Short Trips to Bland Places

Fair warning: I’m about to post a couple things that will be of no interest unless you follow Doctor Who. Bear with me.

There’s a small company called Big Finish that has a license to publish Doctor Who audio dramas and short story collections. The latter are published under the series name Short Trips.

Not long ago I discovered a couple of recent “Short Trips” volumes going for ten dollars each on Amazon. I haven’t been following the range, because they’re a bit pricey. Ten dollars is a bit less pricey. So I thought what the hell, and ordered Short Trips: Farewells and Short Trips: The Centenarian.

I am glad I did not pay twenty-five dollars each for these books.

Not that they’re terrible. If they were, it might be an improvement, in the way that a lot of bad stuff travels so far into bad that it breaks through to the other side. (Example: “The Web Planet.”) Farewells and The Centenarian have a few bright spots but their predominant badness is only just bad enough to be boring.

Problem number one: After over forty years in the public conciousness, a lot of people have preconceived ideas about what a “Doctor Who Story” is, and what it’s supposed to do. Mostly this idea involves “monsters” plotting some kind of rotary-moustache evil, preferably on Earth. That’s well over half the stories, right there.

(What’s especially comical—or sad; I can’t decide which—is that all these writers think they have to invent new monsters, but don’t have the imagination to make them unique… and either they’re running out of names that don’t sound stupid, or they’re tone deaf. So we meet species like the Virtors, the Slarvians, and the Jalaphrons, all culturally homogenous, unredeemably evil, and entirely indistinguishable.)

The frustrating thing is that the short story format and the sheer number of anthologies available ought to encourage experimentation. If a new approach doesn’t work, never mind; there’s another story coming along in a few pages. But Big Finish rounded up a timid, blandly conservative bunch, and aimed these anthologies at fans who want from Doctor Who what they want from McDonalds: standardized familiarity. (The same audience that way too many of the second season TV episodes were aimed at… but that’s another rant.)

This style of plot doesn’t always adapt well to the short story format. Case in point: “Old Boys,” from The Centenarian. Three old guys discover in conversation that they’ve all briefly encountered the sixth Doctor during an adventure. Something like this might work if each man had a small mystery to relate—an anecdote hinting at, but not revealing, a bigger story. (Or maybe they all have a small piece of the same story, which the readers could piece together for themselves.) But the writers think their old boys have to tell Doctor Who Stories. And they have to be complete stories, so the old boys recite complete plots that the Doctor helpfully and uncharacteristically summarized for them. And they’re really, really stupid plots—the authors would have been better served by the mysterious anecdote approach. But that would never have occurred to them.

Problem number two: Most of these stories aren’t about anything besides the plot. A good short story has something going on beyond the literal description of a sequence of events… if not a “theme,” as they say in high school, then psychological exploration of the characters, or some philosophical ramblings that the author thinks would be more entertaining in story form, or even just some ideas about physics or government or whatever that the author thinks are cool. A lot of the stories in these anthologies are about the plot. Period. When they do have something else going on, it’s only on the most superficial level, because the Something Else wasn’t what the writers were interested in. They included it because they knew stories are supposed to have a “theme,” but didn’t think about it more than they had to. Normal short stories are written because the writers have ideas they’re interested in exploring; these stories were written because the writers wanted to tell a Doctor Who Story with a Doctor Who Plot. And it shows.

Anyway. Here are some short and badly written notes on the individual volumes:

  • On the cover of Farewells, a woman is shocked at the giant purple apparition of a sternly glaring William Hartnell. It’s a MIRACLE! Shortly after the picture was taken, Hartnell gave the woman a prophecy about the Armageddon.

  • In “The Mother Road” the first Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan go on a long car trip on Route 66 because the Doctor’s lost the TARDIS in a bet. They see many tourist attractions. Eventually they get to California where the Doctor buys the TARDIS back on eBay and reveals that it was being kept back where they started all along. He just wanted to go on a road trip. This is exactly as dumb as it sounds.

  • Speaking of “The Mother Road,” here is something the first Doctor should never say: “All that work on the engine has left me a mite peckish. And I’ve been telling Ian about just the place—we’ll pass it on the way out of town. The 72 oz-steak house—eat the whole steak in an hour and you get it for free!”

  • The second sentence of “The Very Last Picture Show” is “Stars spattered the velvet sky like neon dandruff on a vampire’s lapel.” What makes this sentence wonderful is that this story has nothing, either literally or thematically, to do with vampires or velvet or anything gothic. In fact, this scene is told from the POV of an elderly woman who owns a cat named Chairman Meow.

  • Farewells does have a couple of high points. One is “Black and White” by John Binns, which is an “oh look, the Doctor’s world is becoming more morally complex and it’s disturbing” kind of thing, but does it very well, and is nice and atmospheric in places.

  • The best story is “Life After Queth” by Matt Kimpton, which takes place after “Frontios&#8221 and stars the fifth Doctor, Tegan, and the Gravis. I’ve always wanted one of these. Seriously. I totally do not understand why we never got an entire series of PDAs starring the fifth Doctor, Tegan and the Gravis. Actually, I guess I do. But I still think it would have been neat. Anyway, I finally got my wish. The gag is that the Gravis, once separated from the other Tractators, turns out to be harmless, naive, and prone to saying things like “Come, companion Tegan, let us explore! There is a mystery to solve here!” and as you can imagine it’s hilariously funny… and yet before you realize what’s happening you find it’s turned melancholy and a bit disturbing. Which is a hard trick to pull off, and totally worth the ten dollars I paid for this book in and of itself.

  • The worst story in Farewells is the seventh Doctor story “Utopia.” Unfortunately it’s Dull Bad instead of Fun Bad—not much more than an excuse for a paranoid and incoherent rant about how genetic engineering might be used for bad things and therefore we must STOP ALL RESEARCH RIGHT NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE. Ideally by persuading scientists to blow themselves up.

  • The Centenarian doesn’t have the highs or the lows of Farewells; it’s bland mush and I have almost nothing to say about it. That’s a shame, because it has what ought to have been a great concept: the history of one man, Edward Grainger, who lives to be a hundred and keeps meeting the Doctor at important points in his life.

  • The trouble is, none of it builds to anything. There are a few connections between stories, but no arc—and few of the individual stories are about anything; they’re just Doctor Who Plots in miniature, and although a few are turning points in Edward’s life the writers aren’t good at communicating what those events mean to him. By the end of the book I’d spent close to 300 pages with Edward, but still felt like I didn’t know him.

  • The one thing I know about Edward is that he’s unbelievably dense. He doesn’t realize until he’s a very old man that there’s some kind of connection between all these Doctors he keeps meeting—in fact, he meets the third Doctor, the seventh Doctor, and Tegan multiple times and entirely fails to recognize them until much later.

  • A couple of stories in The Centenarian baffled me with companions I’d never heard of and didn’t feel I’d been introduced to properly. One pair came with a footnote directing the reader to a short story in a previous Short Trips anthology. A Google search revealed that the other two appeared once in an eighth Doctor audio. Apparently Big Finish assumes that The Centenarian’s target audience is consuming all their other output as well.