Doctor Who: Short Trips Volume 11 (Big Finish Review)

As fulfilling as a long, multi-part Doctor Who audio story can be, it’s wise to refresh the palate once in a while. The Short Trips range has done just that for Big Finish since 2010, and in book format before that, by offering miniature adventures narrated by a single cast member. The ideal way to experience Short Trips is slowly, deliberately, and always in a non-linear fashion: the Doctor would surely approve. On this occasion, I devoured the whole set in one go. Whereas recent releases in the series have been sold separately, Volume 11 returns to the format of earlier instalments, in an expertly curated set of tales. 

Stories which challenge our assumptions about the world of Doctor Who, and the people who are inevitably caught in the Doctor’s orbit, are a mainstay of the Short Trips, and these six stories prioritise interiority and character above volleys of dialogue and sci-fi shenanigans. But are they up to the usual high standards of Big Finish?

Rearguard

As always, each story opens with the appropriate theme music: a reprise of the Eleventh Doctor’s theme for Rearguard, our first story, sets the scene perfectly. We begin in a Sontaran cloning facility, seeing the warrior species’ brutal methods of ensuring genetic purity. If a newborn is found to be defective, they’re terminated, and their biomass returns to the same raw material from which they came. 

Dan Starkey, well-known for his Big Finish work as well as his role at Strax on TV, gives a spirited performance at Stron: a soldier deployed to fight on the remote world of Ubreus. However, he suddenly finds himself alone on the planet after his comrades retreat. Days turn into months, but Stron keeps a lonely watch, defending Ubreus for the Sontaran empire and honouring his fallen comrades.

He’s not entirely alone. Very occasionally, an interloper appears: the Eleventh Doctor (Jacob Dudman). He wonders why there are any Sontarans on Ubreus to begin with: Stron angrily asserts that he’s been left as the sole guardian of the planet. 

Writer Alfie Shaw (also producer of Volume 11) does well to ratchet up our investment in Stron’s fate even as very little happens: we see his steadily fraying patience after hundreds of days, then thousands. Insanity sets in, and he begins to see Rutans everywhere. It all ends with a sad truth, and a barnstormer of a speech from the Doctor. 

“There’s no honour in a society that creates disposable people”

It’s a tragic story about how impossible it can be to let go of our deeply held beliefs, shutting out anything that might damage things that are at the core of our self-image. It also lays the foundation for a series of stories that take full advantage of the short story format by exploring the inner lives of their characters. 

Messages from the Dead

It’s Adric’s turn to tell a story, and as Messages from the Dead opens, the TARDIS is being torn apart by an anomaly in space. This story, which takes place some time after Warrior’s Gate but before The Keeper of Traken, sees the Fourth Doctor and Adric alone. The fractious relationship which defined their on-screen chemistry is resurrected here: Adric notes that the Doctor has been cold and distant since Romana’s departure, and Adric’s keenness to prove himself is ratcheting up the tension. 

Quickly, though, we go into the past, as Adric relays the story of an adventure with himself, the Doctor and Romana. Speaking to a recorder, we learn of their trip to the spaceship Hermes – presumably built at the same shipyard where all other doomed vessels get their mythological names. 

Matthew Waterhouse’s reading is sensitive, and he imbues Adric’s lines with a real passion: of course we’re reminded of his run as the character in the 1980s, adding emotional weight. He also does a fine Tom Baker impression. 

As the trio explore the abandoned ship, writer Rochana Patel delves deeper into Adric’s feelings of inadequacy and even shame – in his mind, he’s vying with Romana for the Doctor’s respect and affection, a battle that he can never win. That focus on negative feelings is one of the richest veins which a Doctor Who writer can tap into, and Patel’s script is full of truth, as uncomfortable as it is. It’s a story that couldn’t suit any other format. 

The Threshold

Jon Culshaw, now a (very welcome) part of the furniture at Big Finish, is the centre of gravity around which The Threshold is built. He’s both the Third Doctor and The Master in this tense, trippy story: one surely built by Felicia Barker partly as a showcase for Culshaw’s incredible vocal talents, impersonating both Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado flawlessly.

We’re inside the Master’s TARDIS, a crash site. The Master is brought around by the presence of the Doctor, who helps him to his feet: it’s almost as if he was ripped out of time and space entirely, notes the Doctor. Meanwhile, the heart of the TARDIS has been exposed, and time and space are running wild. 

It gets worse. They’re not alone – the crash, the Master believes, has allowed a foreign entity to get inside. While they investigate, and the Doctor tries to “stay ahead of the spatial decoherence”, things get trippy and confusing. Layers of reality and unreality phase in and out, and the Master is confronted with his various futures. 

“I am the master. And I will survive.”

Listeners are advised to keep their wits about them, to maintain an understanding of what’s happening at any given moment, but they’ll be rewarded for their patience. The soundtrack is great, too, with tense and itchy cues underscoring the Master’s paranoia as the Doctor disappears and reappears – and a nod to the John Simm Master stories, too. 

Death Will Not Part Us

The Time War lands on the shore of a planet named Gernica, warping and rewriting its history. But the focus of Death Will Not Part Us is on one woman: showing how the life of Viola Wintersmith, a barrister, is erased following her wedding. 

Alfie Shaw brings a wonderfully unique concept, of a woman who uses her memories as a literal weapon: loading her memories as ammunition and firing them from a rifle in an attempt to change history. Seeking out the architects of the Time War, she resolves to hunt the Time Lords until Gernica is safe.

Recalling fun time loop thrillers like Edge of Tomorrow, Death Will Not Part Us focuses more on pathos. With each resetting of the timeline, Viola finds her wedding more and more sparsely attended as friends and family vanish from history. Incidentally, each loop brings us right back to the story’s introductory theme music and title, which never failed to bring a smile to my face. Viola finds herself marrying over and over – and having her choice to marry her love reaffirmed. 

The sound design here is truly wonderful – the effects of Viola’s weapon are unforgettable, with “the bullets of abandoned and aborted time” causing the words of the story themselves to warp and twist. 

As the story continues, Viola meets the Eighth Doctor, who naturally intervenes in her plans to kill her way to saving Gernica, and strip her past bare in the process. They have a tense showdown, resulting in a pretty far-out plot development. Alfie Shaw’s script keeps the surprises coming: the result is a gorgeous love story and a chaotic sci-fi caper at the same time. 

Fear of Flying

The volume’s most audacious concept comes from writer Paul F Verhoeven, who gives us a Tenth Doctor story set mainly on an aeroplane. Our protagonist is Hawa Hassan, an actor on the brink of leaving the game altogether, who finds herself seated next to the Doctor as she flies to an audition for a horror movie. Far from reassuring her fears about flying, the Doctor does everything he can to unnerve Hawa: pointing out the poor construction of the very plane they’re flying in, and reminding her of recent air crashes (with no survivors). 

There’s no reason why somebody with a time machine would need to fly Economy, of course, and the Doctor confirms that he’s there on a mission. He suspects that the airline is using a very unusual source of energy to fuel their planes and save money. However, Hawa proves to be a match for him in the most surprising way, and his plans are thwarted. They’re forced to team up and think of a solution on the fly, turning Hawa’s professional anxiety around in the process. 

Without spoiling the plot, there’s more than a touch of Monsters Inc about this story, and a nod to one of the most underrated sci-fi tropes: the evil corporation with a comical disregard for the safety and comfort of their customers.  This is one of the best stories in the package: exciting and surprising, and not just witty but truly funny. 

Inside Story

Finally, we come to Inside Story: one of the most impressive contributions to Volume 11, and one that would have been a struggle to realise in any other medium. It’s a story of two minds sharing one body: a writer named Maria Morton, and an alien named Diamina, a being of pure thought. She’s one of the Betrothed, an alien race gifted with tremendous mental powers, and fleeing her planet: her story has provided the inspiration for Maria’s successful sci-fi books. 

The Seventh Doctor arrives on the scene, having spotted the familiarity with the real story of the Betrothed, and warns that the arrangement cannot last: the “stronger mind” will prevail over the other, eventually. Naturally, Maria and Diamina have other thoughts about the best solution. 

Our narrator is Ace herself, Sophie Aldred, whose reprisal of her character and affectionate impersonation of Sylvester McCoy give the story a real emotional weight. Inside Story sets up an intriguing relationship between Maria and Diamina, symbiotic not only for material reasons (Maria’s financial gain) but for more enduring ones (Diamina’s people are commemorated and remembered, even under the guise of fiction). 

It runs a little long: it wouldn’t feel shaggy if the other stories in the set hadn’t been told so economically. But Ben Tedds’ fantastic, vivid prose makes up for it, and the central relationship is quite beautiful. The nature of the relationship between Ace and The Doctor, one of the most enduring in all of Doctor Who, is also gently interrogated. 

Short Trips Volume 11 is no less than a showcase for Big Finish at its very best: eclectic, polished, and always original. It’s also a terrific entry point for new listeners, requiring only the barest familiarity with the TV adventures. Each of these stories offers something different, somehow finding new ways to play in the infinite sandbox that is Doctor Who.

Doctor Who: Short Trips Volume 11 is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here.

 

Synopsis

An audiobook anthology of six new Doctor Who short stories.

Rearguard by Alfie Shaw
Trooper Stron has been given a great honour by Sontar. He’s been chosen as the rearguard on Ubreus, protecting that world against anyone who would try to pry it from Sontaran control. The problem is, no one’s coming to claim Ubreus, and that means there’s no one for Stron to fight…

Messages from the Dead by Rochana Patel
Adric wants to help the Doctor. The Doctor doesn’t want Adric’s help. Banished to updating the TARDIS logbook, Adric has to record the tale of the Hermes, a doomed freighter they found in E-Space. With Romana gone, and only the past as a guide, Adric needs to work out how to make this new dynamic work before it’s too late for both him and the Doctor.

The Threshold by Felicia Barker
After a collision in the vortex, the Master is trapped in his TARDIS. Luckily, the Doctor has come to save him. Unluckily, the Doctor’s TARDIS has vanished. With the ship collapsing around them, can these arch-enemies put their rivalry aside long enough to survive?

Death Will Not Part Us by Alfie Shaw
On the 14th of August 3097, everything is fine on the world of Gernica. Except, on the same day, the planet is being destroyed. Also, on the 14th of August 3097, no one in the universe has heard of Gernica. The planet’s only chance to survive the horrors of the Time War lies with Viola Wintersmith. For Viola has a weapon that can destroy anything that stands in her way. A weapon that requires a unique form of ammunition. Her past.

Fear of Flying by Paul F Verhoeven
Hawa Hassan is terrified of flying. However, to make the most important audition in her life, Hawa’s braving boarding an aeroplane. After all, it’s just one flight. What could possibly go wrong?

Inside Story by Ben Tedds
Helen Howard wishes to make it known the plot, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons or time travellers should be inferred.

Cast

Dan Starkey (Stron / Sontaran General)
Jacob Dudman (The Doctor / Kantanoar)
Jon Culshaw (The Doctor / The Master)

Production Credits

Director Scott Handcock, Lisa Bowerman
Music by Ioan Morris, Joe Meiners, Richard Fox @ FoxYason Studios
Narrated by Matthew Waterhouse, Adèle Anderson, Ayesha Antoine, Sophie Aldred
Script Editor Scott Handcock, Alfie Shaw
Sound Design by Lee Adams, Joe Meiners, Richard Fox @ FoxYason Studios
Written by Ben Tedds, Rochana Patel, Felicia Barker, Paul F Verhoeven, Alfie Shaw
Senior Producer David Richardson
Cover Art by Mark Plastow
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs
Producer Alfie Shaw

Recommended Listening

Doctor Who: Short Trips: Dead Woman Walking

Doctor Who: Short Trips Volume 04

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