Sorry this one’s a day late – it’s been a very busy week where every single plan I’ve made has gone slightly wrong.
“We never meet anyone who speaks anything else”
…Ish, the thirty-fifth Big Finish Doctor Who adventure, features the Sixth Doctor and Peri, a relatively rare pairing for this series, and is one of the most interesting of the Doctor’s adventures in any medium. Those of you who read this week’s Superman Beyond 3D might find some of the parallels interesting…
This is more a description of the plot than an actual review – normally I don’t do those and don’t like those who do, but with this one I don’t have much to say about the artistic quality, and my discussion of the ideas in it will be incorporated into some other posts I’m working on.
It starts out as an absolutely traditional Doctor Who story – the Doctor is visiting an academic conference on linguistics, on an unnamed planet, at which his old friend Professor Osefa is to give the keynote speech. However, when he turns up, she’s dead – an apparrent suicide. But while the handwriting on the note is hers, would someone so concerned with language and correct usage have written a suicide note that seems barely literate?
So far so normal, and the first episode of the story is fairly standard, with the best part being the interplay between the Doctor and Peri about the English language (the Doctor on Noah Webster – “That pestilential scribbler! The damage he wrought…” – the Doctor’s conversations with Peri here echo my conversations with my similarly-American wife), but it soon turns into far more interesting territory.
The conference, you see, has been regarding the creation of a new, ultimate, dictionary of the English language (which has become a Galactic lingua franca thanks to its ability to absorb useful features from any other languages with which it comes into contact) – one containing literally every word, with every meaning by which it had ever been used (those involved seem to be descriptivist rather than prescriptivist, which would appear to go against the Doctor’s stated views), cross-referenced to every other relevant word.
However, the conference has been infiltrated by a saboteur named Warren, who believes language ought to be free, and goes around trying to destroy projects that to his mind kill words by tying them down to specific meanings – at one point he ensured that the second volume of an encyclopedia (the one starting DAL) was too heavy to be lifted.
The dictionary itself is actually a person – or rather, a ‘hologlyph’. An artificial intelligence, Book has to read every piece of English-language writing in existence, and examine every recording of English speech, to get a full contextual understanding of every word. That contextual understanding is both the dictionary, and is Book’s personality – one of the important ideas of this story is that we are programmed by the words we know – language is the brain’s software.
However, at one point the Book has become infected – by contact with the Omniverbum.
The Omniverbum is ‘lexically transcendent’ – a word that transcends meaning – the ‘soul’ of language, it can only be defined by itself, and is, according to the lexicographers, worth preserving for that reason. But the Book has accidentally released a single syllable – pronounced in the audio as ‘ish’ although that’s presumably not what it ‘really’ is in-world – which once heard starts playing on your mind (like when you suddenly start thinking of a word you’ve known all your life, and wonder why *that* word for that thing, til eventually the sound itself seems meaningless). It actually eats meaning – it destroys your vocabulary, replacing it all with its own nonsense sound. (Very like the linguistic virus in Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, actually). However, it’s also sentient, and merely wants to return to the Omniverbum from whence it came. On the other hand, Warren, the saboteur, actually wants to free the ‘ish’ and spread it as widely as possible, ‘freeing’ words by totally separating sound from meaning.
The story is actually quite a traditional Doctor Who story in structure, but makes use of the audio medium better than most – the conflict is all on the level of ideas, and is essentially one of juvenile pseudo-anarchism/libertarianism (let the words be ‘free’ even if it turns everyone in the universe into babbling imbeciles) versus moderation (it is good for language to change and evolve, but there needs to be a common standard so people can communicate at all).
It’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is – it’s all in text and nothing is in subtext, which is why it’s difficult for me to do anything more complex or interesting than a ‘this happened, then this, then this’ synopsis – but then again ‘all in text rather than subtext’ is appropriate for a play about words. And while the Sixth Doctor is my favourite audio Doctor, in this episode he’s given some very flowery language and bad puns – appropriate for the subject, but not *quite* done as well as it could be – leading him to come off as slightly more of a bumptious buffoon than he should (that should be an aspect of his character, but he should have slightly more self-awareness and actual intelligence than he displays here). Colin Baker does his usual marvellous job in the performance though.
For all that, it’s one of the better plays in the series – the combination of dealing with actual ideas (even if I’d have preferred it to be done a little more subtly) and some of the best performances in the series (Nicola Bryant is particularly good here – Peri is a much more realistic and appealing character in the audios than in the TV show, although she still can’t do the accent properly. Chris Eley on the other hand is not very good at all as Warren, but he’s the only one who lets the side down) make it head-and-shoulders above the average. It’s not a truly great story like Doctor Who And The Pirates, but it’s well worth a listen.