Delivering a first person audio story about the audio medium has been done before, and with great effect – if you’ve never heard the audiobook version of Dead Air, by James Goss, go and hunt that down immediately.
There are similarities between that Tenth Doctor story and this Twelfth Doctor Short Trip from John Richards. During his time at St Luke’s university in Bristol in Series 10, but seemingly before he meets wide-eyed inquisitive chip-doler Bill, the Twelfth Doctor finds himself getting involved with the university’s Audio-Visual Club. He goes to them in search of that once ubiquitous, now increasingly obsolete device, a cassette player, having discovered a curious tape in the Tardis during the rigorous alphabetization of his Jelly Babies, and having nothing of his own on which to play it since that mad girl with the baseball bat blew it up. Or was that the Cybermen…?
Anyhow, in search of a tape deck, he meets Petra – quantum physics student by day, Audio-Visual Club geek by any remaining time, and also, tech lead on the university’s podcast, ‘The People of St Luke’s.’
When they play the tape, things get increasingly creepy and odd and nostalgic, but also – be warned – increasingly complicated. When echoes are not exact echoes, what are they? Big Finish is good at messing with your head through sound – you could say it’s the company’s stock in trade – but here, the majority of the scares are delivered both on the page and through Jacob Dudman’s performance.
And key to the emotional and science fiction dramas here is one key question – if there’s something trapped on a tape, is there a reason it’s trapped on there?
This is an interesting story of the Twelfth Doctor’s particular fallibility, his judgment forever trapped between trying to be a good man and actually being one, and how it can sometimes lead him into trouble, and sometimes cost the lives of those who stand close to him without his particular Time Lord advantages. He even references a couple of prior instances here – it was he who brought the Mandragora Helix to Earth in his fourth incarnation, and he who brought the Family of Blood to Earth in that thing that we all thought was his tenth incarnation but was technically his eleventh, which we still insist on calling the Tenth Doctor because names and stuff. The one that looked a lot like David Tennant. Alright, the first of the ones that looked a lot like David Tennant *Shakes fist at sky, yells names of two former showrunners in head.*
The point stands though – on the day the Doctor gets things wrong, he has a tendency to get them really wrong, and people tend to die as a result. So if you see something trapped, and you let your own sense or memory of what being trapped was like affect your judgment, you could well unleash the end of the world based on little more than your need to see things free. While Dead Media came first, a very recent example of this same syndrome in the Doctor’s psychology of course was seen in Can You Hear Me? – egged on by Graham, the Thirteenth Doctor freed a sadistic god from the prison in which it was perfectly effectively trapped, and then had to undo her own rash action before the universe could sleep at night.
Here, there’s a ‘monster’ that isn’t one, but whose existence in our universe is a danger to itself and others, let loose in our dimension because the Doctor had memories of working for UNIT and trying everything in his power to break free of his exile. There are consequences here too, and if the Doctor succeeds in putting things right, it’s important to note that there are some consequences you can’t undo with a wave of your screwdriver and a heartfelt apology.
In terms of the delivery of this story, Jacob Dudman’s some sort of joyous vocal freak of nature, adding a third New Who Doctor to his repertoire, and for all it begins with a voice that sounds more like an exhausted Tenth Doctor than a realistic Twelfth, the longer you listen, the more Twelvish it becomes, so you’re completely along for the ride long before the end. There are challenges to the delivery in the way this story is structured too – rather than, as with the likes of Best Laid Plans, allowing the narrator to be omniscient, and the Twelfth Doctor merely a voice to be dropped into, here, the whole thing is in the first person, so it’s the Twelfth Doctor from start to finish, doing impressions of other voices along the way, like the Twelfth Doctor doing impressions of Petra from Port Talbot in Wales. Oh, the fun of accents.
Nevertheless, Dudman perseveres and delivers a strong vocal performance which, as mentioned, convinces more often than it doesn’t.
There are moments as we hurtle towards a solution to the problem – ideally one that doesn’t result in reality being torn to accidental shreds – when a basic grounding in either quantum physics, audio-visual engineering or ideally both would come in handy, and the solution that’s found is decidedly heavy on the geek. Because the Doctor’s relating these events in the form of a podcast, it’s probably also the only Doctor Who adventure to be interrupted by adverts for Bristolian kebab shops. Yes, really – one of the sheer delights of this story is the notion of Captain Eyebrows being forced to read out soulless advertising copy as if it has even the slightest tangential meaning or relevance to him. Bliss.
Dead Media is a story that delivers the complexity of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor to a tea – it’s grumpy, and offhand, and almost dismissive, but it’s all of those things in a way that makes you love it, and him, and the way he misses the little things in life while focusing on the bigger picture. It’s a story that’ll spark a desire in you to go back and watch Capaldi at work, reminding you of just how staggeringly good he could be – which is probably as much of a compliment as John Richards and Jacob Dudman are looking for. Between them, they bring the Twelfth Doctor joyously, grumpily back to life, and give us an adventure during his life at St Luke’s with a poignant moment of self-realisation at its end. He might be there guarding Missy in her prison, but perhaps, just perhaps, the period of enforced stillness will have a positive impact on his own persona too. Tony Fyler