In many ways the short stories format is the perfect way to tell Doctor Who stories. Fans like us never tire of saying that Doctor Who can adapt to many different mediums. But there is an important downside to this, Doctor Who stories need a lot to build themselves up; capture the Doctor and his companions, give us credible characters, offer an interesting plot and bring a Doctor Who feel to the plot. This balance of things is easy enough to do on television, in an audio play or even a full length novel. However, doing it in the tight word limit of a short story is something else entirely. And the stories in Big Finish' debut Doctor Who novel, Zodiac, prove both the positive and negative elements of Doctor Who short stories. And while the book boasts some consistently entertaining stories, many are lighter than air and the book feels a whole lot less than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps the best point of this book is the continual well characterisation of the Doctor and his companions. Of course, some writers evoke the characters better than others and even in the worst case scenario, our heroes come off as a little generic. Sometimes this is due to the regulars hardly being in some of these stories but surely if they are hardly in some of the stories, then it can't be that hard to get them right?
The device this novel uses is the twelve zodiac signs and each of which has some loose thing connecting them to the stories being told. Each story has a brief introduction which connects the sign to the wider Doctor Who universe. Each story also comes with a headnote discussing the traditional understanding of the sign as we know them. And this linking material, written by Jim Sangster is too cute to be taken really seriously and easily overlook-able if you aren't really interested in them like me.
This interesting anthology begins with The True and Indisputable Facts in the Case of the Ram's Skull. And as the title suggests, author Mark Michalowski is working hard to give us something along the lines of a nineteenth century horror novel. An unidentified narrators has been invited to document the proceedings concerning a supernatural experiment but what is it that Mr R hopes to achieve? And what does the man, known only as 'The Doctor' want? These matters are almost beside the point in this story and the emphasis is placed a lot on style. Michalowski prose is sometimes a particularly successful in evoking the feel of a particular era but in this case, there is too much emphasis placed on style here though. Nevertheless there is enough antiquarian style to allow this story to achieve its own modest success.
Paul Leonard's, Growing Higher, takes us to the moon in the far future, where the elderly Sewa Singh's hope to live forever via modern science and lunar environment has been dashed in a tragic accident. His young lover is trying to make plans that will guarantee his safety but the Eighth Doctor and Fitz arrive and have something to say about it. This is an entry that went right over my head because the plot is too thin, the Doctor doesn't really do anything but the futuristic setting is surprisingly well-evoked for this brief piece. This is a story that works better as a piece of science fiction rather than a Doctor Who story but I guess the point works.
Twin Piques, written by Anthony Keetch, begins where many Doctor Who stories have done before. After the Doctor and Jamie have swept in and saved the day. So when the Doctor and Jamie return to the same planet ten years later, something has drastically changed. This is a story which is odd even by Doctor Who standards. The humour is surprisingly sophomoric and even more surprisingly at times, sexual. Of the plot, there isn't much of it but it has its own charm and quirks and is enjoyable when you get used to it. The Second Doctor and Jamie are well written. This is a story where, if you don't take things too seriously, you'll have a lot of fun.
Ian Potters' next story is a personal favourite of mine in this set. Still Lives is a Third Doctor, Liz Shaw and UNIT story, though they are mainly in he background of the events. These events are difficult to describe without ruining their effect. But this tale works a coda to a particular Pertwee story and is a story of surprising pathos considering its modest length. And the diary entries from Liz Shaw are brilliant.
Constant Companion sees the Doctor get a cat. Even when you ignore the science fiction elaboration of that, the fact of the story is the Doctor getting a cat. If you aren't too keen on kitty madness, like me, then you might find yourself skipping over much of this tale. But in doing that, you are missing a cracking piece of Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe fiction from Simon A. Forward.
The title of Virgin Lands reflects the feel this story has of the Virgin New Adventures. The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Bernice Summerfield are infiltrating an Australian Mansion. Ace is hoping to discover the killer behind a recent mass shooting but in the world of Doctor Who, nothing is that simple. The problem with this story lies in its conclusion which is anticlimactic and the whole story has some thematic and mythical ponderousness of the New Adventures. Those who aren't familiar with those titles will have a harder time with this tale. But there are some good points, particularly that range's TARDIS team, which are brought across wonderfully in Sarah Groenewegan's story.
The Switching is a story that does what many have done before, Simon Guerrier uses the idea of body switching between the Doctor and the Master and while the clichés are notably avoided, the cost is that there isn't really any plot. The Third Doctor wakes up in the Master's body and escapes his prison cell, while the Master hopes to escape in the Doctor's TARDIS. At times, this story feels like an attempt to fill in some continuity gaps in the Pertwee era and that is really what it is but Guerrier manages to inject enough humour into the proceedings to keep an air of fun around the piece.
Jealous, Possessive is peculiar piece of fiction concerning correspondence between the two K-9s. Leela's K-9 taunts Romana's model with his high class life on Gallifrey and gets told off about his arrogance in response. The two share a number of letters back and forth and then the story just ends. As usual with stories from Paul Margs, I was left wondering why this was supposed to be amusing, the bitchiness might be funnier if it were far more restrained or if it had far more to do with the personalities of the two K-9s or the companions they were left with. Instead the story just settles for being self-knowingly quirky.
For Five Card Draw, Todd Green brings together the first six Doctors for a game of poker. The loser of which has to do a job for the First Doctor. But the job is so simple it is hard to understand why the First Doctor can't just do it himself. Everything about this story might be more forgivable if the Doctor's had been better characterised. But they are so generic that there is no sense of the sparks that fly when the Doctor's meet on television. The story isn't particularly offensive but there isn't anything interesting either.
I Was A Monster!! sees Joe Lidster play with all the elements of what could have been a great story. But he fails to bring all these elements together nicely. There a number of big ideas at work throughout the story - postmodernism, the psychology of a serial killer, the sheer shallowness of modern pop culture and the pathos of the vampire. This is the kind of experimentation that one normally associates with a successful experiment into Doctor Who fiction. But the story doesn't have anything new to say about the elements it is comprised of and it doesn't reach the natural intensity that it is trying to reach for. The result is a mess and is more admirable than successful.
The title, The Invertebrates of Doom feels like a parody of Doctor Who. But the actual story from Andrew Collin's doesn't seem quite so sure, it seems to straddle the line between a traditional alien invasion and a send-up same. The Seventh Doctor, Mel, an alien artefact, a traitor, you can piece the rest of this story together. Except that the aliens are, well, while spoil it! Mel is the cipher here - though one could argue this is part of her character anyway - and the Doctor gets a few nice moments. The entirety of a four-part story is here in embryo form but it goes by quickly enough that it has little impact. But this is another story that makes little impact either way.
The final story from Alison Lawson, The Stabber, rounds off this anthology. The Sixth Doctor and Peri are asked to help out some telepathic fish. Or so it seems. Looking at the plot, it spends a lot of short time developing the main guest character but there is only so much one can do in such a short story form. The ending is something of an anti-climax and is one of those cases where the solution to a crisis turns out to be that there wasn't a crisis at all. But it is an acceptable, if slightly weak, conclusion to this equally slightly weak but acceptable anthology.
If you take this book story by story, it is fairly acceptable, there are quite a few good stories with few real failures. Perhaps the greatest flaw of this book is some of the stories are so underdeveloped in one way or another. Oddly, the Doctor has little to do in any of these stories, each of the stories is linear and uncomplicated but the guest characters feel very hollow. There are few entries that are much weightier than others while others aren't really worth commenting too heavily on. But then Zodiac is made up of simple pieces and the result doesn't make much as a totality. It is well worth getting a hold of, for its strong stories but it doesn't succeed at being unified as a whole...