“Masquerade” and “Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories”

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

Spoilers of course. Always spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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“Tomb Ship”

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

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

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

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

Some spoilers, sorta…

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

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

“The Keeper of Traken”

keeper_2065I’ve been plagued this week with pains in my mousing hand, probably from trying to carry too many things for too long last Sunday, so I took the day off from work. The problem is, staying at home is pretty boring when you can’t use your hands. What to do? Doctor Who, of course! I spent most of the day listening to the audiobooks from “The Destiny of the Doctor” series, finishing the first seven, so only four more to go. Expect a discussion of them by the end of the weekend.

On our third attempt to watch “The Keeper of Traken,” we finally succeeded! Back in September when we first starting watching the classic Doctor Who episodes, I wanted to see the Fourth Doctor to Fifth Doctor regeneration, so I ordered from Amazon the “New Beginnings” trilogy consisting “The Keeper of Traken,” “Logopolis,” and “Castrovalva.” When it arrived, I popped “The Keeper of Traken” into the DVD player, and it didn’t work. The other two discs worked, so we knew it wasn’t our equipment. We watched the other two episodes and returned the trilogy, and sadly, Amazon didn’t have any other copies of it. My husband was especially disappointed because Nyssa is one of his favorite companions and he really wanted to see her genesis episode.

A few months later, we subscribed to Netflix, and one of the first discs we added to our queue was “The Keeper of Traken”: we would finally get to see this episode. The disc arrived and… it didn’t work. We have multiple DVD and blu-ray players, and it didn’t work in any of them. Just our luck. So, back it went to Netflix with a “This disc is broken” post-it on it.

Last month, I reordered “New Beginnings” from Amazon, and this time, the disc worked! So, we finally got to watch it.

Spoilers ahead.

Having just returned from E-space with his new companion Adric, the Fourth Doctor is summoned to the tranquil and harmonious planet Traken by the Keeper, the elder of the planet who keeps the peace on the planet through powers granted by the Source. He’s dying and will be passing on his powers to the next Keeper, but he knows there is danger and wants the Doctor’s help. An evil creature called Melkur landed on the planet years ago and, though it was captured as a statue and isn’t a threat, the Keeper is concerned about it. Meanwhile, a consul named Tremas is about to marry his love, Kassia, but he is also likely to be named the Keeper’s successor, which worries Kassia, as he won’t be able to be her husband if he becomes the Keeper.

It’s impossible to describe more of this episode without revealing the whole plot, so if you don’t want to know what happens, skip ahead to the next paragraph. Since the arrival of the evil Melkur and its calcification as a statue, Kassia has been taking care of it, and she becomes influenced by it, doing things it suggests because she believes it is helping her. She starts out trying to subvert the the Keeper process because she wants to keep Tremas as her husband, but more and more, the statue causes her to manipulate people so that Tremas cannot become the Keeper and the consuls choose Kassia to be the Keeper instead. By the time she realizes that the statue is not helping her (she can’t keep her husband if she’s the Keeper either), the statue is able to fully control her. The Doctor and Adric spend the episode trying to prove that they are not the evil saboteurs the Trakenites think they are and figure out who is subverting the Keeper succession and why.  Finally, the Doctor discovers that this has all been engineered by the Master, who is at the end of his final incarnation and wants to take the Source to extend his life. The Doctor is able to foil his plans, but unbeknownst to him, the Master merges with Tremas and leaves in his TARDIS.

I think I really enjoy episodes like this one in which the Doctor is considered to be hostile, so he has to not only solve the problem at hand but do so while trying to clear his own name. It adds a bit more tension to the overall story, simply because everyone is hunting him. It causes more twists and turns in the plot, too, as different characters come to trust or distrust him as events occur. The episode also handled the supporting characters well. Since Traken is a harmonious planet with no conflict or distrust, the Trakenites are incapable of understanding deception, and so they jump to conclusions very quickly on flimsy evidence.

This episode was also Adric’s first adventure outside of E-space, and he was instrumental in saving the day. One thing I noticed was that both he and Nyssa were very technologically capable, something that modern companions are incapable of, as they are always human. It was nice having companions that actually understood the science and technology they were faced with and could build a device to accomplish what was needed. Interestingly, Tardis Data Core notes that this is the last episode of Doctor Who that did not have a single human in it.

Overall, this was an enjoyable episode: not one of the best, but better than average. It also sets the stage for the next two episodes, as it introduces the characters who are going to be instrumental in the Doctor’s regeneration and recovery. The only one who is not in this episode is Tegan, and she arrives very quickly in “Logopolis.”

 

“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.”

“Arc of Infinity”

We finally viewed the end of the Omega arc in “Arc of Infinity.” I was actually a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed this episode, since the first one, “The Three Doctors,” was rather weak – it involved way too many crazy dictator enemy rants, minor characters complaints, and wandering corridors/wilderness fillers to be involving. Even the bickering between the Second and Third Doctors couldn’t save that episode.

Peter Davison as Omega.

Peter Davison as Omega.

“Arc of Infinity” had a lot of incomprehensible technobabble, since it involved another Omega plot to return to Gallifrey from the antimatter universe, and that was a bit difficult to follow. It’s main strength was the part of the plot set on Gallifrey. The High Council detected that something from the antimatter universe was trying to enter N-space and that it was using the Doctor’s biodata to do so. In order to break the link, they ordered the termination of the Doctor, even though the Doctor pointed out to them that the only way the entity could get the biodata was if someone on the High Council was helping it. Thus, a lot of the plot had to do with political maneuvering among the council members and the Castellan’s investigations into the matter.

Omega’s plans involved coming through to N-space on Earth, so part of the story involved two hitchhikers who inadvertantly get involved. This drew in Tegan, who had returned to her normal life and was visiting her cousin, one of the two hitchhikers. Thus, when Omega finally did make it through, he appeared in Amsterdam, in the form of the Fifth Doctor. (Two Peter Davisons! Twice the awesome in one episode!) Up until this point, Omega had been portrayed as he had been in “The Three Doctors”: insane, megalomanical, and desperate. As he starts to roam in Amsterdam, he observed the day-to-day lives  of the people, and smiled, the implication being that his joy in being home actually was overcoming his insanity from thousands of years of isolation. This was a very interesting character development, which unfortunately truncated because his Fifth Doctor body began to decay and needed to be destroyed before he turned back into antimatter and exploded. This was the only bad part of the episode: once Omega realized that he was reverting to antimatter, he began running from the Doctor (who was trying to destroy him before he exploded and destroyed the earth). Apart from the question of why he would run, since he was doomed and there wasn’t anywhere to run to, the running sequence took about fifteen minutes – way too much filler. If instead they had used the time to explore Omega’s return to sanity and had him face the fact that he had to be destroyed or returned to the antimatter universe (and/or have the Doctor realize that he had to destroy a now-sane individual), this would have been a superb episode.

All in all, though, it was a fun episode, and the Doctor got to have some great interactions with the Time Lords, which is always a treat. Nyssa got the chance to shoot a few people, and Tegan rejoined the crew of the TARDIS. The one thing that would make Omega’s arc great: a new episode in which Omega returns, played by Mr. Davison. It’s been established in the audio plays that Omega survived this episode in the Fifth Doctor’s form, so it is possible. Come on, Steven Moffat, do it!