Authors traveling through Time and Space

In several recent posts, I’ve shared my thoughts regarding classic seasons of Doctor Who that have been released on Blu-Ray. One topic that has come up several times in the special features on these disks are the Doctor Who audio adventures produced by Big Finish Productions. These are original stories produced in audio with the actors who played the Doctor and his companions reprising their television roles. For actors like Colin Baker as the sixth Doctor, it’s given fans a peek into a more developed and nuanced character than we saw on television. For actors like Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor, we finally get to see more episodes than his one appearance in the TV movie. There are standalone adventures for several of the Doctor’s more popular companions and there are even standalone episodes for the Master, one of the Doctor’s greatest enemies.

I grew up in an era before home video. Some time in elementary school, I hit upon the idea that I could preserve and enjoy some of my favorite TV shows if I recorded them with an audio tape recorder. In the case of shows like Star Trek, listening to episodes was almost as good as watching them. Part of this was because I’d seen them numerous times on reruns, so I could visualize the episodes. However, part of it was that the writing, sound effects, and acting were so evocative that I didn’t need to visuals to understand what was happening. The Big Finish Doctor Who stories are like that. These are “pure” dramatizations with no narration. You just hear actors delivering their lines with sound effects and music to help you picture the scenes. As it turns out, these are great productions for me to listen to on my long drive from home to Kitt Peak National Observatory, because there’s no visual element to distract me while driving.

Because these are so good to listen to while driving and because we’d been hearing about them on the Doctor Who Blu-ray sets, my wife bought me a gift card with the idea that I would spend it on audio episodes at Big Finish. Two of the episodes I bought were “The Lovecraft Invasion” featuring Colin Baker and “The Silver Turk” featuring Paul McGann.

Both of these audio adventures feature the Doctor having an adventure with a famous author. Over the course of Doctor Who’s run, there have been several episodes where the Doctor has encountered authors. The second doctor encountered Cyrano de Bergerac. The sixth Doctor took H.G. Wells on a journey through time. The ninth Doctor met Charles Dickens. The tenth Doctor had adventures with William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie.

In “The Lovecraft Invasion,” the Doctor joins forces with 51st-century bounty hunter, Calypso Jonze, to hunt down the Somnifax: a weaponized mind-parasite capable of turning its host’s nightmares into physical reality. Chasing it through the time vortex to Providence, Rhode Island in 1937, they arrive too late to stop it from latching onto a local author of weird fiction, none other than Howard Phillips Lovecraft. The episode was interesting in that its author clearly demonstrated admiration for Lovecraft’s world and creations while showing contempt for his racist worldview. It was well performed and a ripping good story that also let me ponder questions of admiring a writer’s work while noting their problematic views. I appreciated that the episode didn’t retreat to the safety of considering Lovecraft a man of his time. They did this by giving the Doctor a companion from roughly Lovecraft’s time who didn’t appreciate his views any more than the Doctor did.

“The Silver Turk” took a different tack. In this case, the Doctor actually has a famous author as a traveling companion. In this case, the famous author is none other than Mary Shelley. He takes her to the Viennese exposition of 1872 where they find an amazing automaton who can play piano and beat all comers at chess and checkers. It turns out, the automaton is actually a Cyberman. Like Star Trek’s Borg, Cybermen are a mix of organic and machine parts without emotion but with a strong desire to capture others and make more of their kind. Of course, this brings Shelley into contact with reanimated dead bodies. There’s even a scene where a Cyberman gains more power using a lightning rod. The real joy of this episode is hearing how much the Doctor enjoys traveling with an author he admires. Julie Cox did a wonderful job as Shelley, though I have to admit, I kept visualizing Elsa Lanchester’s Shelley from the beginning of Bride of Frankenstein.

If you’re a Doctor Who fan, I highly recommend browsing Big Finish’s titles and finding a story to enjoy. Their audio adventures range from about $2.00 to $30.00 and they even have some first episodes you can download for free. The more I look through their catalog, the more I want to listen. They’ve even expanded their offerings to audio adventures besides Doctor Who, such as Dark Shadows and Space: 1999. You can learn more about them and listen to their offerings at https://www.bigfinish.com.

What the Doctor Ordered

As I’ve been getting ready to return to regular observing shifts at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve been continuing my look at the season-long box sets from the classic era of Doctor Who. The most recent I’ve watched is the second season of Colin Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. Baker only played the Doctor for two seasons. After his first season, the series went on a year-and-a-half hiatus. When it came back, the show was effectively on trial by the BBC to see if they would allow it to keep running. With that in mind, show runner John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward decided to make the entire season a trial of Doctor. Even though there are four separate stories, they all aired under the title “The Trial of a Time Lord.”

The Sixth Doctor and the cookbook created during his era.

“The Trial of a Time Lord” is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, it was a story that almost needed to be done. The Doctor is an alien from the planet Galifrey and his people are an ancient race called the Time Lords who observe what goes on throughout time and space but never interfere. At the end of the second Doctor’s tenure, he was captured and put on trial for meddling in the affairs of other worlds. As a result, he’s forced to regenerate and becomes the third Doctor. Since then, the Doctor has done nothing but continue to meddle. So, it’s not surprising the Time Lords should want to have more words with him. Despite all that, the episodes as a whole aren’t especially memorable.

The best element of the season is that Colin Baker was allowed to play the Doctor more as he wanted. In his first season, he’s presented as something of an overbearing, unpredictable character. In the second season, he’s brash, yet charming. His relationship with his first companion, Peri, improves. When his new companion, Melanie, arrives, they clearly have a good rapport. Baker still wears his almost clown-like bright outfit, but there is something very 1980s about that suit. In fact, it reminds me of the costume worn by another eccentric scientist—Doc Brown in Back to the Future Part 2!

The special features on this Blu-ray set are almost better than the episodes themselves. Colin Baker himself discusses his role in many of the featurettes. It’s clear he’s a fan of the series and is sorry he didn’t get the opportunity to play the role on screen as he’d hoped. This did remind me that he’s done some wonderful audio work as the Doctor for Big Finnish Productions. Those stories are very well written and feature many cast members from the original series. If you really want the best of Colin Baker as the Doctor, listen to his audio stories. I can highly recommend “The Holy Terror” and “Davros.” I’ve heard others of his stories are even better.

Another fun special feature discusses The Doctor Who Cookbook, published during that 18-month hiatus. I purchased the book back in the day and still have my copy. Compiled by Gary Downie, partner of John Nathan-Turner, it features recipes by many people who played parts in the show or worked behind the scenes. In the special feature, some of those cast members recreate their dishes. I’ve made some of the dishes from the book before, but was inspired to try a few more. One very nice recipe was “Davros’s Extermination Pudding” by Terry Molloy, who played Davros, one of the Doctor’s arch enemies. It’s less a “pudding” and more baked bananas topped with meringue and raspberry jam. Still, it’s a nice treat for a weekend afternoon!

A long-time favorite recipe in the book is “Doctor’s Temptation,” a Swedish recipe presented by Colin Baker himself. It’s basically a casserole with potatoes, tuna, onions, and cream all topped with bread crumbs. It’s a rich, satisfying dish that goes nice with a good salad. One could say it’s just what the Doctor ordered.