Big Finish brings us six more Short Trips in the Box, to showcase a lovingly crafted selection of Doctor Who miniatures
There’s something lovely about a good Doctor Who short story. The Time Lord and their adventures were originally designed to be absorbed, 25 minutes at a time on television. And since then they’ve travelled through every possible medium. Thumping great novels, comics stripped 6-10 pages an instalment through the middle of a magazine, audio box sets… Doctor Who’s done it all. But there’s something about the short story format, particularly read aloud, that feels like a perfect fit. Now, Big Finish brings us a twelfth volume of their Short Trips series, and six new stories starring half a dozen combinations of Doctors and companions. And lovely stuff it is too.
There’s nothing too groundbreaking or mindbending here and certainly no attempts to break the essential format of Doctor Who. But then that’s not really what’s required here, where the 30-40 minutes devoted to each narrated tale need to let us take the fundamentals for granted so they can get on with the business of telling their own story.
Each writer for Volume 12 tackles the unique demands of the format in their own, equally effective way, while being true to the Doctor’s world
These range from the Eighth Doctor and Bliss looking for a mythical sanctuary from the Time War in Salvage, to the Twelfth aiding a family of refugees on their steps onto a new homeworld in The Three Flames; from Table for Two, Dinner for One as the Tenth tries to rescue a woman from the worst of all possible dates, to The Galois Group, where Big Finish companion Valerie learning the hard way by the Eleventh Doctor’s side that sometimes you still can’t change history, not one line; and from the Ninth Doctor and Rose encountering the lingering scars of bitter warfare in Identity Check, to the Third Doctor and the Brigadier trying move past the damage of their own battles.
Each writer deals with the demands of the format in their own innovative way, almost invisible to the listener. Max Curtis dispenses with a guest cast altogether for Salvage, removing distractions so the Doctor and Max can speed through what would otherwise be whole hour of plot as they find themselves trapped on a train on a neverending commute through the Vortex. Conceptually, it’s satisfyingly Moffatesque, but also allows for a closer, more personal, look at Bliss as a person and you may well come away feeling you know her better than before. Only the Doctor seizing on Bliss’ flicker of recognition at the name ‘salvage’ as a vital clue sounds like a short cut too far. It is, after all, a pretty common word.
The collection creates a neat home for concepts perhaps not complex enough to satisfy an entire episode, but filled with the perfect amount of wit and heart for a short story
Sophie Iles, fast becoming one of Big Finish’s most reliable short story creators, inverts that tactic for The Three Flames. Instead she focuses almost entirely on the inner lives and worries of her trio of guest characters, a family of alien Tenaborgs fleeing the death of their home planet. Crashing landing, they pick their way through a fairly straightforward path of quicksand and dangerous wildlife, led by a Twelfth Doctor at his most twinkly, mischievous best. But the story’s heart lies with the bickering tension between parents facing an unbearable burden and their young daughter’s attempts to mediate. the result is what feels like an ode to strong mothers everywhere.
Meanwhile Jennah Dean’s Table for Two, Dinner for One, Felicia Barker’s The Galois Group and Eugenie Pusenjak’s Identity Check take concepts, which despite their essential Whoness, perhaps wouldn’t have sustained an entire television episode. Dean’s vampiric restaurant, feeding off the misery of people’s bad dates, for instance, is hugely witty. All the more so with the Tenth Doctor quipping his way between the tables as he tries to save his latest friend. Barker takes a similar seed of an idea to TV’s Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, but jettisons all the running around and fake robot pranks, and is all the better for it. Instead it hangs around just long enough to make its point that when you mess with Time, it messes back. And Time? It messes back weird.
Identity Check focuses on the human cost of war, though the Ninth Doctor’s moral righteousness is at its most random
For its part, Identity Check looks to Russell T Davies’ patented balance of personal drama and breezy action before it mostly jettisons the action to concentrate of the human toll of past events. Ten years after a devastating war, peace is not easy wherever in the galaxy humanity and the former invaders have to rub shoulders. But the Ninth Doctor and Rose are in no mood for excuses as simmering tensions threaten to explode into violence. The revelations they uncover, and their reaction to them, reflect the Doctor’s coin-toss morality. You could easily imagine a version of this story where he takes the exact opposite view.
The concept also pivots around a slightly odd, not fully formed idea that it’s neither nature nor nurture that drives us but some unknowable, essential essence. It would be a disservice to describe it as half-baked, but certainly Identity Check could have done with an extra ten minutes in the oven.
AWOL is the jewel in the Short Trips 12 crown, providing a gently heartbreaking insight into the forging of one of Doctor Who’s defining friendships
Finally, Angus Dunican’s AWOL exists at the far end of this volume’s spectrum. It’s a quiet character piece that consists almost entirely of the Doctor and the Brig paddling by the sea and talking, driving and talking, visiting ancient ruins and talking. Set during Season Seven, the early days of their friendship is in crisis and the exiled Time Lord has essentially quit UNIT, while Lethbridge-Stewart tries to persuade him to return.
It takes a little while to fully appreciate what AWOL is doing. As the two set out their battle lines, the Doctor angry and sad, the Brigadier prepared to use every type of emotional blackmail and extortion to force his scientific advisor’s return, you want to scream at them both to stop it. But the early feel that Dunican has misunderstood the duo’s fundamental mutual respect gives way to a deep appreciation of his skill. This is the story of the day the friends squared that essential dichotomy, coming to an understanding and respect between the man who embraces the strange and bizarre, and the man who blows it up.
Jon Culshaw not only resurrects Pertwee and Courtney with almost unnerving accuracy, but brings a tenderness and subtlety that reminds us just how good an actor he is, behind the voices
AWOL isn’t so much read by Jon Culshaw as… well, even ‘performed’ doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like he’s the medium through which it moves like a living, breathing, thing in its own right. Even by Culshaw’s standards, it’s an astonishing piece of work, close to witchcraft, as he resurrects Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney in what feels dizzyingly close to a full cast play with only one actor. The short story format plainly fits his skills like a glove and neither of these characterisations by Culshaw has ever sounded better. If the uninitiated heard AWOL, not only would they likely refuse to believe both parts were one man, but they’d be rightly sceptical this wasn’t some long lost BBC Radio play starring the great men themselves.
No wonder that at a particularly beautiful scene where the soldier finally gets a window into the strange vastness of the Time Lord’s life, you might find yourself choking back a little sob, as Blogtor Who did. A touchingly perfect tribute to two Doctor Who giants.
The approach of the various readers is as diverse as the plots themselves, but each connects with the material in a thoroughly satisfying way
Other readers take different approaches. Adèle Anderson, Ayesha Antoine, and Safiyya Ingar, reading Salvage, Table for Two, and Galois, respectively, tackle first person narratives told by the Doctor’s friends. Freed, then, of any expectation to give more than a hint of Mssrs McGann, Tennant, and Smith in their own performance, they get on with being engaging, thoughtful, readers and Antoine, in particular, is gifted with a voice one could happily listen to reading the phone book for hours.
Elsewhere Dan Starkey bravely takes on the task of reading The Three Flames. Brave, since while technically told in the third person, it mostly shifts and slides between the points of view of a little girl and her mother as we’re made privy to their innermost thoughts. Fortunately, Starkey is such an amiable storyteller, the smile on his lips coming clear through your headphones, that it takes you back to the cosy feel of getting a bedtime story. And like with all the best dads doing all the voices, it doesn’t matter much when his Twelfth Doctor jets in from somewhere vaguely in the same hemisphere as Scotland. Though it is a little amusing when it hits you that he’s nailing a perfect impression of Jacob Dudman’s Twelfth Doctor, if not Peter Capaldi’s.
Jacob Dudman’s Ninth Doctor, full of thunder and sparks of raw power, provides a timely reminder of the damaged, brittle, TV incarnation
Speaking of Dudman, Identity Check lets the man of many voices play with one of his less often heard characterisations, the Ninth Doctor. It’s a shame, as he captures Eccleston’s voice and manner superbly well. Moreover, while the great man himself now prefers to focus on his Doctor’s sparky humour and jovial banter, Dudman provides an appropriate balance. The listener gets little of that sing song sunshine of this Doctor, but he gives full reign to the side of this incarnation that dwells in dour introspection, and where a edge of suppressed rage is constantly audible behind the teeth.
Like an entire series of Doctor Who breezing past in four hours of easy listening, Short Trips 12 is as varied and imaginative as Who at its best
Six Doctors, six writers, six readers, and six approaches to the unique demands of the Doctor Who short story. Short Trips Volume 12 provides a metaphorical selection box of fun size chocolate bars to choose from. Whatever type of Doctor Who you love, there’s more than one story here you’re sure to adore. Between them, they can bring you all across space and time, from small, personal, triumphs, to the salvation of entire species, from tragedy to laughter. All in the space of four hours. And what’s more Doctor Who than that?
Doctor Who: Short Trips Volume 12
Doctor Who – Short Trips Volume 12 is now available to own as a digital download only (for just £14.99), exclusively here.