At long last, after over thirty years of adventures, Lost Property sees the Doctor venture into that most horrifying and impenetrable of landscapes: the real estate market!
More seriously, though, the second of Virgin Books’ Decalogs sees the series discard the notion of an opening short story that serves as a recurring framing device throughout the collection. Instead, the link is a more abstract one. All ten stories share a central theme. That theme, as I alluded to earlier, is the various properties and houses owned by the Doctor.
I don’t have as much to say in this Preamble as I did the first time around, since you probably understand the general premise of the Decalogs well enough by now. If not, feel free to go back and read my review of that first Decalog, because we’re going to jump straight into the first of Lost Property‘s stories with…
1. Vortex of Fear by Gareth Roberts (featuring the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe)
Oh dear Lord I already regret this decision. Talk about throwing me in at the deep end…
OK, anybody who’s read this blog for a while knows that I find it difficult to review Gareth Roberts stories. Not because the works themselves are bad, per se, but the man has just made himself a complete pariah in the world of Doctor Who at this point by going so far down the “They’re cancelling me!” rabbit hole of awfulness after he faced criticism for some transphobic remarks.
And the trouble is that he is definitely a talented writer. I can see why his works were as beloved as they were for so long. They’re enjoyably whimsical and quick-witted, and he’s very much the Doctor Who writer who has best captured the ethos of Douglas Adams and Season 17 in his stories. I think I’ve come to realise that, while I generally enjoy reading Roberts’ books, reviewing them is an altogether more exhausting prospect because I find myself reminded of just how spectacular his self-manufactured fall from grace has been.
With all of that being put aside, how about Vortex of Fear itself? It’s certainly odd, and it probably stands a fair chance of being crowned Roberts’ most experimental stories. To be honest, it’s perhaps a little much to jump straight into at the start of the anthology, but it largely succeeds.
The biggest problem, really, is that the story doesn’t feel too connected to the general theme of “houses owned by the Doctor.” There’s a cursory line from Zoe early on about the Time Vortex being the Doctor’s home, in a manner of speaking, but that’s really about it.
I could almost envision this as a rejected entry for the first Decalog that was reworked slightly to have the most tangential of links to the central theme of this second installment. I doubt that that’s actually what happened, and in any event I’d likely have no way of knowing one way or the other. Nonetheless, Vortex of Fear certainly feels of a piece with some of the first Decalog’s more mind-bending stories like The Book of Shadows or Lackaday Express.
These aren’t comparisons which are especially favourable to Roberts. Vortex of Fear has neither the tight command of pacing employed by Mortimore, nor the simple yet undeniably effective emotional core which Cornell brought.
By the same token, though, that isn’t to say that this story isn’t a lot of fun. It has a solid premise, and sticks to it throughout to deliver a short story that is, while perhaps not transcendent, still pretty enjoyable.
In essence, the story sees the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe stumble upon a lavishly-decorated hotel-like structure within the Time Vortex. It isn’t long before they begin to realise that the people inside the hotel have become the victims of an exceedingly timey-wimey misfortune, with all of them being stuck in a time loop. Only one of them is aware of this, but he’s been locked up as a madman and is desperately trying to escape.
I imagine the “weird and illogical hotel” elements of this premise have probably put quite a few of my readers in mind of The God Complex, but as I kept reading I honestly found myself thinking more of the early Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, The Royale. Both stories feature characters trapped in a time loop within hotel-like surroundings, with the only individual who is aware of the loop being holed up inside their room.
As usual when it comes to these comparisons, I do not draw this connection in order to spin some narrative that Vortex of Fear ripped off The Royale. Rather, I think that I enjoy this short story for much the same reasons as I enjoy that episode. Neither of them are close to being perfect installments of their respective series, but there’s something to be said for the strangeness of their premises.
The notion that the hotel is basically just an incredibly advanced tax haven is wonderful. As I alluded to earlier, much is made of Roberts as a successor to Douglas Adams’ tenure as script editor on Doctor Who, and this certainly feels like the kind of premise which the mind behind Hitchhiker’s might have toyed with.
Though it naturally isn’t delved into with as much depth as it might have been in a full-scale novel, it also serves as a nice piece of bitterly comedic commentary on the lengths that the ultra-wealthy will go to in service of their own ends.
Much like The Royale, the story also concludes with the knowledge that this loop will go on. The people within are trapped forever, and there’s something faintly chilling in the idea that this loop is playing itself out in a little corner of the Time Vortex every time that the Doctor traverses it. Obviously it’s hard to feel too much in the way of sympathy for a bunch of self-obsessed billionaires, at least one of whom is verifiably a murderer, but it’s still quite a horrific fate.
Indeed, it’s quite a bold storytelling choice to have the Doctor turn down Brachinnen’s desperate pleas for a means of escape. I can understand how some might think this a textbook example of the Virgin books’ reputation for grim, gritty cynicism, but I think it works within the context of the story. The hotel is a hellish place, to be sure, but it’s a hell that’s entirely borne of the billionaires’ own greed and avarice.
As for the regulars, this is another case where the Decalogs prove more adept at capturing the voice of the Second Doctor than the full-length novels I’ve looked at so far. It’s especially noteworthy in this case, since I think this is the only time Roberts has written for this incarnation of the Doctor. Despite that, the mannerisms and even the interactions with Jamie feel true to the spirit of the repartee between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines.
It’s also always nice to see Zoe actually explored as a character in her own right. This kind of goes back to what I said about Dodo in my review of The Golden Door in the first Decalog, but the female companions in 1960s Who tended to start out with an incredibly interesting premise (a Time Lady in all but name, an orphan from the 25th century, an orphan from… the 19th century) but quickly settled into a more generic “companion” role. That much is certainly true of Zoe.
She was introduced as an incredibly intelligent character, but there was also a certain strain of condescension in the way the show treated her. It seemed to suggest that she was too cold and cerebral and needed to learn how to appreciate the world around her from a more emotional point of view.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this as a character arc. It’ll always smack of a faint whiff of anti-intellectualism, but it’s a solid grounding for a character. It’s arguably not too dissimilar from the central conflict at the heart of Star Trek‘s Spock. The crucial difference, though, lies in the gender of the two characters.
The “companion” role, as a genericised archetype within Doctor Who, has long had certain awkwardly-gendered implications for the power dynamics of the show’s regular cast. Those implications definitely bled into Zoe’s characterisation in a way that they didn’t for, say, Spock.
To say that Vortex of Fear provides the most interesting examination of Zoe’s character from the franchise to this point may not exactly be a very high bar, then, but I do still think it holds true. Zoe feels more like a fully-formed character here than she ever did in the television series, and I very much appreciate that.
Roberts seems to have reimagined Zoe’s status as an intellectual wunderkind in a way that puts her on a more equal footing with the Doctor, seeming more reminiscent of the show’s treatment of Romana than anything else. Again, this makes sense for an author who was always heavily influenced by Season 17.
All around, this is a pretty solid way to open the anthology. Its links to the collection’s overarching themes are pretty weak, but it has an interesting premise that is well-executed, as well as characterisation of the regulars that makes writing the Second Doctor look effortless. Of course, I’d also completely understand if people felt like skipping this one thanks to Roberts’ involvement.
2. Crimson Dawn by Tim Robins (featuring the Fourth Doctor, Leela and K9 Mark I)
Hey, remember Leela? She sure was a character in Doctor Who, wasn’t she?
I’m being flippant, but that’s just because I find it incredibly strange that Crimson Dawn is one of only two stories ever published by Virgin to feature Leela travelling with the Fourth Doctor. The other is People of the Trees from later in this very same collection, though she does have a guest appearance in the Seventh Doctor’s final New Adventure, Lungbarrow. When you consider that even Dodo was afforded a chance to anchor a full-length novel in The Man in the Velvet Mask, it just seems very, very strange.
Anyway, we’ll get back to Leela in a moment. Crimson Dawn also marks the return of Tim Robins to the Decalogs. He previously wrote Prisoners of the Sun for the first collection in the series, and it wasn’t one of the more promising franchise debuts Virgin has ever played host to. It was laden with a metric ton of clunky exposition, largely because of the overly-ambitious attempt to tell an alternate universe narrative within the extremely limited time allotted to a short story.
That being said, I was willing to give this story a chance. Some New Adventures authors have had pretty astonishingly poor debut novels, but have surprised me with a much more enjoyable sophomore effort (paging Christopher Bulis…). I knew ahead of time that Robins never wrote for the franchise after this point, but I was open to the possibility that maybe he was just an underappreciated talent who slipped through the cracks of Virgin’s open submissions policy.
Much as it pains me to say this, however, I don’t think Crimson Dawn is very good. It’s probably a bit of an improvement over Prisoners of the Sun, but it ultimately ends up succumbing to much the same problems that plagued that story.
There’s no alternate-universe shenanigans here, but Robins has still attempted to tell this very big, epic story of a businessman in cahoots with terrorists and aliens and… hey wait a minute this actually still sounds extremely similar to Prisoners of the Sun…
OK, obviously I’m being a little facetious with these remarks. Just about any two stories can probably seem quite similar if you reduce them to the most basic, broad summaries like that, but it still felt eerily similar to me.
In Crimson Dawn‘s defence, though, the thematic point here does seem a little clearer and more focused than it was in Prisoners of the Sun. This is very obviously a thinly-veiled allegorical story about the crass commercialisation of non-European cultures by big companies for the purposes of tourism.
Honestly, I found this to be a pretty great premise that fits well with the grand science-fiction tradition of using fictional societies and cultures to comment upon real-world issues, and Robins very much highlights the classical sci-fi roots of Crimson Dawn. The Doctor’s houseboat (providing that link to the “property” theme) is named the Dejah Thoris, and the story is peppered not only with further references to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but also H. G. Wells.
For all that it’s propped up with some truly burdensome exposition, the vision of Mars presented here is a lot of fun. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of these kinds of tacky tourist traps that we’ve all no doubt been dragged to at some point or another. And yeah, I’ll admit it since I’m not a heartless, pun-hating Grinch: any story that features an actual dining establishment named the Mars Bar is automatically elevated by a few points at the bare minimum.
On a more serious note, the inclusion of Leela turns out to be a bit of a thornier choice, if you’ll pardon the expression. Leela was always a somewhat troubled creation. With her leather-clad, warrior woman demeanor, she often leaned a little too heavily into the kinds of patronising “noble savage” tropes which would ironically feel quite at home in a Burroughs novel. This was an impression which wasn’t at all helped by the fact that the production team decided to base her character arc around the idea of the Doctor “educating” her about her ancestors.
This certainly isn’t to say that it’s impossible to tell good stories featuring the character in spite of these problems. On the contrary, I think the expanded universe managed to get quite adept at humanising Leela in a way that the Hinchcliffe and Williams Eras sometimes didn’t. Big Finish’s Gallifrey audio series is a particular standout on that score.
Unfortunately, Crimson Dawn very much arrives before the franchise really got a handle on telling Leela stories in a way that didn’t play to the more unsavoury stereotypes with which she is associated. There’s a chunk in the middle of the story where the character reacts with bafflement when presented with the tacky excess of Mars, and it brushes uncomfortably close to the kind of romanticism of “less civilised” cultures that comes straight from the handbook of the noble savage trope.
This is all especially troubling in the context of the 1990s. It seemed like the popular culture of the decade held a particular fascination with non-European culture and spirituality, and especially that of Native Americans.
Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves was the fourth-highest grossing film of 1990, and took home seven wins from twelve nominations at the 63rd Academy Awards. Lost Property saw release two months after Chris Carter began to incorporate Native American culture into the mythology of The X-Files with Anasazi.
At the same time, Michael Piller was pushing for similar ideas within Star Trek: Voyager, an incredibly ill-advised move which would lead to trainwrecks like Tattoo and contribute to his departure from the franchise. Just one month before Lost Property‘s publication, Disney’s Pocahontas also sparked controversy over its numerous deviations from history.
Crimson Dawn is, thankfully, not quite as overt as all that, but it still plays into the broader context of white writers and directors’ fascination with these cultures as some kind of simplistic, romantic ideal. That this should come to the fore in a story which sets out with the worthy goal of criticising Western, capitalistic cultural appropriation only compounds the frustration.
There’s not too much more of any great depth to be said that I didn’t already say in covering Prisoners of the Sun, other than perhaps to note that Robins has gotten better at writing action scenes. Certainly none of the action was as disorientating as the choppy, confused raid on the BT Tower from his previous story.
Ultimately, I think I can only paraphrase what I said in my summation of Prisoners of the Sun. I could see there being a really good novel at the heart of Crimson Dawn, because it seems like Robins’ big ideas would be better suited to a longer-form medium. Unfortunately, that’s not what the Decalogs are about, and I have to judge these short stories as, well, short stories. On those terms, I just don’t think this one works.
3. Where the Heart Is by Andy Lane (featuring the Third Doctor and Jo)
Where the Heart Is builds from an incredibly continuity-heavy, fan-wanky premise. Reduced to its most basic level, it is the story of how the “manor house” UNIT HQ that debuted in The Time Monster was acquired from Doctor Dantalion, the Birastrop memory-surgeon from Original Sin.
It’s fair to say that this could easily fail spectacularly, coming across as a ridiculously self-indulgent, ill-advised mess. Thankfully, this is an Andy Lane story.
Lane is an author who has certainly never shied away from continuity references in his work. Lucifer Rising featured a main character whose husband disappeared on the Hydrax from State of Decay. The Empire of Glass was predicated on building out a portrayal of the Armageddon Convention from a single line in Revenge of the Cybermen.
To be fair, there were times when this tendency could backfire on Lane. The reveal in Original Sin that a cybernetic Tobias Vaughn was responsible for a millennium’s worth of the Doctor’s enemies was quite patently absurd, for instance.
Still, those instances are the exceptions that prove the rule. The fact remains that Lane has always been extremely talented at using continuity-heavy premises to paint a wonderfully detailed snapshot of a particular time and place, all while peppering the narrative with enjoyable, satisfying character interactions.
Where the Heart Is doesn’t have to do nearly as much worldbuilding as something like All-Consuming Fire or The Empire of Glass. That’s partially down to the fact that it takes place in the familiar, non-descript near future of the UNIT Era, but it also represents Lane rather shrewdly streamlining his storytelling sensibilities to fit within the short story format.
Instead of the worldbuilding, then, Lane places the emphasis on those smaller character moments. The story is pretty quiet, a marked change of pace from the apocalyptic, Earth-shattering (OK, Mars-shattering) stakes of Crimson Dawn. Things happen, to be sure, and there’s even a climax featuring a six-vehicle military convoy. Even that, however, feels pretty subdued, and this is a choice that works in Lane’s favour.
The real joy of Where the Heart Is isn’t really in the plot. On a basic level, it could probably be argued that it falls victim to some of the same problems which haunted The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back. Both are UNIT stories that focus on the characters’ responses to an external situation that we know must be resolved before the end of the story. Just like we knew there was never any real chance that the Doctor would leave UNIT in The Straw, we know that UNIT obviously cannot be disbanded here.
So what is it that makes this story succeed, where its spiritual predecessor didn’t? Well, it helps that Lane is, as I’ve said, a very experienced author at this point who has demonstrated considerable aptitude for writing characters. However, the story is also paced very well.
One of the biggest issues with the execution of The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back, looking back, was that it felt a little too frenetic. It bounced much too quickly from plot point to confrontation to other plot point. Here, Lane isn’t afraid to slow things down and make room for small touches that really make the characters come alive, whether it be the Brigadier snatching away Yates’ vol-au-vent or the Doctor pausing in the middle of an investigation to ruminate on Dantalion’s wine cellar.
Dantalion himself is fun, and it’s nice to contrast this much younger, more energetic personality with the version we met in Original Sin. It’s nice that he genuinely feels alien, both in appearance and in morals. The notion of a society where killing is tolerated if it’s done in pursuit of furthering medical knowledge is quite chilling, and the respective reactions of both the Doctor and Jo to this felt perfectly in-character. Some might argue that he gets off too lightly, but Original Sin doesn’t exactly see him living what you could call the high life, so I’m not too bothered by it.
I don’t have too much more to say. This is probably the best Virgin-published Third Doctor story I’ve read so far. To be fair, it’s not as if efforts like The Ghosts of N-Space have exactly set the bar very high, but still. I’m sad that this is the last Andy Lane story I’ll read for quite some time; it’s certainly the last of his stories for Virgin to feature the Doctor. When it comes to characterisation and storytelling, he’s really proved one more time that he knows precisely Where the Heart Is.
(Look, I held back for long enough, OK? Just give me that one…)
4. The Trials of Tara by Paul Cornell (featuring the Seventh Doctor and Benny)
The Trials of Tara marks the first “proper” Seventh Doctor story in one of these Decalogs. I use the term “proper” rather loosely for two main reasons. Firstly, the previous anthology’s framing device, Playback, did feature a starring role for Seven, albeit without any of his regular companions from the books or the TV series. Secondly, and perhaps more obviously, the term “proper” implies a sense of normality to the presentation of this story. Such a claim would be quite unfounded.
For you see, The Trials of Tara is not so much a short story as it is a four-act play script written in the style of a Shakespearean comedy. To give you an idea of how deeply Paul Cornell has committed to this idea, I need only quote the full, alternate title as it is given in the book: Would That It Were, the Comedie of Count Grendel the Master of Gracht with the Life and Death of His New Executioner.
I’ll admit, I’m kind of thrown for a loop with this one. When you’ve reviewed things for years, you get so used to the rhythms of a short story or novel, no matter how experimental it might be. Any seismic change like this, therefore, kind of hits like a truck. In this case, it’s definitely a positive truck-hitting, though. I don’t think such a thing exists, but I’ve never let a wonky simile stop me before.
Anyway, as the title (well, both titles) kind of hints, this is a sequel to The Androids of Tara. As it goes along, it transpires that it’s also a sequel to The Happiness Patrol as well. On the surface, you could probably make all kinds of criticisms about how ridiculous it is to mash these two characters up. These criticisms would miss the fact that the ridiculousness is very much the point.
And make no mistake, this is a very silly (and often very funny) story, but it’s also quite an attentive recreation of the works of one of the most celebrated English authors of all time. It feels a little too much describe a pastiche of already-comedic stories as having “played it straight,” but the sentiment still holds. The bawdy humour and double entendres are amply represented, and those familiar with the Bard will also doubtless recognise a number of plot beats and names from his plays which Cornell has repurposed here.
I can’t really comment on if it’s accurate to the more technical aspects like the stage directions or the iambic pentametre or what have you. Yours truly does not, it must be said, really possess the necessary grounding in classical literature or poetry to make any such judgments. If you do, and you read the story, draw your own conclusions in this area.
One area which I do feel qualified to speak on, though, are the Doctor Who elements. Obviously the characters are a little exaggerated to fit into a Shakespearean comedy, but the Doctor and Bernice are both still pretty recognisable even through the farce. The latter in particular should come as no surprise, since we are of course dealing with the author who invented Benny in the first place, but it’s nice to see all the same.
The rest of the characters are fun enough, if perhaps not especially deep. Nonetheless, there were still some creative ideas. Taking Oberon and Titania and making them the monarchs of android fairies constructed as novelty Christmas gifts is a cute twist on the original play that also totally fits with what we know of Taran culture.
The last thing of substance I’ll note is that it’s interesting to view this in the context of some of Cornell’s later books. The obvious point of reference would probably be something like Oh No It Isn’t!, which is quite heavily steeped in ideas of pantomime and performance.
However, it also fits quite well with the author’s earlier reworking of Karl Marx in No Future: “They say history repeats itself… The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This time, it’s panto.”
To contort this quote beyond all reasonable measure, if The Androids of Tara is the tragedy, then it seems reasonable that The Trials of Tara is the farce. Does this make Oh No It Isn’t! the final, evolved iteration of Cornell-as-panto? Eh, probably not. Again, this all relies on me stretching a throwaway line to breaking point and I don’t really intend it in too much seriousness, but it is interesting to note these ideas recurring throughout the author’s work all the same.
The Trials of Tara is a delightful example of the way in which Virgin’s willingness to allow its authors to experiment could often pay dividends. It’s the kind of thing that you could never really do in a visual medium like television, but which also couldn’t really sustain a full-length novel. In that respect, then, it’s arguably doing exactly what a short story should.
5. Housewarming by David A. McIntee (featuring Sarah, Yates and K9 Mark III)
Kind of surprising that, with a premise like “stories about houses owned by the Doctor,” it took us until nearly halfway through Lost Property to get a haunted house story. Less surprising, though, is that it should come from the pen of David A. McIntee.
McIntee has always had a certain fondness for pulp. His debut novel, White Darkness, featured Haitian zombies under the thrall of an unnamed Cthulhu. His sophomore effort, First Frontier, was very much an archetypal “alien invasion of 1950s New Mexico” story that leaned heavily on the mythos and ambience associated with the Roswell Incident.
Housewarming slots rather comfortably into this tradition. Sure, the eventual explanation might rest more on time travel technobabble than on anything “supernatural” (perhaps an inheritance from McIntee’s other great influence, Star Trek), but the imagery with which the story is playing will seem familiar to any reader with even the most fleeting acquaintance with horror cinema.
The team of paranormal investigators that Sarah, Mike and K-9 find themselves teaming up with are all pretty broadly drawn. There’s the tech wizard, the skeptic, the young couple who inevitably wind up being creepily watched (though, in this case, not slain) by the main villain during a sexual encounter.
Again, this is all pretty standard stuff, but it’s largely carried by how much fun McIntee is having working in this space. The shorter format also helps ensure that Housewarming avoids the pitfalls of something like First Frontier in feeling so familiar that it becomes rote, tired and dull.
Speaking of First Frontier, though, there’s actually a pretty solid link to that novel here. What follows is technically going to be a spoiler, I suppose. Really though, if a bearded, aquiline man in dark clothing going by a name like “Marius Castillo” turns up in a David A. McIntee story, chances are pretty good that he’s the Master.
Predictably, that is indeed precisely who he turns out to be. However, it also seems like this is actually the Basil Rathbone incarnation from First Frontier. There’s nothing explicit within the text to really confirm this, but considering both stories are from the same author, it seems likely. Neither Mike nor Sarah recognise him, either, which would seemingly rule out the possibility that it’s Delgado or Ainley.
The Rathbone Master remains one of those delightful oddities thrown up by the New Adventures while they were given the task of proverbially shepherding the franchise continuity. Beyond First Frontier and this story, he would only appear in Paul Cornell’s Happy Endings before quietly disappearing. Some have speculated that he is, in fact, the incarnation played by Gordon Tipple that we glimpse at the beginning of the 1996 TV movie, but there’s nothing to really confirm that.
Since he only appeared towards the end of First Frontier after the Ainley Master was shot, this is really the first time we’ve gotten the chance to glimpse this incarnation “fully-formed,” as it were. How does he do? Well, he’s fine, albeit a little indistinct. The Master is really a character who lives and dies on the performance, or the capturing of that performance when it comes to literary media like prose or comics.
McIntee has already demonstrated a knack for capturing the performance and spirit of the Master to this point, but the Rathbone Master perhaps suffered from the jump in comparison to those on-screen incarnations. The character certainly does all the expected Master-y things, but still feels a tad generic.
Given this Master’s roots in Rathbone’s performance as Guy of Gisbourne, though, it was fun to see the story climax in a rapier duel between him, Mike and Sarah… even if the “I’m not left-handed” bit was pretty blatantly cribbing from The Princess Bride.
The last noteworthy thing about Housewarming is that I believe it marks the first story published by Virgin to not feature the Doctor at all. We’ve obviously brushed up against that in the past with novels like Birthright, or within the Decalogs themselves with The Duke of Dominoes. Still, even these stories featured a token Doctor cameo or two.
What would seem to be represented in this focus on Doctor-less stories (indeed, by the time they stopped writing Doctor Who-adjacent fiction in 1999, that would be the only thing Virgin was able to publish) is an attempt to broaden the scope of the Doctor Who universe. Again, as I kind of alluded to in that parenthetical just now, it was also often reflective of the fact that they simply didn’t have the rights to use elements like the Doctor, the TARDIS or the Daleks. I think the creative intent was still there in some form, though, however unconscious of it they may have been.
This also isn’t really something exclusive to the Wilderness Years. After all, Housewarming does owe a considerable debt to the failed K-9 and Company pilot from the early 1980s. At times it plays almost as a hypothetical second episode of the series that never was, although with the admitted caveat that it definitely takes place some time later in the 1990s. In a post-Sarah Jane Adventures world, it’s interesting to see how the seeds were sown, and the characterisation of Sarah, Yates and K-9 is solid.
Housewarming takes a premise that could probably feel tired and worn-out in different hands, and elevates it to something a lot more enjoyable. Much like Vortex of Fear, it’s not exactly high art, and that’s probably only further highlighted by the fact that it comes directly after two of Lost Property‘s strongest stories. Still, for what it is, it’s a great deal of fun.
6. The Nine-Day Queen by Matthew Jones (featuring the First Doctor, Ian and Barbara)
Oh hey, another story from a first-time Doctor Who author. More than that, a first-time author who would actually go on to have a reasonable amount of success and staying power in the franchise. I don’t know what it is about the Decalogs so far, but all the authors who have made their debut within these two collections haven’t tended to go on to write much outside of them.
Whatever the case may be, Matthew Jones (or, as his later credits would refer to him, Matt Jones) would go on to write two New Adventures novels in the form of Bad Therapy and Beyond the Sun. When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, he would contribute The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit to the revival’s second season, as well as penning Dead Man Walking for the spin-off series Torchwood.
There isn’t really much to tie The Nine-Day Queen to those later efforts, to be honest. Indeed, against their depictions of the Devil and Death itself, a story focusing on the Doctor, Ian and Barbara’s becoming enmeshed in the tragic fate of Lady Jane Grey seems positively intimate and small-scale by comparison.
The biggest problem with this premise is that it invited me to draw comparisons in my head to a previous First Doctor story, The Book of Shadows. To be fair, the notion of throwing that particular incarnation into a historical setting is one that would likely occur to a great many writers, based on his television tenure.
From there, it’s not exactly a great leap to throw in a science-fiction element and base the story’s central thrust around a tricky moral dilemma like the possibility of rewriting history. All the same, there are a few key shortcomings that unfortunately held me back from enjoying The Nine-Day Queen as much as I did The Book of Shadows.
Most glaringly, the story’s pacing is a bit of a mess. It’s supposed to take place over a period of a few months, but I simply didn’t feel that the text created that impression skilfully enough. The best example to illustrate my point is that the Doctor only spends one scene as Jane’s tutor before her wedding to Guildford.
We are, of course, told that they spend much more time together, but therein lies the problem: being told about two characters forming a deep bond off-screen is really not a substitute for actually seeing that happening.
“Show, don’t tell” has almost become a cliché in its own right when it comes to writing advice, and there’s a lot more nuance to be found in the application of those three words than is perhaps generally acknowledged. Sometimes, though, the old advice is still the best, and this is one of those cases.
(Much the same applies to Jones’ decision to begin the story in media res and tell the tale of Barbara’s possession by the Vrij entirely in Ian’s own memories. It just feels clunky and awkward, and recalls the problems I’ve discussed previously with Crimson Dawn or Prisoners of the Sun leaning much too heavily on expository infodumps.)
The truncation of the Doctor and Jane’s relationship also speaks to another complaint I have. For a story entitled The Nine-Day Queen, the Nine-Day Queen herself doesn’t have much presence. It feels like this was written with the intent of exploring the way in which Grey’s agency was robbed from her by the political machinations of the men around her, and while that’s certainly a noble sentiment, its impact is rather lessened by her absence from large chunks of the narrative.
There is still some emotion to be found in the Doctor just narrowly missing a chance to say a proper goodbye to Jane, or in Barbara musing on the Queen’s fate. Nonetheless, it’s largely drowned out by the generic sci-fi possession stuff involving the Vrij (probably the winner of the Most Inexplicably Dutch Extraterrestrial Name competition), and the tragedy that is present has been done better elsewhere.
I dunno. I feel kind of bad that none of the first-time authors from the Decalog series have really been “landing” with me, especially since I quite like The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit in particular. But yet again, here’s another story that just felt a little too large for a short story and so feels more than a little like squandered potential.
7. Lonely Days by Daniel Blythe (featuring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa)
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall that I wasn’t especially enamoured with either of Daniel Blythe’s previous novels. The Dimension Riders hewed much too closely to the template of Douglas Adams’ Shada, with a little bit of Star Trek thrown in for added flavour. Infinite Requiem was an improvement, but it still suffered from generic antagonists with unclear motives and an outrageously cheap “shock value” ending.
It’s perhaps too much to characterise Lonely Days as Blythe’s magnum opus or some unheralded masterpiece waiting in the wings, but I did enjoy it a great deal more than either of those novels. It almost feels a shame that it should mark his last story for Virgin, but that’s the way things go I suppose.
What hit me most about Lonely Days is something entirely unintentional. As the title implies, it’s a story dealing with themes of isolation and loneliness, as a survey officer grapples with being the only human being on an asteroid. Obviously this is something that resonates a lot more after the last two years than it may have done in 1995. While there is some awkwardness in aspects of Blythe’s approach to this idea, I did still appreciate the rather low-key nature of the premise.
Indeed, much like Where the Heart Is, “low-key” is very much the word of the day here. The story is quite short relative to the others in the collection, and apart from the researcher, the Doctor and Nyssa, there’s only one other character.
Honestly, I think that these kinds of narratives are much better suited to the short story format than larger-scale efforts like Crimson Dawn or The Nine-Day Queen. They’re not the only way to tell a good short story, and indeed there have been some “bigger” stories that I have still liked. Just look at The Book of Shadows.
Nonetheless, I find that the average quality of your short stories tends to improve when you treat them as “short stories” and not just “novels of a much shorter length.” Probably shouldn’t be a very radical observation but what’re you gonna do?
The plot itself isn’t exactly super groundbreaking. There’s some weird things going on at a far-flung research outpost on an asteroid that the Doctor once won while gambling, but everything is ultimately resolved without too much of a fuss once it turns out that the asteroid is actually a dying, sentient being who was just trying to warn the researcher.
This is all pretty stock-standard science-fiction stuff. It even feels a little reminiscent of the type of “misunderstanding between aliens and humans that is resolved by finding a way of breaching the barriers in communication and language” moral that Star Trek is particularly fond of (see The Devil in the Dark, One of Our Planets Is Missing, Home Soil).
While it might be a bit of a tropey plot, though, it’s executed well enough here that I can forgive it. If authors are going to pull aspects from Star Trek (which, though I am loath to admit it, is perhaps a little unavoidable since the books are the product of the 1990s), I’d rather they take some of the moral philosophy from it than just try to ape the setting and characters.
The premise does run into some issues, though. It turns out that the researcher has created a hologram of his girlfriend, who was killed in a Dalek attack during his posting to the asteroid. The story at least seems to recognise, on some level, that this is weird. It isn’t as if it condones it, but it doesn’t exactly feel like condemnation either. Indeed, the dying asteroid-being even agrees to remain in the form of the holographic girlfriend at story’s end.
All of this feels somewhat akin to struggles that the ’90s Star Trek shows would run into with the holodeck. The franchise seemed decidedly uncomfortable with the prospect of directly and seriously addressing the possibility that people would use this kind of technology for less-than-wholesome purposes. What you got instead were scripts like Hollow Pursuits or Booby Trap that seemed to gesture at a recognition of the holodeck’s creepy aspects, but always stopped just shy of explicit acknowledgment of those possibilities.
(Of course, when the franchise did grapple with these ideas, we got trainwrecks like the “Quark is hired to make holographic pornography featuring Kira’s image without her consent” subplot from Deep Space Nine‘s Meridian so… maybe it’s for the best that it didn’t happen more often.)
What makes this so frustrating in the case of Lonely Days is that the whole “holographic girlfriend” angle could have been cut so easily and the story would have avoided these issues altogether. It doesn’t exactly ruin the story for me, but it is just… a weird idea to drop so casually into a story like this.
I guess the last thing I’ll mention is the characterisation of the regulars. They’re both good, though perhaps a little broadly-drawn when compared to some of the truly great Doctor and Nyssa stories.
It is interesting to see authors begin to capitalise on the potential of the gap between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity as an opportunity to tell previously unseen adventures, though. Big Finish would later do the same, particularly in the early years before Janet Fielding agreed to reprise her role as Tegan.
Lonely Days isn’t a great story. It’s perhaps a little too simple and archetypal a plot, there are some questionable storytelling decisions, and while the characterisation of the Doctor and Nyssa isn’t egregiously terrible, it’s not exactly first-class stuff either. And yet, for whatever reason, I found it to be enjoyable enough.
Maybe if it was longer it would have wound up overstaying its welcome, but thankfully that didn’t really end up happening. While I can’t say I’ll especially miss having more Daniel Blythe stories to review, this was probably the strongest thing he wrote for Virgin.
8. People of the Trees by Pam Baddeley (featuring the Fourth Doctor and Leela)
People of the Trees is a baffling creation. On the one hand, it is reasonably well-written and flows pretty smoothly. There’s none of the awkwardly crammed exposition that has plagued some of the weaker stories the Decalogs have brought us. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a premise which can’t help but feel like an uncritical and unexamined use of the white saviour trope.
In keeping with the anthology’s central, unifying theme, the property which People of the Trees focuses on is an area of land which the First Doctor purchased on an unnamed planet. He did this with the intent of protecting the titular People of the Trees, an arboreal race considered by the other inhabitants of the planet to be “savages.”
Within the short story, it seems reasonably clear that the People are portrayed in a manner that evokes traditional conceptions of Native Americans and other First Nations peoples who have historically been the victims of violence and hostility from colonialist European powers.
The specifics of the allegory aren’t one-to-one, to be fair. The Dascarians are never explicitly said to have colonised this region of the planet. Based solely on the evidence of the text, it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that the two races have always occupied the same area. Still, the discussion of the People’s tribes having been exterminated in the past seems fairly clear as to what part of history it is evoking, as do the persistent beliefs advanced by the Dascarians that the People are little more than “savages.”
I don’t necessarily take issue with the very idea of doing a story tackling these kinds of issues. Indeed, the collection’s theme of “land ownership” could have even provided a window into contemporary discussions of native title.
After all, native title was very much a hot-button topic in the 1990s, particularly in Australia. In the high-profile court case Mabo v Queensland (No 2), the High Court had almost unanimously voted to overturn the doctrine of terra nullius. One year later, Paul Keating’s Labor government passed the Native Title Act 1993 which enshrined the titular doctrine in federal law.
However, these decisions did not have the effect of quashing debate on the topic. Lost Property arrived a year before the High Court’s judgment in the Wik Peoples v Queensland case would receive intense criticism and blowback from federal and state Liberal-National coalition governments. The cover of a December 1997 issue of Australian periodical The Bulletin would pose the question “Land Rights: How Much is Too Much?”
People of the Trees obviously exists in a British context and not an Australian one, but it’s hard not to read it as reflecting these contemporary discussions in some fashion. Sadly, when viewed in that light, I think this story falls quite short.
As much as I wish we had got a bold and challenging story, something that might have affirmed the rights of First Nations peoples to exercise ownership of their traditional lands, we didn’t get that. The story pretty much takes for granted that the best possible outcome that the People can hope for is that the Doctor retains ownership of the land so that he can protect them.
There is… a lot to unpack in that, and as a white critic there are obviously limits to how qualified I can ever be to fully parse the implications of that assumption. What I will say, though, is that in the absolute most charitable reading possible, People of the Trees still brushes uncomfortably close to the imperialist rhetoric of the White Man’s Burden.
This is the kind of rhetoric that has been used for centuries to justify various policies that adopt a paternalistic approach to First Nations peoples in countries like the United States, Canada and Australia. In particular, the Doctor’s decision to carve out an area of the land for the People’s “protection” is scarily similar to the policy enacted in the United States by the government of President Andrew Jackson under the Indian Removal Act.
There are perhaps ways of making this revelation work. After all, it makes some measure of sense that the First Doctor might choose to do something like this. His presentation as a refined, scholarly English gentleman wandering the universe and righting wrongs has always carried certain colonialist undercurrents, so writing a story that called out some of those tendencies would make complete sense. Unfortunately, this isn’t what People of the Trees does, and it instead ultimately accepts the Doctor’s actions as being completely, unquestionably justified.
To be fair, there are times where the story seems to flirt with the prospect of making some more stinging criticisms. Most notably, the scene where the Doctor tries in vain to warn the Justiciar of Aulian Thorolis’ villainous intentions feels like it comes closest to recognising the ways in which the legal and judicial systems will often tend to be weighted in favour of the majority’s interests. The story still ends with the Doctor’s ownership of the land seemingly secure, though, which undermines any heft that the scene’s criticisms might have had.
I dunno. It just doesn’t quite sit right with me, even as I recognise that there are elements here that I do like. The Doctor and Leela’s relationship here seems perhaps a little more equal than it was in Crimson Dawn, though that might just be the effect of juxtaposing it with all the stuff with the People.
As I said at the beginning of this review, Baddeley also has a better understanding of how to structure and pace a short story than some other authors thus far. It’s a bit of a shame that this is her only story for the franchise, as the White Man’s Burden/white saviour aspects do overshadow the parts that show some promise.
Even more unfortunate is that this should prove to be the last time Virgin published a proper outing for the Fourth Doctor and Leela. It’s a shame that both stories have been tarnished by clumsy attempts to tackle issues of cultural imperialism and colonialism against First Nations peoples. Perhaps it’s not too surprising, though, given that Leela is a character whose base concept is more than a little iffy.
It’s strange, because I came into Lost Property hoping to be able to talk about these stories as some kind of forgotten, overlooked gems. That’s what I wanted, given their unique status within Virgin’s oeuvre. However, if Crimson Dawn and People of the Trees can at all be considered a valid barometer of the quality we could expect from further stories with the Doctor and Leela, then perhaps it’s for the best that this particular dynamic duo were never again put in the spotlight as they were here.
9. Timeshare by Vanessa Bishop (featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri)
I wasn’t a huge fan of Vanessa Bishop’s contribution to the first Decalog, The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back. Its drama felt a little forced, there were some clunky writing decisions that made it a little too confusing to follow at times, and the whole thing also felt strangely truncated. Nonetheless, I went into Timeshare hoping that I would enjoy it more.
Thankfully, my hopes were vindicated.
Timeshare is a great deal of fun, and probably one of the strongest stories in Lost Property. I honestly think Bishop had a lot of potential, which is why it’s a bit of a shame that she apparently only ever wrote one other short story for Big Finish’s Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury anthology in 2004.
Still, there’s a lot to like here, starting with the way Timeshare handles its high-concept science-fiction premise. The property in this story is a sort of time-travelling timeshare, operated by an unnamed disreputable party who essentially allowed customers across time to “buy” the ability to stay there for one week. This is a neat idea, and the story explains it pretty clearly without ever becoming bogged down in the exposition. It’s a simple thing, but considering how many of these stories have had trouble with that so far, it’s appreciated.
There’s also a pretty neat twist to the general formulae that a lot of the stories in this collection have followed. The stories generally either start with the Doctor having suddenly remembered a house or piece of real estate that he happens to own (as in stories like Lonely Days or People of the Trees), or the house and its significance is revealed during the progression of a larger narrative. Timeshare initially looks like it’s going to go with the former, but it blends in a little bit of the latter by having the Doctor be unaware of his ownership of this particular house.
This all plays into the other big point in the story’s favour: the mystery elements. Bishop boldly sets up a number of plates that she has to keep spinning throughout Timeshare, and generally speaking, it’s a move that pays off.
I’ve spoken before about how it can be difficult to construct these kinds of weird, mind-bending sci-fi mysteries, because the universe is inherently not bound by such paltry trifles as the laws of physics or other things us mere denizens of reality have to contend with. It’s already difficult to make all the spinning plates of a regular mystery land in a satisfying way, even before you throw in uncertainty as to the laws of gravity.
In theory, I suppose one might expect me to chew out Timeshare for having its resolution come in the form of a convenient dose of exposition from a random, unnamed Time Lord. Honestly, though, I don’t mind it. Bishop demonstrates a knack for making the infodump feel like an actual conversation, so there’s a tad more elegance than you see in stuff like Prisoners of the Sun or The Nine-Day Queen.
It also helps that the aforementioned Time Lord is, himself, a lot of fun. I like the idea of a Time Lord who isn’t a stuffy old bureaucrat, a refined scholar or a stern military commander, but is just an ordinary, put-upon technician. He’s basically the Miles O’Brien of Gallifrey, which is the kind of character we never really got to see in the original show. The closest example that springs to mind is Neil Daglish as Damon in Arc of Infinity, but… yeah, what a memorable character he was.
Timeshare is also notable for being the first “proper” Sixth Doctor story from the Decalogs, after he took a turn as a guest star in The Golden Door in the first Decalog. Colin Baker’s performance definitely shines through the pages, and while his interactions with Peri are still a little combative at times, Bishop never overdoes it and knows when to rein things in before their conversations just become irredeemably unpleasant. Once again, it’s really interesting to see the progression of Wilderness Years authors steadily getting a better handle on how to approach this “black sheep” incarnation.
Finally, I rather liked the way the plot basically all just stemmed from a series of tiny, comical misunderstandings and errors which added up as the story went along. It really helped impart a sense of mounting tension to proceedings.
Timeshare is a return to good form for Lost Property after the slump represented by People of the Trees. It has just about everything going for it, and like I said earlier, it’s a shame this would ultimately be Bishop’s last Doctor Who short story for nearly a decade. In an ideal world, it would have been nice to see her get the chance to contribute a full-length novel. What we’re left with is still quite entertaining, so it’s hard to complain too much.
10. Question Mark Pyjamas by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker (featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Benny)
And Lost Property rounds itself out with another debut. Or, rather, almost debut. Robert Perry and Mike Tucker had both already contributed a short story, Girls’ Night In, to Doctor Who Magazine‘s recurring series of Brief Encounter vignettes. Nonetheless, this is still early days for the duo who would become best known for their Seventh Doctor stories for BBC Books’ Past Doctor Adventures range.
Question Mark Pyjamas is, needless to say, a bit of an outlier in their career. It’s strange to see Tucker and Perry contribute a story to Virgin – let alone a story so rooted in the particulars of the New Adventures – when most of their subsequent BBC work would seem to try and present an “alternate” continuation of the Seventh Doctor’s televised tenure.
Not only does this story feature both Benny and the NAs’ so-called “New Ace,” but the “lost property” in question is the house on Allen Road that has been a recurring fixture of the books since Warhead. It’s funny, but I had honestly gotten so wrapped up in reviewing the previous nine stories that “Why don’t they feature the house in Kent?” never crossed my mind. Now that it’s appeared, it seems like the most obvious choice in existence.
Anyway, this is a nice piece of fluff to end the collection on. It’s very silly, and that may irk some people, but I found it enjoyable enough. The New Adventures have such a (perhaps somewhat overstated) reputation for being dark and edgy, so it’s nice that between Question Mark Pyjamas and The Trials of Tara, both of Lost Property‘s Seventh Doctor stories have been pretty light-hearted.
I don’t doubt that a lot of my enjoyment of this story’s comedy probably stems from my general affection for the regular cast line-up of the Doctor, Ace and Benny. If this were another set of characters I probably wouldn’t find it quite as enjoyable, but I read much of Question Mark Pyjamas with a smile on my face.
It helps that the general comedy of “villains trying to fit a TARDIS team this dysfunctional into the mould of a stereotypical domestic family” is also backed up by some wonderfully ludicrous imagery. The house on Allen Road being incongruously transported to a barren asteroid is already surreal enough, but stuff like the Doctor using a lawnmower to cut the non-existent grass or Ace bursting out of a garage on a Harley-Davidson is just the cherry on top of a bizarre sundae.
Mr Garpol and Mr Blint, the villains of the piece (and the only major guest characters to speak of), are rather broadly drawn. However, that feels only appropriate for a story like this and they’re still great fun as your typical Holmesian double act.
If I had any major criticisms, it would be that Benny doesn’t get quite as much to do as Ace or the Doctor. It’s possible to cynically view this as Tucker and Perry’s potential preferences for those two characters bleeding through, but I think that interpretation is a little too uncharitable.
After all, Benny does still get some great lines and is well-characterised, so I find it hard to complain too much. The two authors seem to have a good grip on where she fits into the dynamics of the trio, and that’s honestly not really something I can say for every New Adventures author.
Question Mark Pyjamas may not be the deepest story in Lost Property, but it still manages to be a goofy yet strangely heartwarming conclusion that provides a nice reminder of just why I love the New Adventures to begin with. In a way, this feels like the perfect story with which to conclude the first five years of Dale’s Ramblings.
Who could ask for much more than that?
So… how does this stack up against the original Decalog? Probably ever so slightly better, by my estimation. The average quality of the stories was about the same, with some really strong efforts standing shoulder-to-shoulder with much weaker ones.
What gives Lost Property the edge over the original, I would say, is the abandonment of the “one single story” concept. Things just flow a lot smoother when you can jump right into the next story and figure out how it ties into the collection’s overarching theme, rather than having to read a couple of pages of an extremely tangential framing sequence. This is the approach that most of the Decalogs (and the spiritual successor series, Short Trips) would go on to take, and it’s not hard to see why.
So, that concludes all the Decalog reviews that I will be doing at this point in time. I’ll obviously review the remaining three when I get to them, but I see no need to skip ahead. The next blog post you see on here will probably be the five-year anniversary post in October, where I’ll do another Virgin Adventure Revisitation on Paul Cornell’s No Future. A few weeks after that I’ll conclude Moffat Era Rewatch coverage over on Twitter, and hopefully get back into the swing of proper Virgin Adventure Reviews in 2023.
Thank you all for sticking with this blog, even though it’s been pretty inactive for the past year or so. Think of 2022 as something of a “gap year” for the VARs, if you like. I’m just very busy with starting university and such, but it means a lot that people still read my stuff.
Special Agent Dale Cooper