Doctor Who reviews: The Reaping

Continuing to discuss performances by Colin Baker in the Big Finish audio plays, today I’m taking a look at “The Reaping,” written by Joseph Lidster. I originally listened to it three years ago. The main reason why I decided to re-visit it now is the book Chicks Unravel Time, published by Mad Norwegian Press (you can see my December 4th blog entry for more info on that).

One of the excellent essays in Chicks Unravel Time is “The Problem With Peri,” written by Jennifer Pelland. In it, Pelland takes a look at the unfortunately subpar use of the character of Peri Brown, the Doctor’s companion in the mid-1980s who was portrayed by actress Nicola Bryant. Pelland, in examining Peri’s portrayal during Season 22 of Doctor Who, noted that she unfortunately served as a poor role model, especially in comparison to the other strong female characters seen on the screen that year.

As I have said before, the Big Finish audios have given Colin Baker a chance to shine, providing him with a higher quality of scripts to work with. This has allowed him to really demonstrate just what he could have done if he had been given material this good to work with on the actual show. Well, the same, fortunately, applies to Nicola Bryant as Peri.

I very much agree with the sentiments addressed by Pelland in her essay. Peri was often ill-used throughout much of her time on the show. She was constantly whining & complaining. Often her relationship with the Doctor was written to consist of little more than squabbling. All that, and the producer seemed more interested in sticking Bryant in costumes that showed off her cleavage than in giving her well-written dialogue. The writers of the Big Finish audios have done a great deal to rectify these problems with the character of Peri.

It is implied in Peri’s debut story “Planet of Fire” that she has issues with her family. She certainly does not get along with her stepfather in that serial. This is fertile ground for Joseph Lidster to explore in “The Reaping.” His script delves deeply into Peri’s background. We finally meet her family and friends, and find out about her relationships with them, relationships that have been severely strained due to her long absence while she was off traveling with the Doctor.

Having just sat through “The Reaping” again, I was certainly impressed with the depth and nuance of the material. The script certainly gives Nicola Bryant a great deal to work with. I would go so far as to say that Peri received more character development in “The Reaping” than she did during her two years on the television show.

Doctor Who: The Reaping
Doctor Who: The Reaping

Thousands of years in the future, the Doctor and Peri visit the Gogglebox, an archive of humanity’s history archived in the hollowed-out Moon. A curious Peri decides to check the records concerning her home town of Baltimore, Maryland in the 1980s. Coming across a news report from that time, Peri learns that the father of her good friend Kathy has been brutally murdered. Shocked and upset, Peri has the Doctor take her back to Baltimore in September 1984 for the funeral. At the graveyard, Peri is reunited with her mother Janine. And all is not well.

Peri, as the audience knows, has been traveling all about in time & space with the Doctor for the last two years of her life. But from the point of view of Janine back in 1984, her daughter just up and vanished one day, with a word to no one, and could not be bothered to telephone or even send a letter to let her mother know that she was safe.

Janine is played by Claudia Christian, who appeared on Babylon 5 as Commander Susan Ivanova for four seasons. I really enjoyed Christian’s performance on that series, where she made Ivanova one of my favorite characters. Christian does an equally good job in “The Reaping,” playing an angry & disappointed mother whose dissatisfaction with her daughter turns to amazement as she learns what Peri has really been up to all this time.

Bryant, likewise, does excellent work in her portrayal of Peri, who is grief-stricken at her friend’s loss, and deeply hurt by her mother’s disapproval. The character experiences an emotional gauntlet in “The Reaping,” and Bryant really brings her to life.

The relationship between the Doctor and Peri is also explored. We see that, underneath all of the bickering, the two care deeply for one another. At one point, fearing the Doctor might be dead, Peri admits to Janine and Kathy that the Doctor is her best friend. I wish we had seen the friendship between the two characters explored to this degree on the television show. My compliments to Lidster for delving so deeply and movingly into their relationship.

As a quick glance of the cover to “The Reaping” will show, the Cybermen are the villains of the story. Even though they are actually used rather sparingly, they are nevertheless very effective. Inserting them into the mundane domesticity of 1984 Baltimore makes them appear even more alien and menacing than usual.

Lidster taps into the simultaneously horrific and tragic nature of the Cybermen. The Doctor sadly retells the Cybermen’s origins, how in order to survive on the dying planet Mondas, they slowly but surely began replacing organic flesh with metal, plastic, and computer circuits. Their cybernetics was a means to an end, a desperate gamble for survival. But they ended up replacing too much of themselves, and lost their ability to feel emotion. Survival became an end unto itself, as they marched out across the galaxy, determined to convert all organic life.

That is exactly what the Cybermen are doing in “The Reaping.” Their numbers severely dwindled after multiple defeats, they want the Cyber race to survive. And so they travel back in time to convert all of humanity. They see this as an improvement, believing that the elimination of messy feelings & emotions will end chaos and bring about order. That is the true horror of the Cybermen. They don’t want to conquer the world or destroy it; instead, they wish to transform everyone into logical, emotionless Cybermen. In so many ways, that is a fate worse than death.
In the classic serial “Tomb of the Cybermen,” the Cyber Controller coldly informs a group of captive humans “You belong to us. You shall be like us.” Lidster has the Cybermen in “The Reaping” reiterate that chilling pronouncement.

On the whole, “The Reaping” is a very strong story. But there are a few weaknesses. The Cybermen’s plan seems to rely on a couple of big coincidences. The ending of the story is unnecessarily downbeat, and cuts off potential future storylines. And there is at least one unresolved subplot left dangling.

On that last point, I realize Lidster was setting things up for a semi-sequel, “The Gathering,” which is the next entry in the Big Finish audio series. I still haven’t listened to that one yet. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to pick it up at some point in the future.

In any case, despite a few criticisms, I found “The Reaping” a well written production, with quality acting by Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and Claudia Christian.

Chicks, Chronology and Doctor Who

Lately I’ve been trying to make it to the Doctor Who New York events and get-togethers organized by Barnaby Edwards.  After years and years of being a fan of Doctor Who and really not knowing anyone personally who was also into the show, it’s great to be able to meet up with other local viewers and hang out, shooting the breeze about our favorite sci-fi series.  Best of all are the signings that Edwards organizes for DWNY.  Given that Doctor Who is a British-produced series, we American fans don’t often have the opportunity to meet too many people involved with the show, since they typically live on the other side of the pond.  So those events are really cool opportunities to actually meet some of these actors, writers, directors, and other creative personnel.

Last week I went to the latest DWNY event, a book signing that was held at a pub called The Churchill on 28th Street near Park Avenue.  The two books that the authors were there to promote and autograph were both published by Mad Norwegian Press.  The first of these was Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who.  A group of female writers from around the globe who are fans of Doctor Who wrote a series of essays analyzing each individual season of the television show, from the debut of William Hartnell in 1963 to Matt Smith’s 2011 series.

Chicks Unravel Time
Chicks Unravel Time

I have to say, as a white male viewer, Chicks Unravel Time was a very intriguing read.  The essays contained within offered up some very interesting alternative analyses and viewpoints of the series that I simply had never considered in my more than 25 years of watching Doctor Who.  Understandably, the majority of the essays are concerned with differing female perspectives on the series.  Other fascinating topics include the power structure in the relationships between the Doctor and his human companions, race & ethnicity, Cold War politics, music, spirituality, and the delicate balancing act of rooting the show in the past while continuing to move it forward in new directions.

The three writers from Chicks Unravel Time who were at the signing were Deborah Stanish, L.M. Myles, and K. Tempest Bradford.  Stanish’s essay “Anything Goes” observes the show’s early period of experimentation of format in the Third Season.  Myles essay “Identity Crisis” looked at how the show evolved in the Fourth Season when Patrick Troughton replaced William Hartnell as the Doctor.  Bradford examined the role of women, as well as their notable absences, throughout Season Thirteen in “The Woman We Don’t See.”  At the pub, each of them read excerpts from their pieces before the signing, as well as explaining what drew them to this project.  It was a very interesting session.

The other book that was being promoted that evening was AHistory: An Unauthorized History of the Doctor Who Universe (3rd Edition) written by Lance Parkin & Lars Pearson.  AHistory is an incredibly ambitious project on the part of its authors, an attempt to arrange in chronological order every single television episode of Doctor Who, Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures, as well as the Big Finish audio plays, the Doctor Who novels published by Virgin and the BBC, the Bernice Summerfield novels, the comic books published by Marvel and IDW, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting!  AHistory weighs about as much as your typical telephone directory, and clocks in at a massive 784 pages.

AHistory
AHistory

Lance Parkin was at the DWNY event to explain how AHistory came to life, starting out as a fan project many years ago that grew in size & scope with each revision.  Parkin describes it as “a parlor game,” i.e. an exercise in fun.  It certainly isn’t intended as any sort of serious scholarly attempt at a historical work.  Indeed, considering the Doctor Who fictional universe has existed for a half century in numerous mediums with hundreds of different writers having contributed to it over the decades, there really is no way to truly reconcile all of the contradictory continuity in a completely flawless manner.  Parkin & Pearson obvious intended it to be an enjoyable read for fans, a useful reference book for devotees of the series.

Unfortunately, I did not have $50 on hand, so I wasn’t able to purchase a copy of AHistory last week.  But I definitely want to pick it up at some point in the near future.  I see that it is available on the Mad Norwegian website for $39.95, shipping included, and is also on Amazon at a discount.  So I’ll probably order it online.

I was able to get a couple of other books signed by Lance Parkin, though.  He is the author of several Doctor Who novels, and I have two of these, The Dying Days and Father Time.  I brought along my copies to The Churchill, and Parkin kindly autographed them for me.  It’s been several years since I read each of them, but I remember that both were very entertaining, well-written books.  Unfortunately, both of them are currently out of print, but if you can locate inexpensive copies, I highly recommend them.

Doctor Who: Father Time
Doctor Who: Father Time

Parkin also wrote one of the Big Finish audio plays, Davros, which I have been meaning to purchase for some time now.  Colin Baker previously had an excerpt from that story on his website, and it sounded top-notch.  The only reasons why I haven’t gotten it before now are the usual: lack of funds and procrastination.  But, yeah, along with AHistory, it is on my short list of Doctor Who items to obtain.

So, while I haven’t had the opportunity to read AHistory yet, it sounds like a fun reference book.  And, as far as Chicks Unravel Time goes, I would consider that to be an indispensible read for any serious Doctor Who fans that enjoy differing interpretations & analyses of the series.

In any case, if you happen to be in the New York City area and are a fan of the series, I definitely encourage you to come by to future DWNY get-togethers.  The group has a page on Facebook where you can find out about upcoming events.