Monster Movie Tributes: New Doctor Who Rewatch, Series Two, Part One

I owe everyone an apology; while doing some research, I discovered that I never posted this entry.  I put it on Reddit, where these entries are cross-posted, but somehow failed to post it here.  Therefore, a few weeks later, here it is: the beginning of Series Two.  Thanks for reading!

We’re back, with our new Doctor Who rewatch! Last week we checked out the first Christmas special, The Christmas Invasion, and got a proper introduction to the Tenth Doctor. Today we begin Series Two, looking at New Earth and Tooth and Claw. We’ll also take a look at the related TARDISodes, the mini-episodes which accompany each episode of Series Two. Let’s get started!

As a reminder, each series in the new show tends to have considerably more stories than the classic seasons; therefore we’re splitting each series into parts of two or three episodes each for the sake of length.

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has never seen this episode!

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New Earth gives us the Tenth Doctor’s first excursion to another world. The planet is called New Earth, and the year is 5,000,000,023, twenty-three years after the events of The End of the World. I don’t reference that episode lightly; we’ll wrap up some threads from that episode here.

The Doctor and Rose view the city of “New New York”, actually the fifteenth after the first. He then reveals that they haven’t come here by accident; they were summoned via psychic paper. Their summoner is unknown, but he can be found in a nearby hospital, which stands outside the city. The Doctor and Rose go inside, and find it is run by the Sisters of Plenitude, a religious order composed of a catlike race of genetically altered humans. The Doctor explores a bit, sending Rose on ahead to Ward 26, the source of the summons; but she is diverted into the basement. Meanwhile, the Doctor arrives at Ward 26, and finds something remarkable: a range of deadly diseases, all subject to near-miraculous and instantaneous cures.

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Rose warily enters the basement, and gets a shock in the form of an old enemy: Cassandra O’Brian dot Delta Seventeen, the last pure human. She has survived her apparent death on platform one, and received a new skin interface. Now, however, she and her servant, the forced-growth clone named Chip, capture Rose, and transfer Cassandra’s mind into her body. She goes in search of the Doctor.

The Doctor and Cassandra-in-Rose meet their summoner: The Face of Boe. However, he too is dying, and can’t speak to them. As they start to leave, Cassandra—still undetected—leads the Doctor to find the intensive care section. Inside, they discover to their horror that the hospital’s miraculous cures have a sinister side: The Sisterhood has grown a multitude of clones, then infected them with every known disease, for use as lab rats. They believe their clones are insensate, but this isn’t the case; they are quite alive, and aware. The Doctor confronts the Sisterhood, and also accuses them of altering Rose somehow; they deny it. Cassandra ultimately tires of it, and—facing attack by the matron of the Sisterhood—she sets off an alarm, and unleashes the clones.

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The clones flood the hospital, chasing the Doctor and Cassandra to the higher floors. The Doctor forces Cassandra to leave Rose’s body, causing her to possess him instead. After some debate, Cassandra finds she can inhabit the clones as well, and discovers that they are not hostile, but horribly lonely; they just want to be touched. Unfortunately, their touch is deadly. The Doctor is forced to a solution: He takes all the cure solutions and places them in a tank which feeds a chemical disinfection chamber…and then he invites the clones in. Soaked in medicines, they spread the cures like wildfire among themselves, and are cured.

With a new form of life—pure humans, in the form of the clones—now filling the hospital, the police arrive and arrest the sisters. The Doctor meets with the Face of Boe, and finds him also miraculously recovered; he tells the Doctor that he has a final message for him, but this is not the time. They will meet one more time. The Face of Boe teleports away.

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Cassandra is still inhabiting Rose. The Doctor orders her out, and she admits she has nowhere to go, and does not want to die. However, Chip appears, having hidden from the clones, and offers himself to her. She accepts, and joins him in his body. Being force-grown, however, he has only half a life, and the strain of the day is about to kill him. She makes a final request.

The Doctor takes her back in time to a point in her own life prior to her conversion to a skin form, a moment at which a stranger at a party called her beautiful, then died in her arms. It is a treasured memory for her. Now it becomes apparent that the stranger was Chip, or rather, Cassandra in his body. The Doctor gives her a final moment of peace, and she passes away.

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Tooth and Claw finds the Doctor and Rose traveling to 1979…only to be diverted to 1879, in Scotland. They are immediately captured by a guard unit, which is protecting an important person in a coach: Queen Victoria. The Doctor introduces himself as James McCrimmon, and via psychic paper, convinces the queen that he has been sent by the local lord to help protect her on the road. They travel to a nearby manor: the Torchwood estate.

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They are received by the estate’s owner, Sir Robert MacLeish; but they quickly find that he is under duress, and the estate has been taken over by an odd order of monks. The monks have a singular purpose: they want the throne.

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As the full moon rises, the monks reveal their secret. They have brought a man to the estate, but he is no ordinary man; under the moon, he transforms into a werewolf. He pursues the Doctor, Rose, the queen, and Sir Robert through the estate, killing several servants, until they barricade themselves in the library. Inside, in the books, they discover that a spaceship crashed to Earth in the area sometime in the past, and the wolf originates there. It is a sort of parasite, surviving by moving from host to host. Now, it wants to infect the queen, and create an Empire of the Wolf.

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The queen reveals that she is carrying a valuable treasure: the Koh-i-Noor diamond. She is taking it to the royal jewelers to be recut. Seeing it, the Doctor concocts a plan, but he needs time. Sir Robert sacrifices himself to buy him that time. The Doctor realizes that Sir Robert’s father new about the wolf, and planned for this. He built a telescope, but with too many lenses. The telescope is actually a light chamber, designed to magnify the moonlight; and the diamond, which his friend Prince Albert had cut down, is the final piece. The wolf may live on moonlight, but too much will drown it.

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The wolf breaks in, and is caught in the light in the nick of time, and dies, reduced to nothingness. Still, there is one disconcerting remnant: the queen is bleeding. She denies that she was bitten, but Rose later speculates that perhaps the royal family are werewolves in her time. The Doctor acknowledges that it is unknown how haemophilia entered the family line.

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The next day, the queen knights the Doctor and Rose…and then banishes them. After sending them back to the TARDIS, she declares the founding of a new institute, named for the estate, which will exist solely to counter strange and wonderful things from outside the world, things such as the Doctor himself. That estate will be called Torchwood.

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New Earth was an early new-series episode for me, though not my first (I missed Series One in its first run, and began with The Girl in the Fireplace, then quickly started catching reruns of missed Series Two episodes). As such I remember enjoying it quite a bit; and it still holds up well, in my opinion. It has the distinction of being the first new series episode set on an alien world, something that I missed in first watch; all of Series One is set on Earth or near it via space stations. It links back to The End of the World by bringing back Cassandra and the Face of Boe, though the setting is of course different; and the city of New New York will—and the Face of Boe—will reappear in Gridlock, which wraps up this loose arc. (He’ll also appear in Utopia/The Sound of Drums, but only in flashback.) It also introduces the cat people, and specifically the Sisters of Plenitude, who will reappear as well; interestingly, these aren’t the first race of cat people the Doctor has encountered, as the Seventh Doctor and Ace met a similar race in Survival.

This episode is Doctor Who’s take on a zombie story. While the plague carriers aren’t zombies in the traditional sense—or even quite in the Walking Dead sense—they function essentially the same way; they shamble along with reduced intelligence and crave the contact of the living, and though they may not eat them, they certainly kill them. It’s a uniquely-Doctor Who approach; everyone else wants to exterminate them (no pun intended—no Daleks here!), but the Doctor has compassion on them and wants to save them. He does it, too, even if the science stretches credibility a bit. He has compassion on Cassandra as well, at the end, although he was more than willing to let her die at first; the show handwaves that by giving him lines about how her time is up, but essentially he’s condemning her to death. It’s been a huge but quick step from the Ninth Doctor’s “Just this once, everybody lives!” to the Tenth’s cold willingness to let someone die. Still, he makes up for it at the end, and lets her die—not at his hand, but against his will—with dignity; and in doing so, he sets the course of her life prior to this, by creating a very formative experience. It’s not quite a paradox, but it’s poetic at least.

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The Face of Boe sends a message via the psychic paper, establishing a property of that item which will be reused again in the future. His mysterious illness is not explained, nor is his recovery. I keep saying “he”, because the other characters seem to consider him male, but I’m not forgetting his pregnancy as announced in The Long Game; there’s a lot we may never know about the Face of Boe.) Other diseases mentioned include Marconi’s Disease (a play on the inventor of radio), Pallidome Pancrosis (which kills within minutes of infection, establishing a basis for the instant deaths we see later in the episode), and Petrifold Regression (which turns its victims to stone). The Doctor states he dislikes hospitals; which is understandable, as he once died in one (see the television movie).

Outside of this story’s previously-mentioned arc, there are not many references to be had here. A few other planets have been called New Earth, but that hardly counts as a reference, as they are unrelated. Petrifold Regression is mentioned in the novel The Stone Rose, which also involves Ten and Rose and therefore refers back to this mention; Amy Pond will believe she has a similar-but-unnamed condition in The Time of Angels.

The TARDISode for this episode is fairly simple; it constitutes a television advertisement for the medical services of the Sisters of Plenitude.

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Tooth and Claw is a significant episode, in that it formally introduces the Torchwood organization. Torchwood would make its television debut six months to the day after the release of this episode; this story would establish its origins in 1879 Scotland. (One wonders why the Scottish branch isn’t referred to as Torchwood One instead of the London branch…) Although Jack Harkness should be on Earth at this point, he does not appear, being recruited sometime after the turn of the century by Torchwood. It’s interesting that Torchwood exists specifically to counter the Doctor (and other threats like him); in the 21st century, UNIT seems to have taken up that mission, maintaining contingency plans while also keeping a good working relationship with the Doctor.

Queen Victoria, thus, becomes a very significant character for the future of the series, though she doesn’t appear again (to my knowledge, at least). However, the Doctor has met her before, offscreen; in The Curse of Peladon, the Third Doctor admits to having been at her coronation. She doesn’t seem to remember it here, or at least she does not connect it with the Tenth Doctor, and he doesn’t mention it either. She knights him, and Rose as well; it isn’t his first time, having been knighted in The King’s Demons, but that time was a sham, having been perpetrated by an impostor king. He’s wanted to be knighted as far back as The Crusade, when Ian Chesterton was knighted by Richard the Lionheart.

We get more references here. The obvious one is the assumed name of “James McCrimmon”, which is a reference to Second Doctor companion Jamie McCrimmon. (Playing the role, David Tennant used his real-life Scottish accent, the only time he does so as the Doctor; Queen Victoria later comments on his accent changing when he reverts to his usual English accent.) Werewolves have appeared in several stories across varying media; on television they appeared in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, though those werewolves did not appear to be related to this one. The wolf refers back to The Parting of the Ways when it sees Rose; it says it sees something of the wolf in her, and that she burns like the Sun. There is another new aspect of the psychic paper, which we will see again: the Doctor himself doesn’t always know what people see on it.

The related TARDISode gives us a bit of backstory, involving the spacecraft crash that brought the werewolf cells to Earth in the first place. It ends with the wolf’s first murder.

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Overall, not a bad start for the Tenth Doctor, and for Series Two! With these early episodes, there isn’t much to dislike. Next time: School Reunion, and The Girl in the Fireplace! (Although my goal is to have three episodes whenever possible, The Girl in the Fireplace is immediately followed by a two-parter which I don’t want to split up.) See you there. [Note:  As I mentioned, I’ve accidentally had to post this out of order, so we’re past those upcoming episodes already.  The next post will wrap up Series Two with Fear Her, Army of Ghosts, and Doomsday.]

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Holy Terror

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re looking at Main Range #14, The Holy Terror, starring Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, and Robert Jezek as comic-strip companion Frobisher, the shapeshifting penguin private investigator. (Now THERE’s a sentence that could only exist in Doctor Who!) It’s my first encounter with Frobisher, as well as his first appearance in Big Finish. Let’s get started!

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

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The story cold-opens on an imperial drama: God-Emperor Pepin VI (the empire is not named, only its leaders) has died, and his son, Pepin VII, is succeeding to the throne. Of course, there can only be one true god, which means that if Pepin VII is god, his father must have been a false god—making everyone who worshipped him a heretic and worthy of death. Unfortunately, that includes everyone. The fallen emperor’s wife, Empress Berengaria, is arrested and taken to the dungeons. On the way, she meets her second son, the bastard Childeric, who wants to depose and usurp his brother. He’s come to gloat, but there’s just one problem: Berengaria doesn’t care. In fact, she’s bored and disappointed by the whole situation.

The Empire isn’t the only place with problems. Frobisher has been playing with the TARDIS’s dimensional stabilizers, which govern its internal geometry; the Doctor finds him in the bath, and scolds him for it. It’s irrelevant now, though; the TARDIS is acting up anyway. The Doctor and Frobisher can’t figure it out; against all odds, it seems the TARDIS is just…miffed. It may not be able to speak, but it gets its point across: It’s tired of being taken for granted, and now it’s going to take them where IT wants to go.

Pepin VII is met by his high priest, Clovis, and his royal scribe, Tacitus. Tacitus has a unique job: he records the emperor’s deeds and words, producing scriptures—a new bible for a new god. It’s too bad that the new god-to-be is so nervous… After the meeting, Clovis meets Childeric, and agrees to help him depose Pepin—after all, it’s traditional! With the time of the coronation—when Pepin will ascend to godhood—at hand, everyone gathers in the throne room, with crowds watching. Clovis crowns Pepin, who doesn’t feel any different. He performs the accompanying miracles, which are—to any outside observer—just cheap tricks. Pepin can’t handle the charade anymore, and declares he is not actually a god; Childeric steps in to try to take the throne, leaving Pepin at the mercy of the crowd. He is saved, however, when a real miracle happens: the arrival of the TARDIS.

The scanner at first reveals only a white void outside, but then resolves into the throne room scene. Frobisher comes out, with the Doctor following…and they are immediately proclaimed as heavenly messengers. Pepin’s deity is confirmed, against his protests—protests which, I should add, offend his wife, Livilla, whose life is also on the line. The Doctor and Frobisher help Pepin to his rooms to rest. Meanwhile, Clovis meets with Childeric to work on his plans. Pepin and Tacitus are beginning to explain history to the Doctor and Frobisher; but Pepin’s guard captain bursts in and shoots him (with a gun. In a medieval setting. Just go with it.) Pepin is unharmed. He confirms the guard captain’s faith and sends him away…then reveals that the gun was stocked with blanks. After all, why waste live ammunition on a god, anyway? Besides, the assassination is a ritual, like everything else—just tradition, as in the ancient texts. The Doctor decides he’d better see the texts.

It seems that many things are “just tradition”. The Emperor is always god, but always dies and is succeeded, thus proving that he wasn’t really god; his faithful and his wife are always executed. One son is always good, the other—the bastard—is always evil, and always conspires with the high priest to betray him, but they are always defeated and executed. Frobisher is stunned by it all, as is the Doctor. The texts are strange, as well; every god’s bible is full to exactly its last page, with no waste, and all are in the same writing: Tacitus’s handwriting. Meanwhile, Livilla visits Berengaria and tries to side with her to put Childeric on the throne; but Berengaria pushes her away, stating she doesn’t really want to live, and looks down on the whole situation. Furious, Livilla beats her badly.

Clovis takes the Doctor and Tacitus to Childeric, who forces them into the catacombs under the castle. He doesn’t need the Doctor, only Tacitus, but lets him observe anyway. He reveals he has a son, whom he has kept hidden from everyone except a tongueless servant, so that he will be uncorrupted by anyone and will develop into a true god. However, the moment has come years earlier than planned; therefore he will take the throne until his son is old enough to rule. Meanwhile, the crowd has become a mob, destroying statues of Pepin and threatening his life…until he admits he is no god, but claims another god is present. He presents their new god: Frobisher, the “big talking bird”!

Childeric intends to trap Tacitus with his son, so that he can chronicle his life as he has done with other gods (sans tongue, of course), until the child can take the throne. The Doctor, he intends to kill. Meanwhile, Frobisher tries to return to the TARDIS, but it has locked him out. Therefore he accepts the throne—chiefly to save his own life—and orders that Pepin not be executed for heresy. (This, of course, is highly unconventional.) He announces he will make other changes, too. Livilla goes to Childeric and curries his favor by telling him that Frobisher has been proclaimed god and emperor (Emperor penguin? Hmm). Childeric decides that he must release his son on the world ahead of schedule.

As Frobisher unsuccessfully tries to introduce parliamentary democracy, the guard captain comes in for the ritual assassination. Unfortunately, thanks to the previous criticism, he’s using live ammunition this time. Frobisher, however, is unharmed; the bullets pass through him without injury, leaving holes in the throne behind him. Now EVERYONE is confused.

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Livilla, Childeric, Tacitus, Clovis, and the Doctor all return to the catacombs, and Childeric releases the child. Tacitus reacts terribly, as—unbelievably—he recognizes the child’s face. The child speaks to them—which it should not be able to do—and reveals it does in fact have godlike power. It transforms Livilla into an infant, then kills her. Its tantrum then nearly destroys the castle, causing Tacitus, Clovis, and the Doctor to flee. Tacitus claims to have killed the child, many times, but it keeps coming back—and suddenly, the Doctor knows what is going on. He returns to speak to the child.

Frobisher learns that the first statue of him is already up; it doesn’t match exactly, but it’s close. Seeing the artist’s terror, he changes his own beak to match the statue—another miracle, they assume. He learns that in previous eras, the artist could be killed for such a failure, and he pardons the artist. He announces that nobody will die for him, and is advised that a prisoner—Berengaria—already awaits execution. He goes to her; Pepin begs Frobisher to heal her injuries—and to Frobisher’s own shock, he does.

The Doctor and Childeric confront the child, which kills the tongueless servant. It just wants to kill everyone except its father, with whom it will rule; and it has no conception of a universe outside the castle. The Doctor now knows that of everyone here, only the child can harm him or Frobisher. Childeric thinks this is madness, and opens his mind to merge with the child—but the child discovers Childeric is not his father. It tears him apart. It asks the Doctor who its father is. The Doctor asks it to lower the pitch of its voice…and when it does, the voice becomes that of Tacitus.

The child is not a god; it is a trap for one man, designed to torture him. The Doctor refuses to share the information, but the child forces itself into the Doctor’s mind. It sees memories of the universe, and is terrorized by them; it believes only the castle really exists. It disappears, and the Doctor rushes to find Frobisher.

Berengaria talks with Pepin, and finally—at long last—begins to heal some of the wounds and misunderstandings in their relationship. They are interrupted by the child, which demands worship from them; Pepin tries to defend Berengaria, and is killed at once. Berengaria refuses to worship the child, and it kills her as well—which is what she wanted anyway. Meanwhile, the Doctor encounters Clovis, who wants to help—but the Doctor knows Clovis will betray him. It’s not his fault; after all, the Doctor now knows that no one here is real, except the child and its father. They were created by an uncreative man, and their personalities are stereotypical, quite against their will. He leaves Clovis behind. The child appears and kills him, and in Clovis’s final moment, he does indeed betray the Doctor—he points the child after him.

Tactitus reaches the throne room, where Frobisher waits, and hides behind the throne, ranting in terror. The child is coming, killing everyone it finds en route. The Doctor joins them there, and reveals that everyone else is dead—or rather, never existed. This place is a place of fiction—a created world, a kind of illusion. It’s dimensionally transcendent, like the TARDIS, which is why the TARDIS came here; it needed a place to recover from the damage Frobisher had done when messing with the dimensional stabilizers. The place is a prison for Tacitus, who once committed a terrible crime: he murdered his own child. The entire cycle is a fantasy in which Tacitus is prisoner, participant, and planner: he relives his son’s reality through the child, which tries to kill him, only for him to kill it. The cycle has repeated for centuries, so long that he doesn’t even remember (until now, anyway); it will go on forever if he doesn’t break the cycle.

The child arrives, and Tacitus confronts it. He admits to madness; he must have been mad, to kill the child he loved—and he did love him, and does. The child loves him too, but is compelled to kill. Tacitus has a knife, and can kill him, as he has done before; but against the Doctor’s urging, rather than drop the knife, he gives it to the child, which kills him instead. The cycle is broken, and the castle disappears.

The Doctor and Frobisher find themselves back in the white void, but with the TARDIS waiting, its damage now fully repaired. It’s a sad ending, but one from which they have learned—or so they hope. They board the TARDIS, and move on.

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Everything I have to say can be summed up in one sentence: This is not your usual Big Finish. The company itself has referred to this story as a “side-step into a 2D universe”, by which they mean the reality of the Doctor Who comics. Frobisher had never appeared in the audios prior to this story, but was a semi-regular in the comics, especially the Marvel Doctor Who comics; I admit I only know the basics of those comics, and haven’t read any of them as yet, though I hope to do so. He will appear again in one more audio, The Maltese Penguin, which I hope to review at some point. For those not familiar, he’s a Whifferdill, a shapeshifting race; although they may have a base shape of their own, he doesn’t seem to be bound to it, and can choose to remain in a form at least semi-permanently. His preferred form is that of a large penguin (hence my “emperor penguin” pun). He is a private investigator by trade; his portrayal here is the stereotypical noir take on a PI, complete with faux-gangster accent, but then, that’s perfect given that this story uses stereotypes as a theme. Frobisher is a delightful character, once you accept that this is by no means a serious story.

Or, is it? It comes across as very humorous on the surface, but there’s some drama to be had underneath. It’s quite sad that the majority of the characters turn out not to be real; even though they are played for laughs, and even though they are unabashedly declared to be stereotypes from the beginning, it’s easy to become fond of them very quickly. In a way, they each become little case studies of the type of character they represent—and of course, that has bearing on real life, as we all experience these kinds of feelings at some point. Berengaria is a study in hypocrisy versus genuineness; she’s aware she’s a caricature, and she’s bored with it, and craves authenticity, even if it means dying. Pepin is a study in adequacy, or rather, inadequacy; he has so much to live up to (plus some serious daddy and mommy issues), and knows he can’t, and he’s driving himself crazy trying to escape it. Clovis is a study in temptation; he understands that it’s a part of his character, but he wants to be more and better (and unfortunately, he fails). Childeric is a study in the definition of evil; he knows that he is supposed to be evil, but he questions what that really means, and where the line is between ambition and evil. He revives the old questions of “are villains really evil, or just misunderstood?”

The story took its darkest turn for me with the revelation of the child and the reason for its existence. I am a father of three children, and the thought of a parent murdering their child never ceases to upset me. I can’t imagine what it would be like to sink to that level, and I hope I never know; I’ve had nightmares in the past about harming my child by accident, let alone on purpose. It would have been simple to portray Tacitus as a pure criminal, perhaps deluded; but instead he’s cast as insane. Sometimes that may be a stereotype in itself, but here it comes across as a mercy to him; when finally confronted with his own guilt, he’s horrified too. He’d change it if he could; he’s not a monster, just a horribly broken man. It’s almost too bad that it ended with his death; I’d like to see him have been redeemed.

There’s a significant (and yet unspoken) link between this story and the classic serial The Mind Robber. This environment isn’t declared to be the Land of Fiction from that story—in fact, I’m sure it isn’t the Land of Fiction—but it’s just like it, complete with the white void framing the internal reality. We are never given any indication of how this came about. Who imprisoned Tacitus? How long has he actually been here? Where is this in relation to the real universe? We may never know. There’s some evidence it may be on (or at least originating from) contemporary Earth; there are a number of concepts and references to Earth history, if an abridged version of it. Even the names are of European origin, and in some cases refer directly to historical figures of note.

Other references—beyond the existence of Frobisher, which links to the comics—include the Dimensional Stabilizers, which date to Planet of the Daleks at least. Gumblejacks—the fish that Frobisher is hunting (in projection form) in his first scene—were mentioned in The Two Doctors. We’ve had other references to a bath in the TARDIS, notably in the novel Lungbarrow’s early scenes, and with Leela in The Invasion of Time; if it’s actually the TARDIS pool in question, we’ve had still further references. Frobisher mentions having been an Ogron at one point; Ogrons first appeared in Day of the Daleks.

I really enjoyed this story. I kept an eye open for any dislikes, but it I didn’t find any; ordinarily my dislikes consist of things that are out of character or continuity, or perhaps portrayed badly, but as this entire story is out of character and continuity by definition, I thought it best to be pretty forgiving. Frobisher in particular is highly entertaining, and I wish he had more Big Finish material. It’s almost going to feel like a letdown when we return to more serious material next week.

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Next time: On Thursday, we’ll look at Destiny of the Doctor #5, Smoke and Mirrors; also, with the Christmas holiday approaching, I will be offline for most of the weekend, and therefore I hope to post my NuWho rewatch post on Thursday instead of Friday. By the same token, I’ll be late with the next Main Range post; I hope to post on Wednesday instead of Monday next week. After that we should be back on schedule. The next Main Range post will look at #15, The Mutant Phase. See you there!

All selections 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.

The Holy Terror

Split-Personality Demons: New Doctor Who Rewatch, Series Two, Part Four

We’re back, with our New Doctor Who rewatch! Last time, we reviewed Series Two’s Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel, which reintroduced classic villains the Cybermen to the series, and The Idiot’s Lantern, which laid the groundwork for several future episodes. This week, we’re looking at another two-parter, The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, and finishing up with one of Doctor Who’s most reviled episodes, Love and Monsters! We’ll also look at the related TARDISodes, mini-episodes which served as preview teasers. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has never seen these episodes!

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TARDISode 08 gives us some background on the episode and its secondary villains. We see the captain of the episode’s expedition receiving his orders, which include an ancient book. The book contains a map of sorts, drawings of a black hole, and strange writing in rune-like characters. We see an alien called an Ood standing by to serve him, and hear it issue a morbid comment about a Beast rising from a pit. This is the first appearance of the Ood in the series, kicking off a loose arc that will continue all the way to the very death of the Tenth Doctor in The End of Time.

The TARDIS lands inside a sealed base on a distant planet. Rose and the Doctor are immediately disturbed when they see the words “Welcome to Hell” written on a bulkhead, underscored by strange characters that the TARDIS won’t (or can’t) translate. They are met by several Ood, and a misunderstanding briefly results, but is quickly sorted out; then they meet the crew of the station. The Doctor recognizes the Ood, but doesn’t seem to have actually encountered them before. The crew’s captain (from the TARDISode) is dead, replaced by Acting Captain Zachary Cross Flane; also present are Science Officer Ida Scott, Security Chief Jefferson, Maintenance Officer Scooti Manista, and Archaeologist Toby Zed; a few unnamed crew also appear, mostly as security guards. An earthquake briefly interrupts them; then the crew reveals that they are orbiting a planet called Krop Tor, which should not exist. It is orbiting an enormous black hole at a distance that should have seen it fall into the gravity well long ago. There is a power source below the surface, placed there by a lost civilization, which keeps it orbiting—and the humans want it. Hence they are drilling a shaft down to it.

The Doctor and Rose wants to leave, but find that the earthquake collapsed the storage area where the TARDIS was parked—it is now lost inside the planet. With no alternative, they join the crew. Meanwhile, Toby is hearing a malevolent voice; others are hearing similar things, including Rose when an Ood tells her that “The Beast will rise”. After hearing the voice, Toby finds the ancient runes all over his skin. Rose then gets a similar voice over her phone, saying “He is awake”. The Ood then start to say similar things. It is revealed that they are a low-level telepathic race; their telepathic field usually sits at a reading of Basic 5, but now it has risen to Basic 30.

Toby, now possessed, goes out onto the surface, which has no atmosphere. Covered in the symbols, and possessed by something, he breaks a window, causing Scooti to be sucked out and killed. He returns inside, just in time for another quake. The group sees Scooti floating overhead, being pulled toward the black hole; Zach enters her death into the log.

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The drill has reached the core, which seems hollow. The Ood are confined for the next phase of the mission, and the Doctor volunteers for the expedition down the shaft, along with Ida. The lift takes them down to an enormous, ornately carved cavern. Inside, they locate a large disk in the floor, which seems to be a door—but it is sealed.

The telepathic field has reached Basic 100, which should kill the Ood, but doesn’t. The Doctor asks Toby if he has translated the symbols, which are repeated on the door in the cavern. Toby’s possession manifests again, and he says they are the words of the Beast. The symbols leave his face and enter the Ood, whose eyes turn red, and they advance on the humans. Toby passes out and is dragged along. The Ood call themselves the legion of the Beast. They kill one guard via electrocution, and the others run. Underground, another quake occurs, and the door opens. The planet begins to fall toward the black hole, and the crew is backed against a sealed door, with the Ood approaching. The Doctor and Ida hear a voice proclaim “The pit is open, and I am free!”

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TARDISode 09 gives us an early scene from the expedition. An unidentified crewmember sorts the dead captain’s belongings, and finds the book with the ancient runes. It burns to ash in his hands, and then hears lines about the Beast rising. He is then found by another crewmember, possibly dying, but with a few symbols on his face. Neither person is seen in the episodes, so presumably both die offscreen.

The Satan Pit opens with the crew killing the three Ood that are advancing on them. In the control room, Zack discovers that the orbit has stabilized. The rest of the Ood continue to advance, killing another guard on the way. Some approach the control room; Zack has no weapons, only a bolt gun with a single bolt. He orders “Strategy 9”, which involves gathering everyone in a safe place, and opening all the airlocks, sucking the Ood out of the base. Accordingly, he orders the Doctor and Ida back to the station; they return to the lift. Rose saves Toby from execution, as the possession seems to have left him for the Ood. The power fails briefly, and the Beast speaks through the Ood and the displays. It claims to be the source of all devil myths, and says it was imprisoned before this universe by the Disciples of the Light; it brings up everyone’s hidden fears to try to weaken them. It breaks the ten-mile-long lift cable, stranding Ida and the Doctor and cutting off their communications, leaving them with just 55 minutes of air. With no options, they rig the cable to abseil into the pit, and the Doctor insists on going down.

With no power, Strategy 9 won’t work. Zack borrows power from the station’s rocket, and approves a plan to disable the Ood with a telepathic flare from their control monitor; but the monitor is in the Ood habitat unit. He sends the others through the airless service tunnels to get there, using emergency bulkheads to pump atmosphere into the successive sections. Along the way, they lose Jefferson when he is cut off. The Ood follow, and nearly get Toby, but he shows them that he is still possessed, and he escapes with Rose and Danny. The Ood nearly get Zack, but are disabled when Danny activates the flare. Zack joins the others.

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The Doctor reaches the bottom of the cable, and—to Ida’s horror—disconnects himself and falls.

The crew and Rose head for the rocket. They cannot save the Doctor or Ida now, and intend to escape and make sure no one can come here again. Down below, the Doctor has survived his fall; he finds a record of the Beast’s history, and decides its claims are true. He then finds the Beast itself, chained to a wall. However, he realizes that it’s only the body—the mind has gone somewhere else. He finds two jars that not only maintain the atmosphere in the pit, but maintain the gravity field keeping the planet in orbit. Unaware that the crew is escaping, he doesn’t want to destroy them, as it would let the planet be destroyed with Rose on it. However, he decides that Rose is no victim, and he believes in her—and he smashes the jars.

The planet begins to fall in, and the Beast’s body bursts into flames. However, the rocket begins to be pulled in too. Toby is fully possessed by the Beast. Rose grabs the bolt gun, tells the Beast to go to hell, and shoots out the cockpit glass, then unclips Toby’s harness. He is sucked out, toward the black hole. Zack raises the emergency shield, saving the rest of them—but they are still being pulled in.

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But all is not lost. The Doctor returns to the cavern to find it collapsing—and finds the TARDIS, which has fallen this far. He rescues Ida, then tows the rocket to safety, and reclaims Rose. The episode ends with Zack recording the final log entry, with the names of all the dead—including the Ood.

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This two-parter is a great story, in my opinion. It’s one of the earliest episodes of the new series that I saw, and it’s probably the first one that I took seriously (The Girl in the Fireplace, my first episode, is a bit on the fluffy side, and I didn’t see the Cybermen two-parter until later). The idea of a historical source for demonic ideology is not new; we’ve had it as far back as The Daemons, and in other places as well; but rarely is it done this convincingly. If New Earth was Doctor Who’s take on a zombie story, and Tooth and Claw was its werewolf, this is its take on the entire horror genre, complete with jump scares and possessions. The horror-movie tropes are actually a bit overplayed here, almost to the point of parody, but there’s good reason for that: it makes the twist near the end, where the Beast is seen to be split into two entities, that much more brilliant. You think you have it all figured out, but then you find out just how wrong you are. I know nothing about Matt Jones, the writer of the episode, but I give him credit for that.

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We are introduced to the Ood here, or rather, in TARDISode 08. Their appearance is rather bizarre; and I can’t help wondering how much of their future arc was planned in advance, as their spheres would eventually be revealed to be artificial second brains. They’re quite different as both villains and allies; as individuals they are all much the same, but as a species they exhibit a lot of variety in characterization over the course of the series. They appear in a number of Tenth Doctor episodes, and get a mention in the audio Babblesphere, which I reviewed yesterday, when the Eleventh Doctor lists them with other villains. They will eventually be revealed to hail from the same planetary system as the Sensorites from the serial of the same name; they appear to be somewhat related, as there are definite similarities in appearance, abilities (both are telepathic), and even planet name (Ood-Sphere versus Sense-Sphere).

Doctor Who TV series starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Billie Piper, Karen Gillan, Freema Agyeman, Catherine Tate, Alex Kingston, Jenna Coleman, Paul Kasey, Nicholas Briggs, Arthur Darvill, Noel Clarke, John Barrowman - dvdbash.com

 

The Beast could easily have been a stock villain (aside from its split nature, as I mentioned); but it is distinguished by its technique of turning its victims’ own internal doubts and guilt against them. It’s brief and unsuccessful here, but it goes a long way toward making this villain frightening indeed. A similar thing occurs in the audio The Shadow of the Scourge, which I reviewed on Monday (I promise the timing was not planned, but it seems to be a good week for it).

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Some references: Rose mentions having been a dinner lady, seen in School Reunion. The Doctor refers to the TARDIS suffering indigestion, mirroring a line from the television movie. The Beast has a son, Abaddon, which appears in Cardiff in the Torchwood episode End of Days. The Beast itself returns in the comic story The Beast is Back in Town. Draconia gets a mention; the Third Doctor visited it in Frontier in Space, and it has been referenced often since. Daemos is mentioned, having been referenced in The Daemons. The Kaled God of War is mentioned as well. The TARDIS tractor beam appeared twice in the classic series (The Creature from the Pit, Delta and the Bannermen). The Doctor claims the Time Lords invented black holes, echoing claims in The Three Doctors and other classic stories. There’s a reference to the Beast being from a time before this universe, along with its ancient enemies the Disciples of Light. The more references I get to that time, the more fascinating it gets; eventually I’ll compile a list of pre-universe entities, both verified and possible. This also gives me my only complaint about this story, and it’s a logical one: Why would the Disciples of Light go to the trouble of creating such an elaborate trap, when they could have just let the Beast fall into the black hole and ended it? Also, when did they do this—before the universe? Then how did the planet and black hole exist? But then again, who can predict the logic of pre-universal beings?

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TARDISode 10 shows us a glimpse of the villain of the upcoming episode, as he researches the Doctor, and finds the minor detective group called LINDA. He then is interrupted by his secretary, who brings him tea—and catches him at a very bad time. She appears to be killed offscreen.

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Welcome to Love and Monsters, one of the most hated and reviled episodes in all of Doctor Who! We’ll take a look at why—but first, the plot.

We meet a young man named Elton Pope, who is in the middle of a life-changing event: He sees the TARDIS, then meets the Doctor and Rose Tyler. They are pursuing a monster called a Hoix; and the Doctor seems to recognize Elton. Elton runs away.

A scene cut reveals the frame story of this episode: Elton is recording a series of videos, narrating his story. He met the Doctor once before, while a child; the Doctor appeared in his house on the night his mother died. He then recounts other strange happenings; he recalls the Autons, the crash of the Slitheen ship into Big Ben, and the Sycorax ship over London last Christmas. The one common thread is the Doctor. His investigations introduce him to other people who are intrigued by the Doctor: Ursula Blake, her friend Bliss, Bridget Sinclair, and Colin Skinner. They form a group, with regular meetings, and call themselves “LINDA” (London Investigation ‘n’ Detective Agency). Eventually, with their investigation tapering off, they transform into a social group, exploring other interests.

They are interrupted by Victor Kennedy, a strange man with an aversion to physical contact. He muscles in and takes over, calling them back to their quest for the Doctor; he makes them work harder toward that goal. After their first meeting with Kennedy, Bliss disappears.

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Elton finds the Doctor—in the encounter from the beginning of the episode—but runs away. Kennedy changes tactics; now, they will search for Rose instead, as she is associated with the Doctor. Elton is able to do so with ease, and meets Jackie Tyler, who quickly takes a liking to him. Over several visits, he learns more about Rose, and Jackie begins to flirt with him. This brings out his love for Ursula; but he is exposed when Jackie finds a picture of Rose in his coat, and throws him out. Meanwhile, Bridget has vanished.

Elton confronts Kennedy, saying he has destroyed the group; he also asks Ursula out. They leave, but Skinner, concerned about Bridget, stays behind; he then disappears too. However, Ursula has forgotten her phone, so they return to the meeting room. Inside, they find that Skinner has disappeared, and Kennedy has transformed.

He is revealed as an unsightly monster, who is responsible for the disappearances; he has absorbed the others, leaving only their minds and their faces on his skin. Elton calls him an Absorbaloff, which he likes. He wants to absorb the Doctor, in order to gain access to his mind and memories. He absorbs Ursula, and chases Elton into the street.

In an alley, he is about to kill Elton; but the TARDIS appears. The Doctor and Rose emerge, and—ignoring the alien—Rose confronts Elton for upsetting her mother. The Absorbaloff demands that the Doctor sacrifice himself to free Elton, but the Doctor refuses; he offhandedly remarks that the others might have something to say about that. The victims throw their effort into stopping the Absorbaloff, and he drops his cane; Elton breaks it. The Absorbaloff collapses into slime. The Doctor reveals that the cane was emitting a field that held him together; now the absorber is being absorbed into the earth.

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The Doctor explains about his first meeting with Elton; he was hunting an elemental shade, and caught it, but not before it could kill Elton’s mother.

Later, Elton tells the camera that meeting the Doctor is dangerous; but he credits the Doctor with saving Ursula, sort of. He was able to separate her from the dying Absorbaloff, but not from the paving stone in which she was absorbed. Her face remains, and she now “lives” with Elton, in the best relationship they can manage. Elton is a bit depressed in the end, but reflects that the world, with all its problems, is better than he thought.

Few episodes have been as maligned as this one (though we’ll get another next week!). It’s hated mostly for its silly and ridiculous monster, as well as other humorous aspects. I’ll go ahead and say up front: I actually love this episode. However, that’s because I’m fine with occasional humorous stories, even if they are ridiculous. Such stories haven’t been entirely unheard of throughout the show’s history, and in all media; they’re usually a breath of fresh air to me, and a nice change. It’s mocked, as well, because the show had begun to take a more serious turn in Series Two; this story would have been at home in Series One, which is often derided for its silliness. I’m okay with that, though. I don’t particularly enjoy very grim stories, and more so in Doctor Who; if you think at all about the implications of the Doctor’s actions, you’ll find there’s enough darkness already built in without adding any.

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That brings me to the theme of this episode (and yes, it does have one!). It asks the question: What’s it like for the Doctor’s bystanders? The answer appears to be “terrible”. LINDA was composed of innocent people, but their association with the Doctor, however tangential, got most of them killed. No one was untouched, not even Elton, who just had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at an age when he could hardly be responsible, too. However, his summary at the end says what we as fans often say: that no matter how difficult the universe may be, and even when the Doctor is part of the difficulty, it’s better with him in it. It’s a theme we’ll see again and again; but this was, as far as I can tell, the first time it appeared on television. (We’ve had similar ideas from companions—Tegan, in particular, left because of the death she kept witnessing—but rarely if ever from a bystander.)

This episode introduced two concepts that continue to this day: The “Doctor-lite” and “Companion-lite” episodes. (This episode qualifies as both.) The idea was conceived to increase the number of episodes that can be produced; with the Doctor and/or companion mostly absent, two episodes could be filmed at once. While this episode is not considered great, it was successful enough to continue the concept, giving us future masterpieces such as Blink, Midnight, Turn Left, and Heaven Sent.

For an episode that is mostly disconnected from the series arc, there are a surprising number of references. Elton remembers the Auton attack (Rose), the Slitheen spaceship crash (Aliens of London), and the Sycorax ship (The Christmas Invasion). Kennedy mentions the Bad Wolf virus, which the Doctor gave to Mickey (though not by name) in World War Three, and which subsequently corrupted Torchwood’s files. The Hoix would later appear in Torchwood’s episode Exit Wounds. Jackie mentions Mickey Smith, and says that he is gone now (The Age of Steel). The Absorbaloff hails from Clom, the sister planet of Raxicoricofallapatorious, which is one of the stolen planets in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. He is therefore similar to the Slitheen, in much the same way as the Ood are similar to the Sensorites; even Rose comments on it (although: why would he know them as the Slitheen, given that that is a family name?). And, most interestingly to me, LINDA will in the future be referenced…by the Fifth Doctor, in *Time Crash, indicating that other incarnations were aware of them (although they only ever encountered Ten). Though that minisode was played for a little humor, I’m fine with accepting it as canon.

I personally don’t have any complaints, but it’s worth mentioning some of the things for which others have complained. The scene with the Hoix has a door-running scene reminiscent of Scooby-Doo, which is rather silly. There are a number of pop culture references, sometimes accomplished with momentary cutscenes. The dialogue can be silly at times, especially from Elton and Ursula; and the veiled reference to their sex life at the end is just creepy. And of course, the Absorbaloff itself is truly ridiculous, though again, I’m okay with occasional forays into ridiculousness.

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Next time: We’ll look at another oft-hated episode, Fear Her; and we’ll finish out the season—and say goodbye to Rose Tyler—with Army of Ghosts and Doomsday! See you there.

All episodes may be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.

TARDISode 08

The Impossible Planet

TARDISode 09

The Satan Pit

TARDISode 10

Love and Monsters

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Babblesphere

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 Fourth Doctor’s contribution to the series: Babblesphere, read by Lalla Ward and Roger Parrott. Let’s get started!

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

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The date is unknown, but stated by the Prolocutor to be sometime in the Earth Empire period, which is usually considered to be between 2500 and 3000 AD. (For this I had to pull out my copy of A History of the Universe, by Lance Parkin; it’s been a while—I used it extensively in my classic series rewatch, but not much in regard to the audios so far.) The Doctor and Romana II—and K9, though he is not seen—land on the world of Hephastos, which has a small human colony of about ten thousand people. Immediately before they materialize, a man staggers into the street, spouting trivia about his day…then dies suddenly, smoke pouring from his ears. Visible on his head is an electronic interface chip, wired into his brain.

Accused of murder, the Doctor and Romana are taken into custody by a hostile robot (the name of which I was completely unable to spell, so I won’t try it here). It is surprised to discover they lack interface devices, and takes the Doctor away to be fitted with one, promising Romana that she is next. While he is gone, Romana meets another prisoner, Aurelius, who explains the situation. The devices are brain links that connect every person on the colony to a central computer network, called the Babble network. At one time they were voluntary, but now they are compulsory; the central computer, the Prolocutor, controls the planet, and private thought (“clandestination”) is a crime, of which Aurelius is guilty. He has found ways to hide his thoughts from the network, and must suffer for it.

The duo escape the cell, and meet a most unlikely group of rebels: a crowd of elderly women who have managed to remove the devices, and now live beneath the notice of the Prolocutor—or so they believe, at least. Together they rescue the Doctor, who has just completed testing prior to the implantation procedure. They make their way to a subterranean control room, where they find more of the Babble network’s history—and the skeletons of its original controllers, sitting where they were when the Prolocutor killed them and seized control. They are just about to end the machine’s reign, when Aurelius turns on them.

Speaking with the voice of the Prolocutor, he tells them that he was planted in the cell by the computer to engage and then betray the Doctor and Romana, and bring them into the Babble network’s control. Although Aurelius had believed he had free thoughts, he was mistaken; his implant was only temporarily disabled, and now had been reactivated. The computer forces the Doctor and Romana to join the network, not via implant—which they will eventually have, once incorporated—but via the more primitive headsets the original operators had used.

Once connected, they find themselves inside the virtual Babblesphere, a digital world populated by the minds of everyone on the planet, endlessly spewing their thoughts to each other. The Prolocutor reveals its plan: The rebels had previously sent a distress signal, and the Empire will not ignore it. Once help is sent, they will be absorbed into the sphere, and their ships will be used to reach other worlds, until the Prolocutor controls the Empire. Unfortunately, it reveals its weakness as well: It cannot deal with the vast amounts of trivia flowing through it. What people eat, what they wear, how they feel…these things are driving it insane. To lighten the burden, it has begun to kill off the worst offenders, like the body beside the TARDIS.

This gives the Doctor a plan. While he distracts the computer, Romana rouses the masses inside the sphere and leads them to ramp up the trivia they are pouring out. Still, this is not enough to stop the computer—until the Doctor and Romana join in. With the weight of all the minutiae that a Time Lord’s long life accumulates, they begin to overcome the machine.

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In the midst of this, a new voice arises—that of the Eleventh Doctor. The Fourth Doctor quickly deduces that it is a future incarnation of himself (and takes a moment to insult his relative physical youth, of course). The Eleventh Doctor tells him to save a copy of the Prolocutor’s program and send it to an artificial intelligence museum on a hard drive—and then he adds a burst of trivia of his own, driving the Prolocutor to self-destruction.

As the Babblesphere collapses, the Doctor and Romana free themselves, and the Doctor moves to save the program as requested. He gets it, and adds a little something extra—a copy of his own psyche, to keep the program company in its exile. After all, it’s not an evil mind, just lonely. Then, twenty-four hours later, with the colony experiencing a remarkable turnaround, they return to the TARDIS and go on their way.

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This entry in the series is fairly simple and straightforward; but it doesn’t suffer for that. Unlike Shadow of Death, it does have a villain in the Prolocutor, but it’s a sympathetic villain; the Prolocutor isn’t motivated by evil, just loneliness and efficiency. Of course that doesn’t excuse its murders; but as it’s a program, it perhaps can be remediated. The real star of this story is the dialogue. Although Lalla Ward is a great reader, she doesn’t capture the tone of the Doctors in the way that previous readers have done; but that is more than made up for by the dialogue, which is spot on for all the major characters, including the Eleventh Doctor. You can just picture him spouting the nonsense he uses against the Prolocutor; and the Fourth Doctor’s wit is exactly right. Romana herself isn’t bad either; she’s still a great foil for the Doctor, with perfect timing and almost telepathic sync with him.

Also unlike Shadow of Death, this entry name-drops some things which would not have been known to the Fourth Doctor, by way of the Eleventh Doctor’s trivia, such as the Ood (in his list of top five enemies). Romana also references the Krafayis (from Vincent and the Doctor) and the Shakri (from The Power of Three), though this is understandable, as they are also names from Gallifreyan nursery rhymes. The Doctor also mentions that he’s familiar with meeting future incarnations of himself, a probable reference to The Five Doctors (which, if we accept the existence of the Fourth Doctor version of Shada as the point that he was kidnapped from in The Five Doctors, would have been very recent for him) or other audios which I haven’t heard yet. In fact, he oddly seems to know that the Eleventh Doctor is physically young, despite not being able to see him here—only the voice is heard.

Chronologically, this story must occur in the early part of Season 18 of the classic series. The Doctor knows Romana has a sonic screwdriver, which originated in The Horns of Nimon, the Season 17 finale (unless we count Shada, which, as I mentioned, also fits in here without any issues). The story occurs in the regular universe, and doesn’t include Adric, Tegan or Nyssa, only Romana and (by reference) K9, making it prior to Full Circle; and the Doctor says he is repairing K9, putting it close to The Leisure Hive.

I enjoyed this story more than the previous entries, though for different reasons. It felt very much like a short serial from Season 18; it was mostly isolated from any continuity issues, in that it doesn’t deal with any story arc elements other than the Eleventh Doctor’s cameo. The writing was superb, and I give credit to Jonathan Morris, the writer. It is worth a listen even apart from the rest of the series, and listening to it in context only adds depth.

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Next time: We return to the main range for The Holy Terror; and the Fifth Doctor and Tegan confront the Master—with a little help from Harry Houdini—in Smoke and Mirrors! See you there.

All audios 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.

Babblesphere

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Shadow of the Scourge

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #13, Shadow of the Scourge, featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and professor Bernice Summerfield. Let’s get started!

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

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August 15, 2000: The Pinehill Crest Hotel in Kent is hosting three different conventions. A New Age spiritualist group is meeting under the guidance of channeler (and fraud) Annie Carpenter. At the other end of the spectrum, a scientific convention is in progress, featuring an experiment in time travel, hosted by Michael Pembroke. And, oddly, a cross-stitch convention fills a third suite. Brian and Mary Hughes, of Hughes Avionics, are in attendance; Brian is attending the science convention, and Mary the séances. Mary invites Brian to join her, seeking a common interest; he does so, but is skeptical, and ends up in a confrontation with Annie. Both Brian and Annie are shocked, however, when a strange presence does possess them—and leaves a pentagram mark on their right hands…

The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Ace, and Benny to the hotel. The Doctor has called the police regarding a body; but he made the call too early, before the body is actually present. It arrives on a lift, and the Doctor avoids the police and checks the trio into the hotel in Benny’s name. He sends Ace to the time experiment and Benny to the séance. At the experiment, Ace speaks with the creator of the experiment, Michael Pembroke, and witnesses Brian Hughes—who represents a sizeable investment—tampering with the machine. Hughes locks it into a program that is creating an accelerating time-space curve. Ace also finds that everyone has been locked into the hotel. The Doctor, also investigating, finds that there are “663 attendees, more or less”—or, obviously, 666. He also finds that a pentagram mark is on the hand of the dead body, who was a homeless man called Old Will. Benny meets Annie Carpenter and Mary Hughes, and learns some of their background; she deduces that Annie is pregnant, and notes the mark on her hand. As the séance begins again, the alien presence comes through, and inhabits Annie—and also Brian and the dead man—and transforms them into insectile aliens: the Scourge. Three scourge are present: the Leader, the Demi-Leader, and the Bridgehead. The Doctor meets the leader in the foyer, and offers documents: a full surrender of the planet Earth.

The Scourge recognizes the Doctor as a Time Lord. They seem to be wary of the Time Lords; for some reason, they need the permission of the Time Lords to invade Earth. As they hammer out details of the treaty, Ace tries to help Pembroke shut off the machine, which has created the gateway that allowed the Scourge to materialize fully; but he cannot shut it off. Benny arrives and compares notes with Ace; Ace says that the Doctor is pretending to side with the Scourge while he works on defeating them. Meanwhile, the Demi-leader has snuck off and begun killing individuals. The Doctor negotiates with the Bridgehead, as his “payment”, he wants an implant which the Scourge generally use for torture of humans, but which will allow the Doctor to travel the multiverse via his mind only. They have met the Doctor before, as he dreamed on the astral plane; they know he often tries to trap his enemies, but are placated when he says that he typically does that to enemies who are much less intelligent than him.

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The Doctor arrives and confers with Benny, Ace, and Michael; he sends them to wait in his room (#666, incidentally) while he gathers the Scourge together. He credits the Scourge with much of Earth’s religious dogma, including demons, and says that their voices resonate at a tone that humans cannot resist obeying. He also says they have taken the hotel outside of 3D space and into a fractional universe. He intends to “overfeed” the Scourge with human fear and panic—which is their source of sustenance—and then destroy them as they materialize. As part of the plot, he has put a canister of pacification gas in the air system, to be released at the moment of full materialization—thus sedating the humans and cutting off the “food supply”—and at the same time he will cut off Michael’s machine, closing the gate and destroying the Scourge.

However, the Scourge have outwitted him in one regard. Instead of general panic, they are using just one person: Mary. They summon her and give her visions of hell, at the same time killing her with radiation. Her terror as she dies is overwhelming, giving them everything they need to bring their army through to this dimension. Further, owing to their distrust of the Doctor, they have preemptively found and defused his traps; the gas canister is empty, and modifications which he made to Pembroke’s machine have been counteracted. Then, his defeat is finalized: As the Scourge army arrives, the mark of the Scourge appears on the Doctor’s hand, and he begins to transform.

The Doctor puts himself into a trance, halting his bodily functions and pausing the transformation. Seeing that they still have a chance, Ace gets Gary—the organizer of the cross-stitch convention, who is trapped with them—to box her ears, rupturing her eardrums and deafening her, with the assurance that the TARDIS’s medical bay can fix her; it’s painful, but works, and keeps her from being controlled by the voices of the Scourge. They go to find and kill the Scourge leaders. They find the Bridgehead searching for the Doctor—having sensed that his transformation was stalled—while the Demi-Leader spreads more panic to force materialization.

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The Doctor is alert inside his mind, having trapped the Scourge soldier that was trying to possess him—but he has trapped himself in the process. He battles the creature inside his mind.

Ace finds that a portion of the pacification gas remains in the canister. She attacks the Bridgehead, which used to be Annie, and overpowers it; the gas allows Annie to reassert herself and regain control. She is horrified at the changes to her body, but works past it to help them. They take her to the Doctor. She proves to be less a fraud than she thought; she does in fact have some psychic ability, which is what made her available to the Scourge in the first place. When she touches the Doctor, he is able to speak through her. He sends Ace to the TARDIS, and draws Benny into his mind to help him; Benny’s body becomes comatose. However the connection breaks before he can give Ace further instructions. Ace and Michael leave for the TARDIS, unaware that the Leader has also detected it—its power is trapping the hotel in this universe—and is headed there too. Gary is left in charge of Annie, with the gas canister.

Gary hides Benny’s physical form. However, he runs out of pacification gas, and loses control of Annie. The Bridgehead reasserts control. It orders Gary to choke himself to death, and leaves him to die; it leaves the Doctor’s body untouched as well, as it believes the Doctor will soon fully transform.

Inside the Doctor’s mind, Benny finds that it’s not just the TARDIS holding them in the fractional universe; it’s the Doctor. When he trapped the Scourge soldier here, he trapped them all, as they are a hive mind of sorts. She witnesses his past selves, and even a possible future self: the Eighth Doctor (with whom Benny is quite taken). She tries to help him, but ends up feeding his despair, which in turn feeds the Scourge. The Doctor gives in, and loses control completely.

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On the roof, Ace and Michael are trapped between the Leader and Demi-Leader. The Leader tries to get Ace to kill herself, but she can’t hear it; she wounds the Leader. It then orders Michael to throw her off the building.

The Doctor, however, isn’t dead. He let go purposely, so that he could join the Scourge group mind—and now he uses that connection to speak through Michael to Ace. He tells Ace to pretend to fight, and in the process gets her closer to the TARDIS—and she gets herself and Michael inside. Inside the console room, Ace’s ears are healed; the Doctor, in a moment of foresight, had redirected the medical bay’s nanites to the console room. The Doctor uses Michael to direct Ace to remove some safeties from the TARDIS; the fractional universe has certain peculiarities that can be exploited by changing its relative dimensions, and the TARDIS will now do that, giving them an advantage.

Benny returns to her own body, and saves Gary from killing himself. They locate the Bridgehead; at the same time, the TARDIS arrives, warping local space and knocking the Bridgehead unconscious. They help Ace bring it aboard; the TARDIS’s systems and nanites free Annie from the Bridgehead’s control again. The Doctor tells them to get everyone to the foyer; with the alterations to the dimension, they are now equal to the Scourge, and can no longer be controlled by voice. He releases Michael. Ace and the others head for the foyer; but Benny takes Annie back to the Doctor, and has Annie put her back in his mind.

The Leader and Demi-Leader have been partially blinded, as they now cannot control time and space. Still, they are determined to physically fight the humans—and they can still inspire despair. In the physical world, Annie inspires the others to hold on; in the Doctor’s mind, Benny does the same for him. The Doctor overcomes the Scourge in his mind, and they return to their bodies. In the foyer, Gary leads the others to confess their sins and weaknesses to each other, thus removing the Scourge’s ability to use those secrets to inspire despair; he himself is guilty of stealing a large sum of money from the convention funds. The Leader and Demi-Leader grow weaker, and Ace attacks them. She is captured, but the Doctor arrives to help. He confronts the Scourge, and shows them humanity’s other side: hope in the face of despair. He reveals Annie’s pregnancy to Michael, who is—unknown to him—the father (having had an affair with Annie); this adds Michael’s hope to everyone else’s. With their power cut off, the Scourge army has already been banished back to its original dimension. The Doctor offers mercy to the Leader and the Demi-Leader; they refuse. The Doctor speaks to the Demi-Leader’s host, Brian, and gives him peace with his words; the Demi-Leader cannot hold on, and is banished. The Leader’s host, the dead homeless man, cannot be reached; but the Doctor dispels the fear of him among the hotel guests, which was what allowed the Leader to hold on, and the Leader is banished as well. The fractional universe breaks up, returning the hotel to Earth…and it is over.

In the aftermath, Brian wrestles with depression regarding the deaths that he feels he caused. The Doctor acknowledges that even he can’t save everyone; he will bear the guilt along with Brian. He assures Brian that, though Mary is dead, Brian will go on, and marry again, and the Doctor will visit him to remind him of this. However, he tells Ace and Benny afterward that he doesn’t really know that; he just has faith. Michael, meanwhile, plans to tell his wife the truth about his affair, and divorce her to move in with Annie—not a happy ending, but an honest one, perhaps. Gary discovers that he has been officially forgiven by the convention’s committee; he will be separated from the financial aspects, and must pay back his theft, but he will keep his job. Hope, it seems, has won the day.

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I’ll admit to struggling with this audio, not because it was bad—it wasn’t—but because it assumes a fair bit of background that I simply don’t have. In a first for the main range, it is placed less within the television or Big Finish continuity and more within that of the Virgin New Adventures (VNA) novel series; in fact, it occurs between the novels All-Consuming Fire and Blood Harvest. I am aware that Bernice Summerfield has an extensive history of her own, both with and without the Doctor; but this is my first encounter with her, as I have read none of the relevant novels, and have heard none of her audios. Consequently, anything I may say regarding that aspect of continuity is drawn directly from the TARDIS wiki, the Doctor Who reference guide, and the Discontinuity guide. Also in regard to that placement, the Doctor and Ace as represented here are a later version than that found in the television series and the preceding audios; it’s not as noticeable with the Doctor, but Ace has clearly been through much. The aforementioned guides make reference to her time in Spacefleet; even her costume on the cover illustration is that of Spacefleet.

References to other stories are thin on the ground, and mostly refer to VNA stories. Bernice makes reference to Love and War, when she first met the Doctor. Ace’s spacefleet career (spanning multiple stories) is referenced within the audio when she uses a Spacefleet tool to open the lift doors. Bernice also mentions that Ace has once been inside the Doctor’s mind; this is a reference to the early VNA novel, Timewyrm: Revelation, by Paul Cornell, who also wrote this audio. Humans with psychic abilities are a minor recurring theme in the main range so far, appearing first in Phantasmagoria and again in Winter for the Adept; it also appears in various episodes, both past and future. The Eighth Doctor’s appearance as a potential future incarnation—and more specifically, Bernice’s murmur of appreciation for him—is a nod to her eventual romantic feelings for him in the VNA The Dying Days.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about this audio—such as it may be considered a complaint—is the use again of an extradimensional force that wants to invade. It’s a trope that is used very commonly throughout Doctor Who, and sometimes in creative ways; but here, it’s a bit much, given that we had a similar situation in Winter for the Adept, just three stories ago, and in a modified form in The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, one story prior to that. I suppose it would be unfair of me to say that there are only so many possible versions of this trope; this is a very creative franchise, after all; but it’s still possible to overuse it. Another negative for me is that this story comes across as sloppy, chiefly because it tries to do to much. The Scourge are at one point implied to be the source of demonic manifestations in human history, but this is mostly abandoned as the story goes on, along with most of the demonic imagery. The time experiment is quite underused; the Doctor abandons the plan to stop the machine, and in fact it’s never really stated what became of the machine (which should still be running, and dangerous even without the Scourge). It’s never really clear whether the Scourge are actually killing people, or whether they are manipulating their bodies for possession.

On the plus side: This story is a decent introduction to Bernice Summerfield. We get a glimpse of her in action, without needing to know her backstory, as the references are subtle. It’s a bit disconcerting for someone unfamiliar with her to just see that she is suddenly there as a companion, with no introduction; but that’s a minor thing, and hardly unheard of even in the television series (Melanie Bush, anyone?) There’s just enough hint of her past with the Doctor to make me want to look further (which is something I intend to do anyway, though I don’t know when). It’s also a good story for Ace, who—despite her additional history—is still the same character we know and love. She’s matured a bit; I think that early Ace would never have been able to willingly injure herself for the sake of winning the fight as she does here. As for the Doctor, he’s a bit wearier, a bit more pessimistic than we have seen him—but still holding on and holding out. I’ve often been of the opinion that the Seventh Doctor grows increasingly more troubled and tired as he ages toward his regeneration; I feel that this is supported by his characterization in Lungbarrow, the penultimate VNA novel, which carries us to almost immediately prior to his regeneration in the television movie. This story seems to reflect that, although he hasn’t fully given up hope—and of course he has more adventures between now and then. As always, he’s a fascinating and complex character, more so than nearly any other incarnation.

Overall, it’s a good story, but one for which I felt unprepared. It will be interesting to see if the main range continues to explore this part of the Seventh Doctor’s life; if so, I may have to brush up on my VNA knowledge. Still worth a listen—I haven’t found many audios that aren’t—and a fan of the VNAs will appreciate this more than I did. Unfortunately, due to my own lack of knowledge, I have to rank it lower than perhaps it deserves, when compared to the preceding main range audios. Perhaps I’ll check it out again later, when I’ve caught up more.

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Next time: On Thursday we’ll look at Babblesphere, the Fourth Doctor’s contribution to Destiny of the Doctor; and then we’ll return to the main range for The Holy Terror, starring the Sixth Doctor and another unexpected (and new to me) companion: Frobisher, the shapeshifter. 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.

Shadow of the Scourge

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Vengeance of the Stones

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 Third Doctor’s contribution to the series:  Vengeance of the Stones, written by Andrew Smith and read by Richard Franklin (aka Mike Yates of UNIT) and Trevor Littledale. Let’s get started!

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

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I’m going to ask in advance that you take it easy on me with any misspellings or other manglings of names of the aliens and objects involved. My usual sources came up dry when I tried to research before writing this post; although entries exist for this story, they’re badly in need of completion.

Offscreen, there’s an indeterminate gap between Inferno, Liz Shaw’s final story as companion, and Terror of the Autons, Jo Grant’s first. This story falls squarely into that gap, as the Doctor has no companion (unless you count the Brigadier). It’s also narratively significant, in that it gives us the Doctor’s first encounter with Lieutenant (later Captain) Mike Yates, and recounts how Mike joined UNIT. It opens with the disappearance of an RAF fighter and its pilot on a training mission over the coast of Scotland. As the story told by the pilot’s trainer is rather…unusual…UNIT is called in, and the Doctor comes along for the ride (literally, as he brings his roadster Bessie with him). There they meet local army lieutenant Mike Yates, who is seconded to UNIT for the duration due to his knowledge of the area; it’s the region in which he grew up. Mike leads them to investigate the many stone circles in the area; in doing so, they find the missing pilot—but shortly thereafter, the pilot enters one of the circles, and dies, apparently due to an energy discharge.

Stumped for leads, the Doctor chooses to take another plane and retrace the pilot’s flight plan under similar circumstances; unknown to him, the Brigadier follows behind in a helicopter. The Brigadier’s caution is rewarded; the Doctor sees many of the stone circles light up with power, and then a massive ball of power is released, streaking into space—and wrecking his jet in the process. He crashes safely into the ocean, and is rescued.

After some further investigation, Mike returns to one of the circles. He is immediately incapacitated, and is taken prisoner. His captors are aliens from a planet named Theris; only a few of them remain. In the course of painfully interrogating him, they reveal that they came to Earth a few thousand years earlier on a survey mission for natural resources; they were attacked by the local barbarians, and several of their number were killed. The remaining aliens were forced into stasis for the sake of their survival; but recent roadwork disturbed their stasis pods, awakening them. Now they want revenge for what they considered an act of war. It was they who built the stone circles, as data collection and transmission points; they have an affinity for igneous rock. They can harness the power of such rock using the Therocite stone that is native to their own world.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and the Brigadier are searching the area of Mike’s disappearance. They discover a dilapidated shed; but oddly, they feel a strong urge to ignore it. The Doctor determines that the shed has a perception filter, which diverts attention; he pushes through it and opens the shed, and finds the now-gutted remains of the missing jet. Applying the same logic regarding the perception filter, they search the area again, and notice a house that they previously couldn’t see. They take a squad of soldiers in, and find Mike being interrogated. Despite the Doctor’s attempts at diplomacy, a battle erupts, and one of the aliens is killed; their leader teleports them and Mike out of the house.

Before moving on, the Doctor receives a message via a telephone recording…and it appears to be from his future self. (Context tells us that it is the Eleventh Doctor, but the Third Doctor would not know which incarnation it is.) He learns that, despite the Brigadier’s desire to end the encounter by force, the Doctor must somehow save the therocite from destruction—and he must not tell the Brigadier ahead of time, as that would force his hand.

The Doctor determines that, given the affinity for rock, the teleport took the aliens to one of the circles. UNIT quickly locates them, and the Doctor and the Brigadier race to the scene. They discover that the vengeful aliens now only wish to kill everyone on Earth; they have already sent a distress signal to their homeworld. However, the Doctor informs them that, sadly, their world has ceased to exist during their long sleep. In the end, he is forced to stop their plan by grounding out the therocite, and returning its power to the Earth from which it was taken; the last of the aliens dies in the encounter.

Mike Yates is requested by the Brigadier to join UNIT full-time, and granted a promotion to Captain in the process. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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It was interesting to me to get Mike’s origin story; he’s arguably the least involved of the major UNIT characters in the Third Doctor’s era, but still a decent guy. Too bad about the betrayal later on (if you’ve watched that era of the classic series, you know exactly what I mean). Still, I love an origin story, and this one is not bad. As well, Richard Franklin proves to be a competent reader; although it’s not as convincing as Frazer Hines, he does an admirable job capturing the Third Doctor’s voice and mannerisms. I found myself wishing a bit that Liz Shaw had been along for the ride; but then, she’s one of my favorite companions.

The only thing about this story that felt out of place was the Doctor’s flight in one of the military jets. I suppose it’s within his skill set—he later pilots a microplane, and also the Fifth Doctor would later pilot a spaceship (admittedly to a crash, but that was intentional), so it’s not unbelievable—but it seems far-fetched that the Brigadier would allow it. I expected from the title that this story would be something akin to The Stones of Blood, but it isn’t, although those stories do have some common elements. Stones of Blood was by no means the best of its season, but was definitely intriguing, as the stones themselves were alive. Here, there’s none of that; but the stones are just as dangerous.

This story rehashes some themes that became common in the classic era, and especially with the Third Doctor. For one, the Doctor tries to negotiate and save the villains, but UNIT pulls the trigger, resulting in extermination; the Silurians would understand, and probably try to kill us for it. For another, there’s the recurring theme—more common with later Doctors—of a planet that was destroyed while its last survivors slept. For a third, there’s the very common situation in which an alien force misunderstands humans, and vice versa, resulting in bloodshed.

As I’ve noted with a few previous dramas, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. It’s a plot that would have been perfectly acceptable onscreen in its corresponding era, and doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary. But, again, that’s not a flaw. It’s well done, and that’s what matters, especially in the Third Doctor era. If the First Doctor is your cranky old grandfather, and the Second is your mad uncle, the Third is your paternalistic, friendly uncle; and thus a little familiarity goes a long way. In that sense, this story excels. (I guess that metaphor would make the Fourth Doctor the crazy cousin that no one brings up in polite company…?)

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Next time: We return to the main range for The Shadow of the Scourge; and the Fourth Doctor and Romana deal with the networked insanity to be found in the Babblesphere! See you there.

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

Vengeance of the Stones

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Spare Parts

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today, we’re taking a detour from our regular schedule, and listening to Spare Parts, number thirty-four in the main range of audios. Here, we’ll get a look at the origin of one of Doctor Who’s most iconic villains: the Cybermen! Let’s get started!

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

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Somewhere, an explorer named Donald Philpott steps onto a planet’s surface, the first in many years to do so. It’s a moment of victory—and suddenly turns to disaster.

The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa land the TARDIS in a curious place. It appears to be London or a similar city, circa 1950s…but London never had a roof of stone over its collective heads. Further, the TARDIS’s systems indicate they are in deep space, near a dangerous formation called the Cherrybowl Nebula. Space is unstable and deadly in the area, but that’s not the strangest part: This planet doesn’t seem tied to any star.

The Doctor, showing uncharacteristic anxiety, wants to leave right away. Nyssa, however, wants to explore, and so he reluctantly gives her half an hour, and goes out on his own as well. Nyssa meets a woman named Yvonne Hartley, along with her father; Mr. Hartley is injured, and Nyssa believes him to be dead—no pulse can be found—but he proves to be mostly unharmed. They quickly take her home with them, as a curfew has arrived. Meanwhile, the Doctor meets one Thomas Dodd, and finds that he has an unusual business: he deals in human organs and limbs. Transplants are common here, in both natural and artificial—or cybernetic—parts. Dodd confirms what the Doctor has feared: this planet, a rogue world wandering the stars, is called Mondas—a name the Doctor knows well, for it is the homeworld of the Cybermen. They are interrupted by a cyber-augmented policeman on a similarly augmented horse; the Doctor creates a distraction, allowing them to escape.

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Nyssa has her own brush with the authorities in the form of Sisterman Constant, a sort of public nurse, who comes to the Hartleys’ apartment. Nyssa has no identity papers, making Constant suspicious; Constant leaves, but calls in about Nyssa’s presence. She also reports Yvonne as a possible conscript, or “call-up”, for the work crews in the city. Nyssa meets Frank, Yvonne’s younger brother, and also learns that cybernetic animals are as common as cybernetic people; the replacement of parts with cybernetic substitutes is very common, and many people are in ill enough health to require such replacement. She also witnesses a disturbance in the street, and sees that a neighbor is carried off by police.

The Doctor also sees the disturbance, and realizes that something illicit is happening during the night. He and Dodd make their way to an abandoned church tower to observe, and find that bodies are being exhumed and taken from a graveyard by the augmented police. They are caught by a policeman, who dies in the struggle; they flee, but the Doctor causes the church bell to ring, rousing the people in the neighborhood to see what is going on. He resolves to that if he can’t change this future, he will help the people try to change it themselves.

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Mr. Hartley reveals his own enhancement: a chest unit that keeps his heart beating. It needs repairs, which Nyssa provides. Nyssa is forced to flee when the police—summoned by Constant—arrive; Yvonne gives her a gift: her old pet, an augmented creature called a Cybermat. She meets the Doctor at the TARDIS, but refuses to leave; she wants to change the Cybermen’s history, though the Doctor says it can’t be done. Unknown to them, the Committee—the cybernetic gestalt which controls the city—has already become aware of them, and ordered their elimination.

Nyssa argues with the Doctor, and brings up the death of Adric. They are diverted, however, by the presence of the Cybermat; it chews into the TARDIS console, seeking the power source, until it fries itself—but the damage is done. The Doctor leaves Nyssa to begin repairs, and goes out, and sees that the police have stopped the bells and dispersed the crowd.

Constant has returned to the Committee’s palace. There, a Doctorman—the chief researcher under the committee—named Christine Allan is drinking away her frustrations. She has had problems with augmenting—converting, really; she calls it processing—the work crews, and the Committee is demanding a pace that prevents revision of the process. Hearing Constant’s story, she sends Cybermats to observe the visitors. The Committee then summons her, and demands more processing subjects.

In the morning, Frank goes in search of Nyssa, and finds the Doctor near the TARDIS. The Doctor sends him inside to speak with Nyssa, and then leaves to find Dodd. Inside, Frank gets over his astonishment at the TARDIS, and helps Nyssa with the repairs; he explains that Cybermats are attracted to power sources. It proves true; a horde of them are observed trying to break into the TARDIS—and Frank left the outer door open…Nyssa routes the power into the shell of the TARDIS to fry them all. Afterward, Nyssa and Frank return to his apartment, where they discover that the Committee has announced its plan to convert everyone.

Constant meets with Allan, and learns, to her horror, that the Committee will soon process everyone, turning them all into the latest iteration: the Cybermen. Allan, thoroughly drunk, goes out to find the Doctor and interrogate him, having seen him via her Cybermats. Along the way, she passes Yvonne’s work group, which is about to be processed. Meanwhile, the Committee learns that Mondas is approaching the nebula—and its catastrophic instability—sooner than anticipated. They call the leader of the work crews, the fully-converted Zheng, back to the city to deal with the problems going on.

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The Doctor asks Dodd to help him get to the Committee; but Dodd traps him in a freezer instead, reasoning that he is healthy and will make a good source of organs. He is rescued by Allan, who takes him along with Dodd for use in experimentation. They are interrupted by a blackout, and the roof of the cavern begins to cave in.

Yvonne’s group is not fully processed when the blackout happens, and she has wandered off. The rest are confused and demanding to be told their purpose; but they are already aware that they must protect the Committee. Allan persuades them that she must restart the palace generators, and she is accompanied there. The Doctor and Dodd infiltrate the palace, and find that enough Cyberman frames have been constructed to convert the entire population. Dodd flees, later to be captured and converted. The Doctor rescues Allan from her escort, but is nearly killed when gold leaf—a common weakness of later Cybermen—doesn’t work on this one; Allan activates a kill switch on the Cyberman to stop it, and goes with the Doctor to the generators.

Outside, it’s getting darker and colder, as the city is exposed to the surface by the broken roof. A Cyberman breaks into the Hartleys’ apartment; they are horrified to find it is Yvonne. She doesn’t remember them; but when the Doctor gets the power back on, she suffers a seizure from too many signals, and dies.

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The Doctor is forced to manually activate the generators. Zheng arrives, and sends Constant for processing. He reveals that the Cybermen were created for only one purpose: to activate and control a large propulsion system on the surface, which will save Mondas from the nebula by rerouting the planet’s trajectory. The final breaker on the generators is jammed; Zheng activates the power early, electrocuting the Doctor and seemingly killing him. The Committee decides to put Zheng in charge instead of Allan. However, the Doctor is still alive, and recovering; Allan marvels at this, and persuades Zheng that she must examine him, as he may represent new possibilities for the Cybermen. Initial scans show that he has a discrete lobe in his brain which can handle bodily functions unaided, allowing the rest of the brain to devote to cognitive capabilities; this pattern can be useful in the next generation of Cybermen, and may solve the problems Allan has been facing. To his horror, the Doctor realizes that the Cybermen of the future will owe their existence to him.

The Committee faces a conundrum. If they do not repair the roof, the people will die; but if they divert resources from the propulsion system to effect repairs, the planet may be destroyed. To resolve it, they order that everyone remaining be processed into Cybermen. Nyssa is brought to the palace, only to see Zheng start the full scan on the Doctor. The Committee finds itself divided with regard to the Doctor’s usefulness; realizing that division is their greatest problem, they eliminate their individuality and combine their minds into one, and become the first Cyber-Planner.

When the scanner opens, a new Cyberman is revealed; Nyssa believes it is the Doctor. However, it is Dodd, having been converted according to the new template based on the Doctor. The Doctor is still alive. The Doctor and Nyssa borrow wine from Allan, who is now despondent at the end result of her work, and use it to contaminate the Cyber-Planner’s nutrient feed. Allan goes to warn the Cyber-Planner, and meets Zheng on the way; he says that the propulsion system must be activated right away.

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Nyssa, Frank, and Allan are all captured and taken to the processing lines, but the Doctor succeeds in contaminating the Cyber-Planner’s nutrient feed. It becomes irrational, pulling power from the propulsion system to protect itself. The Doctor reconnects with Hartley; together they create an energy pulse that attracts a horde of Cybermats to the Cyber-Planner, disorienting it and allowing Zheng to divert power back to the propulsion system. Mondas is redirected away from the Nebula, and the Cyber-Planner shuts down; Zheng, critically injured, appears to die as well.

In the aftermath, the Doctor and Nyssa help Allan formulate a plan to reverse some aspects of the processing, making the Cybermen potentially more human. It will not prevent their existence, but may alter the course of their history for the better. However, after the TARDIS departs, Allan finds that Zheng has not died as she thought…and processing will continue, against her will, until every Mondan is a Cyberman. Meanwhile, the planet hurtles through space on a new course, one that will take it back to the solar system from which it came, and to a confrontation with the First Doctor…and the planet Earth.

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This story was written by Marc Platt, author of the Seventh Doctor serial Ghost Light, and also of the famous (or possibly infamous?) New Adventures novel, Lungbarrow. I’ve opted to review it here, out of order for the main range, because it serves as the inspiration for the Series Two episodes Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel.  While it’s often been suggested that the revived television series sometimes steals ideas from Big Finish’s audios, this was a more overt usage: Marc Platt received both credit and payment for the use of his concepts.

The television episodes, which I reviewed yesterday, gave us the origin of the new series version of the Cybermen, via an alternate-universe corporation called Cybus Industries. This story, in contrast, gives us the origin of the original Cybermen in the normal Doctor Who universe, sometimes referred to as N-Space. We’ve known since Season Four’s The Tenth Planet—the final story for the First Doctor—that the Cybermen originated with Earth’s twin planet, known as Mondas; and that Mondas was ejected from its orbit in the distant past and sent careening through the cosmos as a rogue planet, before eventually returning. Mondas is an interesting subject in its own right; it is not just a twin of Earth in the sense of sharing an orbit (though it did indeed share an orbit before its ejection), but indeed, it is identical to Earth, having matching continents and oceans, as can be seen in The Tenth Planet. It is also populated by people who are, for every practical purpose, human; they call themselves such, and are biologically the same as Earth humans. It has never been established how these oddities came to be. In fact, Mondasian (and I use that word for lack of any clear direction; “Mondan” may also be correct) society is parallel to Earth to an incredible degree, to the point that even words and mannerisms are seen to be the same (to a degree that exceeds that of TARDIS translation). However, the Mondans are technically more advanced; the Doctor comments as much here, and says that the cultural level—equivalent to the 1950s—is a result of deliberate repression by the Committee.

Early drafts of the television episodes reflected a dying Earth (though this was abandoned in the final release); accordingly, Mondas is a dying world. The city seen here is alleged to be the last city on the planet, and its population is estimated at about three thousand. The surface is uninhabitable; even Cybermen only have a nineteen percent survival rate on the surface. Still, this is to be expected on a rogue planet; in its own way, Pete’s Earth, on the television series is more of an anomaly. The Doctor in that episode claims that there are no Time Lords in that universe; and yet he and the Time Lords have affected the development of N-Space Earth so much that the alternate version should be radically different, if it exists at all. Fortunately, this audio corrects that a bit: if the Cybermen exist partly because of the Doctor, then his absence in Pete’s universe may have caused them to never exist, which explains why they didn’t conquer Earth in 1980, long before the events of the episode. But we’re getting far afield here.

This audio is stated by Big Finish to occur between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity; and indeed it must, as with all stories that only include Nyssa. Tegan exited the TARDIS in Time Flight and returned in Arc of Infinity; Nyssa was never alone with the Doctor again, as Turlough joined the crew before Nyssa exited in Terminus. Adric, as the audio mentions, was already dead; the Doctor admits that he never properly stopped to mourn his death.

These Cybermen differ from their later versions in several ways. They do not suffer the weakness to gold, as the Doctor discovers; I can only assume that the modified respiratory system is a later innovation, though it seems like a step backward here. Before the Doctor is scanned, the Cybermen suffer frequent organ failures, miscoordination, and programming errors; his bioscans provide the solution to these problems. Cybermen are seen here in various stages of conversion; it was not a one-time development, and the Doctor sarcastically comments at one point that it began with cosmetic surgeries. Interestingly, Torchwood will later reveal a partially-converted Cyberman, of the Cybus variant, which is at odds with the conversion process we see in The Age of Steel.

In addition to the obvious links to various Cyberman stories (The Tenth Planet, The Tomb of the Cybermen, Revenge of the Cybermen, Earthshock, Attack of the Cybermen, Silver Nemesis), there’s a considerable amount of reference to The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis. Nyssa talks at length about her lost world and family, even elaborating on Trakenite holidays and festivals. She makes an oblique reference to the Master, saying that her father “went away”; in reality, Tremas’s body was stolen by the Master, and maintained until at least *Survival, and possibly all the way to his death in the television movie. In the other direction, future episodes of the revived series will make reference to this story; the Mondasian Cybermen will eventually merge with the Cybus variant, and a Cyber-Planner (though not the same one in any case) will appear in Nightmare in Silver, as well as several audios: The Girl Who Never Was; Legend of the Cybermen; Last of the Cybermen; and the Cyberman range of audios.

Some technical details: This is a long story, clocking in at more than a half hour per part, with a total running time of about two and a quarter hours. Each part has been given an individual title, much like the early seasons of the classic series: “Surfacing”; “Necessary Force”; “Popping the Seals”; and “Shelter”.

This is a haunting story to which to listen; personally, I find it more so than Genesis of the Daleks, to which it might be compared. While the Kaleds and the Mondasian humans are equally victimized, the Kaleds were at the end of a horrific and long-lasting war, which makes them harder to sympathize with. The humans here, however, just want to live; and they are truly deluded about how to go about it. As well, there’s no individual to blame here, unlike the alternate universe’s John Lumic, who can easily be compared to Davros (they even both require a life-support chair). Perhaps it’s simply that the Cybermen have caused so much emotional misery—not least of all, the death of Adric, whom many fans still mourn—or perhaps it’s that they are simply so much like us to begin with; but either way, this story is full of both dread and sorrow at what they become.

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Next time: Back to the normal schedule, we’ll be looking at Destiny of the Doctor: Vengeance of the Stones, followed by Main Range #13, The Shadow of the Scourge! 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 can also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Spare Parts

Enter the Cybermen: New Doctor Who Rewatch, Series Two, Part Three

I usually post these on Fridays, but I’m deviating this week for the sake of another post to be made. We’ll be back on schedule next week.

We’re back, with our new Doctor Who rewatch! Last time, we reviewed Series Two’s School Reunion and The Girl in the Fireplace, which reintroduced some old friends, and gave us a new look at the progress of time. Today, we’re checking out three episodes: The two-part story Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel, and also The Idiot’s Lantern. We’ll also look at the related TARDISodes, mini-episodes which accompany each episode of Series Two. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has never seen these episodes!

TARDISode 05 gives us something exciting: a transmission via internet from an unknown person to a radical group called the Preachers. It orders the Preachers to take down a man named John Lumic before the project he is heading can be finalized.

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Rise of the Cybermen opens with the aforementioned John Lumic, a wheelchair-bound mad scientist in bad health (there’s really no other fitting description). A scientist on his staff, Dr. Kendrick, reports to Lumic about a robotic form, declaring it to be alive; but then Kendrick says that if it is life, they must report to the authorities in Geneva. Lumic orders the robot to kill Kendrick; then, he departs for Great Britain.

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The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey are in the TARDIS, reminiscing about a past adventure, and generally making Mickey feel left out. Something goes wrong with the TARDIS, and it lands violently, then loses all power. The Doctor declares it dead, and says they have fallen into another universe. The TARDIS draws power from the universe, but this alternate universe is incompatible, like diesel in a gasoline engine. He is shocked, then, when Mickey finds that they are in London. It’s not the same, though; there are zeppelins in the sky, and everyone wears strange electronic pods—earpods—in their ears. Rose discovers that her father, Pete, is still alive in this universe; but the Doctor warns her not to meet with him.

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Pete Tyler, as it turns out, works for John Lumic; his own health-drink company was bought out by Lumic’s Cybus Industries. As such his star has risen, and he is acquainted with the President of Great Britain (yes, president—different universe), who will be attending Jackie Tyler’s 40th birthday party that night. In the meantime, Lumic meets with the President, promoting his system of “upgrading” humanity (i.e. the robotic forms seen earlier), but is rejected.

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The Doctor finds a single remaining power crystal in the TARDIS, and literally breathes new life into it (using regeneration energy—he claims to have given up ten years of life). In 24 hours, it will be able to power the TARDIS enough to go home. Mickey takes advantage of the situation and runs off to explore. Rose, meanwhile, taps into the local internet—which is run by Cybus—and learns that everyone gets daily downloads straight into their brains via the earpods, which are also a Cybus product, and practically ubiquitous. She also researches her parents, and finds out about Cybus, and about Jackie’s party. Now intrigued, the Doctor takes her to infiltrate it.

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Mickey visits his grandmother, who in his own world is deceased (he is otherwise an orphan). She recognizes him, but calls him “Ricky”. He is abducted by two people in a blue van, who also mistake him for his counterpart in this universe, Ricky. They take him to meet the real Ricky, who is their leader after the loss of their previous leader. They prove to be a resistance group called the Preachers, which is opposing Cybus’s plans, although they don’t know exactly what those plans are. They do know that Cybus—via a dummy company called International Electromatics—has been abducting the homeless; they have an informant inside Cybus. And tonight, they will be crashing the party to try to get to Lumic.

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Rose and the Doctor have infiltrated the party, and Rose has unsuccessfully conversed with both Pete and Jackie, whose marriage is on the rocks. They are interrupted when a group of the robots crash the party, kill the president and others, and begin rounding up the guests. The guests will be converted into robot forms themselves. The Doctor, Rose, and Pete escape, and meet up with Mickey and the Preachers, but are intercepted by the robots, whom the Doctor recognizes: they are Cybermen.

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TARDISODE 06 flashes back briefly, to show John Lumic issuing an order for his Cybermen to commence upgrading of the entire population.

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The Age of Steel picks up immediately from the cliffhanger. The Doctor uses the power from the TARDIS power crystal to destroy the Cybermen detaining them, and the group escapes. This won’t stop the crystal from recharging, but will set it back by four hours. In the Preachers’ van, the group compares notes; the Doctor explains about the Cybermen, which originated from another source in his universe—a parallel evolution of sorts. Pete wants to rescue Jackie, but can’t. He also reveals that he is the mole that has been giving information to the Preachers. The Doctor declares that the Cybermen will be stopped tonight. Lumic has a cyberconversion factory inside the former Battersea Power Station. There, he broadcasts a signal which will initiate cyberconversion of all of London. It won’t require force—the earpods will take control of their users and cause them to come to the factory. Jackie is among the victims.

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The Doctor’s group splits up to escape. Mickey and Ricky run together, but are cornered by Cybermen, and Ricky is killed. Eventually, the group meets again outside the factory and sees the crowds entering for conversion. Rose suggests removing the earpods, but the Doctor declines; it will kill the users.

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Inside the factory, Lumic’s chief assistant, Crane, has removed his earpods before the signal. Lumic questions him, and he claims a malfunction, but it is only a ruse to get close to Lumic. He damages the life support systems on Lumic’s chair, sending him into shock. The Cybermen kill Crane, and then take Lumic—against his will—to be converted.

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The group splits up again to infiltrate the factory. Rose and Pete go in the front door, disguised as earpod victims, to find Jackie. The Doctor and Mrs. Moore, one of the Preachers, go in through the cooling tunnels beneath to try to sabotage the conversions. Jake, the remaining Preacher, is sent to Lumic’s zeppelin to cut off the signal broadcast. Mickey once again is ignored by the Doctor; but this time he refuses to stay behind and be “the tin dog”. He chooses to go with Jake.

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Mrs. Moore tells the Doctor her real name—Angela Price—and that she has a family. She once worked for Cybus, but saw plans for the upgrades, and fled, hunted by Lumic. She joined the Preachers to fight back. The Doctor reveals that the Cybermen have emotion suppression technology; otherwise they may go insane at what has been done to them. He realizes that they can be defeated by overriding the suppression and releasing their emotions; this requires a code, however. They are then confronted by Cybermen, and nearly escape; but Moore is killed, and the Doctor is apprehended. The Cybermen detect his Time Lord physiology, and take him Cybercontrol to be examined. Pete and Rose are also apprehended; but the Cyberman that captures them is revealed to be Jackie, now converted. She takes them to Cybercontrol.

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Lumic is revealed to be the new Cyber Controller. Meanwhile, Mickey and Jake successfully cut off the transmission, allowing the unconverted humans to escape. Lumic is undeterred; he has factories around the world, and will force conversion on everyone. The Doctor is aware that Mickey is watching by monitor, and makes a monologue that contains clues obvious to Mickey; Mickey takes the hint and breaks into Lumic’s computer, and finds the code that will unlock the emotion suppression. He sends it to Rose’s phone, and the Doctor activates it, destroying all the Cybermen in the area. The factory is damaged in the process, and set afire. The group flees to the roof and up a rope ladder to the zeppelin; but Lumic follows them. The Doctor gives Pete—the last in line—his sonic screwdriver; Pete uses it to break the ropes, sending Lumic falling to his death.

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Later, with the TARDIS temporarily restored, Rose tries to persuade Pete to join them, but he refuses, and rejects her as his daughter. Mickey also chooses to stay. He has found purpose here—there are more Cybermen to be destroyed—and his grandmother is alive as well. Rose no longer needs him, as she has given her heart to the Doctor. The Doctor warns him that they can’t return for him; the hole in the universes must be repaired when they leave. He leaves Rose’s phone with Mickey, for the code in its memory.

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On the original Earth, the TARDIS materializes in Jackie’s apartment, and Rose reunites with her mother. In the alternate universe, Mickey promises Jake that he is not Ricky, and won’t try to be him; but will remember him by fighting in his name. They leave for Paris, where another cyber-factory waits.

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I can’t overstate the importance of this story to the new series. First, it reintroduces the Cybermen to the series, much as Dalek and Bad Wolf did with the Daleks in Series One. These aren’t your father’s Cybermen, though; the original Cybermen came from the planet Mondas (and later Telos), the rogue twin of Earth, as far back as the First Doctor’s The Tenth Planet. Interestingly, we will see later that the Cybus Cybermen, once established in the main universe (or N-Space, to borrow the classic series terminology), will eventually encounter and merge with the Mondasian Cybermen, yielding the version we see in Nightmare in Silver. These Cybermen lack the oft-exploited breathing apparatus of the classic series; their primary weakness is in their emotional suppression. Mondasian Cybermen share this feature (as seen as far back as The Invasion), but it is much more emphasized here. The use of electricity as a literal hand weapon dates back to Tomb of the Cybermen. As well, International Electromatics is a reference to The Invasion, where a company of the same name was used by the Cybermen; it is unclear whether this is the same company, or just a reference for the audience.

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Second, this story sets the groundwork for Rose’s eventual departure. I won’t say too much, as we’re approaching that story soon; but this is not the last we’ve seen of Pete Tyler or his universe. It also sets the groundwork for every Cybermen story for the next several seasons, as all future appearances are either Cybus Cybermen or the hybrid version I mentioned earlier. Interestingly, it’s not actually the first we’ve seen of them in the new series; a Mondasian Cyberman head was seen in Henry Van Statten’s museum in Dalek, and Rose comments on it here.

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This is Mickey’s goodbye story, as he chooses to stay behind. It’s the fulfillment of his character growth from the whiny coward of Rose, to a strong and capable man and—dare I say it?—warrior. When next we see him, he will be an accomplished hero. It’s unfortunate that he was never able to get respect from the Doctor—he certainly deserves it—but this is a good route for him, and a great exit. (It’s also the culmination of the running “Ricky” joke from Series One—turns out he really is Ricky, in a sense.)

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Torchwood gets not one, but two references, implying it exists in Pete’s world as well. That’s odd, as there are no Time Lords, and Torchwood was (in N-Space, anyway) established in response to the Doctor. On the subject of Time Lords, the Doctor states that travel between universes was once possible, but that with the death of the Time Lords, the walls of the universes closed, and now it is mostly impossible. This is also the first story since Black Orchid to feature no extraterrestrial elements other than the Doctor and the TARDIS, given that the Cybermen here originate on Earth. There’s also a reference to The Five Doctors; the Doctor refers to approaching the factory “above, between, below”, which is a reference to the nursery rhyme about the Tomb of Rassilon in that story. The Doctor asks if he has the right to destroy the Cybermen, echoing a similar dilemma with the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks; there’s a further similarity with that story as well, in that John Lumic very much resembles Davros, with regard to his physical condition and his goals.

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This story was directly inspired by a Big Finish main range story: Spare Parts, #34 in the main range, written by Marc Platt (author of Ghost Light and the novel Lungbarrow). That’s not to say the ideas were stolen, however; Platt was paid a fee for the reuse of his concepts. That story covers the origin of the Mondasian Cybermen in N-Space; and I think it’s worth a look in comparison with this episode. Therefore, my plan is to review that audio drama tomorrow, with an eye toward comparing the two.

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TARDISode 07 shows us an elderly woman, whose face is stolen by a strange energy from her television. In the episode, she will be revealed to be Mrs. Connolly’s mother. The Idiot’s Lantern takes us to London, 1953, the day before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. A brief flashback introduces us to Mr. Magpie, owner of Magpie Electricals, a failing electronic shop that specializes in televisions. Mr. Magpie is attacked by an energy from the television; it seems to be alive.

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The Doctor and Rose, expecting to land in New York for the Ed Sullivan show, instead find themselves in London. They witness a blanket-wrapped person being swept into a car by several men in black. They follow the car, but lose it at an apparent dead end, leaving them bewildered. Meanwhile, Mr. Magpie is seen in his shop, and is unharmed; but the announcer on the screen is speaking to him, saying her time has come.

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The Doctor and Rose pose as royal inspectors, and return to the home of the Connollys, neighbors of the kidnapped person. Mr. Connolly is something of a bully, and verbally assaults the Doctor; the Doctor outmatches him, and forces Mr. Connolly to allow him to see the old woman in the attic—who has no face. They are interrupted when the men in black return and force their way in, stealing the woman away. The Doctor chases them, and this time finds his way into the place where they have gone; inside, there are a large number of faceless people locked in a cage. He is suddenly captured by the men in black, who are police investigators.

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Rose has seen something strange from the Connollys’ television. Mr. Connolly ejects her from the house, but not before she sees the Magpie label on the television. She goes to Mr. Magpie’s shop and confronts him; but he allows her to be captured, and her face stolen, by the thing in the television, which calls itself “the Wire”. It feeds on brainwaves; the face theft is a side effect.

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The inspectors question the Doctor, who turns the interview around and convinces them that he can help. However, Rose is brought in at that time; the Doctor swears to get to the bottom of it. They return to the Connollys’ house, where Mr. Connolly’s son, Tommy, reveals that his grandmother was watching television when her face was stolen. They go to Magpie’s shop, and find him absent. The Doctor finds a bank of televisions, which display the missing faces. Magpie returns, and the Wire appears; it states it was executed by the people of its world, but survived in this energy form. Now, it wants to absorb enough mental energy to reconstitute its body—and the televised coronation will give it the opportunity, courtesy of the altered televisions that Magpie has been selling at discount prices. It tries to absorb the Doctor, Inspector Bishop, and Tommy, but flees when it detects the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver; it realizes he is also an alien, with superior technology. However, it absorbed Bishop before fleeing.

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Magpie transfers the Wire to the television broadcast antenna at Alexandra Palace, so that it can absorb all the coronation viewers. The Doctor hastily assembles a device that can stop it, but he must get there. At the antenna, he climbs its tower, and confronts the Wire; it has already killed Magpie. With Tommy’s help, he traps the wire on a Betamax cassette tape (which is thirty years ahead of its time). With the Wire defeated, its victims are freed and restored.

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The Doctor tells Rose he intends to record over the tape, ending the Wire forever. Meanwhile, Mrs. Connolly has had enough abuse; she reveals that her mother, rather than her husband, owns the house, and kicks him out. However, Rose encourages Tommy to forgive his father and go to him; if the boy can save the world, perhaps he can save his father, too.

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While this story is usually not rated highly—and indeed, it’s not particularly great; I’d call it average at best—it does establish some concepts that will be revisited. The idea of wirelessly absorbing people will be used to greater effect in The Bells of Saint John, where the true villain is the Great Intelligence. Magpie Electricals will long survive its founder, appearing in a great number of stories, such as The Magician’s Apprentice; Before the Flood; The Runaway Bride; Day of the Moon; The Sound of Drums; Voyage of the Damned; The Beast Below; and the audio story Hunters of Earth, as well as The Sarah Jane Adventures. In fact, it becomes something of an inside joke for the crew, as the Magpie label appears in ever more unlikely places.

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We have a secondary villain in Mr. Magpie, though it can be argued he’s more victim than villain. More interestingly, there’s a tertiary villain in Mr. Connolly. While he himself is a rather sad figure, he does give us the prominent “I AM TALKING!” line, which will be used to far greater effect by the Eleventh Doctor in The Pandorica Opens.

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Overall, not a great episode, but not terrible, either. My main complaint is that there’s no logical reason that the faceless people should be restored when the Wire is defeated; it would be akin to having the Absorbaloff from the upcoming (and much-maligned) Love and Monsters regurgitate its victims upon death. Still, it’s a decent story with a fair bit of human interest.

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Next time: Tomorrow, I’ll post a review for Spare Parts (out of order, but relevant). Next week, we’ll look at two of my favorite episodes: The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit; and if there’s time, we’ll check out the aforementioned Love and Monsters! See you there.

All episodes may be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.

TARDISode 05

Rise of the Cybermen

TARDISode 06

The Age of Steel

TARDISode 07

The Idiot’s Lantern

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Fires of Vulcan

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to The Fires of Vulcan, the twelfth in the Main Range of audios, featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and Bonnie Langford as Melanie Bush. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t listened to this audio!

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An archaeological dig in Italy has turned up something strange—so strange, in fact, that UNIT, under the command of Captain Muriel Frost, has been called in. But how did a certain—and very familiar—blue police box wind up buried in the ruins of Pompeii?

The TARDIS has landed, but with an odd fault: it won’t tell the Doctor where or when it has materialized. Upon exiting, the Doctor and Mel meet a slave, Tibernus, who takes them for emissaries of the goddess Isis. He tells them it is the twenty-third of August; and the Doctor makes a sudden realization: it is the year 79 AD, and they have landed in Pompeii—and it’s volcano day!

Or, almost. Mount Vesuvius will erupt tomorrow, in fact, at mid-day. The Doctor, preoccupied, lets Mel decide whether to leave or stay; she opts to take a look around. In the city, her odd clothes attract the attention of the decurione Popidius Celsinus, of the city’s municipal court. He is intrigued by the rumor that they are messengers of Isis, as that goddess is his patron. Meanwhile, Tibernus reports to his owner, Eumachia, who is also displeased with the news.

The travelers quickly make new—and not altogether good—acquaintances. The Doctor meets, and subsequently (by exposing his cheating at dice) offends, a disgraced gladiator named Murranus, who thereafter swears revenge on him. Mel meets another slave, a brothel slave named Aglae. Both are interrupted by an earthquake. Mel is disturbed to find that the locals dismiss the quakes as the displeasure of the gods; they refuse to accept any actual danger. However, there’s a problem: the TARDIS is gone, buried beneath a building that collapsed in the quake. Unable to dig it out on their own, the Doctor and Mel are now trapped. The Doctor is strangely unsurprised; finally he tells Mel that he expected this, as he knows that the TARDIS, in the year 1980, will be dug from the ruins of Pompeii. He has encountered this before, in his fifth life, courtesy of UNIT; and now the time has come.

Mel refuses to accept defeat, and promises to solve their situation. She goes to seek help, while the Doctor returns to the inn—owned by a woman named Valeria—where he humiliated Murranus, who is now thankfully not present. Elsewhere, Eumachia meets with Celsinus, and tries to get him to help her expose the Doctor and Mel as impostors. She also buys some of Aglae’s time at the brothel, and questions her, then beats her. Mel interrupts and stops her, but Eumachia is not deterred. Later, Celsinus invites Mel to dinner; she accepts, knowing that he has the means to get help in digging out the TARDIS. The Doctor joins her there, as does Eumachia. The dinner goes badly, and ends in an argument; however, the Doctor has come to his senses now, and vows to do what he can to save himself and Mel, though he knows he is fighting time and paradox itself to do so. In the meantime, he tells Mel to leave the city so that she will survive if he runs out of time. However, Eumachia brings a squad of guards and has Mel arrested, on (admittedly false) charges of theft.

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During the night, the Doctor realizes he has overlooked something both obvious and important. He drafts Aglae to help him rescue Mel. Meanwhile, Celsinus visits Mel in the local gaol. She admits that she lied about being a messenger of Isis, but denies the theft. After some debate, he decides that she is probably innocent, and that he was manipulated by Eumachia; he determines to have her freed—and it should only take a few days…Mel, dismayed, sends him away. She barely has hours, let alone days. The Doctor meets him on the way out, however, and hypnotizes him—along with the guard on duty—and frees Mel. Aglae will take her out of the city, and the Doctor will search for the TARDIS; he realizes that the building that collapsed was excavated much earlier than 1980, meaning it is not the location where the TARDIS was found. The TARDIS, therefore, has been moved.

Mel and Aglae try to leave the city, but are caught by a gate guard. Aglae knocks out the guard, and they hide in the nearby necropolis. They are caught again by the same guard when they try to leave in the morning, and locked up again.

The Doctor returns to the inn, but Murranus—who is fortuitously drunk—is there. Murranus threatens Valeria into helping him capture the Doctor; she does so, against her will, by drugging the Doctor’s drink.

Celsinus meets with Mel again, and she tells him the whole truth. He doesn’t want to believe it; but he tells her that Eumachia has described the TARDIS, and when she confirms its detailed description, he believes her. He releases Mel and Aglae, just as another tremor strikes. Vesuvius is about to erupt.

The Doctor awakens in the local amphitheatre, where Murranus waits. He is forced to fight. At first he refuses, but Valeria comes to his defense, and he is forced to fight back to save her. He is about to be killed…when the mountain erupts.

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In the ash and darkness, the Doctor and Valeria escape; Valeria believes he must be a messenger from the gods after all, if he has power to make the mountain explode. He brushes that aside, and sends her away, warning her to flee the city.

Mel leaves Aglae with Celsinus, and makes her way to Eumachia’s house. Eumachia admits to taking the TARDIS, but refuses to reveal its location; she insists that the ongoing destruction is because of Mel. Tibernus reveals that the TARDIS is in the necropolis, but he does not know which tomb; he only has an approximate location. He refuses to flee, choosing to stay with his mistress even in the face of death. He and the other slaves will die, as will Murranus and the other gladiators, who have retreated to their barracks.

The Doctor meets up with Celsinus and Aglae, and passes Valeria to them, warning them all to flee. They do so, but lose Valeria in the crowd; history will record that she died in Pompeii. They escape the city, but their fate is unknown. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds Mel, and they make their way to the necropolis…and as the city chokes on ash and smoke, they locate the TARDIS, just in time.

The TARDIS materializes in 1980, just before the earthquake that unearths it. Mel comments on the fate of their friends, and the Doctor reflects that they may have survived; he does not know, but chooses to believe they survived until he sees proof to the contrary. She asks why they spent three days waiting in the TARDIS before leaving. The Doctor says that it is so that the ash and lava would harden around the TARDIS, forming a TARDIS-shaped cavity, into which he then materialized it in 1980. Thus the timeline is preserved, and no paradox results. They exit the TARDIS and hide just in time to see Captain Frost approaching the scene of the discovery; in a few days, they will go to UNIT and reclaim the TARDIS, and be on their way.

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This is not the Doctor’s only trip to Pompeii; the Seventh Doctor himself would one day return, accompanied by Ace, in the BBC novel The Algebra of Ice. More famously, the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble would visit Pompeii in the televised story The Fires of Pompeii; companion Jack Harkness would also mention visiting Pompeii on volcano day in The Doctor Dances. The Tenth Doctor, in fact, would be responsible for the eruption, although it’s safe to say the Pyroviles were more responsible. That story, released some years after this, makes no mention of this story; but it’s difficult to believe it was not influenced by this. Aside from the similarity in title, there is a similarity in theme, as both stories deal with the futility of fighting time, and the need to save someone regardless of the inevitability of destruction. Also, there is a running element of conflict between religious elements within the city, prevalent in both stories.

References to previous stories here are practically nonexistent, if one excludes the future references I already mentioned. UNIT gets a mention, of course, and its one named officer—Captain Muriel Frost—is a carryover from Doctor Who Magazine’s comics. The Fifth Doctor is referenced, but the adventure cited has never been seen; I suspect that the Fifth Doctor was selected for the reference only because he was commonly found on Earth in 1980, his episodes being broadcast around that time. The Doctor’s hypnotism is perhaps not a direct reference; but it is reminiscent of the Master’s ability to control minds using only his voice. A few of Mel’s character traits, such as her vegetarianism—played for a joke here, as in “Where is this ‘Vegetaria’?”—have been mentioned before. Most of the Pompeiians in the story are references to real people, whose names and/or bodies were found in the ruins. Within the television continuity, this story must occur prior to Dragonfire, when Mel leaves the TARDIS; it has been suggested to occur after Delta and the Bannermen, the preceding episode, though I found no real indication as to why that must be so.

Behind the scenes, this was Mel’s first audio; she will go on to record a number of others in multiple ranges, including Doctor Who Unbound as well as the main range. It is also Bonnie Langford’s first return to the role in seven years, since 1993’s Dimensions in Time. It’s something of a triumphant return for Mel; she gathered a lot of criticism in the classic series, but here, she is really the star of the show, much as Donna will one day be in The Fires of Pompeii. She’s still loud and opinionated—again, much like Donna—but she’s also reliable, solid, and committed to doing the right thing (and the similarities to Donna just keep mounting!). Her behavior gets her into some trouble, but that’s not surprising; really, it’s a wonder that anachronistic behavior doesn’t get more companions into trouble. While I’ve never been one of Mel’s diehard defenders—I also think she could be flakey in the television series—I also don’t dislike her; and I think this outing really does justice to her. You begin to see what it is that the Doctor sees in her, and it’s great.

Overall, this is a very solid entry for the Main Range; it doesn’t attempt anything revolutionary (although, on further reflection, it really doesn’t have a well-defined villain, instead choosing several minor villains instead—a bold move, I suppose, but one that is executed well here). It’s enjoyable, and well-paced; it neither drags nor rushes, or at least, not until the volcano erupts, at which point it’s perfectly reasonable to rush. My only regret is one that is not particular to this story; that is, it’s eventually overshadowed by its television twin, The Fires of Pompeii. In that regard, it comes across almost as a prelude to that story, in that you can imagine that the Doctor regrets not definitively saving someone here. That is a theme that will haunt him all the way to his time as the Twelfth Doctor, when he chooses the face of a Pompeiian.

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Next time: We’ll detour back to the Destiny of the Doctor series, with the Third Doctor’s Vengeance of the Stones; and then we’re back to the Main Range with The Shadow of the Scourge! See you there.

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

The Fires of Vulcan

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Shadow of Death

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 Second Doctor’s contribution to the series: Shadow of Death, read by Frazer Hines and Evie Dawnay. Let’s get started!

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

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The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe find themselves on a planet orbiting a pulsar in the year 2724. We don’t get an exact date, but we get the year, as Jamie is debating with the Doctor about his—that is, Jamie’s—age; the Doctor is teasing him about being a thousand years old. Zoe has only recently joined the TARDIS crew, while Jamie estimates he has been traveling with the Doctor for two or three years; this places the story after the events of The Wheel in Space. He later gives Zoe an explanation of the Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS); this places the story prior to The Krotons, where the HADS is used. The pulsar’s gravitational pulses are strong enough to the drag the TARDIS out of its flight, leading it to be at least temporarily stuck on the planet.

Things are not as they seem. They find themselves inside an ancient and yet oddly functional city. A quick exploration takes the travelers onto the surface, where they find several human corpses…and oddly, they seem to have been aged to death where they stand. In fact, at first they’re mistaken for statues. The Doctor and his companions are quickly captured by more humans, who prove to be part of a galactic survey expedition. Although there is mutual suspicion at first, it quickly turns to an alliance of necessity when it becomes clear that they are not alone. A shadowy being—or possibly more than one—is also roaming the corridors of the empty city; and its touch is death, in the same manner as that of the corpses on the surface.

After much misdirection and danger—both from the shadow and from the gravitational pulses—the Doctor finds himself isolated, and attempts to get to the TARDIS and escape the city, then recover his friends. However, he is stopped by an odd visitation. The Eleventh Doctor, from far in his personal future, makes psychic contact with him; he sees the Eleventh Doctor’s image and that of his psychic paper, which spells out written instructions. He must not only save himself and the others, but must also save the survey team’s work; it will be vital in the future. Resigned, he forgoes the TARDIS and returns to the control room to save the data…and is captured by the shadows.

Hours later, the Doctor rejoins Jamie and the others. He explains that the shadows are the indigenous, intelligent species of this world; he refers to them as the Quiet Ones. He explains that their world was once a rogue planet, without a star; Jamie compares them and their situation to the Cybermen of Mondas, which was also a sort of rogue planet (as seen in The Moonbase and The Tenth Planet). He states that their world was captured by the pulsar; to protect themselves, they transformed themselves into a non-corporeal form which exists at a much higher rate of time than humans. The deaths were unintentional, caused by the colliding of different time zones; they were attempting to make contact, not kill. The problem, it seems, is the noise the humans make; the Quiet Ones are highly sensitive to sound, and need a quiet environment to live. All they really wanted, it seems, was to get the humans to “keep it down”. The Doctor has brokered a truce which will allow the research to continue.

Jamie, however, realizes something is amiss. He asks why the Doctor was not killed when touched; the Doctor attributes it to his relationship with time, which is different from that of the humans. Still, he has aged a bit; and under pressure, he reveals that while Jamie and Zoe only experienced a few hours on the planet, for him, it was a few years.

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This entry is the shortest in the Destiny of the Doctor series, at just under an hour. It’s also probably the least complex plot, at least among those I have listened to thus far; technically it doesn’t even have a villain. I didn’t feel that that was a weakness here, though. It’s pretty well-executed. Frazer Hines is a fantastic voice actor, with a wide range of accents available to him; and his portrayal of the Second Doctor is utterly convincing—several times, you could believe it is Patrick Troughton. Of course, credit should go to the writer, Simon Guerrier, for that as well; it’s up to him to capture the Doctor’s phrasing, just as it’s up to the reader to capture the voice. Evie Dawnay, who plays the survey team’s Dr. Sophie Topolovic, is a bit of a Russian caricature, but she plays it well and earnestly; she reminds me of the video game character Olga Gurlukovich from the Metal Gear Solid series. My only real regret was that Wendy Padbury didn’t reprise her role as Zoe; but that’s not surprising, as she has largely withdrawn from Doctor Who in her retirement.

The Eleventh Doctor’s appearance here is more involved and explicit than in the previous story, where he was only heard on the radio. It’s never really spelled out that he is the Eleventh Doctor—something I expect is true in every story in this series save the final one—but the description is unmistakable. There are several other references to television stories, in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned; Jamie refers to his meeting the Doctor (The Highlanders); walking on the moon (The Moonbase); the Doctor references Jamie’s comment from The Faceless One about planes being “flying beasties”; and the Doctor makes a reference to former companion Steven Taylor. Overall this series is heavy on references; that’s no surprise, given that it was written to lead up to the Fiftieth Anniversary.

I did find it interesting—and this was also true of the previous story—that this story doesn’t give away anything that wasn’t already a part of the show’s lore at this point. There’s no mention of Gallifrey or the Time Lords, for example, even when it might be obvious to do so. It’s to be expected that future adventures won’t be mentioned; but even in circumstances where knowledge that the Doctor clearly possesses—but had not revealed on television yet—would come in handy, it’s not stated. To me, that’s both inconvenient and very cool. It’s respectful of the television series; and though it may cause a bit of difficulty here, occasionally, it also prevents holes in continuity later on.

Overall I enjoyed this story, even more than the previous one. Perhaps it’s just that the Second Doctor is always a delight. Nevertheless, it says something good about everyone involved—writers, readers, characters—when a story as plain as this one (from a plot standpoint) can still be highly entertaining and interesting. This one hit all the right notes. It makes me have high hopes for the series as a whole.

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Next time: We join the Seventh Doctor and Mel in the Main Range for The Fires of Vulcan; and continuing Destiny of the Doctor, the Third Doctor and UNIT combat the Vengeance of the Stones! See you there.

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

Shadow of Death