Book Notes: The Angel of the Crows

This morning I finished Sarah Monette’s latest novel, the second published under the pseudonym Katherine Addison. I still haven’t read the first, The Goblin Emperor, but I’m a great admirer of the The Doctrine of Labyrinths, an epic fantasy series published under her own name that’s as much about the mental traumas of its half-brother protagonists as it is about the fates of nations. I also quite enjoy her Kyle Murchison Booth stories, period horror tales in the mold of Lovecraft and M. R. James but with a modern psychological touch. At its best, Monette’s work breathes new life into familiar tropes of popular genre fiction, which more than compensates for recurrent issues with narrative momentum and structure. Alas, The Angel of the Crows has an abundance of the latter and not much of the former.

The premise is doubly high concept: ” ‘Fantasy Sherlock Holmes’ meets ‘Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper.’ ” Dr. J. H. Doyle returns from an encounter with a fallen angel in Afghanistan bearing a limp, a deeper spiritual wound, and at least one terrible secret. Doyle soon finds lodgings with Crow, an unconventional angel who assists the police and the public in solving bizarre crimes. The dynamic between Doyle, wounded, private, world-weary, and honorable, and Crow, unearthly, curious, naive, and blunt, is the novel’s strongest feature; this would, frankly, be a better book if it had more irrelevant dialogue and less plot. The Ripper murders are used to provide a connective tissue, but the bulk of the text is given over to retellings of three of the Holmes novels (no love for The Valley of Fear) and a couple short stories. Fantasy elements are sprinkled in, and some outdated attitudes toward race and ethnicity are adjusted, but there’s nothing especially clever about how Monette reworks the canon. There’s also remarkably little ratiocination, and what there is is rudimentary.

Even the fantasy elements feel perfunctory, with an emphasis on breadth rather than depth, as if Monette has invented just as much as she needs to push the story along and doesn’t want us to linger or look below the surface. In addition to three varieties of angels there are vampires, hemophages, werewolves, hell-hounds, and more, but only the angels and to a much lesser extent the vampires are developed in ways that make them more than stock fantasy creatures. I can’t help feeling that less would have been more in this case: the angels are really all the novel needs from a perspective of world-building, and what’s done with them is intriguing but underdeveloped.

The deepest problem is that, for all that there are six distinct major plotlines here, there’s no single story that needs telling. The recastings of the Holmes canon feel dutiful rather than inspired, and the Jack the Ripper thread, after several passages in which the characters awkwardly attempt to fit the senseless, deranged brutality of the Whitechapel murders into the world of the period detective story, is resolved in an astonishingly abrupt and perfunctory manner. Some important character developments grow out of that resolution, and those sequences are effective on a sentimental level, but as the climax to a novel that has put more emphasis on plot developments than on character, it’s lackluster.

That’s the paradox of The Angel of the Crows: it’s rich in incident and each section is briskly paced and eminently readable, yet it somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. This material might have been better served by being split into short stories and novellas, though I suppose that would only serve to highlight how uninspired the individual pastiches are. In the Kyle Murchison Booth stories, Monette reworks the tropes of the antiquarian ghost story to get at different types of human frailty, but all she does here is rearrange century-old plots and sprinkle some magic on top. I can only hope that if she writes more in this universe, which there’s certainly room to do, she’ll focus on developing story concepts that play to her strengths rather than her weaknesses.

Unliving History

If science fiction is as much about the present as the future, then alternate history is as much about the actual past as the imagined one. That Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham, is alternate history as wish fulfillment (or, to echo Laura Miller, as fan fiction) is both more obvious and less interesting than just what kind of wish fulfillment it is. Although this version of Hillary wins the 2016 election, that development occurs only in the last ten pages of the novel and is almost an afterthought. The emotional engine of this peculiar, stilted book is not so much a desire for Hillary’s victory as a desire for her to be morally deserving of that victory, to be worthy in all senses of the historic role of first female president. The intellectual and historical contortions involved in producing that outcome are a reminder of how limited and fragile the role of women in American political life still is.

Rodham‘s conceit, that Hillary declines Bill Clinton’s proposal of marriage and becomes a politician in her own right, doesn’t emerge until more than a third of the way through its 421 pages. First comes a long, dreary summary of their relationship: a passion simultaneously physical and intellectual, but riven by his infidelities and by hints of corruption and worse. Given the novel’s thesis that Bill Clinton is nothing but a political and moral liability for Hillary, the question of why their marriage has endured is obviously an important one, but this material, which is most at odds with the novel’s faux-political-memoir tone, is awkward and deeply unconvincing. Several reviewers have expressed discomfort with the sex scenes, but as Andrea Long Chu astutely observes in an otherwise dogmatic review, the problem is not that the reviewers are prudish but the novel is; a description of sex in which the most explicit word is “erection” doesn’t capture anything about passion. The attempts to convey intellectual ferment through snatches of dialogue are likewise artificial; they suggest only the author’s diligent research into period-appropriate one-line topics.

What actually distinguishes Bill and Hillary’s relationship in Rodham is that it’s the only one in which a man demonstrates intense physical desire for her. There are other boyfriends before and after him, but their attraction to her seems more dutiful, more subordinated to idealized romance. Given where this portrait of Bill Clinton ultimately goes, that’s probably meant to reflect well on the other men, but readers less eager to envision a Hillary surgically excised from the man with whom she has spent two-thirds of her life may note an unintended consequence. This is a view of the Clintons’ relationship that could have come from the crudest Hillary-hater: that they stayed together because he wanted her when no one else did, and that that was only because he wanted every woman he saw, whether she wanted him or not.

That “whether she wanted him or not” is key, because the most important thing about the Bill Clinton of Rodham is not that he’s a serial philanderer and a pig, which the real Bill Clinton unquestionably is, but that he’s also plainly guilty of sexual assault. (The novel’s preferred framing is “credibly accused of sexual assault,” but it exists in that heady intellectual space where a credible accusation is any accusation that’s not obviously false, and where credibly accused means presumptively guilty. One wonders what Sittenfeld makes of Tara Reade.) One of the things that pushes the novel’s Hillary to break up with Bill in 1974 is an encounter with a woman who accuses him of forcing himself on her. Given the novel’s quirk of renaming every character who isn’t an elected politician, she isn’t called Juanita Broaddrick, and the timing is off, but that’s the obvious point of comparison. The novel Hillary of 1974 doesn’t know what to make of that claim; by 2015, she’ll be more confident.

Before 2015, though, the novel makes a stop in 1991, when the Anita Hill hearings and Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon’s vote to confirm Clarence Thomas provide a launching pad for law professor Hillary Rodham’s political career, as they did in the real world for Carol Moseley Braun. Braun also seeks the seat in the novel, and the decision to run against her is one of the few flaws the fictional Hillary is permitted to have, and one of the few moments where daylight seems to exist, however fleetingly, between the narrator and the author. That this moment feels pro forma is a sign of Sittenfeld’s ill ease at giving this Hillary any complexity, but more than that it’s a sign of how unable she is to write about political compromise on a level of issue rather than image. She understands the superficial bad optics of a white woman appropriating a black woman’s challenge to a white man’s dismissal of another black woman, and can capture the white woman’s naive ignorance of those optics, but that’s about as far as she can go. Literally the only thing the novel mentions about Moseley Braun other than her race is that she shows up late to a fundraiser but is an impressive campaigner when she does get there. If Sittenfeld had made any effort to imagine the Clinton vs. Moseley Braun campaign on a substantive level, this reliance on stereotypes about black people being late would be at least a little less offensive than it is.

The other strand of Hillary Rodham’s 1991 life is her quasi-romance with a married colleague. All they ever do is hold hands– you can see why I call the novel prudish– but nonetheless Hillary holds herself morally culpable as if they were having a real affair– you can see what I mean about ill ease with complexity. She ends the relationship when she decides to run for office. That this colleague eventually commits suicide for reasons unrelated to Hillary is, I can only guess, meant to create a sort of parallel to the suicide of Vince Foster, but his character is so thinly drawn that the effect is one of mawkish sentimentality: this is just another tragedy for poor unlucky-in-love Hillary.

By 2015 Hillary Rodham is, like Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Her main opponent, however, is not Bernie Sanders, who goes unmentioned in this novel, but Bill Clinton. In the novel’s universe, Bill’s political career went just as it did in ours until the 1992 campaign, when his 60 Minutes interview about Gennifer Flowers fell apart because his wife, lacking Hillary’s composure, broke down crying, dooming his campaign. Disgusted at his loss, Bill left politics, moving to California and becoming a billionaire venture capitalist. Then, in 2015, he re-enters politics and, despite salacious rumors about drug-fueled Silicon Valley sex parties and darker ones about a history of sexual assault, he becomes a strong contender for the Democratic nomination, one whose supporters express their opposition to Hillary by chanting “Shut her up!”

I think it’s important, especially given how few reviews have done so, to stop a moment and underline what ludicrous bullshit every bit of that is. Unnecessary parallels with real events are a fixture of cheesy, plot-driven alternate history, but the extent to which this novel remixes 2015 with Bill Clinton in the role of Donald Trump is breathtakingly bizarre, especially since Trump himself appears in the novel, in the unlikely (by which I mean “impossible”) role of a Hillary surrogate. A sequence where Hillary accepts an endorsement from Trump that is drawn verbatim from Trump’s own anti-immigrant announcement speech is the capstone of a self-indulgent reworking so complete that “through the looking glass” doesn’t begin to cover it.

I hold no brief for Bill Clinton. The nicest thing I can say about him is that given the state of the country in the 1990s he was probably the best the Democrats could have hoped for, and I’m not even sure I believe that. But to portray him as a man whose entire political career could hinge on his wife’s demeanor in one interview, a man who would turn his back on public service after one failed primary campaign, a man who would indulge gross misogyny at his own political rallies? To take at face value every sexual allegation that emerged from the fever swamp of Arkansas politics? I don’t have to think highly of Bill Clinton to recognize that this is pure scapegoating, an almost ritualistic separation of everything that’s undesirable about “the Clintons” as historical figures into a saintly fictional Hillary and a devilish fictional Bill. That the real Hillary has a complicated political history of her own is, in a context where you can simply wish any unpleasant events away, no problem at all.

In the novel’s 1992, George Bush and Dan Quayle were reelected. The Democrats took back the White House in 1996, but Jerry Brown’s one-term presidency was followed by two terms of John McCain. The 9/11 attacks still happened, and the Iraq War apparently did as well, because the snippet from Trump’s repurposed announcement speech still talks about how we should have taken the oil when we left. But even though this Hillary was a senator in 2002, there’s no mention of how she voted on the AUMF, or of any effect that vote might have had on her political future. That Trump quote is the only appearance of the word “Iraq” in the novel, and Hillary Rodham’s great political error in the 2000s is not a vote but a quote: Sittenfeld hamhandedly relocates Hillary Clinton’s 1992 remark about baking cookies and having teas into Hillary Rodham’s abortive 2004 run for the presidency. She runs for president again in 2008, seeing herself (in one of the novel’s rare nods toward anything like political realism) as a potential VP candidate at best, but somehow, as in real history, she and Barack Obama become the front-runners and have more or less the same race they did in our 2008. Hillary Rodham does not, however, became Secretary of State, thus neatly erasing the invasion of Libya, the Benghazi attacks, and the private email server from her history.

Let me be clear: I think that all of these “scandals”– the Iraq vote, Libya, Benghazi, EMAILS!!– range from overblown to complete garbage. But they did happen, and they’re as much a part of why people reacted to Hillary 2016 they way they did as Clinton baggage and rank sexism. A Hillary who, despite 24 years in the Senate, is essentially tabula rasa is an utter fantasy. There’s a scene where a Rodham aide responds to Obama’s 2008 landslide by saying, “And all these years I believed Americans were more racist than sexist.” Rodham replies, “Did you really? … Given when the Fifteenth Amendment passed and when the Nineteenth did?” Leaving the historical illiteracy to one side (the real Hillary, I hope, also knows why the Reconstruction Amendments were possible and when the Voting Rights Act passed), what that exchange misses about 2008 is the contrast between Obama’s theoretically-transformative novelty and Clinton’s potentially-stagnating experience. That was a myth– Obama was always going to be the same kind of Democrat as Clinton– but it was a convincing myth because Obama had been on the national stage for all of two years before he began running for president. What Rodham attempts to do is to make Hillary 2016 into the same kind of empty vessel, empty not just of past actions she might have to explain away, but also of nuanced positions on any current issue.

This is where the absence of Bernie Sanders from the novel’s 2015 becomes significant; in the absence of a candidate who creates a meaningful ideological contrast with Hillary, the campaign can rest on the image-driven level where Sittenfeld is most comfortable. In an interview, she responded to a straw-man version of this criticism by acting as though she was being asked to turn the novel into a white paper, but there’s a large excluded middle between “really nitty-gritty with various Supreme Court decisions” and the ideological wasteland of Rodham. What made Hillary Clinton different from other first ladies (like Laura Bush, the subject of Sittenfeld’s roman a clef American Wife) was that she got into the political rather than limiting herself to the ceremonial and the uncontroversial, that she cared about the “nitty-gritty.” To create a Hillary free to think purely for herself and then not allow her to think anything beyond a few liberal bromides is as great an insult to the actual woman as the implication that she’d be better off without her husband of forty-five years.

The author doesn’t, I should make clear, have any obligations to Hillary Clinton, who has chosen to be a public figure, and is thus fair game for almost anything, even as an absurd a love letter as this. But there’s a bitter irony in the fact that Sittenfeld, who obviously cares about how unfairly our discourse treats female politicians, is at such pains to make Hillary Rodham almost preternaturally moral. The novel’s climax is a debate speech where Rodham calls out the public obsession with her “likability,” but what is this novel except an extended argument that people ought to like her? She is allowed token flaws– elbowing out Moseley Braun, accepting Trump’s endorsement– but the novel rushes past these matters so quickly there’s no time to take them seriously as compromises. Far more space is spent on her compassion– the bond she forms with a cancer patient who visits one of her rallies– and her diligent scrupulousness.

Freeing Hillary from Bill Clinton doesn’t just separate her from his moral failings. It also takes away the figurative asterisk that will forever remind us that the first female presidential candidate from a major party was also the wife of a former president, just as many of the first female members of Congress were wives and daughters of male politicians. It’s an ugly truth, but it is a truth, and I’m not sure that Rodham does us any favors by ignoring it. Would Hillary Rodham, or any other woman, have been a credible presidential candidate in 2016, let alone 2008? The fact that 2020, a year in which an unprecedented number of women were running for the Democratic nomination, quickly became a race between two elderly white men suggests a dispiriting answer. I can only echo Nora Caplan-Bricker’s observation that the best comparison to Hillary Rodham might be Amy Klobuchar.

I’ve said very little about Rodham as an example of the novel form, because it barely is one. Its voice is unquestionably that of a political memoir, full of trivial scene-setting, stilted dialogue, and abrupt summation, and light on unvarnished human emotion. I don’t know whether Sittenfeld meant even the most intense moments of Rodham’s life to feel curated, as if the narrator is carefully controlling for her reader’s expectations, but that’s the effect. A more sophisticated novel would generate at least some irony around this, but I think we’re meant to take Hillary Rodham at face value. If Sittenfeld had embraced the cod-memoir angle and fleshed out the underexplored aspects of Rodham’s life at the expense of the flabby soap opera of her relationship with Bill Clinton, this might have worked as a formal experiment. As it stands, I’m left with the impression that she simply couldn’t find a voice for Hillary Rodham without aping the tone of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs. That’s the novel’s greatest flaw: it wants to create a Hillary who stands alone, but its protagonist is every bit as artificial, and every bit as defined by her relationship with Bill Clinton, as the one in the popular imagination.

Big Finish in Brief: Torchwood Soho and Blood on Santa’s Claw

One of the ways Big Finish has worked around availability issues with the main cast of TV Torchwood is by elaborating on the Institute’s history, from its founding by Queen Victoria to an American outpost in the 1970s to the last hurrah of Torchwood One under Yvonne Hartman. Perhaps the most prominent addition, though, is Norton Folgate, a 1950s Torchwood agent played (to the hilt) by Samuel Barnett. Norton is gay, sarcastic, playful, and, in true Torchwood fashion, utterly coldhearted when he needs to be. Big Finish have thrown into pretty much every Torchwood sub-range at one time or another, but he’s so much fun that I’m never sorry to hear him turn up. And now he has his own spin-off, with frequent foil Andy Davidson along for the ride.

In addition to Norton and Andy, Parasite also introduces two new characters, Torchwood operative Lizbeth Hayhoe (Dervla Kirwan) and journalist Gideon Lyme (Joe Shire). It shouldn’t be difficult for a three-disc story to make consistent and effective use of four characters, but the only real drawback of Parasite is that its structure is messy. It doesn’t help that for some reason each disc is divided into two episodes, even though that means that a couple of them are only twenty minutes long and all three mid-disc cliffhangers feel forced. Two of the six episodes jump to a different chronological moment to show events from a particular character’s perspective, and while it’s done effectively enough I’m not sure that level of detail was necessary. At another point a science fiction plot device is used to, essentially, put Andy and Gideon on pause for a while so Norton can shape events by himself.

I think the underlying problem is that there isn’t really enough plot here for a three-disc story. The same was true of Outbreak and Believe, the other two Big Finish Torchwood mini-series. I suspect there’s a budgetary trade-off that requires box sets at this length whether or not there’s sufficient incident to warrant them. If you described these events in a linear fashion, with a flashback or two as appropriate, you’d have a tight two-disc release. But honestly, when the characters are as much fun as this, I don’t mind the muddle. Norton and Andy’s comic double act is well-established at this point, and Joe Shire nails both Gideon’s exasperation at being caught up in their antics and his deeper weariness as a black man in 1950s London. Dervla Kirwan does what she can as Lizbeth, but all she really has for characterization is “competent woman undermined by sexism,” which is a well Big Finish has gone to several times in recent years (River Song, Helen Sinclair, Constance Clarke). Don’t get me wrong: that’s an important story to tell, but it should be the story, and it should form part of the characterization, not all of it.

After a fairly lighthearted first couple discs, the story takes a darker turn in the first half of disc three. I’m not sure it’s quite as dark as it thinks it is– Torchwood has certainly been to worse places– but it creates an appropriate counterbalance to the whimsy. That’s also what makes Norton Folgate work as a character: no matter how flamboyant his dialogue, no matter how arch Barnett’s delivery, there’s a ruthlessness to him that saves him from being a gay stereotype and makes him the perfect Torchwood character. I’d love to hear more of Torchwood Soho. I suspect a move to multiple single-disc stories would help to resolve its growing pains.

I’m going to say more about the plot of Blood on Santa’s Claw and Other Stories than I typically would, because my issue with it is that I think a lot of what happens is predictable, and you can’t talk about why things are predictable without giving away what they are. As the “and other stories” in the title suggests, this seems to be another anthology of one-part stories, with established writer Nev Fountain joined by three newcomers. Seems, that is, unless you bother to spend even a few seconds looking at the contributors’ names, in which case you will probably deduce that Al(an) Terigo, Su(san) Dennom, and A(ndrew) Lias are not new writers at all, but pen names. (I suppose we’re lucky they only needed three, or we might have been introduced to Nomia DePlume.) And, noticing the pen names, you may suspect that the reason for them is that the four stories are not as unconnected as they appear.

I could, perhaps, forgive the predictability if the twist were executed with elan, but as the revelations are handed out in part four, you don’t feel like an elegant tapestry has just been revealed; you feel like three stories that were pleasantly quirky in their own distinct ways have been raggedly stitched together for the sake of playing a game with the listener. The reveal about the mysterious new companion who was already an established part of the TARDIS crew in episode one works better; it was painfully obvious given the lack of a proper introduction that Something Was Up with him, but the explanation of what that is ties elements of the previous episodes together with a neatness that the connections between episodes themselves don’t offer.

I’m critiquing the whole for being less than the sum of its parts, but the parts themselves are rather nice; taken as two one-parters and a two-parter with callbacks it works well enough. The conceit in “Blood on Santa’s Claw” is pretty self-consciously wacky, and it doesn’t even lead to many good jokes, but I admire its oddball ambition. “The Baby Awakes” is the best story in the set, a nice slice of science fiction about designer babies that offers character work for Peri that Nicola Bryant… well, she does her best with it, but she shares with Janet Fielding the unfortunate habit of responding to emotionally heavy scenes by increasing the pitch and volume of her delivery rather than imbuing it with genuine feeling. The second disc throws in some Gallifreyan lore that isn’t any more interesting than any other Gallifreyan lore we’ve ever heard about, but the action is brisk and there are some good character moments for the Doctor and Peri. Like Parasite, Blood on Santa’s Claw and Other Stories hasn’t found the most natural form for the story it’s telling, but like Parasite, it has such a distinctive charm that I can’t help enjoying it anyway.

Nobody Knows Anything

I never watch the party conventions. I don’t pay attention to political speeches even when they’re of potential historical significance (my high school American history teacher frowned at us when no one in the class had watched Bush’s speech announcing the Iraq War, but I was and am unrepentant), so I’m certainly not going to watch a convention. Journalists provide breathless coverage of the conventions because they’re one of the key rituals of the election calendar, but like most rituals they have no evident impact on real-world events. Pundits spend a lot of time debating whether this or that will “move the needle,” even though they know any shifts in polling will be fleeting. That’s especially true of Biden vs. Trump, where the polling has been remarkably stable for months. This is deeply frustrating to horse race journalists, for whom the story of an election year is not who wins and what the consequences of that victory will be in the following four years, but the ebb and flow of the campaign itself. They’re like food service workers chatting about how bad the lunch rush was that day, because it’s there to talk about, not because it’s going to have any effect on annual profits.

Given a Republican convention renominating Donald Trump, the effects of this approach are disconcerting, to say the least. That pundits can with watch a performance that alternates between obvious violations of federal law and chants of “Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood” and respond with “Interesting strategy, let’s see how it plays in the Midwestern battlegrounds” is a major part of why we’re in this mess in the first place. In 2016 the press abrogated their duty to treat Trump’s conduct as dangerous because they were so certain the voters would reject him that they scrutinized Hillary Clinton as if she were the president-elect; now that Trump is the incumbent they’re so desperately afraid of getting it wrong again that they actively look for opportunities to treat as a serious contender an incumbent who’s badly behind in the polls and is currently bungling multiple national crises. This is an outgrowth of the ingrained belief that being allied with neither political party is the same as being neutral. But of course it isn’t that simple. Speculating endlessly about the existence of shy Trump voters gives intellectual cover to people who might otherwise have decided that he deserves to be despised. Repeating “Trump could still turn it around” often enough can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The latest flurry of panic is about a single post-convention poll in which Trump is up by two points, and about the possibility that the ongoing violence and unrest in Wisconsin might benefit him. There are arguments against this panic (it’s one poll that still shows him down by six at what should be his high-water mark, the previous round of protests and looting in May hurt rather than helped him), but here’s the reality: nobody really knows what effect anything will have. The single most important lesson of 2016 is not about racism or economic anxiety or sexism or the Midwest or the Electoral College or Russia. It’s about how little is predictable in a hyper-polarized environment where people are constantly bombarded with information from dozens of different low-quality sources. Pundits have learned to give the impression that they’re savvy, but all they really know how to do is make facile comparisons to previous election cycles. The favorites right now, for obvious reasons, are 1968, when a Republican won during a time of unrest by making law and order one of his slogans, and 1988, when the Republicans kept the White House after a Democratic challenger who was painted as soft on crime collapsed in the polls following the Republican convention.

Someone remarked on Twitter recently that the Trump era has given the left an insight into what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety. (I won’t even get into what it’s done to those of us who were already chronically anxious.) Perhaps the most important thing about coping with anxiety is learning not to let it paralyze you, because then your paralysis is just one more thing to be anxious about. When you allow a piece of news that might be good for Donald Trump to stop you from working to defeat him, you’re guaranteeing that it’s good news for him. And the upside of “nobody knows anything” is that most good news in a competitive election is equivocal. Take those historical comparisons. What if the best comparisons are not 1968 and 1988, but 1992, when a summer of unrest was followed by the ouster of a Republican incumbent, and 1980, when an incumbent who squeaked into office against an unpopular opponent lost resoundingly? And what if the parallel to 1968 is not “the Republican wins” but “the challenger who was vice-president to an extremely popular president wins because the incumbent couldn’t maintain order”?

I have no idea what’s going to happen in November. Nor does anyone else. The left should be preparing itself both psychologically and practically for the possibility of a loss, because that’s what everyone should do before every presidential election. But it should also be preparing itself for, and working to ensure, a victory. It’s hard to stay positive these days; the fact that this election is within ten points is depressing for anyone with a progressive sense of what this country should stand for. But you have to fight the war where the front lines are today, not where you’d like them to be tomorrow. One way or another, this moment will pass; to give in to a sense of defeat is to surrender your chance to influence the moment that will follow.

Running Away from the Consequences

[This review reveals more about something that happens near the end of the story Thin Time than I would like. I’ve been as vague as I can, but it’s something that’s impossible to discuss at all without making it easy to guess some of the specifics.]

Part of the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Big Finish was the rescheduling of some of the final monthly range releases. What was originally planned as a run of four for the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and Marc was broken up, apparently because one of the stories in the second half bore an unfortunate resemblance to world events. So we’ve gotten Time Apart and Thin Time/Madquake now, with the other two to follow sometime in 2021. It’s a logical division point, since these two follow the characters on their separate journeys after the Doctor departs in Conversion, and the ending of Madquake sees them reunited to, presumably, travel together again in the remaining stories. Time Apart is a collection of four one-part stories featuring the Doctor at different moments in Earth history, while Thin Time also follows the Doctor; Madquake shows the companions coping with being left behind.

I’m a big fan of Big Finish’s anthologies of one-parters in principle, but in practice they often show up the perils of the twenty-five minute drama: it’s very hard to find a meaningful role for the Doctor, his companion(s), and multiple guest characters and also tell a story of any complexity. Having the Doctor on his own in Time Apart eases that pressure. These four stories aren’t deep or complicated by any means, but they never feel rushed, even the one of the four that doesn’t quite work.

Things start strong with Steve Lyons’ “Ghost Station,” a spooky, melancholy two-hander where the Doctor helps a border guard in an East Berlin underground station solve his partner’s murder. Given that I’ve said it’s a two-hander, you may be thinking there aren’t exactly a lot of suspects, but Lyons still finds a way to a surprising, emotionally resonant finale that earns its guarded optimism. The follow-up, Jacqueline Rayner’s “The Bridge Master,” finds the Doctor in a medieval village, cursed to die so his shadow can protect the village by guarding its newly-built bridge. This is standard fantasy-with-an-SF-explanation territory, and it doesn’t have much to offer in the way of surprises, but it’s pleasant and well-paced, and the way the resolution embodies the Doctor’s optimism and the theme of forgiveness is a nice touch.

In “What Lurks Down Under” by the late Tommy Donbavand, the TARDIS lands on a ship transporting a group of convicts to Australia. Almost everyone onboard has fallen into a mysterious trance. The reason why leads to one of those scenarios where the (quasi)-companion can give a heartwarming, thematically resonant speech to the antagonist. This has been done better elsewhere, but it works well enough here. The same can be said of the Doctor’s gentle refusal to take the quasi-companion along with him. The collection comes to an anti-climactic end in Kate Thorman’s “The Dancing Plague.” At 21 minutes it’s perhaps the shortest Doctor Who story Big Finish have ever produced, but it’s not short enough to make the ending come off as intended. It’s the kind of thing that would sound clever if I described it to you, but experienced as the payoff to a full narrative it’s limp, and makes you wonder why they bothered. If there were any substance to the guest characters or any evocation of the setting it might matter less, but everything feels very run of the mill.

The Doctor’s solo journeying comes to an end in Thin Time, when his arrival in a celebrated novelist’s London home on Halloween 1892 lands him smack in the middle of an alien presence’s invasion of our dimension. The Doctor soon discovers that reality itself is up for grabs, but what will be the cost of putting things back to the way they should be? Thin Time is a thin story as far as plot development goes– it’s largely a matter of finding ways for the Doctor not to achieve anything until the correct resolution dawns on him right at the end– but it manages not to feel thin. Its attempt to build emotional resonance around one of the guest characters is too earnest; all it does is tip the reader off that a tragic twist is surely coming down the line. The information about that twist ends up being delivered by a prominent Doctor Who character who has been recast for this release. My problem here isn’t so much that the new actor does a bad impression (it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either), as that they give a weak performance. That’s the peril of transitioning impressionists from comedy bits and audiobook narration to full-cast drama; someone who can sound like (for an example, not the person recast here) Nicholas Courtney when delivering a couple lines of dialogue here and there is not going to be able to play a scene as well as he does. And the scene here is of no small emotional import; having it poorly done has major implications even if you buy its dramatic logic– which I don’t, but more about that later. There are other characters who could have delivered this same message without any recasting being necessary, to a point where one wonders whether this was less a creative decision and more a trial balloon.

Madquake is by Guy Adams, who also wrote Conversion, and like Conversion it starts off seeming like it might be a strong, quiet character piece, and then part two turns into a standard runaround with a returning monster. The first half is very nice; Marc, Nyssa, and Tegan are coping in their different ways with the Doctor having abandoned them, and Marc is also questioning his own humanity in the face of his near-conversion into a Cyberman. I could wish that Marc showed even the remotest sign that he used to be a Roman from the first century BCE, but I suppose it’s time to give up on that. Callanna, the planet where the Doctor left them, has a healing, therapeutic atmosphere, but Tegan’s in no mood to have the edge taken off; she just wants to leave and get on with her life. Nyssa has faith that the Doctor will come back. But if the Slitheen have their way, there might not be anything to come back to…

Look. Having the Cybermen in Conversion at least made some narrative sense. There didn’t need to be an action-driven confrontation with them, but they were undeniably pertinent. Dropping a comedy monster from 15 years ago into a story about grief doesn’t make a lick of sense. Nor does holding back their presence until the cliffhanger of a two-part story when they’re on the cover and in the cover blurb. The use of the Slitheen here isn’t badly done or anything, though playing them straight as cruel hunter villains only underlines that whether you loved or hated them in “Aliens of London”/”World War Three” they were clearly designed to walk the line between creepy and funny. The problem is that they take over the story so completely that there’s no emotional development or resolution at all, and therefore no point to all the character work in part one. Everyone is still where they were when the Doctor left, and now he’s back they’ll presumably be expressing to him all the emotional beats they expressed here.

I’ll say this for part one of Madquake, though: it’s the only time out of all four discs of these two releases that I felt like the emotional stakes were being taken seriously. The Doctor feeling so overwhelmed that he abandons his companions on a random planet ought to be a huge deal, but the scripts and Davison’s performance in Time Apart and Thin Time never suggest that he’s feeling or acting particularly outside the norm. Occasionally he’ll say something wistful about being alone or about having suffered losses, but there’s no attempt to grapple with this specific situation. As I’ve said before, I applaud Big Finish for trying to do arc storytelling, but an arc isn’t something you can push into the background whenever it suits you. Time Apart shouldn’t be four stories that could fit anywhere into the Fifth Doctor’s life, but it is. The final scene of Thin Time, where [SPOILER] warns the Doctor about the consequences of what he’s done, falls flat not just because [SPOILER] is poorly performed but also because the portentousness of the scene doesn’t ring true to how casually the Doctor’s behavior has otherwise been treated.

The effect of all this is that these two releases feel less like a continuation of the arc and more like a hiatus in it to tell some standalone stories. They’re solid standalone stories, edging toward exceptional in the case of “Ghost Station,” but being positioned between weightier releases makes their unambitious adequacy that much more noticeable. It’s unfortunate that the ending of Madquake, which sets the arc back on track, won’t be followed up on for another five or six months. Here’s hoping it’s worth the wait.

Book Notes: Alan Bradley and Roz Chast

It was a productive weekend for reading; in addition to the Margaret Oliphant and Robert Shearman books I wrote about yesterday, I also finished Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a series of fairly cozy mysteries about Flavia de Luce, a preteen girl in 1950s England for whom the word “precocious” might have been invented. She’s a talented amateur chemist, and when a mysterious stranger winds up dead at Buckshaw, her family’s country manor, she turns detective as well. I’m not averse to a cheerfully absurd old-fashioned mystery, but I’m not necessarily a great fan of them either, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about an eleven-year-old turning out to be a brilliant crimesolver. What saves the book is Flavia’s delightfully acerbic tongue, and the awareness of the tragedies of life that bubbles away just below the novel’s surface, which keep things from turning twee. The deductive leaps Flavia makes to keep the plot moving wouldn’t feel terribly plausible for any detective, let alone a tween on a bicycle named Gladys; they bring to mind a parodic exchange from a Dave Barry column (“How did you know Miss Prendergast never heard the cathedral bell?” … “You see, Lord Copperbottom is left-handed, so the gardener couldn’t possibly have taken the key from the night stand.”) But as ridiculously insightful detectives go, Flavia is definitely a keeper, and I look forward to buying the next entry in the series when I can get a good deal on the e-book.

The Roz Chast book is a short memoir about her elderly parents’ decline and death. Anyone familiar with Chast’s cartoons for The New Yorker will know that she’s capable of mining a lot of humor from that unpleasant subject, but Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is also a very sad and painfully honest book. In a mix of handwritten texts, illustrations, photographs, and cartoons, Chast explores not just the costs (both emotional and financial) of end-of-life care, but also her parents’ relationships with each other and with her. It’s a relatively brief book, but Chast makes every word count. There’s a lot of love on display, but no false sentimentality, about her parents or about herself. It’s a hell of a book, and I’d love to see her write another memoir like it some day, on whatever subject she might choose.

Book Notes: Robert Shearman and Margaret Oliphant

This weekend I finished reading Margaret Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks and Robert Shearman’s We All Hear Stories in the Dark.

I bought Miss Marjoribanks on a whim after reading Tom Crewe’s recent article about it in the London Review of Books. I’d heard of Oliphant before as a writer of ghost stories, but I was utterly unprepared for this delightful blend of domestic comedy and serious social novel. As Elisabeth Jay’s fine introduction to the Penguin Classics edition notes, it’s hard to be sure quite how Oliphant feels about her title character. It’s clear enough that Lucilla, who uses the admirable goal of “being a comfort to her dear papa” as a pretext for reshaping the social life of the country-town of Carlingford to meet her own standards, and who approaches even the most mundane domestic challenge like a general making battle plans with the fate of the nation on the line, is meant to be a source of amusement. But it’s equally clear that Lucilla is, within her limited field of endeavor, a kind of genius. The question, then, is how much we’re meant to share Lucilla’s belief in the sacred importance of a refined and graceful social order. I don’t have anything approaching an answer to that question, which is part of why this is a book notes post rather than an essay, but I do know that I want to read more Oliphant. (I’ve already bought a collection of her ghost stories.) The fact that very little of her work is available in high-quality digital editions, or even in print, in the U. S. is a frustrating reminder that I don’t have easy access to an academic library. Finally, a mere 12 years after graduation, a reason other than student loans to regret not pursuing an academic career…

I’ve been a fan of Robert Shearman’s since I started getting into Big Finish following the first series of the revived Doctor Who in 2005 (which included Shearman’s own “Dalek”). I haven’t kept up on his short fiction in recent years, though; I bought and read what appears to be a signed copy of his first collection, Tiny Deaths, a while back, and I have unread digital copies of his two ChiZine Publications collections, but I’ve cut way back on my weird fiction reading and collecting in recent years. When I followed Shearman for the “Dalek” tweetalong earlier this year, though, I found out about We All Hear Stories in the Dark, and knew I had to buy it and dive in. This massive three-volume collection is set up like a choose-your-own-adventure: after each story you’re given five choices for where to go next, based on some connection or similarity, however tangential. There’s only one route that will take you through all of the 101 (or so) stories without any repetition, but the branching paths are cleverly enough set up that it’s still easy to get most of the way through the collection without retracing your steps; I had read about 90 of the stories before I gave up and just went through in order picking off the stragglers.

This is a neat structural approach, obviously, and it means that most readers will have radically different experiences of the collection (though skipping around more or less at will in a book of stories is something plenty of people do whether the author intends them to or not– I used to sort them by length and get the short ones out of the way first, and I know I’m not the only person who ever had that quirk), but of course it wouldn’t amount to much if the stories weren’t good. Fortunately they are. Shearman tempts fate by calling one of them “The Disappointing Story in the Book” (it’s not a disappointment, actually, but a charming postmodern gag about the value of imperfection), but the striking thing is how consistently good the stories are. Nothing feels like it was thrown in to round out the 101.

I’m nowhere near mad enough to try commenting on every single story (though the indefatigable Des Lewis did so in one of his legendary real-time reviews), which makes me strangely reluctant to bother singling any of them out. There are ghost stories, both traditional and deeply unconventional. There are comedies and tragedies (rather more of the latter), and the odd tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. There are retold fairy tales, absurdist takes on Christianity that are somehow never irreverent, stories about the meaning of storytelling. There are even a couple stories where the surprise twist is that nothing strange is happening, or nothing stranger than the appalling losses and small gains of ordinary life. There’s quite a lot of grief, along with its close companions depression and guilt. There are more clowns than I suspect you would find in 101 stories chosen at random.

It shouldn’t be possible to sum up what a collection this massive is “about,” but I could, as could most people who have read it carefully and peeked into all its nooks and crannies. But to do so would give too much away on a couple different levels, and reduce the brilliance of what Shearman has achieved here. And as if Shearman’s own brilliance wasn’t enough, each story has an illustration by Reggie Oliver, who aside from being a first-rate writer of strange stories is an artist with an excellent sense of how to convey the disturbing and the uncanny. I’m not sure I can recommend We All Hear Stories in the Dark to readers who are new to Shearman, simply because it’s such a substantial project and his brand of strangeness is not for all tastes. The two ChiZine best-of collections are probably more appropriate for new readers (and include a number of stories that can also be found here). But if you know enough about Shearman that the only question is whether this collection is him firing on all cylinders, you can be sure that it is.

…And, oh, all right, I’ll talk about a couple favorites. The first choice you make is whether you want a story that’s sad, one that’s funny, one that’s bitter, one that’s sweet, or one that’s dark. Which is a false choice, because almost every story in the collection is all five. But in any case: if you pick the dark one, as I did to start with, one of your options afterward will be to pick something that’s even darker. And that story has the same option, and so on, leading you down a hole into what might be the darkest story in the book. Or not. Personally, I’d say not. For me, the darkest story might be one of the last ones I read, “Peckish,” a fairy tale turned inside out so that you can see the blood and bones and flesh… and taste them, if you’re so inclined. Or it might be “Please Me,” one of the first stories I read, in which the darkness seems to come from the games a spoiled rich girl plays as she experiences a sexual awakening, but which spins out at the end into something entirely different. One of Shearman’s many talents is that ability to devise concepts and characters that seem to be leading inexorably in one direction, and then go somewhere entirely in a way that’s still perfectly true. Although I just finished the 1700+ pages of We All Hear Stories in the Dark after several weeks of reading, I’m already looking forward to starting over from the beginning. I have the map this time, but I’m still eager to get lost in the woods.

A Roman Question

Season 19 of Doctor Who returned to a dynamic not seen since the show’s early days, when there were often not one or two companions traveling alongside the Doctor, but three. This second “crowded TARDIS” era didn’t last long before Adric was killed off in “Earthshock,” though it would briefly return the following season between Turlough’s arrival and Nyssa’s departure (and of course the current version of the show has seen it come around yet again). Big Finish has now squeezed in another four-regulars lineup, one that isn’t just set shortly after Adric’s death but also tries, at least to some degree, to follow up on it. The third companion is again male, but in the place of the brilliant, immature Alzarian, we have Marc, a Roman slave from the first century BCE. How well does he fit in? Appropriately enough for a character from the past, it depends on what kind of historical perspective you’re using. If you judge him as if he’d been created in the 1980s, he’s fine; if you judge him as a product of the twenty-first century, he’s less so.

Marc is introduced in Tartarus, which is also a bit of a crossover between Doctor Who and Big Finish’s series Cicero, in which Samuel Barnett plays the famous statesman. That and David Llewellyn’s authorship are the only major links, though the same actress also plays the minor (in this play; I haven’t heard Cicero yet) role of Cicero’s wife in both. The Doctor has come to pay a visit to one of his personal heroes, with Nyssa and Tegan in tow. But the dinner party they crash takes the usual Doctor Who turn, and soon the Doctor, his companions, and Cicero are trapped in a world where Roman mythology seems to have come to life. There’s a puzzle to solve and a quest to complete, but what sacrifices will be required at journey’s end, and from whom?

Tartarus makes for very pleasant listening– the plot is brisk and the performances are largely excellent, whether it’s Davison’s Doctor alternately fanboying over and bickering with Cicero, Barnett being snippy and instinctively commanding back, Tegan showing her usual impatience with the inequities of Roman society, or Tracy-Ann Oberman in what’s sort of the title role– but in hindsight I don’t think it does as much as it might with the mythology-come-to-life angle. It’s the kind of thing Doctor Who and other SFF franchises have done often enough, and making it feel fully rewarding here would require a great deal of specificity and cleverness. The ultimate explanation is also an old science fiction trope, one that pays off in a way that feels more like a homily than the conclusion the character involved would actually make in the real world. A major part of the climax involves Cicero’s rhetorical skill, and I don’t mean it as any slight on David Llewellyn’s skill (not to mention Samuel Barnett’s) if I suggest that that moment doesn’t quite come off. I appreciate the effort nonetheless, and I look forward to hearing more of their collaboration when the Big Finish Originals come to the top of my Big Finish backlog.

Tartarus is the first in an initial trilogy of Marc stories, and the end of its charming-but-otherwise-pointless framing device (in which Cicero narrates the story’s events in a letter) sets a pretty effective hook for Marc’s ongoing story. Before that hook leads anywhere, though, we have Interstitial/Feast of Fear, another pair of two-parters. This is the first time I’ve felt that two-parters from Big Finish were definitely benefiting from the shorter format; unfortunately, it’s not because they’re great, but because being shorter makes them unobjectionable instead of outright dull. They both start promisingly enough, perhaps because the shorter form prevents any throat-clearing preliminaries. In Interstitial, the TARDIS lands on a seemingly deserted space station where something has gone wrong with time, while Feast of Fear opens in media res, with Nyssa as the cruel ringmaster of a bizarre circus and the Doctor wandering around blindfolded spouting gibberish.

These concepts generate a few atmospheric sequences, but once explanations start coming along they’re crushingly mundane (experiments gone wrong, psychic vampires), and events play out along familiar lines. The most disappointing thing, though, is that Marc barely gets anything to do, and shows not the least sign that this is his first experience of TARDIS life, or for that matter that he’s anything other than a contemporary human. At one point in Interstitial the ruthless, arrogant scientist (I meant what I said about crushingly mundane) ages him to death and back again several times, and he barely even reacts!

The conclusion of the trilogy is also a pair of two-parters, Warzone/Conversion, though these two are more tightly linked than Interstitial and Feast of Fear. They’re also quite a bit better, particularly Warzone, where what seems at first to be a (well) warzone turns out to be an obstacle course for extreme athletes. The athletes are protected from the potentially-fatal hazards of the course by wristbands that allow them to adjust the difficulty level and call for help, but for the Doctor and his companions, there’s nothing to protect them from being shot, drowned, or electrocuted. It’s not hard to see a satire here on contemporary fitness obsessives and their gadgets. As it happens I listened to both halves of this story while taking brisk daily walks for no better reason than that my Apple Watch is always nudging me to, so I do appreciate the joke. And even though it’s only a two-part story, the regulars all get something to do. While the Doctor bonds with an athlete pursuing a personal best and Nyssa (who is in no mood for this, and her exasperation and determination are great fun) teams up with a charity runner wearing an absurd costume, Tegan watches warily as Marc plays gladiator… with potentially deadly consequences.

It’s hard to say anything about where this story goes near the end, or about what then happens in Conversion, without giving too much away. Things happen in Conversion that push, or should push, the regulars to their emotional limits, but the writing and the performances don’t make you feel like that’s actually happening. The decisions the characters make at the end of the story, which lead into future releases, are absolutely believable given what the emotional stakes here should have been, but the script is too concerned with putting action sequences into a story that doesn’t need them. The Nyssa/Marc stand is a B-story that could have limited itself to its emotional beats without devising an awkward way to literalize them. Meanwhile, there are two guest characters in the Doctor/Tegan half of Conversion who, entertaining though they are, serve no essential narrative purpose, and who interrupt, both literally and figuratively, the best scene in the play, where the Doctor and Tegan talk about the past. That conversation ought to have been only the beginning of an emotional reckoning, but instead it gets shoved to the side. The real problem, though, is that the director hasn’t elicited, and the performers haven’t offered, work that suggests this is anything other than a standard runaround for our heroes. The Marc strand is pretty obviously an attempt to do a serialized follow-up to a TV event in a way that wouldn’t have been attempted in 1983, but it’s not going to work if you style all the scripts exactly like it was still 1983.

And that’s also the big problem with Marc himself. Having him approach the events of Warzone like he’s a gladiator is pretty much the only time in any of the four two-parters that he behaves like someone from Ancient Rome. Writing a character whose frame of reference is so different from ours in a believable, non-tedious, non-patronizing way is a substantial task, which is presumably why the classic series didn’t bother with characters like Victoria, but no one made Big Finish do it. Adric’s replacement could easily have come from the present day if all they wanted was a generic male companion. There are benefits as well as risks in creating non-contemporary companions; Russell T Davies has talked about how he was tempted to make the companion following Rose a Victorian maid after being charmed by the dialogue from “The Girl in the Fireplace” where Reinette spoke of the spaceship as a place “where the days of my life are pressed together like the chapters of a book.” A character like Marc offers similar opportunities for novel, poetic ways of thinking about science fiction concepts. Instead, Marc is just sort of there, and George Watkins’ performance… well, it’s not “so bad that being Peter Davison’s nephew is obviously why he got the job,” but it’s also not “so good you’ll forget that he’s Peter Davison’s nephew.”

My main takeaway from the first Marc trilogy is not so much that it’s all solid or better quality-wise, though it is, as that whether it’s above average, average, or inoffensive, it’s always rewarding to listen to because there’s always something to think about. Even Interstitial and Feast of Fear, which are very derivative on the level of premise, have some arresting images, and it’s obvious overall that Big Finish are trying to do something new here, even if they aren’t doing it all that effectively. There was a time, after the Eighth Doctor spun off into his own range and the various companion-driven arcs (Older Nyssa, Evelyn, Hex) had ended, when all Big Finish’s creative energies seemed to be elsewhere. At that point the monthly range was so impoverished that its idea of innovation was throwing established solo companions into new pairings to see if anything interesting happened (a qualified yes for Flip and Mrs Clarke, an “oh dear God no” for Ace and Mel), and they didn’t appear to be interested in opportunities to tell larger stories with a more modern sensibility. This trilogy and the followups with Marc, which are still ongoing, seem to be reversing that trend. I have some doubts about how well everything will pay off, but I’m excited to be along for the ride.

What Did You Do in the War, Granddaddy?

One of the quirks of Big Finish’s recent Doctor Who output is that they’ve made up for their limited or non-existent access to new series cast members by building series around whatever recurring or guest characters happen to be available. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, though when carried to extremes (a whole box set for Lady Christina? two box sets for Ian McNeice’s one-note caricature of Winston Churchill?) it can seem desperate. The real challenge, though, is developing stories that feel appropriate for their lead characters, so it doesn’t feel like (or is less obvious that) they’re just surrogates for the Doctor. With the death of John Hurt in 2017 after only one series of War Doctor box sets, Big Finish had to find new ways to tell Time War stories. They expanded the Eighth Doctor’s Time War exploits from one box set to four, but given his refusal to participate directly in the war, other options were needed. Released in April of this year, Susan’s War is a box set of stories about the Doctor’s granddaughter in the Time War. How effective is it at telling stories that feel specific to the character of Susan? Well, I suppose one out of four ain’t bad…

They get that one out of the way early, with Eddie Robson’s “Sphere of Influence.” No sooner has Susan joined the war effort than the Daleks capture her TARDIS. To rescue it, she’ll need to negotiate a Gallifreyan alliance with the Sensorites. And who better to help her with that than her old teacher, Ian Chesterton? Well, probably a lot of people, but I’m not going to begrudge Big Finish this bit of nostalgia casting. The story itself isn’t terribly complicated– something is sabotaging the negotiations from both sides, Susan must find out who, etc– but I do appreciate the way it follows up on one of Susan’s TV stories and makes use of her psychic abilities. I wish the sound design had done more to evoke the psychic landscape in which Susan and Ian spend much of the story; a slight echo effect every now and again doesn’t really do the job.

The middle two stories, “The Uncertain Shore” by Simon Guerrier and “Assets of War” by Lou Morgan, are perfectly fine, but neither one particularly needs Susan to be in it, and neither one comes anywhere near making interesting use of the Time War. In the former, Susan is hunting down a Dalek spy on the planet Florana; in the latter, a weapons test Susan is invited to observe goes horribly and predictably wrong. Simon Guerrier is one of Big Finish’s better writers, and he’s done great things with Hartnell-era characters, but I think he falls short of the mark here; there’s potential for an atmospheric story about a population living in the eye of the storm of war, but neither the characters nor the setting do it justice. “Assets of War” is one of those dutiful morality-of-war, the-Time-Lords-aren’t-great-either stories the Time War ranges feel obliged to do every now and again. It would be better if they delved more consistently and substantially into moral questions rather than offering the same superficial take every other box set or so, but a solid script and strong performances from Carole Ann Ford and guest actor Roly Botha make this one of the better versions of the concept.

Things wind down with Alan Barnes’s “The Shoreditch Intervention.” Susan goes on what she thinks is a secret Time Lord mission into her own past: Earth, London, 1963. But she’s actually being manipulated by the Daleks, and the only one who can save her is her grandfather, in his Paul McGann incarnation. Susan and the Eighth Doctor have a long history at Big Finish; I haven’t heard any of those stories, but I know what happens in them. The problem is that “The Shoreditch Intervention” doesn’t have anything to add. The Doctor and Susan disagree about fighting in the war… but that already happened in the Short Trip “All Hands on Deck,” and the discussion of the subject here is so superficial that it’s literally not possible they’re covering ground that story didn’t. A guest character is named Alex, a hamfisted and patently unnecessary way of bringing up Susan’s son, who died in a Dalek attack on Earth; given the circumstances the Doctor and Susan were obviously going to talk about him anyway, so why over-egg the pudding? I suppose it’s an easy way of getting the listener invested in this Alex… who becomes irrelevant to the story anyway as soon as the Doctor shows up.

Even the Doctor’s arrival feels cheap; he comes because Susan summoned him, but with time travel involved he arrives before she summoned him, meaning she only summons him because she has to in order to complete the causal loop. When a clever story like “Blink” does this sort of thing, it works because the overall structure is elegant enough, and the entertainment value is so high, that it doesn’t really matter that none of it makes sense; it’s like a big delicate piece of candy floss. Here, all the use of the ontological paradox does is underline that the Eighth Doctor is only in the story because having him on the cover will sell more copies. Once he shows up he takes over the plot, making Susan a bystander to the finale of her own box set. The Doctor confronts some Daleks and foils their plans, just like he would if this were part of his own Time War miniseries, or Dark Eyes, or the New Eighth Doctor Adventures, or one of his monthly range stories, or… you get the point. Paul McGann sounds bored most of the time, as he usually does these days; I expect that’s just a (dubious) acting choice for a world-weary war-era Doctor, but I wouldn’t blame him if he really was just going through the motions.

Part of what’s disappointing about the vacuousness of “The Shoreditch Intervention” is that there’s actually quite a lot to be said about the Doctor and Susan’s different ways of participating in the war. Seeing them directly opposed to each other and debating the merits of a particular military action would be a lot more satisfying than having him swoop in and save her from herself in a straightforward Dalek plot. (I suppose we should be grateful she doesn’t ever twist her ankle.) And that’s part of a larger failure to make this a box set about ~Susan’s~ war, and not just any random Time Lord’s. Although it makes sense, given what she’s lived through and lost, that Susan would want to do her part to stop the Daleks, being a soldier would be contrary to the nature of such a warm and empathetic character. There are hints here, particularly in “Assets of War” and in a final scene that seems to be setting up some further story, that this tension will come to the foreground eventually, but it’s the kind of thing that should have been front and center all along.

For all that I’ve emphasized the limitation of Susan’s War, I think it’s actually one of Big Finish’s better recent Time War sets. The Eighth Doctor boxes have been remarkably uninspired, and while the first couple Gallifrey boxes have their moments they’ve mostly lived down to the image of Gallifrey as a boring planet full of boring people the Doctor was right to run away from. There’s no antidote here to the lack of imagination that has been the single biggest letdown of Big Finish’s approach to the Time War, but these stories, however derivative, are well-acted and (with the exception of “Sphere of Influence,” which drags a little) tightly-scripted. It may be that after nearly five years I’ve simply lowered my expectations for Time War releases to an appropriate level; it may just be that I’ve always had a soft spot for Susan. Whatever the reason, I’d say that if you’re looking for an entry point into Big Finish’s Time War output, you couldn’t do much better than this.

Casting a Short Shadow

In the 20 years Big Finish has been releasing its monthly range of Doctor Who audios, they’ve mostly stuck to the “classic” four-episode format. But once in a while they shake things up a bit. In 2007, they tried a three-parter/one-parter format for a while, and since then they’ve periodically released anthologies of four one-parters. In 2017 they took a shot at the only permutation left, with a trilogy of pairs of two-parters (if you know what I mean). I haven’t heard the Fifth Doctor installment, and I haven’t (yet, anyway) written a full review of the Sixth Doctor one, but I’m here today with thoughts on the Seventh Doctor pair, Shadow Planet/World Apart. In Shadow Planet, the Doctor, Ace, and Hex pay a visit to a world where you can have your Jungian shadow separated from your body and chat with it, while in World Apart, they arrive on a planet that’s entirely devoid of life… or is it?

Listening to a bunch of two-part stories in quick succession has made me realize that the problem with the weaker four-part stories in the main range isn’t that particular length; it’s that a lot of Big Finish writers don’t have a great grasp of how to pace a story at any length. The two-parters still feel like a breath of fresh air because an overlong or awkwardly structured story of 50-60 minutes is obviously less of a slog than an overlong story of 100-120 minutes, but that doesn’t mean the writing is any better, or any worse. If the great risk of the four-part format is that a capture-and-release cycle or some other repetitive narrative device will be used to fill up time, the great risk of the two-part format is that the story will come to end before it really gets off the ground. And that’s what holds back both of the basically solid stories in Shadow Planet/World Apart.

Of the two, Shadow Planet is definitely better paced overall. It’s obvious that something nefarious is happening, revelations about what that involves are doled out at a reasonable pace, Ace and Hex have their shadows separated, chaos ensues, a major threat emerges, further secrets come to light, and then (spoilers, sweetie) the Doctor saves the day. The only problem is that, the invocation of Jungian psychology notwithstanding, the story isn’t really about anything. You’d think Ace and Hex meeting their shadow selves would contribute something to characterization or theme, but nope: the shadows act like brats in ways that contribute to the development of the plot, then they abruptly cease to matter. It’s not that the story needs to use the shadows more substantively, but it does need something to elevate it above a sprightly runaround.

World Apart is a much better story… eventually. It leaves Ace and Hex on their own in an eerie environment that pushes them to their limits physically and mentally. The trouble is that it waits to do so until the second half of a two-part story. Part one is very much in an introductory mode, and while there are some lovely scenes there it’s definitely paced liked there are going to be three more parts afterward, not just one. It’s not that part two is rushed in a narrative sense; because of certain plot points there’s not much that actually has to happen there. But the psychological journey the characters go on needs more space to play out in, and the bleak atmosphere the story evokes, while pretty effective in this form, would be more so if the listener had more sense of being slowly broken down by it as the characters are. Ace and Hex’s behavior at the end of the story depends in no small part on the depth of their suffering, and a major scene falls short of its intended effect because their reactions aren’t quite earned.

I very much like that these stories revisit the Ace/Hex era. Big Finish have been weirdly reluctant to reuse their own companions after their exit stories, even though there’s no good reason to stop featuring Charley just because The Girl Who Never Was exists but keep churning out Peri releases in spite of “Mindwarp.” The attempt to tie these stories into the character arcs of that era is weak, though: Hex’s crush on Ace is mentioned a couple times but never goes anywhere despite the extreme circumstances of World Apart, and Ace’s behavior in general feels more like TV Ace than the more mature traveler of the Hex era. (This is doubly a problem because TV Ace brings out Aldred’s weaknesses as a performer. She’s a perfect match for Sylvester McCoy in that they’re both appallingly bad at conveying shouty anger.) But the basic dynamic of the mysterious, manipulative Seventh Doctor, the gung-ho Ace, and the reserved, contemplative Hex is as strong as ever. Big Finish have continued to experiment with paired two-parters now and again in the monthly range, and there’s another one with the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Hex coming up next month; I look forward to revisiting this team again.