Doctor Who: Short Trips: Erasure – Performed & Narrated by Seán Carlsen. Written & Directed by Gary Russell – Download (Big Finish)
For most of the Short Trips stories from Big Finish, some basic knowledge of on-screen Doctor Who helps to inform and justify why you’re listening to them.
Erasure goes one step further than that, inasmuch as to get the most out of it, you really need to have listened to at least some of the Big Finish spin-off, Gallifrey. Sub-Co-Ordinator Narvin of the Celestial Intervention Agency, the narrator and our viewpoint-character this time out, never appeared in on-screen Who, but is a figure of some significance in the Gallifrey series – a kind of Time Lord version of The West Wing, involving four (and later at least five) companions of the Doctor’s, and their efforts to re-shape the planet of the Time Lords from aloof non-interventionism to a more open role in galactic affairs (and ultimately on its careering course towards the Time War that’s been so much a part of New Who lore).
You’ll need some understanding of the toings and froings of that series to really squeeze the juice out of Erasure. Oh, and some knowledge of quantum theory wouldn’t go amiss, either.
What makes Erasure the excellent fun it becomes is that Narvin is no companion. He regards the Doctor as a childish, somewhat incompetent meddler in time and space, so Erasure is able to step away from the often necessary adulation of the companion mindset, to show us a whole different take on the Doctor and his lifestyle. Especially because the Doctor with whom we’re dealing here is the late-stage Fourth, there’s a brusque, abrupt and often quite insulting exterior to get through (which we as viewers rarely appreciated, because by then he was our Doctor, our friends and protector). Seeing him afresh through Narvin’s eyes allows for the removal of our fan-goggles, so when Narvin says ‘I wanted to punch him on the nose,’ while you don’t exactly cheer, you can see why that reaction might feel right to an outsider.
The story itself – and the ‘erasure’ of the title – revolves around the power of the Time Lords to fundamentally alter, or even eradicate the destinies of people and species who pose a threat to their view of the established history of the universe, and the willingness or caution with which they exercise it. That’s a particularly effective setting for a Doctor and Narvin story, because they represent different approaches to that question, the Doctor a spirited amateur, trusting to his own intuition to know what can be changed and what can’t, Narvin a licensed meddler with the force of the state behind him. Events on the planet Bellascon, (where the locals have stumbled over a cheap and dirty time travel capability and are busy selling time alterations to their wealthiest families so their rivals never flourish) prove a useful backdrop against which to explore those differences, and gratifyingly, it’s a situation that grows more and more complicated, fuelled by the attitudes not only of both Time Lords, but also by the self-determination of the locals, and by the consequences of their ham-fisted erasure of particular timelines. Gary Russell gives fans a moment of cheering by throws the Fourth Doctor’s handy dandy boy genius friend, Adric into a very particular peril, and that also gives us a joyous peek into an event from on-screen Who from an entirely new perspective, and frames a challenge for Narvin that lets the CIA operative prove his interfering mettle, both to us and to the Doctor.
Be warned, though – Erasure is one of those frozen-over ponds that twinkle and sparkle with fun and wit and wiping Adric out of space and time, and it’s all good fun till someone loses their innocence. It will whip you along, getting you involved both in Narvin’s point of view and his adventure with the Fourth Doctor and Adric, and then, very close to the end, it will drop you through a hole in the universe and land you in cold, cold water, as both Narvin and someone more fans will more immediately recognise reveal a darkness that speaks wholly to the political expediencies of power, rather than to the knockabout universe-saving fun of Classic Who. Russell and Seán Carlsen combine to deliver a story that not only shows new angles to both Narvin’s character and the Doctor’s, but that swings along in increasing arcs of high-stakes politicking and adventure, and then punches, hard and fast to the gut, giving the whole merry jaunt more character impact than you’re ever led to expect. It’s clever writing, and quite a masterpiece of performance, and it’ll leave you with a wow on your lips and a determination to listen to the whole thing again.
Erasure demands you know something of the Gallifrey series to make the most of its story. For those who do, it’s a Short Trip that delivers a sackful of rich, warm gold up front, and a sackful of cold, hard ice round the back of the head when you’re most distracted. The combination of both gives you an experience you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry unless your timeline is erased, and a story that will, and does, repay repeated listening. Tony Fyler