“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.”

“Planet of Fire”

It’s just been one of those weeks. Meetings to go to, errands to run, tasks to be done. So many demands on my time, I didn’t even visit WordPress at all yesterday. Hopefully it will all go back to normal on Monday. I’ve even not had the time to watch much Doctor Who, and so this discussion of “Planet of Fire” is from watching it three nights ago. I hope I remember everything I wanted to say.

As usual, spoilers ho!

There are some images you find that you just have to post.

There are some images you find that you just have to post.

“Planet of Fire” is the penultimate Fifth Doctor episode, in which Vislor Turlough and Kamelion depart and Peri Brown joins up. I’m going to start with the shallow statement that this episode has something for everyone, as Peri, who spends much of her time in the TARDIS wearing deep-plunging blouses, is introduced in her bikini, while the Doctor, on this desert planet, spends the entire episode in his dress shirt and suspenders. I never realized before how good those tailored high-waisted trousers can look on a man. Ok, back to the actual intelligent discussion of this episode.

The bulk of the episode is set on a planet called Sarn, inhabited by a tribe of people who worship the fire god Logar, but have odd bits of technology that they revere as gifts from the god. The Doctor, Turlough, and Peri (who Turlough had brought into the TARDIS after saving her from drowning; the Doctor didn’t know she was there)  arrive there when the TARDIS is sent there by Kamelion. The Doctor and Turlough get embroiled in the affairs of the tribe, who believe that the prophecies of the volcano erupting and the mysterious “Outsider” arriving as a gift from Logar are coming true, while Kamelion, controlled by and looking like the Master, forces Peri to work against the Doctor. Meanwhile, Turlough is getting far more involved in and concerned about the tribe’s welfare than he normally does, and it turns out that the god Logar and his gifts of technology are the tribe’s misinterpretation of the crash of a spaceship from Turlough’s home planet of Trion, and in fact, the “Chosen One” who directs the tribe is Turlough’s brother. Eventually, the Master’s plan is revealed: he’s been shrunk to about four inches tall due to an accident while working on his TCE (Tissue Compression Eliminator), and came to Sarn because the volcano emits numismaton gas, which will restore him, though it requires the volcano to erupt, which would destroy the tribe.

So, that summary isn’t the most coherent thing in the world, because the episode is far more complex. First, it portrays a religious society and the problems they have with heretics and loss of faith. While Timanov, the head priest, is completely faithful to his god and follows what he believes is the god’s words, the Chosen One, Malkon, questions the god’s apparent orders to execute the unbelievers, and refuses to sentence anyone to death. Meanwhile, there are unbelievers who seek out evidence that the god doesn’t exist and after finding such evidence, have to decide on whether or not to denounce the god, knowing they’d be put to death. Then later, when the “Outsider” appears at the foretold time, they begin to question their own conclusions about the existence of the god.

The arrival of the two Time Lords on the planet also tests their faith. The Master immediately and happily accepts the title of the “Outsider” to make the tribe do what he wants and turn on the Doctor. In contrast, the Doctor refuses to claim that he comes from the god, and in order to save the tribe, explains exactly what’s going on to them, so that they will make the decision to evacuate the planet. In all, it was a very interesting exploration of faith and how it can be twisted and exploited.

I think, though, the best part of the entire episode was Turlough. This was his swan song and his story. He was the one who figured out what was going on – that the spaceship that had crashed was his father’s and the Chosen One was his brother – since he recognized the symbols and the technology he was seeing, and then figured out how to use it to unify the tribe. Malkon, the Chosen One had been shot and was near death, so Turlough, who had the same symbol on his arm as Malkon, stepped up and claimed that he, too, was a Chosen One, then took command of the tribe. He also made the sacrifice to save them: he was a political exile on Trion, and the only way to save them was to call for a rescue ship from there. In doing so, he would be arrested for violating his exile. Luckily for him, general amnesty had been granted and he was free to finally return home.

One last interesting part of this episode was the final interaction between the Doctor and the Master. The four-inch Master finally got the numismaton gas to work and he grew to full size, but he didn’t know that the Doctor had changed the controls, and he became stuck in the flames when the numismaton gas stopped flowing. He begged the Doctor to turn off the flame, first threatening him, then offering him anything, then finally, begging for mercy, before he finally disintegrated. Throughout it all, the Doctor watched him with a stony expression – a very uncharacteristic decision, perhaps spurred by the fact that the Master tried to kill both the Doctor and the whole tribe in his quest for restoration. The other interesting thing about this exchange was the Master’s final words: “Won’t you show mercy to your own -”  The sentence is never completed, and I’m sure there have been multitudes of discussions about how it was going to end.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking episode, and though I haven’t seen all of the episodes in the Peter Davison’s final season, if this is any indication, I can see why he thought that if he had known how good this season was going to be, he would have stayed on for another year. The only thing I think they did poorly in this episode was the scenes of Peri wandering the desert – very obvious filler. I’m looking forward to seeing more of this season, as much as I am looking forward to seeing more Seventh Doctor.

“The Caves of Androzani”

tcoa“The Caves of Androzani” (henceforth abbreviated TCoA) is the last episode of Peter Davison’s era of Doctor Who, and it’s considered the best episode of Doctor Who ever. That might be hard to believe for people who are primarily familiar with the modern series, that the best episode comes from the classic series (that it’s considered better than, say, “Blink”) and that it’s a Fifth Doctor episode (and not from Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, or William Hartnell), but it seems to be the general opinion among those who are fans of both the classic and modern eras that if “The Caves of Androzani” isn’t the #1 episode, it’s in the top three.

I watched it back in October or so with no idea that the episode rated so highly, with only the knowledge that it was the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration episode, and as such, I was mostly watching it to see the Doctor get embroiled in some situation, win the day, and sacrifice himself (I knew the circumstances of his death beforehand). As such, I was immensely disappointed and the episode didn’t make much of an impression on me at all. Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about the show and decided to give it another go.

Before I continue, here’s a link to an article that I’ll reference at least once. It’s from a blog called Classical Gallifrey, which did in-depth analysis of all Doctor Who classic episodes. Its treatment of TCoA is a little down the page, behind the “Read More” link at the bottom of the entry. The analysis is extremely long and I only skimmed it very lightly.

Classical Gallifrey

Now, onwards! Spoilers ahead.

I think my second viewing of TCoA was very well-informed by my recent viewing of “The Robots of Death.” I noticed during that episode that a major part of it had to do with the personalities and relationships of the people working on the mining vehicle. In the modern show, the episodes mostly focus on the Doctor and his companions, with the guest characters forming a backdrop against which they play, but in the classic show, it seems that often the guest characters are the meat of the story, with the Doctor and companions being almost completely incidental. This is the case with TCoA. The Doctor and Peri arrive on the planet Androzani Minor and get embroiled in a political war between multiple sides. The planet produces a substance called spectrox that prevents aging, making it “the most valuable substance in the universe,” and everyone wants to control it. The main players in the war at the start of the episode are

  • Morgus: The man who owns the spectrox mining operation and lives on Androzani Major
  • Sharaz Jek: A strange masked man who lives down in the caves and, with an army of androids, steals the spectrox and kills off the miners
  • The President: The president of the government on Androzani Major, who nominally has control but is beholden to Morgus to keep himself young and knows Morgus has bought most of the government
  • Chellak: The general of the army tasked  by Morgus with cleaning Sharaz Jek out of the caves
  • Stotz: A mercenary who supples Sharaz Jek with weapons, but is loyal to whoever pays him

This is just at the beginning of the episode, and only the most important people each faction; there are a couple of other characters that have major effects on the story as it goes along. When we first enter the caves, Sharaz Jek has established his operation in the caves and has been holding off Chellak’s forces for six months, pretty much running circles around the army. With the spectrox mining being hampered, Morgus is not making the profits he’s used to and is getting desperate to get rid of Sharaz Jek. The episode is a tale of political and military maneuvers, as different factions learn what’s going on, stage attacks and schemes, and change allegiances.

Where does the Doctor fit into all of this? He and Peri land on Androzani Minor and enter the caves to explore. They fall into a growth of raw spectrox before being found by Chellak’s men, who accuse them of being gun runners for Sharaz Jek. They spend most of the episodes bouncing back and forth between the different factions, who each believe they are spies for some other faction. Meanwhile, they discover that raw spectrox is toxic to humans (the sickness is called spectrox toxaemia) and that from their brief contact with it, they are both dying. There’s only one antidote for it, the milk of a queen bat that lives far down in the caves where there is no oxygen. None of the factions have the equipment to go down there, and are certainly willing to let the supposed spies die.

Thus, the episode is a complex web of intrigue, some of which is due to the already tense situation in the caves, and some of which is due to the introduction of the Doctor and his companion, as each faction who finds them assumes they’re enemies and adjusts their plans based on what they think the Doctor and Peri have learned and are going to do. Meanwhile, throughout the episode, the Doctor is completely powerless, at the mercies of whoever has captured him at the moment, but his only concern is to figure out how to save Peri. From the moment he finds out that Peri is sick, all he wants to do is cure her, and when he finds out the sickness is fatal, it becomes his driving force. This desire gives him the impetus to break out of his chains (while he’s in a spaceship and captured by the mercenaries) and commandeer the spacecraft to return to the planet and acquire the milk of the queen bat for the antidote.

There are a couple of other things worth mentioning about this episode. I will note that both of these I got both of these ideas from the Classical Gallifrey link I posted above. First, the direction. This was the first episode Graeme Harper directed for Doctor Who. If you don’t recognize his name, he directed ten episodes during David Tennant’s run as the Doctor, including “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday”, “Time Crash”, “Turn Left”, “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End”, and “The Waters of Mars”.

sharazperi2Now, I will tell you plainly that I don’t know a single thing about directing in a show. I can’t tell you if a specific director is good or bad. I can only tell you what I see when I watch something, and to me, it looks like in TCoA, Mr. Harper took Doctor Who in a completely different directorial direction. One of the things that I sometimes have a problem with while watching the classic episodes is the feeling of unreality: the cheap sets, the brightly-lit interiors, the stodgy characters standing in a row delivering their lines to each other, the long shots of slow monsters plodding across a desolate landscape, that kind of thing. Quarries looked like quarries, and caves looked like, well, cheap sets made of papier mache. Mr. Harper turned that on end for TCoA. He used the lighting to darken everything except the most important things in the scene. He positioned the actors in natural poses and arrangements. For some shots, especially the incredibly creepy scenes of Sharaz Jek with Peri, he positioned the camera low and intimate, to draw you closer to the characters. Sure, the sets were still cheap, but he focused you on the characters and the action, and thus you don’t notice the rest. He concentrated on depicting the story, rather than shooting the script, to considerable effect.

The second thing I wanted to mention was a very short bit (probably only two seconds) that has wider implications on the story and the lore of the show. I wouldn’t have noticed this if Classical Gallifrey hadn’t pointed it out. When the Doctor has commandeered the spaceship and is returning to Androzani Minor, he’s already well into the late phases of spectrox toxaemia and, like Peri, is going to die soon. He’s sitting in the pilot’s chair staring at the viewscreen and hallucinates for a moment, seeing vertical lines covering the viewscreen screen. He concentrates and they go away. As it only lasts for a second or two, it just looks like something that was thrown in to emphasize that he’s really sick.

What Classical Gallifrey points out is that the vertical lines weren’t on the screen – they were over his entire field of vision, and if you pay attention to them and to the end of the episode, you’ll see that they’re exactly the same lines that appear in his vision when he starts to regenerate. The point of the scene was not that he was sick, but that he was dying at that moment and willed himself to delay his regeneration until he could save Peri. Up until this point, I had thought that the concept that the Doctor could delay regeneration was invented for the Tenth Doctor’s story in The End of Time, but no, the Fifth Doctor did it first. Also, his stopping his regeneration in order to continue trying to save Peri only underscores his tenacity and his devotion to this companion who he barely knows. (Read Classical Gallifrey’s discussion of this point: it’s far better than anything I could ever write about it.)

I have to admit, on second viewing, I’m still not sure about everything that happened in those caves. There were so many tricks and turnarounds that I’m not sure who ended up on top. But I was completely engaged in the story – all of the characters were intricately designed and interesting to watch, even the ones you end up hating – and I do think that this was a fantastic episode. #1? Not sure. I’d have to watch it a few more times to really grok it. But top 20, at least. I’d put this episode up against the best that the modern show has to offer, and it’ll beat out a lot of them.

“11 Doctors, 11 Stories”

11 DoctorsAs part of the 50th anniversary celebration, the BBC released a series of eleven short stories, one for each Doctor and written by eleven different authors of note, then published it this month in a collection called Doctor Who: 11 Doctors 11 Stories. I’m only now getting into the alternate Doctor Who media and am very apprehensive about buying things, because I can never judge the quality of the material beforehand, but so far, in general, I’ve been pleased with the books, comics, and audio plays so far, and this collection is no exception. I enjoyed all but one of the eleven stories.

Here’s the list of the short stories (in Doctor order), with a brief setup of the situation in the story and maybe some opinion. No real spoilers.

“A Big Hand for the Doctor,” by Eoin Colfer: Ok, I have to admit, I didn’t finish this story. I really couldn’t stand the writing style and gave up  halfway through. My husband says it’s a good story, and I will try to finish it some other day.

“The Nameless City,” by Michael Scott: This story is hard to describe without giving things away – even summarizing the first scene will be a spoiler – so I won’t try. It’s very Second Doctor, letting him act the fool while he figures out what’s going on, and Jamie is also very Jamie.

“The Spear of Destiny,” by Marcus Sedgwick: The Third Doctor and Jo Grant investigates a (surprise!) spear in a local museum that seems to affect time in weird ways. As befits the Third Doctors, there’s more action in this story than a lot of the others, and it also takes a stab (sorry!) at showing how legends and myths are made.

“The Roots of Evil,” by Phillip Reeve: The Fourth Doctor and Leela land on an enormous tree floating in space that houses an entire colony of people. The concept behind this story and its setting is very cool, though I was a little disappointed with the motivation of the villain. The trip, though, is worth it.

“Tip of the Tongue,” by Patrick Ness: During World War II, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa land in an English town in which the children are playing with a new toy that hooks to your tongue and speaks the absolute truth about yourself and what you are thinking. This is one of my favorite stories in the book, because it explores the effect the toys have on the people’s lives; this kind of introspection is one of the things that Doctor Who can do so well. The Doctor is almost completely incidental to the theme.

“Something Borrowed,” Richelle Mead: The Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown attend the wedding of the son of a friend, a species that performs a physical transformation similar to regeneration except only when they get married. This story is a simple adventure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun read.

“The Ripple Effect,” by Malorie Blackman: The Seventh Doctor and Ace are stuck in a space-time bubble and have to blow up a star to push themselves out of it, but this has unforeseen consequences. The concept of this story is fantastic, and the Doctor and Ace get into a fascinating philosophical argument, but I didn’t like the resolution. It was a good enough story, but it really could have been a lot better.

“Spore,” by Alex Scarrow: The Eighth Doctor lands in an American town and discovers that what seems like a space virus has killed all the inhabitants. I really liked the atmosphere of this story and the final resolution was interesting.

“The Beast of Babylon,” by Charlie Higson: The Ninth Doctor makes friends with a girl on a planet that is attacked by cosmic creatures. As he would say, this story is fantastic. It develops the character of the girl and the nature of the threat gradually, keeping you reading to find out how it all fits together. There’s also a very cool tie-in to the Ninth Doctor’s first television story, “Rose.”

“The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage,” by Derek Landy: The Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones land in the story from a book that Martha read when she was a child. You might think this is a revisit to the Land of Fiction, but it’s not. This is one of the weaker stories in the set, because the first couple of parts are uninteresting (it tried and failed to set up a creepy, surreal atmosphere) and the very final part of the resolution is unsatisfying (the previous parts of the resolution were cool).

“Nothing O’Clock,” by Neil Gaiman: The Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond arrive on Earth in 2010 only to find that the entire planet is uninhabited. Remember at the top that I said that the stories were released individually and then as a collection? Now, if you don’t want to buy the collection, I will urge you to buy this one story. It is completely worth it. This is absolutely a wonderful story. I won’t tell you any more about it, because you have to read it.