Story Review

The Chimes of Midnight

Now that it’s December, and the season of Advent has begun, counting us down to Christmas, let’s take a look at one of Big Finish’s classic December releases which almost counts as a Christmas Special: The Chimes of Midnight.

This story is in the 2nd season of the 8th Doctor’s audio adventures with Charlotte Pollard (insofar as seasons can be reckoned from Big Finish’s main range).  This means that they’ve been traveling together for a while, and the build-up toward the first big plot convergence point in Neverland and Zagreus is beginning.  The central issue that has been developing since the first 8th Doctor story from Big Finish, Storm Warning, is that the Doctor rescued Charlotte Pollard from certain death on the famous British Airship, the R-101, thus changing history and inadvertently unraveling part of the Web of Time.  The results of this alteration to history and the ripple effect emanating from that change begin to be explored in this story.

Thankfully, the connections here to what has gone before are so simple that they’re able to be explained briefly and succinctly within the story itself.  Thus you can listen to this one on its own and get all the backstory you need without having to check out any other stories.

It’s not really possible to talk about this story without spoiling significant plot points, so be warned.

Despite this being a festive seasonal sort of story, The Chimes of Midnight is actually rather dark and grim for most of its run time.  In the first place, it appears to be a murder mystery.  Then the darkness thickens as the characters impassionately assume the death(s) to be suicide and show no remorse over the death of the scullery maid.  It becomes all the more ominous when the dead scullery maid appears to Charlotte Pollard saying she wants to know if she’s alive or dead, and warns her that “Edward Grove is alive”.  It grows worse when the true history of the scullery maid is explained, including her “real” death.  And finally, when the truth about Edward Grove is revealed, and the nature of his coming to life (and sustaining that life) is known, the Doctor actually tells him to let go of living, in favor of the life of the scullery maid and the other house servants.

It is not often that the Doctor ventures to make the judgment call about who should live and who should die.  Especially in his more idealistic incarnations, such as this, he usually opts for an “every sentient being deserves a chance and a choice” approach, so it’s noteworthy that he clearly takes sides in this story.

Another angle on the story, and likely influencing the Doctor’s decisions towards the end, is the fact that something wonky is going on with time in this story.  Indeed, this is actually the very first thing that we learn in the story, before even the murder mystery plot.  There are parts of the story where time seems to be frozen, constantly resetting itself, looping in circles, speeding up, and slowing down.  It’s a clever piece of writing, and it works really well without overwhelming the audience with technobabble.  (It’s nice when the Doctor doesn’t have an explanation for everything all the time… perhaps another reason I’ve enjoyed the 8th Doctor’s stories so much compared to New Who.)

Despite taking place in or before the year of Charlotte Pollard’s birth, this story manages to give us some new backstory material for her character.  We are given a glimpse of her childhood in an Edwardian manour house, if indirectly, by meeting her family’s cook.  It’s a smart piece of writing to weave together character background and the mystery plot, without woodenly treating them separately.  The mystery of what happened to Edith and what “should have” happened to Charlotte both formulates the plot of this story and gives us insight into their past.  This is a good way of humanizing and developing the Doctor’s companion(s) without making the often messy and hazardous move of spending a lot of story time in the companion’s domestic goings-on.

To conclude, I must admit that this story was a little confusing the first time I listened to it.  When I revisited it ten years later I remembered very little about the story, but just enough to follow along better.  Listening to it a third time one more year later for the purpose of writing this review, I must say it continues to age well.  It’s a story that you can re-listen to, even knowing most of the twists and turns that are to come, and still enjoy and appreciate everything that’s going on.  The writing and acting superbly draw you into the mystery of the situation in the house, and continue to pay off handsomely upon a return visit.

Advertisements
Story Review

Scherzo

One of the greatest advantages of the Doctor Who franchise is its ability to go literally anywhere at any point in history, exploring both the very familiar and the very alien.  One of the limitations of television, however, is that there is only so much you can depict visually.  Sometimes the limitations are due to budget or technology, sometimes, more subtly, it’s a matter of the viewer’s limits – some measure of familiarity even in the most original alien creatures is often needed for the audience to connect with the story.  These are, perhaps, the most practical reasons that the vast majority of aliens on television are humanoid.

One of the liberating features, then, of books and audio stories is the lack of visuals.  Through word, sound, and sheer imagination, the audience can be drawn into the most impossible and foreign settings.  The book Dominion comes to mind as one of the most unique sets of aliens and pocket universe; colors, shapes, physics and gravity, biology – it was all so utterly different from anything possible on television.  A number of the Big Finish audio adventures have profited from this freedom too, and Scherzo is one of the highlights of this creativity.  And, perhaps most astonishingly, it does this only using two voice actors: Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor) and India Fisher (Charlotte Pollard).

This story follows directly on the heels of Neverland and Zagreus, two major stories in the Big Finish story arc for the 8th Doctor, wrapping up one era of his adventures and starting another.  Now the Doctor is exiled seemingly forever in a divergent universe that does not have Time in the same sense as our universe – it is utterly alien to our own, and partially on purpose due to some ancient machinations of Rassilon.  Unfortunately, the utterly alienness of the divergent universe was not always as well exploited as one might hope, but this first story there, Scherzo, is a an amazing first impression.

The plot is as mysterious as the setting: the Doctor and Charley are almost completely blinded, and have to rely on touch and sound to stay together and explore their situation.  Their inability to see is a handy parallel to the fact that this is an audio story, almost a 4th wall sympathy of sorts.  More pertinently, though, are the aliens they encounter: one is an apparent succession of dead creatures which are discovered in various stages of evolutionary development (which they use for food and medicine) and the other is a creature entirely made of sound.  There is another audio adventure in which someone turns himself, upon his death, into a creature of pure sound, but I can’t remember its title, and it was not quite as effective as this story used the idea.

Essentially, the Doctor and Charley stumble into an experimental chamber that is exploring the trajectory of evolution.  The dead creature that they eat is constantly being upgraded to look more developed, the sound creature that feeds on them is improving its ability to imitate sound, and the Doctor and Charley themselves find themselves evolving into a composite being.  Their merging into one, first by accident and eventually on purpose, could be depicted on screen now with the technology we’ve got today (it probably would’ve looked lame even in 2003).  But presenting it only with sound allows room for imagination, and the squelching sound of two hands melding into each other was positively unnerving.

And alongside all of this science-fiction was one of the most deliberate relationship talks ever seen in Doctor Who.  Charlotte Pollard had previously professed her love for the Doctor, and in the heat of the moment he’d returned the phrase.  To Charlotte, this was a romantic interest (though not explicitly a sexual advance).  To the Doctor, this was an emotional attachment.  These different kinds of passion, of course, don’t mesh, and a large part of their dialogue throughout this story is spent hashing out what they mean by love and self-sacrifice.  Again, this relationship crisis is largely an unpacking of the events of the previous two stories, so Scherzo can’t really be appreciate on its own without having listened to its predecessor stories.

Although from a different range of stories, this handling of potential romance with the Doctor falls well in line with how the EDA books handled the subject back in 1999.  In both cases, the 8th Doctor has a newfound passion for life, humanity, and personal relationships.  It has its romantic overtones, but ultimately he’s not looking for a soulmate.  As an aside, if the romantic interest between Rose and the 10th Doctor had been resolved along these lines, I would have been much happier.

Anyway, Scherzo is a very creative story, and manages to handle the awkward question of Doctor-companion relationships and some very imaginative science-fiction at the same time.  It’s not a good story to start with, but it’s an excellent story to work one’s way up to.  I could also talk about the layer of parable, in which the Doctor tells a fairy tale of a tyrant king trying to subjugate music and sound, the fact that a sound/music-themed story has almost no incidental music at all, and the foreshadowing and loose ends that don’t get tied for a very long time after, but then this review post would be far too long.  Suffice it to say here that there is much to enjoy from Scherzo, and no matter what kind of Doctor Who story you enjoy, you’re bound to find something to appreciate in this one.

Story Review

The Gunfighters

For the first few years of Doctor Who’s television run, the general formula was to jump back and forth between historical-based stories and futuristic science-fiction stories.  This is the story that may have put one of the last nails in the coffin for the historicals, as it was so poorly received and rated at the time.  Depending upon whom you ask, it may not be so poorly regarded anymore, though.

The Gunfighters is the first significant Doctor Who foray into an American setting.  It’s a re-telling of the classic story of the OK Corrall, and at least in my uneducated opinion, it’s pretty funny.

Gunfighters_title[1]
image from tardis.wikia.com
The Doctor is initially confused for the legendary Doc Holliday, resulting in the complication of a family feud.  Steven’s and especially Dodo’s enthusiasm for the Wild West also entangles them in the goings-on of the town of Tombstone, making it impossible for the Doctor to gather them up and leave in the TARDIS like he keeps wanting to do throughout the story.  I kept expecting the Doctor’s accent (or Steven’s or Dodo’s once they stopped trying to sound American) to come up and reveal him as an outsider, but it didn’t.  Some might expect me, as an American, to complain about the bad imitation accents, but since I’ve always lived in Massachusetts, the Western and Southern accents are pretty foreign to me; I hardly know what they’re “supposed to” sound like, let alone call out an English impression of one.  So they’re off the hook, there 😉

As the story progresses, Steven and Dodo spend an increasing amount of time as prisoners, making the Doctor the primary agent in advancing the plot to get them free.  Despite being so caught up, Dodo manages to take serious action a couple times – once threatening Doc Holliday with a gun to take her back to Tombstone, and another time rushing into a gunfight to save his life.  For some of the story it seems like she’s in cool and in control as a strong young woman, like we saw her introduced in The Ark.  But she also has a fainting spell or two which kind of suggest a false bravado, undermining some of her character’s strength.

The body count by the end of the story also surprised me a little.  Approximately half the story’s entire cast is dead at the end!  I suppose it fits the setting and nature of the story; it just seemed unusual for this era of the show.

The Doctor makes his abhorrence for guns and disinterest in alcohol abundantly clear in this story.  Of course, his commitment to those ideals will wax and wane over the course of time, and some incarnations will be more or less violent or lush accordingly.  But this is one of the earliest placements of the Doctor’s preferences: he is not a violent man, and he does not touch alcohol.  The non-violent thing will continue to be a prominent feature of the Doctor, perhaps one of the most attractive things about the character.

Story Review

The Daleks’ Master Plan

Where Interference is the epic of the Doctor Who novels, The Daleks’ Master Plan is the epic of the television series.  It is rivaled only by Trial of a Time Lord, which is a matter of debate whether it is best treated as separate stories with a linking arc, or as one story proper.  The Daleks’ Master Plan has no such uncertainty; it is one 12-part story.  This story is so epic, in fact, that it even got its own prologue: Mission to the Unknown.

Like The Chase in the previous season, this story features a prolonged pursuit of the TARDIS crew by the Daleks, but this time because the Doctor stole something from them, not just because they’re “the enemy”.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Perhaps a quick summary of the storyline is in order.

Episode 1: The Nightmare Begins & Episode 2: Day of Armageddon

  • The Daleks’ alliance with various galaxies now includes the Guardian of the Solar System, Mavic Chen.
  • A superweapon is prepared by the Daleks, supplied by a Terranium block mined from Uranus (lol).
  • A Space Agent, Bret, teams up with the Doctor & Steven & Katarina after getting off to a rough start.  The Doctor  steals the terranium and they go on the run.

Episode 3: Devil’s Planet

  • Bret & crew escape the planet in a spaceship but are forced down by the Daleks onto a penal colony planet.
  • A convict sneaks on board the ship while they make repairs.

Episode 4: The Traitors

  • Katarina dies saving the crew from the convict, on their way to Earth.
  • Mavic Chen sends another Space Agent, Sara Kingdom, after Bret & crew.
  • On Earth, Bret kills a traitor who would’ve turned them in; then Sara kills Bret.

Episode 5: Counter Plot

  • Sara chases the Doctor and Steven into an experimental disseminator and they’re transmatted to a distant planet.
  • Mavic Chen is plotting to oust the Daleks and make himself the supreme leader of the universe.

Episode 6: Coronas of the Sun

  • The Daleks capture the TARDIS crew but they escape when the invisible natives of the planet attack.
  • They steal the Dalek ship and leave but it’s remote-controlled by the Daleks back to the first planet where this whole story started.
  • The Doctor makes a fake copy of the terranium core which they hand over to the Daleks and then they escape in the TARDIS.

Episode 7: Feast of Steven

  • They stumble across some 20th century policemen and some film crews in a comic rush.

Episode 8: Volcano

  • The Daleks attempt to test their Time Destructor on one of their “allies” but discover the teranium is a fake.  They call in a time machine from Skaro to pursue the TARDIS.
  • The Doctor & crew have a run-in in the Meddling Monk who tries to lock them out of their TARDIS but the Doctor foils his trick.  The Monk vows to chase them, too.

Episode 9: Golden Death

  • The TARDIS arrives at the Pyramids of Giza upon their completion.  Egyptians capture Steven and Sara for a while.
  • The Daleks & Mavic Chen arrive, as does the Meddling Monk.  The former threaten the latter into helping them recover the terranium from the Doctor.
  • The TARDIS is taken into the pyramid tomb mistaken for one of Pharaoh’s treasures, but not before the Doctor fixes its lock that the Monk damaged earlier.
  • The Doctor sabotages the Monk’s ship so it’s stuck looking like a police box too.

Episode 10: Escape Switch

  • Steven and Sara find the Monk, trapped in a sarcophagus because of the Doctor.  They stumble across the Daleks looking for the Doctor, so he hands them over to them as hostages to bargain with the Doctor.
  • The Doctor actually hands over the terranium, but the Daleks are ambushed by Egyptians immediately.
  • The Doctor reveals he has stolen the “directional unit” from the Monk’s ship, so they can steer the TARDIS now.  But their ships are different versions so compatibility will be an issue…. the TARDIS may be destroyed!

Episode 11: The Abandoned Planet

  • The stolen directional unit turns out to be a one-shot wonder: it gets the TARDIS back to the Daleks’ base planet before blowing out.
  • The Doctor disappears quickly; Steven and Sara don’t know if he’s lost or captured.
  • Steven and Sara enter the Dalek city, discover that the Daleks have betrayed their allies, and decide to free them, understanding that they’ll mobilize their forces to unite against the Daleks.
  • Mavic Chen fakes his death and takes Steven and Sara hostage to lead him into an underground base where the Daleks are hiding…

Episode 12: The Destruction of Time

  • Mavic Chen madly believes that the Doctor wants to steal his place of glory alongside the Daleks.
  • When Mavic Chen is ordered to be executed by the Daleks, he flees.  The Doctor then comes out of hiding and tells Steven and Sara to flee back to the TARDIS.
  • Sara sneaks back to help the Doctor with the Time Destructor and Steven returns to the TARDIS.
  • As they flee to the TARDIS, the Time Destructor ages the Doctor and Sara to decrepit condition, and the jungle decays to dust around them.
  • Steven rescues the Doctor and brings him inside the TARDIS, but Sarah has crumpled to dust.  Daleks find the Time Controller, accidentally set on reverse by Steven, and they regress to nothing.
  • The Doctor and Steven mourn the loss of Katarina and Sara in the face of this decisive victory against the Dalek invasion force.

Overall Plot Comments

In the details, this story is a little piecemeal at times.  The idea of the super-weapon powered by an element so rare it’s only found in one planet in the entire universe (and it’s from Uranus, of all places), strikes me as quite implausible.  The focus on Earth’s solar system as the key to taking the entire galaxy seems to me to cheapen the value and size of the rest of the Milky Way.  The transition of Sara Kingdom from loyal officer to a turncoat against Mavic Chen’s treachery seemed a bit too quick to be believable.  The Daleks’ discarding of their allies towards the end of the story made me wonder why they ever needed them in the first place.  Sara’s death, too, was hard to understand in the Doctor’s terms at the end – that he wouldn’t have succeeded in getting the Time Destructor away from the Daleks without her.  Maybe I missed something visually because that episode was a reconstruction, but I couldn’t tell that she did anything helpful in that final scene that the Doctor couldn’t have done on his own.

In the big picture, this is a very good story.  The Daleks have a high-stakes plan and are on the verge of assuring their victory.  We get to see the background workings of their plan, not just a present-moment snapshot.  The process of discovering and stopping their plan is costly – three people who travel with the Doctor die in this story.  And this story doesn’t have a one-track mind: it deals with a few side plots along the way: the ambitions of Mavic Chen and the other allies of the Daleks, the relationship between the Doctor and his traveling companions, as well as their dealings with incidental characters at different stages of their travels, mostly on the run.

Characters

We see the Doctor has developed quite a bit from the beginning of the show.  He denies being from Earth, calling himself a “citizen of the universe”.  This may be the most clear hint yet that he isn’t human.  He’s also very authoritative in this story, especially toward Bret and Steven.  The ‘doddering old fool’ that Ian and Barbara stumbled across in 1963 is now a powerhouse of speech and personality.  In particular, he proves a powerful bargainer with the Daleks!  He tells Bret and Steven to “shut up,” he sets strict terms with the Daleks, he expects his companions to do what he says.  Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor is a really strong echo of this 1st incarnation.

The Monk is back!  He’s still hilarious.  He’s still devious and difficult to read, in terms of his loyalties.  And he calls his ship a TARDIS at one point, which may be the first time in the history of the show that TARDIS is used as a generic name for the time-and-space machine.

Steven is a seasoned time traveler with the Doctor at this point.  He is well established as a member of the TARDIS crew, not just a passenger or sight-seer.  He is a confident individual who balances well between striking out on his own and doing what the Doctor says.  And he also serves as a warmer counterpart to the Doctor’s rough edges, especially in helping newer companions get used to him.

Katarina only just started traveling with them in the previous story, The Myth Makers.  Coming from ancient Troy, she still believed that the Doctor was one of the gods, so her self-sacrifice with the invading convict in the air lock injected her death with both a believable heroism and a heightened sense of tragedy – as far as she was concerned, she died in service to a benevolent god, yet the rest of us know she was in error about the Doctor.  Nevertheless, her death clearly did free the group to continue their mission to Earth at that stage of the story; she was the hero of the hour.  It’s a shame that we barely get to know her; her lack of understanding of our history and science was balanced out by her loyalty and respect for the Doctor and her equal committment to looking after Steven when he was injured at the end of The Myth Makers going into this story.  Sadly there isn’t really much room to squeeze in any extra stories with her, as the two television serials she’s in are tied pretty tightly together.

Bret is a Space Agent played by Nicholas Courtney, who would eventually reappear as Lethbridge-Stewart.  It is so much fun watching his character interact with the 1st Doctor; he is in many ways very similar to the Brigadier we came to know and love: loyal to his country/planet, steadfast in his resolve, ready to use brute force much to the Doctor’s disdain, and completely no-nonsense about getting to the bottom of things.  Bret lasts only a third of the way through this story (4 episodes) but he becomes a solidly believable and likeable character.  It would have been fun to be able to see more of him.  But again, his death helping the Doctor and Steven escape the traitorous Earth authorities advances the plot and raises the stakes.

Sara Kingdom gets an excellent introduction: Mavic Chen selects her to go on the mission to capture Bret and the others, and she is mentioned only by her surname, so you don’t know she’s a woman until she appears on screen.  She is cool, calculated, and professional, just like the other two space agents we’ve seen in this story and in Mission to the Unknown.  This tough outer shell is softened a little over the course of the story as she travels with the Doctor and Steven – mostly on the run from the Daleks.  Apart from her a-little-too-easy realization that Mavic Chen was a traitor and the Doctor was actually the good guy, her character was another strong believable person.  Well-trained for combat and espionage, she walked a similar path as the Brigadier, Leela, or Ace as the Doctor’s warrior counterpart.

Final Observations

The toughest question remaining is… would I recommend watching this story?  If the whole story survived intact I would say yes.  It’s long, and episode 7 is really just comic relief because it aired on Christmas (so it contributes nearly nothing to the overall story), but it’d be a good marathon watch over all.  The Daleks are still in their hey-day here, not yet the caricature they sometimes ended up to be in the 1970’s.  The 1st Doctor is a powerful and mysterious character, Steven is a solid companion, the other characters add a lot to the impact of the story.  The Daleks’ Master Plan is arguably one of the major influences that inspired the Dalek Empire audio series by Big Finish.  Its legacy is well-founded.

But the fact that more than half of its 12 episodes are lost, existing only as reconstructions (presently just pictures with the occasional Dalek or door animation, and the full original audio track), makes it rather difficult to get into unless you’re particularly committed.  It’s harder to binge-watch when you’re alternating between episodes that are fully-extant and episodes where you have to listen carefully to a low-quality audio track and rely on subtitles to help narrate the visuals that aren’t captured in the surviving photographs.  If you’re the kind of person who enjoys, appreciates, or at least can put up with that, then this is a story worth digging into.

Otherwise, you’re probably best off reading summaries like mine, or a longer synopsis like on the TARDIS Wiki, and going with that.

Story Review

Live 34

This is a story of corruption, a story of propaganda, a story of lies.  Live 34 is almost entirely unique among Doctor Who stories in that it is told purely from the point of view of the local people, rather than from that of the Doctor and his companions.  The entire story is a string of news reports and programs from Earth Colony 34’s main media outlet, Live 34.  To emphasize this storytelling device, even the usual title music is replaced with the sound of a radio changing stations and the jingle of the in-story Live 34 station.

B074_live34_big[1]

It starts out with a seemingly-ordinary Doctor Who story situation: a mysterious string of terrorist bombings have rocked First City of Colony 34, and the Doctor has identified himself with the Freedom & Democracy Party.  We all know something sinister is going on – it’s Doctor Who after all.  But the real extent of the corruption and fraud is pretty nasty.

Each episode takes place a day or several days apart.  Episode 1 focuses on a live news broadcast interviewing the Doctor, dealing with his involvement with the politics of the colony.  Episode 2 focuses on a special documentary someone made interviewing Ace, the “Rebel Queen”, leading a resistance group outside the city.  Episode 3 focuses on a program where a reporter joins someone at their work: Hex working as a paramedic, who makes a discovery that corroborates with some of the grisly details of Ace’s story.

It all comes together in episode 4.  This final episode feels a bit rushed, as it all takes place in one 25-minute live event, and the Doctor, Hex, and Ace explain and reveal everything that has just happened.

So what was going on?

Ah, that would be telling, wouldn’t it.  One of the beauties of this story is that, although the plot and its backstory are decent, there is so much more to appreciate here.  I say decent, not to avoid saying it’s good.  The corrupt government and its dastardly plots are nothing new to Doctor Who, let alone to science fiction in general.  The Doctor and his companions’ involvement in local affairs to overthrow that regime is pretty standard, too.  And the backstory of how the corrupt government cam to power is pretty simple, and not an overused trope.  But what makes this story really shine is its presentation through the media, Live 34.

As another reviewer has put it, it’s a wonder nobody in Doctor Who has done this before.  Telling the entire story through the eyes of the local broadcasting, complete with censoring and editing, puts the whole story in a different context.  It’s no longer just about an adventure with the 7th Doctor, Ace, and Hex; it’s a story of propaganda, tampering with the media, government intervention, mob mentalities, undisclosed sources.  Even though Live 34 is a radio station, the constant spew of information, misinformation, and disinformation is uncomfortably similar to one’s typical experience of political news on Facebook or Twitter today.

As a Babylon 5 fan, I’ve come across other stories such as Illusion of Truth and Severed Dreams and Rising Star, in which the major media outlet either willfully or under coercion present (or admit to) heavily skewed reports of what’s really going on.  The Orwellian themes of false information repeatedly fed to people, not just the blatant lies but especially the subtle turns of phrase, make for very brilliant and disturbing storytelling.  Live 34 does this in spades.  Not that the concept of propaganda has never been used in Doctor Who before or since, but this story is really all about propaganda.  The casual remarks, the gentle repetition or restating of an idea, the quiet-but-damning phrase “government sources tell us”, the almost-throw-away lines “no independent study” and “secret for security reasons”… it all just screams of tampering and censorship without going out of its way to make it obvious.

The 7th Doctor is one of the incarnations better suited to addressing this sort of situation.  He has a loud voice when he wants to; he knows a plot when he sees one, being a plotter himself; he has the chessmaster mind which excels in beating corrupt leaders at their own games.  And he has a tendency to send use his companions strategically: Ace works with the downtrodden and the exiles to champion their cause, while Hex works within one of the cities as a paramedic where he can make insider discoveries of the government’s secrets.  And all that while the Doctor storms the problem from the front door, so to speak, making himself the visible leader of the opposition, the Freedom & Democracy Party.

This is a story that is easy to re-listen to, even with the final reveals already known.  As with a couple other stories like The Chimes of Midnight and Creatures of Beauty, the story-telling rewards return visits even with all the spoilers uncovered.  In this case it’s primarily the well-crafted lies and half-truths scattered throughout the news reports which slowly grow emptier as the story progresses.

And, I’m sorry to say, it makes for good practice in dealing with the present political climate.  2016’s election season was nasty, here in the US, and 2017 as Donald Trump’s first year as President has been even nastier, as many politicians and media outlets alike have spewed out their respective views, biases, and propaganda for or against one thing or another.  In a world where editorial is peddled as truth, we need all the experience and training we can get in learning to see through such efforts to persuade us not to think for ourselves.

Story Review

The Ark

The Ark is the first of several Doctor Who stories over its 50+ years of history to feature a massive colony ship leaving a dead Earth for a new planet.  Inspired, as the title reveals, by the famous biblical story, the idea would be used again by The Ark in Space with the 4th Doctor, Dreamtime with the 7th Doctor in Big Finish, The Beast Below with the 11th Doctor, and possibly other stories I don’t know about.

Not only is it the prototype for the “new start for the human race” stories, but it’s also the first “before and after” story – a concept rarely used in Classic Who, but used perhaps most pointedly in the 9th Doctor stories The Long Game (as the before) and Bad Wolf and Parting of the Ways (as the after).  The idea is simple: the Doctor and crew have an adventure in some location and then quickly or immediately return to it some long time after in that place’s history.  Episodes 1 & 2 of The Ark take place on the Ark Ship heading for humanity’s new home planet Refusis.  The humans on board are aided by a race of one-eyed creatures with webbed feet and Beatles haircuts aptly named Monoids.

One[1]

It quickly becomes apparent that these mute and shuffling creatures serve as slaves to the humans, though not much is said about it.  Episode 3 & 4 see the tables turned: the Monoids rule the Ark, using new technology to give them the power of speech, and the humans are their servants.  Generations pass between the two halves of this story, so the Doctor, Steven, and Dodo are not recognized nor remembered, enabling  either story-half to function in a self-contained manner.

The stories overall are quite simple.  The first two episodes deal with the accidental carrying of a “new” disease to the Ark – Dodo’s basic headcold, which is so ancient to them that they have no immunities to it and start dying off (especially the monoids).  The TARDIS crew is of course held responsible and put on trial and have to work against the odds to offer help against the illness.  They leave with the cold defeated and an apparent restoration of peace on the Ark.

The second two episodes deal with the later monoids’ plot to colonize the planet themselves and destroy the Ark and the humans aboard thereafter.  The arrival of the Doctor and crew, of course, throws a monkey wrench into their plans, and they eventually discover what’s going on with the monoids and who the planet’s mysterious inhabitants are.  It even has a Star-Trek-like moral lesson at the end as the humans and monoids are forced to learn to live together in peace on their destination planet by its benevolent invisible inhabitants.

Characters

The Doctor still gets to be a grandfatherly figure with the new addition of Dodo (Dorathy Chaplet) riding along in the TARDIS, and he looks after her accordingly throughout The Ark.  He essentially cures the common cold – a rare exhibition of medical prowess in the show.  He is not perturbed by the fact that they are so far in humanity’s distant future, hinting that his knowledge and experience as a time traveler is much broader than what had ever been seen on the show to date (this is in season 3).  The Doctor also proves an effective diplomat with the natives of Refusis, advocating for the humans and monoids alike.  His congeniality with them from their first entry into the story almost hints of prior familiarity.  Though for much of early Who, the Doctor was more often surprised by what he found in his travels than already knowing everything about it… that switch takes place over a long time.

Steven is separated from the Doctor and Dodo for significant portions of the story, as he is a veteran TARDIS traveler by this point and able to hold his own.  He has come a long way since his bumbling entrance in The Time Meddler, though his sense of curiosity steeped in realism continues as a stable character trait for him.

Meanwhile, this is Dodo’s first story apart from her brief introduction at the tail end of The Massacre.  Initially she’s very gung-ho, fearless, and inquisitive to explore everything.  She identifies a great many animals herself as they begin to explore the jungle region of the Ark, giving her character a strong and proactive start.  As the story progresses, she seems to drift into the background a little bit.  The stakes are raised and she understandably sticks close to the Doctor for a while as these new experiences of the dangers of time travel wash over her.  I don’t recall her actually screaming at all in this story, though, so that’s a plus for first impressions.  As far as I recall, her character’s tenure is one of the most “lost” set of early Doctor Who stories, so we have less ability to get to know to her character today.  So it’s good that we’ve at least got this, her first story.

Story Review

Mission to the Unknown

When is Doctor Who not Doctor Who?  This single 25-minute story features neither the Doctor nor his companions.  The setting is not a revisit of a past Doctor Who location, nor are any of its characters familiar from previous stories.  Only the Daleks provide any indication that this is in the Doctor Who universe.  Of the two main purposes of this blog (tracing the character of the Doctor over his lifetime, and tracing the continuity of the Dr Who universe in general), this story only contributes to the latter intention.

And Mission to the Unknown does this in spades.  It was written with a couple different ideas in mind:

  1. It serves as a prequel to the epic The Daleks’ Master Plan that began a month later.
  2. It was a subtle pilot story for a Daleks-only television show that never got produced.
  3. Big Finish Audio Productions would eventually take up the Dalek stories idea, along with an original set of Dalek Empire stories, inspired largely by the content and tone of this little story.

The plot is simple.  A small crew of humans have crash landed in a dangerous jungle on a barely-known planet.  One of the crewmen is a James Bond-like secret agent on a mission to investigate his hunch that the Daleks have returned to their galaxy with nefarious intentions.  With nobody knowing they’re there, and the deadly Varga Plants picking them off one by one, they have to send out a warning to Earth before the Daleks hunt them down and kill them.  And, in a surprising turn of events for family-friendly Doctor Who, they fail and all die.  But a tape recording of their discovered information survives, so the Doctor and crew can find it at the beginning of The Daleks’ Master Plan.

This makes me think, how can (or does) Doctor Who do this nowadays?  We’ve had the occasional “Doctor-lite” story focusing on the companion or other incidental characters.  We’ve had five-minute webisodes (or “Tardisodes”, groan) setting up the next episode of Doctor Who.  There have also been the three main spin-offs, Torchwood, Sarah Jane Adventures, and Class.  Big Finish has released the occasional special short story that only tangentially stars the Doctor, plus a few ranges of stories that focus on his former companions.  I suppose given how little Doctor Who we get on television these days, and how much money gets thrown at it, it wouldn’t be feasible to expect an entirely Doctor-less story on TV anymore.

But let’s throw a big thank-you to Terry Nation for writing Mission to the Unknown, and showing us even in 1965 that Doctor Who is a strong enough story-telling world to stand on its own without always needing the Doctor and the TARDIS to hold it together!  May such creativity never run dry.