Short Trips: Zodiac
A Collection of Short Stories
|Synopsis: One short story for each sign of the zodiac.|
A Review by John Seavey 26/3/03
I recently commented that Walking In Eternity was a bargain based on its sheer size alone -- 44 stories in 365 pages. Short Trips: Zodiac, on the other hand, is the exact opposite -- it's a pricey hardbound book, containing only twelve stories, and coming in at 177 pages. (Not to mention, they charged less for Walking In Eternity...but then again, I don't think anyone wrote the stories in Zodiac for free.)
Unfortunately, Zodiac suffers from the same problem as its predecessors: It's so unambitious it hurts. Very little can be said about any of the twelve stories within, other than "They've got the Doctor in them." They're not good, they're not bad, they really don't impact upon the memory much at all... which wouldn't be bad, excepting that it's a pricey hardbound book. I can't really dislike it -- there's not much to dislike -- but I do think that one should not go without food for it, and I certainly believe that Big Finish needs to raise their game a little if they want to keep producing these anthologies.
First off, the theme of the anthology is pretty much utter pants. "The Zodiac according to Kasterborus" basically means here "stick in a page of blather about astrology before each story alongside some astonishingly bad drawings (Gemini looks like a pair of stylized seagulls in flight, while Cancer is virtually indistinguishable from the signature of comics great Walt Simonson), then have stories which relate minimally (if at all) to the astrological sign." The idea of giving each story a horoscope is cute, though.
As to the actual stories, The True and Indisputable Facts In the Matter of the Ram's Skull is interesting and atmospheric... but so light on plot as to be non-existent. We have a seance, something horrible starts to come through, and the Doctor stops it before we find out what it is. Admittedly, from what we see of it, we're probably better off not knowing what it is... (Thematic Connection: Well, it's got a ram in it... or at least a part of a ram...)
Growing Higher, by Paul Leonard, is equally atmospheric -- a short, sad piece about the Doctor assisting with a man's suicide. (You know, when I write that, it sounds very wrong and off-model for the Doctor to do... but in the story itself, it came off as a perfectly sensible action. Odd, that.) Paul Leonard does a good job here, as he has in previous anthologies. Maybe the short story is his natural format. (Thematic Connection: Figures that one I more or less enjoyed should be Taurus, thus denying me the chance to use the line, "It's total bull." No real thematic connection here, unless it was in the pseudo-astrological personality description given in the linking material.)
Twin Piques, by Anthony Keetch, feels very much like a Troughton story, and does connect very well to the theme of Gemini... unfortunately, it feels a lot like one of those Troughton stories that they erased from the BBC archives for not being worth seeing again. It's about the Doctor visiting two absolutely identical planets (a dodgy idea, but all right), and finding out that the evil Duke he's just helped depose and exile wasn't evil after all, just different from his brother. The Doctor's reaction? "Huh!" Not much of a story here.
Still Lives, by Ian Potter, is an interesting slice of a story (albeit with no connection to Cancer I can think of)... it's about a woman stuck moving sideways in time after being caught in the Doctor's time experiments in Inferno. Well-written and clever, but unfortunately, it doesn't really end -- just suggests the possibility of an ending.
Constant Companion, by Simon Forward, is a cute little comedy story about the Doctor adopting a malevolently mischievous little cat... or cat-like alien telepathic enhancer... and definitely has some very funny moments. I enjoyed this one a good bit. (Thematic Connection: Leonine cat=Leo. See? Eh? Eh?)
Virgin Lands, by Sarah Groenewegen, is a story set in the Benny/Ace era of the Seventh Doctor, and as such presses all my positive NAstalgia buttons... but, unfortunately, doesn't do much with them, even though it does bring in the Eternal known as Death for a brief cameo. Again, not a bad story -- none of these are actually bad stories -- just not all that great. (Thematic Connection: There's a lot of talk of Death wanting to feel reborn, and virginal... which connects, obviously, to its theme of Virgo. Not to mention, the whole thing is set during the Virgin NAs...)
The Switching, by Simon Guerrier, takes a hoary old sci-fi cliche (the Doctor and the Master switch bodies, during the old UNIT era), but does manage to do some very cute things with it as the suave Master gets along much better with the men and women of UNIT than his ostensibly good, but highly irascible, counterpart. Minus points for never explaining how the switch takes place or why it switches back, bonus points for making me laugh when the Brigadier gets all flustered at the Doctor calling him "sir". (Thematic Connection: Libra... um... balance, and scales... it's a bit tenuous, but I can see it, I guess.)
Jealous, Possessive, by Paul Magrs, was probably my favorite story of the collection -- sure, I think his versions of the two K-9s were hopelessly out of character, and sure, I don't really think either K-9 would correspond with the other, let alone act catty towards one another, and sure, it makes a hash of Gallifreyan continuity as it seems to place Logopolis before Lungbarrow (only possible if time moves in alphabetical order), but it's very, very funny, which is what really counts here. A few more stories like this wouldn't have gone amiss. (Thematic Connection: Scorpio, this time... this story seems like it was commissioned for "Gemini", and someone later changed their mind about where to put it.)
Five Card Draw, by Todd Green, earns the dubious title of "worst story", if only because it's so terminally unambitious: It's a story with five of the eight Doctors getting together in the same place, only to play a quick game of cards and then saving the First Doctor from a problem he could have probably gotten out of himself. Minus points for suggesting that one Doctor can summon his other selves when he's feeling a bit nervous, minus points for writing the First Doctor so off-model that I suspected the twist of the story was going to be him being a fake and luring the others there, minus points for using cheesy descriptions for the other Doctors ("the aristocrat", "the jester", "the hobo"), and in general minus points for just not doing much of anything with what should be a major story. The Doctor only meets himself when something very big happens... this was not something very big. (Thematic Connection: Sagittarius, usually depicted as an archer... well, there's a bow in the story, another loose end in a story full of them.)
I Was A Monster!!!, by Joseph Lidster, is much more ambitious, attempting to analyze our obsession with celebrity and horror through the means of a vampire serial killer who wants to be famous for his crimes... unfortunately, it's also incoherent, devolving at the end into a sort of endless, shrieking rant of "Fame equals reality! Nobody's real!" which grates on the nerves so badly that it's a positive joy when the Doctor shows up to put the stake in. A few more drafts, though, and this could have been genuinely great. As it is, it deserves some points just for trying. (Thematic Connection: The vampire becomes known as the Capricorn Killer to the press... for reasons that even the author admits are dubious.)
The Invertebrates of Doom, by Andrew Collins, provides another comedy gem, as the Seventh Doctor faces what could quite possibly be the least effective invaders ever -- evil alien jellyfish. (My favorite line: "I don't think your invasion force is being terribly effective, Commander. You're over dry land right now." This said as jellyfish rain down on the pavement outside.) Inconsequential, but absolutely hilarious. (Thematic Connection: It's Aquarius, the water-bearer. Fresh-water, apparently.)
The Stabber, by Alison Lawson, finishes the collection -- and cleverly uses our own expectations of science-fiction in Doctor Who against us. After all, when someone's injected with a strange, possibly mutagenic serum and begins hearing fish talk to him, that can only mean one thing, right? Not in science-fiction, it can't. An excellent finisher. (Thematic Connection: Pisces, of course, sign of the Telepathic Fish.)
Again, I can't say I didn't enjoy reading the stories in Short Trips: Zodiac. It's a fun, light, inconsequential read. I just feel that for fourteen pounds, 99 pence (or 25 dollars US), I should get more than a fun, inconsequential light read. Interference cost less than this -- both books of it. Maybe next time they should look at getting bigger-name authors, or at least trying a more exciting theme. For this collection, though... if you have 25 spare dollars or are a sad completist like me, feel free, but you really won't be missing anything if you don't get it.
Four out of Five by Jamas Enright 3/4/03
Big Finish's first short stories book (aside from the Benny ones) is set up around the theme of the signs of the Zodiac (as one might guess from the title). We are treated to 12 stories, each of which feature an introduction into the meaning of the signs as reinvented for a wider cosmos (name-checking several planets and species mentioned in Doctor Who) by the neo-astrologer Kasterborus (written by Jim Sangster). Unfortunately, the opening segments wear after a while, and any humour all the references generate quickly pales.
The Aries story is The True and Indisputable Facts in the Matter of the Ram's Skull by Mark Michalowski. A good story to start off with. There is a hook here in who the author is (which I won't give away), but the story itself has a nice mix of occult horror and dread atmosphere. I would have been quite happy if this story went on longer.
The Taurus story is Growing Higher by Paul Leonard. I don't think I get the point of this story. It's a very brief piece about the dignity of death, or something. The role of the Doctor is almost entirely incidental, and the story just ends abruptly.
The Gemini story is Twin Piques by Anthony Keetch. There's a nice touch of mystery here around 'what is going on?', but the second half of the story is rather disappointing and kind of meanders along until reaching a sort of conclusion.
The Cancer story is Still Lives by Ian Potter. Very much a 'one idea' story, but an interesting idea in that. There's an underlying 'romance denied' story, but that gets swamped by the overlying 'strange science' story. Pity, as that part of the story deserved more of a focus.
The Leo story is Constant Companion by Simon A Forward. Another 'one idea' story that could have been a lot better. It tries to be 'cutesy' but fails, and in the end you're just glad the story gets to any end.
The Virgo story is Virgin Lands by Sarah Groenewegen. This story shows that once again it's impossible to badly write Benny. However, it doesn't show that it's impossible to badly write a story. Again, the point of this story just fails to come across. This story was probably inspired by the common New Adventures image of the Seventh Doctor and Death, but there needs to be something else in the execution as that one image by itself isn't enough.
The Libra story is The Switching by Simon Guerrier. I liked this story. Yeah, a little gimmicky, but a lot of fun. Again, could easily have done with more of this, but I would have thought the Master would be more capable of proper interaction that this.
The Scorpio story is Jealous, Possessive by Paul Magrs. At first, this story seemed typical Paul Magrs overblown pomp, but it quickly becomes, in a single word, hilarious. The back and forth between the two, especially the way the second undercuts the first, is great (I admit there's no real reason to be mysterious here about the two involved, but I'm going to be anyway). Although I do wonder: why not the third?
The Sagittarius story is Five Card Draw by Todd Green. Er, no. There are many reasons this story doesn't work, not the least of which is because we get more than one Doctor involved, although we do get an explanation for why the Doctor doesn't remember various multi-Doctor stories. Another reason this doesn't work is that we get no proper explanation for what the heck is happening (for instance, why does he forget?), that just makes this story annoying on several levels.
The Capricorn story is 'I Was A Monster!!!' by Joseph Lidster. Clever, but a bit too clever. This story is very much self aware of being an insightful modern tale about someone who becomes a monster in today's society of media awareness and fifteen seconds of fame. But it tries too hard, and comes out a rather tiresome piece. Oh, and the ending when the Doctor turns up doesn't make it any better.
The Aquarius story is The Invertebrates of Doom by Andrew Collins. A cute story, nicely told. Unfortunately, the ending lets this story down a little, but otherwise a fine example of how to do a short story.
The Pisces story is The Stabber by Alison Lawson. The characters in this story makes it worthwhile, with the actual story being rather simplistic and the ending can be seen from the moment the story really kicks in. The ending does make the story a little on the sad side, but the story-telling is well worth paying attention to.
Final tally, a mixture of good, bad and mediocre. Fortunately, the bad gets outweighed by the rest, making this collection not a bad addition to the bookshelf.
Safe and dull by Robert Smith? 30/3/16
A Life of Surprises showed us that Big Finish can do some interesting things with the short story format if they try, but their first Doctor Who anthology (the first new Short Trips in three years), Zodiac, isn't one of them. There are a bunch of very lazy stories here, surrounded by a completely arbitrary framing device. Some of the stories manage to get their concept worked in, but it feels very dry and technical, as though the stories are being hampered by the framing device, instead of being inspired by it.
The introductions are laughably trite. Kasterborous is apparently a twenty-first century astrologer whom the Time Lords named their own constellation after, as a bit of a laugh. Those wacky bunch of guys. The predictions are as useless and vague as all astrological predictions, which I suppose is fitting, but not terribly interesting.
Of the stories themselves, only Paul Magrs' Jealous Possessive stands out, being a very amusing series of letters between K9 Mark I and K9 Mark II. The rest vary between the reasonable (The True and Indisputable Facts in the Matter of the Ram's Skull has some nice atmosphere, being in the style of Edgar Allen Poe) to the fairly poor (Virgin Lands tried to tap into NAstalgia, but feel a bit like a jigsaw with the pieces in the wrong place), via the completely irrelevant ('I Was A Monster!!!' is one of those attempted comedies that can't even raise a smile, and, in 17 pages, the Doctor and Romana only appear in the final two).
But the vast majority of stories play it safe and dull. In this age of competitive Doctor Who product, collections like these need something to make them stand out. All the stories play within televised or novel continuity, none interact with the framing device in any but the most tangential way, none link to one another, and none offer us anything we haven't seen before. And for the exorbitant cover price, that's fatal.
Telling stories based on the star signs is uphill work. I can't help but feel the theme was chosen simply because it had a number in the concept, rather than because it was a fabulous idea for a collection. What next, Short Trips: The Stations of the Cross? Although Short Trips: Sixteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest does have some potential...