The Last Adventure

Jodie Whittaker’s final Doctor Who adventure debuted at the end of October 2022. Throughout the series, the episode where a Doctor regenerates is often of the most powerful of that actor’s tenure. “The Power of the Doctor” was a great case in point, giving the Doctor an opportunity to confront her past and bringing back several companions Doctor Who’s classic era. Unfortunately, in Doctor Who history, there was one actor who was never given a proper final episode and that was the sixth Doctor, played by Colin Baker.

Colin Baker’s era on Doctor Who was plagued by several related problems. The top people at the BBC had lost interest in Doctor Who. Because of that, the show runner, John Nathan-Turner, was spending more time fighting to keep the show on the air than actually running the show. When I go back and watch Colin Baker’s episodes, I get the sense that the writers had a lot of talent but were writers who really needed strong editorial guidance. Unfortunately, because of the issues with the BBC, that guidance really wasn’t there and Doctor Who is a show that needs top notch writing and a good editorial vision to work. In the end, the BBC dictated changes in the show, which included a change of lead actor. Colin Baker basically decided he wouldn’t come back for a few minutes of screen time before his regeneration began. So, after Colin Baker’s last season, we start the next season with the Doctor in mid-regeneration and suddenly the Sylvester McCoy era began.

Colin Baker’s Doctor could be irascible, prickly and childish. The only problem is that the TV writers of his era tended to overplay those tendencies making him a challenging Doctor to like. Fortunately, Big Finish productions came along and gave us more adventures for the sixth Doctor. Stronger writers showed “Old Sixie” could also be heroic, fiercely loyal, and determined. In many ways, because of the episodes produced by Big Finish, the sixth Doctor’s era has become one of my favorites. In 2015, Big Finish decided to tackle one of the biggest challenges and write a fitting finale for the sixth Doctor. The result was “The Last Adventure.”

Title notwithstanding, “The Last Adventure” is actually four stories set at different times in the sixth Doctor’s tenure. Each adventure features a different companion. In “The End of the Line” the Doctor and Constance Clark find a train lost in the fog. When they attempt to find help, they find the same train at a different point in time. They soon find someone is breaking down the barriers between parallel universes. In “The Red House,” the Doctor and Charley Pollard end up on a world populated by werewolves. Except they really aren’t werewolves. These creatures are normally wolves who take on human aspects at certain times. In “Stage Fright,” the Doctor and Flip Jackson arrive in Victorian London only to find that a director is putting on plays about the Doctor’s regenerations. Finally, “The Brink of Death” brings us to the Doctor’s final days as he teams up with Melanie Bush only to find himself trapped in the Time Lord Matrix. The common denominator in all of these stories is that the Valeyard is involved.

We met the Valeyard in the sixth Doctor’s final TV season and we learn that he’s the amalgamation of all the Doctor’s darker tendencies all merged into one being sometime between his penultimate and final incarnation. The idea is that the Valeyard is playing a long game and in each story, the Doctor gets another piece of the puzzle until their final confrontation in “The Brink of Death.” I remember at the time “Trial of a Time Lord” was on TV, there were many fan discussions of how the Valeyard came to be. This story gives us an answer and without spoiling it, I thought it was a lovely bit of minimalist writing in that it gives us an answer in one sentence. It’s a great example of how something can be explained without pages of exposition.

I’m a big fan of the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. While there were some rough moments in his first season, I generally loved his tenure from the moment he’s captured by the Rani until he walks off in the sunset with Ace, and then has his amazing regeneration into Paul McGann in the TV movie. Still, I choked up a bit as it came time for “Old Sixie” to go. He met his end showing his best qualities. If you want to know the end of Colin Baker’s story, or even if you just want to sample him in stories from different eras of the Big Finish run, “The Last Adventure” is a great place to go. You can find it at: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who-the-last-adventure-1212

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.