Death comes to The Doctor

In 2001 the BBC, inspired by the rise of the web, produced the world’s first webcast adventure which marked another attempt to breathe life into the Doctor Who franchise. This attempt was the curiosity that is Death Comes to Time an adventure for the Seventh Doctor and Ace. I review the BBC Audio CD as the webcast is no longer available on the BBC web site which does link through to a decent review that I broadly agree with (so no need to keep reading!). Curiously the CD also includes an interview done for Radio 4 between John Humphrys, a Dalek, Sylvester McCoy and a writer for the Daily Mail which was done at the time of the first episode hitting the web – it is an interesting listen!

Elsewhere on the web I found a whole range of  serious reviews (two good and contrasting ones here) and this is clearly something that raises the heckles of many fans and use of the ‘c’ word (canon!). Inevitably this article won’t help but anyway strap in and prepare for a bumpy ride!

Approach to reviewing

I think this story raises so many topics for debate that I will review it in stages – initially as a piece in its own right and then adding my thoughts to how it fits and canonicity in general. I also touch on the free project The Minister of Chance.

The Story

Once, long ago, on an island in a sea of clouds, there was a land where giants walked. And the giants lived amongst the other peoples of the land, and they used their great strength to help them… until twilight fell. Until Death came to Time

Told in five parts this is an epic tale giving its own take on many aspects of Doctor Who. Written by Colin Meek (an amalgam of Dan Freedman and possibly Nev Fountain) with script editing by Nev Fountain, it was later followed by Real Time, Shada and Scream of the Shalka also as webcasts though done with Big Finish.

At the Temple of the Fourth  (Pilot episode: 13th July 2001): the Canisians, under General Tannis, attack the peaceful Santine Republic and wreck wholesale slaughter. The Doctor arrives with his companion Antimony and proceeds to save key members of the senate (including Senator Sala) to seed a rebellion. Meanwhile, Ace who was unaccountably in prison, is taken into custody by the Canisians before being rescued by Casmus a mysterious sage like figure (think Obi Wan Kenobi) who commences to teach Ace about the mysteries of reality. The Doctor travels to The Temple of the Fourth and there meets up with the Minister of Chance a fellow Time Lord. The Minister takes over the Doctor’s mission to help the Santine Republic and sends The Doctor to Earth where two Time Lords have died violently.

Meanwhile General Tannis is furious that others have meddled with his invasion and knows it is Time Lords. In passing he exiles the guard who had unwittingly freed Ace to Anima Persis

Planet of Blood (three parts: 14th February, 21st February and 1st March 2002): on Earth we have a great romp featuring vampire assassins and this gives us character development for the mysterious Antimony. The dead Time Lords were involved in research at a radio telescope and we learn of mysterious disturbances. We also meet Speedwell who helps The Doctor and is given a parting gift for his superior – we learn more of this in the final episode. Ace, meanwhile, begins her mysterious eduction under Casmus and readies herself to travel to the Kingmaker

The Child (three parts: 8th, 15th and 22nd March 2002): focus switched to the Minister of Chance who has taken Senator Sala hostage and hands her over to the Canisians which results in them both being incarcerated. We get a prison escape and learn that this was all a plot to get the Minister insider the Canisian security to disable all the security systems allowing for an assault by rebels on a prison which would allow many Santine prisoners to be freed.

Ace and Casmus continue musing over the nature of time and reality. Ace comes to the realisation that she is now apart from human kind and is about to gain a new responsibility.

The Doctor proceeds to Alpha Canis where he explains to Antimony that he doesn’t just kill people; he starts a plot to undermine Tannis by rescuing the child of the Canisian Premier who he hopes will then act as a counter to the bloodthirsty General

No Child of Earth (three parts: 29th March, 5th and 12th April 2002): Ace and Casmus journey to the Kingmaker as the Minister and Sala journey to the rebels. Many mishaps befall both parties in a strange parallel dance through the plot. The Doctor returns the Premier’s son but is then outfoxed by Tannis who reveals himself to be a Time Lord. The Doctor order Antimony to run but he won’t; Tannis then proceeds to shoot Antimony repeatedly, revealing him to be first the Doctor’s son then an android who dies meaninglessly.

Tannis returns to Santine and spots that the Minister has grown close to Sala. He intends to use this to undermine the MInister. The rebels free the prisoners then are ambushed and slowly slaughtered by the Canisians. Tannis then gets a gunship to shoot Sala in front of the Minister, echoing the destruction of Antimony in front of The Doctor. The Minister is enraged and uses his previously unsuspected god-like powers to destroy ships and Canisians. Tannis leaves orbit quickly and heads to Earth with his fleet!

Ace meets the Kingmaker and is granted the status of Time Lord and her own TARDIS. Rejoining Casmus he gives her a last gift of a magic wand before she leaves for Anima Persis with the warning that she should not use her powers on that planet

Death Comes to Time (three parts: 19th and 26th April, 3rd May 2002): Ace appears on Anima Persis and meets the few remaining inhabitants of what was once a paradise. She travels with a girl called Megan into a volcano to face the spirits that torment the population. She finds that the power of the spirits is too strong and threatens to destroy her; she can only survive by using her wand to change time. She awakes to find the planet is now a wasteland with no inhabitants apart from Golcrum, the guard Tannis exilied there.

Casmus is awaiting Ace but Tannis returns to kill him. This is a Vader / Kenobi like scene in that Tannis learns he is doomed to be replaced by the future – the Time Lords are of the past. Casmus dies serenely. The Doctor arrives just as Ace and Golcrum find Casmus’s body. He explains to Ace that the wand was just a twig and she doesn’t yet have the powers that she will later gain. Catching up on events Ace goes to help defend Earth leaving the Doctor to travel to Santine. There he strips the Minister of his powers and his TARDIS to face the full implications of his actions.

Meanwhile Tannis is in orbit around the Earth and contacts the US President to give an ultimatum. He determines to destroy a random city to demonstrate his power – London! The British contact the President and tell him they will look after themselves and next we know the spaceship launching the missile to destroy London explodes! Tannis is furious then we get Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart  in charge of a fleet of shuttles appear from behind the moon. They attack the Canisians who panic and land near Stonehenge. As they start a ground assault Speedwell appears and attacks them with air support.

Things look good until Tannis captures Ace on Salisbury Plain and when the Doctor appears he tells Ace to die slowly to torture the Doctor. This is the moment; The Doctor uses his power, defeats Tannis but all that remains is his umbrella. The story ends with Ace learning from the Kingmaker that the Time Lords are no more!

The Production

In and of itself this is a good piece of work, well plotted and well directed (by Dan Freedman again). We have a good cast and Stephen Fry is show-stealing as the Minister of Chance. John Sessions plays Tannis as only he can, John Culshaw is Golcrum and of course we have Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Nicholas Courtney.

Several times I was impressed including the beginning of No Child of Earth where we get scene cutting between Ace / Casmus and Minister /Sala that dovetails wonderfully. When the Brigadier appears at the end I had to cheer quietly (I was on a train). If you ignore continuity there is much to admire.

The interview on the disc amuses: the use of a Dalek must have been to remind Radio 4 listeners of who Doctor Who was (having only been on TV briefly for one evening in the 90s (ignoring repeats). It did also point out that this new direction was not one of classic monsters but a reset. The Daily Mail writer is amusing in hindsight – he makes a case that Doctor Who had ceased to have relevance, was stuck in the past and could in no way come back to TV. This web cast was no more than a curio. How we laugh comfortable in the knowledge that the Doctor did indeed come back!

Sylvester also mentioned Big Finish and that it was entirely possible to produce new stories for old Doctors.

The Eighth Doctor comes out of this poorly and gets no support from any quarter.

Why, though, commission a show’s return only to do a changing of the guard and wipe out the bulk of the show’s concepts? This is a BBC product and is clearly meant to be Doctor Who. Maybe the idea is that as Gandalf dies in the Mines of Moria the idea was the Doctor could come back stronger. Cynically I suspect there was more than a little desire to draw a final line under the series that wasn’t done at the end of the TV run and wipes out the McGann offshoot.

The story is rather a mixed-bag and it is easy to speculate that the relatively self-contained Planet of Blood could be form a concept plugged into the more mystical overall arc. Despite that I enjoyed it as a diversion and can imagine listening to it again.

What about canon?

Skip this bit if you don’t care. Suffice it to say that this story is either on the edge of canon or in my view (and that of others) is beyond canon. My view on canon is – TV (ignoring Dimensions in Time about which I can not decide), Big Finish, AudioGo CDs in the nu-Who genre and some elements of the books (which I don’t know). My thoughts on a shopping list of areas of debate follows:

  • Ace becomes a Time Lord: this idea is scattered across various novels and we need to remember these are not particularly consistent with each other
  • The Time Lords die out: well we get that with the Time War
  • The Time Lords are gods: really? Clever, long-lived, time travellers with superior mental powers and wonderful technology but not gods
  • There’s a Kingmaker: new but not the worst idea. If we accept all the bits from other sources about genetic engineering, houses, the Pythia this isn’t the worst of ideas
  • The Doctor dies: apart from my Gandalf idea I can’t defend this as being sensible
  • The Time Lords have a mystic heritage and a bound by rules: some of this meets the Laws of Time and other ideas but not the ‘atoning for past mistakes’
  • The Time Lords are gods: yes that’s still bothering me and is the central unavoidable conflict with this story. The point at which reality has forked would be very early in the show’s history, possibly when Troughton regenerated before we meet the CIA and here of the Time Lords. It’s a shame that the TV show picked the work ‘Lord’ with all its mediaeval connotations.
Overall this is over the line in terms of canon though it doesn’t stop it being interesting and enjoyable. 
It also doesn’t stop the follow up Minister of Chance being interesting!
Well, that was a long piece (for me) – have you heard this? What do you think? Let me know!
Tony, February 2013

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