Short Trips: A Universe of Terrors
A Collection of Short Stories
|Synopsis: Short stories focussing on the dark corners of the universe.|
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 23/8/03
I've become quite a fan of the Doctor Who Short Story, thanks to Companions. The Short Trip original series from BBC books wasn't as bad as most make out it is (after looking at them again recently) - but I was convinced, like with the audios, Big Finish would be up to making things even better. After the impressive Companions short story collection, I was sure this was going to be great. This collection seemed right up my street. A Universe of Terrors - so that would include dark alleyways, haunted houses, ghosts in libraries, classic horror fantasy.
Would this be a collection of ghost stories, which I think DW lends itself to particularly well, or would it go across the full gamut of what terror is - psychological trauma and all that. DW is famous for its power to thrill and scare after all, behind the sofa and all that.
I began by contemplating which Doctor fitted in best into this genre. The 4th and 7th, being enigmatic and mysterious, definitely. Yet the 5th's innocence would provide an interesting foil to terror. The best horror DW stories fall into the 4th Dr's early shows on TV, and the genre pops up every now and again in book and audio form - but they are not confined to one or two Doctors.
DWM did a fascinating article called Tales From the Crypt a few years ago. It explored the dabblings of Who into horror, and was most insightful. Some of the best stories, whether they be TV, Audio, Comic or Book have been of this ilk - Talons, Grave Matter, Banquo Legacy, Chimes of Midnight, Fellow Travellers. If these short stories were going to be half as good as that illustrious list, then I was in for a cracker of a book.
The Exiles Lance Parkin
Looks like the book is arranged chronologically in the Doctor's time frame. The 1st Doctor and Susan enter the TARDIS for the first time, and the fear of what lies ahead is strong. What a magnificent start. 9/10
Mire and Clay Gareth Wigmore
The 1st Doctor again, but this time it's Ian Chesterton who takes centre stage. Captured by Afghan rebels in the 1840s (Retreat Kabul) he is being tortured, and faces horrors inflicted by his captors. Gritty, sombre and vicious. 8/10
Ash Trevor Baxendale
Interesting way of writing this one. The 1st Doctor tells Steven of an adventure he and Susan had, whilst the TARDIS was in Totters Lane. Sapphire and Steel land here, and a hugely effective ghost/time shift story. 9/10
Face-Painter Tara Samms
The book turns surreal in spades with the 2nd Dr, Jamie and Victoria barely recognizable. The horror is more subtle, and I found it to be rather too strange for my tastes. 5/10
Losing Track of Time Juliet E McKenna
The 3rd Doctor and Jo in a story that reminded me so much of Ghostbusters (lots of scenes in the archives of a library) I expected to see Bill Murray any minute. Not too bad. Who you gonna call? 6/10
The Discourse of Flies Jeremy Daw
Where's the Doctor gone? The longest story thus far decides to set the scene for its first half. When the 3rd Dr and Sarah-Jane do arrive we're left with the old monster running the show in the name of religion. Can do better. 6/10
The Fear Alex Leithes
The 4th Dr is given a good grilling by a strange entity, trying to discover just what the Doctor is fearful of. Potentially frightening as each escapade is, there seems no fear present here. We need a cracker to get this collection moving in the right direction again. 6/10
Mauritz Jonathan Morris
The 4th Doctor and Adric in a splendid tale by master of time anomalies - Jonathan Morris. The time-shift Monastery is a superb creation. Really wanted to spend more time here. 10/10
The Comet's Tail John Binns
The editor of the collection provides the worst of the collection. The 5th Dr apparently in his own house, didn't get what this was on about at all! 3/10
Long Term Andrew Campbell
This is the kind of tale I was hoping for, so it went down very well with this reader. The 5th Dr arrives at a vast public school, where grotesque murders are taking place. Excellent. 9/10
Soul Mates David Bailey
5th Dr, Tegan and Nyssa. Tegan is the focus though. She is tormented by a ghost of spaceship crashes past. Not too exciting, and not for the squeamish! 6/10
Whiskey and Water Marc Platt
There's been quite a few DW Westerns lately, and here's another. The 6th Doctor gets involved with sentient metal, during the 1840s gold rush. Funny seeing the 6th Doctor in an inebriated state, but not very scary. 6/10
The Death of Me Robert Shearman
The master of comedic horror (witness all his audio plays) strikes gold again. It has echoes of his previous works, but still stands as the crowning pinnacle of this collection. Showing a complete mastery of the 6th Doctor's character, we have an old house surrounded by fog, grotesque murders in the night. What a brilliant writer this chap is! 10/10
This is My Life William Keith
I'm not a great fan of poetry, in any form. This stands out from the collection for 2 reasons. It doesn't match the premise of the collection, it's a uninteresting rehash of the 7th Dr's era. Shouldn't have been included. 4/10
Gazing Void Huw Wilkins
The 8th Doctor here, interviewing a former dictator. The nature of evil is explored, and whether this man is indeed the monster many portray him to be. Another interesting variation on the terror theme, and rather good too. 8/10
So that's it, another Big Finish short story collection that was very enjoyable. More hits than misses definitely. 7 really excellent stories, 3 duffers, 5 average. Best story is The Death of Me, but Mauritz is mighty close.
The theme of Terror is explored well. I wanted more traditional ghost stories, that's the story types I really like more than any other (as I explained in my introduction). There's only a few of that type, but the collection contains enough of interest to not make that too much of a disappointment. I will definitely be buying the next! 7/10
A Review by John Seavey 10/9/03
While I was reading Short Trips: A Universe of Terror, even the good stories, I couldn't help but think that I'd spotted where it sometimes went wrong. It's a nice idea for a linking theme, that the universe of Doctor Who is filled with pointless, inexplicable horror and madness, and at first it seems like a very accurate description of the series. But after reading a few of the stories, I realized what burdens all of them struggled under, and I wound up being amazed that as many of them succeeded as they did.
Notably, the Doctor Who universe is filled with pointless, inexplicable horror and madness...until the Doctor shows up. Doctor Who is Manichean, not Lovecraftian. When the Doctor shows up, he defeats the monsters, explains the inexplicable, and in general saves the day. Hence any short story in a "horror" Doctor Who collection has to walk a very thin line. On the one hand is the pit-fall of not fitting into the theme of the collection. If the Doctor is too heroic, where's the "universe of terror"? But on the other side, if the horror grows too severe, then it doesn't feel like Doctor Who. It's an almost impossible burden, and a lot of the stories wind up trying to solve it through gimmicks and tricks (like presenting just the beginning or middle of a story, or falling out of canon, or simply not making any sense.) Still, the good ones are so very, very good that I have to recommend this collection.
The Exiles by Lance Parkin
On the one hand, it is Lance Parkin writing a pre-Unearthly Child story that develops one of the great "taboo" moments of Doctor Who -- what was it like when the Doctor and Susan explored their new TARDIS for the first time? It's hard to go wrong with this. On the other hand, it's really more of a fragment than an actual story; I felt that this needed to be a lot more developed, like novel-length developed, before it could really reach its full potential. I don't think it's bad, because I think this author with this story couldn't write something bad, but I think it could have been better.
Mire and Clay by Gareth Wigmore
One of the gems of the collection. It manages to seize and sustain a perfect level of tension because it doesn't put Ian in danger of his life (a false threat, because we know he survives); it puts him in a far more difficult ethical quandary and makes us wonder what he's going to have to do to stay alive. No supernatural moments here, no alien life-forms... just men struggling to survive in a war, and Ian doing what he has to do in order to live. That's somehow far, far more terrifying.
Ash by Trevor Baxendale
A pleasantly chilly little ghost story, with little to distinguish or condemn. It reminded me a bit of Fear of the Dark by the same author, which also had a nice atmospheric feel, only without the godawful train wreck ending.
Face-Painter by Tara Samms
One of those "gimmick" stories I mentioned earlier, this is heavy on the atmosphere; it's creepy, chilling, and eerie, showing the Doctor and his companions helpless. There's something so utterly wrong about seeing the Doctor helpless that it can't help but stir emotions; however, for that same reason, the story feels (and is) incomplete, because the Doctor's great strength as a hero is that he's infinitely resourceful. Ending the story with him still helpless feels like you're not ending the story. (And it doesn't help that it's the Second Doctor... after all, it's not like we don't know whether he got out of it or not.)
Losing Track of Time by Juliet E McKenna
It's... it's there, and it fills a certain page count, and it's coherent and makes no mistakes. Oh, and the idea of removing knowledge from humankind by stealing books is kind of cool, if nonsensical. Other than that, I can't really say anything positive or negative about this story.
The Discourse of Flies by Jeremy Daw
Nicely atmospheric, essentially coming in at the end of a Who story and letting us fill in all the dull "Doctor helps the rebels" bits. Ergo, we just come in at the unmasking of the villain, and it's a doozy. Memorable and well-written.
The Fear by Alex Leithes
This story almost serves as the signature piece for the paragraphs I wrote at the beginning, and also serves as a wonderful rebuttal to Ghost Ship. (I could only imagine that the experiment in that novella induced the fear directly, since the idea of the Doctor just being frightened of things never worked.) It shows the finest Doctor at his finest, refusing to give in to terror and defeating his opponent simply by speaking to him. It might not be the best written piece in the collection, but it's probably the most passionate statement of why the Doctor is a hero in a long while.
Mauritz by Jonathan Morris
Unquestionably the best story in the collection, and the one that manages to perfectly, perfectly, and did I mention perfectly deal with the "terror" theme of the collection without sacrificing the Who aspects. This one will haunt you, deserves to haunt you, and is worth buying the collection for. Jonathan Morris just keeps on dazzling.
The Comet's Tail by John Binns
Um...it's nice, but what is it? Essentially an abstract piece that feels like a dream sequence (and probably is), this one totally sacrifices plot for atmosphere. If you're willing to take it on that level, it's quite good. If not, you'll probably get frustrated by its lack of coherence.
Long Term by Andrew Campbell
Tied for the number two spot in the collection with Gazing Void, this is another story that finds the elegant balance between horror and heroism that's so hard to work for in Doctor Who. Like Mauritz (and, now that I think on it, Lungbarrow and Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible), Long Term uses the stylistic elements of the Gothic to create a creepy and unsettling atmosphere that lingers long after the Doctor has defeated the ostensible foe.
Soul Mate by David Bailey
The opening sequences -- indeed, the majority of the story -- is well-written and promising, with Tegan captured and in a battle of wits against a madwoman. Then we get to the end, and it all falls apart as the author feels the need to staple a ghost story ending onto what was a very good 'Misery'-esque piece of writing. Read it all... except for that last page or two.
Whiskey and Water by Marc Platt
Oddly enough, the Doctor Who writer most associated with the Gothic form turns in an almost-humorous Western featuring the Sixth Doctor getting drunk off his arse and playing piano for an exotic dancer. It's a good story, but it's very far out of theme for the collection and feels like it should have been longer, to boot.
The Death of Me by Robert Shearman
From the man who brought you The Holy Terror and The Chimes of Midnight, here's both of those stories in one convenient package! That's probably a little unfair -- the story is well written with some very humorous moments, even if the explanation of events makes no sense and the Doctor acts wildly out of character. But it does bear an uncomfortable similarity to Shearman's earlier works, and it kind of feels a bit like he's writing it on autopilot.
This is My Life by William Keith
What. The. Hell. How did this get in here? Not only is it not very good, it's got nothing, nothing, nothing at all to do with the theme of the collection. It's just a series of little light poems about the Seventh Doctor's twelve televised stories, plus his appearance in the telemovie. It says a lot that even though it's only two pages long, I started skimming half-way through. The only way I can imagine this getting in was the realization that they had no Seventh Doctor stories and wanted to put something, anything, anything at all in so they could claim that all eight incarnations were represented.
Gazing Void by Huw Wilkins
The other tie for second-best in the collection, this story forces the Doctor to confront an unpleasant truth he'd rather avoid -- that sometimes, there are no monsters. Sometimes, there's just desperate people, doing awful things because they can't find any other way, and that some villains have faces, names, hopes, and dreams. And it shows that the Doctor's a true hero, because he can tell the difference between a monster and a person, even when he's forced to oppose both.
Overall, this is a lovely collection, easily standing head and quite possibly shoulders as well over the first two Big Finish anthologies. Not every story is perfect, but there's a lot of good here to be found and a couple that should be added to the all-time classics of Doctor Who short fiction.
Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 5/11/03
A whole universe of terror? Wow. Of course the immediate problem with that is that if we are presented with ever more terrifying stories, building upon suspense and tension until we're ready to pop, we're... well, likely to be to become desensitised and bored by it all to be honest. Fortunately, that isn't the case here. This collection is nicely varied in its terror, in many cases with stories masquerading as a perfectly normal adventures that the Doctor might have had in any other collection, but that does help break it up. Certainly, this collection is better that Short Trips: Companions, but that's not hard.
Unfortunately, we first start with The Exiles by Lance Parkin. Do we really need another retelling of how the Doctor and Susan left Gallifrey? And there's nothing really terrifying going on either. No point to this story no matter what way you look at it.
Mire and Clay by Gareth Wigmore took me a while to get into it, but once I did the story worked well. The last page you can see coming a mile off, so it lost a lot of impact, but far above the worst story in this book (that's yet to come).
I'm not really sure what the terror is in Ash by Trevor Baxendale, but it's still a great story by a great writer. Interestingly, it's a repeat combination use of Doctor and companion in this collection that tries to be unique, but it works for being told in the way that it is.
'Tara Samms' writes Face-Painter, but whilst I usually like 'her' stories, this one was too odd to get into. Was it supposed to connect into The Faceless Ones in some way? (If not, it should have!)
I can empathise a lot with the terror in Losing Track of Time by Juliet E. McKenna, having delved into the stacks at Victoria University Library more than once, but the menace the Doctor and Jo face aren't anything to get too excited about.
The Discourse of Flies by Jeremy Daw is, um... well... it's... um... no. Not really. Nice try, but just fails to make any real point or have any impact.
The Fear by Alexander Leithes is probably the most fannish story in here, in that the author tries to be really clever but doesn't manage to impress. Possibly a different choice of Doctor might have helped? (Or, admittedly, that could have been the point.)
Jonathan Morris certainly deserved props as a writer, and Mauritz is no mistake. Very effective use of the maudlin Fourth Doctor and Adric here. It's another case of being able to see the ending before it happens, but that doesn't lessen the terror in any way.
Oh dear. This is it. There are many reasons why editors shouldn't be writing stories for something they are editing, and this is a perfect example. The Comet's Tail by editor John Binns... just what the hell is going on here? The terror is the story, not anything in it.
Long Term by Andrew Campbell struck a few bells with me, school can be an eternity. There's a point made here again about punishing people before they commit crimes, which gets in the way somewhat. The ending also under cuts the story, but on the whole quite good.
We start near the end of the story in David Bailey's Soul Mate, but nothing could help it, let alone trying to present the 'terrifying' climax. Another case of the author trying to be clever, but again failing.
Whiskey and Water by Marc Platt has a lot of potential. A lot of potential. However, only some of that potentiality becomes actuality. It's a nice enough story in its way, but comes across a little pat and forced in places. However, it's not likely that more length would have helped at all.
I have to admit that I've never been too enamoured of stories by Robert Shearman. Yes, his audios are great, and his written word contains his sense of humour, but it doesn't quite comes across as well. The Death of Me has an interesting idea, but it isn't presented as terror but boredom (which is appropriate for the story, but not for this collection).
This Is My Life by William Keith is short and cute. It also contains no terror (unless you are terrified of rhyming couplets), but I like it.
Gazing Void by Huw Williams has trouble with making its point. I'm sure there's one in there, and perhaps the author is trying to be clever, but it doesn't quite come across. But I'd be willing to come back to a second try by this author.
There are a few clunkers in this book (and some real questions as to why certain stories were in a collection supposedly about terror), but also enough decent stories to make this book readable. (I'm not sure I'd recommending buying it, but reading it, certainly.)