What’s a girl got to do to kill a dragon round here?
Well – in this new Short Trip by Alfie Shaw, a girl has to convince the Doctor to let her kill a dragon. So, we all know that’s not going to happen, let’s stomp off home in a huff and call it a day, shall we?
Actually, let’s not – Alfie Shaw is cleverer than that. Yes, Reya the would-be dragonslayer is unlikely to win the Doctor’s permission to kill anything, let alone anything as noble and rather fabulous as a dragon, but there’s more to it than that. Reya has a sister sick at home, and only the blood of the dragon can save her life. Can even the Seventh Doctor remain aloof when there’s an innocent girl who needs, at least, a transfusion of the red stuff?
Oh, and then there’s the other thing. The thing about the title.
Dungeons and Dragons is by now an institution of gaming – gloriously, wildly complex fantasy adventure games, run by a ‘Dungeon Master,’ determined by your own developing character profile, but governed in the moment by the roll of several oddly shaped dice. If you want to cast a spell, roll the dice for proficiency. The higher the number, the more likely you’ll succeed. The same is true of avoiding traps, not being eaten by giant spider-gods, defeating orcs or, crucially, attacking dragons.
Reya sees the numbers.
Every time she makes a crucial decision, or attempts to do a thing, the numbers will tell her whether she’s going to succeed or not.
And the Doctor sees them too.
What Alfie Shaw constructs here is a story which, though a brief assay into the world of dice-controlled activity and adventure, is both suitably reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons, while adding real-world consequences through the life or death state of Reya’s sister, and yet somehow is also among the most inherently Seventh Doctor-typical stories you’ll have heard in quite some time. Describing the ways in which it’s inherently Seventh Doctor-typical would perhaps be too spoilery, but suffice it to say this most strategic of Doctors does not just play chess with the likes of Fenric and the Gods of Ragnarok, and that, contrary to Einstein’s pronouncement, perhaps, somewhere, the gods really do play dice with the universe.
In the course of deciding whether Reya gets to kill the dragon, save her sister and in all likelihood elevate her character-stats, there are bluffs, double-bluffs, lessons on what is and isn’t real, acolytes in hiding, dragons with secrets, and complicated dimensional shenanigans – we did say it was the most Seventh Doctor-typical story you’ll have heard in a while – and needless to say, this being the game-playing Doctor, the stakes of the story are actually much higher than a single sick sister with a need for dragon-blood.
One of the most attractive aspects of Alfie Shaw’s story is that while it remains, despite all its elevated stakes and shenanigans, very tightly confined in terms of time, space and consequence, you can imagine it in an expanded form, a game of actual Doctors and Dragons exploded out from this construct, with warriors, mages, rangers, dwarves and the like all on a quest for the blood of the dragon – or, come to that, the blood of the Doctor who guards the dragon. Because that’s so very easy to imagine, it gives the confined space and time of the story an elevated sense of reality, even within the clearly fantasy setting. In essence, it’s a full-throated blending of traditional fantasy gaming tropes with the central dilemma of Seventh Doctor stories – harming none but those who choose it, but speaking truth to cosmic powers beyond imagining.
Sophie Aldred of course is a consummate performer, and she gives her McCoy both his Doctor’s whimsicality and his quiet, contained certainty from the likes of Silver Nemesis as she tells the story of dragons, slayers and time travellers.
Doctors and Dragons is not by any means a run-of-the-mill Doctor Who story. It’s one that depends strongly on you not knowing the answers to the questions it poses, so it might have limited re-listen appeal. But that first time, you’ll be fully engaged in its oddness, its question-mark story arc and its melding of the traditions of vintage gaming and the traditions of specifically Seventh Doctor storytelling. You’ll follow it keenly, trying to guess what’s going on, but Alfie Shaw, pleasingly like a fiendish Dungeon Master, has traps and tricks aplenty to turn your guessing on its head all the way to the end.
Roll your dice, adventurer, and check out Doctors and Dragons today. Tony Fyler