Story Review

Assassin in the Limelight

You know it’s going to be at least a little emotionally tough when you come a story that takes place on the days leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  You know it’s going to be even tougher (on us and on the Doctor and his companion) when John Wilkes Booth apparently dies, and our protagonists have to figure out how to get history back on track… and make sure the President is going to die.  And Assassin in the Limelight really delivers, on that front.

What’s interesting is that this sort of situation has come up before quite recently for this pair.  In the four-single-stories release, 100, the Doctor and Evelyn met the parents of Julius Caesar, and had a tussle over whether they should allow Julia Caesar survive to become the Empress of Rome and revolutionize gender politics in the 1st century BC or correct history to make sure Julius is born instead.  This time, Evelyn understands that editing history to make a better outcome is neither so simple nor so wise an idea.

“Well, you’re the Time Lord.” – Dr. Evelyn Smythe
“Yes.  And you know, sometimes I wish I wasn’t.” – The 6th Doctor

They come across a time-traveling meddler masquerading as Oscar Wilde (some thirty years before that writer’s time), known previously to them as John Knox.  It has been some time since I listened to Medicinal Purposes, his previous appearance.  It has also been some time since I listened to Pier Pressure, in which another creature in this story (an Indo) was introduced; so that made it a little tricky for me to appreciate this story to the full.  But you don’t really have to have heard those stories to understand this one; Assassin in the Limelight is a self-contained story which introduces its ideas and characters on its own.

Meeting “Oscar Wilde” is the first clue that something is amiss at the Ford Theatre in Washington DC, 1865.  The stakes are raised when John Wilkes Booth is poisoned and his body hidden under the stage.  The stakes are raised yet again when a further alien presence is discovered to be at work, possessing people and feeding on their negative feelings and suffering, and scheming to propagate its kind on Earth.  Even into the third episode more revelations of plots behind plots are discovered as Oscar Wilde (or John Knox, or whatever his real name is) seems to die, and the Doctor has to deal with the Indo on his own in Knox’s TARDIS.

Of course, history is restored at the end: Booth is discovered to have survived the poisoning attempt, and the other complications that come up along the way are sidelined as Knox, the Doctor, and Evelyn get out of the way.  But a lot of painful twists and turns leave one rather ragged by the end: an innocent woman’s fate is sealed that night, a corrupt policeman goes unchecked, a stage hand is killed and possessed by the consciousness of Dr. Knox.

“Don’t worry Mr. Ford; tonight will go like a bang.” – The Doctor

I felt like Evelyn ultimately didn’t have much to do in this story.  She contributed a lot to the goings-on, her sense of humor (which I’ve commented on before) shows up again, but her impact didn’t strike me as particularly consequential.  I guess, every now and then, the Doctor is right and the companion is wrong, and it’s inordinately on him to save the day.  In the final act of this story, the Doctor spends an indefinite amount of time trapped in Knox’s TARDIS (it could have been years for him, judging by Evelyn’s grey hairs comment), ensuring that the Indo remain trapped while he figured out a way for himself to escape.  All Evelyn had to do was wait for him, at that point.

At this point in the Big Finish franchise, though, Evelyn’s storyline with the 6th Doctor has apparently been finished.  We know she eventually leaves the Doctor and marries Rossiter.  So stories like this one are kind of like bonus material.  From what I’ve seen online, she has four more appearances in the Big Finish monthly stories after this story, and I know that at least one of them is a major plot arc resolution story that ties together several threads that had been woven over the past few years.

Anyway, the relationship between Evelyn and the Doctor is definitely mature in this late stage.  They don’t squabble over what to do or not do with the timeline, they’re generally on the same moral page, and although they do have one argument fairly early in the story, it gets resolved pretty quickly, rather than getting drawn out across the whole story as an ongoing point of conflict.  Assassin in the Limelight fits right in with what one could call the classic era of this Doctor-companion combination.

Overall, there’s a lot going on in this story, and you kind of need to pay attention to make sure you keep up with it all.  The characters aren’t complicated, but they are believable.  As long as you can keep track of the several incidental characters along the way, you’re in good shape to enjoy this story.  Due to all this, I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point for anyone.  But if you’re invested in the Doctor & Evelyn stories, this is certainly one to enjoy.

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Story Review

The Taking of Planet 5

A recurring plot point through the Eighth Doctor Adventures books (at least in the 29 I’ve read thus far) is a Time War that takes place in Gallifrey’s future.  We first glimpsed this in Alien Bodies, in which participants of that war are bidding over a powerful artifact – the remains of the Doctor’s body!  A great deal more information about this future Time War was revealed in Interference.  But now, in The Taking of Planet 5, the Doctor and Fitz and Compassion become directly involved in a Time Lord operation from that war.

The Time War

It should first be pointed out that these books predate the new television series, so the Time War from which the 9th Doctor is recovering has no official connection to these books’ Time War.  However, in terms of greater continuity, they can relate.  The 9th Doctor describes the war with the Daleks as “the last of the great time wars,” suggesting that there were other conflicts that haven’t been described or explored.  There’s no reason not to associate the EDA books’ Time War with that collection of conflicts in the 8th Doctor’s future.  And, considering the 8th Doctor’s extreme longevity in the combined canon, and the fact that Time Lords almost universally return to Gallifrey in sync with their personal timestreams, the Time War is nearly a thousand years in his and Gallifrey’s future at this point in his life.

The Time War predicted in these books does not identify its enemy; the Doctor carefully tries to avoid such knowledge of his people’s future.  But whoever it is, the Time Lords go all-out in the fight.  They have multiple clone Gallifreys scattered around, some even in pocket universes.  They breed Time Lords in the looms all prepared to serve as soldiers.  The war is described as being mostly obfuscation; moving troops and growing war TARDISes as secretly and quickly as possible to avoid making ripples in the timestream that will attract the other side’s attention.  Gallifrey is a polluted industrial mess.

In this war, TARDISes have evolved quite a bit from the Doctor’s time.  They are more sentient, can communicate telepathically and verbally, and can disguise their shape as a humanoid.  They even have personal names; we see one in this book called Marie.

Really, it’s kind of a shame that Steven Moffatt didn’t poke into these books to draw more inspiration for his depictions of the Last Great Time War against the Daleks.  While fast action, threatened children, and ubiquitous explosions are visually exciting, the scale and depth of a “time war” could have been much more meaningful if we saw some of the alienness of how the Time Lords ended up.

The Plot

The Doctor discovers that some Lovecraftian Elder Things were discovered to have existed in Earth’s distant past, and he goes to investigate.  He, Fitz, and Compassion arrive in prehistoric Antarctica and stumble upon a battle between what they soon find out to be Time Lords from the future war disguised as Elder Things and some “real” native Elder Things.  The former wipe out the latter and advance a plan of breeding a group of Battle TARDISes.  The target for these ships is “Planet Five”, a time-looped planet where the Fendahl was imprisoned.  They plan to release it and use it in the war, despite its ability to destroy all living things in the universe.

Secondly, there are two agents from Mictlan on a mission of their own.  Mictlan, also known as Hell, is a city in a bubble universe attached to the outside of our own universe, safely removed from causality.  It’s populated by Time Lords who were part of the Celestial Intervention Agency, now known as the Celestis and fled at the beginning of the Time War.  They’re hated as traitors by the at-war Gallifreyans, and have an agenda of their own, still meddling in the affairs of history for their own interests.  Enormously powerful, they can step through time and change shape and read memories without the aid of a TARDIS or any other technology.  Their mission is to find out what is destroying Mictlan’s internal history, but one of them has gone rogue.  He hijacks the Battle TARDISes and manipulates the Doctor into ensuring that the Fendahl, once freed, attacks Mictlan.  Once its feeding is focused there, the Battle TARDISes attack the pocket universe such that it breaks off from our own universe, leaving the Fendahl trapped there, unable to feed here.

Thirdly, a future Time Lord is undercover in (roughly) present-day Earth, keeping an eye on an expedition to Antarctica.  He’s investigating the Elder Things and making sure that nothing of the military operation in the distant past has left a trace of its activities to be discovered.

The Science Fiction

Something great fun about the EDA books is the actual science fiction that crops up from time to time.  Vampire Science explores the genetics of vampirism.  Dominion explores the utter alien possibilities of another universe.  Unnatural History makes copious use of multi-dimensional movement as real-life mathematics posits.  Here in The Taking of Planet 5 we see some speculative fiction regarding the existence of multiple universes.  Here, a universe is understood in terms such that it expands greatly but finitely, and as it approaches heat death or compression it spawns new universes, ad infinitum.  And this could be happening all over infinity, such that each universe is a bubble surrounded by countless others.  One of the authors even has a brief essay at the end of the book describing this more carefully.

The plot point that makes this theory important is the concept of ‘Swimmers’ – vast creatures or predatory universes that exist among these universe bubbles and occasionally ‘pop’ them.  The fear, on the part of the rogue Mictlan agent and the mysterious hermit whom he served, was that our universe might attract such Swimmers’ attention due to the ‘tasty’ morsel of Mictlan shining brightly on the surface like a beacon.  The Fendahl, too, was like a localized version of such a creature, so getting rid of both together was a survival tactic to rescue the entire universe.

The Characters

There are several characters in this book besides the Doctor and his companions, and they all get pretty well-developed.

Xenaria is a Time Lady leading the expedition to prehistoric Earth.  She is fooled briefly by the Doctor and more extensively by the Mictlan agents disguised as her second-in-command.  But insight into her sense of duty and responsibility, her battle prowess, and her commitment to the mission is drawn into a strong characterization of a unit commander.  She even gets her explanations and partial revenge at the end of the story, which was a satisfying payoff.

One and Two, the two Mictlan agents, are fascinating characters.  One is the chief investigator for the Celestis, and is the traitorous one who hijacks the mission to destroy Mictlan.  Two is an elevated agent sent with him; she is secretly charged to keep an eye on One, as the Celesti lords are concerned he may go rogue.  Their powers, tension, schemes, and interaction is a fun staple throughout the book.

Fitz starts to grow up in this story.  He actually gets to rescue the Doctor by donning a spacesuit and doing a spacewalk outside the TARDIS at the end of the book.  He has some funny moments during an interrogation by what he perceives to be a beautiful woman (actually a Celestis impersonating a Time Lord soldier impersonating an Elder Thing).  His recovery from the events of Interference is going well; he seems back to his normal self again.

Compassion, just as her character began to get a little dull and confusing, is now infused with a greater sense of mystery.  She’s able to pilot the TARDIS; she draws the attention of the future Time Lords; she gets along strangely well with the Battle TARDISes from the future.  Even the Doctor begins to suspect that there’s something about her that he doesn’t know or understand yet.  I look forward to seeing where this leads.  Meanwhile, her name is still quite ironic, as she continues to act utterly passionless about most things in life.

The Doctor, finally, is back in good shape after his battering in The Blue Angel. He’s remarkably mature and cautious to avoid unnecessary information about his peoples’ future, despite the high stakes of the coming Time War.  His rapport with the Battle TARDISes, who are beginning to resent their servitude to the Time Lords, is a testimony to his positive relationship with his own TARDIS, despite everything he has put her through.

Summary Thoughts

I started reading this book in October, got busy, and read the remaining 90% of it in the week ending December and beginning January.  This was not a good move; there’s a lot going on in this book and it helps to keep oneself fresh with all the characters and locations that it zips through.  It’s not an easy read, as such.  But the payoff is great; the story is coherent, the characters are strong, and it contributes much to the story arcs established throughout the EDA series thus far.

If you’re aiming to read many of the EDA books, this is a must-read.  But it’s probably not so great as a stand-alone read, so I wouldn’t recommend picking this one up cold.

Story Review

The Boy That Time Forgot

When we left the 5th Doctor and Nyssa a couple stories ago, they were stranded in Victorian London, the TARDIS stolen by Thomas Brewster.  Now they’ve got a plan to retrieve the TARDIS: block transfer computation!  Using pure mathematics to mess around with time and space, the Doctor and Nyssa have gathered twelve people to run the numbers, but it goes wrong somehow and four of them are dropped in prehistoric Earth: the Doctor, Nyssa, Beatrice Mapp, and Rupert Von Thal.

The Boy That Time Forgot is precious story about a lost boy who really missed out on life.  In prehistoric times, the Doctor and company run across an odd civilization of giant scorpions run by the titular lost boy.  Honestly, I was expecting it to be Thomas Brewster; perhaps that was the anticipated setup that we are supposed to believe.  But then at the end of the first episode the Doctor and Nyssa finally see him.

I can’t comment on this story without spoiling the big reveal.

The_Boy_that_Time_Forgot_cover[1]

So the lost-boy-now-old-man is Adric.

For a brief moment this is amazing, even good news.  But then as episode two unfolds it becomes apparent that he is a bitter, angry old man who never really grew up.  He wants to be loved, to marry Nyssa, to be respected by the Doctor; the devoted worship of the scorpion city is not enough.  He orders his subjects around, he has them running the numbers of block transfer computation to maintain the city (much like he saw at Logopolis), and he even orders an execution or two over the course of this story.  He is not the Adric we once knew.

The rest of the story involves the Doctor and Nyssa trying to reason with Adric, escape from the “grandfather” scorpions (who are large feral versions of the subservient subjects of the city), and figure out how to get back home.  The two Victorians, Beatrice and Rupert, fall in love despite everything and also cope remarkably well with their predicament.

At the very end, Adric uses block transfer computation one last time to reach out, find the stolen TARDIS, and help Thomas Breswter pilot it back to the Doctor and Nyssa, before expiring from extreme old age.

Mucking about with Time

Like its prequel story, The Haunting of Thomas Brewster, this story involves a significant (though less confusing) time anomaly.  In this prehistoric Earth, the dinosaurs weren’t wiped out by the spaceship crash which originally killed Adric; rather they were all eaten by giant scorpions created by Adric.  Instead, there’s a civilization of intelligent giant insects (spiders are involved too), built on top of the remains of the freighter ship that somehow landed, not crashed.

It turns out that this edit to history took place during the Doctor’s initial experiment with block transfer computation at the beginning of the story.  Unconsciously he appeared to Adric on the space ship after the last Cybermen (in the final moments of Earthshock) and helped him run his own block transfer computation to move the ship safely to Earth rather than crash.  This created an alternative timeline in which Adric survived and lived for 500 years, using leftover Cyber technology to enhance his mathematically-empowered will, and augment the insects and create his own version of Logopolis on Earth.

When Adric went with the Doctor, Nyssa, and Beatrice at the end of the story, his departure sealed off that alternative timeline as a “time bubble”, finally and safely separated from the ordinary course of events in our universe.  This, presumably, further expedited his impending death.

The Orphans

A clear parallel is drawn in this story between Adric and Thomas Brewster.  Both are orphans, both are clever and brilliant in their own rights, both are trouble-makers or “artful dodgers” as someone comments in the CD Extras of the previous story.  Now we see a setup: the Doctor has failed one young man who came into his care, and now is picking up a new one to look after.  Thomas Brewster is briefed about the Doctor by Adric, though not told about Adric’s fate… not yet.  This, at the very least, is a sign of themes to come.  Whether Brewster will survive his travels with the Doctor, however, is up for grabs at this point!

The Doctor

Of all the incarnations of the Doctor, the 5th Doctor seems to have ended up probably the most parental of them all.  Despite his apparent youth, he takes on the caregiver-mentor role with much more heart than the others, who would generally prefer to be a teacher, a tutor, or (at least in the 8th, 10th, and 11th Doctor’s cases) a friend.  For Adric, he started as a teacher and mentor, but developed a sense of responsibility for him that is characterized here as going farther than that.  The way Thomas Brewster is thrown in with him and Nyssa at the end suggests the same sort of relationship is going to be forged, especially with the Doctor’s angry scolding over the mess Brewster made of the console!

This makes me wonder to what degree the Doctor has taken on a second-father figure for Nyssa, also, considering the death of Tremas.  I’m not sure I’ve thought about that before.  Functionally, they’re much more of a team of equals than most Doctor-companion pairings are, so that certainly casts them in a different light than the Doctor and Adric or Thomas Brewster.  Whatever the case, I look forward to seeing how this trio gets on in their next appearance.

Story Review

The Haunting of Thomas Brewster

The Haunting of Thomas Brewster in its basic concept is a pretty standard piece of Doctor Who writing, yet its execution somehow makes it really stand out.

On the level of normality, the 5th Doctor and Nyssa first are dealing with an issue on the TARDIS and then investigating a mystery in Victorian London.  This mystery involves an alien presence in the fog and is centered around a man, one Thomas Brewster.  Tricked by an alien force into believing that his deceased mother is trying to come back from the dead, Brewster is aided in constructing a time portal, conflicting with the Doctor’s attempts surreptitiously to repair the TARDIS.  The story ends with a sequence of short trips in the TARDIS to track down the origin point of this alien influence in Brewster’s life so that the plot can be prevented.

By way of irregularity, this story has several unusual features.  Almost of all of episode 1 is spent on introducing us to Thomas Brewster as he loses his mother as a small child, is raised in a workhouse, gets his first job, strikes out on his own, and grows increasingly obsessed with the spectral appearances of his late mother.  Another unusual feature is that when Nyssa and the Doctor are separated early in the story it’s a separation in time – the Doctor spends about a year in London before Nyssa arrives.  As a result he settles down on Baker Street to tinker and repair his TARDIS and even gets a new assistant for the time being.  The alien plot turns out to be from a possible future (2008) trying to establish itself as the true course of history by invading the past (1866 or so), so the creation and maintenance of a time paradox is the very crux of the plot.  Thus it is the Doctor and Nyssa’s aim to undo the paradox by nipping it in the bud at its earliest point in the 19th century, hence the several TARDIS trips towards the end.

Most strikingly, Thomas Brewster is able, under alien influence, to pilot the TARDIS.  His brief theft of the TARDIS is rectified by another paradox – the Doctor and Nyssa take the future TARDIS (which had returned to their time period) to catch Brewster and send the stolen TARDIS back so they could pick it up.  Paradox fights paradox in this story; it’s quite unusual!

The ending is excellent, albeit a little confusing: Thomas Brewster steals the TARDIS!  I must confess, though, that I wasn’t sure if he was piloting the TARDIS himself, or if a residual alien presence within him did it, or even if the Doctor and Nyssa were on board or not at the time!  The CD Extras, afterward, clarified that Thomas had run off leaving them stranded in Victorian London, and that we will indeed have to see how this resolves in future stories.  This pleases me; I like story setups like this.

I suppose with Erimem’s story arc wrapped up a few months before this story was released, it was time to start a new arc for the 5th Doctor’s monthly range stories!

Story Review

The Harvest

The Reaping and The Gathering formed a clever two-part story dealing with a Cyberman plot and its legacy, twenty years apart and with two Doctors in reverse order.  They form a loose trilogy with this story The Harvest.  And I say loose because this was done retroactively; The Harvest came out something like two years before its prequels.

Nevertheless, the links forged between this story and the two prequels are well-made.  In the Gogglebox news clips from this story are included in the “channel-surfing” montage, the location of Hex’s birthday party is a pub mentioned in The Reaping, and (most significantly) St. Garth’s Hospital has a managing AI System that is likely a re-make from what was salvaged at the end of The Gathering.

The Cybermen

Of course, this is another Cyberman story with an unusual twist on the usual themes.  In The Reaping, a Cyber Leader was aiming to cyber-convert the Earth in its prehistoric age; in The Gathering people were using cyber technology to repair humans on the brink of death (with a broader scope on the horizon); and now in The Harvest deals with Cybermen who are seeking to become flesh once again.  It seems too good to be true, and the Doctor is both shocked and suspicious upon this revelation.

And of course, this street goes both ways.  While a troop of Cybermen are struggling to transition into human flesh (with graft after graft failing), there’s also a group of humans undergoing cybernization.  The motive, apparently, is that the European Council wants to catch up with America and China in the renewed space race (it’s the year 2021), and having cybermen astronauts would be a huge boon.  But, as Ace comments to one of the surgeons, “are you controlling the Cybermen, or are the Cybermen controlling you?”

One thing that stands out to me, upon re-listening to this story, is how quickly things wrap up at the end.  There’s this really fascinating idea – of Cybermen trying to humanize – and we spend three episodes exploring the psychology and experience of that process, and only the fourth episode revealing and addressing their secret plot.  It’s as if this story is more of a thought-experiment than a Doctor Who adventure.  But there is another reason the Cyberman arc in this story may have been short-changed…

Introducing Hex

The original purpose of this story, before it was retroactively made into a trilogy end-story, was to introduce a new companion to join the 7th Doctor and Ace: Thomas Hector Schofield.  He’s a Staff Nurse at the hospital in question, and when the Doctor looks him up in the HR records, he comments “Ah, now that’s interesting…”  Granted, we know that the 7th Doctor is a long-term thinker and planner, but we can’t expect everything he thinks is “interesting” to have a long-term pay-off, right?  Turns out this is one of those subtle flags: this character, nicknamed Hex, has a background that will be heard about some more in Big Finish Doctor Who over the next few years.  I won’t spoil it now. 🙂

Anyway, this story spends so much time with Hex that we don’t see the Doctor at all until the last two seconds of episode 1.  We learn that Hex is single, that he lived with his Gran recently, that he’s a tough-stomached ER nurse who’s new enough that he hasn’t had a friend as a patient before (until this story), that he’s a quick thinker after he gets past the “oh my god” shock phase.  As an American listener, I can’t quite place his accent, but I get a kick out of the inflection – almost everything he said sounds like a question.  Whether this accent was an intentional choice or not, it has the effect of making him sound rather understated and hesitant.  It contributes to his initial characterization as a bit of an underdog, a newbie, someone still wet behind the ears in life.

Ace seems to take a liking to him pretty quickly in this story, inviting him into the TARDIS, welcoming him into their investigation of the hospital, but warning him carefully to opt out ASAP if he has doubts and fears.  This relationship continues in their next several adventures together – Ace is still the Doctor’s companion, but in a sense Hex is Ace’s sidekick for a while.  It’s a fun inter-companion relationship to watch as it unfolds over time.

Overall Thoughts

This is probably one of the “critical” Big Finish stories to listen to.  You certainly don’t need the prequel stories, as they’re retroactive additions (they add fun color and background, nothing necessary to understand this story).  It introduces one of the major companions of the early Big Finish stories.  It’s got some excellent story ideas in its treatment of the Cybermen, even if not as fully realized as it could have been.  I’m not sure if this story would make it on my Top Ten Favorites list, but then again I’m not very good at that kind of thing anyway.

The only downside to listening to this story is the incidental music – depending upon where and how you’re listening to it, the background might drown out some of the dialogue.  I usually listen to these in the car, so that’s a naturally difficult place to hear.  Perhaps you’ll have better luck indoors.

Story Review

The Gathering

Part 2 of this Cyberman trilogy is called The Gathering.  It follows from The Reaping by about twenty years on Earth, but takes us back to the 5th Doctor, so he has no knowledge of what’s going on with the leftover Cyber technology and has to start his investigation from scratch.  Like in the previous story, the Doctor begins at “The Gogglebox” on the Moon, and is drawn to investigate strange signals in Earth’s history.  Unlike the previous story, there are no Cybermen left.  Rather, this is a story about present-day humans (well, 2006) mucking about with leftover alien technology and heading toward reinventing the Cybermen.

But just as The Reaping took us into Peri’s family and past, this story takes us into the life of Tegan Jovanka after her departure from traveling with the Doctor.  Having left behind the life of adventure, Tegan dove into managing her father’s business – supplying animal feed to farmers.  The Doctor (perhaps like us) is a little underwhelmed at this news.  Her lack of family and friends around her, also, paints a particularly dreary picture of how her life has turned out in the past twenty-odd years.  What’s worse, Tegan is revealed to have some sort of alien tumor in her brain which is threatening to kill her eventually.  She seems just as unhappy in ordinary life as she often seemed while traveling with the Doctor.

At least the first half of the story feels like a real downer because of this, and because of how selfish, meddlesome, uncaring, or blindly ambitious most of the rest of the characters turn out to be.  At the center of all this is a familiar face from the previous story, Peri’s old friend, Kathy Chambers.  She has since gone on to become a doctor, gotten involved in a secret project with a fellow named James, and is using leftover Cyberman technology to preserve the life of her paralyzed brother Nate as well as to prepare to cure him, Tegan, and everyone else by making them like the Cybermen.  Kathy is conflicted throughout the story, wrestling with the ethics of what she’s doing, and especially once the Doctor arrives she becomes increasingly aware that she has been manipulated by her partner-in-crime and deceiving herself.  Kathy is a very real and developed character in this story; previously she struck me as kind of spacey.

Her disappearance, and her brother’s, at the end of the previous story is part of the establishing plot of this one: meeting James, she and Nate are secreted away, out of America, to Brisbane, where they can work together with the Cyber technology.  Kathy’s motivation is a mix of fear and guilt (of being blamed for the death of Peri’s mother at the end of the previous story), and desire to make peoples’ lives better (Nate and otherwise).  James’ motivation, however, remains something of a mystery.  He reveals that he’s working for an organization that deals with adapting xenotechnology, but he escapes at the end of the story without a trace.  His loose end sets up for the third story of the trilogy.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is in a difficult position throughout this story.  He has temporarily left Peri and Erimem behind on their own little caper, he runs across Tegan by accident (on her birthday, no less!), and he quickly realizes that he’s dealing with events that result from his actions in his own future.  He’s walking a tightrope throughout, trying to put a stop to what is going on, trying not to learn too much about his own future so as to cause a paradox, trying to get along with Tegan who is still spiky as ever.  He even tries to set up a telepathic signal to help his future self remember these events, but the process doesn’t quite work.  He hears the signal (“8687”) several times in his future, the previous story, but never remembers what it means.

In all, this is a surprisingly dreary story, particularly for the 5th Doctor.  The villain escapes even though his plans are foiled, at least two innocents are killed, and the main characters spend most of the story in emotional anguish over their past, future, or one another.  The happy endings are a plus though: Kathy has a second chance at building herself a life, Tegan gets back together with an ex-boyfriend she actually liked (or loved?), and the Doctor and Tegan get a proper farewell.

Apparently this story was expected to be Janet Fielding’s only Big Finish appearance as Tegan, so its parallel with her dark departure story on television, Resurrection of the Daleks, but with “a proper good-bye this time” makes a lot of sense.  I hear she eventually did go back to do more with Big Finish, though, so that’ll be fun to see, eventually, if any stories follow up on what happens next with Tegan.

Story Review

The Reaping

The Reaping is the first story in a loose trilogy of Cybermen-on-Earth stories.

Featuring the 6th Doctor and Peri, a duo who had already dealt with the Cybermen together before, this gave a strong backbone of a plot to frame a rare homecoming story: Peri returns to her family in Baltimore.

Characters

Much of the time, Peri is characterized as a headstrong young woman who is feisty and ready for action, but more prone to being captured or otherwise unable to follow through on her gusto.  She works best alongside the Doctor or another companion such as Erimem.  But in this story, circumstances are very much in her favor: she’s back on her home turf, the enemy threat is one familiar to her, and she’s got the Doctor, her mother, and two friends to work with.  To a large extent, this is a story about Peri, showing off what she can do given the motivation and the opportunity.

That said, she does still have some “what do we do now?” moments, especially towards the end when the Doctor is captured by the Cyber Leader.  In those moments, she turns to the next logical authority figure: her mother.  Played by Claudia Christian, I can’t help but picture Peri’s mother to be Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5.  It’s an amusing crossover image that doesn’t make much sense.  But Claudia plays this character very well – another strong sensible no-nonsense woman who is quick to argue, sure to stand up for herself and her daughter, and very practical about dealing with the alien circumstances that surround her in this story.

The excellence of that guest star is a bit of a contrast to another guest character: Kathy Chambers, Peri’s old friend.  She sounds kind of spaced out through much of the story.  At first she’s a bubbly talkative friend who matches Peri quite well, but she mellows out over time, perhaps intimidated by the Cyberman threat and its dastardly plot involving her recently-deceased father.  Her disappearance at the end of the story is also a bit of an anti-climax, though we’ll see her again in the next story of this trilogy.

Finally, the Doctor himself.  Peri is the 6th Doctor’s first companion, so in terms of his development he should be expected to be still in his sharp-and-arrogant phase, as portrayed in most of his television runtime.  There are acknowledgements, in the dialogue, that they argue a lot, and that it’s “just the way we are”.  Peri’s mother, also, comments on the Doctor’s arrogant or self-assured attitude once or twice.  But on the whole, the 6th Doctor’s rough edges seem to be present only for the sake of being there.  By this point, Big Finish had been making Doctor Who stories for 7 years; a warmer and gentler 6th Doctor had clearly been established.  His less palatable character traits could now be revisited in manageable bites, I guess.

The Cybermen

The plot of this story is interesting.  The Doctor and Peri start out responding to the murder of a family friend, and Cybermen are quickly uncovered to be the background cause.  Similar to the Cybus Industries Cybermen of the 10th Doctor’s tenure, these classic Cybermen use earpieces to control (and even convert!) humans into Cybermen.  It seems like they’re poised to begin an all-out invasion of Earth by converting people in their homes, bit by bit.

Spoilers from here on…

Towards the end the Doctor finds out there’s only one Cyberman involved – an old cyber leader from the far future with a TARDIS-like time machine and just one conversion unit.  The whole mess in Baltimore was just a bunch of noise designed to attract the Doctor’s attention so he could be captured and forced to take it back in time to convert the human race early in their evolutionary development.  Instead of doing this, though, the Doctor tricks the Cyber Leader by taking him back in time, doing nothing, and taking him forward in time to Mondas rather than Earth.  He then leaves the dying Cyber Leader with the early Cybermen two years before they attack Earth in The Tenth Planet, and he escapes.

The Epilogue

The last few minutes of this story form a jarring and surprising sequence of events which harshly remind you you’re listening to Big Finish, and not watching classic Who on the telly.

First, Peri decides to stay home.  Typically a trope of New Who, this is an instance where the Doctor takes him companion home and leaves her there, only to discover a new reason to return to her shortly thereafter.  Enter the second shock: Peri’s mother and another incidental character discover part of the Cyber Conversion earpiece at home while Peri’s off at university, tamper with it, and it self-destructs, blowing up the house and killing them both.  The Doctor arrives too late to save them, but only to comfort and take away a grieving Peri.  Nicola Bryant spends quite a bit of time and the beginning and ending of this story just sobbing her heart out, putting on an excellent performance that really draws you into Peri’s grief, whether you normally like her character or not, I daresay.

In the long run, this helps explain why Peri didn’t try to go home when she and the Doctor were separated during the past-tense narrative of Trial of a Time Lord – she had “nothing left” for her on Earth.  Even her best friend moved away under unknown circumstances.  Next time, we’ll hear more about what happened with her…