Big Finish’s Short Trips Monthly range started up in January of 2015 and I’ve been a regular subscriber more or less ever since. And as of this year BF finally has a license to start producing New Series themed material.
Short Trips has always been an especially varied and creative range, so I was excited to see three special short trips blending new and old Who concepts; March/April’s The Jago and Litefoot Revival and for September and October a pair of stories sending two of Big Finish’s most popular companion characters into the Last Great Time War.
A Heart on Both Sides, featuring BF veteran performer Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, and All Hands on Deck featuring Carole Ann Ford as Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter and the original Doctor Who companion caused some high emotions amongst the fanbase when they were announced. Not because people thought they would be bad; it’s that Nyssa and Susan are both exceptionally kind and good characters, and Big Finish don’t you dare hurt them.
Needless to say, I had some big expectations for these stories. Did they live up to them? Well, sort of.
A Heart on Both Sides by Rob Nisbet
A Heart on Both Sides dives straight on in. We find Nyssa and her new assistant crewing a hospital ship, the Traken, trying desperately to help as many people as they can while the Time War rages around them.
But when their arrival on a neutral planet is followed closely by a Time Lord attack, Nyssa finds herself the object of suspicion and tensions run still higher when her assistant is found to be a Time Lord himself…
Nyssa’s assistant is, of course, the Doctor (as played by Paul Mcgann). She doesn’t recognise him and he never reveals herself, which, surprisingly, actually works. This is a Doctor who is working hard to stay detached from events. He involves himself in Nyssa’s life only as long as is necessary to save it and then he’s gone.
The emotional stakes are high and on that level this story is a tense and often moving listen.
Unfortunately, the premise doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. It’s a fairly ordinary war-time story but the trouble is, the Time War isn’t an ordinary war. As far as we know, the opposing side are the daleks. The whole concept of Nyssa having ‘a heart on both sides’ (as the Doctor claims) is puzzling to say the least and never really explained.
A Heart on Both Sides sets out to prove that the Time War was more ideologically complicated than it might seem at first glance, but unfortunately doesn’t pull it off. I’ve thought about it a lot and the only ‘two sides’ I can think of that make sense in this context are fighting against the daleks vs remaining neutral, but if that was the intention, it really ought to have been explained more fully.
All Hands on Deck by Eddie Robson
I had a lot of expectations for this story. I did not expect it to open with a dalek machine spewing custard. Suffice to say this one was a surprise!
Susan has now helped Earth weather not one but two dalek invasions and lost most everyone she loves in the process. But she’s determined to help her adopted homeworld rebuild. Life goes on.
Then one day she finds herself dealing with a dalek machine spewing custard. An asteroid that disappears before it can hit the Earth. A series of curiously harmless crises. Almost like someone is playing games with her.
It’s the Doctor, playing a very clever and dangerous game indeed. His appearance late in the story where it would normally be a relief is here an unsettling twist. The Doctor is, very unusually, here the antagonist. A sympathetic antagonist but an antagonist nonetheless.
His goal? To keep Susan from realising that Gallifrey is trying to contact her… to draft her into the military. To fight in the Time War. This reveal when it comes is hardly a surprise but its consequences are gutwrenching.
All Hands on Deck is a study into Susan’s character and her relationship with the Doctor, who hasn’t been the world’s best grandfather. The climax harks back to the famous ending of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, wherein the Doctor locked Susan out of the TARDIS and out of his life for her own good, starting her new life on 22nd century Earth.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth has long been praised for its emotional weight and criticised for its sexist, paternalistic undertones in equal measure. Once, the Doctor took away Susan’s right to choose her on path in life. Now their positions are reversed, and now she takes it back.
The decision of have the Doctor play the villain for once was a very interesting one, especially in a story about Susan, perhaps his closest companion of all. And it’s equal parts carthartic and heart-breaking, especially for listeners of The Eighth Doctor Adventures who know exactly what Susan has been through to reach this point.
A Heart on Both Sides was more or less what I’d expect from a New Who based Time War story, which is to say, an enjoyable narrative but ultimately unsatisfying. I hope Big Finish does better in their Time War boxset (I haven’t listened to it yet!).
All Hands on Deck was not at all what I’d expected, and it’s brilliant. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s familiar with Susan’s character. It’ll break your heart.