AUDIO DRAMA
Doctor Who
Death Comes to Time Special Edition MP3-CD

Starring: Sylvester McCoy
BBC Radio Collection
RRP 19.99
ISBN 0 563 52367 0
Available 07 June 2004


When two members of the Fraction, a dissident Time Lord group, are killed, the Doctor and his companion Antimony become embroiled in the struggle against the ruthless General Tannis. Meanwhile, another Time Lord, the Minister of Chance, fights his own demons, and Ace finds herself in training for a destiny she never dreamed possible...

As the BBC's first webcast drama and the first broadcast Who since the 1996 TV movie, the importance of Death Comes to Time cannot be overstated. It certainly caused a stir within fan circles, not least because of its blatant disregard for developments in the Paul McGann movie as well as in the prose and audio adventures of the Seventh and Eighth Doctors. But more on that later.

As a story in its own right, Death gets off to a cracking start. Both the Doctor and the camp but cruel General Tannis (John Sessions) benefit from spectacular introductions. Sylvester McCoy gives one of his best performances ever as the Doctor, while Kevin Eldon makes a good impression as Antimony, his eager and nave new companion.

In contrast with the sound and fury of Tannis' conquest of the planet Santiny, the cryptic teachings of the wise old Time Lord Casmus are lent great weight by the sagely tones of Leonard Fenton.

And, of course, the presence of Stephen Fry as the Minister of Chance, a Time Lord whose desire to meddle with the affairs of other times and planets is considered excessive even by the Doctor, is a fan's dream come true. Fry has often, justifiably, been touted as a worthy actor to play the Doctor, and it is easy to imagine him in that role as he portrays the flippant but troubled Minister, who gains a companion in the shape of Santine Senator Sala (Britta Gartner).

In total, there are three interpretations of the Doctor/companion relationship here. In addition to the Doctor/Antimony and the Minister/Sala, Ace (Sophie Aldred) finds herself under the tutelage of Casmus, who represents the mentoring aspect of the Doctor's character.

Though rather too reminiscent of Star Wars' Jedi, Ace's training realises a character development that Andrew Cartmel had in mind when he was script editor of the television series. His plan was for her to remain on Gallifrey and enrol at the Academy. Though she has for some reason reverted to her old nickname, the Ace depicted here closely resembles the independent adventurer that occasionally crossed paths with the Doctor following her departure as a regular companion in the New Adventures novel Set Piece. Already a time-traveller in her own right, her newfound status seems like the next logical step.

The Doctor's comments that he has "died before" can also be tied in with the New Adventures, several of which implied that he was a reincarnation of an ancient historical figure known as the Other. Even the mighty powers of the "Gods of the Fourth", which many fans have had trouble accepting, extend from previous developments of the Seventh Doctor. It may be these powers, used in moderation, that we saw in action in Remembrance of the Daleks, when the Doctor healed Ace's injured leg; in Survival, when he stunned Sergeant Patterson using energy from his finger; in Battlefield, when by sheer force of will he commanded a battle to cease; and whenever he used his mental abilities to hypnotise people.

The mystical Kingmaker (Peggy Batchelor) may at first seem out of place on Gallifrey, but she is reminiscent of the Pythia's matriarchy, which once dominated the planet, as described in the novel Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible. Perhaps, like the Sisterhood of Karn (from The Brain of Morbius), she too is a descendent of the Pythia's line. Maybe her kind used to inaugurate Time Lords back in Rassilon's day.

SPOILER ALERT - SKIP THE NEXT THREE PARAGRAPHS IF YOU HAVEN'T YET EXPERIENCED DEATH COMES TO TIME!

As for Tannis' apparent eradication of the Time Lords, it may be that he is only after the interfering types, such as the Doctor, the Minister and the remnants of the Fraction. He does, after all, refer to them as the "friendly Time Lords". It could be that the other inhabitants of Gallifrey don't count, being as indolent and/or amoral as they are. Perhaps following their aeons of isolation from the universe at large, all bar the Fraction have forgotten the true nature of their powers, just as they had forgotten the nature of the Eye of Harmony in The Deadly Assassin. Maybe the Doctor himself was unaware of his own abilities until his seventh incarnation.

It could also be the "friendly" interfering Time Lords to whom the Kingmaker refers when she claims, "The Time Lords walk the worlds no more." Alternatively, perhaps the majority of them are currently in residence inside a bottle universe, as described in the two-book novel Interference and the non-Who New Adventure, Dead Romance.

As for the demise of the Doctor, he does say that he has died before, which might mean that he could be re-embodied following his transfiguration. Being weakened as a result of the process might explain the less godlike, more human nature of the Eighth Doctor.

Unfortunately, following a promising first episode, things go downhill in terms of pace. You can sense the transition from the first instalment, which was originally intended as a pilot for radio, to subsequent episodes, which, being intended for download in ten-minute chunks, meander rather aimlessly, frequently re-capping what has already been established.

You can also detect that the opening episode was produced without an expectation of any pictures being added, whereas in subsequent instalments the production team begin to make use of Lee Sullivan's artwork to convey certain story elements. On the previous audio-only CD release, some of the drama was lost as a result. Both the illustrated and the audio-only versions are presented here.

The animated version isn't necessarily the better or definitive one, however. On one hand, the illustrations help to tell the story, but they do add a "cartoony" flavour, which detracts from the performances during some of the moodier scenes. And even with the pictures, many of the cliffhangers fall a little flat.

Happily, things pick up during the final instalment, which features a couple of witty character cameos and culminates in a moving conclusion.

As I said earlier, the importance of Death Comes to Time cannot be overstated. Neither can the sheer "specialness" of this new-fangled special edition, which includes the extended, remastered audio-only version; the original, partially animated version (with easy instructions for installing RealPlayer); plus a host of extras.

These include video interviews with several members of the cast, including the amusing John Culshaw and the knowledgeably verbose Stephen Fry; character biographies; and rough animation tests. There are also audio-only interviews from Radio 4's Today programme, in which John Humphrys talks to Sylvester McCoy, John Sessions (in character as General Tannis), and a Dalek! Whatever you think of the story, this is a marvellous product, which offers more than six hours of listening and viewing pleasure.

At the very least, Death Comes to Time can be regarded as an intriguing view of how the Seventh Doctor and Ace might have turned out a decade or so following their final television serial together. Despite its flaws, this is a provocative and evocative adventure.

(Speaking of flaws, it is worth noting that my disc ran into severe difficulties partway through Episode 3 of the animated version, due to a so-called "General Error". However, fully functioning copies of the CD should be with stockists by now. If you do find yourself with a dodgy disc, you can either exchange it at the store from which you bought it, or contact BBC Audiobooks customer services on 01225 443400, info@audiobookcollection.com.)

Richard McGinlay

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