I’ve written before , in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! [Paperback Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) All other ebook formats]. about Rob Shearman’s Doctor Who Unbound story Deadline, and I’m going to try not to repeat myself too much in this essay, but given that this book is entirely about Doctor Who without the character of The Doctor, it needs dealing with in some form.
Because Shearman’s play is very different to the usual run of Doctor Who Unbound. For the most part, the series follows a simple formula – what if the Valeyard (an evil version of the Doctor from the story Trial Of A Time Lord) had won? What if the Doctor had never left Gallifrey? What if we could get David Warner to play the Doctor?
But here, Shearman goes for something very different – what if Doctor Who had never been broadcast at all?
Derek Jacobi plays a hack writer, Martin Bannister, who started off as a promising playwright but is now best known for writing the least popular episodes of the 80s police drama Juliet Bravo, and whose career seems to have started to go downhill from the time he was asked to write stories for a planned TV show called Doctor Who, a show that was never actually made. Everything would have been all right if that show had been made. His marriage wouldn’t have ended, he would have a better relationship with his son, he’d be an acclaimed writer.
Shearman’s script is a poignantly humorous look at a life falling apart. Every one of Bannister’s relationships is built on multiple layers of lies – he praises his nurse’s bad attempts at writing in order to encourage what he sees as her sexual advances, but once he actually makes a move she backs off in revulsion even though she had clearly been interested while he was not attainable. He romanticises his relationship with his son during his son’s childhood years, but the son is so angry with his father that he lies to him, claiming his mother has died, just in order to try to get any reaction from a man he’s never felt close to.
And throughout this, Bannister is rewriting his life in his head, imagining himself as the Doctor, off on adventures in time and space. These adventures are badly-written versions of early First Doctor stories – An Unearthly Child and The Daleks in particular, but also the unmade story The Masters Of Luxor – which of course in Bannister’s mind has exactly as much or as little ‘canonicity’ as any of the other stories.
In the end, Bannister goes and locks himself in a wardrobe, refusing to come out, saying it’s bigger on the inside. He’s finally retreated totally into his fantasy world, and it’s strongly implied that he may have died there. But it’s also implied that this horrible, mean-spirited man who has wrecked the lives of everyone around him is coming out of a coccoon, that he contains within himself an urge to be better – to be The Doctor.
Shearman’s play also has a very interesting textual interrelationship with Marc Platt’s Auld Mortality, the first of the series of Unbound stories of which Deadline was the last. Both centre around writers who regret paths not taken in their past lives, and reunions with members of the family from which the writer has been cut off. In both, the central character takes refuge in fantasy worlds that are Doctor Who stories. But in Platt’s story, the writer is the First Doctor, who chose to stay on Gallifrey and write novels based on alternate realities that he creates while staying in his home, which he never leaves. In fact, the stories that Platt’s Doctor writes are also adventures that Bannister’s Doctor has – fictional stories from a ‘non-canonical’ universe’s fiction. If the stories are never written, then they all count equally.
This Doctor writes stories of ‘the Adventurer’ and his adventures through time and space with his casket-shaped TARDIS. But when he’s trapped in one of these stories (a story about Hannibal which bears some resemblance to Hartnell-era historical stories), he discovers the TARDIS is just an empty box – just as Bannister finds that his wardrobe is really a TARDIS, at least in his own mind.
Both stories were written in 2003, the fortieth anniversary of the TV show, a time when the show had been off the air for fourteen of those forty years, a time when the central fact about Doctor Who was that it was in the past and that it had been stopped, and the central question among fans was whether doing something different would have kept the show alive. Both are ultimately about escape from this question, from “an old cooking-pot of memories and ill-researched approximations” as the Doctor describes his writing in Auld Mortality. Auld Mortality in particular specifically argues for pluralism and freedom, and the point of both stories ultimately is that the only true death is to allow regrets from the past to limit our choices in the future.
We are limited, ultimately, only by what we can imagine, and to settle for less because we’re scared of failure is to invite that very failure. A writer who doesn’t write, or a traveller who stays at home, no matter what their reasons, are fundamentally the antithesis of the Doctor, which is why they can only appear in stories about the Doctor’s non-existence.
I come to Big Finish’s new Gallifrey series from a slightly different angle from most of its listeners. I listened to the first three series several years ago, and was unimpressed – I remember the first series as being moderately entertaining fluff, while the second and third series got so far up their own arsehole they actually succeeded at navel-gazing from the inside, (This may be an unfair judgement. I remember them as being the very definition of fanwank, but it may well be that the attempt to do a fifteen-part epic story was just too ambitious for my own attention span).
But series three of Gallifrey had ended on a cliffhanger – the start of The Time War, with ‘some metal gentlemen’ having infected all of Gallifrey with a virus. And if there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s the Time War. Especially since reading Richard & Alex’s wonderful Fractal History Of The Time War, I’ve been treating the Time War in my head like a gigantic multidimensional puzzle.
The interesting thing about the Time War is that the further one gets from ‘canon’, the more interesting the stories become. The Faction Paradox books are among the best books I’ve ever read, as is Dead Romance (which is slightly more ‘canon’ than the books). The Faction Paradox audios (with officially licensed Doctor Who baddies) and the Eighth Doctor books are good – sometimes very good – but rarely great. And the actual 2005-2009 TV series that established a version of the war as ‘canon’ is, to my mind, pretty much uniformly awful. The Time War/The War/The War In Heaven is as much as anything a war between alternative versions of history, and a history written by the winners and imposed from above is usually far less interesting than the multiple perspectives of the oppressed – would you rather read Homage To Catalonia or a piece of Falangist propaganda?
That’s not to compare Russel Davies to Generalissimo Franco – though I can imagine certain of the more rabid message board denizens emulating the example of the Tilbury dockers – Davies has actually been remarkably good on the issue of ‘canon’, loudly and publicly refusing to use his position of authority (in the minds of the kind of fans who like authorities) to adjudicate on what does and doesn’t ‘count’. For all the faults I find with him, Davies’ view is an inclusive one.
Rather, it’s to argue that those who are looking for certainty and ‘canon’ are limiting themselves unnecessarily (an argument I have made before, of course, in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!). The Daleks as one possible Enemy in the Time War is a decent, though rather obvious, seed for other stories. The Daleks as *the* Enemy, on the other hand, closes off the other possibilities (an incursion of Time Lords from another ‘bottle universe’, the Time Lords themselves in the future/past, a new idea that radically disrupts ossified ways of thinking, the writers of the books themselves, a non-existent threat created purely to give the illusion of conflict, humanity, the vampires/Mal’akh wanting their universe back, the new TV series itself… ).
It might be fun, in fact, to do a few posts here looking at different options as to who or what The Enemy is. I particularly like the war between the Time Lords and The Enemy as the war between the ‘classic’ (small-c conservative, big-L Liberal) and Welsh (New Labour – modern, glossy, “we can brook no criticism, because however bad it is, it’s better than the horrible wilderness years we had before, do you want Thatcher back/the show off the air again?”) series…
But anyway, if we pop out of this digression from a digression from a digression, the Gallifrey audios – like the Big Finish audios generally – are in an odd place when it comes to ‘canon’ for those who care about such things. They’re officially licensed, but have to be approved by the makers of the current show. But at the same time, they can’t make reference to anything in that show. So even though Gary Russell, who is in charge of the Gallifrey series, is also a script editor on the Welsh series, and he has clearly stated (including on the special features for these stories) that he intends the War that happened off-stage between series three and four to be the Time War featured in the TV show, this can’t be stated directly in the stories themselves. This leads to an interesting kind of forced ambiguity being imposed *against* authorial intent.
And whether intentionally or not, this has produced a story where the in-universe and out-of-universe epistemic statuses are mirrored. We have a multiple-universe story (always a very good thing), but one where all the alternate universes travelled to are just that – alternate universes. They exist not as the parallel worlds in, say, Lance Parkin’s Faction Paradox novel Warlords Of Utopia, do – as worlds whose divergences produce results both good (in Parkin’s case, a peace that has lasted millennia, and a flowering of culture and technology) and bad (dictatorship, paedophilia as social norm, slavery). Rather, they exist as wrong turns that could have been taken, lessons that this (or in this case, the main Doctor Who universe) is the best of all possible worlds, with each of these universes being defined as wrong, inferior timelines, and each one diverging in precisely one way, which leads to disaster.
So along with the ‘real’ Romana, Leela and K9, plus the characters Narvin and Braxiatel from earlier stories, we get alternative versions of Romana (both her first and second regenerations), Leela (an articulate, educated fascist torturer, whose distinctly different tones show once and for all that Leela’s rather stilted way of talking is a deliberate acting decision by Louise Jameson, rather than a poor performance), two Sixth Doctors, and more, all in some ways ‘worse’ than the ones we know.
(Sadly there is no alternate K9. John Leeson was the star of the earlier Gallifrey series, with his bitching between the two K9s. Here, there is only one, and he doesn’t get to shine the same way except during his brief promotion to Castellan).
Of the four stories here – which can only be bought as a bundle, though for a very reasonable £30 (£35 if you want the CDs rather than just downloads), by far the best is CD3 – Gallifrey: Annihilation. Oddly, given that Russell was a co-writer, and he’s known for being more obsessed with continuity and fan-wank than most, there are no alternative Doctors or Romanas or whoever (though Lord Prydon *may* be intended to be an alternate Master, given that he’s played by Geoffrey Beevers), and surprisingly/thankfully Katy Manning isn’t playing Jo Grant or Iris Wildthyme, but a female Borussa.
For those of us who like playing games with that sort of thing, in fact, this story could fit quite neatly in with Faction Paradox, as it’s set on a Gallifrey where Rassilon was turned into a vampire by the Great Vampire, and there’s a civil war between the Vampire Gallifreyans and the ‘True Lords’, who never developed time travel but *could* regenerate. This could easily be the timeline from which the Faction’s masks come, and it will be in my ‘personal canon’ from now on. (Also in my ‘personal canon’, these are four of the Nine Homeworlds. No-one said the Nine Homeworlds had to be in *this* timeline – or if they did I don’t remember, which is the same thing).
It’s quite a nice piece of space-opera-Gothic, Beevers makes an appropriately sepulchral vampire, and it’s an entertaining way to spend an hour, though hardly ground-breaking stuff.
The worst, unfortunately, is Justin Richards’ Gallifrey: Disassembled. I say unfortunately, partly because this has the best performances of the bunch (from Louise Jameson as two Leelas, and a great turn by Colin Baker as Lord Burner), and the first half-hour or so is genuinely good, but it soon degenerates into a load of nonsense, with illogical, made-up-on-the-fly rules about what does and doesn’t count as a paradox, hints at Braxiatel being the Doctor’s brother, explanations as to why the Doctor originally left Gallifrey…
When I say that the big turning point in this universe is that Zagreus took the place of The Other in its history, I think that will tell everyone all they need to know (if you don’t know what those words mean, be thankful…)
The other two stories, Gallifrey: Reborn and Gallifrey: Forever, bookend the series quite nicely, providing us with, respectively, the set-up for this four-story series, and a new status quo at the end with Romana and Leela trapped on a Gallifrey which hadn’t yet invented time travel but where Romana’s now president.
Overall, quality-wise this sits somewhere in the middle of Big Finish’s range. Nowhere near a genuine masterpiece like Peri And The Piscon Paradox or some of their other recent triumphs, this still feels like it was created because of someone’s desire to tell the story, and so it’s still above some of the landfill “let’s have the Doctor team up with two companions from different eras, and have them fight the Celestial Toymaker, who’s teamed up with the Zarbi” stuff they do when inspiration fails completely.
You already know if this is the kind of thing you like or not (in fact you probably either ordered it in advance or are never going to hear it), but for the kind of thing it is, it’s well done. And thankfully, either through diktat from above or through taste on the part of Gary Russell, it leaves as many questions about the Time War unanswered at the end as at the beginning.
Big Finish’s output has been very, very variable recently. In the last couple of years, since they started doing ‘trilogies’ rather than stand-alone stories, they’ve become increasingly likely to do complicated continuity-twisting stories – the Sixth Doctor travelling with the Second Doctor’s companion, the Sixth Doctor travelling with the *Eighth* Doctor’s companion, three Celestial Toymaker stories in a year… this month’s story involves the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn teaming up with DI Menzies (a character from the Sixth Doctor’s future who has to pretend she doesn’t know him) against Thomas Brewster (a character from a Fifth Doctor trilogy from a couple of years ago).
But then you get stuff like A Death In The Family, the recent story by Steven Hall (the writer of The Raw Shark Texts), which manages to play with continuity lightly and tell a story about the nature of reality, the nature of fiction, the power of words, and the sacrifices people will make for each other. The gimmick – the Seventh Doctor and Evelyn – and the continuity references (it ties up threads from at least eight different stories going back nearly a decade) don’t matter. A Death In The Family is as good as anything Big Finish have done in the last five years, and was far and away the best thing they put out last year.
It’s only the 23rd of January, but I already know what the best thing they’ll put out this year is.
Peri and the Piscon Paradox is part of the Companion Chronicles range – a range of stories closer to audiobooks than the full-cast dramas Big Finish usually do, where an actor playing one of the Doctor’s companions tells a story over the course of a single CD, with one other actor usually taking part to play a character they’re narrating to or something.
This one, by Nev Fountain, is a little different in that it’s two CDs long, and the second actor is actually Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. It’s also the single best multi-Doctor story ever. This post, like all my reviews, may contain spoilers from here on in, but be assured I’m not actually spoiling anything.
The first disc tells a story of Peri and the Fifth Doctor fighting a fish-monster-thing in LA in 2009, with the assistance of Peri’s ‘forty-several’ year old self, an agent for a secret government agency who Peri quickly grows to despise. It ends with Peri vowing never to become like her older self.
The second disc tells the story of Doctor Perpugilliam Brown, presenter of a ‘celebrity relationship counselling’ TV show, and how she gets dragged into a complicated plot by a man claiming to be someone she once met in Lanzarotte, more than twenty years ago, even though he looks nothing like him, and how that plot involves tricking a past self she can’t remember.
Those who remember Nev Fountain’s earlier Big Finish work, especially The Kingmaker, will recognise a number of his regular motifs as the story goes on. Not only are there multiple Doctors interacting without being fully aware of each other’s actions, and time paradoxes, there are many, many jokes set up in the first half that only pay off in the second. The first three-quarters of this story, in fact, is pretty much laugh-out-loud funny throughout. I know it’s hard to believe, given that Fountain also wrote for Dead Ringers, but it is a good piece of comedy.
And Nicola Bryant is excellent. Despite the fact that she’s hampered by having to do the accent and characterisation she lumbered herself with as a much younger actor, she manages to play the two Peris remarkably well, and it’s an astonishingly subtle, nuanced performance. Colin Baker is, of course, as excellent as ever, and is in it more than you might think.
But it’s only at the end, when the full story is revealed, that what Fountain is doing really falls into place and you realise just how good this actually is. In a couple of lines of dialogue, Fountain clears up a continuity problem that avid fans reading this have already spotted. At the same time, he also manages to make the story about things – about growing up, about betraying our youthful ideals, about our youthful ideals betraying us, and about how we harden with age and with compromise. It’s a very sad, very political story, in the end. He gives the story a bittersweet ending that fits in with my own preferred ‘all stories are true’ Doctor Who ‘canon’, and he manages to make the same scene seen from two different angles mean two totally different things. It turns what was already one of the best stories Big Finish have done in a long time into one of the best they’ve ever done.
A Death In The Family is better, but that requires you to have listened to more stories and to have an attachment to the characters. This is a wonderful comedy that suddenly punches you in the gut, and will do so no matter who you are.
All the praise that people have been giving Moffat’s A Christmas Carol should really be going to this story – it does the same things (and indeed some of the same things that this month’s main-range Big Finish story does) so much better that the TV story looks like a sad parody of this one. It’s a story that anyone at all could listen to and get a *lot* out of, and it’s something that could only have been done as Doctor Who. I’ve only listened to it once, but it may be in my all-time favourite Doctor Who stories. It’s certainly in my favourite Big Finishes (along with Davros, The Kingmaker, Jubilee, A Death In The Family, Doctor Who And The Pirates, The Holy Terror and Spare Parts) and is one I would urge anyone to listen to.
Even many Big Finish fans don’t buy the Companion Chronicles, because they’re seen as cheap filler things This one really, really isn’t. It’s as good as anything they’ve done. Buy it, if you like funny, intelligent, thought provoking science fiction, whether or not it’s labelled Doctor Who. It’s only a tenner as a download, and it’s worth every penny.
I do have one proviso though, that I feel obliged to mention even though it may be slightly more of a spoiler than the other things I’ve said
and that is that the ending may be triggering for those who have experienced spousal abuse. It’s dealt with sensitively, and in a way that’s necessary to the plot, but be aware that it’s there.
Well, it’s actually more than a fortnight since the last one, but given the circumstances, I hope you can forgive me.
(There are a *lot* of people searching for Doctor Who today, aren’t there? And I appear, when I look at the WordPress tag ‘doctor who’ to be the ‘featured blog’, whatever that means. So for those of you who are coming here for the first time, hello. My name’s Andrew Hickey, and I like the old series of Doctor Who very much, and don’t like the new series very much at all. I hope you won’t hold that against me…)
Omega is rather unusual among Big Finish audios, in that it directly follows, and is a sequel to, an episode of the TV series – but if you’ve seen the episode in question the big twist of the story is spoiled for you.
Nev Fountain’s story is part of a thematic trilogy, along with Master and Davros, that was leading up to Big Finish’s fiftieth story, Zagreus. Each of these featured the Doctor without a companion going up against a single ‘classic’ villain who hadn’t appeared much or at all in the Big Finish stories previously. Each revealed ‘new, shocking facts’ about the origin of that villain, and each in some way showed that the Doctor and the villain were two sides of the same coin. I’ve reviewed those two audios earlier, but suffice to say that Davros is one of the three or four best things Big Finish have ever done (and is among my top ten Doctor Who stories in any medium) while Master is three-quarters of a decent little horror/murder mystery topped with half an hour of the most egregious fanwank ever conceived.
Omega, as you might expect from one of Peter Davison’s audios, which are always solidly entertaining but rarely (with a few exceptions like The Kingmaker) groundbreaking and different, is somewhere in between, never reaching the highs of Davros, but never plumbing the depths of “The Master was created by Death in a deal with the Doctor when the Doctor was a kid because the Doctor was a murderer and gave up his best friend rather than face the guilt”.
We do, unfortunately, get the revelation that the Doctor has committed yet another genocide in the past, which must be at least the fifth and does tend to suggest that the Doctor is some kind of cosmic Hitler, even though most of these have been by accident, but taking this as a story on its own, rather than trying to make connections with all the other stories, it’s actually quite effective.
The story itself is quite simple – the Doctor turns up on a spaceship running a ‘jolly Chronolidays’ tour to the site of Omega’s experiments with time travel, where some of the actors who take part in the reconstructions are going mad and believing they are the real people who they are playing. Meanwhile, Omega is on the loose on the ship, and the Doctor has not got his TARDIS, and Omega is trying to get back to his own universe, even if this means taking the entire ship with him.
The problem is that understanding this means having seen two old Doctor Who stories. Omega isn’t as ‘iconic’ a villain as the Master or Davros, both of whom are names that would be recognised by, if not necessarily the non-fan public, at least the sort of casual fan who might be tempted to pick up a CD in the shops based on having liked the show as a kid. Omega, by contrast, is tied to two specific stories – The Three Doctors and Arc Of Infinity – both of which are themselves very much mired in Gallifreyan lore. This means that the only people who are ever going to listen to this story are those who have seen those two stories. And anyone who have seen those two stories will know that in Arc Of Infinity, which comes directly before this story, Omega had inhabited a body which was an exact replica of the Doctor’s.
Knowing this, the big twist in the middle of the story – that we haven’t in fact been following the story of the Doctor battling Omega, but instead a sort of sub-Fight Club story in which both minds are in one body, a copy of the Doctor’s – is entirely obvious to anyone who gives the story some thought, and without that much of the impact is lost.
The story has other flaws as well – the attempts at humour stick out like a sore thumb, with in-jokes aimed at particular groups of fans, and bathetic ‘humorous’ stings in the music whenever something ‘funny’ happens, and with a reference to Zagreus that includes a ‘hilarious’ Scouse accent (regional accents are obviously the funniest thing in the entire universe). Also, the big ‘revelation’ about Omega is so ridiculous one is almost tempted to regard it as a joke at the expense of the other two stories in the ‘trilogy’. Despite these flaws, the audio succeeds on its own terms, thanks to a particularly good central performance by Davison (and having watched a few of Davison’s TV shows recently, I’m even more impressed with his audio performances – when listening to the audios one feels the character is exactly the same one he played on TV, but when watching the TV show it is very obvious how much more subtle a performance he’s giving now. Which is not to disparage his performance in the 80s, but just to say how much better an actor he is twenty-plus years on). The plotting is also very tight – a necessity when every single character in the story, without exception, either gets possessed by another character, is pretending to be someone who they’re not, or in some other way has some very confused identity problems.
Omega is, despite my criticisms, definitely in the top 50% of Big Finish stories – the story itself is enjoyable enough to reward repeated listenings, it’s never dull, and the flaws, though real, never pull you out of the story the way they do in the worst of the audios. But this is one for the fans, rather than for the casual listener, in a way that the very best Big Finish stories aren’t.