I don’t usually post reviews twice in one day, but my new series review was delayed from last Friday. This is my usual Monday post, and I promise it is much shorter than the new series review. Enjoy!
We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Red Dawn, the eighth in the Main Range of audios. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio!
Ordinarily I begin with a lengthy summary of the plot of the audio. That won’t be necessary here, though I will summarize briefly. The story here is uncomplex at best, and minimal at worst. It is the story of America’s first manned mission to Mars (Britain’s early expeditions having been documented elsewhere), aboard the Ares One spacecraft and the Argosy lander. It’s a NASA mission, but with heavily corporate financial backing; and of course, there’s an agenda going on behind the scenes. The ship lands near a large artificial structure; and as the occupants begin to explore, the Fifth Doctor and Peri Brown arrive in the TARDIS, landing inside the building. The interior atmosphere is breathable, but only just; outside, the world is the wasteland we know it to be in real life.
The building is revealed to be the tomb and memorial of the dead Ice Warrior Izdaal However, his guards, led by Lord Zzaal, are still alive in suspended animation, and are inadvertently revived by the humans. Misunderstanding ensues as an astronaut overreacts in fear, and is subsequently killed by the Ice Warriors; then, one of the expedition’s leaders, Paul Webster, forces a hostile standoff, and makes plans to escape back to Earth with a captive Ice Warrior and Martian technology for use in weapon development. In the midst of the conflict, the Doctor and Peri try to mediate, but it is complicated when it is revealed that one of the humans, Tanya, is an Ice Warrior hybrid of sorts, created years ago using DNA brought back by an unmanned probe.
Displaying a refined sense of honor and nobility, Zzaal and his warriors work with the humans and the Doctor to stop Paul, who seems at first to have outwitted them at every turn. In the end, Zzaal agrees to help Paul escape in exchange for the lives of the others, and further agrees to be a captive; his warriors will not fire on Paul as long as Zzaal lives. However, Zzaal turns the tables by sacrificing his own life; he faces the “Red Dawn”, the Martian sunrise, which due to the thin atmosphere contains lethal levels of ultraviolet radiation. (In dying this way, he follows the example of Izdaal, who died in the Red Dawn centuries earlier to convince his people to abandon the planet for the sake of their lives.) This frees the warriors to open fire on Paul, eliminating him and bringing the crisis to an end. In the end, the Ice Warriors choose to pursue peace with the humans, with Tanya as humanity’s first ambassador to Mars.
While the story is very straightforward, it’s not without impact. I really enjoyed this story, chiefly because of its handling of the Ice Warriors. They have long been a favorite Doctor Who villain for me, even though I was mostly unaware of them until Series Seven’s Cold War (I have since watched their past appearances in the classic series, and also read the Eleventh Doctor novel The Silent Stars Go By, which features the Ice Warriors). Doctor Who, like so many other series, gets accused occasionally of indulging in one-dimensional characters, especially villains; and certainly there’s some truth to it, which is why we repeatedly have conversations about why the Daleks aren’t scary anymore. There’s only so much you can do with a one-note villain. With the Ice Warriors, you get none of that. They are as complex as any villain has been, chiefly because they aren’t a villain in the traditional sense.
In this story, in fact, the Ice Warriors are the true heroes. Certainly the Doctor does his part, as does Peri; but they are little more than bystanders. The Discontinuity Guide comments that “this story is less of a Doctor adventure than a Martian one, with us as well as a certain Time Lord as its audience”. It’s said disparagingly, but I didn’t find it to be a flaw; this story needs to be told for the sake of the Ice Warriors, and it’s not a problem that it’s more about them.
It was established long, long ago—in fact, all the way back to their first appearance in Season Five’s The Ice Warriors, with the Second Doctor—that the Ice Warriors are an honorable race. They don’t want to hurt anyone by default; they just want to live, and have possession of their world. They do sometimes get a bit misguided in that regard; the inhospitability of Mars has led them to try to colonize other worlds, sometimes violently, but no more so than some human colonization efforts. Most often, it’s that sense of honor that gets them in trouble, as they must save face when attacked—essentially they’re the Klingons of the Whoniverse. That very nearly happens again here—but wait! Something is different this time. With a little nudging from the Doctor, we see that Martian honor is not one-dimensional, either. Zzaal admits—and even endorses—that there is great honor to be had in mercy, and great dignity as well. It’s true that his first instinct when attacked is to retaliate; but he puts that aside and chooses to show mercy, even as the provocations continue. In fact, he goes beyond mere mercy, and tries to help the humans with their goals, even though it will clearly mean a much greater involvement for his people down the road. His final gesture is over the top, as is characteristic of the Ice Warriors—for reference, see Grand Marshal Skaldak’s attempted nuclear provocation in Cold War—but it is also effective, and does more to put both races on the path to peace than anything else. It’s a fitting end, and neither Ice Warriors nor humans will forget it.
The humans don’t fare too badly in this story, either, and I find that remarkable. Fiction in general—and Doctor Who is no exception—tends toward extremes. That’s normal, of course, because we want our messages—whatever they may be—to be clear. In a story like this, it would be almost customary for the humans to be fully committed to their admittedly evil plan, but that’s not the case here. Oh, definitely, Paul Webster is committed, and being the actual villain, he dies for his trouble; but the other humans come across as fair and even-handed, just as do the Ice Warriors. They are neither overwhelmed nor corrupted by the situation they find themselves in; for once, they do the right thing, and pursue peaceful relations with the Martians. It’s a very hopeful ending, and I look for good things to come as a result.
Some continuity items: This story is set in approximately 2000-2001, as it makes reference to a “Mars probe fiasco” approximately thirty years prior; while it’s not specified what story this refers to, it seems likely to be the events of The Ambassadors of Death, with the Third Doctor. (An interesting side note: That story is followed up in the VNA novel The Dying Days, the only appearance of the Eighth Doctor in the VNAs; however, it is completely unclear whether that novel, which describes a 1997 British manned mission to Mars, is accepted as fact in this story. One would think the probe fiasco mentioned would be an American incident, as Red Dawn describes an American mission, but I could find nothing to concur with that; only The Ambassadors of Death seems to fit, and it’s unclear to me why that would be referred to as a probe fiasco, when it actually involved a manned mission. As well, all of this is contradicted by a mention in The Christmas Invasion of the UK’s first unmanned mission to Mars.) The Ice Warriors here probably come from a later time than those seen in The Ice Warriors, as that group was frozen in ice on Earth for millennia. The re-entry of the Ice Warriors into the galactic scene gets some reference in The Bride of Peladon, set in the 41st century. Izdaal will be referenced again in the audio The Judgment of Isskar. The outcome of Izdaal’s sacrifice is described in the audio Deimos, where it is revealed that the Ice Warriors evacuated to Deimos and placed themselves in hibernation.
This story is unique in that it features the Fifth Doctor with only Peri, placing it in the rather short gap between Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani. Many other audios have also been inserted into that gap, but all of them also include the Big Finish-original companion Erimem (or at least, that was the case at last revision of the TARDIS wiki; I haven’t verified independently as yet). As such, this is a very positive and bright version of Peri, with none of the strain and difficulty that would later plague her under the Sixth Doctor. If anything, she’s more capable than her age and experience would allow.
In final assessment, while this is a weak story, it’s strong on characterization, and sets the stage for many later Ice Warrior stories. In that regard, it’s worth a listen.
Next time: No More Lies, the next in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, followed by The Spectre of Lanyon Moore, in which the Sixth Doctor is joined by another old friend: The Brigadier! See you there.
All audios in this series are available for purchase at Big Finish; link to this story is below. This and many others can be found on Spotify and Google Play.