Cybermen Vs. Daleks

I have a guest post up on the Popgun Chaos site. I argue that the Cybermen are better villains than the Daleks. Let the controversy resound!

And be sure to check out Big Finish today. In celebration of this year’s anniversary they are having a sale of The Sirens of Time, Jubilee, and The Harvest for $1.00 as a download or just over $5 for CDs. The Sirens of Time is a multi-Doctor story (5, 6, and 7), Jubilee is a 6th Doctor and Daleks story, and The Harvest is a 7th Doctor and Cybermen story. So in a way, this sale goes along with my post, although I’m sure it is just a coincidence.

Doctor Who – Earth Aid (The Lost Stories) or, more accurately, a look back at the faux-season 27

The cover for Doctor Who: Earth Aid
Find It At

Big Finish

Written By

Ben Aaronovitch and Andrew Cartmel

Directed By

Ken Bentley

Big Finish Says

Welcome aboard the space vessel Vancouver. Its mission: to guard a vast shipment of grain from Earth to the planet Safenesthome. Its Captain is called Ace. She seems a little unsure of herself. In fact, some might almost think she was new to the job…

Its medical officer is called simply ‘The Doctor’, and he’s perhaps not all he seems either. When mysterious ships target the Vancouver, Ace and the Doctor are pushed to the limit. Meanwhile, there’s something nasty in the grain containers. And it’s not very happy…

Make it so

When all is said and done, these faux-season 27 stories have been a hit . . . but a qualified one.

The enigma of season 27 and of the Cartmel Master Plan hung around these stories. The potential of what might have been was ever present. As a result, my expectations were unfairly high. Everything I saw in the televised McCoy era didn’t quite translate to these audio stories. And why should they? Nearly thirty years have passed, and the energy of the show in 1989 cannot realistically exist in 2014. (Well, 2011.) The passion and anger of Cartmel and his writers, passion and anger directed at British politics in the late 80s, is muted. The anxiety of being responsible for the very future of Doctor Who is gone. What is left are 25 year old ideas, brushed off for scripting and presentation.

Earth Aid, as an end to these lost stories, works wonderfully. It wraps up a loose Metatraxi story-arc in a largely satisfying way. In Cartmel fashion, it gets a few digs with some social commentary. And the pastiche of Star Trek style science fiction was a lot of fun. Earth Aid was a nice, light end to an interesting but somewhat inconsistent run of stories. It fits quite well at the end of this pseudo-season. It has some holes and unanswered questions. (How, exactly, did Ace become a captain of a starship?) It would have been nice to have more character development where Raine is concerned. (What was up with her staying on Earth to grieve her father, but turns up again here with just a passing reference to her grief?)

But what is missing from this season is the maybe-god/maybe-not Doctor manipulating time and space against gods, monsters, and himself. There is nothing on the scale of Ragnarok or Fenric here. The closest we get is a sentient planet. I think Andrew Cartmel, in producing these stories, was more interested in making interesting stories from half-remembered script ideas. He wasn’t interested in reproducing how fans have read his era. And he didn’t seem interested in putting the “who” back in Doctor Who as he was in the 80s. He didn’t need to. That was done in the New Adventures novels.

And so, season 27 essentially becomes a divergent possibility. It is a divergent possibility that slips quite well into Big Finish continuity. This wasn’t such a bad move. I would like to see what this TARDIS team does free from the restrictions, the pressure, of season 27. (In fact, Big Finish’s UNIT Dominion features the Doctor and Raine.) But when it comes to lines of continuity, I am far more interested in seeing what happened in the novels. They picked up on the narrative threads. They picked up on the urgency and passion of the stories. And that is where I go next on my journey through Doctor Who.

Next stop: Timewyrm: Genesis.

Doctor Who – Animal (The Lost Stories)

Cover for Animal
Find It At

Big Finish

Written By

Andrew Cartmel

Directed By

Ken Bentley

Big Finish Says

Margrave University in 2001, and Raine Creevy is enjoying her first trip into the future. For the Doctor, there are mysteries to solve: what are the alien creatures imprisoned in the science labs? And what are the true motives of the student Scobie and his followers? With enemies on all sides, the Doctor teams up with his old friend Brigadier Bambera and the forces of UNIT in a battle for the future of the whole world.

Communication Breakdown

There are many stories I enjoy in Matt Smith’s first series as the Doctor, but I have a particular interest in “Amy’s Choice.” I enjoy the way that story works in layers, how Amy’s inability to make a decision about Rory becomes manifest in a nightmare world where her fears become monsters. Amy, the Doctor, and Rory are stalked by monsters wearing human shells; they look like pleasant people but house something frightening inside, the normal life become horrifyingly destructive. The monster becomes the metaphor.

While “Animal” isn’t as layered, the monsters match the theme: animal rights gone horribly wrong. Just as the Rage virus was unleased in 28 Days Later by people setting animals free from a research lab, there is something monstrous in the Margrave University science lab, something which is best left alone. But that isn’t the only monster in this story. The wonderfully creepy aliens in this story are a nice counterpart to the animal rights group, allowing Cartmel to explore animal rights themes while also exploring the dangers of groups who will go to Machiavellian lengths to ensure animal safety.

As with “Crime of the Century” before it, “Animal” dips in and out of different genres, although I think it was more successful than its predecessor. It also helps that the Doctor and Ace are reunited with Brigadier Bambera and UNIT. Brigadier Bambera is a character I wanted to see more of, and I’m happy this story brought the character back. I admit that I would like to see her character fleshed out a bit more, making her more than just a female Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, but classic Doctor Who typically emphasized plot over character. Things are no different here. Regardless, it was wonderful to see this character again.

I particularly enjoy that this story sits in the middle of a loosely connected trilogy. While each story is self-contained, the Doctor’s dealings with the Metatraxi from “Crime of the Century” are exacerbated here, and they look to be resolved in the final story of these season 27 Lost Stories. I look forward to seeing how things turn out.

Doctor Who – Crime of the Century (The Lost Stories)

Cover for Crime of the Century
Find It At

Big Finish

Written By

Andrew Cartmel

Directed By

Ken Bentley

Big Finish Says

The year is 1989. In London, safe cracker Raine Creevy breaks into a house – and finds more than the family jewels. In the Middle East, the kingdom of Sayf Udeen is being terrorised by Soviet invaders and alien monsters. And on the Scottish border, a highly guarded facility contains an advanced alien weapon.

These are all part of the Doctor’s masterplan. But masterplans can go awry…

We Could Have Been So Good Together

The image is iconic, has been for over 20 years. A safe cracker works her way through a party, finds the safe, opens it, and the Doctor is stuffed inside. And for 20 years, this is all that has been known about the story that became “Crime of the Century.” And for 20 years, that was all that existed of it. There was no script. There was no story, just the image of a shocked young woman and a relieved, knows-too-much-as-always Doctor.

Raine Creevy, daughter of Markus Creevy from “Thin Ice” has grown up into the aristocratic safe cracker from Doctor Who season 27 legend. She is one more piece in the Doctor’s constant manipulation of events. The goal is a long game designed to remove an alien weapon from British possession. “Crime of the Century” is a caper, only we are not privy to the typical planning sessions in most film capers. We arrive as the plan is unfolding. Honestly, all the planning happened just off camera, in the Doctor’s mind. This is typical of the Seventh Doctor, but what is more explicit in this story than in the televised stories is the level of detail to the plan. The Doctor has been moving quite a few pieces around, some from “Thin Ice,” some new to this story (such as Sayf Udeen and the Metatraxi). It has been a long game indeed, and with this many pieces, it is probably inevitable that something will go wrong, a key moment can fall apart. This is where the story shines for me, the moment when the disparate threads of the story start coming together. But since we are not given this long-term view, the details of the Doctor’s master plan, many of the scenes seem disconnected. It was thrilling to see the connections in the end.

But that was in the end. The journey to the reveal left me disengaged. I enjoy caper stories, but this one didn’t have the clear statement of goals that many capers have. I never felt sure why these pieces were connected to one another until the end of part three. In a story where the pieces don’t initially make sense, I need to connect to the characters. Sadly, apart from Prince Udeen, I never connected with the new characters in the story. This is especially frustrating since Raine becomes the new companion. I wanted to like her, but she just never connected. Some contrast is made between her and Ace, one being a posh safecracker, the other from a working-class background. But this contrast is played for more comedic effect. Given the televised Cartmel era’s tendency to criticize the establishment, a complete embrace of this character strikes me as odd. Granted, she is upper class and a thief, so she is rebelling in some way, but there seems to be a deliberate attempt to minimize TARDIS team conflict. Since such conflict has been mixed in the show’s history, maybe this was a good move, even if Raine fails to win me over.

“Crime of the Century,” then, was a mixed bag for me. It had great moments but quite a few moments that were just part of the Doctor’s game, moving one piece to a specific location. In a way, it was like watching a chess match, but not being privy to the rules or the endgame. It made sense in the end, but it took too long to get there.

Doctor Who – Thin Ice (The Lost Stories)

Where Can I Find It?

Big Finish

Written by

Marc Platt

Directed by

Ken Bentley

What’s It About?

Ad copy: Moscow 1967. The Doctor and Ace have arrived behind the Iron Curtain, and the Soviet Union is seeking a new weapon that will give it mastery in the Cold War. What is the secret of the Martian relics? As the legendary War Lord Sezhyr returns to life, the Doctor is faced with some of his oldest and deadliest enemies. The fate of Earth – and the future of Ace – are now intertwined…

cover for Thin Ice

What Might Have Been?

Any amount of research into the history of Doctor Who, specifically into the history of the McCoy era, will eventually lead to the Cartmel Masterplan. This hypothetical document dictated the plan to move Doctor Who from the perceived failures of the Sixth Doctor era and in to a bright, new future. The Doctor would have been made more mysterious, possibly being revealed as a mythical Gallifreyan known as the Other. The overall vision was to put the “who” back in Doctor Who.

Naturally, the problem with the Cartmel Masterplan theory is that the plan probably never existed. I remember listening to an interview with Andrew Cartmel which had been conducted by the Podshock podcast, and Cartmel said this plan didn’t really exist. At best, the plan was spontaneous and organic, evolving out of the scripting at the time, not connected to a long-term, detailed vision for the show. But over the years the hints of a future in the McCoy era, the allure of the cancelled season 27, and the mythology that arose from the New Adventures novels contributed to theory and speculation. The Cartmel Masterplan became a lost, apocryphal golden era for the show.

With Thin Ice we are given, then, a glimpse at what season 27 could have been. But this glimpse may be less effective than anticipated. Based on some accounts, nothing had gone to script for season 27, although ideas had been pitched. If this is the case, then these lost stories are remembered pitches filtered through decades of development. They are an attempt to reproduce a previous era, not a reflection of an abandoned vision. Essentially, Thin Ice was pitched in 1989 but not written until 2011. It is a product of its time, and that time is the present. That time has also mythologized season 27, leaving me to wonder if these stories can even really be termed “what might have been.”

Looking at what we have been given, then, is nonetheless interesting. Thin Ice engages with the idea that Ace was to be inducted into the Time Lord Academy. The Doctor, seeing her potential, submitted an application without her knowledge and the events of Thin Ice become a test to prove her worth. This is somewhat interesting, and yet, despite the themes of change and the development of Ace’s character in season 26, it seems sudden. If becoming a Time Lady has been Ace’s journey, it hasn’t really been set up well. Moving from bitter (toward her mother) and violent to merciful and peaceful doesn’t not inherently entitle one to the knowledge of the inner workings of all time and space. Fittingly, this plot point is dropped when Ace is not accepted into the Academy. Instead, the Doctor allows her to take a greater role in their adventures, moving from the pawn to an active player. This is far more fitting.

So in a way, Thin Ice plays against the Cartmel Masterplan expectation by deflating it. What we are given instead is an adventure rooted more in Cold War spy antics than Time Lord mythologizing. The Ice Warriors lend themselves well to the Cold War (Cold, Ice, Red Planet), which is something we’ve even seen in the current series episode Cold War. I am always interested when Doctor Who portrays its monsters with nuance rather than, well, monsters. The alien races the Doctor encounters can’t always become stand-ins for those traits of society that we dislike. This is why Malcolm Hulke was such a great writer for Doctor Who. The monsters had believable motivations. And we have the same in this story, with an Ice Warrior agent working with humans to recover an ancient Martian artifact from Soviet possession. The artifact is a helmet with the biodata of a legendary Martian warrior who will be reborn into the wearer of the helmet. The Soviets have been experimenting with the technology, but in addition to the problem this technology will create in the timeline, the inevitable rebirth of this legendary warrior into a human would be a bad thing for human history.

In the end, Thin Ice is an entertaining story, made even more so when divorced from the mythologizing season 27 has been subjected to. This so-called lost season is shaped more by an attempt to tell interesting stories than to recapture a long-playing, long-abandoned plot. The Ace as Time Lord concept doesn’t really work as anything other than a sign to the fans that this ideas has been abandoned. Put it out of your mind and approach the stories as they are, not as we thought they were to be.

There really is no “might have been.”

Doctor Who – The Beginning (The Companion Chronicles)

Where Can I Find It?

Big Finish

Written by

Marc Platt

Directed by

Lisa Bowerman

What’s It About?

Ad copy: When the First Doctor and his grand-daughter Susan escape through the cloisters of Gallifrey to an old Type 40 Time Travel capsule, little do they realize the adventures that lie ahead… And little do they know, as the TARDIS dematerializes and they leave their home world behind, there is someone else aboard the ship. He is Quadrigger Stoyn, and he is very unhappy…

Cover for The Beginning

I was playing with a chair which should have been housebroken

Marc Platt seems to be Big Finish’s go to writer for major revisitations of classic series stories. He wrote the origin of the Cybermen (Spare Parts), the return of the Mara (The Cradle of the Snake), the origin of Magnus Greel (The Butcher of Brisbane), and with The Beginning he visits a pre-Unearthly Child time period for the second time (the first being Quinnis). And while Big Finish has many excellent writers, Platt is one of my favorites. I enjoy the way he layers concepts in his stories, weaving together ideas that reflect one another. The Beginning is no different as the title is a clever play on words and expectations.

On one level, the most obvious one, The Beginning refers to the Doctor and Susan’s flee from Gallifrey. The audio hits the ground running, with the Doctor, Susan, and a mysterious trunk making their way through the bowels of the Citadel. They arrive at a bank of time capsules and pick one in haste. While I didn’t particularly care for The Name of the Doctor, there is a nice reference to that story, and then the adventure begins in earnest. With the stolen TARDIS, however, comes Quadrigger Stoyn (played by Terry Molloy), a TARDIS mechanic who was doing repairs on the damaged ship. Stoyn has never left Gallifrey, and he is horrified at his predicament. And so, The Beginning refers to where all this started, but graciously leaves certain details—such as the reason for the Doctor and Susan’s escape—in mystery. I appreciate this discretion.

On another level, The Beginning refers to beginnings in a more cosmological sense. The Doctor, Susan, and Stoyn arrive on Earth before the emergence of human life. It is here where Platt’s layering becomes truly fascinating to the Religious Studies side of my interests. At the beginning of human life is the ancient cosmological idea of Order and Chaos. Many ancient near eastern texts have this duality at the core of their worldview. Even passages of the Old Testament are probably best understood as Order and Chaos rather than retro-fitting Platonic or Enlightenment ideas onto the interpretation of texts. And these ancient texts are clear in the view that Order is benevolent and Chaos is malicious. Order is embodied in divine beings who keep the weather clear and the crops growing (order in nature) and society at peace (order in humans). Chaos, on the other hand, is embodied in divine beings who create storms and natural disasters (disorder in nature) and society at war or ridden with crime (disorder in humans). And at the heart of The Beginning is an alien race seeding order into the cosmos, taking the disorder of creation and bringing it into a peaceful alignment. But as this function is somewhat mechanistic (for what is more orderly than pure logic and no emotions), the ordered existence of life has no growth, no struggles and perseverance, no free will.

Into this ordering process steps our chaotic-good-aligned Doctor. The experiment by which the alien race attempts to bring order is interrupted and humanity is created. Disordered life rises on Earth. The aliens decide the experiment has failed and the only option left is to destroy the Earth. The Doctor and Susan intervene. In a way, Marc Platt upends the ancient near east duality by making our hero a god of chaos who, with the best of intentions, introduces chaos into humanity before they emerge. Put another way, he puts an aspect of himself into humanity which subsumes the aspect of Order. By doing so, the Doctor has created, in this moment, every human-involved battle he has ever fought. He has bound himself up with the destiny of humanity. He has created humanity, not in a physical sense, but in a psychological/spiritual sense. The price of free will becomes the ability to choose evil. The price of struggle and perseverance is pain and suffering. The Doctor, then, is god but also Satan. And the great irony of this act of creation is that the First Doctor, at this point in his career, is probably the most selfish, least moral of all his incarnations (until the Sixth).

Quadrigger Stoyn becomes the other villain of this piece. He wants to get home and he realizes the Doctor has no intention of returning him there. Thus, Stoyn is willing to use whatever methods necessary to get control of the TARDIS, to get home. Stoyn is memorably played by Terry Molloy, but I don’t think we get enough of him in this story to really understand his motivations. All we know is that he is a mechanic who is experiencing his first trip off Gallifrey, and that it is against his will. And the other threat Stoyn brings is his willingness to turn the Doctor in to the authorities, to the Fetches. Since this story is also the first in a trilogy involving Stoyn, these details may be fleshed out later.

It is probably good to go in to this story knowing that the reasons the Doctor and Susan left Gallifrey are not revealed. Apart from Stoyn, the Gallifreyan elements are minimal and The Beginning could just be another pre-series adventure. But by tying the beginning of the Doctor’s life to the origin of human life, Marc Platt has given us something we never knew we wanted (or at least I never knew that I wanted): a reason why the Doctor’s life is tied up with humanity.

Doctor Who – Shadow of Death (Destiny of the Doctor)

Where Can I Find It?

Big Finish

Written by

Simon Guerrier

Directed by

John Ainsworth

What’s It About?

Ad copy: Following an emergency landing, the TARDIS arrives on a remote world orbiting a peculiar star – a pulsar which exerts an enormous gravitational force, strong enough to warp time.

On further exploration the Doctor and his friends, Jamie and Zoe, discover a human outpost on the planet surface, inhabited by scientists who are there to study an ancient city. The city is apparently abandoned, but the scientists are at a loss to explain what happened to its sophisticated alien architects.

The Doctor discovers that something dark, silent and deadly is also present on the world – and it is slowly closing in on the human intruders…

Shadow of Death cover
Size Isn’t Everything, Zoe

Shadow of Death is set in the sixth season of Doctor Who. Frazer Hines is always a great narrator of Second Doctor stories. His Patrick Troughton impersonation is astounding. The story is a nice mixture of Second Doctor tropes, from a base under siege (somewhat), to white foam, to mild innuendo, to space-age adventure. Honestly, the latter is one of my favorite things about the Troughton Era: the space age. In a way, the Troughton Era is a type historical preservation of what writer in the 1960s thought space travel would be like. It captures a perspective that has changed significantly, and yet the attitude and charm still exist. I love these details in old Doctor Who. I love mining stories for contextual meaning. And it is fascinating how current writers attempt to reproduce those types of stories, but filtered through a contemporary context. Hence, in Shadow of Death we get parallel time streams due to a pulsar. But at its core, Shadows of Death is straight out of a space-age, Second Doctor playbook.

I love how this story reproduces its Doctor’s era (something I felt Hunters of Earth didn’t quite accomplish), but at the same time, I never quite engaged with it. Sure, there was an interesting core concept. The appearance of the Eleventh Doctor encouraged the Second Doctor to solve the problem, but he didn’t provide the answer. I think my main disconnect was with the aliens in the story. They didn’t quite become real to me. I think this is due, in part, to not having anything from their perspective. Sure, the Doctor relayed a message from them, but they never really became an autonomous entity in their own right. This is admittedly difficult to portray due to the core concept, but I still want to know more about them. They never rose above generic alien threat to me.

That said, it’s not a bad story by any means. It is enjoyable and Frazer Hines is always a treat to listen to. But in the end, this second entry into Destiny of the Doctor is still somewhat forgettable.