Some time ago, I concluded my review of Short Trips: Time Signature by announcing I would no longer be purchasing Big Finish’s Short Trips volumes. While the anthologies rarely struck me as poor, too many of them struck me as average, and the failing exchange rate meant that I could no longer justify the purchase price for the content I was receiving. Several months ago, however, I was contacted by Richard Salter about his upcoming anthology Short Trips: Transmissions and his desire to have it reviewed — and so I have returned to the range, perhaps briefly, to offer this review. In the interest of full disclosure, I must point out that the anthology was provided to me at the editor’s expense — but as it is common practice to provide review copies, I do not feel that this has affected my ability to remain unbiased.
While “Transmissions” does not have an obvious linking plot like some of its fellow anthologies, it does feature a strong, consistent theme: means and methods of communication and understanding. This is a powerful central idea, but do the individual stories measure up? Let’s find out.
Doctor Who and the Adaptation of Death — Graeme Burk — I like the central idea here. While we’ve seen the Rashomon thing in a million other places, a story about inaccurate film representations is a fun twist on the material. It’s a funny story, too, but ultimately I think it tries a little too hard — the commentary on celebrity culture (yes, Jude Law the Third, we got it the first time) feels forced and the reversal by the Kubthukians, while amusing, isn’t a plot device I enjoy.
Policy to Invade — Ian Mond — I love the seventh Doctor, and I love when he brings down entire companies and/or governments from within, so I’m predisposed to like this story, but it’s really rather good. It’s easy to misdirect the reader’s attention with this sort-of-epistolary style, and Mond does it brilliantly — by the time you realize what’s happened it’s already passed you by. The Rachel Lane passages are worth the read just on their own.
Only Connect — Andy Lane — A bizarre conflation of Doctor Who and Taxicab Confessions, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work. The idea that the Doctor drives a cab in his spare time is something that’s “out there” even for Doctor Who, and yet Lane pulls it off, presenting the image of the Doctor dipping his toe into the flow of time and gathering what information he can. It’s uplifting, in one since, arguing as it does that everyone has a part to play — the Seeds of Doom connection is interesting — but yet it’s also painfully depressing, as it shows a man who (apparently) dies thinking just the opposite. Intriguing yet uneasy reading.
Gudok — Mags L. Halliday — It’s a fairly typical murder-on-a-train story, with the fairly typical setting of the Orient Express, and there’s a tenuous connection to the anthology’s theme involving the train’s ability to deliver messages over long distances. Two things set it apart: the regulars and the setting. Tegan and Turlough’s relationship is captured effortlessly: Turlough’s motives are entirely unclear, Tegan clearly can’t stand him, and yet there’s that faint hint of a spark of romantic tension. Secondly, the setting — and the period characters — are utterly believable. I think it’s unquestionable at this point that Halliday is one of the best Who authors at presenting historical settings, and this story is further proof.
Generation Gap — Lou Anders — It’s a typical Pertwee-off-Earth story, full of belabored explanations and broad characterizations, but fortunately it has a few interesting quirks. The perspective — second-person — is unique, and yet it works, easily putting the reader into the central character’s head. Secondly, I love the inversion of the whole intelligent design “debate:” here, there is scientific evidence for a higher power interfering in the development of a species, and those who believe in random evolution — for which there is no evidence — are rightly dismissed as quacks! Of course, there’s the chance that some might read this story as some kind of endorsement of intelligent design in real life, but I hope not. Solid stuff.
Lonely — Richard Wright — I love stories that play with form, and this is certainly unique for Doctor Who: a story told through a chatroom transcript! The characters come across perfectly, and the Doctor’s text just screams McGann even if, like me, you overlook which Doctor is in the story. The threat is surprisingly creepy, too. Would it work for someone that wasn’t an experienced veteran of internet chats? I don’t know, but it worked for me. My only concern was with the very end, which felt a bit forced.
Blue Road Dance — James Milton — Loved it. Effective worldbuilding is an easy way to win me over, and Milton’s society draws you in immediately. Dancing is a powerful means of expression, and creating a people able to affect reality through dance makes for fascinating reading. There’s also the Doctor-as-deity feeling which crops up from time to time, and Troughton is absolutely perfect here, his impish Trickster type a fine contrast to the seriousness of the situation.
Tweaker — Dan Abnett — I’m digressing a bit here, but sometimes I think the tendency to explain everything in Doctor Who fiction can be a hindrance. Collins is a great character, and the limited perspective Abnett employs expertly shows how even the fifth Doctor can seem utterly alien to an ordinary person. But why does it go on after the handwritten message on the album cover? The last section is written from a different perspective, contains unnecessary exposition, and a ridiculous final line — it seriously undermines the rest of the story. Sometimes it’s better just to let things go. Digression over.
Link — Pete Kempshall — More Pertwee-off-Earth, but it works for two great reasons: first, the central concept is intriguing; second, the Doctor doesn’t win. The Doctor sees the beautiful telepathic symbiosis that has formed, admires it, tries to protect it, and speaks powerfully in its defense — but it doesn’t matter, as ultimately Hrinth does what he had planned all along. I’m surprised just how well Pertwee works in melancholy mode — though after “The Green Death” I suppose I shouldn’t be.
Driftwood — Dale Smith — Smith is one of my favorite Who authors, largely because he understands my favorite Doctor — the seventh — better than most, and writes him perfectly. It’s an interesting exploration of the human/dolphin relationships seen in Heritage, and there’s some great imagery — glass coffins on beaches — but the scenes of the Doctor talking down Victoria and her colleagues are what make the story. Great stuff.
Methuselah — George Mann — Straightforward Doctor Who, really. Of course, the great thing about the series is that a story about messages from an experimental spaceship in the future manifesting themselves in the thoughts of a 10th century poet can be described as “straightforward” — but that’s what this is. It’s heartwarming, rewarding in all the right places, and funny in others, but it only stands out in its portrayal of Peri.
Nettles — Kelly Hale — For all that this anthology is about communication, there’s also a repeated exploration of the universal scale on which the Doctor operates. We’ve seen the Doctor make terrible decisions before, but rarely do we see such a direct depiction of the effects of those decisions on “ordinary” people. Love the way Bazima first meets the Doctor: thinking she’s being picked up for sex! Her argument with the Doctor near the end is powerful, and the final lines — “the potential for wings” — are excellent. This is the flip side of what I discussed above: we don’t need to see the resolution to this conflict, because that’s not important to the story being told. Excellent.
Larkspur — Mark Stevens — The Falklands conflict isn’t part of my national consciousness, so perhaps some of this story eluded me. Nonetheless, this was very, very good, an NA-style story years after that glorious range ended. Great images throughout — dead time machines strewn across a coastline, massive sinkholes on alien landscapes thousands of years in the future — and of course my favorite Doctor combine to produce a story I enjoyed quite a lot. Benny is perfect, too. I’ve read it twice, though, and I’m missing the hint about who the previous TARDIS owner was!
See No Evil — Steve Lyons — With the amount of writing that Lyons has done in the past about communication, I was looking forward to this one. Sadly, it read like Lyons on autopilot. The idea of nanites implanting themselves in the brains of a population to censor sense itself is a great one, but it’s told like a caricature. Really? There’s a Mary Whitehouse analogue sitting in a giant control room telling people how to think? Then I realized I’d read this before, when it was called “The Stealers of Dreams.” Disappointing.
iNtRUsioNs — Dave Hoskin — Dark, creepy, downbeat, and delightful. A simple, frightening message attached to a letter manifests itself as a corrupting influence in the reader’s brain. We watch firsthand as it transforms narrative focus Sam into a killer, a carrier — and we get a rare outsider’s perspective of the Hartnell Doctor, a force unto himself. It gets under the skin even as it entertains.
Breadcrumbs — James Moran — A new series author turning his hand to the classic series, and he goes from the serious “Fires of Pompeii” to this lighthearted, hilarious season 17 pastiche. Moran nails the regulars — the argument scenes in the TARDIS are great — and the plot, while relatively simple, is expertly constructed. We need more paradox stories like this one, and we need more from Moran full stop.
Transmission Ends — Richard Salter — I like the technique of lifting scenes from the various stories of the anthology and using them as points of communication within the final story. It adds a metafictional level that really gets the brain working. But man, this story is dark. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad, but the relentless blood, death, and crumbling of society certainly wasn’t what I expected as I completed the anthology. Not sure it gels with the rest of the stories in its attempt to serve as a conclusion — but on its own, it’s quite good. Alex’s sacrifice is heartbreaking.
Overall, Short Trips: Transmissions is one of the best anthologies offered in the range. The central theme is consistent throughout, leading to some thought-provoking material, the prose is first-rate, and the story quality is excellent, with even the worst offerings merely average instead of poor. Highly recommended.