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.

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 – 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 – Remembrance of the Daleks

Doctor Who Story 152 – Remembrance of the Daleks

Written by

Ben Aaronovitch

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Ace have returned to Coal Hill School in 1963 to find two Dalek factions fighting over something the Doctor left in England a long time ago.

Unlimited rice pudding

A sinister-looking school girlRememberance of the Daleks is famous for re-inventing the Seventh Doctor era. Season 23 is often dismissed as silly and partially formed while season 24 is where the Cartmel Master Plan era begins in earnest. And while I think the seeds of the new expression are definitely present in season 23, I am struck by the subtle and not-so-subtle act of deconstruction in this season premier. In this story we revisit Totter’s Lane and Coal Hill School. We are given a secondary reason why the Doctor was on Earth, not just running from his people, but hiding the Hand of Omega, a powerful weapon. We see the destruction of Skaro, the Daleks’ ancestral seat. Much has been made of the deleted scene in which the Doctor tells Davros that he is more than just a Time Lord. The Doctor lets slip the possibility that he was present at the creation of Time Lord civilization in its current form. And we are given a military unit which is not-quite-UNIT but functions much the same. All these elements present in the same story mark a redefinition of the show, a grand statement of a new approach, a statement that season 23 was a test run to find our grounding, a warm-up before we open the throttle and begin the journey.

Doctor Who – Delta and the Bannermen

Doctor Who Story 150 – Delta and the Bannermen

Written by

Malcolm Kohll

What’s It About?

The last-surviving Chimeron is pursued by the Bannermen. Stowing away on a time-travelling nostalgia tour, she ends up at a holiday camp in South Wales in 1959. But the Bannermen are pursuing Delta, and they do not care who they kill to find her.

I can’t condone this foolishness.

The Doctor holds a guitar.The opening lecture of my “Religions of China and Asia” class included a distillation that seemed obvious once stated but, like all brilliant statements, could not be recognized until stated: “History is not the same thing as the past.”

History is the study of what happened in the past, but inherent in the study of the past is the interpretation of the past. The present always shapes how we view the past; the present influences how we study the past. Historians strive to hold their own biases in check, but a completely objective analysis of history is not possible. Historians studies trends, movements, and events, emphasizing some over others, in an attempt to discern the patters that gave birth to the present. The past is not objectively observable. We cannot walk into the past and see it and understand it as those living in it would see it and understand it.

And in “Delta and the Bannermen,” we have nostalgia tours, the past as a profitable market. The past has become the focus of commerce and tourism. It becomes a facsimile that just happens to take place in the past. Rather than a construct of artificial space in which tourists walk (such as a theme park), the tourists go into the past itself. But make no mistake, the past is dangerous. People live and die. This is perhaps why the nostalgia tour sets its sights on Disney Land, a safe space in a bubble of past events. Going back in time to visiting Disney Land, then, is an experience of history—it has the interpretive framework of tourism, but it may not qualify as experiencing the past because the tourist is not fully present in the moment but in his or her perception of events, a perception which is defined by leisure, marketing, the present reality of the era travelled from.

How interesting, then, that the tourists in “Delta and the Bannermen” die. The people who survive are those who do not operate from the tourism interpretive framework, but are those who live fully present in the present (which happens to be, in this case, the past). The Doctor, Mel, Delta, the Bannermen, and even the named workers at the Shangri-La resort (because a recurring theme in Doctor Who is missing the target, whether in the TARDIS, a time-travelling tourist bus, or visual effects) survive because they recognize the artifice of tourism in the context of the present dangers of unfolding events. And if the past is composed of events as they unfold and history is study and analysis of the past, then “Delta and the Bannermen” makes the critique that the past is more authoritative than history. What happened shaped us and can destroy our interpretations. While history as a field can influence the present, it does not influence the past, and rediscovering events can challenge our work as historians.

And Doctor Who is now a niche field of study in the realm of media history. It is open to a variety of interpretations about perspectives, developing and evolving media, and social commentary. And it reinterprets itself. JNT let that genie out of the bottle and it can never be put back in. Even in its current form under Steven Moffat, Doctor Who is about the Doctor, which indirectly makes the show about itself as deconstructing and reinterpreting the Doctor as a character requires deconstructing and reinterpreting the show. Moffat just does this with more panache and JNT and Saward did in the 80s.

And in “Delta” we see the continuing reinterpretation of Doctor Who at the hands of Andrew Cartmel. Already the show has adopted a striking and effective visual style. Sylvester McCoy has largely emerged as the Doctor, though without some of the nuance he will soon develop. The occasional three-episode format is a nice change of pace. And in this story it is never quite clear what will happen next. Yes, we know the good guys will win (we have emerged from the Saward vision of the show), but it is not quite evident how they will win or even how all the pieces fit together. In some ways, they don’t fit together terribly well, but the tone of the story is the essence of a shrug and a wink, not in a dismissive and patronizing way but in a “yeah, we’re working on it” way.

The show is optimistic again. Yes, it is silly, but it is silly intentionally not through accident. It shows that, if nothing else, the people now running the show are in control of what they are doing from a storytelling standpoint but also from a production standpoint. “Delta and the Bannermen,” like all of this season, is an event; it is Doctor Who being reborn before our eyes. The danger is that we will miss it due our interpretations of Doctor Who. The modern era of Doctor Who is being born.

At least, that’s my interpretation.

Doctor Who – Paradise Towers

Doctor Who Story 149 – Paradise Towers

Written by

Stephen Wyatt

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Mel arrive at Paradise Towers, a high rise building which has fallen into disrepair. They are captured by the Red Kangs, a group of youths fighting for their survival against the Caretakers. As the Doctor and Mel explore more fully, they discover a dystopian society enclosed within the high rise, the vision of a mysterious figure known as the Great Architect.

Well, you never can tell.

The High Caretaker and a cleaning machine.“Paradise Towers” was inspired, according to a cursory internet search, by J.G. Ballard’s novel Highrise. I admit that I want to read this book and do a comparison, analyzing the similarities and differences, but my desire to charge on toward the completion of this project is stronger. The basic premise of Ballard’s novel is a high rise as a battleground. Check.

In this second story of the Seventh Doctor/Andrew Cartmel era we begin to see interesting things take shape. We move in to new territory (no returning villain or monsters). We have the barest hint of social commentary. And it is here where “Paradise Towers” both succeeds and fails. Good sci-fi blends imaginative world-building with social commentary. “Towers” attempts this but doesn’t fully embrace it. The first two episodes are intriguing and engaging, but things start to fall apart in episode three as revelations come, performances break down, and the commentary loses its poignancy. It is as if the story realized, halfway through, that it had silly designs and monsters, so why take any of it too seriously. The 1984 meets Clockwork Orange subtext breaks down and we no longer know if we should be thoughtful or if we should laugh. It’s a shame, really, as the greatest crime against this story is not living up to its own potential.

But the success is that it does, on some level, try. Doctor Who is once more trying to say something about society, if ineffectually, not merely celebrate itself or pat itself on the back. You could make the argument that Cartmel is trying to rebuild the show but hasn’t quite figured out how yet. But the indications are there: social commentary, manipulation, the Doctor being mistaken for a god-like being. It is only a matter of time before he puts all the pieces together.

For my part, I enjoyed the story. It was engaging and fun, which I needed after the struggle I had with Saward’s vision of Doctor Who. To watch in sequence, “Paradise Towers” was satisfying enough. It wasn’t great, but it genuinely tried, which gave it no small amount of charm.

My Rating

3/5