Well, this is an odd one.
Don’t read that wrongly – odd is frequently good, especially in Doctor Who. Nevertheless, it’s an odd one.
On the one hand, there’s a lot about David Bishop’s Elysian Blade that sounds very much in keeping with stories from the Second Doctor’s period – there’s much faffing about in caves and tunnels in order merely to get from the Tardis to where the action is, which feels very much like some of the filler with which Patrick Troughton’s stories were occasionally padded out, for instance. It’s pretty good filler, certainly – darkness, misdirection, the Doctor’s recorder, the potential to unceremoniously drown, and a big strong door that needs opening in a hurry as the waters rise. See? Classic Troughtony adventure serial goodness. It’s just that this all feels like it belongs in a sub-story of its own, a one-episode introduction to a story that then takes a rather more modern turn.
First, there are lines of strangers on a shore, all with something missing – an arm, a leg, their eyes or ears – traipsing like zombies, and sometimes even crawling like revenants, up to a particular location. Creepy stuff in and of itself. When you find out how they lost what they lost, and why they’re traipsing, and trudging, and crawling, things get a whole lot creepier still. Welcome to the Elysian Blade, and the Angel of Forgetting.
Much like the Old West, there are hucksters in town, selling the experience of communion with either the blade or the angel. Payment is taken for either a wonderful, elysian image, burned fiercely into one’s memory and experience… or a sometimes horribly welcome blankness in the mind. Of course, not everyone who wants to commune with the blade or the angel have money to spare.
They are… accommodated.
There’s a lovely, solid and heart breaking character rationale which pushes the story onward and explicitly gets the Tardis team involved in working out the secret behind the blade and the angel – one of them needs a reminder of something very specific from their past. Bishop neatly sidesteps the notion of showing us what the Doctor himself would want to remember or forget, and it feels right that he should do so, at least during the Troughton era. But then we’re into the world of dreams and the price we pay for them, while the Doctor, in a Dominators/Krotons feel, sets about some first-class jiggery-pokery and a bit of hullaballoo to give them the upper hand in what is being badly misused by the hucksters as a losing game.
The hucksters themselves have a feel to them of at least Third Doctor surface charm, though in fact they might fit more exactly into the Seventh Doctor’s universe of petty thieves, crooks and double-crossers, while when you discover what the blade and the angel actually are, you’ll be tempted to remember stories in the Ninth and Eleventh Doctor’s eras, when similar devices and creations were misunderstood, mischaracterised and became agents of inadvertent harm.
It’s probably this feeling of familiarity from other, non-Troughton eras that jars slightly when folded into the Second Doctor’s mix here and gives that sense of oddness with which we began. That said, there’s some lovely characterisation for people both inside and outside the Tardis team, and there’s by no means a big red reset button that can bring a happy ending for everyone. In a sense, there’s responsible writing there, because the losses experienced by some of the traipsing horde are real, and serious, and change their lives, just as similar losses do in our real world every single day, and it would be frivolous to have that kind of ‘Everybody’s healed!’ solution to their reality, which means David Bishop’s to be congratulated for the tone of the ending. Bad things happen, and people, after some time, adapt to them, as the characters in The Elysian Blade have done. Miracles are wonderful, and would undoubtedly be welcome, but the Doctor is not a miracle worker here, and neither the Elysian Blade nor the Angel of Forgetting has the power to turn him into one.
Given that the running time of the story is just over an hour, and also given how much time we spend faffing about in dark, dank tunnels before we get to the meat of the story, you’ll be surprised when you get to the end at just how much ground you’ve covered, getting to know some people, understanding their issues in a well-drawn, agonising context, putting the Tardis team in peril, delivering the high-class jiggery-pokery we almost instinctively demand of a Troughton story, understanding the blade and the angel, and reaching a conclusion which while short of the ‘Everything’s fine in time for tea’ solutions to which Troughton stories often came, feels right, and emotionally heavyweight enough to stand a re-listen.
The Elysian Blade is definitely an odd Second Doctor story, resonating with Doctors far in his own personal future, and our less distant past, but as we said at the beginning, odd is frequently a good thing, especially in Doctor Who. It’s a good thing here, giving you an hour’s worth of Second Doctoring that allows both Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria their significant moments too, while taking you on a complete, cyclical, logical and emotionally satisfying journey.
Go under The Elysian Blade today – and see if you survive. Tony Fyler