Saturday 28 March 2020

The Doctor Who Project - Tenth Doctor Adventures

The Doctor Who Project has made its full run of Tenth Doctor Adventures available for free download once again. Now, this isn't the Tenth Doctor you're familiar with from the TV series; The Doctor Who Project continues from the end of the original series, which finished in 1989 with season 26. TDWP is now onto its 41st season, with work currently underfoot on season 42. You can find the beginnings of our Tenth Doctor at the end of season 37 with the Summer Special Pendragon by Duncan Johnson.

My story Peace of Mind can be found in the 2011 specials, as the Tenth Doctor's fourth story. You can also read stories by Miles Reid-Lobatto in seasons 38 & 40 (The Vault and Cybercult respectively), and my co-conspirator James P. Quick in season 41, with the two-part extravaganza The Throne of Peladon and The Secret of Peladon. We've got Cybermen, Voord, Ice Warriors, Silurians and more in the series, plus all many of new and strange monsters and adventures.

Thursday 26 March 2020

Fifteen years of New Who

Astonishingly, today marks fifteen years since "Rose" was broadcast on BBC1, kicking off a whole new era of Doctor Who. It's bizarre enough to me that this means it's the five-year anniversary of my ten-year retrospective on the episode. It doesn't really seem feasible that  was sat writing about this five years ago.

Ruseell T. Davies has marked the occasion by releasing a long-hidden short piece called "Doctor Who and the Time War," in classic Target style, which was originally written for the fiftieth anniversary. It was scrapped when Steven Moffat made it clear he had his own plans for what to do with this unseen bit of Who lore, but now RTD has made it available here. It even has Lee Binding's special cover illustration intact. You can watch that first meeting between the Doctor and Rose on the same link, then read this special prequel.

I absolutely love this. I adore The Day of the Doctor, the War Doctor and the regeneration Moffat wrote for the Eighth Doctor, but the version of the Time War he presented was more of a space war. RTD presents his vision, which had all along been far stranger, far harder to visualise and certainly impossible to put to the screen. I wrote my own version, of course, like many fans, three years after "Rose," and that's still available here, and while RTD's is heavily influenced by the New Adventures and the DWM back-up strips, mine is clearly following on from BBC Books Eighth Doctor Adventures. It's not quite as good as RTD's, I'll admit.

It's wonderful that the various showrunners of Doctor Who are producing this material while people are stuck at home, frustrated and scared. RTD is following up with a "Rose" sequel later, after the planned watch party of the episode, which itself follows one for The Day of the Doctor last weekend for which Moffat gave us a sublimely silly little intro. Chris Chibnall, the current chief, has joined in too, of course, along the Doctor herself, Jodie Whittaker. Chibs has penned a fun little cutaway set in the first moments of the Thirteenth Doctor's regeneration, "Things She Thought While Falling." Naturally this is more oriented towards kids, as opposed to long term fans who were watching fifteen years ago. And then there's "Incoming Message from the Doctor," just about the most beautiful minute of Doctor Who footage ever, presumably filmed in a cupboard in Whittaker's house and exactly the right message for the many children who are at home worrying right now.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Frozen in Time

Another story from the archives. Frozen in Time was written for the Nine Lives anthology published by Red Ted Books in 2017. An unofficial Doctor Who fanthology, Nine Lives raised around £700 for The MS Society and The Stroke Association. It is now out of print, only ever intended as a short-lived fundraiser.

Nine Lives was created by Scott Claringbold as a collection of stories featuring the other Ninth Doctor, as played by Richard E. Grant in the 2003 webcast Scream of the Shalka. I decided to write a story that would tie into Grant's other appearances in the Whoniverse, with a couple of fun links to both the main series and other apocrypha. 

Frozen in Time

The Axis was everywhere, and nowhere. A singularity, and an infinity of infinities. All things could be found here, everything that existed, or had ever existed, or could ever exist. The entire history of the universe was laid out, for the very few beings that were capable of perceiving such things. Not merely this universe, but all universes. Timelines diverging from the core reality like limbs from the trunk of a tree, if a tree happened to be an eleven-dimensional hypersphere with infinite branches. Most of these timelines were natural occurrences, essential variations in the passage of history. Others were artificial, induced, forced, even broken. The Axis held all such possibilities together, in some form of order, incomprehensible to most minds.

There were, however, minds that perceive the order in the Axis. Beings that were capable of traversing the no-space between realities, when the conditions were exactly right. Beings that could, given the right window of opportunity, lend their influence across any number of universes...

The noise was relentless, an unending cacophony of unmelodic droning that broke through even the deepest layers of sleep. It would have made a perfect alarm clock, the Doctor considered, as he rose from his sleep. It was a luxury he afforded himself rarely, and so it was inevitable that it would be broken by this racket. Hastily fixing his clothes, the Doctor stormed from his under-used bedroom and through the winding corridors of the TARDIS, his expression grave.

He stalked down the walkway into the control room, only to see the Master contentedly stooped over the console, studying something that has apparently occupied his full attention. The Doctor waved a hand in front of his mechanical shipmate's face, breaking his concentration.

“Had you somehow failed to notice that alarm going off, not two feet from your head?” The Doctor snapped, angrily flipping a toggle on the console and silencing the noise. A gramophone speaker retracted into its compartment within the console, removing itself from view.

The Master turned to face him, his expression studiedly neutral.

“I switched my aural circuits off about an hour ago,” he said. “Your snoring was carrying throughout the Ship. It was becoming quite impossible to focus.”

“Poppycock!” replied the Doctor, knotting his cravat and buttoning his waistcoat. “I do not snore.”

“It's rather like trying to work under an omnibus while the engine is running. Perhaps next time you decide to take a nap you could activate your respiratory bypass. I'm sure a few hours without breathing would be a small price for sparing my ears.”

“Your ears are artificial.”

“And all the more sensitive for it.” The Master looked at the Doctor's expectant expression. “Was there something else?”

“The alarm indicates a Priority One distress call. If you could turn your head slightly and tell what was sending it?”

With a heavy sigh, quite unfitting for someone who didn't actually breathe, the Master studied the readouts.

“Planetary system HR2003 Alpha. The planet Heimdall. Mid thirty-third century.”

The Doctor allowed himself to settle into the easy chair that was hidden in the darkest corner of the console room.

“Heimdall... I vaguely recall a human colony there. Nothing especially interesting, far from the main space routes. Probably a bunch of colonists making a mountain out of a molehill. Still, we'd better go check it out.”

“It's an icy rock on the fringes of explored space,” replied the Master. “I can't imagine anything of interest there.”

“Just take us there,” ordered the Doctor. “Who knows? Maybe it'll surprise us.”

The Master obligingly set the TARDIS on a flight to its new destination.

Clarice activated the latest frequency modulation, and repeated the distress call. It was the simplest of messages, nothing more than their planet's coordinates and an urgent call for help, repeated in a multitude of languages, from Galactic Basic to Draconian to Delphonic Morse. As she sent out the latest message, she kept her eye on the receiver screen, ready for a reply. Any reply. Just something to show that someone, somewhere, had heard her.


Stynes loomed over Clarice's shoulder, glaring at the displays, perhaps expecting her communications expert to have missed something. Clarice bit her lip and held back her irritation.

“No, Commander,” she replied. “I'm broadcasting on all possible frequencies and modulations, and scanning on the same. If there's anyone out there, they'll hear us.”

“There just isn't anyone out there,” interjected Johan, slumped at his own console on the opposite side of the control room. The command centre had been fashioned from the bridge of the Nebula, the ship that had brought the colonists to Heimdall, with the control room previously having maintained much of the ship's functions. Now, it was mostly required for environmental maintenance, and Johan had little enough control over that in the current situation.

“There has to be someone,” said Clarice, trying to convince herself as much as Johan.

“The closest starbase is nine light years away,” pointed out Johan.

I know,” Clarice snapped back.

“It'll be nine years before anyone hears your message. Radio is too primitive to be working with.”

“It's what we have,” stated Stynes, her tone indicating that she wanted this line on conversation brought to a close. “There are still vessels probing out here. There's ample chance that someone will pick up our distress call.”

Johan snorted, earning a warning look from Stynes. He straightened up and looked intently at his console. Clarice was about to say something, anything, to break the uncomfortable silence that followed, when something else did it for her. An unearthly grinding, wailing noise, unlike anything she had ever heard before, growing in volume until it was almost deafening. Sudden sparks of energy laced across the surfaces of the control room, causing Clarice and Johan alike to leap from there seats. In the centre of the room, a dark shape was forming.

Stynes spoke into her intercom. “Security to the control room immediately, code two.”

The shape solidified with a load clunk; a deep blue upright block bearing the legend “Police Public Call Box.” It looked just large enough for someone to stand inside. The doors set into its front opened, and that someone stepped out.

“Morning!” said the sallow-faced man who stepped out. He was clad in dark clothing in an archaic style, his brightly polished boots tapping loudly on the metallic floor.

Clarice would have expected Stynes to demand an explanation from the intruder immediately, but she seemed momentarily stunned. Clarice had never seen such an expression on her face before - genuine shock. And was there just a hint of recognition in there?

“Well, don't everybody say hello at once,” said the intruder, his rather forced smile dropping. “It was you who sent the distress call, wasn't it?”

Before anyone could respond, six armed guards burst into the room, brandishing weapons trained on the intruder. Stynes seemed suddenly more at ease.

“Explain yourself,” she demanded. “Who are you and where the hell did you come from?”

The intruder sighed with frustration.

“I'm the Doctor, where I came from is somewhere I'm sure you've never heard of, I picked up your distress call and thought I'd drop in to see if I could help. Frankly, I don't know why I bother sometimes. I've been here less than two minutes and already there's a bunch of goons pointing rather antiquated pulse guns at me.”

“At ease,” commanded Stynes, and the half-dozen guards lowered their weapons. “The Doctor, are you? And you just happened to be passing, in this thing?”

“The TARDIS,” replied the Doctor. “It was in flight, which means that it was occupying every point in space and time simultaneously. So, in a manner of speaking... yes, I was just passing. Now, who sent the distress call and why?”

“Um, I did,” said Clarice. “Under Commander Stynes's orders, of course.”

“And you are?”

“Clarice Osmond. I'm the communications specialist here.”

The Doctor's face lit up. “Excellent!” he declared, fishing around in his pockets. “I've been having some trouble with my phone – blasted thing can't cope with this area of space for some reason. Do you think you could have a look at it?”

“Doctor,” interrupted Stynes, “Miss Osmond has more important things to worry about than your phone, as I'm certain do you. Do you want to know the reason for the distress call or not?”

The Doctor noticed Johan looking intently at the TARDIS door, standing very narrowly ajar. He snapped it shut.

“Off!” he snarled, before turning back to the Stynes. “Yes, Commander, what was the problem?”

“The ice is attacking us.”

The Doctor smiled. “Now I'm interested.”

Heimdall was an ice planet, a rocky body a little larger than Mars, orbiting a dim, red star. While not a true ice world like Pluto or Cassius, it was on the very limit of planetary habitability, its surface perpetually covered in frozen water. At the poles, even the atmosphere began to condense onto the ice caps. It was not an ideal place for humans to settle, but it was best that System HR2003 Alpha had to offer.

The Nebula had been a deep space explorer, decades past its prime, converted to a colony ship. It had a straightforward, but difficult mission: build a base on Heimdall, at the very edge of known space, as a springboard for future exploration attempts.

“So why isn't the Earth government sending support?” asked the Doctor, warming his hands on the plastic beaker of hot tea that Clarice had handed him. He took a sip, and grimaced. It was dreadful.

“More important things closer to home,” said Clarice, sipping at her own cup. “There's some political trouble with the local powers, I think. We don't hear much out here. But we've essentially been left to it.”

“Not that we aren't capable of sustaining this colony,” protested Stynes. “We converted the ship to become the base and proceeded to develop habitation areas around it, ready for more colonists in the future. There are – were – over a hundred of us. Not a huge force, but enough to keep this place going.”

“But then something changed?” asked the Doctor.

“We sent an expeditionary force into the caves at the edge of the colony,” continued Stynes. “Perfectly routine. Chart the area, mark any hazards and report back. Allows for thorough planning of future expansion.”

“So you just kept going?” said the Doctor. “Kept expanding, for the Earth force that's never going to come?”

“They'll come Doctor, just as soon as circumstances allow. My job is just to prepare the way.”

The Doctor rolled his eyes, and took another brief sip of his bitter tea. “So what did your expedition find?”

“There was an artefact in the caves,” said Clarice, breaking through the tension between Stynes and the Doctor. “Something some previous explorers had left, probably. Ezra had some theories on it, but he's... gone.”

“He should have left it alone,” stated Johan, earning a venomous look from Clarice. “No, he should have done. He could have studied it there, if he'd been serious about it. But he tried to move it, bring it back here.”

“And that's when... the ice attacked?” suggested the Doctor.

“Creatures, made from the ice itself,” added Stynes. “There's no way they can possibly be alive. The few we've taken out have shattered into perfectly ordinary water ice. But they keep coming, every day. They've killed thirteen people, and that's thirteen lives we cannot spare on a colony this size.”

The Doctor looked Stynes in the eye. “No lives can be spared, Commander, whatever the circumstance.”

Clarice spoke up. “Doctor, they've been killing people. We've withdrawn into the core of the base. It seems to be safe here, they don't try to get further in than the perimeter domes. But if anyone goes outside the core, they attack. They kill anyone who tries.” She shivered.

“And it's getting colder in here,” said Johan, shivering himself. I'm trying to keep the environment regulated but we're operating on reserve power because we've been cut off from the deuterium stacks.”

“We've been keeping the creatures at bay, Doctor,” added Stynes, “but before too long, the cold will get us.”

The Doctor appeared to consider the information he'd been given.

“We might be able to reroute the power from the deuterium stacks,” he said, after some consideration. “However, that's likely only a temporary solution. Even if we make it, the creatures will surely just cut you off again. I wonder if this is instinctive behaviour, or if they're being directed by some intelligence? Their cutting off the power suggests the latter.”

An alarm began to sound. The six guards filed hurriedly out of the control room. The Doctor didn't appear to have noticed the commotion.

“No, I feel the best course of action would be to investigate this artefact you speak of,” he muttered to himself, seemingly unaware that no one was listening.

Styne grabbed her intercom. “What the hell's happening?” she barked. There was a momentary pause before she received a response.

“It's the creatures, sir. They're at the inner barrier. I think they're trying to get in.”

“How did they get through the perimeter?”

“I don't know sir, but Perkins and Murasaki are missing. I think they got them.”

The Doctor leaped to his feet.

“Interesting!” he exclaimed. “You say they stay outside the perimeter, then two minutes after I get here, they suddenly start forcing their way in?”

“That's a bit suspicious, isn't it?” murmured Johan, fixing the Doctor with a glare.

“Exactly!” The Doctor grinned. “They're obviously aware of my sudden appearance here. Advanced technology arrived on Heimdall, obviously the product of a more sophisticated civilisation than your own, and peaks their interest. Or, at least, the interest of whatever is controlling them.”

“Doctor, this is not the time for theorising!” declared Styne. “Those creatures are killing my people. If you want to help, head out there and face them with me!”

“If you want me to help, let me think,” retorted the Doctor. He turned to Clarice. “What do you use for communications at the perimeter? Radio? What frequency?”

Clarice blinked, taken aback by the sudden question, but quickly answered.

“Three point one gigahertz.”

“That's too low, but we can adapt it. Back in the twentieth century, there were some unconscionable experiments with directed microwave weaponry. Appalling when used against human beings, but just the thing to melt walking blocks of ice – if we get the frequency just right.”

“Better get working then,” said Clarice.

Styne stood at the rear of a squadron of soldiers as they unleashed projectile and energy weaponry against the approaching army of ice. Humanoid, but barely so, their forms distorted, lumps of jagged ice. They approached slowly but inexorably, their frozen bodies creaking and snapping as their rigid limbs moved them forward.

An ice creature lunged forward at the closest soldier, its razor-sharp icicle claws ripping through his sleeves and padding, into his flesh. The man cried out in pain, unable to retaliate before the monster was on top of him. It dragged him into the morass of ice. His fellow troops unleashed fire onto the creature, shattering its outer body, but it soon began to reform. The soldier lay still, his wounds already freezing over.

“Out of the way, everyone!” came the Doctor's voice. “Get to the sides!”

The Doctor wielded what appeared to be a very hastily cobbled together device. A metallic dish protruded from its front; wires trailed out precariously from its reverse.

“Clarice, energise!”

The ice creatures closed on the Doctor's position. A sudden, intense whine emitted from the device. There was no visible expulsion of energy, no laser beam or particle bolt. Just the sound as the electromagnetic waves pulsed into the creatures' icy bodies. Still they approached, their arms outstretched...

… and then, they began to shatter. The joints of their limbs snapped apart. They fell to the floor, their prone forms liquefying, until soon, they were nothing but slush upon the floor.

“Get the medic in here now,” ordered Styne. “Everyone, remove to the control room.”

“That's dealt with them for now, but I doubt it will last long.”

The Doctor paced around the control room, energised by the encounter with the creatures.

“The key is that artefact,” he continued. “I need to see it, see what I can make of it. Only then might I have some idea what we're dealing with, and put a stop to it. Cut these creatures off at the source.”

“I agree, Doctor,” said Stynes. “I'll assemble -”

“Of course, I could just take the TARDIS straight there,” continued the Doctor, right over her, “but there's some kind of interference on this planet. Some variety of temporal energy, and it's making it difficult to home in on the location. I was able to follow Clarice's signal here, but since then, the energy disturbance has become almost opaque. I'll need to go there on foot, and since I don't know the way, I'll need an escort.”

“Of course, Doctor” agreed Styne. “I'll have an expeditionary force assemble -”

“Although I'm sure you don't appreciate taking interlopers on military missions any more than I enjoy hanging out with soldiers, I must ask – oh. Right. An expeditionary force, excellent Commander.”

“You're welcome, I'm sure.”

The Doctor swung back round to the TARDIS.

“I'll just fetch my heavy coat. Don't want to catch a chill, now.”

He disappeared back into the box. Stynes turned on her heel and left via the opposite exit.

Clarice turned to Johan. “Is it just me, or is the Commander being exceptionally accommodating today?”

Stynes had insisted on a full force of six soldiers accompany the Doctor through the cave system. The route had been well recorded before the ice creatures had appeared, but no one had risked entering the caves since. Now, though, the icy caverns were distressingly quiet, save for the crunch of boots on frost.

The Doctor started humming an archaic vaudeville tune, just to jolly things up. He leant close to the burly individual who marched along to his left.

“Must be nearly there by now, eh?” he said to the soldier. “I'd say we've walked about a mile-and-a-half. Still, shouldn't complain, it's probably good for me. And this cold air is very bracing!” He took in a deep breath, and let it out noisily. “Ooh yes.” He peered at the soldier's chestplate. “No name badge then? Any chance you'll tell me, or do I have to guess?”

“It's de Mose,” replied the soldier gruffly.

“De Mose, wonderful to meet you,” smiled the Doctor. “Quiet trip, isn't it? Funny how we've not bumped into any of those icy chaps, don't you think?”

“No,” replied de Mose. “I don't think. Doesn't matter anyhow. We're there.

The cave route opened out into a wide cavern, in the middle of which stood what appeared to be an ice sculpture, five feet tall and entwined with elaborate loops and whirls. The light from the soldiers' torches reflected off it, sparkling in the darkness of the cavern itself.

“Interesting,” said the Doctor, eyeing up the strange object. “No inscriptions that I can see, but there's something... yes, it's a little psychic, isn't it? I can almost taste it. No doubt created as some sort of beacon for whatever, or whomever, previously came to this planet.”

“Very good, Doctor,” said the leader of the group. “Men, switch to night vision. Lights off.”

The cavern descended into pure blackness. The Doctor heard the sound of boots scraping as the soldiers left, back out the way they came.

“Hmm. I did wonder why the Commander was being so helpful.” The Doctor rummaged in his pockets bringing out his mobile phone. It provided some illumination, but the Doctor was disappointed to see it was still unable to penetrate the temporal energies that surrounded this planet.

“At least I can get a good look at this,” he said, peering at the psychic artefact. “Although, if this does display telepathic activity, then whatever created presumably knows I'm here.” The swung round, shining the light from his phone around the cavern in an attempt to examine his surroundings. It was enough to see the ice of the cavern walls bulging outwards. It creaked like snow underfoot as it formed into vaguely humanoid shapes. They emanated from all sides, blocking his escape in any direction.

“As my friend the Admiral once said, 'It's a trap!'”

The Doctor jabbed furiously at his phone, trying to boost the signal sufficiently to reach back to the TARDIS.

“Come on, come on, you ridiculous piece of kit... yes!” He spoke into the device. “Oh come on, pick up... Yes, Master, can you hear me? I need you to home the TARDIS in on this signal, I'm trapped with -” An angry burst of static interrupted his speech. “Get help if you have to, but get the TARDIS here. And don't trust Stynes!” A high pitched whine signalled the sudden loss of signal. “Oh, marvellous. Isn't it always the way?”

The ice creatures surrounded the Doctor, their shapes a terrible pastiche of the human form. Their misshapen arms extended, their clawed hands slicing through the Doctor's clothes, coming into painful contact with his flesh. The cold bit into him, bringing his body temperature crashing down. The Doctor let out a gasp of pain. In front of him, an ice creature continued to shift its form, its lumpen face morphing into something more human, distinctly recognisable...

The Doctor found himself looking into a mirror. His own face stared back at him, the ice creature now inhabiting his own form.

The Doctor collapsed as his own face looked down on him, smiling.

The Master grappled with the controls of the TARDIS, trying in vain to triangulate the sub-etha telephonic signal that he had, all so briefly, intercepted.

“Blast!” he growled, losing the signal completely. “Why the Doctor insists on carting around this archaic model time capsule I simply do not understand. The indignity of being slaved to such a primitive device, it makes my blood boil. Or it would, if I had any.” He drummed his fingers on the console. “Oh, what to do, what to do... If no signal can make it through that disturbance... except the one signal we already have a full lock on.”

The Master activated the TARDIS' own communications system, tracing the radio band back across the signals previously received in the vicinity of this planet. Finally isolating the right one, he opened a channel.

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone receiving me?”

“This is Heimdall base receiving you, please respond, over,” came a female voice.

“Good afternoon, my dear, this is... oh, call me Masters. I'm inside the Doctor's TARDIS.”

“His what?”

“The blue box standing not ten feet away from you, do try to keep up. Listen to me; I can't leave the confines of the TARDIS and the Doctor is in peril. You clearly have a talent for communications technologies or you never would have reached us in the first place. Now, I need you to go and find the Doctor and boost his signal so that I can pilot the TARDIS to him. Is that understood?”

“I... I think so, but we can't go down into the caverns. You need a team. I'll get Commander Stynes, she can -”

“No,” ordered the Master. “Don't let her know what's going on. I didn't get much from the Doctor but I know she can't be trusted, so make sure she isn't listening in on this and get to the Doctor yourselves. You'll be quite safe once as long as you can boost the signal sufficiently. TARDIS out.”

Clarice closed the line. She turned to Johan, who stood to her side with a look of confusion on his face.

“Who the hell was that?” asked Johan.

“I'm not sure,” replied Clarice, “but he's obviously a friend of the Doctor. The Doctor needs our help.”

“No chance!” Johan shook his head. “We are not going out there with those things running around.”

“The ice creatures aren't out there right now! The microwave weapon destroyed them, at least for now. We'll be alright if we hurry.” Clarice didn't quite believe herself, but knew she couldn't go on her own. “I've got Ezra's notes, we can follow the route to where the Doctor went.”

“And then you can signal this box thing? The one that's right here, and it'll, what, come and pick us up?”

Clarice grabbed Johan by the shoulders. “Yes! I can do it, we can do it. The Doctor saved us from those things, and if he's going to stop them coming back, we need to save him right back!”

The Doctor awoke, his body seemingly weightless as he drifted in the inky blackness that surrounded him. He groped around in his mind for the memory of where he was, and found himself once more on the icy floor of the cave. It lacked sensation; no physical sense of the ground beneath or his own weight bearing down. Only the intense cold.

He remembered. He had lost consciousness, forced himself to retreat inside his own mind for protection while his body went into torpor. He was still in the cave, of course, but this wasn't the true environment. He was inside his own mind, constructing the environment from his immediate experience.

“In that case,” he said to himself, “I think something a little more homely is in order.”

The dank cave vanished. A soft amber light suffused the area around him. Details faded into visibility: a green leather armchair, a small wooden table, towering bookcases. A cosy study, just the place to concentrate.

“Something missing... Ah!”

With a thought, a hatstand popped into existence. The Doctor flung his scarf and overcoat onto the nearest hook, a sat in the chair. The familiarity of the environment gave some sense of comfort, the dim light an illusion of warmth, but the biting cold was still there, painfully niggling at his neurons.

“Come on then,” the Doctor sighed. “I can feel that you're here. Show yourself, whoever you are.”

“Who indeed, Doctor,” came the reply, in a voice identical to his own.

His assailant appeared before him, sporting the same face as him. He was robed in black and sported a top hat, something that the Doctor himself could certainly envisage himself wearing.

“I like your tailor,” said the Doctor to his visitor. “Although I think it lacks creativity to steal someone else's look so brazenly.”

The individual laughed, a harsh, mirthless bark.

“I think you have this situation entirely the wrong way round, Doctor.”

The Doctor grimaced, and materialised a second chair for his guest. Despite the lack of true physicality in this subconscious realm, he made the effort to give him a stiff wooden chair, as uncomfortable as he could imagine, with too-short legs and a back at entirely the wrong angle.

“Please, sit down,” said the Doctor. “Make yourself at home.” A tea set appeared on the table. The Doctor picked up the pot, but, realising that it would do nothing to actually warm him up, turned it into a carafe of red wine.

“Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2057,” he said. “Might as well take advantage of the cellar when my imagination is the limit.”

“Oh, excellent, the pointless banter part of the exchange,” sneered his guest. “How long must we spend on this? I have been waiting rather a long time for you to show your face. Or should I say, my face?”

The Doctor sipped heavily at his glass. “Fine, enough with the pleasantries. You've clearly gone to contrived and dubious lengths to get me here. I take it the attacks on the colony were purely to draw me in? Rather a convoluted way to go about it. You could have just pinged me a text.”

“I had hoped your superiors would have directed you here, but it seems this little outpost isn't important enough to warrant their attention. Nonetheless, its location on a weak point in space/time made it ideal for my entry into this continuum. Unfortunately, manifesting fully wasn't possible until I had you in close proximity. So I instructed Stynes send out a distress call, or I would dispose of her entire populace.”

“All that, just so you could pop into my subconscious for a chinwag?”

The being smiled thinly. “Not quite. I have something rather grander in mind.”

The Doctor drained his glass and slammed it back onto the table.

“Out with it then,” he demanded of his doppelgänger. “Just who are you, and why this particular interest in me?”

“I don't suppose you would recognise me,” replied the visitor. “We met some considerable time ago, from your perspective. I am known as the Great Intelligence.”

The Doctor raised his eyes to the ceiling.

“Oh, good grief. You're still hanging around, causing trouble, are you? I thought I'd dealt with you several regenerations ago.”

“That was but one aspect of my consciousness,” replied the Intelligence. “This is the form I prefer to use, that of my original corporeal host. One that I impressed upon you as I entered this reality.”

“Come again?” The Doctor did not like where this conversation was going. “Are you seriously responsibility for this?” He materialised a handheld mirror. “I am particularly fond of this face. Cute, sexy, and lick the mirror handsome.”

“Oh, please don't,” muttered the Intelligence. “As it happens, that is exactly the case. I was forced to escape another branch of the timeline and found myself here. A damaged point in space/time that intersected your own timestream. I had to engineer your coming here so that I could arrive here in full, but now that you are here, my influence on you stretches throughout your existence. Retroactively, of course, but simple linearity is something I overcame long ago. I influenced your current physical form at the moment of your regeneration, purely so that you would become the perfect vessel for me once I finally had you in my grasp.”

“I see,” said the Doctor. “And you really expect me to believe all this? You're little more than a phantasm. Just an ego searching for an id. I've been wiping the floor with beings like you since I left Gallifrey.”

“And now the hyperbole!” The Intelligence rose, looming over the Doctor, identical eyes boring into each other. “You talk the talk, Doctor, but what are you capable of, really? I've been watching you, up and down this timeline. An errand boy for your masters, scuttling along in your box with your tin man at your side. Time for a show tune, Doctor? Just off to do something eccentric? You're a parody of yourself. You aren't even aware that, as we've been talking, I have embedded myself deeply into your biodata. You'll be mine in... oh, about six minutes, I should estimate.”

The Doctor looked up at his own face, mulling over the information.

“Well,” he said, finally. “Just enough time for another glass.”

“He's here!” Clarice cried out, as her torchlight illuminated the prone body of the Doctor. Frost was forming on his deathly pale skin. His breathing was so shallow as to be barely visible.

Johan trudged up behind her. He took in the sight of the Doctor and put a hand on Clarice's shoulder.

“I think we're too late,” he said, quietly.

Clarice pulled an intercom from her belt, adjusting the frequency until she received a response. The Doctor's microwave device was slung over her back on a makeshift strap, hooked up to the intercom with brightly coloured cables. She activated the device, surging its remaining power through the intercom's battery. She put the receiver to her face, tucking it into her padded hood to so that her voice would make it through.

“Masters, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear, my dear,” came the cultured tones of the Doctor's friend. “Have you found him?”

“We have, but... I think we might be too late. He's frozen, I don't think he'll last long enough to get back to the base.”

“We don't need the base, and the Doctor is far harder to kill than you might think. Believe me, I know from experience. Now, boost the signal as much as you can. I need a strong pulse to home in on.”

“OK – I can boost the power some more for a short time but it'll burn the battery out pretty quickly. You'll need to lock onto us in a few seconds.”

“Nothing simpler, my dear.”

Clarice worked as quickly as her cold-numbed fingers would allow. A sudden whine from the intercom signalled the surge in power.

“Come on, come on...” she muttered.

“Clarice,” said Johan, “how long before -”

He was cut off by the sudden burst of sparks that flew from the intercom unit. Clarice yelped and dropped the device. It sat inert on the ice.

“Damn it...” she murmured, before a faint noise began to emanate from all around her. Growing in intensity, that same groaning noise that signalled the Doctor's appearance before filled the cavern. Around them, subtle shapes began to appear, gradually becoming bolder and more real until they were no longer in the cave, but within a broad room in which a dark-clad man stood at a circular days.

“Welcome aboard, my dear.” He turned to face Clarice, and raised an eyebrow quizzically. “And you brought a friend, I see. How quaintly human of you.”

“We got the Doctor to you,” said Johan, “now it's down to you.”

“No, you got me to the Doctor,” pointed out the Master with pedantically, “Simply being within the TARDIS will help him considerably, but he won't regain consciousness without help. I suppose it is in my hands now.” He crouched down by the Doctor's body, bringing himself to the same level as Clarice.

“Can you wake him up?” she asked.

“I believe so.” The Master extended a hand an slapped the Doctor harshly around the face. “Wake up!”

The Doctor groaned as he retained consciousness. “Was that entirely necessary?”

“I was merely lending assistance Doctor, although I don't deny there was a certain level of satisfaction involved.”

The Doctor sat up on the floor. “Clarice, Johan – what are you ding here?”

“We're the ones who found you,” stated Clarice.

“That is quite so, Doctor,” admitted the Master. “I couldn't have done it without them.”

“Well, thank you all for your help,” said the Doctor, “but I need to put myself back under. There is an intelligence at work here, trying to subsume my identity. It's still active in my mind. It will be easier for me to fight it while unconscious, so that I can focus all my energies on the task.” He faced the Master. “This planet is on the cusp of a space/time disturbance. I need you to pilot the TARDIS right into the heart of it.”

“Whatever for?” replied the android.

“Now that I'm here, I'm fully linked to the TARDIS through its telepathic circuits. We can work together and give this usurper a run for his money.” He paused in thought for a moment. “Oh, and would one of you please fetch me a hot water bottle?”

“Ah, there you are, Doctor” sneered the Intelligence. The familiar figure turned around – as did another, and another, and another. “I am expanding to fill your mind, Doctor,” gloated the being. “Every facet of your being will become as me.”

“You really do go on, don't you?” complained the Doctor. “If you're really so powerful, then why am I still here at all? I just woke up – why did you allow me even that brief respite? If I were you, I'd be holding onto this place tight.”

“Very soon, you will be me.” The facets of the Great Intelligence surrounded the Doctor. “It's time to give in.”

“You forget,” said the Doctor, with quiet confidence. “I am a Time Lord. The ninth in a long line of incarnations. I am the Doctor, and with me, come all of me!”

With extreme concentration, the Doctor summoned up the aspects of his own self. Eight other men appeared in the mental environment. They surrounded the Intelligence as it surrounded the Doctor. They straightened their lapels, loosened their cravats and rolled up their ruffled sleeves. The Doctor smiled.

“Sick 'em, boys.”

The ghosts of the Doctor's past selves tore into the phantoms of the Intelligence, pulling them to the ground and tearing their ethereal bodies into mist. As quickly as they were destroyed they reformed, but the Doctors' defences were relentless. The Doctor, his core self, reached deeper into his mind still, searching for the link he needed.

“There you are, old girl,” he said, mentally grabbing hold of the TARDIS' metaphorical hand. “Into the Axis!”

The Doctor, riding upon the spirit of the TARDIS, searched through the myriad worlds. He saw himself, in many forms and with many faces. He saw his previous self regenerate time and time again, into a multitude of men and women; soldiers, peacemakers, explorers and romantics. He saw his other selves fight the Intelligence in its many aspects, again and again with many friends by his side. One of them bore an astonishing resemblance to Clarice, but the Doctor could not allow himself time to dwell on this mystery. He pushed at the moment of his regeneration, where his connection to space and time was strongest, splintering a baby universe off into the manifold of possibilities. A tiny, pocket reality, in which a shadow of his being could reside.

“Bring him here,” he ordered his mental defences. The avatars of his earlier selves dragged the kicking, gnashing form of the Intelligence as it coalesced back into one spectral body. Together, every aspect of the Doctor forced the being through the split in the timeline.

The Doctor severed the link and closed the doors of possibility behind him.

“Good work me,” he smiled. “Time to wake up.”

“He's awake!”

Clarice scurried over to the Doctor, who sat up with a broad grin on his face.

“Someone fetch me a very strong coffee and my inhaler,” he demanded. “That was the most exhausting sleep I've ever had.”

“You managed to banish the creature?” asked the Master, watching warily from the console.

“Of course. Did you ever doubt it?”

“What happened?” asked Clarice. “We've just been waiting for you to wake up.”

“If you want the simple version, an alien intelligence was trying to take over my body and use me as its vessel on the material plane. It came here from another branch of my timestream; I shunted off into yet another. A little dead end I cooked up in my head; a parody universe to draw its attention. It should last long enough to stop him from escaping back here again. I've left a little trick or two there.”

“Very good, Doctor,” said the Master. “But rest assured I shall be watching you, in case of any lingering influence from this being. “

“Excellent. I knew you'd come in useful someday.”

“Sorry,” interjected Johan, “but what about the base? There's still a bunch of ice monsters threatening the colony.”

“Do try to keep up,” said the Doctor. “Those creatures were animated by the Intelligence. Just blunt instruments used to create a situation. They'll rapidly collapse back to slush without any psychic influence.” He got to his feet and trotted over to the console. “Now, I believe we left that rather brusque commander in charge down there. I'm not sure she's the best bet to keep that colony going. I'll just send a quick memo off to Fleet Admiral Travers at Earth HQ. I'll let him know the situation on Heimdall, and there won't be any lightspeed lag to worry about either. He'll get the colony back on track. He owes me a favour, anyway.”

“Why?” asked Clarice. “Did you save him from some alien monsters as well?”

“No. As it happens,” replied the Doctor. “I introduced him to his wife.” The Doctor flipped a few switches on the TARDIS console, and turned back to Clarice and Johan. “Now, what do I do with you two? I had said to myself that I wouldn't be picking up any more waifs and strays, but given that you did save my life down there... how about I take you for a quick spin in the TARDIS before dropping you back on Heimdall?”

“Do you mean it?” asked Clarice.

“A quick spin where?” said Johan in a more concerned tone.

“Let's find out!” replied the Doctor, and pitched the TARDIS into flight.

“Marvellous,” sighed the Master, sardonically.

Across a divide in no-space, in a pocket universe, an iteration of the Doctor arrived on the planet Terserus, an iteration of the Master following in his stead. Across the infinite array of possible worlds, the two Time Lords, in some form or another, remained linked, as either valued companions or deadliest enemies. In this particular universe, the Doctor, in his ninth life and accompanied by his fiancée, faced death once more.

The Great Intelligence broke into this pocket universe at the moment of this regeneration. Weakened by the psychic battle with the Doctor of its previous universe, the formless entity entered the new Doctor's being at that brief moment when space and time were weakened by the surge in Artron energy.

It had won. The Doctor had forced it out of one timestream and straight into another, at the exact point it could do the most damage to the Doctor of this new reality. The Intelligence moulded the new Doctor's appearance, once again remaking the Time Lord in its own image.

Instantly, it was trapped. The Doctor's telepathic warning to his alter ego in the pocket universe
triggered an immediate, deliberate regeneration.

“I think in my new body I'm going to be particularly good at rewiring,” joked the new Doctor, frying his brand new nervous system with electrical energy. Another regeneration ensued, the sudden rush of Artron energy annihilating the weakened Intelligence. The barest embers of its psychic form clung on. Another regeneration might be called for to fully purge the evil being. It was a sacrifice worth making, to save the Doctor that had instigated this pocket reality.

It wouldn't be the end. Even the universe couldn't bear to be without the Doctor. Or that universe. Or that one. Or the one beyond that...

Mike and Angelo

Some perfect COVID-19 isolation viewing: the regeneration episode of Mike and Angelo from 1990, where Tim Whitnall takes over from Tyler Butterworth. Angelo contracts some kind of extraterrestrial illness and changes his appearance, in a scene not remotely inspired by Doctor Who, honest.

Fun fact: Tyler Butterworth is the son of Peter Butterworth, who played the Meddling Monk on Doctor Who in 1966. Given that Angelo here regenerates, and arrives on Earth in a spaceship which disguises itself as a wardrobe, it's pretty clear he's part Time Lord. Blatantly, the Monk is Angelo's dad (he must have settled on the extradimensional planet Ptarg for a time). Angelo's dad actually turns up in a later episode, played by Ron Moody, so he is obviously another incarnation of the Monk, somewhere amongst Peter Butterworth, Graeme Garden and Rufus Hound.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Don't Drink the Water

This is a short I wrote for the SFX "Pulp Idol" contest in 2008. I think this was the third such contest, and it was the first I entered. These contests were a brilliant idea, allowing anyone to submit fiction for consideration, and given pretty much free reign as to content and subject. It just had to be SF of some variety. The winning stories were published in a small paperback book that was included with the magazine, and there were some really exceptional works included. A few successful authors got a kick start from these contests.

"Don't Drink the Water" did not win anything, although it did get a mention in the "We also heard from" column at the end of the 2008 collection, which listed other story titles and their authors, that had particularly impressed the judges and made it onto the longlist at least. So that was encouraging. Reading it now, I think I'd do rather better with the idea, but I still quite like how brief and to-the-point it is. I think I was reading a lot of Neil Gaiman at the time, which might be obvious, and Haruki Murakami, which is probably less so. I wrote the story with paper and pen originally, sitting at a riverbank outside Chiang Rai in Thailand. It's a shame I didn't win, as that would have been a wonderfully pretentious author biography to go with it.

Don't Drink the Water

Kyungay fell, landing on the dry mudstone floor with a thud and a snap. He tried shifting to a more comfortable position, but was rewarded only by an intense pain in his left ankle. Cautiously, he brushed his hand along it - a sliver of bone was jutting sharply outwards, threatening to break the skin. Kyungay forced himself to his feet, gritting his teeth and grunting with the pain. The pain didn't matter, he reminded himself. Once he'd found the Fountain, he could stop worrying about pain and injury forever.

He reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a miniature torch. The chamber into which he had fallen was hardly more interesting once illuminated than it was when dark. The featureless stone walls gave no clue as to the importance of Kyungay's location. He knew, however, that he'd almost made it. All of his researches had shown that, beyond any reasonable doubt, the fabled Fountain of Youth would be found just beyond this chamber.

Doing his best to ignore the pain in his left foot, Kyungay ran his hands along the walls, trying to find anything unusual, any kind of irregularity that may show the way beyond this room.

His heart was pumping hard in his chest. Breathing deeply, he endeavoured to calm himself. After five years, though, of searching and researching, of false hopes and dead ends, simply being this close to his goal was almost too much. He was seventy years old, after all, and, although undeniably in excellent physical condition for his age, fit and well-muscled, the strain this journey had put on him was all too clear. He couldn't forget that he was an old man; that, of course, was why he was here.

In the event, he almost missed what he was looking for. His fingertips brushed over a tiny crack in the stone, almost too fine for his weathered skin to pick up. Eager for any clue, he dug his fingernails into the hair's-breadth fracture. He felt it give, slightly, under the pressure, the stone fragments moving apart a fraction. Certain he had found what he was looking for, he pulled his knife from his belt, jamming the edge into the crack, forcing the wall open. There was a barely audible click, followed by the grinding sound of stone upon stone, as the wall split in two, opening just enough for Kyungay to slip through.

Shining his torch into the next chamber, he knew at once that he had finally made it. The room was just as featureless as the previous, save for a stone-lined well in its centre. It didn't look like the stuff that legends were made of, but it could be nothing other than the Fountain. So overcome was Kyungay at finally reaching his goal, he didn't notice for several seconds that it was guarded.

The figure sat on the stone floor, hunched in the shadows, and quite naked. It's skin was black - not the African black of Kyungay's own, but the black of burnt wood, with the look of well-worn leather. The figure stirred, creaking as it stood to its full height, eye-to-eye with Kyungay. It was emaciated, almost impossibly thin, its kneecaps and elbows bulging obscenely from its limbs. Kyungay couldn't tell its sex - it seemed to have no such external features, save for its twisted, scowling face.

It spoke - beginning with a guttural cough, as if it was clearing its throat, after years of silence. Its words were a throaty whisper.

'You're here. Finally. And, to think, I almost slept through it.'

Kyungay held up his knife. Even aged and injured as he was, he could surely take out this sorry specimen, if it meant he could drink from the Fountain.

'Still, sleeping's about all I do these days. Put that knife down, it'll do you no good.'

Kyungay was not about to let anyone stand in his way, not after this long. He lunged towards the guard, reaching out with the knife and jamming it in the creature's chest. The being knocked him back with a back-handed slap, its surprising strength flooring him. Kyungay watched as the creature pulled the knife from its torso, flinging it across the room with no apparent sign of discomfort.

'Listen, Kyungay, I'm getting too old for this sort of thing. How about you just sit back and listen for once?'

Winded, Kyungay managed to gasp, 'You know who I am?'

'Naturally. I also know why you're here - although, there's only one reason why anyone would come here. I've been waiting a long time for you.'

'Why?' aked Kyungay.

'To tell you not to drink from the well - or the Fountain, I think you preferred. I'm here to stop you becoming immortal.'

'Why?' asked Kyungay again. 'Who are you? Why would you stop me? All I want is youth, and a long life.'

'All you want?' snickered the creature. 'Just listen to my story. You see, I drank from the well, took the water of youth. I was an old man, but immediately I felt invigorated - younger, stronger.' The creature - the man - sat down, flexing his talon-like fingers.

'I admit, it was wonderful to begin with. The first few decades, not ageing, impervious to injury... I felt like a god. The centuries went by, and slowly I began to realise the curse I had put upon myself. Life can bring such pain. Injuries that would have annihilated an ordinary human being - my body torn to shreds, crushed, immolated - I survived all those, unable to die, but still able to feel. My body would regrow, though never quite as it was.

'The rest of humanity, though - they kept me going, for a time. I lived dozens of lives, being different people, loving so many. I outlived them all. For a time, I became a monster - giving only hatred and cruelty, to shield myself from other emotions. This, too, left me hollow. Humanity continued with its own endeavours. I survived hundreds of wars, seeing the world come to the brink of devastation. Eventually, though, mankind pulled through to a peaceful existence.

'I was among the first to leave the Earth. I remember the thrill of it, the first feelings of excitement and adventure I'd had for centuries. I had exhausted the novelties of Earth; in time, I would exhaust all the other worlds.

'I'd seen everything. Done everything. I wanted to end it. I researched, using technologies undreamt of now, into the strange energies that kept me alive. They came to nothing. No measurement or technique could explain how I continued to survive, nor how to overcome the water's power, and end my life.

'I tried another tactic. I reasoned that I could go back, prevent my drinking the water. I spent a century researching and experimenting with time-travel.'

'So you came back?' asked Kyungay, as the ancient paused his incredible tale. He looked back at him with sad, weary eyes.

'No. Time-travel proved to be impossible, even with the most advanced sciences. In my anger, my madness, I threw myself into the sun - but even this did not kill me. I awoke, aware of nothing but the pain, the flames constantly feeding on my body, only for it to recover, to regenerate. I have no idea how long it took me to crawl out of the sun, or for how long I drifted. Millions, perhaps billions of years passed. The numbers became meaningless. Over time, I watched the sun expand, devouring the planets as a fish snaps up flies. In time, its flames dwindled. I was left in darkness.'

'How did you get here?' asked Kyungay. 'I don't understand.'

'There are many thoughts on the nature of the Universe. One states that, after it has expanded to its limits, it will contract, until it reaches the point from which it began. After an eternity, I discovered this way indeed true. Yet, even that great fire did not destroy me, and I awoke in a child Universe.

'Again, aeons passed. Over time, I began to recognise the solar system that was forming around me. The Universe is cyclic, I discovered. It creates itself, as time and space return to precisely their original state. So, I waited - I slept on the newly formed Earth. I became buried, under millions of years of building rock. Once I had finally clawed my way out to the surface, I found this place once again - and sat here, waiting once more, for the time when my younger self would arrive.'

'My God...' muttered Kyungay, finally understanding, with horror, who the ancient creature was.

'You know, that ankle never did heal properly,' said the older Kyungay, smiling a hollow, toothless grin.

'Now, I'll say this one more time: don't drink from the well.'

TREK REVIEW: Picard 1-8 - Broken Pieces

With only three episodes left to tie things up, Picard's writers deliver an instalment heavy on exposition and low on incident. Surprisingly, though, this approach works well, resulting in an episode that manages to be pacey and entertaining in spite of very little actually happening.

The now-traditional flashback sequence that opens the episode reveals a great deal about the series' backstory, resolving quite a bit of mystery in one go. Oh – who it turns out is half-Vulcan, half-Romulan, which solves that one – assembles a bunch of Romulan women on the abandoned planet Aia, in the midst of the impossible star system the Eightfold Stars. Here, they receive a vision from 200,000 years ago, of a plague of AIs destroying the galaxy. Most of the women go nuts and kill themselves, except Narissa Rizzo, who seems pretty fine, and her aunt Ramdha, who goes nuts but doesn't immediately shoot herself in the head.

It's very entertaining, if not remotely plausible. I just find it impossible to believe that an ancient video of planets blowing up would be enough to make anyone bash their own head in with a rock. At least Rizzo, who's already clearly miserable as hell, isn't affected. That's what you need in an apocalypse: depressed people. We always feel like the world is doomed, so we're used to it and can just carry on.

Still, I love the idea that Ramdha isn't traumatised by her assimilation, as we suspected, but was already so damaged by what she saw that she essentially crashed the Cube and switched off all the drones.

This episode is strung together from coincidences and unlikely events. Elnor calls Seven, and there she is, just like that (although I love that big hug he gives her). They do have some pretty good chemistry together, much as Elnor and Hugh had, and it's a real shame we don't get any interaction between Hugh and Seven in this series, especially as it's implied they have already met. Seven's decision to plug herself into the cube is completely mad, but is the most exciting part of the episode, and her temporary role as the cube's new Queen provides some fantastic imagery. It puts Seven in a hard position too, making her a Borg again and turning the XB's back into drones in order to defeat the Romulans.

It turns out that Rios's dark past, by a massive coincidence, is linked to the coming of the Ais. Commodore Oh ordered his captain to murder to synths, one of whom as the dead ringer of Soji, and Rios covered it up out of fear for his crew's safety. Raffi then goes off on one about how all her conspiracy theories were true, even though she seemingly had no access to any of this information until now. Did she just happen to guess it all? To be honest, having the attack on Mars be a Romulan plot rather than the synths actually fighting for their rights is a lot less interesting.

Nonetheless, as ridiculous as this all is, it still works in a solidly entertaining way, and it's satisfying to get some answers at last. The highlight of the episode, other than Seven's Borgery, is the conference between Raffi and all the emergency holograms. We've got holograms for engineering, navigation, tactical, hospitality and medical, all played by Santiago Cabrera putting ona different accent and personality, all of which make up elements of Rios's own psyche and memory. It's a brilliant concept and a wonderful scene. I said years ago we should have a Star Trek series made up entirely of holograms running a ship. I just imagined they'd be played by Robert Picardo.

Jurati's meeting with Soji is beautifully played, although it has to be said, Agnes has gotten off very lightly after her part-time job as an assassin. She says she'll hand herself in, but that blatantly won't happen. Picard saves the episode emotionally, though, with a nice speech about how the future is theirs to make. They've two whole episodes left to make it.

Thoughts and observations:

Rios's captain, Vandemeer, was previously first officer to Marta Batanides, who was Picard's bzzie mate/love interest back at the Academy, as seen on TNG: “Tapestry.” Picard's first assignment was the USS Reliant (named for the ship in The Wrath of Khan, and previously mentioned in the extended version of TNG: “The Measure of a Man”).

I'm half-convinced that the reason Picard doesn't have a French accent is that he was replaced by a hologram years ago, and this one was set to English.

The ENH mentions Nu Scorpii as a rare septenary star system. This is a real star system, about 470 light years away. There's one more such system known, AR Cassiopeiae, about 650 light years away, but there are no known octonary systems known to science.

They really called the “Grief World” Aia? The AI-planet?

Rizzo's right hand Romulan is called Centurion Tarent. Is Michael Chabon channelling Terry Nation?

Monday 23 March 2020

Who Novelisation Quest 5: "The Five Doctors" by Terrance Dicks

1983 cover
The Five Doctors is unique among the Target novelisations in being written and released before the serial it was based on reached the screen. This must have been an odd experience for the fans looking forward to the series' twentieth anniversary, able to read the story and get the main events before seeing the episode itself. On the other hand, it's not much different to my experience of the TV special, seeing that I'd absorbed most of the stories from programme guides before I saw them.

It isn't the strongest of Dicks's novelisations, but given that he had to speed-write this to meet the deadline, it's pretty solid. It was never the most logical of his scripts in the first place, unsurprising given his remit to include as many Doctors, companions and monsters as possible and then having to rewrite this to suit who was available. Given this, it's odd that the novelisation doesn't differ more from the televised version. Why not take the opportunity to go back to the earlier version of the script, and bring the Fourth Doctor into the story fully? Why not include more faces from the past, without the restrictions of actor availability?

1991 cover
Perhaps that would be asking too much of Dicks when rushing something to completion with such a difficult brief. There are some shifts in the story, mostly a few minor scenes reintroduced or moved around, and even this mainly brings the story more in-line with the later Special Edition video release. There are a few little asides that are noteworthy: the First Doctor being near the end of his life is particularly intriguing, given his tightly-packed adventures on screen. I dislike the insistence of having Susan call the Doctor by that title, rather than Grandfather, which Carole Ann Ford rightfully insisted on when filming the special, even if there is a flimsy justification in the prose. (Basically, everyone else calls him that, so she does too.)

The Five Doctors was a bit of silly anniversary fun, and the novelisation is no different. Even a speed-written Doctor Who story by Terrance Dicks is effortlessly entertaining. It's a pleasure to read.

First published by W. H. Allen (Target imprint) in 1983
Based on The Five Doctors, first broadcast in 1983
Audiobook read by Jon Culshaw, with Nicholas Briggs as the Cybermen and Dalek

Sunday 22 March 2020

TREK REVIEW: Picard 1-7 - Nepenthe

“Nepenthe” is an episode split between a gentle, reassuring reunion story and an absolutely brutal thriller. On the one hand, the bulk of the focus is on Picard's reunion with Riker and Troi, on what seems to be an idyllic planet, although even this has some darkness beneath the surface story. It's a chance for the characters to take stock and process the events of the preceding episode, and for Picard and Soji in particular to actually get to know each other after very forcefully being thrown together. On the other side, there are the events on the Artefact, including the vicious, and arguably unnecessary, murder of Hugh, and the strained relation on La Sirena, culminating in Jurati's act of near-suicide. It's equal parts assuasive and unsettling.

As a fan, the return of characters of previous iterations of Star Trek is naturally a highlight of Picard, but there's always a risk this will slide into fanwank and cease working as its own story. Catching up with a middle-aged, retired Riker could easily go this way, but the script utilises him well, providing Picard with the comfort of a friend and a much-needed ally, but also someone who'll confront him on his shit. Troi (or Mrs Troi-Riker, rather) gets to use her counselling skills properly, giving Soji someone to talk through her issues with, although it's her daughter who really gets through to the troubled android.

Lulu Wilson absolutely steals this episode as young Kestra Troi-Riker, which is no mean feat given that she's up against the long-awaited reunion of three of The Next Generation's principle characters. Kestra is a cool, fun, adventurous kid, who has clearly thrown herself into the more back-to-basics life that her parents have taken to on the planet Nepenthe. Their stated reason for settling on the planet is the life-restoring properties of the soil, which they had hoped to use to cure their late son of a degenerative disease. In an unexpected link to the overall series arc, it turns out that a positronic net is part of a treatment that would have cured him, but these were blanket banned after the attack on Mars.

There's more to it, though. The late Thaddeus is revealed to have been something of a prodigy, creating entire languages and worlds in his head as part of his desire to belong somewhere after growing up on a starship. While Kestra is clearly just as brilliant, she has a much more grounded lifestyle, which has to be a conscious decision by her parents. It's not like there isn't a more technology-based lifestyle available on the planet, as we hear of a spaceport numerous times. The Troi-Rikers clearly wanted to move back to nature.

Lulu Wilson also shares excellent chemistry with Isa Briones, who gets to give Soji some real character at last. I guess this makes sense, since before much of her character is explicitly maufactured, and at last she is learning who she really is. Understandably she's in a hell of a place, having had her identity thrown into question, and then minutes later her boyfriend try to kill her, and then escape from a Borg cube through a super-teleporter. As helpful as her time on Nepenthe is in settling her character, she has a lot more to go through before she'll really know who she is and what her place is.

The details of Soji's biology are interesting. “Data didn't have mucus,” points out Kestra, and it does seem strange to put so much work into creating an artificial being that seems so human seems almost counterproductive. Yes, she's super-strong and super-intelligent, but she's also extremely biological with all the weaknesses that entails. She almost choked on poison gas last episode. Why build a human? We can already make humans. Nonetheless, her pedigree as a Soong-type android is so clear that all it takes is a characteristic head tilt and Riker and Troi both recognise her as Data's child.

I'm not sure the events on the Artefact really add anything much to the episode, other than to show how ruthlessly evil Rizzo is. It's not like this is ever in question. The villainous characters, particularly the female ones (ie everyone except Narek) have been pretty one-dimensionally evil in this series, in spite of the more complex moral concepts it's going for. Rizzo leaps at the chance to start murdering XB's to show just how much contempt she holds them in, then kills Hugh for good measure. Rather like the murder of Icheb earlier in the series, it seems pretty cynical. On the plus side, Evan Evagora (Elnor) and Jonathan Del Arco (Hugh) work really nicely together. It's a pity we won't see more of them.

The La Sirena crew work nicely in Picard's absence, with the understandable tension already there racking up constantly. Jurati finally snaps under the strain of what she's done, trying to disable the tracker in her blood. Whether she was deliberately suicidal or her near-death was a side-effect is open to interpretation. Allison Pill is excellent in this episode, which sells her character's torn motivations far better than the pretty unbelievable backstory of her mind meld with Commodore Oh. It isn't clear whether Oh is controlling her mentally, or if what she showed her was enough to turn Jurati against all her principles, but either way it doesn't really convince.

Overall, the events on the eponymous planet make “Nepenthe” a memorable episode, while the other developments, although moving the plot forward more, are far less effective. Still a solid instalment in the series, although the sense that we're running out of time is becoming unavoidable.

Thoughts and Observations:

“Nepenthe” is the name of a liquor from Greek myth that took away painful memories. Today it's used to mean “sweet forgetfulness” but can be translated as “amnesia” or “oblivion.” There's a theme developing here.

Kestra is named after Troi's deceased sister, whose story was explored in TNG: “Dark Page,” while Thaddeus is named for Riker's Civil War era ancestor, mentioned in VOY: “Death Wish.”

Are they softening us up for Picard's death? He's in his nineties, and in this episode they remind us that he has an artificial heart and a neurological condition.

The planet Nepenthe has jackalopes! They make good eating, and Riker puts bunnicorn sausage on his pizzas.

The Kzinti are causing trouble in the space near Nepenthe, the first time we've heard the name on Trek since the Animated Series. (Some people have heard “Xindi,” which would also be cool, but the subtitles confirm it's Kzinti.) Larry Niven gave the writers the nod that it was fine for them to drop the reference. This makes the Kzinti's existence in the Trek universe inarguably canonical.

Riker and Troi rack up a fourth Trek series, having appeared on The Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise previously, although they did not appear together on Voyager. Frakes also appeared as Thomas Riker on Deep Space Nine, who is still technically Riker, so maybe that puts him at five.

Riker completely fails to climb over a chair in this episode, and I find this extremely disappointing.

I've mentioned the possible link to Control from Discovery before, but I hope the reuse of shots from that series isn't setting this link up and is just recycling. While it could potentially tie in, reusing the villain at this stage seems lazy.

There's a cock-up in the battle scene on the Artefact, as Hugh appears with Rizzo's knife in his neck before she throws it at him.

The Romulan snakeheads are pretty cool, but they're no Birds-of-Prey.