Big Finish’s first Short Trips anthology didn’t exactly bowl me over, but with a very broad ‘theme’, and a slightly increased page count (hooray!), maybe this collection will be get the format back on track…
First up is Peter Anghelides ‘The Tip of the Mind’, which features a meeting between the 3rd Doctor and Zoe. Zoe and Jamie’s enforced amnesia is one of the series biggest injustices, but to have it reversed by fan revisionism would be to rob this moment of its effectiveness. It initially appears that Anghelides is going down this route (as has already happened to Jamie in the comic strip) but thankfully he provides a sting in the tale. I’m not keen on the prose style here – the confessional mode employed ironically makes this a detached and lifeless read, as instead of the Doctor or Zoe we end up saddled with a character we care nothing about.
‘The Splintered Gate’ by Justin Richards is a slight tale of a fortuneteller prophesising Ian Chesterton’s travels with the Doctor. It’s reasonable enough, but I fail to see the significance of the ending, and exactly what is inside the brown box Ian takes.
‘The Man from DOCTO(R)’ by Andrew Collins is a tall story of Harry Sullivan versus alien invaders. It’s another parody, and not very funny either. It seems to me you can get away with writing any old derivative pap like this provided you remember to wink at the audience ever couple of pages. Personally I’d rather see more good original stories than knowing retreads of genre stereotypes. Disappointingly predictable.
Ian Potter’s ‘Apocrypha Bipedium’ is pretty continuity heavy, featuring the 8th Doctor, Charley, William Shakespeare and Vicki, and depends on the reader being familiar with both The Myth Makers and The Time of the Daleks. It also demands close reading due to the fractured narrative voice employed, but within this almost plotless continuity-fest are some fine ideas and wonderful writing. Having already had one of the better stories in the preceding Short Trips volume, Ian Potter seems to be a name to watch for the future. What chance a full-length novel?
While the likes of Kamelion, Mel and even Dodo have come in for a dose of revisionism, poor old Adric has still been largely ignored. About time, he stars in Gary Russell’s ‘A Boy’s Tale’, which relates a fairly disposable episode from Adric's youth. Reasonably enjoyable – until the unexpected final sentence which completely threw me, and transforms the piece into a work of genius. The rehabilitation starts here.
The high quality continues with Paul Magrs ‘Kept Safe and Sound’, which finds a dilapidated K-9 striking up a friendship with a young boy. This is a wonderful story, with Magrs expertly interweaving the themes of decay, preservation, and that oh-so-familiar collectors urge.
Mark Michalowski’s ‘The Lying Old Witch in the Wardrobe’ plays with Romana’s regeneration scene from Destiny of the Daleks, and is quite cheeky continuity-wise – but then wasn’t Romana’s fashion-parade rebirth just as blasé about breaking the rules?
Stone me – you wait years for one – and all of a sudden two Adric tales turn up! Steve Lyons ‘Hearts of Stone’ finds Adric in familiar childish mood due to his accompanying the 5th Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan. Thankfully however, this excellent story manages to get underneath the Alzarians skin for a closer look at this perpetual outsider.
Another repeat companion appearance next, as Ian and Barbara Chesterton return for Tara Samms ‘Distance’, an intelligent, if bleak, take on the elderly couples contact with an alien life form.
Less successful is Stephen Fewell’s ‘Qualia’, in which Kamelion starts overdosing on the memories of the 5th Doctor, Tegan and Turlough. Unfortunately this is a bit of a mess, being an unsatisfying melange of character flashbacks, followed by a techno babble denouement.
Its Polly Wright turn in Simon Guerrier’s ‘Curriculum Vitae’, an inoffensive little story of the ex-companions struggle to get a job years after leaving the TARDIS. It’s reasonable enough, but so small scale it’s difficult to get too excited by it.
In Nick Clark’s ‘Notre Dame Du Temps’ Anji finds a relic from the amnesiac 8th Doctors past. My loathing for the ‘amnesia’ plot-device of the EDA’s aside this is competent stuff, but its difficult to gauge just how much here is original. Away from the familiar TARDIS crew this story is half retread of City of Death, and half extrapolation from a Who influence album cover, (‘Six’ by the band Mansun, which appropriately enough had guest vocals by Tom Baker), indeed the opening 3 pages are simply a description of this sleeve. Add a little pre-TV Movie 7th Doctor angst and you have this patchwork quilt of a story. Not awful – but the threads are showing...
Eddie Robson’s ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ is set during The Dalek Masterplan, and sees the 1st Doctor, Steven and Sara Kingdom encountering one of Lawrence Miles hyper-evolved humanoid TARDIS's. It’s enjoyable stuff, until the resolution sees the Doctor creating a happy ending by creating a whopping paradox, which just feels completely wrong for the 1st Doctor.
The 3rd Doctor and Jo gatecrash a talent-show contest run by the Master (surprise, surprise) in Andrew Spokes ‘Hidden Talent’. Obviously inspired by the current glut of fame shows, this is an exceedingly shallow and silly adventure. Doubtless meant to be amusing, but why heaven only knows. Dire.
Placing is important in an anthology, and placing David Bailey’s ‘The Canvey Angels’ next is a big mistake. No sooner have we left behind a light-hearted 3rd Doctor comedy, than we’re immediately thrust into a graphic description of a pregnant woman being beaten to death. This story of the 5th Doctor and Peri’s encounter with a guilty priest is bleak from beginning to end, and though I’ve nothing against down-beat tales, I’m a little of put by the Catholic view pushed here that simply forgiving someone makes everything alright. This story focuses our feelings of disgust on the wrong figure, as while the shamed priest Hemmings gets the emotionally charged redemption scene, the person who actually killed his girlfriend and unborn son seems to get off scot-free. The most disturbing thing in this story is that when this man confesses his crime to Peri, her instinct is to comfort him.
Next up is Simon A Forward’s ‘Balloon Debate’, a delightfully loopy look at a whole mass of companions having to vote each other ‘over the side’ in a dimensionally unstable TARDIS. Its great fun, and I cant help but wonder if it was at all influenced by the playing of a similar ‘survival of the fittest’ competition some time ago on Outpost Gallifrey’s own forum. The ‘it was only a dream’ style ending was, I suppose, inevitable, but I think it’s a pity if a few continuity destroying pieces, especially as light-heated as this – can’t be published without recourse to get out clauses.
Once again, Alison Lawson brings up the rear with ‘A Long Night’, a minor bit of fluff about Barbara’s mother waiting for her to come home. A reasonable but brief vignette to finish off the collection.
So, sorting out the Sarah’s from the Adric’s:
Standout greats: ‘Apocrypha Bipedium’ & ‘Balloon Debate’, with honourable mentions to ‘A Boy’s Tale’, & ‘Hearts of Stone’
Standout duffers: ‘Qualia’ ‘Hidden Talent’
All things considered this is a much better volume than Zodiac. You’re always going to get a couple of duffers, but there’s a lot of good stories here, and most of the ones that aren’t quite up to scratch really only suffer from being a bit too slight to register. The theme is very loose, though be aware that as we are concentrating on the companions this is a very heavily continuity concerned volume. The blurb ‘Seventeen brand new adventures for the famous Time Lord’ is also misleading as he isn’t in half of them – this isn’t a book to go for if you’re only interested in Doctor-centric stories. My only slight disappointment was that not all companions were featured – disregarding cameos in ‘Balloon Debate’ there were a few companions who didn’t get a look in – I would have preferred this to to have featured one story for each of the Doctors companions, instead of taking this scattershot approach. Do I have to wait for Companions II for an indepth expose of Katarina's youth?
Nevertheless, this is much better stuff from Big Finish. Recommended.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Big Finish's first printed original Who fiction in Short Trips: Zodiac, and having heard good things about it, I suckered up my reservations about the hefty price tag and purchased Short Trips: Companions. The book itself looks great, and Big Finish have set a nice standard of hardbacks. Yes, financially, paperbacks would have been more up my alley, but this is a beautifully bounded and formatted book.
The theme of this short story collection is in the title. It focuses on the various traveling companions of the Doctor's. As such, we are treated to various character sketches and elaborations on characters who often remained two-dimensional on television. I think the world of original printed Doctor Who fiction has done wonders for the "rehabilitation" of companions, and I greatly appreciate MA/PDA's that explore the companions and what makes them tick. For the most part, Short Trips: Companions lives up to its theme. However, some stories feel out of place. They aren't bad stories, but I did wonder what they have to do with overall theme.
The collection starts with "The Tip of the Mind" by Peter Anghelides. It's focused on Zoe, told from the point of view of her employer in an office-type environment. As it features Zoe post-War Games,it predictably deals with the missing memories of Zoe's adventures with the Doctor. She's having "dreams" about her adventures with the Doctor and Jamie and it's affecting her work performance, much to the chagrin of the narrator, her supervisor. It's a decently told story and there are some nice humorous moments. However, the short story featuring Zoe "recovering" her lost memories has been a long favorite fan staple and has even been found in "official" published short stories before. Peter does a fine job with this story, and it might be the best of the lot. However, it doesn't strike me as entirely new.
"The Splintered Gate" by Justin Richards is a lovely little tale featuring a pre-An Unearthly Child Ian Chesterton and his encounter with a fortune teller. It's an evocative, moody story that really gives a sense of how Ian lived before he embarked on his travels with the Doctor. It has some nice bits with superstition vs. reason with reason seeming to trump superstition, although the irony is that the reader will realize that superstition will later be proven correct.
Harry Sullivan is the focus in the humorous "The Man From DOCTOR" by Andrew Collins. The title immediately lets the reader know that this is to be a spoof of sorts. I loved the scenes with Harry telling his stories in a pub to his friends. His involvement in the little run-around with the aliens and their egg is well-paced, never overstaying its welcome, so it continues to feel fresh. It brought a smile to my face.
The jewel in the crown of this collection is Ian Potter's "Apocrypha Bipedium", a wonderful short story that serves as a coda to both The Myth Makers and Time of the Daleks. Basically, it has the Doctor, Charley, and Will meeting Troilus and Cressida. Cressida, of course, is Vicki and the Doctor is worried about the timelines. The story is told through a series of historical documents and sources. The sources themselves are a healthy part of the humor in the story. It's very witty, playing with language, point of view, and so on. I never thought there would have been a post-The Myth Makers Vicki story as I didn't know what could be done with it. I am thrilled to be proven wrong. I love Greek mythology and The Myth Makers so this semi-sequel was bound to catch my interest. That Ian Potter told it with such style and panache only added to my enjoyment. This is by far the cleverest and most literate story in the collection.
Just as I had never anticipated a Vicki-sequel, I never expected an Adric prequel. Yet this is precisely what Gary Russell has given us in "A Boy's Tale". It's an interesting story that is framed by Adric writing to a friend in E-Space. Despite the serious nature of the story, I guessed the end "joke" fairly quickly. The main thrust of the story deals with a policy of the Alzarians regarding pets and Adric's quest to find out about pets. Obviously, Gary is a pet lover, and after reading this story, I felt the overwhelming urge to hug my dog, Zoe. So I did. This will appeal to any pet lovers in the audience.
Continuing with a sort of pet theme, Paul Magrs's story, "Kept Safe and Sound" is easily the most frustrating story of the lot. It's well written, concerning a boy making friends with a robot dog in a street market. I suppose the dog is meant to be K-9, but it's either a continuity "side-step" or it's supposed to be K-9 Mk.III. Or it could be something else entirely that's only supposed to remind the reader of K-9. Or something. While it's a nice story, I completely fail to see what it has to do with the theme of the book. The "companion", if it is a companion, barely features in it, and it's more to do with the adolescent boy, Jack. It's hard to criticize the story itself, but I will criticize its placement in this anthology as it's out of place. I get the feeling that it was shoehorned in. Magrs's "dueling K-9's" story from the Zodiac collection would have been more appropriate here. I have the feeling that Big Finish commissioned Paul to write a story and then had to make do with what he gave them. However, that's just speculation on my part.
Mark Michalowski tackles one of the last potential fanwank gaps with "The Lying Witch in the Wardrobe." Yes, folks, this is the story that explains Romana's regeneration in Destiny of the Daleks. On a certain level, with Liz Shaw departures, Melanie Bush arrivals, the Ian/Barbara marriage, I'm surprised that a whole book hasn't been written around this one. But I'm glad there hasn't, as this story offers a surprising new take on it. It's very clever and very funny. I don't wish to give anything away, but rest assured that you won't watch Destiny of the Daleks in quite the same way ever again!
Steve Lyons presents us with a story chiefly about Adric in "Hearts of Stone" which presents Adric's feelings about Tegan, Nyssa, the Doctor, and his sense of alienation on the TARDIS. It's a proper examination of the "TARDIS crew bitching" scenes that dominated the Fifth Doctor's era, and I give major credit to Steve for making the bickering palatable by revealing what Adric is feeling underneath it all. With this TARDIS crew's sniping, Steve Lyons has truly made a purse out of a sow's ear. Good for him.
The mysterious Tara Samms (rumored to be Steve Cole) presents us with "Distance", a short story dealing with Barbara and Ian's marriage and a minor alien threat. It's a bit too dark and angsty for my taste. It's the sort of angst that reminds me of suburban high school students trying to be Morrisey by writing bad poetry. I know, because I was one of them. "Distance" just didn't work for me. And I wish I knew what Barbara's condition was. I wasn't sure if it was a pregnancy or illness and the story is ambiguous. I know some people get off on that sort of ambiguity, but it frankly annoys me. I don't like this "The reader gets to make up his own mind" nonsense. If Tara Samms gives me a cut of the money she received to write the book, I'll be happy to write which one it is. That's just a pet peeve of mine, and I'll admit my bias there. Others have loved "Distance" so it's best to read it and judge it for yourself.
"Qualia" by Stephen Fewell was one of those stories that confused the heck out of me the first time, because I wrongly assumed that the bits referring to the Academy meant the Doctor and I was looking for all sorts of hidden symbolism. It's an interesting take, and it gives us extra glimpses of the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough which I enjoyed. I also loved learning what "qualia" is and I find it to be interesting as it's the sort of thing I've often wondered about. It's definitely the sort of trippy story that requires more than one reading though.
Simon Guerrier's "Curriculum Vitae" is a smart little character sketch of an older Polly in a job interview, trying to get back into the swing of things. It's done very well, although it's the sort of story that is hard to comment on as it's basically a conversation between Polly and her prospective employer. I enjoyed it very much.
"Notre Dame du Temps" is Nick Clark's contribution. Sadly, I didn't enjoy it that much. Yes, the City of Death reference is a nice one, but it just really didn't work for me. I appreciated the point of the story, but it just failed to really capture either my interest or my emotion.
Eddie Robson's "Little Drummer Boy" takes place between episodes seven and eight of The Daleks' Masterplan and sort of tries to "explain" some of the events of the special Christmas episode, "The Feast of Steven". I enjoyed the story, but I sort of didn't. It didn't strike me as really having much to do with the theme of companions. That said, the story itself is quite poignant and sweet. Given that it involves the loss of a brother, I would have expected Sara Kingdom to have felt more resonance with the situation and maybe some exploration of her feelings about Bret Vyon.
Imagine Jo Grant on a seventies version of American Idol or Pop Idol in an effort to investigate mysterious circumstances. This is what you get with "Hidden Talent", Andrew Spokes's fantastically hilarious story. I love the setting of the talent contest and all the showbiz humor, as well as the idea of Jo Grant being in the show. That said, the bit with singing songs before they have been written, had already been done by Paul Magrs in Mad Dogs and Englishmen so it didn't feel as fresh and fun as it wanted to be. Still, the story is a very good, breezy read.
Next we have David Bailey's "The Canvey Angels" which concerns the Doctor and Peri investigating the scandals at a small church. This story bothered me on several levels. First and foremost, the "scandal involving Catholic priest" has been done to death that it's beyond cliche. It's a bit grating and almost offensive, considering there seems to be a distinct lack of fiction involving scandals with Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, and so on. Priests are often shown as being naively deluded or scandalous. Here, we get both cliches rolled into one. Furthermore, the story doesn't seem much to do with the companion. If David Bailey wanted to tackle faith why not take the opportunity to explore Peri's? Dialogue in Timelash suggests that Peri might at least have had a Catholic upbringing as she wears a St. Christopher. Indeed, the exploration of how traveling with the Doctor might affect a companion's faith could be very interesting. Given that most of the companions don't have their religious beliefs mentioned, there is potential for material here.
"The Balloon Debate" is the "anniversary" story written by Simon A. Forward. It gathers together all the companions together in the TARDIS. Due to a crisis, only a few of them can survive. They each state their case while the others vote on who gets to live. Sure, it's outlandish, but some excuse had to be made to get all the companions together. The joy in reading this story is seeing how the other companions view each other. The premise is a bit hard to swallow, but it's so worth it. I do think poor Mel is treated rather poorly in the story. By now, her character has been rejuvenated and she deserves respect.
Rounding out the collection is Alison Lawson's "A Long Night" featuring Barbara's mother, Jean. Jean is dealing with the loss and disappearance of her daughter and Ian, along with the scandal is has brought. I love this sort of story that examines the lives the companions left behind and how their adventures with the Doctor might have affected their loved ones. It's a very poignant and touching story and a perfect story to close the collection with.
Overall, Big Finish are proving that these hardback collections are worth every penny by giving us such quality stories. I'm a bit disturbed that I've enjoyed these collections more than I have enjoyed the recent BBC Books output. Apart from a few stories that I felt were simply out of place, this is a very cohesive and well-written collection. The horror-themed collection that's due shortly should be very good if it approaches the standards of these first two collections.
‘What would be the point? What makes you think I’ll change my mind?’
‘I know you, Adric.’
He started and looked up into Nyssa’s guileless brown eyes. He began to think that, maybe - just maybe - she could be right.
Smiling sweetly, she moved her queen to take his pawn.
‘Checkmate,’ she said.
When Big Finish began producing audios of Doctor Who, they were off to a rough start. Even today, their library is extensive and yet they’ve only produced a small handful of what can be recognized as true Doctor Who classics. But they are ever growing, ever expanding their ranges and during the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who they’ve managed to have two successful Dalek Series, a Sarah Jane Smith spin off and they’ve remade Shada as an online audio adventure. Not to mention the fact that the Sixth Doctor, often the last in many fan polls, is the anniversary’s favorite Doctor based entirely on the recreating of his character and his audio renaissance of his Big Finish performances. Doctor Who has been a "Novel Series" for a long, long time, but these days it seems to be primarily an Audio Series as convention dealer rooms are filled with compact discs of audio adventures by Big Finish and their competition. Big Finish has seemed to create a new market within the franchise, and to have cornered the market on new Doctor Who adventures. But it’s not enough. Big Finish, who some fans claim will be the successor to the BBC Book line, are transcending their audio inventory and have begun publishing Doctor Who fiction. But in a saturated market of Fan Anthologies, Target, Virgin, BBC and Telos books, is there anything that Big Finish can actually add to the written medium of the Doctor Who franchise?
I say "yes", Big Finish does have much to offer. In fact, I think that upon first reading it in the winter of the 40th anniversary year, Short Trips: Companions may well be my favorite short story to date. Like a lot of fans, I too was skeptical at first. I did not agree with the general assessment that the book was "too small", nor did I think a compendium of stories focusing on companions was a bad idea. I has satisfied with their previous anthology, but I didn’t expect all that much after having myself read endless short stories online, and in print, professional and not. And while I don’t think there is anything critically record breaking necessarily, I found this new volume to be completely satisfying. It’s engaging, entertaining and simply a lot of fun. It’s safe to say that any book of this type is going to have its great stories and its not so good stories. And while I do admit that I do have some favorites, I have found Short Trips: Companions to be consistently good, remarkably so. I also admit that I often start anthologies by hunting and pecking, reading my favorite authors or "Doctors" first. This is a book that is easily read in chronological page order, cover to cover, and it doesn’t disappoint.
That said, I must point out that when I say the book is consistently good I don’t mean to suggest that it lacks variety. Not so. The stories range from a tale of the Third Doctor checking in on Zoe after her memory wipe, to Harry Sullivan’s spy thriller adventure with the Department of Overt and Covert Tactical Operations (Regional), and include such gems as young horror fan who has K9’s brain, Polly’s assertive stamina interviewing for a job as a grown woman years into her humdrum post-adventure era and the Master at the helm of a reality talent show.
One of the most disturbing stories, especially for cannon-junkies, explains that the TARDIS, in an attempt to grant the Doctor pure companionship, replaced Romana during the events of Destiny of the Daleks. Romana was not capable of so many changes of appearances at the beginning of that episode and it is the TARDIS, not Romana, who takes on the image of Princess Astra. Initially, I was put off on this tale, thinking it a bit too fan-wanky for a professional publication. But I grew to appreciate its versatility, an homage to the BBC Anthology of non-cannon tales Short Trips and Side Steps. And the notion of the TARDIS caring for the Doctor may not be a new concept, but it certainly is a sweet one, and is told refreshingly in this tale.
Ian and Barbara show up the most, from Ian’s skeptical visit to a psychic who predicts some great adventures, to a dream adventure with Barbara and finally a bittersweet tale of Barbara’s mother’s hope that her daughter is alive and well after she has suddenly disappeared from Totter’s Yard without a trace.
Adric gets some serious treatment in two separate stories. The first is a quaint tale of his boyhood search for a pet, a humanist fable of finding one’s identity and place in things by one’s ability to care for something or someone else. The next is a compelling and thought provoking piece on the subject of immortality. Knowing that Adric felt alienated and alone among the TARDIS crew, and knowing of his impending end in Earthshock, the reader is made to question whether or not the prize of Rassilon’s game from The Five Doctors would have, ironically, provided a better future for Adric. As Adric chooses immortality at a price, the Doctor forbids him this control at governing his own destiny. Adric was a dynamic character, often under appreciated by fans. He had quick healing powers, understood Logopolitan Block Transfer Computation and created Castrovolva through pure mathematics, yet he is nearly never written about and appears in a small handful out of hundreds of books. Big Finish has done him justice.
My personal favorites include a piece told in a series of Matrix archived reports, library texts and journal entries, reminiscent of the literary masterpiece Henrietta Street, and tells the tale of Cressida. The Eighth Doctor, travelling with Charlie Pollard and William Shakespeare, meets his former companion Vicki. There are some wonderful moments, like when Vicki comes to understand this young man is her good old Doctor, only actually older, and when Shakespeare sets the Doctor straight on the source of his mis-telling of events in his classic play. I also quite adore the story Balloon Debate which seems at first to be a take upon the controversial Children’s Special "Dimensions In Time", but is revealed to be a short story by Sarah Jane Smith based on the popular reality series SURVIVOR. In fact, it is one of the best character analyses, each companion written to perfection by Simon A. Forward who is quickly becoming one of my personal all time favorite Doctor Who writers. The concept of a TARDIS filled with the Doctor’s plethora of companions each deciding who to "vote off the island" is an idea that’s overdue, and refreshingly much fun. The fact that Mel has been locked away in the cupboard by the others for her irritating "happy camper" attitude is miraculously funny.
As with all things produced by Big Finish, the cost of this volume is extraordinarily extreme, but when you consider the cost of most hardcovers and take into account that this anthology is full of so many consistently good works of short fiction, then perhaps you’ll take my recommendation and buy this book immediately. Seriously, it’s a lot of fun and definitely one that I intend to re-read many times. It’s easy to pull it off the shelf now and again to revisit. Big Finish has grown up, and come a long way forward.