Big Finish Productions

Written by Jonathan Morris Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2003
Continuity Between Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen.

Starring Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford
Also featuring Richard Gibson, Pamela Miles, Francis Magee, Audrey Schoellhammer, Trevor Littledale, Trevor Martin, Daniel Hogarth

Synopsis: The Doctor and Mel attempt to defeat a race of terrible monsters, and soon discover that something rather confusing has been happening to history.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 1/9/03

Like the new presentation. 2 CDs in a box, very nice - showing how unique this story is. Which to play first, that's the question. White goes first in Chess - so I'll go for Black first here. Big Finish experimenting with different story forms - good call, keeps things fresh. The 7th Dr fresh from starring well in Project: Lazarus, and the much-better-on-audio-than-TV Mel. But is a different type of story a necessarily better story?

After I had listened to Black I wasn't sure what to think, to be honest. It was complicated, I knew it was going to be. There was clearly 2 lots of main characters running around. I thought about it a day or so, before popping in the White CD - A-ha! After completing the White CD things made a lot more sense, and I immediately went back to the Black CD. Now it all made a huge amount of sense.

That's where I'm at as I write this review. I have listened to Black, White, Black - and I now think it's a great story. It is the sort that will reward the multiple listener, as the White and Black stories collaborate and play off one another. Listening the Black first confused the hell out of me. But after a break, then playing the White - Black back to back, it all fits together.

Jonathan Morris is not new to this sort of thing. He is responsible for the mass of temporal complication that was Festival of Death. He also wrote the similarly themed Anachrophobia. I don't know how he devises these alternative universe/temporal paradox stories - but I should think his notebooks have plenty of diagrams and flowcharts. This is complex stuff, and it lost me on a first listen. I'm not sure if that is good thing too much - but the fans will love the intricacies, and the fact that you discover more and more on each subsequent listen. The Big Finish year have mixed the stories up well though all through their run. You really do have to concentrate on these story-types - but it's worth it.

The 7th Dr and Mel have now had 3 outings for BF, and this is definitely nearer the quality of Fires of Vulcan - rather than Bang-Bang-A-Boom! Bonnie Langford continues to impress on audio, showing in Flip-Flop a strong personality, and mastery of science unheard of amongst human companions. I detected a touch of irony in Morris' writing a few times - and there's some good humour between the Dr and Mel - I believe this Dr-Companion team is working better than the more established (and maybe over-used) one of the 7th Dr and Ace. I'm glad BF are using Bonnie Langford more these days.

Sylvester McCoy follows up his excellent performance in Project: Lazarus with another pretty good turn. He rolls his Rs a little too much for my liking, and emphasizes a little too strongly in places - but he remains a fascinating Doctor. Of the rest it is Stewart and Reed who stand out. This pairing provide the planetside accomplices for the Doctor and Mel, and are a vital part of the story (on both CDs). They're rather Holmesian in their inception and character - and that's a big compliment.

Trevor Martin is the most famous (for DW fans at least) of the supporting cast though. He plays Professor Capra and does so very well. A modified voice doesn't help recognition, but the character is sufficiently slimy and unusual - another good part for a DW past actor. Mitchell and Bailey, the 2 presidents of this world, are the other main players - also well played.

The fun in these CDs is noticing the differences and similarities between the 2 universes/CDs. This is as close to Back to the Future as Doctor Who has gone. The time travel alternative possibilities are not focused on that much in DW, for a time travel show, and it's nice to see Morris re-addressing the balance.

The results of President Bailey's death and non-death are what drives the stories - and provide the listener with much to think about. The no-easy-way-out scenario shows that not everything is Black and White - rather apt considering the story's presentation.

The whole concept of alternative universes is a fascinating one. What would happen if you had walked this path, rather than that path. It's good to see a story imaginatively using this idea. Once you get your head round who is where, and what is who - you will really enjoy this one. Clever, intricate and interesting. Definitely worth a visit to Puxatornee. 8/10

A mixed bag... by Joe Ford 30/10/03

It is not uncommon these days for me to review Doctor Who merchandise in black and white. Oddly I seem to have a very positive or very negative reaction. Look at Terminus, Heritage, Nekromentia, The Dark Flame and Loving the Alien... hated them! Then turn your attention to The Domino Effect, Timeless, Jubilee, Doctor Who and the Pirates and Blue Box... examples of Doctor Who in different media at their all time finest! It is rare for me to find a story where I am conflicted 50/50 and at a loss to tell you if it is good or bad because it seems to be a lot of both (The Happiness Patrol is a major example).

Flip-Flop is an unusual story, a worthy attempt to do something a bit different. And telling the story a bit different is one of my favourite things about Doctor Who. When a story comes along that doesn't play by the rules (The Pirates and its all singing third episode) or openly breaks established factors (Full Fathom Five with its stunning portrayal of the Doctor) I am rarely displeased. Flip-Flop plays about with its narrative, another plus point as Creatures of Beauty earlier this year managed to do something similar and pull it off with real style.

The basic premise of having a story that you can listen to on two discs in either order is extremely appealing. As top writer Jonathon Morris points out you are effectively paying one price for two stories and as top bloke Rob Matthews recently observed we are paying a lot of money for these CD's and expect to get a good few listenings out of them. You can only imagine the headaches this guy must have had trying to plot this story so that every element falls into place. To his credit (and one of the most exceptional things about this story) the pieces all come together into a coherent whole that satisfies and stuns as the story loops around again and again. A big thumbs up.

But the 'flip-flop' idea is also the weakest aspect of the story. So concentrated on plot was Morris that he forgets all the other aspects that make a story so compelling. A memorable supporting cast for one, a story that flows easily rather than forcing you to concentrate for another. So much happens plotwise that it leaves little room for debate or dealing with the consequences... we quickly move onto the next twist and again and again. The story is loaded with incident but lacks emotion. Steamy sex scenes and the odd witty quip does not make for very interesting drama.

I am starting to wish I never opened my gob about the apparent lack of actual 'time travel' stories in Doctor Who. The Aztecs dealt with the issue of changing the past very dramatically and The Day of the Daleks had similar themes, also effectively used to enhance an otherwise shallow runaround. But since BBC books have taken on the idea there seems to be an endless stream of stories covering the same ground. Some manage to use the premise effectively (the gothic chiller Camera Obscura, goofy comedy Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Jonny Morris' two books Festival of Death and Anachrophobia using the idea for great comedy and horror respectively) but enough is enough.

Flip-Flop takes the idea of time-travel to its absolute limit, threatening to test my patience as the Doctor and Mel leap from time zone to time zone, making mistakes and creating one alternative dimension after another. The story is not without merit in this respect, taking the two factions in the war, Slithergee and human we get to see all possible outcomes. Exploring conflict this way is quite effective, both the Slithergees and humans are malevolent in their respective timelines where they won the war and it is interesting to see how they both revel in nastiness but in very different ways. This isn't the problem with the story, nope; it is just the endless hopping about from one timeline to another leaving very little time to develop any of them. The resulting story is quite shallow. I think Mr Morris was trying to go for a screwball effect, a bizarre mush of conflicting timelines that entertains because it is so confusing but it just doesn't work here, without the characters to support the story it just becomes plot, plot, plot...

There is so much "oh if only we'd done it this way or that" and "we have to be there so that when the alarm sounds and the other us comes along we hear it" and "you can't kill him because if you do he won't be there in time for this and another timeline will break free" that it is impossible to see the plot as a whole. It is superficially entertaining to watch the Doctor and Mel trying to patch everything up the way it was but it does start to grate after a while. Too many concepts vying for attention, that's the biggest problem!

However there are some wonderful elements to the show that counterbalance the jumbled plotting. Morris has a fine grasp on witty dialogue and isolated moments are absolutely priceless. The Doctor pondering over why all corridors look the same, Mel subverting her "truthful, honest and about as boring as they come" statement from Trial of a Time Lord, the elderly Slithergee who pours on the sympathy ("I am a poor blind Slithergee" seems to be his every third line!). Moments like this take you away from all the complications.

Plus the return of Bonnie Langford is something to celebrate! As ever she is the dedicated professional, throwing herself into the role with her usual plucky charm. Her baffled reactions to all the time travel gobbledegook was hysterical but to give Mel her due she manages to stay one step ahead of the plot more than I did!

It's a good thing too because Sylvester McCoy gives another lacklustre performance that has led me to the conclusion that Big Finish should, nay, must end his contract. He was always a bit dodgy on screen, never giving an entirely satisfactory performance in any of his stories. More often it was isolated gems that left you warming towards his clownish Doctor. But the audios really are exposing his lack of vocal talent, the odd story he seems to have read and enjoyed and given a committed performance but the last five or so have been sunk under his underwhelming acting. I was chatting with one of the audio writers online the other week and he told me when he wrote for McCoy he ensured the sentences were small and easy to read so he wouldn't have too much trouble. How bad is that? The writers are even aware of his limitations! He has an annoying habit of rolling his Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrsssssss for ages leaving sentences as melodramatic nightmares. He rushes speeches as though he is reading them for the first time, no naturalism in his wording at all. And with a story as mind bogglingly confusing and loaded with technobabble as this you can only imagine the problems he has. When the Doctor actually detracts from the story there is a HUGE problem.

Other performances were variable at best. The pivotal characters of Stewart and Reed are played so averagely I couldn't get involved in their story. Morris imbues them with some real sympathy, the horrors they unleash on the planet because of their tinkering with time deserved to be truly emotional but Francis Magee and Audrey Shoellhammer react with all the emotion of a lawnmower. Insult is added to injury when Bailey and Potter are to have a lurid sex scene... the resulting grunts and groans leaving this reviewer in fits of uncontrollable laughter!

On the plus side Trevor Martin is superb as Proffesor Capra, the only actor who seems to reach the right balance of humour and horror, playing both up as he tortures his victims and sings carols at the same time.

Can I blame Gary Russell for the poor direction? Oh okay... this one of his lesser attempts in a year that has seen him get better and better. As an example I will cite the middle cliff-hanger to the white disc, a devastating moment when the Doctor has to choose between taking a life or perverting the timeline. A truly dramatic moment that has all the subtlety of an episode of Star Trek Voyager... McCoy spitting out his dialogue, the underdone music, the stupid melodramatic punchline and the wrong place for title music. Its just BAAAD. The story is full of similar mistimed moments and embarrassing scenes, perhaps a stronger director could have concentrated on assembling the difficult plot AND entertaining us.

My, my aren't I being harsh, especially for a story I claimed was only half bad. The Slithergee voices were terrific, scary and funny. David Darlington's music was pretty good (he's finally got rid of that horrid 80's beat!) and he adds some emotion to the story where the actors don't. The story can justifiably hold its head up as a unique experiment... the actual story isn't half bad if you have the stomach to connect all the dots. And Mel is wonderful.

A mixture of the really, really good and the really, really bad, I am at a loss to explain my overall feelings about Flip-Flop. It held my attention certainly and I laughed a few times but I also got pissed off a few times too. A failing success? This story seems to be an oxymoron all of its own, disappointingly good or enjoyably bad... take your pick.

And someone get McCoy away from the microphone!

A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 9/9/04

Flip-Flop may offer a unique take in storytelling terms, but as a Doctor Who story it isn`t entirely successful and this is down to the format the story is presented in-ironically enough. Because the nature of the story is that of an alternate timeline, the result is that ultimately, you know how the tale will conclude (or in the case of Flip-Flop remain inconclusive.) This means that the story doesn`t withstand repeated listenings and once the novelty of deciding which colour disc to listen to first has faded all you are left with is the story itself. The basic plot hinges upon whether President Bailey is assasinated, thus resulting in war with the Slithergees breaking out; and thus one colour disc deals with this and the other colour disc the opposite effect; in this instance the oppressed Slithergees uprising and taking over the planet of Puxatornee.

Part of the fascination with Flip-Flop is listening to how the Doctor and Mel deal with this situation, and indeed knowing that they can`t actually change events, thus altering history if they do so. Indeed the story itself is about how one small event can have major repercussions. Acting wise Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford are on fine form, both being kept together throughout both discs for a change. Of the guest cast it is down to Dan Hogarth as the Slithergees who are most memorable, bringing both their meekness and indeed their darker nature to the fore.

So does Flip-Flop work? Ultimately yes it does, albeit as a one off experiment. Worth your time for the novelty factor, but not so for repeated listening.

Black and White by Robert Smith? 14/5/16

Allegory has a long and noble tradition in science fiction. It's a device that's long been of benefit to the arts, allowing political commentary in a way that often couldn't be said directly. The original Star Trek could discuss the Vietnam war in a way that other contemporary dramas couldn't, simply because having an alien with pointy ears and odd eyebrows managed to fool the executives totally. Everybody knows that The Crucible is a play about the Salem witch trials... but everybody also knows that it's really about the McCarthy era, despite the fact that there are no contemporary references. Decades later, it's still highly remembered and frequently performed, when other, more direct, commentaries have long faded.

I only listened to Flip-Flop by accident. I'd won it in a competition, but it held a lot of promise. Two discs that could be listened to in either order. That's a brilliant concept, one I wasn't sure could be pulled off, but it works a treat. The story has some really clever plotting that loops around its four episodes in a sort of figure 8. It rewards multiple listens, in either order, as events from opposite episodes only achieve full resonance when you've heard their counterpart. And vice versa, naturally. The repetition doesn't drag and is instead easy on the audio-phobic ear. It's clever, funny and entertaining.

Doctor Who's dalliances with allegory have ranged from the excellent to the obvious. Part of the strength of the Daleks comes from the fact that there's so much depth to them. Yes, they're a wholly alien race who don't look like they could fit Barnaby Edwards inside, yes the concept of being powered by static electricity is a sort of kitschy Frankenstein-esque SciFi idea and yes, they're a vulnerable, almost defenceless organism on the inside and a big shell of death on the outside. But what really powers the concept is the fact that they're so clearly an allegory for the Nazis and totalitarianism in general.

Flip-Flop's two plot strands diverge over whether humans make peace with the Slithergees or go to war with them. In the latter case, we see the effects of all-out war leaving the planet Puxatornee a burned-out radioactive shell. In the former, the humans make concessions to the Slithergees, allowing them to "invade" by attrition: first the humans give the Slithergees a moon, then another moon, then they get some of the planet. By the time the Doctor and Mel arrive, the Slithergees cover 90% of the planet.

Of course, sometimes the allegories in Doctor Who weren't so deep. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that The Sun Makers has something to do with the British tax system, despite the clever disguise of setting the action on Pluto and the populace being sapped by the not-quite-so-cleverly-named Gatherer, who's merely a pawn for a bunch of economists with the decidedly-unclever-okay-they-re-not-even-trying-now name of Usurians. Vengeance on Varos is "about" video nasties by being, erm, a video nasty. Actually, that's not quite fair, because most people missed the allegory at the time and dismissed Vengeance for being too full of violence, thus missing the point on a monumental scale. Instead, it took twenty years and the arrival of reality TV for Vengeance's bite to really feel sharp.

The problem with Flip-Flop is that the Slithergee invasion is clearly an allegory for minorities taking over. The Slithergees use their ethnic minority status to gain more and more power, the populace is silenced because "If you say anything negative about a Slithergee, that's a hate crime" and characters are executed for saying that Puxatornee used to be nicer before the Slithergees moved in. The leap from this to near-total control is explained away by "Thanks to positive discrimination, the Slithergees controlled everything." ("Positive discrimination" is the British term form affirmative action.) It's a disturbing parallel to the fears of the white majority in Western countries that immigrants are going to take their jobs, that affirmative action means you can't get a job if you're a white male and that somehow political correctness is stifling free speech.

The more you look at Doctor Who, the more allegory you see. There's The Monster of Peladon's miner's strike parallels, The War Machines' fear of computers taking over, The Two Doctors and vegetarianism. But many of these aren't true allegories, because they tend to give away what they're about within the text itself. The miners actually go on strike, the computers do take over and the Doctor decides to become vegetarian. The Curse of Peladon is far more effective than its sequel, because the allegory of British entry into the Common market is played out wholly without direct reference to it. It adds weight to the drama, making the motivations and arguments feel real... precisely because they are, they've just been transplanted slightly.

What's most troubling about Flip-Flop is how blatant the allegory is. There's no attempt to deal with the complexities of the issue, it's simply presented as read that positive discrimination is bad and if we don't stop the minorities now, they'll take over our society too. This is the kind of shared reading of a text that, like racist jokes, is simply presented as fait accompli. We're supposed to nod along with the idea that positive discrimination is now so out of control that we're just a few short steps away from total dominance by those pesky minorities.

Allegory isn't subtext, although it's easy to confuse the two. Allegory is more of a metaphor as a whole, where what the story appears to be about is not in fact what it's really about. Things and events in an allegory have a symbolic meaning: the Cybermen symbolise the dangers of unfettered medial replacement, the Swampies represent the oppressed natives of the fading British empire and the two power blocs on the brink of war in Warriors of the Deep are, shockingly, the US and USSR at the height of the Cold War. No one's entirely sure what the Myrka represents, but we're happy to leave it that way.

Affirmative action is seen as a bad thing by those in the majority because they perceive that it's the kind of thing that stops them getting jobs wholesale. This completely ignores the fact that whole societal structures - such as mentoring, networking and understanding a country's bureaucracy - are in place to help them along already. Structures that minorities have no access to.

Subtext, however, is that which lies beneath the text. That Millington and Judson are former lovers isn't stated onscreen, but you can read between the lines easily enough (especially if you pick up on the Turing trope). It's not a metaphor, it's just information that isn't stated directly. It's easy to confuse subtext and allegory sometimes, especially when they overlap, as they do in The Curse of Fenric: Judson's wheelchair is an allegory for homosexuality, which is a tough issue to slip past Mary Whitehouse at 7:35 in the 1980s, unless you disguise it somehow.

The Slithergees themselves are also completely blind, which seems more unfortunate than malicious. However, in a serial that's using its storytelling to comment on the evils of today's minorities, it's a little questionable to have the fictional representatives of those minorities be themselves disabled. Whether this is intentional or not, I have no idea, but this aspect is dodgy at best and downright offensive at worst.

Without doubt, Doctor Who's strongest allegory is The Happiness Patrol. The so-called "gay subtext" isn't subtext at all, which has been the source of some fan confusion over the years. Well, that and the pink triangle, which for many years was believed to be there until freeze-frame video experts assured us that it was just the man's undershirt peeking through. It's not that Harold V in episode one is secretly gay if you just read between the lines, or that Gilbert M and Joseph C elope at the end. Instead, it's fundamentally ABOUT being gay and how society's repression can let you hide if you just disguise yourself well enough, but also how this isn't sufficient in the long term. It's clever, intelligent drama that forces the viewer to think about the issue... without ever telling the viewer what to think.

But surely none of this matters, right? Flip-Flop is just a Doctor Who story, something to entertain fans at the end of a long day. Who cares if there's an agenda? Sadly, what something like Flip-Flop does is reinforce racist beliefs in those who already have them and help convince others that these attitudes are the norm. By hiding the message within the undercurrent, it reinforces the stereotypes subconsciously. And that's the most dangerous type of racism there is. It's the sort that begins sentences with "I'm not racist, but..." when in fact anyone who has to begin a sentence like that patently is - and that includes discussions about popular entertainment. It's not always possible to say what you mean directly. Even when it is, there can be stronger ways of making your point than lecturing your audience on a moral issue. Allegory can provide magnificent depth to a work of fiction or it can allow the story to comment on aspects of society that can't be addressed directly.

However, as Flip-Flop shows, allegory can also be used to reinforce negative stereotypes or bolster a society's inherent racism. While allegory encourages us to think about an issue, something we need to be on guard against just where the metaphor is trying to lead us.

Allegory is a double-edged sword. One that, unfortunately, can sometimes be wielded in either order.