ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: Short Trip – “A Heart on Both Sides”

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. Spoilers after the “read more” tag.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle Big Finish’ latest short trip, following Nyssa at the heart of the Time War. Beware terrorists, and keep on reading.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts

TIBERE: Big Finish has started, of late, to use its Short Trips range (which are, in case you reader are not aware, short thirty-minutes stories with one or two actors) to tackle some New Who themes and characters – we got Ten and Eleven meeting Jago & Litefoot earlier this year, and it happens that today, just as we were starting to write this talk, they announced that Jackie Tyler would star along the Metacrisis Doctor in two stories by Joseph Lidster next year. So, well, we had to get on that train and start reviewing those, hadn’t we? Because seeing how Big Finish tackles and problematizes the New Series, well, that’s kind of our job, I suppose. So here we go, writing about the two Time War stories they are releasing: one with Nyssa this month, and another with Susan in October.

SCRIBBLES: I must admit, I was pretty cynical about the idea. In general, I don’t think third person narration is the strongest angle Big Finish has in its wheelhouse, and I tend to worry that the shorter stories give less space to develop. And while there are a few aspects of this story I’d have liked more time to expand on, it surpasses all expectations and really, really works. It finds some fantastic moments of meaning in juxtaposing its lead characters, all to shine a light on an aspect of the Time War that has generally not been developed despite being a vital piece. It works. Very well.

TIBERE: I think the background BF has in short story anthologies (like the Bernice Summerfield ones they use to release as tie-ins to the audios) really help them to create really short, but effective little stories. A strong concept that doesn’t overstay its welcome and explores some really fascinating thematic ground – really, the interaction of Old and New is something Big Finish tends to do very well (look at Doom Coalition), and this is no exception. It’s a gripping, political, extremely-well written little tale, and I think it’s fair to say it has put newcomer Rob Nisbet (who has so far only penned a Companion Chronicle and this) on our watchlist of writers to watch out for. Strongly recommended (plus, it’s cheap!).

 

TIBERE: I guess that, if we have to start exploring this story, the only place to start is its central conceit: Time Lord terrorism. Doom Coalition, through the actions of said Coalition, had gestured in that direction already, and the War Doctor range had certainly thrown a lot of anger and accusations at the Gallifreyan rulers, but this is the first time we get to experience the way the Capitol’s brand of violence concretely manifested itself during the War. And it’s not pretty – part of what makes that audio so good is just how down-to-Earth, how mundane it all is. There’s no Ollistra here, no big bad general smirking away – it’s just ordinary people getting blown up by faceless goons whose identity matters so little they are ready to tear their own heart out in the name of nationalism.

SCRIBBLES: It reminds a bit of Aliens Among Usin its terrorism exploration, does it not? Or, to branch further out, Joseph Lidster’s The Longest Night” of the early UNIT audios, a story about white terrorists organizing bombings to frame on muslim immigrants. It’s a very easy angle to bring politics right into the heart of the narrative, using a bombing as the centerpiece. And here, once again, it works well.

TIBERE: Definitely. Although, I think that, even more than those stories, what truly makes that audio hard-hitting is the sheer impersonality of the violence. The Sorvix in Aliens Among Us have something resembling a point, with their search  for God, and at least an agenda, evil as it is. Here, the decisions that we witness are taken by some bigwigs on Gallifrey; we are not privy to those. We just see the facts of the violence, and its awful, awful consequences.

SCRIBBLES: The choice to make Nyssa the personal stakes is a particularly inspired choice, though, and adds a person angle to things. It works well as a trick to draw the Doctor into things, and it gets the notion of fixed and flux points in time established in the new series better than some audios have in past. Really, it borrows the trick of The Angels Take Manhattan,” where history is set once read. Having the Doctor just stop reading and start saving Nyssa is a good twist on that, and works far better than in the more direct imitation of Fallen Angels,” which entirely missed the point. The best aspect of this choice to draw the Doctor in, though, is his choice to remain silent to Nyssa the entire time, never once revealing who he is to her. Not only does it create a phenomenal reveal, but it says a lot about his emotional state that he doesn’t want his friends to see who he is anymore.

TIBERE: It also does an absolutely fantastic use of its format. When you think about it, they never could have pulled out the twist of having the Doctor hidden in plain sight in a full-cast audio: you’d recognize Paul McGann’s voice. But with Sarah Sutton playing every single character – a fact you tend to forget because dammit, she delivers a pretty stellar performance here -? I literally went, out loud, “dammit, of course!” when that penny dropped.

SCRIBBLES: It’s a particularly clever way to reveal it, too, because the reveal is so efficiently paired with some of the most visceral drama of the story, the Doctor getting poisoned by anti-Time Lord precautions. The moment the circumstances dawn on the listener, the character is in deep trouble.

TIBERE: Generally speaking, that story doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to graphic depictions of violence. The deaths of the patients, poisoned through their own medicine, are pretty hard-hitting – makes sense, really: you get to see a hospital during a war, that’s never going to be pretty. But even that, that’s a genius idea: an hospital during the Time War. It allows you to feel the stakes and horror of the conflict in a way few audios ever have. That was one of the problems with the War Doctor stories: their scale was too big; too similar to your average Who story. You never felt the full blast of consequences in the way you do here. There’s also some pretty interesting visual symbolism at work, here – Nyssa created her own vessel to travel the stars, the Traken, naming its wards after former companions and friends. She kind of made a TARDIS of her own to travel the stars, and well, be a Doctor (a literal one). So when you get the Time Lords themselves infiltrating that structure, corrupting it and threatening to blow it up, it makes it all much more powerful – it makes the story a corruption of the Who narrative in a way a lot of Time War stories fail to achieve.

SCRIBBLES: Though, speaking of spectacular Time Lord reveals, while making the scar the trace of the villainous Time Lord villain removing her own heart to pass unnoticed is a beautifully screwed up moment of body horror, it’s unfortunate that the shortness and small scale demanded by the audio means we’re robbed of the one prominent point of view against the Time Lords. Their actions are absolutely reprehensible here, and that lands well and took me by surprise, but it’s a shame that we don’t get to see a bit more of the people who are the victims of the Time Lords. We get a spectacular sense of consequences on this small scale, but it’d have been lovely to see a few more of the lives hanging in the balance and caught in the crossfire.

TIBERE: Admittedly. That’s one of the downfalls of the short story format – although, the Susan Short Trip of next month, sold as a sequel of sorts to that one and featuring a post-“To the Death” Susan, might precisely be tackling that angle. To come back to the Time Lord villain, I do admit I love how they threaded the theme of hearts throughout the audio – through the visuals, anti-Time Lord graffiti that are described at length; or through the dialogue, insisting that “having a heart on both sides”, is more of an ideal than a physiological fact.

SCRIBBLES: I think one of my favorite notes of the story, though, was the ending. The Doctor kisses Nyssa, and she sees that as proof he’s nothing like the Doctor. I mean, how brilliant is that? Not only does it hit at a sort of classic/new series divide of how the Doctor functions as a character, with Davison being very much the “no hanky panky” period and McGann very much being puberty, but it works beautifully as a character beat.

TIBERE: “Love & War” is not an Eighth Doctor story, but that specific ethos, I think, kind of defines a lot of the Wilderness Years, and of the stories McGann got at the hands of the book writers of the time.

SCRIBBLES: The Eighth Doctor showing affection in the midst of this War would intuitively seem like a redemptive action, something that would be good in the midst of all that bad. But instead, it helps prove how different he has become. And so the story ends with Nyssa never learning who the Eighth Doctor is. On one level, I rather wonder if that was to not get in the way of the continuity mess that is the older Nyssa arc, but more importantly, it just works spectacularly as a beat that informs the Doctor and the War in a very rich way.

TIBERE: It does show him, in a way, being separated from his identity as “The Doctor”. Still trying to do his best and be a good man, but being forced away from that title by the circumstances and the horrors of the War. I kind of wonder if they’d have tried to put John Hurt in that story, had he been still alive at the time of the recording. Although, McGann’s brand of resigned, hopeless romanticism certainly is a good fit, and him being ready to sacrifice his life to save one woman, and one of his friends, is a beat that definitely feels right for him. Overall, this really is a fascinating release – for me, the Time War should always have been told in a format resembling this. Scattershot little vignettes showing us scenes of confusion and destruction. Trying to create a linear plot out of the conflict kind of detracts from it – but showing us the little moments, and all the horror and humanity that dwell within those? Yeah, that’s definitely an approach I can get behind.

SCRIBBLES: Really, it works not just as a vindication of Nisbet, who I now expect great things from, but the Time War as a narrative space, which hasn’t always been handled well, and of the Short Trips as a range. I must admit, even the much beloved and acclaimed A Full Lifeleft me a bit cold, and The Jago and Litefoot Revivalwas a joy more for presentation than for content, but this genuinely gives me excitement for the range’s future exploring more modern storytelling. And, of course, it bodes very well for the Eighth Doctor’s future in the Time War, a narrative which it looks like we’ll be continuing with for many years to come.

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