Monday, September 9, 2013

No Companion Left Behind

Librarian in the TARDIS, Bonus Review #1

Title: Tales from the Vault
Written by: Jonathan Morris
Featuring: Captain Ruth Matheson, Warrant Officer Charlie Sato, Jo Grant, Zoe Heriot, Romana I, Steven Taylor
Adversary: Kali Carash
Originally Released: July 2011
Range and Number: Companion Chronicles 6.01

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -

Welcome to the Vault — jokingly known as "the Museum of Terrors" — a high security establishment where UNIT keeps all of its alien artefacts.

New recruit Warrant Officer Charlie Sato is given a guided tour by Captain Ruth Matheson, and the archive reveals some dark secrets. An army jacket, a painting, crystal and a wax cylinder all hold a grave significance, and their stories are told by the Doctor's companions: Steven Taylor, Zoe Heriot, Jo Grant and Romana...

My Review:
Okay, okay - I know I said I was done with Big Finish. Turns out the Doctor’s Rule #1 is also my Rule #1 (as far as springing surprises on my readership goes, anyway).

One thing that I've appreciated about this blogging project is the opportunity to revisit Doctors and companions that I've grown to love and highlight why I love them so much. Another thing I've enjoyed is the chance to take another look at other characters that I might not have given a fair chance to, or that I've never encountered before. I wanted to give as many companions their due as I could but because of the format I chose, I ended up ignoring a few companions that I wanted to talk about. And the fact that I was flying by the seat of my pants in the very beginning and hadn’t settled on a firm system - I kind of feel like I gave short shrift to the First and Second Doctors’ eras and those are stories that I want to revisit at a later date (just not quite sure how to do it yet).

Conversely, when I learned that Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso had indeed done a Companion Chronicle for Big Finish - though not as Grace Holloway or Chang Lee - I was very intrigued. When I learned that Companion Chronicle also featured four companions from the Classic Series - several of whom I adore but didn't get to talk about in Librarian in the TARDIS - I resolved to review it and give them at least some kind of due.

What I didn't count on was how Grace and Lee would invade my headcanon when I listened to this. Even though Daphne and Yee Jee are playing different characters (as Big Finish does not have the rights to anything from the TV Movie, other than the Eighth Doctor), I kept hearing Grace and Lee in their performances, so I thought that maybe Ruth and Charlie were really Grace and Lee. In Grace’s case, I had no problem imagining that the American division of UNIT contacted a well-connected heart surgeon who’d been involved with a certain San Francisco Incident that, rumor had it, also involved the Doctor. Chang Lee would be a little more difficult to pin down - but I imagine that he finally got out of the gang scene and joined the military because he thought it would be a good way to improve his life. UNIT, being UNIT, eventually realizes that Lee was involved in the same incident that brought Grace to them and they approach Lee with an offer to join UNIT. Maybe Lee feels a twinge of regret at not having taken the Doctor up on his original offer to travel and this is the next best thing (who knows? The Doctor’s worked with UNIT before, maybe he’d come back again!) And the name changes? Witness protection. Standard operating procedure for UNIT (hell, they have the power to issue international gagging orders, so why not?)

Anyway, I know this is a cracked idea, but it works for me. No fanfic will come of it (trust me - you don’t want me writing fanfic), but it’s fun to play around with these theories. Besides, every time I watch the TV Movie, I keep wanting more and more of Grace's and Lee’s backstories and since I never got it out of official channels, I can make it up myself. It’s not any better or worse than what anyone else would come up with, is it?

The beauty behind “Tales from the Vault” is the idea of archiving stories for others to hear about and enjoy (or, in the case of UNIT Secret Ops, to hide and cover up). On one level, if you listen to enough Companion Chronicles, you start to feel like these companions are actually telling the stories to an audience - maybe the grandkids have come round for tea and another one of Gran’s or Gramps’s fantastic stories of traveling with the Doctor. Some of the Chronicles actually have the audience written into the story, such as Polly holding a press conference in “The Forbidden Time” or Liz writing to her mother in “The Last Post.” So, for UNIT to actually take parts of these stories and put them in archive is kind of a commentary on what the Companion Chronicles actually do.

Also - and this is a theme that creeps up in Doctor Who a lot, especially in New Who - how important stories are. How keenly you feel it when you know there are pieces missing (which Who fans are all too aware of). All of the stories in “Tales from the Vault” are just pieces of the story of Kali Carash - pieces that Ruth and Charlie work to put together to complete the whole (well, it’s more out of Charlie’s curiosity than anything).

Talking briefly about each companion in turn - I've already reviewed a Jo Grant story, but it’s so great to have a recording of her doing day-to-day UNIT stuff. Also, that Charlie calls her “a legend” is really neat too - then Ruth starts the tape. The joke that she would leave the tape recorder running while she made tea is absolutely charming. Jo’s part of the story - about a jacket that is possessed by an entity who takes over whoever touches it - is what gets the overarching narrative going, even though you don’t really think about it at the time.

The next companion to be featured is Romana I (played by Mary Tamm). Her part is actually from one of Captain Matheson’s first missions for UNIT Special Ops, so Ruth is heard interviewing Romana after an incident with a painting that shows the viewer the exact nature of their death, which in turn leads to the viewer going mad. The painting is held in the UNIT vault with instructions to only use it as a last resort - but at least it’s locked up in the vault. This Romana is very much a young, inexperienced Romana who hasn't quite found the appeal of Earth people and she has that haughty air about her that would be condescending in anyone else, but is positively glamorous in Mary Tamm’s portrayal of the character (Romana I has always been my favorite Romana and sometimes I wish there was more of her outside of the Key to Time season).

Zoe Heriot’s (played by Wendy Padbury) involvement in this story is quite unique. A copy of her mind has been transferred into a crystal that was used to wipe people’s memories (it didn't actually wipe Zoe’s memory - this is just a copy. But it’s an interesting choice by the producers of this audio, considering what ultimately happens to Zoe in the TV show). Using Zoe’s voice, the crystal tells the story of when the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe got involved with an investigation of bank robberies in which the victims never remembered how they were robbed. The Doctor figures out that the robbers were using the crystal, stops the robbers from using it anymore, and gives the crystal to UNIT for safekeeping. This crystal is a big reason why UNIT Special Ops can cover up a lot of big alien invasion-type events and Ruth even says so (which was a dangling plot thread that I didn't even realize was dangling to begin with).

As Ruth and Charlie are leaving the vault, an alarm goes off on a time capsule with a wax phonograph recorder. Turns out, the time capsule was set to open at this exact time and this recording is of Steven Taylor with a warning that only gets half communicated (apparently, wax doesn't last very long). Steven was the companion I was most excited to hear from in this audio. I felt like an absolute dope when I realized I hadn't reviewed any Steven stories when I covered the First Doctor’s era (to be fair, I could hardly pass up the chance to fangirl flail over “The Rocket Men” - which is another review that I want to revisit later. And “The Keys of Marinus” is just way too good. You know - I think I should do a First Doctor rewatch... hm... I'll add it to the schedule).  As wonderful as Ian and Barbara are and as much as I adore Vicki and Susan - Steven is the real heartbreaker of the Hartnell era. Partially because most of his stories are missing (sad face), but also because his character is just so compelling. It’s hard to pin down my favorite Steven story because watching him find his time-traveling feet in “The Time Meddler” is just lovely, his relationships with the Doctor, Katarina and Sara Kingdom in “The Dalek Master Plan” are so tragic, he’ll tear your heart out in “The Massacre,” and he’s so cute in “The Gunfighters” and “The Celestial Toymaker” (if anyone wants my top list of missing stories to find, my answer would be anything with Steven). Meeting Peter Purves at Gallifrey One last February didn't hurt my enthusiasm for the character, either.

So, yeah, Steven Taylor - love him to pieces. And his segment in this audio is great too (sort of wish he got more time in this story, but I can listen to his other Companion Chronicles because they’re amazing!)

What’s fun about this entire story is how each of the different companions’ stories seem to be disconnected, but end up working together to resolve the problem. I won’t go into the resolution because it’s a great ending to a wonderful story and it’d be nice for you, Dear Reader, to have some surprises going into this audio.

Other things I loved:
- “You should see the security kitchen.” Loved that nod to “The Ark”
- UNIT Special Ops was involved in covering up the events of the millennium in San Francisco (Even more fun that Ruth was the one talking about it).
- Wondering what that “giant” thing was that the Doctor fought with UNIT that neither Ruth nor Charlie told the whole story about.

To conclude - this may be part of the Companion Chronicles range, but the deviation from the usual formula is a special treat for the listener. This story makes it feel like the Doctor’s lives are interconnected, even though you typically only deal with one incarnation at a time (special multi-Doctor episodes excluded). And it’s cool to remember that the Doctor’s companions are always a part of his life, even though he may not actively refer to them all the time. I love getting multi-companion stories and I only hope we get to see more, not to mention more with Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso. I think my third big wish - apart from finding a shedload of missing episodes and getting Paul McGann a spin-off Eighth Doctor miniseries is that the rights to Grace Holloway and Chang Lee could be resolved and we could see their stories played out in Big Finish or some other medium. But for now, I’ll take my headcanon of Ruth Matheson and Charlie Sato being pseudonyms for Grace and Lee and that they went to work for UNIT.

(Hey, if Ace can go to the Academy on Gallifrey to become a Time Lord, anything is possible).

Next time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 9.01 - The modern world started with “Rose” - but this is the episode that sold me on Doctor Who

Previously -
Review 8.03 - “What Are You Going To Do Next?” “I’m Going... Somewhere Without Copyright Infringement”

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