Grief is a muddled process. It refuses a timetable and neglects our natural inclination to rise above it. It can leave a person stricken long after the period where the much-misunderstood ‘seven stages of grieving’ should have passed. It turns memories into artefacts and breaks the tools of communication. As C.S. Lewis described in A Grief Observed, an honest attempt to capture all that is human about the grieving process through a crisis of faith brought about by the loss of his wife, sometimes our fears ‘won’t go into language at all’.
Perhaps that’s why, when battling for some hard-won hope in the days to come, so many people turn to letter writing. Its formalities offering a sort of structure that’s both loose and rigorous – it allows us to waffle on about the little things, like walking yourself back through an old memory, grabbing each little knickknack, now loaded with significance, along the way. However, there’s always the structure, the ticking clock that tells you that perhaps you’ve outstayed your welcome. Like the intended departed reader may get bored by all this nostalgia, which may be a comfort to the writer.
It’s into this unknowable, unclassifiable human condition that The World Beyond the Trees boldly treads. Writer Jonathan Barnes tells a tale of loss without ever broaching the subject head on, but it’s there. Hidden in the deep sighs of Nicola Walker’s narration, which carries a confessional tone, weighed down by what’s lying just beneath the surface. Although that suggests a slow pace, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Director Lisa Bowerman keeps the pace up with some smart directorial decisions, the musical cues, drenched in some lovely sci-fi synth tones are haunting but expertly placed.
The Short Trip sees Liv Chenka recounting a tale in a letter to her departed Father which found her waking up to find herself alone. The Doctor has gone. Molly O’Sullivan is in a catatonic state along with the rest of London. But then Liv meets a stranger, someone who wants to get home. The stranger has a message, a message for her and for someone else, so very far away. The unspoken bond between them, of one grief shading all grief around it, drives this fairy tale forward. That near isolation and the catatonic state of London, serve as obvious parallels to grief itself, a condition that C.S. Lewis wanted to treat as on par with leprosy – wherein isolation from social encounters would be mandatory. It’s a small mercy that Chenka is saved from the awkward conversations with the unbereaved which carry with them no small amount of shame.
With this great emotional heft going on underneath, it sometimes makes the story feel a little inconsequential, like a different and interesting experiment (very much the raison d’etre of the Short Trips range) rather than a rounded adventure. In that way, it’s very similar to Series 5’s Vincent and the Doctor, where the characters were allowed to explore something intrinsic to the human condition, namely depression, without the usual traits of a Doctor Who tale impeding them. That choice really makes it standout, and, let’s not forget this is the opener to the seventh series of Short Trips, and Big Finish should be commended for treading so boldly into something so delicate.
Big Finish’s Short Trips – The World Beyond the Trees by Jonathan Barnes is available to buy now from the Big Finish site for £2.99.