BOOK
Doctor Who
Short Trips: Life Science

Editor: John Binns
Big Finish
RRP 14.99
ISBN 1 84435 047 9
Available 26 June 2004


Scientific breakthroughs have opened up a whole universe of possibilities for the Doctor - some beautiful, some mysterious, some horrific. The Time Lord and his companions encounter, among others, a living language, a robot that can dream, virtual-reality people, an auctioneer of body parts and a mermaid...

As its title suggests, this collection of short stories revolves around medical science, anthropology and other scientific theories and principles concerning the very definition of life.

There is some repetition and/or crossover of ideas here. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Frankenstein myth provides the inspiration for more than one story, though the tone of Andy Campbell's creepy and horrific The Age of Ambition could scarcely be more different from Richard Salter's blackly comical, but still very gruesome, A Star is Reborn. Predictably, given its continued topicality, the subject of genetic modification crops up (no pun intended) in several narratives, including Syntax, by David Bailey, and The Southwell Park Mermaid, by Kate Orman.

Sometimes, though, it would appear that editor John Binns has deliberately arranged his anthology in order to draw comparisons between the stories, or to develop common threads between them, rather than to shy away from some of their similarities. For example, pheromone communication, which plays a major part in Syntax, is also a factor in the subsequent tale, John Seavey's Primitives. Similarly Mortal Thoughts, by Trevor Baxendale, is followed by Lant Land, by Jonathan Morris, each of which features a comparable character named Simon.

There are some interesting and/or rare Doctor/companion combinations in this book. Gareth Wigmore's Scribbles in Chalk is craftily wedged in between the William Hartnell serials The Myth Makers and The Daleks' Master Plan, so as to make use of the short-lived companion Katarina. This story is full of poignant dramatic irony concerning events to come in Master Plan and The Tenth Planet. Syntax teams the Eighth Doctor with his Doctor Who Magazine comic strip companion Izzy, though the tale is marred slightly by the fact that Big Finish has already tackled the subject of a sentient language more than adequately in the audio drama ...ish. The Southwell Park Mermaid sees the return of the New Adventures pairing of the Seventh Doctor and Chris Cwej, though Orman's plot is let down by a rather silly concept for an intelligent life form.

However, the real runt of the litter is Lance Parkin's Echo, a very short story told from the point of view of Ace, not long after she has boarded the TARDIS. I am at a loss to explain what this confusing little tale is trying to say.

Only slightly less impenetrable are the two Fourth Doctor stories The Northern Heights, by Mark Stevens, and The Destroyers, by Steve Lyons. These two tales, both of which make use of the storytelling device of the incomplete or unreliable historical document, are supposed to be cryptic, but their eventual conclusions fail to clarify certain key issues.

On the other hand, Alexander Leithes' The End is perfectly understandable, but I don't really see the point of the story.

I have much more enthusiasm for Matthew Griffiths' The Reproductive Cycle, which places the Sixth Doctor and Peri in the unusual position of surrogate parents. This story throws up some interesting ideas about the effects of parental separation and custody battles on a developing and impressionable child. It evidently takes place not long after A Star is Reborn so far as the time travellers are concerned, and an interesting character arc is developed between the two narratives.

Jim Mortimore's A Rose by Any Other Name may possess a rather irrelevant title (Clothes Make the Man would have been more suitable), but this concluding entry proves to be both touching and memorable. I did wonder how the writer's vision of humanity's future could fit in with certain other Doctor Who stories, but then he never actually specifies that his tale is set on Earth.

One of the aforementioned Frankenstein variants, the gripping Age of Ambition is even more enjoyable, affording a strong role to Victoria Waterfield. Slightly ahead of this is the equally chilling Mortal Thoughts, by Trevor Baxendale, a Sixth Doctor and Mel story that takes a trip into Isaac Asimov robotic territory.

My very favourite is another Sixth Doctor story, A Star is Reborn, which remains extremely witty throughout, despite its grisly subject matter, as the Doctor jumps to a series of unfortunate but quite understandable erroneous conclusions.

I didn't enjoy this collection quite as much as I did the previous volume, Past Tense, but it does prove there's plenty of life in the old Doctor yet.

Richard McGinlay

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