Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Smoke and Mirrors

Disclaimer:  In the near future, I’ll be changing the way these Doctor Who-related posts are made.  I hope to have an announcement post by tomorrow, but in the meantime, if you are following this blog via social media, you may see two of today’s post, coming from two different blogs.  That’s by design, and should only affect posts made today and tomorrow.  After that, it will return to single posting.  More on that tomorrow!

Posting a day early because I’ll be unavailable to post on Friday. Will also make my rewatch post a day early, tomorrow, for the same reason.

We’re back, with another Doctor Who audio drama review! We’re continuing our look at the eleven-volume Fiftieth Anniversary series, Destiny of the Doctor, produced by Big Finish in conjunction with AudioGO. Today we’re listening to the Fifth Doctor’s contribution to the series:  Smoke and Mirrors, read by Janet Fielding and Tim Beckmann, and written by Steve Lyons. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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While attempting to take Tegan to Heathrow airport for her flight attendant job, the Doctor diverts to London in the 1920s (the specific date is not given). Tegan, Nyssa and Adric are of the opinion that the Doctor has once again failed to pilot the TARDIS properly, but for once they are wrong; he has followed a psionic distress call received via the telepathic circuits. It leads them to a fairground, and an old and famous friend: Harry Houdini.

Tegan is suitably impressed, and thrilled to meet the renowned escape artist and illusionist. The reference is lost on Nyssa and Adric, but even they are caught up in his charisma; and when he knows more than he should about Tegan, they are intrigued. Houdini plays it off, however, and diverts to another matter: He has come to the fair to debunk its fortune teller, who has inexplicable abilities of her own, but he has not been able to do so. Now he wants the Doctor’s help.

Something is not right, though. Houdini seems intent on drawing information from the Doctor which he should not have, regarding his own future and the workings of the TARDIS. Before it can be addressed, however, the group is split up; Houdini and the Doctor go to check out the fortune teller, and the three companions find themselves inside the fair’s menagerie.

The Doctor and Houdini don’t find the fortune teller, but they do find something else—her crystal ball. It proves to be no ordinary prop. The Doctor recognizes it, and refers Harry back to a previous adventure they shared (in the Doctor’s first life, along with Ben Jackson and Polly Wright) in which they encountered the Ovids, beings of pure thought. The Ovids used crystal spheres to communicate and influence the world; spheres just like this one. And this one is already in use.

In the menagerie, the companions are menaced by animals that have been released from their cages, including a tiger. Adric runs, leading the tiger away from the others, giving them time to try to escape. Tegan shouts for the Doctor, but to no avail. Adric is rescued, however, by a group of fairground workers and performers; but it is short-lived, as it becomes clear that they are under some kind of mind control. They escort him to a theater on the grounds. Meanwhile, Nyssa also has an odd encounter, with a man wearing the face of her lost father: The Master. He takes hypnotic control of her, and forces her to abduct Tegan and bring her to the theater as well.

The Doctor tries to make telepathic contact with the sphere, and is successful, though it hurts him. As he is about to make progress, he is interrupted by the image and voice of a young man wearing a bow tie—the Eleventh Doctor. He tells the Fifth Doctor that he will soon be tempted to destroy the sphere, but he must not. Instead, he must return it to its rightful owners, the Ovids. At the same time, he is interrupted by Tegan’s scream, which the sphere has also picked up; he realizes that they are in danger, and he has failed to help them. The Doctor and Houdini hurry toward the theater; but Houdini stops him and takes him captive. He places the Doctor inside a crate that is intended to be used in his famous underwater escape trick, and tells him that he has met an old friend of the Doctor, who revealed to him that the Doctor has manipulated him and withheld information. It’s all a lie, of course; and the Doctor recognizes the source as the Master. Nevertheless, in an effort to persuade the Doctor to tell him more, Houdini pushes the crate into the water…and watches as the Doctor fails to escape.

On the theater’s stage, Adric is seized by the Master, but he cannot see him. In the struggle, he sees a mirror propped up on the stage, and realizes that the Master is visible in the mirror, and their reflections are struggling. It defies science, but there’s little time to think about it, as he struggles to break free. Tegan intervenes, and sees the situation, and starts to throw a chair to break the mirror; Adric shouts at her to stop, not knowing what effect it may have on him. Instead, she throws the chair at the spotlight that is trained on the mirror, creating the reflections; it breaks, and the Master vanishes.

All is not saved, though. In rage, the Master starts to use the Ovid sphere to release massive amounts of electricity through the fairground, setting things on fire and destroying buildings. Houdini catches up with the companions as they try to escape, but they are cut off. Suddenly the Doctor returns, and reveals that he picked Harry’s pockets for his lockpicking kit, using that—and his Time Lord ability to bypass respiration—to escape the trap. He had suspected Harry was not himself all along. They make their way back to the fortune teller’s booth, the Doctor explaining that the Master was never corporeally there at all; he seems to be still trapped in the collapsing dimension where they last saw him (Castrovalva). Instead he was using the sphere to exert his will remotely, and even project himself. He locates the sphere, and is tempted to destroy it—just as promised—but instead, he makes contact with it to try to soothe it and end the energy discharge. It isn’t enough, however, and Tegan joins the link, adding her own thoughts to bring the crisis to an end.

As the smoke clears, the fairground workers awaken from their trance, having no memory of the last twelve hours. Houdini convinces them they have been unwitting participants in an experimental new act, which seems to satisfy them. He again attempts to persuade the Doctor to let him see inside the TARDIS, but is gently rebuffed, and admits that it’s better to make his future than to know it. As the Doctor and companions leave, Tegan again asks to be taken to Heathrow, but the Doctor tells her they must first make a stop: To return the sphere to the Ovids.

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There is a very narrow range of episodes, all in Season 19 of the classic series, within which this story must fall. It must be after Castrovalva, as the Master is still trapped there, and before Earthshock, as Adric still lives. As well, there is no room for an extra story between Four to Doomsday and Kinda, as Nyssa is ill between those episodes. Also, the Doctor comments that he has recently lost his Sonic Screwdriver, which occurs in The Visitation; therefore the story can only occur between The Visitation and Black Orchid, or Black Orchid and Earthshock. I favor the former, because it is hinted that Houdini is the first historical character Tegan encountered with the Doctor; although Black Orchid’s noble characters are fictional, in this universe Tegan would consider them real, and therefore she has not met them yet. The Visitation is also a historical setting, but with fewer noteworthy pseudo-historical characters, and at any rate we have already established that that story is already past. I should comment that it’s rare that we can pin down an audio’s placement so exactly; usually we are left with only an approximation.

The Doctor has had past encounters with Harry Houdini, enough that they consider themselves friends. All of those appearances have been in novels, which I have not read yet. Interestingly, one of those encounters—the first, from Houdini’s perspective—was with the Eleventh Doctor, whom he pointedly does not recognize here. It’s possible, I suppose, that he was advised to play dumb when dealing with earlier incarnations. One reference in particular, to Houdini and the First Doctor’s encounter with the Ovids, has not been seen in any medium as yet, and seems to have been created specifically for this story.

Above all else, this story is about Tegan. Although she’s not the center of the action, she is definitely the central viewpoint. It serves as a bit of a redemption for her character, as Tegan was historically portrayed as a glum, fretting individual; here, she escapes that mold a bit, and becomes very happy for awhile, so much so that Nyssa even remarks on the change. She also is crucial to both defeats of the Master here, breaking the spotlight and calming the sphere. I’ll admit to ranking Tegan in the middle of the field of companions—26 out of 46—when I ranked them; but that by no means indicates that I dislike her as a companion, and in fact I always felt some pity for her, as she was surrounded by otherworldly geniuses. This story is a nice break from that, and gives her some better footing.

Janet Fielding is a decent reader, though she doesn’t try for the voices the way that some previous readers have done. It’s a fair trade-off, however, as the Fifth Doctor has fewer vocal distinctives than his predecessors. The voice actor for Houdini, Tim Beckmann, is great, and comes off as smooth and charming even when revealing Houdini’s bitterness (as caused by the Master).

The visits from the Eleventh Doctor continue to become more explicit with each passing story in the series. Again, the Doctor recognizes him as a future incarnation, and even seems to have some idea that it is the Eleventh Doctor, specifically; he makes an offhanded comment about having “another life or six” to go. Oddly, this is a completely TARDIS-free story; the crew are not seen entering, leaving, or piloting the ship. It’s a good entry—not quite as fun as Babblesphere, not quite as morbid as Vengeance of the Stones, or as technical as Shadow of Death, but still very enjoyable.

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Next time:  On Monday Tuesday Wednesday (thank you, Christmas), we’ll look at Main Range #15, The Mutant Phase; and then on Thursday, we’ll return to Destiny of the Doctor with Trouble in Paradise, featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below.  This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Smoke and Mirrors

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