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.