Doctor Who
Short Trips: Past Tense

Editor: Ian Farrington
Big Finish
RRP 14.99
ISBN 1 84435 046 0
Available 09 April 2004

During their travels, the Doctor and his companions have found themselves at various points in Earth's past: from Shakespearean London to an Ashes cricket match; from the plains of Africa to Sherwood Forest; and from the time of King Alfred to the turn of the Millennium...

Doctor Who has a rich history of telling stories concerning, um, history. Seems like a good theme for an anthology book, then.

And yet several of the tales in this collection appear to have wandered in from elsewhere. I don't know about you, but to me a Fifth Doctor tale set in 1984 doesn't really feel like a story that deals with Earth's past, any more than a Sixth Doctor adventure set during 1985 does, since those years were the present day for the Doctors concerned. Yet that's precisely what Eric Saward and Samantha Baker give us in their respective contributions, CHAOS and Fixing a Hole. At least Fixing a Hole is an enjoyable story (more on that later), whereas CHAOS is not - some nonsense about hallucinations echoing the events of Resurrection of the Daleks.

I'm not saying that all the stories need to be set hundreds or thousands or years in the past in order to justify their inclusion. Some of the most enjoyable entries are quiet little tales set just a few decades ago. Both Far From Home, by Alison Lawson, and Bide-a-Wee, by Anthony Keetch, show how subtly yet undeniably different the world was back in 1928 and 1933 respectively. Far From Home, an Eighth Doctor adventure, harks back to an innocent time when children could walk themselves to school without fearing for their safety. Bide-a-Wee, featuring the First Doctor, reminds us that the "good old days" had their own disadvantages, such as widespread racism.

Naturally, no collection of historical tales would be complete without some famous names from Earth's past. Accordingly, the Fourth Doctor and Sarah meet Kit Marlowe in Christopher Bav's All Done With Mirrors, which deals with events that were once considered for inclusion in an unmade Doctor Who motion picture. The Fifth Doctor and Turlough bump into H Rider Haggard during White Man's Burden by John Binns, while Jonathan Morris's The Thief of Sherwood features (no prizes for guessing) Robin Hood.

Most of the stories while away the time very nicely, but The Thief of Sherwood is my personal favourite. This highly original piece of work is structured as if to comprise various written accounts of an imaginary William Hartnell serial, and includes a Radio Times synopsis, various reports from Doctor Who Weekly and Monthly (complete with hilariously authentic inaccuracies!), and a Target novelisation. The background to this fiction is largely based on real stories: the reported recovery of all but two of the serial's missing episodes is reminiscent of the archive status of The Reign of Terror, while the novelisation is redolent of Donald Cotton's works. Though the setting of this imaginary serial is historical in itself, its very structure also concerns the nature and impact of reported history: how our attitudes are shaped by second-hand accounts.

The runner-up is That Time I Nearly Destroyed the World Whilst Looking For a Dress by Joseph Lidster. This amusing tale sees a 1990s Polly Wright being thrown back in time to various points in history, revisiting - and in the process wrecking - much of the Doctor's work during other stories in this anthology! The time-bending chaos comes to a head on New Year's Eve, 1999, when a connection with events in the Paul McGann TV movie is implied. This is possibly a sly reference to the fact that most of the various alternative Doctor Who chronologies (novels, audio dramas, comic strips, etc) have steered a course around this fixed point in the series' continuity.

Another amusing piece is Nev Fountain's The Man Who Wouldn't Give Up. Though he makes some very unkind comments about the physical characteristics of Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford, the writer is very astute in the manner in which he spoofs the television show's various attempts at authentic-sounding historical dialogue. What will the TARDIS's translation systems come up with this time? wonders the Doctor. Cod Shakespeare? BBC Play for Today?

Graham Dilley Saves the World, written by Iain McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett, also raises a smile, by playing on the Fifth Doctor's love of cricket. (And the good news for Peter Davison fans is that no fewer than four stories in this collection feature his incarnation in a prominent role.) In a Back to the Future-style attempt to avoid a nasty temporal paradox, the Doctor has to dispatch Peri and Erimem to prevent Tegan from distracting the cricketer Graham Dilley... with hilarious results!

The story has a poignant aspect as well, as it addresses the Doctor's regrets regarding Tegan's hasty departure from his life. This is followed up in Samantha Baker's Fixing a Hole, a side step that is actually a partial sequel to the Jim'll Fix It skit A Fix With Sontarans (in which the Sixth Doctor and Tegan met). Baker does a good job of wringing some serious character issues out of the situation, though I think she is mistaken to suggest that less than a year could have passed for the Doctor since the events of Resurrection of the Daleks - what about all those Peri and Erimem adventures that took place in between? Perhaps the Doctor tells Tegan a little white lie to spare her feelings.

Other stories with a "point to make" include Stephen Hatcher's pre-World War I Ante Bellum, which demonstrates that the Germans weren't always the bad guys, and Dave Owen's Come Friendly Bombs..., which takes Jo Grant to a CND march in 1960, where she realises that not all oppressed masses and crusading rebels are located on alien planets.

With narratives ranging in tone from serious to frivolous, there's something for pretty much every fan here. If you haven't yet picked this book up, then you've got a whole lot of looking back to look forward to.

Richard McGinlay

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