“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.

 

“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).

“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.

 

“The Kingmaker”

The_Kingmaker_cover“The Kingmaker” is story number 81 in Big Finish‘s main range, a Fifth Doctor adventure with Peri Brown and Erimem. I listened to this audio a few months back, in January, but I didn’t really get it. I had been given a project at work that was purely visual and mostly mindless (unlike my usual work which involves both thinking and writing), and I realized that I could listen to audios while I worked on it. (I am so jealous of the artists here: they get to stream episodes of the X-Men cartoon to watch/listen to while they draw. I wish I could have Doctor Who on all the time.) I listened to “The Light at the End,” which was great, and then I listened to “The Kingmaker,” and it was just meh. It felt very talky and fragmented, and I just figured that it was an uninteresting historical, which was sad, because I love history and how Doctor Who goes back to tell stories about historical events.

A few days ago, I found Time Scales, which is a site devoted to fan ratings of Big Finish audios. It also has ratings for Doctor Who television episodes, but to me the main benefit is that it tells me what audios I might be interested in. (By the way, if you’re going to visit that site, please note that if you omit the “the” from the URL, you go to a site that attempts to download a virus onto your computer by pretending that it’s an update to Flash Player. Ask me how I know.) While I was browsing the site, I looked up “The Kingmaker,” and it has a rating of 8.7. This is fantastic. To give you an idea of how good that rating is, only seven of the modern TV series episodes has a higher rating than “The Kingmaker.” An 8.7 puts it in the top ten of the hundreds of Big Finish Doctor Who episodes. So, I had to listen to it again, give it a second chance.

And I’m glad I did. “The Kingmaker” is utterly brilliant.

Now I realize that I just reviewed Dead Air and said it was wonderful, and you might think, “Geez, you just say anything that’s related to Doctor Who is fantastic.” Well, that’s not really true. I’d like to think that I have some aesthetic discretion, and I have pointed out some not-so-wonderful audios and books. “The Kingmaker” is just wonderful on so many different levels.

Spoiler-free synopsis and review:

If you’re familiar with British history and the War of the Roses, you know that the Kingmaker was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, a man who was at the center of English politics and over many years controlled who was on the throne and who wasn’t. One of the mysteries stemming from this period is the fate of the two sons of Edward IV. The princes and heirs to the throne, they had been put into the care of Richard of Gloucester when Edward died, but Richard imprisoned them in the Tower of London and took the throne himself as Richard III, and no one knows what happened to the princes. It’s assumed that Richard has them killed, but it’s never been proven.

In “The Kingmaker,” the Doctor decides to go find out what happened to the princes. He lands in 1485, after the princes have been imprisoned in the Tower, and heads out while Peri and Erimem go to change into period clothes. The TARDIS hiccups and lands again in 1483, just after Edward IV has died and Richard has taken custody of the princes, but Peri and Erimem don’t realize that they’re in a different time zone than the Doctor until after they’ve left the TARDIS, and when they look for it, it’s gone and they’re on their own, stuck living in 15th century England while the final events of the War of the Roses unfold around them.

As I noted before, this story operates on so many levels. At its core, it presents and solves the mystery of the two princes, in its own very Doctor Who way, which is in itself satisfying. Then there’s the complexity of having two sets of characters in different time zones, with the one in the future trying to figure out what happened to the ones in the past, while the ones in the past are trying to figure out how to get themselves out of their situation and are trying not to change major historical events. The guest characters in this are all well-defined and well-performed, and Richard especially has an incredible amount of depth; you never quite know if he’s good and honorable or evil and despicable. Then, there’s the ending. Or the endings, as it were. There are at least three moments in the play in which you think, “Oh, ok, that’s what happened! Great story!” and then it throws something else at you and you realize it’s not the end. The reason why it works like this: nothing in this story is unimportant. Every detail matters.

One other thing that makes this story delightful is its style: anachronistic and irreverent, without overshadowing the main plot. For example, Peri and Erimem spend some time working in a pub owned by a man named Clarrie, and when he trains them to be tavern wenches, he gives them scripts to upsell the customer (“Now, when the customer orders a pork pie, what do you say?” “You know, sir, that pork pie would wash down well with a pint of our fine house ale.”). He then mentions that they’re good workers, a lot better than the ones that he can get from “an agency.” If you’re not used to it, it can be a bit surreal, but it injects a lot of humor into what might otherwise be a very serious, talky tale, and prevents the audio from sounding like history class.

Overall, without going into any spoilers, this story brings together a large number of unique concepts and characters and ties them all together into a wondrous whole, in an atmosphere of both mysterious danger and irreverent humor.

Spoiler-full review:

And I mean, spoiler-full. If you don’t want spoilers, you shouldn’t be reading this.

I think the thing that really impressed me about this is the complexity of the plot and how you never quite know what Richard is doing until he does it. You don’t even know if he believes what Mr. Satan tells him at the beginning of the audio. However, the motives of his actions are all explained. The revelation that as a mysterious historical figure, he’d been visited by time travelers before who wanted to know why he did what he did and that he had no intention of attempting to take the throne until he’d been told that that’s what he did was amazing, both because it influenced his life and decisions so profoundly and because it gave us a glimpse of the damage caused by time travelers who aren’t careful.

Then there was the fact that he learned on his own about the Web of Time and that the time travelers were terrified of the Doctor, and used that knowledge to his own ends, to find out more and manipulate the Doctor, this mysterious and powerful figure. That whole section, where Richard explains what happened and tries to get the Doctor to give the order to kill the princes, bears listening to again. And yet, Richard was a character with a well-established personality and goals, and he stuck to them. He was loyal to his brother, only seizing the throne because history said he did so, and repeatedly noted that he would do anything, but only if he had a very good reason to do so. As a bonus, his attempt to manipulate the Doctor gave us another instance to watch the Doctor face his responsibilities head on: does he order the death of the princes to preserve the Web of Time, or does he spare them like he personally wants to do? Luckily for him, he’s the Doctor: he can look at a situation and make connections no one else can between disparate events, and he figures out what the big secret is, saving the lives of his companions.

The reveal of the villain behind everything was unbelievable, hilarious, and absolutely awesome at the same time. And a non-evil villain, too. Perhaps he was rather insane, but his intentions were good, at least from the point of view of his society and history. His fate, and Richard’s, was totally unexpected, and I’d like to think pretty unique in Doctor Who stories. Usually everything gets put back in their right places; this one didn’t quite accomplish that, but close enough…

This audio was just brilliant, and I need to listen to it again, to get all of the details down. I can definitely see why it’s ranked so high, and if anyone were to ask me to recommend an audio that I’ve listened to, this would probably be the one I’d choose.

“The Mind’s Eye”

Bf102_mindseye_big“The Mind’s Eye” is #102 in Big Finish‘s main range of Doctor Who audios, featuring the Fifth Doctor, Peri, and Erimem.

In a not-too-spoilerific synopsis, the Doctor and his companions find themselves on a jungle planet where the plants trap and kill people by inducing a dream state as they grab and immobilize their victims. While the Doctor and the human research team investigating the plants try to save Peri and Erimem, we also get to see the worlds that Peri and Erimem create in their dreams, the worlds that they would like to live in.

The overall story is pretty average, with its somewhat predictable twists and turns, if you’re familiar at all with Doctor Who stories. The supporting characters were well-performed, but rather shallow. To me, the interesting part was seeing the dreams, especially Erimem’s, because I’m not very familiar with her character and it told me quite a bit about her, and prompted me to go to Tardis Data Core to find out more. I have listened to at least one other audio with her (“The Kingmaker”) but it didn’t touch on her history or personality at all, unlike this one.

I think I’d like to see a bit more meat in these audios, more situations in which the Doctor must make a moral choice or teach the companions or supporting characters something important, or stories which deal with the companions’ histories more. This particular audio was really very straightforward, with the evil very recognizable and not nuanced at all. While this was a fine adventure and I enjoyed it, I’ve heard better.

“The Butcher of Brisbane”

161_The_Butcher_of_Brisbane“The Butcher of Brisbane” is the 161st audio in Big Finish’s main range, and features the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and Turlough. This is one of the best audios I’ve heard so far.

Spoilers ahead! I’m not writing out the whole plot because it’s too complicated and would really ruin some of the surprises.

While traveling, a mysterious force hits the TARDIS and pulls Nyssa and Turlough out. When the Doctor and Tegan trace back to where it happened, they land in 51st century Brisbane, but Nyssa and Turlough are nowhere to be found. They discover that the area has been destroyed and is considered extremely dangerous, and the people they meet up – a group of journalists with know them. They become embroiled in the problem that the journalists are investigating – what seems to be unethical experiments in time travel – that are occurring just as the world factions are coming together to form a globe-spanning alliance. As they find out more about this new alliance, they discover that the man who is leading the faction known as the Eastern States, Magnus Greel, is also about to get married – to Nyssa. The story is then all about figuring out what Nyssa is doing there, what’s going on with the time travel experiments, and trying to get the alliance to not dissolve into war.

Like I said, I’m not going to give many more details about the story, but if you’re familiar with the classic show, you probably recognize the name Magnus Greel: he was the villain in the Fourth Doctor episode “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” In that episode, the Doctor encounters Greel in Victorian London, where he’s been deformed and is dying from his travel in his time cabinet, which uses a destructive form of time travel called zygma energy. Assisted by a duped minion and a doll-like animated object called the Peking homunculus, he was draining the life force of kidnapped women to stay alive and power his experiments to heal himself using the time cabinet. The Doctor, of course, stopped him by forcing him into his own life-drain chamber.

This audio, then, explores Greel’s life before the events of “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” He’s a high government official in the Eastern States and wants to have his faction take over the world (even if it means World War Six), but he’s also dabbling in time travel on the side, through the efforts of an alien named Findecker, who insists that zygma energy is the way to do it. Findecker is dying from zygma energy exposure, so Greel also starts experimenting with draining life force from people, earning him the nickname “the Butcher of Brisbane.” The TARDIS crew become involved because of the zygma beam hitting the TARDIS in mid-flight, and the Doctor finds himself having to figure out what’s going on and try to help the victims of Greel’s and Findecker’s experiments without changing the history he’s already experienced with Greel in his previous incarnation.

Thus, the story has to work on two levels: it has to be a good story in its own right, and it has to fit itself into the history already established in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” It does both of these beautifully, and it’s quite a thrill to hear about how all of the things in that episode came to be. The origin of the time cabinet and the Peking homunculus are explained, and the Doctor mentions that he exists elsewhere on the planet, working with the Filipino army in a previous incarnation. The Doctor even introduces himself to Greel as a Time Agent, explaining why Greel is so afraid of them in the TV episode.

Greel himself is a fascinating character. He’s ambitious and amoral, but he is still a likable person (unlike Findecker), and even though you can’t believe it at first, he really does love Nyssa. And, after all that happens, you can see why he’s become what he is in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” The Doctor wins and everything is happy again in the end, but the story feels like a tragedy because of Greel and what you know of his fate.

This story is also unique because the Doctor has to constantly dance around the fact that he knows Greel’s future and has to make sure that things happen correctly for him. For example, there are a few instances in which people have to chance to kill Greel or take him prisoner, but the Doctor knows he has to live and has to escape in his time cabinet. There’s no external, hand-wavy reason for what the Doctor has to ensure, like “it’s a fixed point in time.” This time the reasoning is very solid: the Doctor must save everyone while allowing Greel to escape, because not doing so will change his (the Doctor’s) personal timeline.

All in all, this is a great audio, especially if you’re familiar with “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” I leave you today with the best quote from story, courtesy of Tegan, speaking to the Doctor. “Stop holding time’s hand! It’s bigger than you are. It can take care of itself.”

 

Circular Time

Circular_TimeIt’s been a while since I listened to the Big Finish audio Circular Time and I’ve been meaning to write a review about it, so today’s the day. I listened to it on the way back from Victoria, and I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Spoilers ahead. You can’t really write a review without at least a few spoilers.

Circular Time is a Fifth Doctor audio with Nyssa as his sole companion, which places it between “Time-Flight” (the Doctor finally gets Tegan to Heathrow, leaving ) and “Arc of Infinity” (Tegan accidentally encounters the Doctor in Amsterdam and rejoins the TARDIS crew). It’s a collection of four stories titled after the seasons of the year and has a general theme of the time and life, of death and renewal, and cyclic change. It was written by Paul Cornell, the author of “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood,” and it supports my realization earlier this month that he’s my favorite Doctor Who writer.

“Spring” has the Doctor heading to a planet of an avian species at the behest of the High Council because a Time Lord has left Gallifrey and integrated himself into their society, apparently attempting to make them evolve faster. This is probably the most straightforward of the four stories, but it is very interesting because it deals with what happens when a different Time Lord, not the Doctor, decides to break the non-interference policy. In this case, it’s not clear until the end what the Time Lord is trying to accomplish, and you accompany the Doctor on his journey of discovery, because he doesn’t really know what’s going on either.

In “Summer,” the Doctor meets Isaac Newton. While the plot of the story itself eludes me (I really need to listen to it again), the characterization of Newton is striking, almost disturbing. His mind doesn’t work like anyone else’s, and it’s scary to watch what happens to him as he deals with encountering the Doctor, a strange man that he knows is something from beyond his experience.

“Fall” is by far my favorite of the four, and is the one in which Nyssa takes as much of a primary role as the Doctor, if not more so. In this story, the Doctor explains the difference between circular time, the cyclic nature of seasons, days, and regeneration, and linear time, the journey from one point to another, from birth to death. The pair spend a few weeks on earth in autumn, so that the Doctor can play cricket in a village league, something that he likes because it is circular: cricket seasons always returns, and linear creatures like humans return to write themselves into history via stats and stories. Meanwhile, Nyssa takes the time to try to deal with the loss of Traken by writing a novel about her people, but she can’t write the linear story because she doesn’t want it to end. While both characters have a storyline here, they go in completely different directions than they want them to, and Nyssa’s is especially beautiful.

“Winter” is also a wonderful story, but I can’t really describe it at all without giving it entirely away. I will say it’s the only one of the stories that isn’t set between “Time-Flight” and “Arc of Infinity.”

As you can probably tell, Circular Time is not a typical Doctor Who adventure. There’s no running from monsters or evil plots to destroy worlds. These are introspective stories and very suited to the Fifth Doctor. I highly recommend them, especially “Autumn” and “Winter.”