Truth be told, I was nervous about reviewing Rulebook, the tenth release of Big Finish’s Short Trips Series 6. Its writer, Tony Jones contributes to the Doctor Who Companion, and he’s a wonderful bloke – very thoughtful, a great writer, and clever. I thought it’d be tough to give an honest opinion about his Big Finish work without being compromised by my knowing what a nice guy he is.
Fortunately, I needn’t compromise anyway because Rulebook is wonderful.
Doctor Who, as you no doubt know, is a very different beast to other science fiction and drama. The likes of Star Wars and Star Trek concern themselves with vast spacescapes, interplanetary battles, and other things that eat up a budget. Doctor Who does too, but it has a distinct mindset. That’s highlighted beautifully in Rulebook, in which we find the Fifth Doctor and Peri shortly after saving the Ellani of Beadledom 3. Sadly, the Ellani now won’t let them back in the TARDIS.
Why? The Doctor and Peri used a transmat in the process of defeating the invading Valtor, and Ellani rule says that living beings die when transmatting; they’re replaced only by copies. As the TARDIS was owned by the Doctor, who is “dead”, it would be rude to give his property to a mere copy.
It’s a brilliantly simple but smart premise, and not one you’d see on Star Wars. But it’s ideal for Doctor Who and essentially what the Short Trips range is made for.
It begins with a moment that really pulls the rug from beneath you (an opener that oddly reminds me of Four to Doomsday) before we get into the crux of the matter, concerning the consequences of a simple action. Teleporting is common practice in many sci-fi adventures, and it’s become rather trivial. Yet it’s an incredible notion – a creepy one too. It’s unsettling that the original is dispersed, and a duplicate is created in a different place. That in itself is an odd idea, and that’s without considering the possibility of a transcription error, as in Forest of the Dead. It’s pleasing to think this has been expanded into a proper story.
The infuriating circumstances really suit the Fifth Doctor. He has that great exasperated nature, heightened by his pairing with the generally-outraged Peri. While she shouts and gets in a strop, he’s left to quietly come up with their next moves. Tony captures their relationship brilliantly, and you can tell Nicola Bryant is having a good time switching between the Doctor’s calm manner, Peri’s more vocal frustration, and her smooth, measured narration.
It might all sound very tongue-in-cheek (Bryant’s reading is imbued with good humour), but there are pleasing parallels with the evolution of religions: the Rulebook is considered the be-all and end-all, and Jorval, the Ellani whose perspective this audio is told from, tries to find solace in it. But she finds it lacking. She’s forced to approach the situation in the spirit of the Rulebook, not solidly adhering to the guidelines but finding how it can be applied more accurately – and justly – to her life.
If that’s not a great religious allegory, I don’t know what is.
Nonetheless, Rulebook is fantastic satire, especially bringing to mind The Sunmakers. What makes this such a glorious tale is how it evokes Classic Doctor Who – a liberal amount of Robert Holmes, and a dash of Douglas Adams too (particularly its clever ending). Despite being set on a different planet, it even brings to mind historicals like Marco Polo and The Aztecs, where the Doctor and co. are stopped from getting back in the TARDIS.
The core concept probably couldn’t fill a full four-part story, but it’s exactly what Short Trips is all about. Tony Jones nailed it – and no, I’m not at all surprised.
Short Trips: Rulebook is out now, priced just £2.99.