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Short Trips

BBC Doctor Who Anthology #1
Nick Mellish

‘Short Trips’ is BBC Books’ first attempt to provide a short story anthology. On the whole, I was impressed by the quality of the stories, and the range they covered thematically. There was the occasional story that did not quite work for me, for one reason or another, but these did not destroy my overall appreciation of the collection. Since the book comprises several stories, it would be best to review them individually, which I shall now do.

Jonathan Blum’s short story of the Eight Doctor and his miniature community is the perfect start to the collection; everything known from the EDA range about the Eight Doctor is present here, and for once we have no irritating assistants (yes Sam Jones, I’m looking at you) to weight the proceedings down. Largely metaphorical, the story is nicely paced and almost rather touching. It shows a Doctor that is too involved now with the world and cannot let go for fear of it all crashing down around him; it makes him out to be a lonely figure, and yet the ending gives a welcome hint of optimism which was perfectly in tune with the story as a whole. In short, ‘Model Train Set’ is lovely.

An amusing story by Paul Magrs that introduces the now famous Iris Wildthyme to the world; Iris instantly creates an impression upon the reader with her intoxicated antics, bus shaped TARDIS and general laziness (unless she’s in trouble, in which case she is very efficient). There are some nice references to past encounters (she refers to a past assistant of the Doctor’s whom she did not get along with) that certainly whet my appetite. Magrs has pinned down the character of the Fourth Doctor very well indeed, though I was a little unsure of his treatment of Sarah Jane Smith, who every so often felt a little out of character. On the whole though, she was treated well and even these out-of-character moments were enjoyable enough. Again, this is well paced, well written and very nice indeed.

I found this to be one of the weaker stories in the anthology. I didn’t dislike ‘War Crimes’ but I certainly felt that it ran out of steam near the ending, rather ironically when the Doctor appears on the scene. The beginning was rather nicely done I felt, with Simon Butcher-Jones showing a turn for nice descriptive writing, but near the end things start to get a bit slow. We are treated to a burst of technobabble between Zoë and the Doctor that is fine at first, but soon drags. Added to this, I felt that Butcher-Jones’ grasp on the character of Jamie was quite poor, and certainly not reminiscent of the Jamie as seen on screen, especially not at this stage of his life (the story is set just before the Doctor’s trial in ‘The War Games’). I didn’t think that ‘War Crimes’ was bad per se, but for a short story there is a feeling about it that suggests it should be shorter than it is.

Featuring the First Doctor, Ian, Susan and Barbara, the highlight of this story is easily the ending, which is not intended in a derogatory way but a nice one. It really packed a punch and gave the story a long lasting impression. Like elsewhere, Evan Pritchard has a really good grasp on the characters featured, especially with Ian, and the story is nicely paced, with events unfolding at a gentle pace, which is ironic considering the nature of the story is anything but gentle. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s one of the best stories, but it is certainly a very good one, and if you were looking for a brief enjoyable story then you could do far worse than looking at this one.

Being a story by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker, it is no surprise to learn that this is a story featuring the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Again, the characters are well drawn out, as is the enemy of the piece. Considering its length, a lot happens in a relatively short amount of time, marking this story out as one of the most action paced stories in the anthology. Once more, this is not entirely flawless- the pigeon of the title is perhaps a bit annoying at times, and certainly loses its appeal around two thirds into its involvement. On the whole though, this is another enjoyable read.

One of the highlights in the book for; it made me really want to read on and the ending rather sad. Featuring the Third Doctor, Jo and UNIT, this story is set soon after ‘The Mind Of Evil’, so it does not take a great deal of difficulty to work out who the enemy of the piece is. However, this did not diminish my enjoyment of it at all, and if anything the familiarity was one of the best things about it. The characters are again handled really well; Steve Lyons has created a story that you can easily believe may have been in the TV Series such is its authentic nature. Form start to end, this was a joy to read and warrants a re-reading at some point in the future for no other reason than being excellent.

Tara Samms’ sequel (of sorts) to ‘Shada’ (with Tome Baker, not Paul McGann) shall undoubtedly be frowned upon by some people and their personal canons, which is a pity as by doing so they will be missing out on a really good and genuinely haunting story. Perhaps it is the fact that it is told from the viewpoint of a victim, but everything here is rather eerie and it certainly leaves you questioning just how responsible it is of the Doctor to run off as soon as everything seems to be sorted out. Here, we get the perspective of somebody who shall be affected for life by the events of the story, and it is moving. Samms has written a very nice story that, again, stands out from the crowd, and is perfectly suited to the short story format.

Short and sweet, this is a Doctor-less story by Paul Grice (the first- and best in my opinion- of his two contributions to the anthology) that features Ben and Polly, years after they left the TARDIS. Again, this is a moving story, especially near its ending. Considering its nature- they have both started families but never forgotten each other- it is unsurprisingly emotion, but rather than be overly sentimental or sickly sweet, this is instead more realistic, and more believable. As events unfold, you find yourself second-guessing everything that is about to happen, and by the time it has finished, it’s disappointing to know what has happened but very much in keeping with everything in the rest of the story, and everything you know about the two characters on screen. I seem to recall this story getting much praise at the time, and it is not hard to see why that was.

By a rather long margin, this struck me as the weakest of all the stories. The plot was fairly pedestrian, with nothing about it grabbing my attention. Worse still, it was tediously predictable: The Doctor and companion land somewhere; the companion is weary at first but ends up gets involved with something seemingly nice; the Doctor destroys this nice thing in an apparent out-of-character moment; everything is explained, the companion now understands and they laugh. Probably. From a personal viewpoint, the choice of the First Doctor and Dodo was not a great one either- it’s not the use of the First Doctor that bothered me but that of Dodo. On screen, she was fairly dull, with no real redeeming features. Alas, this applies to the story as a whole for me- Sam Lester has written a short story that I found to be a fair struggle to get through, despite its short length, and it was a story that did nothing to change my opinions of Dodo.

Another enjoyable read, this time involving the Second Doctor (most probably during the fan-favourite Season 6b). What really makes Matthew Jones’ story good is the narrator, Nanci Cruz, who tells the story from her viewpoint, thus giving the reader the same wide-eyed excitement you get when watching ‘Doctor Who’ on television. Once more, it is perfectly suited to the short story format, and despite its length you find out everything you really need to know about the narrator and the events unfolding before her. Jones has really hit the nail on the head with his interpretation of the Second Doctor, and the ending especially sounded like something straight out of an Episode on television.

I felt that I should have enjoyed this story a lot more than I did, but as with ‘There are Fairies…’ I found ‘The Parliament of Rats’ too long and not very stimulating. There are some really good ideas in there, and Daniel O’Mahony writes for the various characters very well, especially Nyssa. However, the story just did not interest me. I recognised parts of it to be well written and interesting, but as a whole it seemed to lack a certain something for me. I suspect that this is more down to my personal taste than a dislike of the writing as such- as I said before, I found O’Mahony’s prose to be well-written- but on a personal level, it didn’t do anything for me.

The second offering from Paul Grice, and one that I found to be weaker than ‘Mondas Passing’ by a considerable margin. In fact, when I was reading it I could gradually see myself imaging it in comic strip format, or perhaps animation. In prose, the ideas, characters and descriptions seemed a little lost, but I suspect that in another medium, this would have been far better. Grice’s handling of both the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith is great, with Sarah being especially well written, but it felt to me too much like it was a good story struggling to be heard, which is a pity.

Guy Clapperton has written a short story that once more ticks the ‘well-written’, ‘suits its format’, ‘good characterisation’, ‘nicely paced’ and ‘great ending’ boxes. Something about it made the story a little better than the other similar offerings though; perhaps it was the genuinely interesting supporting cast or maybe I just preferred his style of writing. Either way, I thought this was above average and suited the loud persona of the Sixth Doctor perfectly.

The second story from Perry and Tucker, and the one that I found to be the strongest. Lasting for a mere five pages, you again feel that there is no more left to say by the end of it. However, unlike the other stories, I found that I wanted this one to carry on; I found myself thinking of it as if it were an introduction to a novel, and was slightly upset that one did not follow. I suppose this is a plus point in many ways- they wrote something that wanted me to read on- but to be honest I felt it was slightly wasted here, and would have benefited with being a prologue to something else. Even the closure of Kathleen’s story did not erase this feeling of wanting more than you get.

A fine way to end the collection, displaying all the strengths of ‘Short Trips’ as a whole. An interesting, well written, nicely paced plot with good use of regular characters (The Eight Doctor and Sam Jones here) and the perfect length. I am of the opinion that Sam Jones is a fairly poor companion, but Paul Leonard, as he has done in the EDA range, momentarily pulls the wool over me eyes in relation to her; all of a sudden, I see her potential, and I see what she represents: an everyday person, rather than some genius or orphan or cheeky stowaway. However, these virtues rarely show, and rarely is she able to ‘shine’, as it were. Leonard though manages to do just that, and despite her shortcomings and, even worse, the Doctor’s apparent dismissal of said shortcomings are nothing to write home about, she is at least bearable here.

In all then, ‘Short Trips’ for me was nice treat; some stories worked better than others, some have real re-readable potential whilst others will most probably not be read by yours truly ever again. However, these stories are few and far between and, as a whole, I enjoyed the anthology greatly and feel that it is an overall triumph for BBC Books and all those concerned.

Robert Smith?

The Doctor Who short story has never had a particularly successful career. Every single Decalog has contained some of the worst fiction ever published under the Doctor Who name. This had usually been tempered only slightly by having one or two utterly brilliant or standout stories in each collection. With the BBC's first short story collection, there are the inevitable comparisons to Virgin's output. So just how did the BBC do when compared to Virgin's failures?

Sadly, the answer is that the BBC can't master the art of the short story any more than Virgin could.

Short Trips starts off unintentionally amusing. The BBC Books' typos have now made their way to the back cover, which perhaps should have been some hint as to the volume's (lack of) quality. Steven Cole's introduction seems quite earnest and agreeable, until you realise that his aim of making the reader unaware of the lengths of each of the stories is rather undercut by the fact that he included a table of contents, complete with page numbers, only one page previously. Once again, this should have been a hint that the collection might appeal to people who haven't yet mastered the art of subtraction, but would be somewhat lacking for the rest of us.

Model Train Set - A good choice to begin the collection (fooling the reader into thinking the rest of the stories will be this good). It's very clever and very interesting... right up until the point where the story decides to point out to the reader just how clever it's being (probably for those readers having problems with their subtraction again). In the best Tegan tradition, the story feels the need to point out that the metaphor is actually a metaphor. I wouldn't mind having my intelligence insulted - if this were a story by Terrance Dicks. But it isn't. What had the potential to be a truly great story is let down by a lack of subtlety and reduced to merely being good. I actually came away with a bad taste in my mouth after reading it, but this was only alleviated by reading the other stories and realising that at least this one had the potential to be great.

Old Flames - It's passable - barely - but one is left with the feeling of "What's the point?" This story seems all over the place, trying to be many things and succeeding at none of them. I'm left with the feeling of not looking forward to Magrs forthcoming novel at all if it's anything like this.

War Crimes - The pain. The sheer, unbridled pain of it all. It's been pointed out that the only good thing about this story is that it's short, but as I had whole years of my life taken off from this travesty, I can only shudder in fear to think what would happen if it were longer. When I finally finished this story, I never wanted to read *anything* ever again. The only possible explanation for this story I can think of is that Bucher-Jones has some sort of death-wish and is perversely hoping to be tried for the war crimes of writing this story. If so, I'll happily serve on the jury. My friends sometimes laugh at me for enjoying DW and I can go to great lengths to point out that it's not what they think at all, that's it's clever and well done and far better than anyone thinks. After this story, I think I'm going to keep very, very quiet in the future...

The Last Days - An intriguing idea, let down by the fact that we've seen it all before, only better. This felt like a cross between Jim Mortimore's mini-epic, The Book of Shadows, in the first Decalog and Matthew Jones' The Nine-Day Queen in the second, yet lacked the sparkle of either. Having Barbara been unconscious for the last few weeks seems an awfully contrived way to cut the story down to the required length. Still, I'm not complaining: if this were Paul Leonard, we'd have had it all in excruciating detail.

Stop the Pigeon - A story that is neither as clever nor as amusing as it wants (and needs) to be. I haven't read Illegal Alien yet, but this story just pushed it further down on my reading schedule. There's also lots and lots of continuity thrown in for no real reason. The back cover blurb also gives away the identity of the villain in the next story once you've read this one. Oh, and there was absolutely no point to the epilogue.

Freedom - This really should be a lot better than it is. When the main comment that comes to mind about a story is that it's sub-Falls the Shadow, you know you're in trouble. On the plus side, Lyons gets the third Doctor and Jo down very well, but the Master is more Ainley than Delgado.

Glass - At last! This was a great story, I really enjoyed this one. Written very well, it had a flow to it that, unlike every other story in this collection, made the reader actually *want* to keep turning the pages. It also knows just how long to be (ie not very) and stops at a natural point. Not quite brilliant, but easily the best story in the collection (and it's actually good, as well!).

Mondas Passing - Like so many stories in this collection, this had a good idea let down by the lack of talent of the author. Ben's characterisation is quite good, although Polly's feels a little off to me. However, there's a pivotal moment towards the end of the story that is written with such a lack of emphasis that I literally blinked and missed it. This really need to be emphasised, not played down, making it look like the author didn't really understand his own story.

There are Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden - and that's where this story should be, not being published. I shudder to think of the quality of the *rejected* stories if things like this and War Crimes make it through. At least this one's short. Come back Decalogs, all is forgiven!

Mother's Little Helper - I quite liked this one. Matthew Jones has far too much talent to be writing for this collection. His description of the second Doctor is original and utterly brilliant. This is the first time I've actually seen the second Doctor I adored on TV captured even *slightly* well in print and Matt even makes it seem effortless.

The Parliament of Rats - Ho hum. Something is seriously wrong with the universe when a Daniel O'Mahoney story inspires not gasps of awe or great controversy, but merely boredom. Plus, it never seems to end, even though it's not as long as some of the other stories.

Rights - In my review of Dogleg 5, I pointed out that there should be absolutely no way *anyone* (I'll make an exception if it's Steve Moffatt) should be allowed to write more than one short story in the same collection. It's never truer than it is here. I can only suppose that there were some last minute cancellations and this was written in a hurry. It looks as though somebody made a bet with Paul Grice to see if he could write a short story where the Doctor utters the words "sperm count" and "aborting the foetus and snaffling it up for later use". It's a pity no one tried to make a bet with him to see if he could actually write a decent short story (and no, I wouldn't make that bet either).

Wish You Were Here - It's not offensively bad, so that automatically makes this one of the better stories in Short Trips. Colin's Doctor is captured very well and the idea is reasonable, but it never really shines. The ending is also rather distasteful and for no real reason.

Ace of Hearts - It's less than five pages long, but I'm still going to invoke my rule about multiple stories from the same people. There's no point to this story that hasn't been made a thousand times in the NAs and it looks as though the story was actually written around the desire to give Audrey a surname that makes this the most downright offensive in-joke since David McIntee's Housewarming.

The People's Temple - Somebody should really explain to Paul Leonard that there's a actually difference between a short story and a novel. The story itself isn't actually awful (although the prologue - at no less than *four* pages - is), but it just goes on and on and on and on and on... There's nothing said here that couldn't be said in half the space. On the bright side, I didn't actually mind Sam so much (despite acts of gross stupidity throughout that never seem to bother the Doctor). But for crying out loud, this thing has a four page prologue, no less than *eight* chapters and an epilogue! Give it a rest, already...

So there you have it. Another dismal failure in the Doctor Who short story collections series. Collect the whole set. There's one great story (Glass), two decent ones (Model Train Set and Mother's Little Helper), a bunch of barely readable crap and then there's War Crimes. Not only are some of the worse stories on par with the worst of the Decalogs, there's no correspondingly brilliant story to alleviate the experience. If it weren't for Decalog 5, this would be the worst short story collection I've ever read.

I recommend this book to the only people it seems to be aimed at: those with trouble grasping the concepts of spelling and subtraction (since those with trouble grasping the concept of the short story all appear to have written for it). And god help us, I just know there are going to be sequels...