at grim futures that Who has done in the past but misses in a somewhat spectacular fashion.
Next Time: Legacy and Theatre of War…
I love historical adventures in Doctor Who. Not only do they allow us to explore some really interesting periods in history that we never learnt about in school. I never learnt about the Aztecs, the French Revolution or the Wild West, for example, and so I love to learn about those periods through Doctor Who.
Big Finish has given us some fantastic historical adventures too. We’ve been to the eruption of Vesuvius, The Peterloo Massacre and the time of Vlad the Impaler.
Scorched Earth gives us another chance to visit a period of history, we’ve all learnt about World War 2 at school and college, but we very rarely learn about what it was like after the war. I learnt about Britain post-wartime but never what it was like in France when they had been liberated. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be this dark with people turning on one another, claiming them to be collaborators or allies for the Nazi cause.
Author Chris Chapman shows us what life was like following the liberation and offers us no easy answers for their actions. There wasn’t any alien influence on their actions, no mind control, no super-weapon. This is just people acting out in anger at those they deemed to help the Nazi cause.
This fact puts the companions, Constance and Flip at loggerheads for most of this story’s runtime. Constance is someone from WW2 when the Doctor first met her in Criss-Cross, she was a Wren at Bletchley Park. Because of this and the fact she’s lived through the war, she can understand the anger of the French villagers and even sympathies with them, though she doesn’t necessarily condone their actions. Flip is every-bit the modern companion and as such brings a very modern outlook on what she is seeing and it is hard not to sympathise with her.
In the opening episode, it’s very hard to like Constance because of her outlook on things that she’s seeing, but the story does force you to remember that she is of that time and she’s been in the thick of the war, it doesn’t take more than the second episode to like her again though, and the Doctor, once again proves he has the maturity to both sides of a story, neither taking Constance or Flip’s side of the argument, instead happy to take his own stance. Not so much ignoring what is happening, just offering advice on what’s right and wrong to anyone who asks.
Chapman makes sure that all of the characters we’re introduced to in this story have a complex point of view. We meet antagonist, Lucien who is after justice for his country. Obviously he’s going to the wrong way about it, but it isn’t hard to understand why he wants that justice, although shaving women’s hair off and using a gigantic alien-flame-monster might not be the best way of going about things!
Scorched Earth is very much a human piece, the alien is almost secondary to the main plot. Sometimes that takes away from the piece but here it worked wonderfully. The alien represents human rage as much as it is a rage monster itself. As a result, Chapman gives us a creature that is as much a metaphor as it is an actual being. That’s not something Doctor Who has done very often and using the creature as a metaphor for rage and hate works brilliantly.
As a result, Scorched Earth ends up as not only my favourite Big Finish audio of this year so far but one of the best Big Finish historical stories in my opinion. It’s a historical, its a drama that tackles a tough topic and period of history and doesn’t offer any easy answers. And the human element helps to drive the plot forward, Lucian’s hate is understandable even if it isn’t justifiable, and seeing Constance and Flip on opposing sides gives their friendship some much-needed development.
The Sixth Doctor, Constance and Flip TARDIS team is one of the strongest Big Finish creations to date and with stories like this, I hope they continue for a long time to come.
Still no news this week.
Big Finish have now reopened their warehouse and all back-orders are starting to go out plus The Underwater Menace is getting the vinyl treatment.
Review story this episode: The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon
Series 6, how you’ve confused us over the years. We take the plunge with the series two-part opener. Great to me back in 11’s company or is it sill a head scratcher?
Coming next week: SJA – The Gift
Back to The Sarah Jane Adventures next week as we close out series 3. It’s the Slitheen but not as we know it.
Thank you all for listening, and until then have a great week, take care of yourselves, stay healthy and remember – Allons-y!