Damascus. It’s an emotive pronoun.
Right now, the capital of Syria conjures up images of war. It’s arguably what we think of when we picture unrest in the Middle East. But by all accounts, it’s an incredibly important place, one with an amazing, layered history, and which UNESCO says is of “outstanding universal value.” It’s also got a wealth of religious connotations, including the Bible’s predictions about its destruction in the future, and, of course, the conversion of Paul the Apostle, which is better recognised as the Road to Damascus.
Sadly, this Short Trips story has very little to do with the evocative city at all. Instead, as we find out at the tale’s conclusion, the audio takes its name from the mysterious Project Damascus. Even that, however, we learn precious few details about.
I was very much looking forward to this half-an-hour tale for two main reasons: firstly, I did expect something about Syria, which, at such a tumultuous time, could’ve shed new light on the troubles abroad; and secondly, it’s read by Tim Treloar, whose Third Doctor I’d yet to hear.
But instead of being catapulted into distant lands, listeners are sent back to the early 1970s, very accurately depicted, it has to be said. Written by Jonathan Barnes, Damascus definitely feels of its era: with a Doctor initially reluctant to step in and lend a hand to the authorities, UNIT being of little help, and officials interfering in the Time Lord’s business, this could easily slot into Season 8. Its tone is certainly reminiscent of The Mind of Evil and Colony in Space.
The alien threat’s “nightmarish” fusion of the organic and the metallic, it borrows from the Nestene Consicousness and the Axons, while the Doctor wading into the ocean towards the extra-terrestrial island recalls The Sea Devils. UNIT is even suffering budget cuts, which feels very ’70s!
The only thing that’s missing is an unusual mode of transport (although the Doctor’s ever-faithful car, Bessie, is on hand).
Considering its duration, the story has a surprisingly easy-going pace, and I love the laissez-faire attitude to a mysterious spaceship being spotted hovering over the UK, the Prime Minister being annoyed at the attitude of UNIT’s Scientific Advisor, while also asking his aide for tea and toast.
Yes, this Short Trip is told by the PM, though not one we’d know. This chap’s someone called Jeremy, which does helpfully sidestep the dating controversies, and reflects the 2005-present series’ less-than-realistic take on the UK’s heads of Government. Fortunately, this Prime Minister is more akin to Harriet Jones than Harold Saxon; however, he goes on much the same journey as another figure of the establishment: Queen Victoria in Tooth and Claw. Jeremy’s own Road to Damascus is basically the reverse of Saint Paul’s, in which the PM realises how dangerous the Doctor could be.
(Another pleasing moment for fans of NuWho comes when the Doctor mentions the Shadow Proclamation. A nice addition to the mythos, there.)
Treloar, I’m pleased to say, is a wonderful narrator. He makes Jeremy a very likeable man, quite out of his depth but coping admirably. Of course, it helps that Barnes writes him superbly (and I especially like Jo Grant being described as looking at the Doctor with “quietly intense admiration”). I was expecting him to sound exactly like Jon Pertwee – which I know is a bit unfair to him, but that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? – and, while that wasn’t quite the case, I quickly came to enjoy his take on the Third Doctor. Instead of doing a precise impression, Tim decides to focus on his inflections, rhythm, and sentence structure, which actually works beautifully.
Still, it’s a little too close to how Jeremy sounds; maybe his is a more distinctive impression of Pertwee when he’s acting opposite Katy Manning and Richard Franklin? I’m suitably impressed enough to find out.
Damascus is full of lovely moments (including a knowing gag about the sign declaring ‘UNIT HQ’, despite it being a secret organisation), and wonderfully accurate but subtle sound design – but the narrative’s conclusion rather lets the whole thing down. With the Doctor and Jeremy the only people on the planet not asleep, victims of a Listlessness Field, they head what seems to be the cause of the trouble: the aforementioned spaceship. That’s where it all falls apart, because this feels like Part One of a bigger tale. It’s anticlimactic and frankly disappointing. There are too many things not cleared up, including if it were actually the Time Lords who helped the Doctor out by supplying a major bit of tech.
While it’s still worth the price of admission, Damascus is, unfortunately, not the strongest Short Trips story, its unsatisfying ending only made up for by Tim Treloar’s narration and the great moments that otherwise litter the tale.
Short Trips: Damascus is out now, priced £2.99, a download-only story exclusive to Big Finish.