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.

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First Time For Everything: Planet Comicon

A photograph of the exhibitor and vendor hall.

My friend Nick has been trying to get me to go to Planet Comicon in Kansas City for the last couple of years. Money has always been tight and the con typically fell on inconvenient weekends during the school year. This year, however, events aligned for me to go: Nick paid for my ticket, the con fell at the end of Spring Break, and Sylvester McCoy came. This last on is a big deal. Living in the Mid-West, specifically Springfield, Missouri, Doctor Who-related celebrities are rare. The closest con for a Doctor Who appearance is Chicago TARDIS, and that is an eight-hour drive. The trip is not economically feasible for me.

Kansas City, however, is about a three-hour drive, and I know people in the area, which allows me to keep the costs down.

Planet Comicon was my first big convention. Springfield has a few, but they are small (but growing). I was nervous. The semester has been busy and intellectually challenging. I have had some significant questions about my education and career this year, culminating in a trip to the local Career Expo which made me realize that I don’t want to pursue certain careers in the technical writing field. I’m not sure software documentation is part of my future. After a few hours at the expo, I was in a panic, questioning why I ever returned to school. Is this what it will be like at a comic convention?

Thankfully, no. Planet Comicon was a lot of fun. I went with Nick and a couple of his friends, and while I spent most of my time wandering the booths and attending the panels alone, I felt refreshed by the eagerness and excitement of the attendees. (I feed off energy in crowds, and the Career Expo had an energy of mild desperation, which really messed with my emotions.) I felt largely accepted and enjoyed some of the brief interactions I had with creators such as Jeremy Haun, Greg Rucka, and Alex Grecian. I hope to go back next year, maybe with more writing under my belt and more of an idea of how to start networking with creators. They currently are where I want to be.

mccoy1As mentioned earlier, Sylvester McCoy was one of the celebrity guests. I couldn’t afford to get his autograph, but his panel was extremely fun. He walked the crowd, answering questions from the audience as he went along. I had a seat near the aisle, which enabled me to get a few pictures. He told some wonderful stories. He told about meeting Matt Smith while filming the 5(ish) Doctors Reboot. “He bounded up to me like an Afghan hound, all limbs and excitement, and licked me on the face.” He discussed the changes to Doctor Who while he was on the show, explaining that he was only going to stick with it for three years, but signing on for four because he was told the show would be cancelled if he didn’t stay on. It was cancelled anyway. He expressed his displeasure at his Doctor’s regeneration. And he played the spoons. I’m thrilled that I got to see him so soon after watching his era in its entirety for the first time.

In all, Planet Comicon was a great introduction to the fan-convention world. I look forward to checking out a few of the local cons in the upcoming year, and I look forward to going to Planet Comicon again next year. Maybe one day I will be able to make the great pilgrimage to the Gallifrey Convention.

Sylvester McCoy answers a question from an audience member

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.”

The McCoy Years: A Look Back

seventhThe Sylvester McCoy years of Doctor Who are relatively short: three seasons, four stories per season. Granted, it is still longer than the Colin Baker era, but Colin’s era felt longer.

As the Doctor changed from 6 to 7, a more significant and essential change happened behind the scenes, Andrew Cartmel became script editor. This change was significant because Cartmel had no particular opinions about what Doctor Who needed to be within the context of the show’s history. He didn’t try to define “proper” Doctor Who. In one of the special features in the Big Finish release The Lost Stories: Thin Ice, Cartmel said that he didn’t think about Doctor Who when he wasn’t at work. It was a job. He deferred to writers for the passion for the show, be he acted as overseer to the effectiveness and direction of the stories. He did his job, basically. He brought a fresh approach. Doctor Who, to my eye, fails when it places too much emphasis on its past, trying to re-create forms that worked in the past. It can comment upon the past, it can mess around with in-universe continuity, but when anyone tries to impose a definitive approach to telling a
Doctor Who
story, the show tends to struggle. These defining boundaries need to be kept loose.

And so, the McCoy era is one of deconstruction and reconstruction. It has growing pains, as all things undergoing change do, but the ideas circulating inside the stories are compelling and fascinating. On the surface, stories in this era are hit or miss, but the depth of almost all the stories is worth exploring. A word of caution, though, this era of the show works best when watched in sequence. The development of ideas and characters in this era is far more rewarding as you watch it unfold. Watching Ace evolve from violence-glorifying teenager to merciful young woman is missed when the show is viewed piecemeal. The cancellation of the show brings this development to an abrupt and somewhat irritating end, but even Survival, while not being an epic end to a 26-year show, is a satisfying thematic end to the story of Ace and the Doctor.

Because of this, I’m not sure I am willing to do a most favorite/least favorite list. On some level, I think all the stories are essential. They all provided the ups and downs, movements and rests for the unfolding story. Season 26 is most satisfying having watched season 24 and 25.

With the DVDs going out of print in the U.S., it is hard to pick up stories I am missing. Battlefield, Ghost Light, and The Curse of Fenric are all essential to the story of this era. Thankfully, between Hulu and iTunes, all these stories are available. My DVD shelf may have a few holes, but at least the era can be complete one way or another.

Doctor Who – Survival

Doctor Who story 159 – Survival

Foreshadowing what might have been?
Foreshadowing what might have been?

On its own merits, “Survival” is an interesting story that continues the trajectory of Ace’s development. We have seen her family history in “The Curse of Fenric,” the history of a traumatic location from her past in “Ghost Light,” and now we come to her hometown of Perivale. Ace has a great dislike of Perivale and an even greater dislike of her mother. In this story Ace develops a bond with Karra, a feline huntress of the Cheetah people. Karra refers to Ace as sister, but in reality there is a mother/daughter vibe here. Karra represents the inner nature, the animal nature. Ace has been growing up over the last few stories, and with Karra she must confront a remaining element of her personality: her violent nature. Ace likes fighting. She likes to blow things up. Kill or be killed; survival of the fittest. But she develops a bond with Karra through a moment of mercy.

The theme of violence over mercy permeates story. It is represented in Ace’s struggle, where the conflict is resolved by refusing to fight; in the destruction of the cursed planet, which becomes unstable and loses integrity as its inhabitants fight, in the Doctor and the Master, the former trying to bring peace while the latter wants to destroy. In this story, the Master is more a force of nature than a moustache-twirling villain. He is antagonism personified; he brings conflict by his nature. The Doctor is spared by refusing to fight. Ace is healed from the Cheetah virus by refusing to fight. And in the end, thinking the Doctor is dead, Ace puts on his hat, taking on his peaceful nature and putting aside her own violent past. The season ends as Ace starts a new journey, her character having been healed of the past.

Or has she? “Survival” is the end. Season 26 has finished and the classic series of Doctor Who is over. What was the next step? Where do we go from here? What was Ace’s next moment? The Doctor’s?

I have debated what to do next. The obvious next step is to continue on to modern Doctor Who via the McGann movie. But that seems too big a leap to me. Modern Doctor Who is a continuation, yes, but its developmental continuity weaves a path through the New Adventures novels. Even here, I’m conflicted, though because the New Adventures, while continuing where the classic series left off, developed in its own way. Ace has been on a journey away from violence. The New Adventures do not continue that journey, from what I understand.

And so I’m thinking about an intermission that looks at what might have been, which takes me to Big Finish and the Seventh Doctor Lost Stories. Apart from Farewell Great Macedon I’ve largely ignored the Lost Stories on this blog. I’ve intended to cover them eventually, but my need to get through the classic series proved too great to justify the tangents. Now, however, I’m curious. These Lost Stories are probably the closest indication of what season 27 would have been like even though they are separated from season 26 by over twenty years. While I’m still eager to do so, I want to see the potential future before moving in to what actually developed.

But before all that, I will take some time to reflect on the journey I have taken thus far. Look for that in the upcoming week.

Doctor Who – The Curse of Fenric

Doctor Who story 158 – The Curse of Fenric

A Russian soldier walks through a haemovore crowd.“The Curse of Fenric” seems to be the hinge on which the McCoy era pivots. In this story we learn that the Doctor has been manipulated since his regeneration (or at least since “Dragonfire”). An ancient evil, a force of chaos, has been playing a game with the Doctor. Apparently they had been in conflict once before (just off screen, it would seem), and now this ancient evil has been laying the groundwork for a rematch. Ace was a pawn in this, although she never realized it.

So, in a way, reading the McCoy era up to this point as a deconstruction of previous versions of Doctor Who is somewhat relevant. We were supposed to see the Doctor redefined before our eyes. We were meant to see a build-up to the Doctor as a grand manipulator. We were meant to see him in a new, god-like light. It hasn’t just been Doctor Who deconstructed, it has been the Doctor deconstructed. “The Curse of Fenric” sees a conclusion to a character arc that re-defined the Doctor and the beginning of an arc about Ace. “Ghost Light” is problematic, then, as it also deals in equal parts with deconstructing Doctor Who and exploring the development of Ace. Where, exactly, does “Ghost Light” fit best in this progression? On some level, I think I prefer a viewing order with “Fenric” first and “Ghost Light” second. This is out of broadcast order, but there is more satisfaction with having Ace meet her grandmother in “Fenric,” revisiting a traumatic event from her childhood in “Ghost Light,” and returning to Perivale during her personal timeline in “Survival.” This order also traces a type of feminine awakening in Ace, moving her from a semi-childish mentality to womanhood. (Which is a subtext in “Fenric” and more overt in “Ghost Light.”) Symbolically, these follow Ace as a developing character.

In addition to these character arcs ending and beginning, “Fenric” also invokes the cosmic chess trope by layering it on top of a story about human war. The Doctor and Fenric are playing a game, Ace and the haemovores are pawns and all of time is the board, just as the British, German, and Russian generals are playing a game of war with soldiers and civilians as pawns. Interestingly, British intelligence has developed a trap for the Russians that is reflected in the trap Fenric has laid for the Doctor. The layering of themes in this story is fascinating and it has surprising depth. Such a shame it has gone out of print on DVD here in the U.S. Maybe it will be up for a Revisitation release soon.

Doctor Who – Ghost Light

Doctor Who story 157 – Ghost Light

The Doctor and Ace are threatened by a hunter.
Mount his head on the wall with all the other action figures in the collection.

I feel like I’m in a bit of an interpretive rut. I’m seeing virtually everything in the McCoy era as a commentary of the past, a refutation of what came before. This seems too similar to how I read the Colin Baker era, full of stories interacting with the past, trying to determine what is successful Doctor Who, and the most successful expression of that was the Saward-penned “Revelation of the Daleks,” a Doctor Who story in which the Doctor and Peri were largely sidelined. Sawardian Doctor Who rejects the Doctor.

But in the McCoy or Cartmel era, the tension is found between burning the house to the ground and constructing a phoenix from the ashes of Doctor Who. Which brings us to Marc Platt’s “Ghost Light,” a story about a supposedly haunted house that Ace burned to the ground in the 1980s. On some level, the story starts out clumsily because the Doctor is bringing Ace to this pivotal location, a place that has horrified her for much of her life. Only we have just heard about it now, in episode one. Granted, based on some small amount of passive research, I believe “Ghost Light” aired out of the originally planned order. “Curse of Fenric” was supposed to set up this story, but “Fenric” was moved to later in the season. Thus, we are unexpectedly thrust into Ace’s nightmare with no warning or set up.

But that aside, “Ghost Light” takes the haunted house trappings which would not be unfamiliar in the Hinchcliff/Holmes era, merges them with elements of Darwinism, and ultimately reveals an alien/mystic force, Light, that collects life-forms. Light was also worshipped by the Neanderthal tribe from which Nimrod the butler originated.

Okay, so these are some strange, disparate elements combined into a strange and slightly-less-than-surreal-than-Warriors-Gate-story. This story has been divisive, people loving it or hating it, and as a self-proclaimed-Marc-Platt-fan, I am determined to like it. Thus, I go to my fallback position that the story is about crafting a new vision of Doctor Who. The gothic haunted house is destroyed in the end (symbolic destruction of the Hinchcliff/Holmes vision of the show) while paying tribute to the show’s origins, which is signposted with discussions of Darwinian evolution (human origins being equated with Doctor Who’s origins) and a Light-worshipping Neanderthal (Tribe of Gum worshipping Orb aka the sun). The Darwinian evolution elements also thematically argue for the evolution of Doctor Who as a constantly changing television show. This evolution is held back by Light, a collector of life-forms, monsters and characters, who desires to preserve things in a static state, the fan who’s impressions of Doctor Who were defined once long ago and left unchanging. Everything in “Ghost Light” screams of change and evolution. In the end, the Doctor and Ace speak of destruction of the house. Burning it down isn’t good enough; it should have been blown up.

And there we have it: the only way to continue Doctor Who is to destroy it. Change requires death of the previous form, which in this case was everything built up by the JNT/Saward version of the show. Interesting that the JNT/Cartmel argument is to destroy it.

Doctor Who – Battlefield

Doctor Who Story 156 – Battlefield

Cast photo for BattlefieldThere are many things I love about this story, not least of which is the way it furthers the theme of change during the Seventh Doctor era. In the case of “Battlefield,” this change is applied to the Third Doctor/UNIT dynamic of Doctor Who. Jo Grant is name dropped as the Doctor pull out his identification. The Brigadier returns as a UNIT commander, albeit in a consulting capacity. An archaeological dig reveals ancient British mythology to be real and otherworldly in origin. A nuclear convoy leads to an arms cold war. These elements could have easily fit into the old Letts/Dicks model of Doctor Who. Here, they are given a Seventh Doctor spin with chess-piece manipulation by a future version of the Doctor even as the Seventh Doctor does his best to manipulate events in the present. There are only three problems I see with this story. First, the ambition far exceeds the ability of the show to portray it, although this is a great problem to have. Second, thematically, the Brigadier should have died. It was the original plan for this story, but Cartmel changed his mind. While I have no particular wish to see the Brigadier die onscreen, it would have fit in this story with its Arthur/Merlin parallels. It would have fit with the theme of change by reinforcing the way this story upends the Third Doctor/UNIT story in much the same way the destruction of Skaro signaled change in “Remembrance of the Daleks.” And third, the DVD of “Battlefield” has gone out of print in the U.S., so I can’t buy it for a reasonable price. It was a great story and worth owning.

Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Doctor Who Story 155 – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Ace is harassed by clownsThe Greatest Show in the Galaxy is undeniably a magical episode. It merges styles and approaches to sci-fi in a way that are compelling. In a way, this metaphorically exploring fandom, not just of Doctor Who, but of science fiction in general. The Gods of Ragnarok passively watch the battle of show against show, blithely looking for stimulation, wanting to see something new and exciting. Naturally, the Doctor wins in the end, establishing the show with his name on it to be the greatest.

But what is also interesting is the establishment of the Doctor against gods. In past stories where the Doctor took on religious figures, it was revealed that the religion was based on a misunderstood scientific explanation, typically aliens mistaken for gods. And while there is no specific refutation of the Gods of Ragnarok as aliens (indeed, what would a god be but an alien entity), the story takes for granted that the Gods of Ragnarok are indeed gods. Their power is not explained in terms of natural or technological phenomena. They just exist and do as they wish. And so, while Christopher Bidmead (oh so long ago) turned technology into magic, now we have Cartmel making magic a thing in itself. Doctor Who has blurred that line between science fiction and fantasy, and it seems better for it.

Doctor Who – Silver Nemesis

Doctor Who Story 154 – Silver Nemesis

The Nemesis statueSilver Nemesis is certainly a mixed bag. It was preceded by two excellent stories, one which was compelling, exciting, and challenging, another which was thought-provoking, visually striking, and socially aware. In contrast, Silver Nemesis seems the most backward-looking story of the season, one which plays around with old ideas of Cybermen and gold (to an absurd degree) and costume drama. And Nazis. Wedded to these elements, however, are further explorations of the changing paradigm in Doctor Who with the Doctor’s mysterious nature and references to ancient Gallifrey. In a way, the new style is interacting with the old style, and they don’t quite gel.

In fact, this story almost seems like a bit of kitchen-sink storytelling. Tossing Cybermen, a medieval witch and warrior, Nazis, a dumb American, an ancient Time Lord weapon, and jazz. And given that this story has the most “Doctor Who-esque” trappings of any other McCoy era story thus far, and that it doesn’t work, one is aware of how much the show has changed since the 1970s. That mold has long since shattered and we can’t put Doctor Who back in it without it being a conglomerated mess, which Silver Nemesis is.

Perhaps it is because I’m currently studying Daoism in my Religions in China and Japan class, but I’m tempted to give this story a pseudo-Daoist reading. In part because Silver Nemesis attempts to superimpose old ideas onto a show that has grown and changed in striking ways since those ideas were last used successfully. Nemesis, then, illustrated resistance to change, which is a crime in Doctor Who as well as an indication of someone who is not living in harmony with the Dao. Since the Dao is the abstract, all-encompassing force that permeates existence, and the Dao is always changing, embracing change is the greatest act a person can do. Active inaction. Not imposing your reality onto reality. And so, imposing Doctor Who on Doctor Who creates bad Doctor Who.

***

I have heard it said before that bad Doctor Who is better than no Doctor Who. I disagree with this statement, but in the case of Silver Nemesis I grant an exception. The story fails and is bad but not through lack of ambition. I would rather see Doctor Who be an ambitious failure than see it play by-the-numbers. Oddly, Silver Nemesis can’t seem to make up its mind which it wants to do as it vacillates between ambition and by-the-numbers. However, it errs on the side of the former, which redeems it significantly in my eyes.