Thursday, 28 December 2017

I Don't Want To Glow

Doctor Who
Twice Upon A Time
2017 Christmas Special

Here we are again, huh?  Another era over.  And just like last time, there doesn’t seem to be anything left to say about it or to cap off.  Steven Moffat seemed ready to follow Matt Smith out the door when he wrote The Time Of The Doctor, filling it with references and sort-of-but-not-really tying up loose ends, but the fiftieth anniversary Special went better than expected and he got a second wind hiring Peter Capaldi to follow Smith.  At that point, things seemed like they might get interesting again.

Day 1, practicing his David Bradley.
And they... sort of did?  The Twelfth Doctor (also the Thirteenth, Fourteenth or First Mk II, cheers Steven) was abrasive, rude and difficult.  He consequently spent Series Eight wondering if he really was a good man after all.  When it turned out this was in fact still Doctor Who, so duh-on-a-stick the Doctor is still a goodie (despite inexplicably being a prick now), things went sharply the other way: he got a hoodie, a guitar and (nyurgh) sonic sunglasses.  A softer, like totally rad Twelfth Doctor was born, one who could dazzle a room and change people’s minds with Youtube-worthy speeches.  It wasn’t subtle, and it made the whole Year Of The Douchebag seem curiously pointless, but Capaldi was still too good to pass up.  He waded through imperfect scripts and usually got something good out of them.  (And he finally got a hands-down classic episode, though for me it remains his only one.)

Sure enough, the scripts stayed largely flimflam and balls.  Did anyone think recasting the lead would fix that?  We still had a showrunner obsessed with cool-sounding, ultimately dead-end arcs, a Mary Sue companion who held ridiculous sway over the Doctor and a permanent reservation for Mark Gatiss, no questions asked.  Moffat continued to put his mucky stamp on the show’s history at every opportunity, asking silly questions where we can all guess the answers, and the stakes only seemed to get smaller.  Series 10 refreshed some of these elements, particularly with a new companion who was recognisably from Earth, but other shortcomings remained the same.  It wasn’t much of an era for Capaldi (who still seems like the new guy to me), and now he’s off, which just seems like the thing you do after three series rather than a natural progression for him.  (Not that he has been here three years; let’s not forget 2016, The Year Of One Episode.)  He’d have already gone in The Doctor Falls if we didn’t need a Christmas Special, so here we are again, putting his golden jazz hands on hold for one more hour.  As it happens, “on hold for one more hour” is a fairly accurate synopsis for Twice Upon A Time.

The Doctor doesn’t want to regenerate.  “Ah,” I hear you say, “this again.”  For the Tenth Doctor famously Didn’t Want To Go, which seemed overly dramatic at first but was actually in character for him.  (Even that time he was a different species.)  It’s a fear of death, and we can all relate.  But that kind of psychological scaffolding isn’t in place this time.  The Twelfth Doctor never seemed like he had an issue with change (ahem, hoodies), if anything he’s quite pragmatic and unsentimental, so he’s probably quite likely to just get on with the switch.  Alas, it’s not just a new Doctor he’s got a problem with, it’s continuing to live at all.  Eh?  He wants to die?!  Not so relatable.  There’s nothing wrong with him making a principled stand, but it would be nice if they’d properly set it up first.  Okay, there is a hint of no-more-regeneration ennui right back in his first episode when he confronts the Half-Face Man; also Heaven Sent memorably relates the gruelling process of regenerating ad infinitum, although that was a time-loop and it’s not exactly clear whether he remembers it, since he says he’s 2,000 years old here.  These bits do hint towards not wanting to go on any more, but he doesn’t actually talk about it all that much apart from there, and seems pretty zesty in general.  Transparently the only reason he’s stamping his foot now is that we need to squeeze another episode out of him first.

Speaking of transparent: the Testimony.
Delivering the best pain relief on New Earth!
To help said foot-stamping along we have a juicy parallel: the First Doctor himself, sort of, pottering around the South Pole and also refusing to regenerate.  This doesn’t fit what we know about him – our Doctor even points that out! – but I can see how having another Doctor suffer the same crisis might give it some credence.  It’s cheating, but what else is he going to do?  It’s also somewhat redundant as we know both of them are going to regenerate, but it could be compelling to watch them come to terms with it.  However, there’s bonus redundancy: the First Doctor is played by David Bradley, who dramatized William Hartnell’s exit from the show in An Adventure In Space And Time.  Hartnell, too, didn’t want to go.  (Thanks to Mark Gatiss’s mawkish and revisionist script, he even said David Tennant’s final line to ram it home.)  In other words, you’ve seen David Bradley go through these motions – and more affectingly so, as the stakes made more sense for the actor than they do for the character.  (The Doctor’s a Time Lord, and while regeneration must be scary as hell, especially the first time, a figurative gun to his head is not obviously more appealing.  And that’s what not going through with it means.)

If peculiar characterisation of the First Doctor is going to be an issue for you, locate your nearest exit.  Twice Upon A Time has some odd ideas about William Hartnell’s time on the show, knotting together his real life irritability with certain red flag moments like threatening Susan with a “jolly good smacked bottom” to create an embarrassing, frequently non-PC stereotype.  This Doctor is so out of time – chuckling at remarks about women being “made of glass”, casually explaining that Polly is there to clean the TARDIS – that Capaldi-Doc keeps having to apologise for him.  As with his shared refusal to regenerate giving us a convenient “this totally makes sense you guys” comparison, it’s a lazy straw man to show how far we’ve come, and it’s astonishingly unearned.

In the first place, Hartnell wasn’t like this: he could be equal-opportunities blunt with people, but some of that was the actor rather than the character, and any of this sexist rubbish would have rightly earned him a black eye from Barbara or an intervention from Verity Lambert.  More importantly, if any era of the show has given us sexism and a juvenile obsession with stereotypes, it’s Steven Moffat’s.  We’ve had the Eleventh Doctor lusting after Clara’s arse, Amy wanting to shag her duplicate, River Song highlighting The Differences Between Men And Women – Am I Right, Girls? and a general sitcom-esque objectification of females.  (No, making them magically better-than-men is not a compliment.)  It’s the reason I’m very grateful Moffat isn’t the guy writing the first female Doctor, as it would likely be about as empowering as Roy Chubby Brown.  Considering Bradley-Doc is largely here for the fan-service, it’s an utterly bizarre move to then insult him, especially for things either misunderstood or taken out of context.  (The “smacked bottom” remark came right before his granddaughter left the show; infantilising her probably came out of desperation to keep her.)

If you want to be charitable (again), Bradley-Doc’s behaviour can be interpreted as a finger-wagging response to those outraged by a female Doctor, showing the worst knee-jerk response for the silliness it is.  However, they do this by misrepresenting the show’s own past (and annoying people who like Hartnell), risk irritating people who are concerned about Jodie Whittaker but aren’t raging misogynists, and it all sounds completely insincere coming from the Coupling guy anyway.  So I’m not on board this particular train of thought.

"You'll not mind me saying this, since lots of my friends are black..."
As for Bradley, his obvious talents and accolades notwithstanding, I wasn’t convinced by him as Hartnell in the docudrama and I’m still not.  His cadence is quite different, he’s breathless and vaguely amiable, the loveable waspishness is absent; he holds onto his lapels as if his life depended on it, which ends up looking a bit desperate, like Churchill always having a cigar in his gob.  Between him being mischaracterised and Capaldi having his unearned end-of-life crisis, the whole thing has roughly as much depth as Time Crash.  We get the same level of gags with a Classic Doctor mocking new Who tropes, such as the screwdriver, the sunglasses and Capaldi’s rock star grandstanding; Bradley is right to mock them, but it’s no good just serving up your own shortcomings if you’re not able to rise above them.  All it does is make Capaldi look like a collection of stupid habits.

The entire episode can’t just be a refusal to regenerate followed by a shrug and an “Oh well, I guess I’ll regenerate then”, particularly as it’s instantly obvious to Capaldi that Bradley snuffing it would erase him anyway.  Sure enough, there’s no real discussion to be had on the subject: they admit they’re a bit scared, cheer up and then it’s time to go.  So time goes a bit wonky, and Mark Gatiss arrives as an unintentionally Hitler-esque First World War soldier, who is also about to die.  He’s been taken out of time, or rather some aliens are trying to put him back in his proper time because of the Doctors not dying, possibly – it’s not very clear what he’s doing in the South Pole, but the Testimony are keen to get things moving deathwards.  They are a futuristic database who come to all of us when we die, for reasons the Doctor immediately assumes to be sinister.  He is keen to keep the Captain alive, which provides a sort of parallel to his own situation.  I’m not sure it’s needed with Bradley having literally the same crisis right next to him, and the character’s happy ending scuppers any parallel about accepting your own death, but let’s face it, it’s a gig for Gatiss.  He’s rather good here, although the repeated “I’m not really following all this” gag doesn’t appreciate in value.  The notably nameless character does end up in fanwank territory, inevitably, retconning the Doctor’s relationship with one old friend as something he always intended; like all of Moffat’s retcons, it doesn’t actually fit and you’ll instantly file it under “Nope”, but hey, it’s his last episode!

Also here: Bill.  Sort of.  Because this is Moffat Who and nobody ever dies, Bill already survived her own demise in The Doctor Falls, flying into space with Heather.  This isn’t the same Bill – it’s a collection of memories created by the Testimony, which she argues is exactly the same as Bill anyway.  (There’s a bigger discussion to be had there, which we of course skip.)  Much like Clara hanging around with Smith before he regenerated, Bill is a latecomer and doesn’t have that strong a bond with the Doctor, and there’s not much left to say besides her telling him to regenerate, and also having some awkward downtime with Bradley-Doc.  In some of Pearl Mackie’s most forced dialogue, she quizzes the First Doctor on why he left Gallifrey and what he was running to, which Bradley/Moffat promptly points out is a brilliant question and not just a nothingy way to ask the same thing again.  Yes, we get another examination of the Doctor’s history, followed by another summary of how wonderful and cuddly and gumdrops he really is.  (Provided you ignore all the sexist comments.)  It made me realise just how much time Moffat has spent revising and repeating the basic tenets of the show and obsessively trying to own them, and not for the first time, it made me clock-watch.

"I left Gallifrey, of course, to get a bit of peace and quiet!  Women, you see.
Also they can't drive."
Bill also restores the Doctor’s memory of Clara, i.e. gets Jenna Coleman in for a cameo, which is also a bit like Smith’s exit – sorry Clara, Amy’s calling!  This chucks away whatever lingering relevance Hell Bent might have had, with its confused amnesia resolution, but it’s not the first time Moffat’s made a big stink about something, got bored with it and then binned it altogether.  For example, he seems to have forgotten that Clara erased the Doctor’s memory, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to complain about it here.

As the episode draws to a close, it’s awkwardly clear there’s been almost no plot.  The Testimony are apparently a nice enough bunch, so there’s exactly no danger here: they want to store memories so we don’t truly lose people, i.e. they do exactly what Gallifreyans already do with the Matrix, which the Doctor has no problem with.  (It also recalls the “Heaven” stuff from Series Eight, probably unintentionally.)  The Doctor needs to look them up first on “the biggest database in the universe” for some reason, which shockingly-not-shockingly involves the Daleks, and gives him a weird excuse to go and see Rusty from Into The Dalek.  Then it’s back to the war, somehow skipping forward in time to the Christmas Armistice in order to save the Captain’s life, although time was frozen when they left so how does that work?  Both Doctors agree it’s time to cark it, and the First Doctor successfully pilots his TARDIS for the second time this episode, after reminding us it’s something he can’t do.  Because Christmas.  Capaldi-Doc talks to not-Bill and not-Nardole who implore him to regenerate, so he does.  While this whole journey could be seen as a fourth-wall bothering look at a TV show that must go on and on like no other, in that arena it’s scuppered by Heaven Sent, which said all of that already.

But you can hardly blame Moffat for having nothing left to say.  This episode, after all, is stalling.  With no great threat to kill the Doctor (it happened in The Doctor Falls, and frankly it was disappointing), this is the over-extended farewell tour from The End Of Time, stretched to a whole episode.  You’re here for the regeneration scene.  Finally, it comes, and it’s just as noticeably out of puff as the rest of it, not helped by treating regeneration as something you can virtually ignore, save for one scene where Capaldi gets a slight cramp.  When it comes to the famous last words, Moffat already wrote a beautiful speech about regeneration in Matt’s (otherwise pretty wretched) send-off: all about looking at your past and accepting that was all you, but it isn’t you now, it was poignant and apt, and troubled the fourth wall only a little.  What else is there to say, especially with no one to say it to?  So Capaldi, a Doctor now known mostly for speeches and grandly pointing at things, reels off an overcooked confection of Terrance Dicks, Bertrand Russell and Capaldi’s own remarks at a convention, which merrily puts a fist through the fourth wall.  (Granted, “only children can hear my name” probably sounded great in front of adoring fans, but it’s doolally coming from the Doctor, who is not prone to self-mythologizing.  It also sidesteps that River knows his name, although if we can now go forward and pretend she didn’t happen, I’m all for it.)

First drafts included: "Fandabbydozy!"
"Eh bah gum, I got new eyebrows I 'ave!"
"They're pickin' us off, one by one!"
Push finally comes to shove and we’re reminded how far Peter Capaldi has come from the unpleasant guy of Series Eight.  Or possibly we’re just ignoring it; they didn’t have to write him that way in the first place, and they just twisted him 180 degrees afterwards.  His era was consequently all over the place.  But he’s a ferociously good actor, and while the mean stuff was a bad fit for the Doctor, those pricklier moments were always interesting to watch.  (Look at Dark Water when he coldly ignores Clara’s threats, or Face The Raven when he brutally snaps at Ashildr, or any time he smiles, looking like a dinosaur on the hunt.)  Capaldi has always been better than the material, sometimes sailing above it (“I am the Doctor and this is my spoon”), but Twice Upon A Time doesn’t give him enough to deliver anything heart-rending.  A vague moral wobble complete with standard issue terrible jokes (“You’re the very first Dalek to get naked for me”) and a handful of good ones (“I assumed I’d get… younger.”  “I am younger!”), it’s as empty and twee as its title.  So long, Angry Eyebrows.  We’ll always have Heaven Sent.  And toodle-oo, Moffat.  Cheers for the good episodes.

Over to you, Chris and Jodie, for the one bit of the episode people will be talking about for the next year.  What of the new guy?  (Gal.  Person.  The new Doctor, right, there we are.)  Jodie Whittaker makes a likeably goony face on seeing her reflection, which some have taken to point us in a David Tennant direction, but her first words are about as inspiring as Capaldi’s last: “Oh, brilliant!”  (Hey, at least we’re spared the “I’ve-got-new-[blank]” gag, but this is still barely above a pleased grunt.)  The scene itself is such a repeat you could call it a parody: the TARDIS crashes again, this time with the Doctor falling out of it.  So that’s every New Who regeneration, plus the opening of The Eleventh Hour, with less grip?  Would it be possible, once in a while, for something else to happen during a regeneration?  But let’s leave the fears of unoriginality to Series 11, with the appropriate ducking and covering that entails.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #55 – Decalog 2: Lost Property edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

Doctor Who: Decalog 2: Lost Property
Edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

It’s that time again!  Collecting a gaggle of authors, some you’ll know from the New and Missing Adventures, others who for whatever reason only show up for the short stories, Decalog 2: Lost Property differs from its predecessor in one obvious way: there’s no linking story.  And hooray, since the first Decalog had an almighty task stringing tales together with another one on top, only to end up adding useless links between them.  This time, it’s just a theme of the Doctor’s home.  That seems like a good enough excuse to collect a bunch of short stories, and it could lead to some interesting places.  Such as…


Vortex Of Fear
by Gareth Roberts

As with the first Decalog, we begin with the Second Doctor.  Gareth Roberts delivers a surprisingly dark vignette about a hotel suspended in the time vortex, where you can exist just long enough to evade certain tax laws.  The TARDIS bumps into it and the Doctor and co. get out to investigate, only to find a complicated paradox playing out ad infinitum.  It doesn’t exactly dwell on the subject of home; a reference to the vortex being where the Doctor belongs is sufficiently throwaway that it could have been added later.

This works really well as a short piece, as the premise is something that is naturally going to repeat itself and so probably shouldn’t outstay its welcome.  Roberts has an immediate handle on the characters, from the Doctor’s scruffy busy-bodying to Jamie’s keenness not to be shown up.  Zoe is developed nicely, with her photographic memory and logical mind troubled by the shifting world they find themselves in.  When the Doctor determines there’s no real hope for these people as it’s a closed, deteriorating loop, he just leaves them to it.  As a commentary on this seemingly bewildered Doctor’s darker side, it’s a lot more effective than The Menagerie, where he just causes deaths through befuddlement; it’s still surprisingly callous, even if he is affronted at people mucking about with the time vortex, or by the general air of decadence pervading the hotel.  (Darker still, Zoe figures out that since this is a paradox loop a version of them will always be there.  Yikes.)  For good measure, the nefarious sniping between the guests is written with colour and bile, the characterisation of the main trio is enjoyably apt, and Roberts gets in a jolly good Pat-and-Frazer double entendre at the start.


The Crimson Dawn
by Tim Robins

Well you can’t fault his ambition.  This has a fight for Ice Warrior rights on Mars, a sinister agenda to undermine it, a traitor, a monstrous lab-grown figurehead whose entire life has been a delusion based on The War Of The Worlds, a huge revelation about Ice Warrior history/a plot resolution bundled onto the last page and heaps of satire on commercialism.  (Also, rather originally, barely any Ice Warriors.)  I’ll bet this was an idea for a full novel; you could certainly stagger it out a bit.  All of which happened the last time we saw Tim Robins.  Just commission the dude and be done with it.

Thanks to the time constraint, it’s all a bit frantic and farcical – sometimes deliberately, as the Doctor and K9 zoom away from armed guards, the robot dog blasting away at them as he reverses at full speed.  The action is in technicolour, and the tone (looking at you, War Of The Worlds bit) rather goofy.  For something allegedly out of Season 14 or 15, it’s a bit too silly.  I wonder if Robins was really thinking of the Douglas Adams era: “My arms!  My legs!  My everything!”  And speaking of eras, there are probably too many continuity references; big fans of Mire Beasts will give a little cheer.  All two of them.

But never mind all that: it’s only ruddy Leela!  In what is, for all I know, her only appearance in a Virgin book, she displays all the obvious violence and lack of civilisation you’d expect, but little of the questing intelligence that makes her really special.  I suspect we needed a Leela renaissance when Big Finish came along, if she was once looked down on by fandom.  That might explain her absence from these books; there’s a note of parody about her, of “Can you believe this was once the companion?!”  And K9, who showed up considerably after Leela, is referred to as the Doctor’s best friend!

The satire is a little heavy-handed, as we tour the commercialised regions of Mars including a Mars Bar (oof!), a dessert called an Achocalypse Now, and the sad revelation that Peladon has undergone a financial crisis that “forced the Pels to turn their monarchy into a toiletry franchise”.  That stuff’s not a million miles from the quirks of Transit, so there’s a precedent, but Robins still must have been in an odd mood when he wrote this.  Oh, and the Doctor’s “home” in this is a flying houseboat.  Not so much exploring a theme there as picking a noun out of a hat.  (It’s all about the Martians’ home, I suppose, but if so doesn’t that get the theme slightly wrong?)  Altogether it’s an odd, madcap jumble.


Where The Heart Is
by Andy Lane

Few Doctors are as concerned with their home as the Third, who would hate to admit he belonged on Earth.  Andy Lane attacks this sideways, never outright saying the Doctor belongs here but focusing on the home of the UNIT Family instead, which he helped build and which, of course, belongs to him.  It also plugs a continuity gap that has never occurred to me: how UNIT suddenly ended up with a country house for its headquarters.  But don’t worry about it disappearing into fanwank, despite the plethora of references.

Lane puts the Brigadier in a tight spot when UNIT’s funding dries up and the government threatens to hand the whole thing over to the Marines.  The Doctor and Jo have captured a flamboyant alien masquerading as a doctor (draw your own inference!), and despite its murderous crimes it may be able to help.  The writing is sublimely character-based, particularly as the Brigadier stares an uncertain future in the face and the Doctor (in a testy mood) tries to get one over on him by capturing the alien as easily as possible.  Both characters are fleshed out more convincingly in 20 pages than The Ghosts Of N-Space managed in an entire novel.  Jo’s determination and shortcomings are also brought spiritedly to life.

This is short, sweet and does a clever job with the theme.  A highlight.


The Trials Of Tara
by Paul Cornell

“I want to do a sequel to The Androids Of Tara,” said Paul Cornell at one time, presumably.  “In iambic pentameter.  Guest starring the Kandyman.”  Well if you’re not hooked already, what else can I say?

Mind you, I can barely tell iambic pentameter from balsamic vinegar, and I have a naturally sulky dislike for all things Shakespeare, so when I saw that The Trials Of Tara really was going to be like that for all of its fifty pages I groaned in horror.  But I soon forgot any objections as Paul Cornell indulged in Shakespeare references even I get, as well as some delightfully nerdy in-jokes about Holmesian double-acts, a jaunty plot that doesn’t just repeat the original story and – of course – Bernice Summerfield absolutely knocking it out of the park.  One moment where she realises she’s cocked up her delivery and it completely implodes in a single stanza made me hoot.  That, and the Kandyman frustratedly brushing off a bewitched lover.

It’s one of those where you could spend so long listing fun little moments, you just end up reading the thing out.  In summary, it’s easily as demented as it sounds.   Despite its poetic leanings it feels like an outlet for Paul Cornell’s love of panto – bawdy jokes and all – and that’s no bad thing if you’re in the right mood.  It zooms along, every bit as sugary as the Kandyman and just as brilliantly odd.


by David A. McIntee

Meh.  Housewarming ought to drum up a bit of atmosphere at least, being set in an apparently haunted house over a short time.  David A. McIntee drops in as many gnarly adjectives as he can find, as ever, but he makes the odd decision to overpopulate it and frequently chop between his characters.  It’s consequently difficult to build anything up and none of the guest characters stand out.

Sarah and K9 are a welcome addition to the book world – I’m not sure I needed a sequel to K9 & Company, or K9 & Company for that matter, but you could at least improve on it.  Alas, it stars Mike Yates.  Has he ever been very interesting?   They’re all reasonably characterised, apart from a slightly too excited Pertwee-ish sword-fight that frantically tries to liven things up at the end.  It nevertheless finishes with a damp squib and makes the villain (spoilers) look a bit small potatoes, although that’s not a new experience for them.  Of ghostly terror, there is none.

The plot’s small and simple and it holds together, but while I really ought to go “Ooh!” at the surprise reveal, it’s not enough of a surprise to warrant it.


The Nine-Day Queen
by Matthew Jones

I only know Matthew Jones from his New Who story The Impossible Planet, but it’s an open secret that Russell T Davies wrote most of the finished product, so I guess this is a first.  Based on The Nine-Day Queen he’s got a knack for characters, and the ending is something else, but overall it falls into some familiar traps.

First, this is a bigger story than just 30 pages: an important first scene aboard the TARDIS is summarised, and months fly by like turned pages.  The pace is absolutely crazy for a Hartnell story in particular, with things like the reader’s knowledge of history being expediently assumed.  Second, following on from that, this type of story – a historical period beset by a special effects-y alien influence – is quite unlike the Hartnell era.  You’d never have got this particular kind of sci-fi/history mash up, the more roundabout Time Meddler notwithstanding.

Still, Jones makes it sound just about right.  The destructive Vrij is affecting history, which could mean Jane Grey lives longer than history allows, but will spell disaster for the future; this leads to some very traditional worrying about what all that means.  (Then again, the idea that it can happen goes against what that era said and even underlined – that it cannot happen!)  Barbara’s knowledge and concern shine through, and the Doctor’s complicated and irascible nature are ultimately betrayed by his sympathy for Jane, all of which rings true.  (See Cameca and the brooch.)  Ian imitates the Doctor in a fun scene, winning over a couple of guards with sheer confidence, though admittedly he doesn’t do a lot else.  And the unseen TARDIS bit might sound completely batty – Barbara losing her mind and strangling Ian – but it’s something we’ve more or less seen in The Edge Of Destruction.  (As for the rather odd bit where the Doctor insists CPR might do him fatal harm, uh, I guess we didn’t know one way or the other back then?)

There are numerous good bits, but the story is at its best on the final page when (spoiler) the Doctor helps Jane achieve some dignity in death.  That’s a heart and a darkness you’d expect from McCoy, which effortlessly works for Hartnell.  On the flip side, apart from another throwaway use of the theme, i.e. the Doctor owned a house once (gee, really pushing the boat out!), there’s that frenzied short-story-in-name-only approach.  This is possibly best evidenced at the start, in the by-line beneath the epigraph: Barbara Chesterton.


Lonely Days
by Daniel Blythe

This one at least feels like a short story, as it has a much smaller focus.   The TARDIS drops in on an asteroid/planet the Doctor owns (Daniel Blythe interchanges the two words – annoying!), where it finds a lonely worker going slightly mad, and a planet (let’s stick with that) undergoing changes.  There’s also a hint of a ghost story to do with the hologram of a woman he (Sebastian) once knew.

The writing is at its best when Sebastian is pottering about on his little world, thinking he’s seeing things.  As the plot progresses his moods and actions get weirder, all of which is somewhat nullified when it turns out there’s just been a breakdown in communication.  Still, you can believe it wouldn’t take much to push this man to randomly pull a gun on strangers.

The regulars are more problematic.   Nyssa is mostly fine, apart from an odd bit where she seems eager to mess with time in order to test the laws of gambling.  (?)  The Fifth Doctor is way off.  Somewhat irreverent, at one point apologising individually to some plants, namedropping the death of Adric just to make a trivial point and coming out with general bursts of eccentricity, this just isn’t him.  (Although I could forgive Blythe for wanting to liven him up a bit.)  The whole concept of him owning a planet is rather bizarre, but then Craig Hinton wrote a novel about him owning a restaurant, which made about as much sense.

Latterly there’s an attempt to underscore it all with Nyssa’s loneliness after her father’s death, but that seems like an afterthought.  Despite that and a melancholy ending where two lonely souls learn to co-exist, it’s a bit of a non-event.


People Of The Trees
by Pam Baddeley

Well look at that – Bonus Leela!  Newcomer Pam Baddeley is another one taking the “home” theme literally, as the Doctor revisits some land he once bought (in order to protect the indigenous people) which is under threat again.  The theft of ancient statues is putting the “People” in danger, but the Doctor will soon need to barter the remaining statue for Leela’s life.

The idea of a civilisation that revolves completely around acquiring and protecting land is a good one for the theme, and it adds an unusual motive to the Dascarians, who don’t give a fig about the tree-dwelling primitives they’re endangering.  The plot is the right sort of size and the writing is quietly clever, adapting equally well to the People and the Dascarians.  The Fourth Doctor is in a more pensive, respectful mood than his earlier story, and Leela... well, I’m still not convinced the writers of the time knew what to do with her other than act like an overbearing bodyguard with a pocket full of Janis thorns, but she’s less a figure of fun here, and she’s in good company with the trusting tree folk.

It’s not spectacular, but I liked it well enough.


by Vanessa Bishop

Over at Big Finish, the Sixth Doctor didn’t so much evolve as hire a drastic new PR guy.  “Old Sixie” is the cuddly uncle of Doctors, his Peri-strangling days buried beneath wistful monologues and Evelyn’s chocolate cakes.  If you’ve got used to all that, Timeshare might be a bit bracing.  This is original, unsweetened Doctor Six; about as gentle as a lorry reversing in the middle of Swan Lake.

Discovering a mysterious set of coordinates and refusing to believe Peri has read them correctly, the TARDIS arrives by a timeshare flat – only it’s a time-travelling arrangement outlawed by the Time Lords.  It begins to malfunction, in a way weirdly reminiscent of the earlier Homecoming, due to the Doctor putting too much money in the meter.  It’s a bit of a farce, which somewhat suits this Doctor’s blustery nature.

Even so, there are a few issues with this.  The Sixth Doctor giving both barrels at Peri is an acquired taste – you begin to wonder what she’s getting out of it – and the two of them can get annoying.  The comedy is a little much, particularly when another Time Lord appears with a small collection of random idiosyncrasies, just to dole out some exposition.  Despite generous amounts of effort, I never fully understood how the timeshare worked.  And the story’s a little long, especially when time “echoes” start to repeat and repeat.

But the writing occasionally suggests that Peri does find her companion endearing, and his flaws – such as trying a little too hard to catch his own reflection – do ring true to the era.  It’s probably a good idea for a story, unknowingly mixing Vortex Of Fear with Homecoming, but it could maybe have been shorter and clearer.  It’s all about a fun getaway being dragged out for too long and then becoming a mess, and well, now that you mention it...


Question Mark Pyjamas
by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker

If you made it all the way through the last nine stories thinking “This is all well and good, but what about the House on Allen Road?”, you’re in luck.  In a surprising and canny move, that’s the “home” to round off this collection.   Back we go to another time, when it was the Doctor, Benny and Ace.  (I get a kick out of that being in the past, as ripe for a revisit as any old Doctor.)  They find the Doctor’s residence on an asteroid, in a “Heritage Centre” of stolen homes that strangely mirrors the book’s overall theme.  That’s nice work.

Quite soon the Doctor and co. are unwilling exhibits, living out a strange domestic life in “Allen Road” with Bernice and Ace as his wife and daughter.  They plot an escape and it plays out somewhat amusingly, with perhaps a few too many references sprinkled on top, not all relevant.

It’s fun to be nostalgic about the New Adventures, and sure enough Ace takes a moment to remember some of the upsetting things that have happened to her, including helpfully placing this after No Future.   (PS: did you know she has mummy issues?)   That’s pretty much all it sets out to do, but the humour is winningly strange – Russell T Davies would love the bit about “We only had the atmosphere fitted a few days ago” – and there’s a lovely observation that aboard the TARDIS, every morning feels like a lie-in

My only real gripe is almost an achievement: could Robert Perry and Mike Tucker be the first writers not to get the appeal of Bernice Summerfield?   She likes archaeology and wine, but only in a dry, tick-things-off-a-list way.  Her effervescent wit, the thing that makes her jump off the page, just isn’t happening for once.  It’s hardly a new experience for Bernice to get nothing to do, especially with Ace around, but the contrast has never been quite so black and white.

Apart from that it’s a colourful trip to the recent past, and a nice send off for Decalog 2.


My main gripes about Decalog were writers not knowing a short story from a novel summary, and the awkward linking theme.  Decalog 2 still has lapses on the first front; I kind of wish they’d get Tim Robins to do something full length just to see if it helps.  But these stories are mostly well suited to the quicker pace, and some – Trials in particular – really make it count.  As for the theme, while there’s nothing as unwieldy as a running plot, it’s a little uncanny how many writers took it literally or just tossed it in there as a garnish.  But I suppose it’s a hard theme to tackle, as they’re dealing with a lifelong nomad.  (Odd that nobody wrote about the TARDIS, the obvious winner.)

It’s best to remember the theme is just an excuse for ten stories.  As a collection, it’s a colourful improvement.


See you again for 56–60, beginning with Zamper by Gareth Roberts...