The Tardis has been stolen and used as the prize in a sporting event. No, it’s not Series Eleven, and we’re not schlepping across poisonous oceans to win a Ghost Monument, we’re back in the black and white days for the latest Short Trip from Big Finish, Year of the Drex Olympics. With the Second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria visiting Venus, ostensibly so the Doctor can get the hang of the planet’s fiendishly tricky aikido, it’s only a matter of time before Stuff Starts Kicking Off.
Specifically, as mentioned, the box of delights we know as the Tardis gets impounded and put up as a prize for the combatants in the Drex Olympics. The complication to which is that it’s put up as the Third prize (infernal cheek!), so Time Lord chicanery and outright winning first prize won’t get the blue box back.
When Victoria and Jamie both start…well, there’s not really any other way of saying this…when they start spontaneously mutating into hulking great athletic monsters, on the one hand, Team Tardis stands at least some chance of winning something in the games. But when you have two newly superpowered, historically raised and rather boisterous humans on your team, the chances are they’ll do rather better than third. And that suits somebody somewhere right down to the ground.
Needless to say, there are Alien Shenanigans at work at the Drex Olympics, but when you finally find out what they are, there’s every chance they’ll seem quite down to earth compared to some of the more esoteric alien plots the Doctor and his friends have encountered. Along the way to the revelation though, there’s quite a lot of sporting fun, with the whiff of a satirical undercurrent in the notion of Jamie and Victoria having unwittingly taken the sci-fi equivalent of performance enhancing drugs at the Olympics (perish the very thought). The feel of Year of the Drex Olympics is that there’s a deep, deep backstory, which gets mostly uncovered towards the end, when the foregrounded plot is unravelled, Scooby Doo style, by a Doctor more or less sick of being made to be everybody’s fool, and not playing around anymore. Threaten to take his home away from him, and the easy-going clown persona of the Second Doctor doesn’t exactly fall away, but it does frown and freeze into something as dark and powerful as Patrick Troughton on a really good day could be.
Of course, technically, this isn’t Patrick Troughton, it’s his long-time travel-pal, Frazer Hines, but the point is that Frazer’s portrayal of Troughton, while never a straight impersonation, carries the waveform of the Troughton-Doctor’s persona, so you can absolutely get away with writing stories that rely on the moods and shifts and tonal changes that were intrinsic to Troughton’s incarnation of the Doctor. Frazer Hines, in short, has you covered, and here, his Troughton is very much the star of the show, despite both Jamie and Victoria having more conspicuously active parts in the story. Year of the Drex Olympics is the kind of story you can certainly imagine this Tardis team getting mixed up in, between dealing with Daleks and running away from Ice Warriors – it has the ring of this team’s truth to it, while at the same time being the kind of story that the Short Trips were invented to be, adding detail to the lives of the Tardis crew when they’re faced with less melodramatic threats than those into which we the audience ‘tuned’ for their on-screen adventures. Wednesday adventures, if you like. Year of the Drex Olympics is a highly competent, well thought-out, stunningly delivered Wednesday adventure, that shows not only the lengths to which the Doctor’s friends are sometimes forced to go even when their home world is not in danger of being invaded or blown to smithereens. This is the kind of thing that could happen to them on any given day – but Paul ebbs works hard enough to make sure it’s a very good given day, with layers and layers of Stuff underneath the surface of the Olympic plot.
Sign yourself up for the Drex Olympics – see if you can work out what’s going on and who’s behind it all before the stone-faced, ‘give me back my ship’ Doctor gets there, and unravels the pretences that put himself and his companions through the wringer. You probably won’t – and that’s the mark of an engaging story: finding out the solution more or less on the last page, while enjoying every inch of the ride. That, Year of the Drex Olympics can promise you faithfully, earning itself a solid podium place in your Short Trips collection. Tony Fyler