Doctor Who: ‘The Memory Bank and other stories’ reviewed

❉  Four new adventures featuring the Fifth Doctor and Turlough, from writers Paul Magrs, Eddie Robson, Chris Chapman and Ian Potter. Verdict? “A superior release”

The memory cheats: John Nathan-Turner’s stock defence of the stories of his era against fans intent on proving with science that his stories were infinitely worse than anything produced under his predecessors. It’s the period where fandom’s collective memory really develops; where the advent of video recorders meant the actual evidence of our eyes wasn’t burnished into something glorious by our memories and Uncle Terrance’s sterling Target novelisations. Our memories couldn’t cheat us by allowing the triumphs to gloss over the flaws of budget and time pressures; we could see the current stories again and again and pick them apart in a way we couldn’t do to those stories we’d only ever see at the whim of BBC schedulers and the sporadic releases from the nascent BBC Video. We were judging now against fond memory and the reality of the present can never win against the golden tint of nostalgia.

…whether you like your Doctor Who like it used to be on the telly or trying on different formats; whether you prefer it light and witty or smart and cerebral, there’s something here to suit most tastes.

It’s therefore appropriate that the latest Big Finish main range release focuses on the unreliability of memory. It’s one of their occasional anthology releases, with four writers coming up with very different stories based around the theme. Chris Chapman leads the way with the story which gives the collection its name. It’s a terrific SF idea based around the idea of a world where if you’re forgotten you cease to exist. A strong, poignant idea’s made even more terrifying with the burden it them places on a man charged to remember. Perhaps the only flaw is one appropriate to this period of the show: the monster feels a touch superfluous. It’s followed by Paul Magrs’s The Last Fairy Tale, which gloriously bashes 1980s Who together with Angela Carter to great comic effect. It’s a story about the power of stories and storytelling and it’s peppered with the trademarks that make his stories such a joy; beautifully daft names and characters whose initial silliness hides deep sadness.

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Eddie Robson’s Repeat Offender begins the second disc with a bang; plunging us into the story in media res. The Condemned showed Robson was adept at writing Doctor Who as a crime drama; he does this with aplomb again here using the traditional device of having the Doctor accused of murder and being convicted by an inflexible system which values computer memory over organic memory. It’s got the feel of a Philip K Dick adaptation and comes with an ingenious twist that adds an extra dimension to the story’s title. The collection concludes with Ian Potter’s The Becoming, a story which beautifully recreates the feel of the kind of story found in the late 70s/early 80s Doctor Who annuals; the ones which seemed to draw more on literary SF of the time than the TV series. It ends the collection on the kind of hopeful, uncertain note that every Davison story ended on; or the ending my  unreliable memory has added to each story anyway.

It’s all raised by the welcome return of Mark Strickson; it’s been eleven years since Big Finish last managed to team him up with Davison; the sole Doctor/companion combination of the eighties that hasn’t had its edge dulled by familiarity. Their rapport’s so easy and familiar it makes you forget that it’s a partnership that only existed for around half of Planet of Fire; Davison gets to emphasise the Sahara desert dry wit that always undercut the ‘wet vet’ stereotype and Turlough’s gentle despair and scepticism plays beautifully off this. As a relationship it finds a way to make the pair genuine friends without undercutting the edge that always seemed present on screen; you get the impression that by this point these two actually enjoy each other’s company but in stereotypical male style they’re never going to be crass enough to say it; they give the stories a warm but never mawkish heart. It’s particularly welcome on the second disc, where the stories take a distinctly darker tone. Given this and the way the pair handle the tone of the different stories with aplomb, it’s to be hoped that Strickson can be persuaded to stay and record a few more stories while he’s in the mood.

Ultimately it’s that variety that makes this a superior release; whether you like your Doctor Who like it used to be on the telly or trying on different formats; whether you prefer it light and witty or smart and cerebral, there’s something to suit most tastes. This format feels a better use of the four episodes per release format than the four episode adventure which simply adheres to TV convention because that’s the way Doctor Who used to be. With four stories of such different style and rhythm, each of which is over and done inside half an hour, there’s no time for attention to drift. It’s the clash of styles that gives the collection its energy; four wildly disparate styles united by performers and theme which forms a strong, cohesive whole. It’s nothing but good memories.


❉ ‘The Memory Bank and other stories’ was released on 12 October 2016. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until November 30th 2016, and on general sale after this date.

 

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