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The schoolboy whose twin brother vanished in the night... A woman whose house teems with alien refugees... The dad who dies every evening... All through space and time live people, ordinary people, whose lives have been turned upside down. People who have lost jobs and loved ones, or seen their homes destroyed, or found themselves on whole other planets. They have nothing in common with one another except that their lives can never be the same again. Because they are people who have met the Doctor...
Back in late 2006 / early 2007, Big Finish ran a short-story competition, open to writers who had never before had a work of fiction published professionally. The premise was: “How the Doctor changed my life”, and the winner, Michael Coen’s “Homework”, was published in Short Trips: Defining Patterns. However, the standard of entries was so high that Big Finish decided to publish this volume, which contains 24 additional competition-winning submissions, together with a second printing of “Homework”.
The fact that these stories are all by first-time fiction writers might account for one of the recurring themes of this collection: people who are stuck in dead-end jobs! The individuals whose lives are altered in “Change Management” by Simon Moore, “Second Chances” by Bernard O’Toole, “The Shopping Trolleys of Doom” by Caleb Woodbridge, “The Man on the Phone” by Mark Smith and “£436” by Nick May all face such a situation, whether they work in a call centre, in a taxi, in a supermarket or even in space. Most of them manage to either escape the shackles of their jobs or defeat their satirically evil bosses. Two of these stories, “The Shopping Trolleys of Doom” and “The Man on the Phone”, are among my favourites in this collection.
There are further aspects of wish fulfilment in Steven Alexander’s “Time Shear” and Anna Bratton’s “Lares Domestici”, both of which concern a spinster who gains some extraterrestrial company. Meanwhile, alien devices are used to cheat death in Chris Wing’s “The Final Star”, JR Loflin’s “Running on Empty” and Arnold T Blumberg’s “Stolen Days”, though not always with happy results.
Each of the Doctor’s first eight incarnations gets a look in, apart from the first one, though “Those Left Behind”, a Fourth Doctor tale by Violet Addison, deals with the repercussions of the First Doctor’s abduction of schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright in the TV show’s first-ever episode.
This volume also contains a foreword by Paul Cornell, himself the winner of a young writers’ competition back in 1990, who went on to write for the new television series. At the back of the book are the competition rules, as posted on Big Finish’s website in December 2006, and general feedback to unsuccessful applicants, which was originally posted on Outpost Gallifrey’s forum in June 2007.
I found it interesting to read the rules and feedback first of all, especially as a couple of the stories bravely bend the competition’s initial premise. Both of them are favourites of mine. “Swamp of Horrors (1957) - Viewing Notes” by Michael Rees subverts the brief by having the Doctor directly change not one life but at least two, though the story isn’t told from the point of view of either of them. Rather, it takes the form of an analysis of a 1950s B-movie, complete with IMDb-style trivia notes and quotations. My absolute favourite, John Callaghan’s hilarious “The Andrew Invasion”, doesn’t even feature the Doctor - who nevertheless manages to influence the life of the eponymous protagonist.
I also enjoyed Tim Lambert’s “Outstanding Balance”, an amusing tale of egg-shaped alien parking attendants, despite the Second Doctor’s surprisingly casual attitude to the TARDIS being threatened by lava (he wasn’t so confident of his ship’s invulnerability in The Mind Robber), and James C McFetridge’s even more surreal “The Monster in the Wardrobe”.
However, the standard of the entire anthology really is very high, perhaps because these stories have been penned by keen newcomers rather than jobbing writers who might be running out of ideas or growing a little jaded. I am pleased to note that several of the writers featured here have already been commissioned by Big Finish to write for next year’s Short Trips: Indefinable Magic. I wish them all well, and I hope that this book changes their lives.