Monday, June 23, 2014

Review: Short Trips - Companions

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on May 18, 2003.)

Upon thinking about it, I have to say that Short Trips -- Companions improves upon its predecessor from Big Finish, Short Trips -- Zodiac. The theme is better, allowing for a focus on characters who might not have gotten their chance to shine in the TV series. There's no linking material (and given the linking material in Zodiac, trust me, this is an improvement.) It still suffers, though, from a generally unambitious set of stories... stories that, when you finish them, you'll comment on with a sort of "Huh. That was a story that was, indeed, set in Doctor Who. It had words that combined into sentences. Can't argue with that." There's some nice stuff, but as with Zodiac, there's nothing that makes this a must-buy.

The opening story, Tip of the Mind by Peter Anghelides, does deal with one of the single greatest injustices in Doctor Who -- the violation of the minds and memories of Zoe and Jamie in The War Games. Unfortunately, it deals with it by definitively establishing that Zoe never gets her memory back, a downer that tainted this story for me. I can't say it was bad, though -- just that I didn't like it.

The Splintered Gate, by Justin Richards, has a cute ending, but little more. Really, it's so short that I think my two-sentence review of it is actually longer than the story; at the very least, it doesn't wear out its welcome.

The Man From DOCTO(R), by Andrew Collins, wins an award for "Goofiest Story of Anthology", and is actually quite enjoyable because it presents its oddness with a straight face. It's Harry Sullivan's War, crossed with Dave Stone's mentality, and I enjoyed it (even if it seems very out of place in the anthology.)

Apocrypha Bipedium, by Ian Potter, definitely has its moments, and there were points I laughed my head off... but it drags on too long (I think ten pages, instead of twenty, would have been a better length) and it doesn't help that it's set between two audios I haven't heard, near-totally losing me in its talk of temporal paradoxes and whatnot. Still, the list the Doctor gives to Shakespeare at the end of Things Not To Do is worth the whole wait.

A Boy's Tale, by Gary Russell, is a surprisingly readable story (well, surprising for me. I'm not a Russell fan.) It's not exactly intellectual -- this is the sort of story I'd have loved to read if I was the age of ten, say -- but it's a very well-written kid's story that illuminates how, at one point, Doctor Who was in fact a series for children.

Kept Safe and Sound, by Paul Magrs, is the second story in two anthologies in which Magrs writes for K-9, and the second story in two anthologies in which he can't get the character even close to approaching a very great distance from a locale somewhere near 2,000 miles away from "RIGHT". The first time it was funny; this time it's just perplexing, and kind of annoying.

The Lying Old Witch In the Wardrobe, by Mark Michalowski, seems written entirely to explain away the inconsistencies in Destiny of the Daleks. It's got a few cute moments, but I have to say, did we really need an entire story to explain why Romana goes through the quickie regenerations at the beginning and only takes one radiation pill?

Hearts of Stone, by Steve Lyons, is all about Adric, and I think that was its big mistake right there. It's well-told, but it's still the adventures of a whiny teenager doing something stupid, and frankly, I had enough of that when I was a whiny teenager myself. The whole reason we hate Adric is that he reminds us of how stupid we were when we were that age.

Distance, by Tara Samms, is very much in the mold of Samms' other work; sad, quietly lyrical, strange, and haunting, if not exactly sensible and well-explicated. Stephen Cole uses the pseudonym when he's writing to create a specific effect, and he definitely hits the nail on the head here.

Qualia, by Stephen Fewell, is a classic "OH!" story. You get thrown from scene to scene, you have no clue what's going on, it barely makes sense... then you get to the explanation at the end, and say, "OH!" Not bad (quite good in showing some of Turlough's background), but very very confusing. (It doesn't help that the guards on Turlough's homeworld are described in a way that makes them sound like the guards on Gallifrey.)

Curriculum Vitae, by Simon Guerrier, does touch on a vital theme of companion appearances after they've left the TARDIS -- why does it so frequently seem as though they're unhappy? Polly, of all people, explains just what it's like to come back to the world after traveling the universe, and does it with style. A nice piece.

Notre Dame du Temps, by Nick Clark, is another nice piece, and it doesn't hurt that it uses the EDA-current TARDIS crew. (As well as the Doctor between Lungbarrow and the TV movie -- sure, there shouldn't be gaps there, as the Doctor supposedly left Gallifrey on his big mission -- but if we've established that he put off getting the Key to Time for 30 years or so, what's a few side trips before picking up the Master's ashes?) Oh, and it echoes City of Death, so it picks up the spare in terms of "great eras of Doctor Who."

The Little Drummer Boy, by Eddie Robson, is notable mostly because it's the only Doctor Who story in the post-Survival era ever to use Sara Kingdom as a companion. Not that it needs to, or that this matters to the story, or... sorry. It's a bit generic. Not bad, just a bit generic.

Speaking of generic, Hidden Talent, by Andrew Spokes, is a Third Doctor/Master story and that's about all you can say about it. Well, OK, there's a good joke about eighties fashion at the end, and the Master's plan is endearingly goofy, but that's it.

David Bailey's The Canvey Angels goes for the same effect as Distance, but I'm not sure if it achieves it as well. It's got some nice imagery and clever themes, but it never seems to quite connect it all together. (As a side note, to older fans of the series, it's quite distracting to name a major character in the story "Hemmings", as I kept expecting the whole thing to tie back into the Timewyrm saga.)

Balloon Debate, by Simon A. Forward, almost succeeds brilliantly through its sheer audacity, being a story in which every single companion is stuck in a room together and has to justify their continued existence to the others (Romana I's explanation that she should survive over her future self is great), but then chickens out at the end in a big way. A very big way. A huge, story-deflating, worse-than-it-was-all-a-dream, worse-than-they-were-all-clones, worse-than-it-was-an-alternate-reality way. Too bad, because I was right with it up until then.

And, last but not least, A Long Night by Alison Lawson makes an excellent... er, companion piece... to Curriculum Vitae by touching on the one thing that never gets touched on in Doctor Who... what about the families of the companions? Don't they worry? How do they deal with their loved ones just... vanishing? It's a heart-wrencher, it really is.

On the whole, again, I can't find much to actively dislike here... but at the same time, there's not much to make me stand up and cheer. I know Big Finish is capable of doing something much better -- A Life of Surprises is tied with Decalog 3 as tops in the Who anthology contest. But this one just has too many stories put in there just to fill up the page count.

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