“Weapon of Choice”

Gallifrey_Weapon_Of_Choice“Weapon of Choice” is the first in the Gallifrey range of Big Finish audios. I don’t know if it’s significant or not, but the Gallifrey range does not bear the name Doctor Who, possibly because the Doctor isn’t a main character in this line (perhaps he appears sometimes, but I’m not going to comment on that now). The series, as far as I know, is set mainly on Gallifrey (surprise!) and is centered around Lord President Romana and the politics of the High Council. I’ve been looking forward to listening to his range for a good two to three months now, and I finally received the CDs for the first three series in the mail (they weren’t available for download), and well, here we go!

Spoilers, of course, though more about the general series itself than the episode.

There’s a bit of backstory that comes out in the episode that you need to know. In order to oversee time, the Time Lords form a coalition called the Temporal Powers between them and three other time-sensitive races, whose names I can’t remember except for the Monans. As you can probably expect, there’s a lot of political maneuvering between the races, as each has its own goals and schemes, but the big point is that the Time Lords aren’t the only ones watching over the universe anymore. One of the things that the coalition did was establish a planet where lesser races were sent if they attempted unauthorized time travel. (Not the whole race, just the individuals who were involved.) The planet’s name is Gryben, and when the coalition investigates the offending people’s case, if the people do not agree to abandon their pursuit of time travel, they are confined to Gryben for the rest of their lives. Thus, Gryben is a rather lawless place, full of multiple species just trying to survive. Among those people, a group of dissidents called Free Time have arisen, trying to rebel against the Time Lords and their allies to obtain the right to use time as they want.

At the beginning of the episode, a Free Time dissident steals an experimental weapon called a Timonic Fusion Device and takes it to Gryben. This was a device that the Time Lords had once tried to build but found that it was too dangerous and unstable and had abandoned it, and they had thought that all knowledge of it had been eradicated, but obviously not. The other Temporal Powers don’t trust the Time Lords, that their intentions were noble (after all, the only way anyone could have built one now would be if the Time Lords were behind it, right?), and Romana has to get the weapon back. She sends a CIA agent named Torvald, Leela, and K9 to the surface of Gryben to infiltrate the Free Time movement, and there they find an even more sinister plot hatching.

The story itself was interesting and compelling, but what really made the episode was that it set up Gallifrey and its politics. Personally, I don’t know much about the Time Lords other than what I’ve seen in the TV show, but there’s a huge history and storyline going on there, and it is fascinating learning about it. So here’s a bit of the characters and setup.

The thing about the Time Lords as we’ve seen in the TV show and audios is that they’re imperious, conservative, and so absolutely sure they’re doing the right thing. They do have a reason to be this way, of course, since it was revealed in “Zagreus” that Rassilon decided what the future until the end of the universe should be, and so their defense and maintenance of the Web of Time boils down to making sure that what Rassilon chose is what happens. They’re used to being the overlords of the universe and expect that everyone will accede to them. With this coalition of Temporal Powers, though, they’ve ceded some of their power to other races, and now they have to work together with them.

Romana is at the center of this. She’s a strong, clever Time Lady, but it’s very obvious that she’s learned from the Doctor to see things from other angles and to consider other viewpoints, to care about things other than the rules that Rassilon laid down and the glory and power of the Time Lords. As Lord President, she walks a fine line of setting Time Lord policy while also trying to change Time Lord attitudes towards what she feels is a better path. She’s a fascinating character, because she doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace the Doctor’s ideals (and that’s a good thing, by the way: the Doctor is as insane as the Master, by Time Lord standards [and to be honest, by human standards as well], and his beliefs and motivations are not what Time Lord policy should be based on), but she definitely incorporates some of his viewpoint into hers while maintaining her own steely personality and values.

Then there’s Coordinator Narvin. He’s the head of the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency), which is a secretive organization dedicated to preserving the Web of Time at pretty much any cost. They do the things that the Time Lords can’t be seen to do, due to their non-intervention policy. Narvin advises Romana, but he is a straightforward action type, often unable to grasp the political maneuvering that surrounds the Lord President and the Temporal Powers.

Cardinal Braxiatel rounds out Romana’s inner circle. From the audio itself, you can tell that he’s a wise Time Lord, someone who knows what’s going on throughout Time Lord society, and has extensive knowledge of history. An interesting tidbit that is not mentioned in the audio (but you would know if you were familiar with other audios, particularly the Bernice Summerfield line) is that Braxiatel is the Doctor’s older brother, and has always been fascinated with exploring the universe and investigating history, though he approached the idea very differently from his younger brother. Romana relies on him for advice, as she knows that he’s got his fingers everywhere (like Petyr Baelish in A Song of Fire and Ice, though not greedy or amoral).

Lastly, we have Leela, the Sevateem human and former companion of the Doctor who left him and remained on Gallifrey to marry the Time Lord Andred. In this episode, Leela is trying to find her path after Andred vanished without a trace. She interpreted the Time Lords’ claim that they didn’t know what happened to him as a lie and began to distrust them. Romana convinces her to go on this mission for them, and afterward, became Romana’s bodyguard. She provides a straightforward, honest, and blunt foil to the maneuverings of the Time Lords.

With these four characters driving Gallifreyan politics and relations with the other Temporal Powers, the Gallifrey range holds quite a bit of promise of drama and adventure that’s far different from the regular Doctor Who fare, and I’m very much looking forward to all of this storyline.

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The best series

If you were to ask me which series of the modern Doctor Who I like the best, I’d answer “Series 4” without hesitation. The Doctor has the best companion, Donna Noble, as well as the best overall quality of episodes. The series follows the Doctor’s development when he has a companion who can stand with him on an equal footing with strong morals and perception without being subservient or love-blinded, and with the subsequent specials, shows how lost he gets when he does travel alone, exploring his struggle with his inner darkness.

However, if you change the question and ask me which series I think is the best, that award goes to Series 3. What’s the difference? Series 3 is a beautifully constructed story, from beginning to end. Almost every episode in the run contributes to a long tale of revenge and domination set up over a year and a half behind the Doctor’s back, while in the TARDIS, the Doctor and his companion are both discovering things about themselves and growing, both together and individually. Here’s a list of  the episodes and how they were worked into the plot.

“The Runaway Bride”: This might seem to be a throwaway Christmas special (besides setting up the brilliant Series 4, but that was unintentional, as Donna was not intended to become a permanent companion), but it actually serves a very important purpose. At the very end of the episode, as the webstar is attacking, the tank commander says, “Mr. Saxon says fire!” This is the first mention of Mr. Saxon, the defense minister, showing that the Master was already starting his schemes during Series 2 (you don’t become defense minister overnight).

1“Smith and Jones” – This episode introduces Martha, showing that she’s level-headed, perceptive, determined, and smart. Some people, me included, are upset that she falls head-over-heels in love with the Doctor within thirty minutes of meeting him, and I do wish they had postponed this character development until later, but it actually has a narrative reason; see the next episode. Mr. Saxon is also mentioned here, and demonstrates that he has a belief in aliens. This is the first episode where we see the “Vote Saxon” posters.

“The Shakespeare Code” – While this episode doesn’t have anything overt to do with Mr. Saxon, it establishes both Martha’s and the Doctor’s low points. In the bed scene, the Doctor is pining for Rose, lamenting that he doesn’t know what to do because she isn’t there, and this demonstrates what happens when the Doctor allows an obsessive, immature companion to lead him by the nose: he loses his purpose, his confidence, and his independence. Martha, meanwhile, responds with disappointment and anger, and she’s lost a lot of the traits she had in the previous episode, because she’s more concerned with developing a romance with the Doctor. From here, both of them develop positively.

2“Gridlock” – This episode, of course, seeds the Doctor with the idea that there might be another Time Lord out there, with the Face of Boe’s “You are not alone.” There’s more to this episode, though, both addressing the idea of faith. Martha, trapped in a car in the fast lane, realizes that she’s put a lot of faith and love into a man she doesn’t know at all, and though she can’t act on that faith, being trapped, she continues to believe in him. The Doctor, on the other side, hears the hymn that the drivers are singing and realizes that while they sustain themselves with their faith, it’s also keeping them from trying to change things and improve their situation, and this spurs him to action, both to save the drivers and to heal himself from the loss of Rose, the one he was trying to rely on in the previous episode; his faith was also holding him back. He also realizes that he’s been stunting Martha by making her rely on faith in him, treating her more like a pet instead of actually relating to her on a personal level, and he begins to open up to her, as much as the Doctor ever can.

“Daleks in Manhattan”/”Evolution of the Daleks” – This is the only episode of the season in which I can’t find anything that contributes to the overall story arc, other than a brief discussion of Martha’s feelings for the Doctor between her and Tallulah.

3“The Lazarus Experiment” – This is the episode where we really start to see that something is going on. Mr. Saxon is attempting to attract the attention of and trap the Doctor by funding Dr. Lazarus’ work, knowing it’s something that the Doctor will want to stop. Tish is hired by Dr. Lazarus as another bait for the Doctor, and his operatives use this to get close to Martha’s mother Francine and start to seed her with distrust and hatred for the Doctor.

“42” – While the Doctor and Martha are traveling in the future, it’s election day in Britain, the day that Mr. Saxon gets elected Prime Minister. Meanwhile, his operatives are now tracking Martha through her mother. At this point, Martha is now working on a more equal footing with the Doctor, taking on tasks and doing her best to keep up the morale of the crew members. She becomes the Doctor-analogue in a mini-relationship with Riley; while he has the technical skills, she is the leader and the one who gives hope.

4“Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” – This episode might seem like it has nothing to do with the overall story arc, but it provides two important things. First, the concepts of the chameleon arch/fob watch and the perception filter are introduced here, so that they aren’t foreign concepts to the audience just cooked up for the season ender two episodes later. Second, Martha enters into the first of three huge sacrifices she makes for the Doctor: she spends two months doing menial work and enduring racial and social discrimination to keep him hidden and protected.

“Blink” – In this episode, Martha makes her second major sacrifice, going to work in a shop to support herself and the Doctor while they’re stuck in 1969 (because you know he certainly wouldn’t do such a thing himself). We don’t know how long they were stuck there, but it must have been long enough for her to realize she needed to get a job and then for her to complain about it in the video.

The other thing that “Blink” does is deal with time travel’s effects. In most stories, if a time traveler goes into the past and changes something, that affects the future. For example, in “The Shakespeare Code”, it’s made very clear in the discussion between the Doctor and Martha that if the Carrionites succeed, the future that Martha comes from will never happen. This is the same in the Dalek episode, and in “Human Nature.” The conflicts in all of these episodes are about preventing these changes. “Blink”, however, primes the audience with a different concept of time travel: that the Doctor’s actions in the past (or the future!) can establish the normal series of events: everything that he does sets up the things that happen to Sally Sparrow. This is the concept that is used in season ender, that someone can go back and set up a chain of events to happen now.

“Utopia”/”The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords” – And now we come to what the entire season has been building up for: the reveal that the Master has been hiding using a fob watch, and that after he returns, he’s gone back to modern-day Earth to set a big plan in motion to trap the Doctor and take over the planet to build a war machine to wage war with the universe. Even Martha’s been trapped by this plan: she’s favored Saxon due to his Archangel network of satellites. And the Master uses his manipulation of her family to force the Doctor and Martha to come to him.

6Once the Doctor is rendered powerless, Martha escapes and walks the Earth for a year to save her family and gather support for him, eluding the Master’s soldiers and spies and assassins (see the novel “The Story of Martha”). And this brings Martha full circle: while she still loves the Doctor, she realizes how much of herself she’s given up for him – how much she’s allowed him to shape who she is, even if it was unintentional – and how much her family has suffered, too, and she realizes she deserves more than that and leaves the Doctor. In this way, I believe that Martha is the strongest person the Doctor has ever had as a companion, because she establishes and maintains herself separate from him.

And this is why I think Series 3 is the best series of the modern show. The story is woven expertly through the entire season, even in episodes that don’t seem to have anything to do with it: the show maintains its episodic, random-adventure feel while there is something sinister going on behind the scenes. In addition, the Doctor and Martha’s characters change and grow all the way through, and this development is incorporated into the stories of the episodes, a natural progression in response to the experiences of the characters. It’s a beautiful story and season, and a wonderful example of what Doctor Who can really be.

“Masquerade” and “Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories”

As I’ve noted before, I jumped ahead to the most recent Big Finish main range audios to keep up with the current stories, with plans of listening to all the others as I obtain them. For the early stuff, I’m trying to go in order, but then some synopsis captures my attention and I’m off the beaten track again. It doesn’t help that I’m buying them out of order. Anyway, I recently listened to “Masquerade” and “Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories”, and here’s my thoughts on them.

Spoilers of course. Always spoilers.

masquerade“Masquerade” is the third in a trilogy of Fifth Doctor stories, with Nyssa and Hannah Bartholomew, a new companion that the Doctor first encountered two stories ago. The story begins with the famous “Doctor”, a friend of Voltaire, visiting the estate of the Marquise de Rimdelle in 1770 France. The Doctor’s niece Nyssa senses the presence of something out in the fog, something she calls the Steamroller Man. And there’s a dead man in the cellar who tells the Doctor that the Steamroller Man is coming to smash the manor and kill everyone. Now, you can’t listen to a story set up like and not know that something odd is going on. It turns out that this is a computer simulation-type thing created by human scientists who are trying to work on a way for humans to survive long space trips, such as colonization trips to new star systems. Something’s gone wrong with it this time, though, and they soon find out that it’s been co-opted by a group of alien races who had been displaced by human colonization and are trying to get revenge and trying to stop human expansion. They plan to use the simulation to destroy the humans, first here, then on Earth. (It’s a bit too involved to explain how this would happen.)

I will admit I wasn’t giving the audio my full attention (I was playing Diablo 3 while listening to it), but it really wasn’t very riveting. Though there were a few misleads and cliffhangers along the way, it was pretty straightforward. Nyssa was very important during it, trying to counsel the scientists as they came to grips with the things that were happening to them. I think the thing that I didn’t like about the play was that I felt no sympathy towards the aliens. They were right to be angry about the injustices they had endured at the hands of the humans, but they were otherwise unreasonable and single-minded. It would have been a far better story if it had emphasized the moral conflict the Doctor would have when considering both sides of the story, but that was more or less ignored. The ending of the story and the departure of Hannah, however, was very well done and quite emotional.

breakingbubbles“Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories” is a series of four short plays, “Breaking Bubbles”, “Of Chaos Time The”, “An Eye for Murder”, and “The Curious Incident of the Doctor in the Night-Time”, featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri. I’ve only listened to two anthologies of shorts so far, this one and “Circular Time“, and so far I’ve enjoyed both of them quite a bit. Part of it is that it’s nice to have bite-sized chunks of the Doctor to enjoy every so often. But I do think that both of these anthologies have had a couple of exceptional tales.

“Breaking Bubbles” and “An Eye for Murder” were good stories. In the first, the Doctor and Peri find themselves in the garden of Empress Safira Valtris, and they soon find that she’s actually a deposed empress, living on a prison ship. Because she’s royalty, she can’t be harmed (assassinated or executed), so she lives in what’s basically a holodeck, giving her the comforts of royal life. Her captors immediately take the TARDIS crew prisoner, as they assume they’re here to help Safira escape. Well, the empress is trying to escape, and she does nearly do so, but when things go awry, it becomes apparent that her planned bloodless escape is about to turn very bloody, and the Doctor convinces her that this is not the way she wants it. In the second, Peri is mistaken for a mystery writer and is co-opted to find the author of threatening letters at a women’s college in England on the eve of World War II. Among the faculty is at least one Communist sympathizer and a Nazi sympathizer. This was probably the weakest of the stories in the set, dealing with the politics within the college. There was an alien threat, too, but the focus of the story was on the faculty.

You can probably tell that “Of Chaos Time The” is an unusual story from its title. It starts out with the Doctor wondering where he is, why he’s there, and who the person with him is. It’s not that he’s woken up in a strange place: he’s on his feet, running down a corridor with a person he doesn’t know, and that person is obviously following his instructions. He then finds himself in a completely different situation, again with another person he doesn’t know. As the story proceeds, he finds that he’s jumping in time, within one length of time in his life, going in random order through a series of event that Peri and everyone else is experiencing normally. As he’s going through things in the wrong order, he has to figure out what’s going on, why it’s all happening, and how to start it. As the story progresses (and I’m not going to divulge the story, because this is a great one to listen to without spoilers), he inevitably sees later parts of the story and figures out what he needs to do in earlier parts to both make the later parts happen as he saw them and solve the situation. The base story is interesting in itself, though nothing particularly memorable; it’s the time jumping that makes it wonderful. This story is a masterpiece of temporal trickery.

The final story, “The Curious Incident of the Doctor in the Night-Time”, is remarkable because of how it was presented, and it was easily the story I enjoyed the most. The main character in this one is a boy, Michael, and he’s also the narrator for most of it. He’s making an audio diary of the events that happened to him, and from the beginning, it’s obvious he’s autistic, and his observations and thoughts about the things that happened are striking. His father, a hardware/garden store worker, loses his job and blames Michael, because he thinks Michael told his boss that his father had stolen his collection of 129 garden gnomes from work, and later that day, his father gets killed while fishing to let off steam. Michael, however, notices that there are now 130 garden gnomes and realizes something is wrong.  He goes to investigate, and this is how he meets the Doctor, who is also investigating the gnomes. In true Doctor Who style, it turns out that the gnomes are actually malicious aliens who had been frozen on Earth to lock them away from the rest of the universe, and the 130th gnome was there to release them and destroy the planet.

The real story here, though, is Michael’s journey through the story, dealing with his disability and with his father’s death (which he is unable to understand for quite a while, and then unable to accept when he finally does understand). I’ll admit that I don’t know much about autism, but at least in my opinion, the portrayal of the character and his difficulties was beautiful. I would recommend getting this audio release for this story alone. It’s that good.

And that’s the main range for now. Next time, I’ll be switching gears a little, because I just received in the mail the set of CDs I’ve been waiting for: the Gallifrey range. I’m eager to hear more of Romana and Leela, and finally meet Narvin and Braxiatel.

 

“Sympathy for the Devil”

Sympathy for the Devil CD CoverPoking around on the Big Finish site, I looked through the ranges of available audios and found one that really piqued my interest. No, it’s not the “Gallifrey” range: I’ve already ordered those and I’m bouncing up and down waiting for the CDs to arrive. It’s the “Unbound” range. This series of audios is analogous to Marvel Comic’s “What If?” series, telling stories of what would have happened if… We’ve seen one episode in the modern Doctor Who that did the same thing: “Turn Left” showed what happened if Donna had turned right instead of left, leading to her never having met the Doctor. The “Unbound” range is similar, dealing with things like “What if the Doctor had never left Gallifrey?” or “What if the Doctor’s core philosophy had been different?” The plays feature different actors playing the Doctor, supporting the assumption that the Doctor’s regenerations are influenced by his experiences and situation.

While purchasing a different subscription, I was offered a free audio and took the opportunity to get an “Unbound” audio, selecting “Sympathy for the Devil” because of its basic premise: what if the Doctor, condemned by the Time Lords and exiled to Earth, had arrived in 1997 instead of 1968? This Doctor was played by David Warner, and of course, arrives with no companion in Hong Kong on the eve of the handover of the territory from Britain to China.

I should note that “Sympathy for the Devil” was released in 2003, before the premiere of the modern show, so it only refers to the classic show timeline.

Spoilers ahead. Lots of them.

Upon his arrival, the Doctor encounters Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The last time he saw the Brigadier, he was Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart at the London Underground. This Brigadier, however, is no longer with UNIT, and is running a pub in Hong Kong. Without the Doctor’s help, the Brigadier had been able to establish UNIT and had battled alien menaces, but history took a very different turn, as he had to come up with different solutions to all of the many problems. For example, the middle of London is dominated by a large lake, because to battle the Silurians, he had to send Mike Yates on a suicide mission into the past to drop a nuclear bomb. Other examples are given, but the gist of it is that though the Brigadier had varying degrees of success fighting off threats, his claims of the extra-terrestrial origins of these threats got him branded as s nutcase, and he eventually left UNIT in disgrace. He’d been heading for New Zealand, but ended up staying in Hong Kong.

While the Doctor and the Brigadier are catching up (and they’re not friends; they barely know each other), an airplane crashes in the hills outside Hong Kong, and they go to investigate. Meanwhile, UNIT also arrives, because the plane was carrying a British defector to China, a very dangerous scientist. The UNIT forces are led by Colonel Brimmicombe-Woods, who is disdainful of the Brigadier and suspicious of the Doctor. Now, this part is the major part of the episode, so I’m going to distill it down into a few sentences, with very major spoilers, so stop reading here if you don’t want to know.

Okay, I’m moving on.

After investigation and action and plot twists, they discover that the occupant of the plane is the Master, who had been trapped on Earth without a TARDIS by the Time Lords, and he’d been hatching plots for thirty years, trying to get the Doctor’s attention. He’s lived through all of the years of invasions and attacks, not to mention the regular human things going on on Earth, wondering how the Doctor could allow all of these horrible things to happen. Of course, some of it were his schemes, as he’s not averse to causing chaos in order to get his ticket off this planet. His current plot is to create an army of mind-controlled soldiers, but he had been fleeing China (where he had defected) when his plane crashed.

Nicholas Courtney, David Warner, David Tennant

Nicholas Courtney, David Warner, David Tennant

That’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to reveal here. I found this episode to be very enjoyable, because it contains a lot of Doctor/Master banter, double-crossing, and plot twists – in short, it felt very much like a Third Doctor/Master episode, and it was really nice to revisit that era and that type of episode, something that the show hasn’t done for a very long time (the Doctor/Master dynamic in the modern show is very different). In addition, the three main characters of the audio, the Doctor, the Brigadier, and Colonel Brimmicombe-Woods (man, that’s a handful to type), were designed and portrayed very well, starting at odds with each other (the Brigadier doesn’t trust the Doctor, as he was at the first instance in which the Brigadier encountered alien threats but then never appeared again for thirty years; the Colonel thinks the Brigadier is a nutcase; the Doctor is freshly exiled and thinks he should be able to trust the Brigadier but obviously the Brigadier has other ideas) but coming to a working truce and trusting each other. It only helped that the four main characters were played by some of the best actors in Britain: David Warner as the Doctor, Nicholas Courtney (who else?) as the Brigadier, Mark Gatiss as the Master, and David Tennant as the Colonel. (No, I didn’t know Mr. Tennant was in this when I selected it. I knew he played Colonel Brimmicombe-Woods, but that character wasn’t listed in the synopsis of the play. This was complete coincidence on my part, and quite a nice surprise.)

The bottom line is that “Sympathy for the Devil” was a great play, taking advantage of the greater freedom that working in an alternate timeline gives you but still providing the great dialogue, twisty plots, and wonderful characterizations we watch/listen to Doctor Who for. And it was nice having a different Doctor for once. Based on this one, I’ll be picking up more of the “Unbound” series as I work through the audios.

“Tomb Ship”

186-tomb-ship_cover_largeProbably the biggest hurdle to getting into the Doctor Who audio plays is figuring out Big Finish’s website. I first went there to buy the 50th anniversary audio, “The Light at the End”, and that wasn’t too difficult to find. I found out that BF has multiple lines of audio plays for Doctor Who, with the vast majority of the plays in the Main Range, the monthly audios that feature the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Doctors. The Fourth Doctor audios, for example, are in their own range, the Fourth Doctor Adventures.

The Light at the End” turned out to be fantastic, and I decided to jump into the audio world, attacking the Main Range and its nearly two hundred available plays, and this is where it turned confusing. I purchased a few single audios that interested me here and there, but on each audio, there was a button for buying a “subscription”. I don’t know if that means something different in Great Britain, but to me, when you buy a subscription, such as twelve issues for a magazine, you get the current issue and then more issues as they come out in the future. So, I thought that if I was buying a 12-issue subscription starting with, say, #81, which is “The Kingmaker“, I’d get that audio and then eleven more at the current end of the main range as they were produced. This didn’t make sense, since you could then start multiple subscriptions from different audios and have tons of future audios to come.

I finally figured out that I was looking at it completely wrong. “Subscription” really just means “a sequence of plays”. If you buy a subscription of 12 plays starting with #26, “Primeval”, you get 12 plays, #26 through #37. If you happen to buy a subscription and your sequence happens to run beyond the end of the currently available material, such as 12 issues starting from #186, “Tomb Ship”, when the last available play is #191, “Signs and Wonders”, you then receive new plays as they become available each month. You get a discount for buying subscriptions, but they don’t get extended if you already own a play in its range (for example, I bought #81, “The Kingmaker” as a single, but it’ll be cheaper to buy the eleven plays around it as a subscription even though I’ll be paying for #81 twice). It’s a nice little system once you get used to the terminology (and you create a spreadsheet to keep track of which ones you’ve bought and what subscriptions to buy).

After organizing all of this, I decided to keep up with the latest plays while also working on listening to the old ones, so I bought a subscription starting with “Tomb Ship”, #186, a Fifth Doctor adventure with Nyssa as the companion. Apparently, this adventure is second in a series of three Fifth Doctor adventures, #185-187, but I listened to it anyway, and I don’t think it suffers from not having heard the previous audio.

Some spoilers, sorta…

The Doctor and Nyssa land on spaceship that is currently being explored by a woman named Virna and her four sons. The ship is the tomb ship of the king of an ancient race, and Virna is convinced that it contains untold riches, and she’s happy to sacrifice her sons to get them for herself. She, of course, views the Doctor and Nyssa as rivals and takes them prisoner, only allowing the Doctor leeway because he is obviously better at solving the puzzles and disarming the traps on the ship than anyone else. She has one of her sons watch over Nyssa while the rest of them delve further into the ship.

The story is pretty standard: while Virna and the Doctor are exploring, Nyssa and the other son come under attack, then discover new information that’s important to finding out about both the ship itself and Virna’s obsession with the treasure. And then, of course, there’s a twist at the end. It isn’t an inspired story, but it was still entertaining, and part of that entertainment was watching the Doctor figure things out. I wouldn’t rate this as a great audio, but it delivers on the things that we expect from standard classic Doctor Who – adventure, a bit of horror, and interesting characters – and I’m looking forward to hearing the final adventure in the trilogy (someday I’ll get the first and listen to that, too).

Beyond the realm of believability

Traffic is still a problem in the future.

Traffic is still a problem in the future.

I’ve mentioned a few times recently that one of the things I really like about the Doctor Who audios is that they have this surreal quality to them that doesn’t seem to exist in the new show. The problem is, if you don’t listen to the audios, it’s very difficult to explain what I mean. Well, I found that I was wrong, that this quality does exist very rarely in the modern show. The episode I’m thinking about is “Gridlock,” the second episode of Series 3. This is the one where the Doctor takes Martha to visit New Earth, where she’s kidnapped by a couple so that they qualify to drive in the fast lane on the motorway beneath New New York.

When I was new to Doctor Who and watching this episode for the first time, it baffled me. It seemed completely unrealistic that there could be a motorway so vast and so clogged that people would drive for years on it. Then, I found out that the motorway is completely enclosed and that the people on it never realize that they’re stuck there forever, and that compounded the disbelief. Add to that the weird people in the cars and the hymn they all sing together, and it added up to an episode that really rubbed me the wrong way.

When I rewatched it, I liked it a lot better, but I’ve found that is true for every Doctor Who episode I’ve rewached (which includes all of them except “Love and Monsters”, “Rings of Akhaten”, and all but two of the current season). Knowing what was actually causing the problem made it a lot easier to believe in the first place and I was able to pay a lot more attention to the story without the distraction of disbelief. This was the same problem I had with “Blink” the first time I watched it: the Weeping Angels that got frozen when anyone looked at them were so unbelievable to me that I couldn’t concentrate on the story; the episode was far better the second time I watched it and could ignore the implausibility. (Sadly, I’ve never been able to suspend my disbelief for any of the later Angel episodes.)

I haven’t seen “Gridlock” for a long time, and since then, I’ve listened to a number of audios and come to appreciate their feel. Then I watched “Gridlock” this weekend, and I found that it has that same surreal feel that I love so much, and, in fact, so did the previous episode set on New Earth (named “New Earth” of course), though “Gridlock” let you see New Earth a lot better. It has this undercity (which reminded me a lot of Final Fantasy VII) with street vendors calling out moods to sell, and this huge motorway full of horrible fumes and bumper-to-bumper traffic. The inhabitants of the cars are normal, perhaps a bit too over-the-top normal, even though this is set far, far in the future. There’s a cat married to a human, and they’ve had kittens, and this is perfectly fine.  The whole city is normal when it really shouldn’t be, and yet it’s not. And it’s all portrayed with overly-bright colors. It’s surreal.

That’s the quality that I love. The world could have been filled with futuristic science-fiction people like you find in any other imagined future society, but instead, they chose to make them too normal in a too-strange world, and it fits very well: with the exaggerated normality of the world, the exaggerated traffic jam becomes plausible. Probably the most obvious example of this in the classic series is “The Happiness Patrol”, with its legions of happiness officers arresting anyone who wasn’t happy, and its candy monster that executes prisoners by drowning them in syrup, but I’d also include “Logopolis” and its planet of mathematicians sitting in tiny huts, creating the universe in this category. I wouldn’t be surprised if the classic show opted for surrealism more often simply because they decided that since the viewers could tell that sets were flimsy, they might as well emphasize the unbelievableness of the settings.

This is something that Doctor Who has definitely moved away from. The only recent episode that wasn’t in a traditional sci-fi or historical setting was “The Wedding of River Song”, and it was surreal because the plot required it to be – time was imploding on itself. “Voyage of the Damned” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” provided great opportunities for surrealism, with their Earth vessels traveling through space, but they both opted to duplicate the historical contexts, rather than emphasize the anachronisms.

The surrealism was something that set Doctor Who apart from other science fictions shows, with their plausible settings and aliens. I’m definitely looking forward to more gems along those lines from the audio plays and the classic episodes I haven’t seen (which are a lot), but I’m always keeping up hope that we’ll get a good, nicely strange new world or society now and again in the future.

“The Chimes of Midnight”

220px-Chimes_of_Midnight“The Chimes of Midnight”, written by Rob Shearman, is the 29th audio in Big Finish‘s main range, featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard. I’ve been trying to skip ahead, up to the 180’s range, to keep up with the audios that are currently being released, but there’s so much to listen to – nearly two hundred in just the main range – and then I get recommendations from friends, like this one. My friend told me that he thinks Mr. Shearman’s work is brilliant and recommended “The Chimes of Midnight” to me; Mr. Shearman’s other audio, “Scherzo”, is, according to my friend, “f*cked up but fantastic”, and requires some previous audios, as it’s the first story in the Divergent arc. I also happened to already own “The Chimes of Midnight”, so I started there.

Some spoilers ahead (I won’t reveal the whole plot).

I’ve said earlier that one of the things that I like about the Big Finish audio plays is that, unlike the TV show, they are very willing to journey into the surreal, and “The Chimes of Midnight” doesn’t disappoint. It starts out very ordinary, with the TARDIS landing in the servant’s area of a manor house on Christmas Eve, 1906; there’s nothing strange about that. The Doctor and Charley realize pretty quickly that something is odd, and they start exploring and meeting the staff, and this is where it starts getting strange. Everyone is nice and helpful, and everyone is so excited about the cook’s plum pudding, because “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Mrs. Baddeley’s plum pudding!” The phrase is repeated by all of the staff, and it seems to focus the surrealism, just that phrase by itself. You start to cringe when you hear it.

Of course, more strange things start to happen, starting with the scullery maid, Edith, telling Charley very matter-of-factly that she’s going to die tonight, which she does, drowned leaning over her tub with her head submerged. The rest of the staff are happy to attribute this to suicide, and when the Doctor says that it’s impossible to kill yourself that way, they claim that Edith was too stupid to know it was impossible. And then the lady’s maid, Mary, begins to realize that she’s the scullery maid, because there never was an Edith. But, an hour later, there’s Edith again, working in the scullery.

I can’t really do this storyline justice, trying to summarize it. Suffice it to say that the weird things continue to compound themselves, and they are intricately wrought to have you going in circles until the Doctor figures out what is really going on. The plot is riveting, and the performances are fantastic. I definitely would recommend this audio as a great one. It does refer back to Charley’s origin audio, “Storm Warning,” but the reference is explained well enough in the audio that I don’t feel you have to have heard it.