“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.

 

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“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).

“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.

“Omega”

Omega_(Doctor_Who)“Omega” is the 47th audio in Big Finish‘s main range of Doctor Who audio plays, and it stars the Fifth Doctor with no companion. This was one of the first audios I bought (after “The Light at the End” and “The Kingmaker”) because I love both “The Three Doctors” and “Arc of Infinity” and I find Omega to be one of the most interesting characters in all of Doctor Who. I didn’t listen to it immediately, though, because I wanted to wait for my husband to listen to it with me, but I finally gave up on that and listened to it while traveling this week. Well, this is one audio that’s really hard to rate. I enjoyed it immensely – and I mean, I think this is one of my favorite audios – and yet I’m not sure that if I could view it objectively, I’d think it was a great one. I might need to listen to it again to figure that out.

I’ll note right away that this review is going to be full of spoilers, but first, it’s important to understand Omega’s history, so the spoilers in these first few paragraphs are only spoilers if you haven’t seen “The Three Doctors” and “Arc of Infinity.” So, who is Omega? He was a Gallifreyan stellar engineer who, with Rassilon, worked out how to master time and create the Time Lords from the Gallifreyans. He figured out how to cause a star to go supernova, to harness it to fuel time travel, but, during the procedure, his ship, the Eurydice, was sabotaged by his assistant Vandekirian and was sucked into a black hole. Rassilon then created Time Lord society and went on to rule, though Omega was lauded as the genius who made it all possible. It is unknown, though why Vandekirian sabotaged the ship, and there is speculation that Rassilon bribed him, being jealous of Omega’s popularity and wanting sole leadership of the Time Lords for himself.

Omega didn’t die in the black hole; instead, he traveled through into the formless antimatter universe, and by force of will, he shaped a world for himself to live in. By the beginning of “The Three Doctors,” he’d been there alone for millenia, pretty much stark raving mad and convinced he’d been double-crossed by the Time Lords. So, he wanted to return to the normal universe. Since his method of doing so was draining energy from the normal universe in massive amounts, the Time Lords send the Second and Third Doctor (with advice from the First Doctor) to vanquish and stop him. He then comes up with another plan, in “Arc of Infinity”: steal the biodata of a Time Lord to create a new body for himself made out of real matter (not antimatter), so that he could exist in the normal universe. Of course, biodata he steals is the Doctor’s (the Fifth Doctor this time), and he emerges in Amsterdam. The interesting thing at this point is that the insane Omega, rather than going on a rampage or immediately flying to Gallifrey to wreak revenge, he saw the humans going about their daily lives, and he realized he was back in the real world – back home – and he started to become sane again. However, his created body – with the form of the Fifth Doctor – began to convert back into antimatter, and in order to prevent the inevitable Earth-destroying matter/antimatter explosion, the Doctor expelled Omega back into the antimatter universe with an antimatter converter gun.

You can see why Omega is such an interesting character. Not only is he one of the two founding fathers of the Time Lords and was “killed” in mysterious, possibly political, circumstances, but he’s the rare character that returns from his madness when he realizes that he’s come home and he’s no longer alone. Thus, I went into the audio play “Omega” hoping to find out more about him, and possibly find out what happened on the Eurydice.

I wasn’t disappointed. Big, hulking spoilers for “Omega” ahead.

Big Finish audios have a certain quality to them that distinguishes them from the Doctor Who TV show, and I’m pretty sure the majority of TV fans won’t like them. But in a way, I find them to be superior to the modern TV show, and I’m going to try to describe why. First, the audios definitely feel like the classic show, rather than the modern show: they’re broken into multiple parts with cliffhangers at the end of each, and there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. The acting is slightly hammy, which gives them a comfortable feel. And since they are audios, their success depends heavily on the plot, dialogue, and characterization, and not on visual effects. Second, the audios have a certain surreal quality to them. Sometimes it’s in the form of very mundane, everyday British personalities in alien worlds, like “Omega”‘s old ladies (possibly Gallifreyan? not sure) sightseeing on a “We Bring History to You” time-travel tour. Other times, it’s odd characterizations of people, especially historical figures, which, instead of making you dismiss them as improbable or out of character, somehow meshes so well into believable and down-to-earth personas. I’m thinking in specific of Stephen Beckett’s quiet, drily sarcastic, loyal but pragmatic Richard, Duke of Gloucester in “The Kingmaker.” The audios somehow create these strange, nearly-unbelievable worlds and people around which the strange, nearly-unbelievable plots revolve, and it all works. It’s surreal science fiction at its best. It’s something that’s sadly missing from the modern show: while the show has its great plotlines and characters, it feels very close to mainstream science fiction. Sure, some of its arcs are convoluted and complicated, and there have been weird concepts and monsters, but they never feel fantastical. The Big Finish audios are so good at that.

And this brings us to the first point I loved about “Omega”: it brought us to the Omega story/legend/myth by taking us along with a tour of old ladies and gentleman visiting a replica of the Eurydice on the very spot that the real Eurydice was destroyed. The tour company employs actors to re-create Omega’s stellar experiments, among refreshment carts and gift shops. For some reason, the Fifth Doctor is traveling along with this group of tourists, adding to the listener’s bemusement: why in the world is the Doctor bothering to travel somewhere with a tour group, rather than just land his TARDIS wherever he wants to go?

Of course, things start to go pear-shaped. First, the actor who plays Vandekirian goes mad and chops off his hand in imitation of the hand that Vandekirian gets cut off during his betrayal of Omega. Then, as things get worse, the spirit of Omega appears and says that he wants to return to the antimatter universe with his bride, the tour guide, whose name is Sentia. He plans to open the rift in this spot, using the TARDIS of Professor Ertikus, another Time Lord who is here studying the Omega myth, but doing so would destroy the tour ship, killing all of the tourists and trapping the Doctor, Ertikus, and the actor who plays Omega for the tour company, Daland, in the antimatter universe forever. The Doctor, of course, vows to stop the insane Omega.

Then, the big twist: somehow, the spirit of Omega manages to physically steal the device that opens the rift from the Doctor. Unable to stop Omega now, the Doctor summons the Time Lords for help, then figures out why the spirit is able to manipulate physical objects: the Doctor isn’t really the Doctor. Remember that in “Arc of Infinity,” the Doctor expelled Omega into the antimatter universe, so why is he in the normal universe now? Because he never left. The antimatter converter gun stabilized his body, but it had both the Doctor and Omega in it, a split personality that drove Omega mad. Thus, the “Doctor” in the tour group was Omega with the Doctor’s personality dominant, and any time Omega’s “spirit” appeared, it was the Omega personality becoming dominant. If the Doctor and Omega were talking to each other, it was the Doctor body switching back and forth between personalities.

At this point, the Time Lords send help: the Doctor, of course. He sorts everything out, including that yes, Omega actually is in love with Sentia and wants to go back to the antimatter universe with her. To make a very long (and complicated) story short, he manages to send them both there, with Omega losing the Doctor’s personality and regaining sanity once he reaches the antimatter universe. And this is another thing I really liked about this audio: it started with Omega as insane, but gave him back his sanity, allowing him to keep the growth he experienced in “Arc of Infinity” and did not default into a story about a crazy megalomaniac, as it would have been easy to do.

The third thing I really liked about “Omega” was that it explored the concept of history and legend, how important it is to know the real story vs. the expediency of letting people believe incorrect or sanitized versions. The audio starts with portraying the accepted version of the Omega myth through the tour company’s re-creation, then has two or three other versions described by other characters, most notably the historian Ertikus. He claims he’s on the tour looking for the truth, but he’s really looking to support his own theories, which he feels are important because of how they portray Omega and Rassilon. If the real history makes Rassilon or Omega out to be villains, is it more important to keep that hidden so that the Time Lords continue to revere them and do their good works? Most importantly, after all is said and done, the audio does not tell us which version, if any, is correct, and we’re left to wonder whether or not Omega, and Rassilon, are the heroes (or villains) we think they are.

Thus, I think that “Omega” is a fantastic audio, and yet I couldn’t say if the story itself is compelling. It’s good for many other reasons, and for those alone, I’d recommend it.

 

“Zagreus”

zagreusWell, I ran right into listening to “Zagreus,” the 50th audio in Big Finish‘s main range, featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard, and I am so glad I did. Now, the ratings on Time Scales varies greatly for this audio: people either love it or hate it, and I can see why. It’s a very ambitious story, attempting to force the Doctor and Charley to separately navigate their own mindscapes to figure out what’s going on without losing themselves, and a lot of people are not going to like this type of psychological drama. However, I loved it. And it cemented for me a lot more of Time Lord lore and history, which is something I really love.

Now, there is really no way for me to discuss this audio without spoilers, so you’ve been warned. Heavy, heavy spoilers ahead. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m outlining the whole story below.

“Zagreus” (pronounced “zah-GRAY-us”, by the way – I never get these pronunciations right; I still have problems remembering to pronounce “Omega” as “OH-me-ga”) follows directly upon “Neverland.” In that audio, the Doctor foils a plot by the condemned Time Lords in the ant-time universe to destroy Gallifrey by exploding it with anti-time by having the TARDIS swallow the anti-time bomb before it explodes. However, the Doctor becomes infected by the anti-time and becomes Zagreus, a previously fictional legendary destroyer of worlds. Charley is also in the TARDIS at the time and knows about the infection, but gets separated from the Doctor.

“Zagreus” then deals with what happens next. The Doctor is left to battle this alternate personality who wants to destroy the universe, and he spends much of the first half of the audio trying to avoid or escape from traps set by it. (I’m referring to Zagreus as “it” to keep it separate from the various male characters that show up.) Meanwhile, the TARDIS appears to Charley in the form of the Brigadier. He creates simulations of three different time periods to show her some important events connected with Zagreus and the anti-time universe. In each one, Charley plays the role of someone involved in the events, but mostly as an observer. The first involves an experiment run by humans during the Cold War, in which Reverend Matthew Townsend manipulates the experiment so that it shows him the creator of the universe, or so he thinks. The experiment explodes, or course, and kills everyone present, but what he sees through it is not what he expected.

The second simulation was of Gallifrey before Rassilon created the Time Lords. Tepesh, a Council investigator, made his way into Rassilon’s foundry to figure out what exactly he was doing. He finds out that Rassilon was planning to create the Web of Time to lock the universe into the timeline he preferred, and in the pursuit of this, was creating regeneration so that the Time Lords would live longer. Rassilon had also discovered that a new race, which he called the Divergence, was going to evolve to become more powerful than the Time Lords, and so he locked them into the Divergent Universe so that the Time Lords would continue to reign supreme. This is the universe that Reverend Townsend saw through his experiment. And lastly, Rassilon decided that the Gallifreyan form should be dominant in the universe, so he seeded tens of thousands of planets so that their dominant lifeforms were forced into Gallifreyan shape. Meanwhile, Tepesh reveals himself to be a Great Vampire, one of the last existent, and explains that Rassilon had waged war to genocide his race by spreading propaganda to the Gallifreyan people that the peaceful Vampire race were malicious and evil. Rassilon then incinerated Tepesh and his companions.

The third simulation was of Walton Winkle, or Uncle Winkie, a carny devoted to creating amusement parks and animatronic creatures for entertaining children. He was put into suspended animation a short time before he was about to die from a heart condition, and when he’s brought back, he finds himself in the last version of his amusement park, built on the burnt-out cinder of a planet. He discovers that he was woken up at the end of the universe, and the dead planet he’s on is Gallifrey. He’s been kept this long because he’s the one person with the mechanical skills to… Sorry, I don’t remember exactly what it was he was supposed to do, but the whole point of all three simulations is that the Divergence is trying to come back into the real universe. At the end of this simulation, Uncle Winkie is also killed.

While going through their various trials, the Doctor and Charley separately come to realize that there are sinister things going on, more than just the Doctor becoming corrupted by anti-time. They aren’t just trapped in the TARDIS: they’re in the Matrix, where Rassilon’s consciousness has existed since he died millions of years before. Everything has been orchestrated by Rassilon: he took the opportunity of the Doctor becoming infected by anti-time to bring the Zagreus persona into existence, to use it to destroy the Divergence as well as to use it to secure his hold on the Time Lords and the universe. While Rassilon forces the Doctor/Zagreus into forging a weapon that will kill the Divergence, Charley finds herself with Matrix representations of Reverend Townsend, Tepesh, and Uncle Winkie, as well as President Romana, who, when she sees them, calls them Doctor – the men that Charley saw in the simulations have the forms of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. Together, they confront Rassilon and (after a few more twists and turns) cast him into the Divergent Universe to be dealt with by the beings Rassilon had been trying to kill. However, the Doctor, still infected by anti-time, chooses to exile himself to the Divergent Universe, to protect the real universe from the anti-time within him.

As you can see, it’s quite a complicated plot, and there are some very cool/disturbing things that happen that I haven’t mentioned – you’ll just have to experience them yourself. They managed to create a plot that’s part adventure (how is Charley going to survive those simulations?), part history lesson, and part psychological drama, and it’s successful for some people (I thought it was riveting) but not for others.

One thing that was extremely interesting was how they presented the guest characters. Reverend Townsend, Tepesh, and Uncle Winkie were depicted in the simulations and the Matrix as looking like the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors (and indeed possessed significant character traits of those Doctors), and as such were played by Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. But it’s also explained that the simulations presented by the TARDIS used faces that the TARDIS was familiar with, and so all of the other characters in them looked like old companions and were played by their actors (for example, Tepesh’s fellow vampire Ouida was played by Nicola Bryant). It was wonderful hearing all of these wonderful actors playing new parts, plus a few playing their regular parts (Lalla Ward as Romana, Louise Jameson as Leela, John Leeson as K9, Miles Richardson as Braxiatel). However, I can imagine that someone who bought the audio based on the cast list might be very disappointed to not hear an audio with a giant meeting of multiple Doctors and their companions and hate this audio just for that reason. Heck, the cover image up there implies this is a meeting of four Doctors.

Bottom line, I really liked “Zagreus.” I can certainly see why a lot of people don’t. Honestly, if nothing else, I’d recommend listening to it just to find out how corrupted Rassilon really was, because it really gives you a good sense of just how different from the other Time Lords the Doctor really is.

“Storm Warning” and “Neverland”

neverlandOver the last couple of days, I listened to “Storm Warning” and “Neverland,” two Eight Doctor/Charley Pollard audios which are connected by narrative events; the final part of this story arc is “Zagreus,” which I haven’t listened to yet (but I am eager to get to).

“Storm Warning” is Charley’s first episode. In 1930, the Doctor finds himself on the maiden voyage of a British airship, the R101, where he meets Charley, who has disguised herself as a male cabin boy, for the adventure of traveling on the airship. The Doctor realizes that the fate of the airship is to crash that evening during a storm in France, and because he’s taken a liking to Charley, he tries to save her from dying in the disaster. In “Neverland,” the Time Lords summon the Doctor to investigate some fractures in the Web of Time that are spreading and threatening to destroy the universe.

Without spoilers, I can say that “Storm Warning” was pretty average, with an uninspired story, while “Neverland” was fantastic. When “Neverland” was over, I thought to myself, “I wish the TV episodes were like this audio.” In addition to a great plot with a number of twists, it addressed a number of moral issues and challenged the Doctor’s beliefs. You don’t need to listen to “Storm Warning” to enjoy “Neverland,” and I would definitely say that if you get the chance to listen to it, grab it!

One thing I will say, though, after listening to these two audios, is that I really like the Eighth Doctor. He comes across as somewhat flighty, eccentric, and non-serious, but very personable and caring, and of course, like all of the Doctors, he has a core of steel. He also has that fascination with exploring the universe and seeing new things that I love so much in the Tenth Doctor, more so than any of the other Doctors. I am also very impressed with Paul McGann: he is a fantastic actor. I think it must be difficult to act in audios, because you can’t rely on facial expressions and movements to convey emotion and meaning, but Mr. McGann does incredibly well with just his voice: he can make you picture him, which is something most of the actors can’t do very well – they act their lines out, but Mr. McGann gives something more to the performance. I wish I could explain what I mean better.

Spoilerific discussion:

The problem I had with “Storm Warning” was that the alien race was just way out there, too weird and too improbable. I know that aliens have to be designed so that they react the way the author needs, so that the story happens the way it’s supposed to, but in this case, it was really obvious they were designed to fit the plot. It isn’t successful if the audience is thinking in such meta terms. Beyond that, though, the rest of the plot – what the humans were trying to accomplish, why they attacked the aliens, and the final outcome of the Lawgiver problem – was very predictable and not interesting. The story was mostly interesting for the introduction of Charley, and at least she was a great character to meet.

“Neverland” was enthralling all the way through, starting with the disintegration of the Web of Time from the very first seconds of the audio. We find out that Charley’s death in the R101 crash in “Storm Warning” was equivalent to what the modern series calls a “fixed point” and the Doctor saving her life there caused her to become a gateway between our universe and the universe of anti-time. (The Doctor mused about saving her life at the end of “Storm Warning” but was unable to identify any problems with her continuing to exist.) The Time Lords call the Doctor back to go on an expedition into the anti-time universe, to find out why the Web of Time is breaking down. There, they find that all of the Time Lord criminals that the Time Lords used to erase from history (a punishment they stopped using) had been sent there, and these people are angry, wanting to send anti-time into the real universe, to destroy it.

As in most of the other good Doctor Who stories, the characters are not black and white: the different characters have motivations other than what they’re saying out loud, and the Doctor finds that, in order to get everyone back to the real universe and keep the anti-time inhabitants from succeeding in their revenge plot, he has to figure out who’s trustworthy and who’s not. He does finally come to the conclusion that the only way to succeed is to sacrifice himself (in a very interesting way), and that doesn’t go unnoticed, as Rassilon himself appears and expresses his appreciation of the  Doctor’s efforts throughout his life. And then there’s the twist at the end, making me want to run off and listen to “Zagreus” right now (as if I needed any more prodding – I’ve seen the cast list for “Zagreus” and I’m surprised I took the time to sit down and write this instead of popping it in).

“Neverland” was absolutely wonderful, and there are a number of scenes that I plan to go back and listen to again, because they were so wonderful and meaningful. One other thing: this isn’t a fair reaction, because it only came about because I’ve seen the modern show before listening to “Neverland,” but the Rassilon scene brought tears to my eyes. It was beautiful in the first place, because the Time Lords have rarely appreciated the Doctor but Rassilon himself displayed his approval of the Doctor’s beliefs and his constant fight to uphold them. But Rassilon’s depiction here, as a wise and benevolent figure, only underscores the corruption of the Time Lords during the Last Great Time War, as you compare him here to his character in The End of Time. It was heartbreaking.