Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Taking "Delete, Delete" To a Whole New Level

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 7.02

Title: The Harvest
Written By: Dan Abnett
Team TARDIS: Seventh Doctor, Ace, Hex (joins)
Adversary: Cybermen
Originally Released: June 2004
Range and Number: Big Finish Main Range #58

Summary: (from TARDIS Wikia) -
On the morning of 12 October 2021, Hex woke up. He was expecting to go to work at St. Gart's in London as normal and, that evening, have a great time in the bar of the White Rabbit, celebrating his 23rd birthday.

But after his ex-flatmate is wheeled into A&E following a bike accident, and the strange young woman from Human Resources tries to chat him up and an eight-foot-tall guy in a Merc tries to run him down, Hex realises things are not going quite as he expected.

Then in a Shoreditch car park he meets the enigmatic Doctor, who explains that he's an extra-terrestrial investigator and something very strange is going on up on the thirty-first floor of St. Gart's.

Therefore, aided and abetted by the Doctor, and his other new friend, 'Just McShane', Hex decides to investigate. Trouble is, everything that goes on at the hospital is being observed and noted by the occupants of the thirty-first floor; occupants who are none too pleased that people are poking their noses into business that doesn't concern them; occupants who will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that no one discovers the truth...

My Review:
This is new territory for me, I don’t mind admitting.

For some reason, the Seventh Doctor’s Big Finish stuff has kind of fallen through the cracks for me. I attached myself early on to the Fifth Doctor, so I devoured all of his Big Finish stories (well, most of them). I also heard how good the Sixth Doctor’s Big Finish was and I was eager to sample those. And the Eighth Doctor... well, that’s pretty much all that there is available, is there? The Seventh Doctor was one that I always meant to go back and listen to, but just never did for... reasons. Honestly, I have no good excuse (beyond time constraints). So, when I was in the Dealer’s Room at Gallifrey One last February, I saw a chance to get some Seventh Doctor Big Finish (I usually get the digital downloads from, so getting the CDs was a new experience). I asked the guy at the table which one he’d recommend and he told me that “The Harvest” was a good one, so that’s the one I bought (and I will die if it turns out the guy who sold it to me was a director or producer of Big Finish and I didn’t recognize him - it’s hard to recognize people when all you know of them is their voices!)

Anyway, I decided to review “The Harvest,” basically because it’s one of the Big Finish CDs I bought at Gallifrey One. I’ve since listened to a few Seventh Doctor audios in the course of Traveling the Vortex reviewing some here and there, but none that caught my attention enough to warrant a place in these reviews. But, I’m open to new experiences and since Big Finish is Made of Awesome - I’m even more open to the idea of something completely new. So - here goes!

The first part has a lot of similar themes to the first episode of “An Unearthly Child.” Not direct callbacks, mind you. There’s no Coal Hill School or Foreman’s Scrapyard (well, an argument could be made for the latter, as there seems to have been a parking garage built on top of it. I hope Mr. Foreman got top dollar for that) - but we do go to Totter’s Lane. Ace has established herself as an employee of the hospital and people have noticed that there’s something strange about her. And the entire episode follows Hex - who is about to become the Doctor’s newest companion. The Doctor doesn’t even show up until the cliffhanger of part 1 and Hex’s first look at the TARDIS doesn’t occur until part 2. So, it’s not direct parallels, but there are enough similarities to warrant notice (besides - I get a kick out of any mention of Shoreditch or Coal Hill or Totter’s Lane or anything else to do with the very first Doctor Who episode. So, yeah, I’m going to talk about it).

The rest of the story, however, goes on it’s own track but it is no less enjoyable. Ace, ever the resourceful and independent companion, goes off on a task given to her by the Doctor, leaving Hex to be inaugurated by the Doctor on his very first adventure.

Even though this story is very much Hex’s story - I want to talk about Ace for a bit, since I didn’t do it before. Before I’d even started on Classic Who, I noticed that Ace was a lot of people’s favorite companion. I know this is said about pretty much every new companion, but Ace is very different to any of the others. She’s got an edge to her - which I guess falls in line with the hardcore punk trends of the late 1980s-early 1990s (and when I say “hardcore,” bear in mind that I saw this “hardcore” time period through the perspective of a young child. Hardcore is relative when you’re talking to a four-year-old). And while I haven’t read any of the Virgin New Adventure novels, that’s the kind of character Ace really became in that line. I can understand why people like that sort of thing - it’s not something I’m into, but I can appreciate Ace as a character. I can appreciate the layers that she has - she’s someone who exhibits a tough exterior, but those layers slowly get peeled away as she faces down her own demons. It may have been the first time that the televised stories dealt with a companion’s backstory (other companions have had plenty of backstory that didn't get dealt with on TV, but spin-off media has made the most of these formative events). Sort of like how the writers were trying to give the Doctor back some of his layers of mystery, Ace was getting hers taken away and I can see where that appeals to people.

(Huh - maybe I just talked myself into liking Ace more than I thought I did. Achievement Unlocked!)

As far as Ace’s role in “The Harvest” - Ace is a companion that isn’t likely to get captured just to get rid of her for the sake of the narrative. More often than not, she’s gets sent on an errand for the Doctor for reasons that she doesn't questions, but there's never a sense of "blind obedience."  The Professor needs something done, he needs Ace to do it, she’s going to go and the reasons why may or may not become clear later, but that doesn't matter right now. And that’s what happens here - it’s a classic Doctor-and-Ace plotline. Ace has infiltrated the HR department of St. Galt’s Hospital because there’s something screwy going on and the Doctor needs someone to investigate for him. The Doctor (presumably) mocks up an employment history and background so Ace can get a job there (as “Miss D. McShane” - but she goes by McShane at work) and she does her snooping at work while the Doctor hacks into the computers to find information his own way. They really are a spectacular team and they work brilliantly together - even when the Doctor doesn't need something blown up.

And then, there’s Hex. I don’t know too much about him, but I do remember listening to “Project: Twilight” and “Project: Lazarus,” which deals with some of his background - except you don’t know it until a later story (and damned if I can remember it off the top of my head right now - I know it has to do with Evelyn Smythe). His backstory is pretty complicated and I haven’t had the time to go through all of it - it’s more or less by dumb luck that I've stumbled on the bits that I do know and I’m not sure how much to tell without spoiling or divulging wrong information. Just know that there is a history with Hex and the Doctor and Big Finish probably does it very well - I just don’t know much about it yet.

(Tansy of Verity! has a really good post about Evelyn Smythe and she mentions the Big Finish stories where Evelyn Smythe’s storyline crosses paths with Hex’s backstory. I recommend her take on Evelyn, just as an overview of her character, but since some of it dovetails into Hex’s story, I’d recommend it for that as well. It’s not real spoilery at all, so you’re safe on that level).

As far as “The Harvest” as a story goes - since this was the first time I’d listened to this story at all, I listened to it again and made notes about things that caught my attention, now that I knew where the story was headed. The idea that the Cybermen would ever want to reverse-engineer themselves is such a fantastic concept, not to mention it bookends nicely with “Spare Parts,” which is widely regarded as a Big Finish classic - and rightly so (and I’m not just saying that because that story is a Five/Nyssa story - though that little detail doesn't hurt in my estimation). I don’t know if that was intended, but the fact that the Doctor was there for the origins of the Cybermen adds an extra level to the Cyberman mythos and a little extra kick to this story as well. The Cybermen have come to this time in Earth’s history because they believe that Earth’s technology is advanced enough to where they can replace all the metal and cybernetics with flesh and bone and humanity - even though the Cybermen were supposed to have eradicated their humanity a long time ago.

This story brings in some tough themes that the Seventh Doctor’s stories have been known to tackle (especially the novels, as far as I've been able to tell) - ethics of using cadavers for medical experimentation, organ donation, how far government entities ought to be involved in these exchanges (actually - some of this came into play in “Medicinal Purposes,” now that I think of it). And the idea that even some Cybermen would wish to go back to their former “weak” humanity - even that someone as high up as the Cyber-Leader would do such a thing - opens up a lot of interesting themes that haven’t been explored with the Cybermen before. Usually they just come in and blow stuff up (or kill the Doctor’s companions).  But this scheme gives new meaning to the Cybemen's catchphrases like "Upgrade" and "Delete" - upgrading to humanity and deleting their mechanical natures.

I enjoyed this story a lot. It represents a way that Big Finish can take risks with the Doctor and his companions (and even well-loved villains), yet still remain faithful to the original characters. It’s also an example of a story where these characters are given more to do and allowed to expand on their own backstory.  And if you can't do that in the audio adventures, where can you do it?

Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 7.03 - The Doctor finally remembers to take the trash out... six regenerations later.

Previously -
Review 7.01 - The Silver Linings Masterplan

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