Two of the Doctor Who adventures landed on my digital lap and gazed upward longingly at my singular reviewing eye: The Way of the Empty Hand by Julian Richards and The Other Woman by Philip Lawrence are part of Big Finish’s monthly Short Trip series. These are read by Doctor Who actors and are around thirty to forty minutes or so in length. They are indeed a short hop, short stop, and of course a short trip, into Doctor Who.
I have had some acquaintance with the Short Trip series, both in audio and book form, and have always enjoyed the short narrative repast. Short they may be, but rarely lean. So how do these two stories fare? With truncated lengths compared to the usual Doctor Who story, be it book, audio, or television, do these feel a breeze or a rush?
The Way of the Empty Hand is read by Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon) with his usual consummate skill. It can never be over-started that his impression of ‘his’ Doctor, the late Patrick Troughton, is a joy to hear. Not only does he pitch the tone and mannerisms perfectly, there’s something quite touching in hearing him channel his old colleague.
In terms of the story, this is a very gentle comic adventure. Perhaps a little Douglas Adams in tone from time to time, but if you accept it for its lighter qualities, it’s a very enjoyable tale. It is a little like watching The Romans – drama sewn into the farce. Jamie is teleported-cum- captured for an alien arena, to fight for the thrills of Combatia’s reigning overlord. Can the Doctor and Zoe help Jamie and manage to overthrow the deadly regime?
Well, probably, naturally, and certainly – as you can probably conclude – there’s every chance good will win out. The plot is hardly new, as old as the non-proverbial hills of Mount Lung, but it’s handled with humour, character and the pace of a gentle fantasy romp. It’s silly in places, very silly, but never feels unfaithful to the era nor the Doctor. I would perhaps go so far to say it has an almost child-like innocence to what is quite a brutal topic, but in some regards, Doctor Who was indeed like that back in the day. As silly as the Doctor actively proves his pacifist ideology, it somehow doesn’t feel out of place. It’s played for laughs, but it doesn’t feel unaware of the line it’s walking.
Perhaps, as I have alluded, the tone feels a little more Hartnell than Troughton, but it certainly has a sixties vibe. Either way, whether in tone with the Troughton era or not, this has a great voice talent, a gentle, fun script, and jaunty adventure that won’t tax you. Perhaps the perfect little story on the bus to work.
The Other Woman is read by Katy Manning, otherwise known to the Brigadier and chums as Jo Grant. This story is a rather unusual one, though again, the plot won’t be unfamiliar to many listeners.
Jo is a little jealous of an alien woman Callandra who seems to have the Doctor enraptured. With promises of helping the Doctor escape his exile on Earth, Jo is suspicious that this alien lady isn’t what she seems. That and Jo really doesn’t like her. Is Jo jealous or does Callandra harbour a dark secret?
This again, is a gentle, straight-forward tale, exploiting the “Other” narrative born from alienation; Jo feels alone in her suspicions of an unknown woman who appears to have charmed all her friends. Again, despite this simplicity of tale, and in some regards, its childish simplicity of character, this lighter approach doesn’t harm the story. Perhaps it’s the constant bombard of contemporary film and television’s high pressure, high octane, Coca-Cola whizz-bang-pop dramatics that makes these gentle tales more engaging. Manning has a very different style to narrative to Hines, but equally charming and befitting the story at hand. Manning’s delivery captures the purity of Jo Grant’s unbridled emotions and energies. The story feels very like being in the head of Jo Grant. Not sure it’s a place that I’m totally comfortable, but for the sake of a story, it works.
All in all, these are gentle, if somewhat disposable little tales from the Doctor’s long lifetime. If you’re looking for depth, drama, and tension, neither will really be offering you such digests on a platter. The beauty of Short Trips, and often Big Finish in general, is their smaller casts capture the spirit of the small BBC production that entertained the masses in the sixties and seventies. The stories maybe simple but they are confident and in the good vocal hands of the professional cast members.
This pair of Short Trips invoke the simpler times of television narratives. Isn’t that worth exploring? You know, just for a short trip?