As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’re looking back at some of the pivotal tales of all of time and space, taking on one Doctor each month, running up to November – and An Unearthly Child…
The Eighth Doctor only appeared once on-screen (besides some flashbacks, montages and a brief sort-of-cameo in The Name of the Doctor). But that never stopped Paul McGann’s brilliant incarnation of the Time Lord from facing down foes like the Daleks, Cybermen, Morbius, Spring-Heeled Jack and Zygons; befriending Charley, Destrii, Molly, C’rizz, Izzy, a Cyberman named Kroton and an Ice Warrior named Ssard; and expanding his corner of the Whoniverse through novels, short stories, audios, comics and, of course, fan fiction.
He may have only appeared once in an English-American hybrid 1996 movie, but this Doctor is loved. And the reasons for this are more than evident in 2009’s Big Finish audio, Wirrn Dawn.
Stranger in a Strange Land
After their first appearance in the blindly-good Ark in Space, the Wirrn were an obvious choice for return. But, discounting the dead one in The Stones of Blood and two not-quite-official BBV Productions, the parasitical aliens only cropped up once before Big Finish got their hands on them: in the BBC Book, Placebo Effect. The novel, written by Gary Russell, saw the Eighth Doctor with his Radio Times companions, Stacy Townsend and Ssard, arrive at the Intergalactic Olympic Games in the year 3999. But a new drug offers athletes a greater skill set than ever before… and the Wirrn wait in the darkness.
Wirrn Dawn finds the Doctor and Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith, who debuted in Blood of the Daleks) in less hospitable circumstances: in the middle of an epic and bloody war between Wirrn and humankind on the planet Carista VII. The GalSec colonists are fighting against all odds (and their inclusion wraps up some questions raised in The Sontaran Experiment) and there are two main themes explored: survival of the fittest and don’t judge a book by its cover.
Obviously, both topics were also raised in 1975’s The Ark in Space, a story that Big Finish Executive Producer, Nick Briggs (best known for voicing the Daleks and Cybermen) watches regularly:
“In a way, Wirrn Dawn is a marrying of my old desire for slick action-adventure and the whole fantastic idea of the Wirrn coming together – because essentially what I’ve done is dropped the Doctor in the middle of Starship Troopers, really!”
Weird in the Extreme
Wirrn Dawn does indeed take a lot from Starship Troopers, a 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein and subsequent 1997 film which tells the story of a galactic war through the eyes of idealist, Johnny Rico, as he and his fellow infantryman hunt down alien insects that threaten the human race’s very existence. But then, the controversial book has influenced many notable works.
Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and 1968 are both slight responses to the book, the former particularly accused of being reactionary with heavy anti-war messages. The latter even includes warped versions of reality in which a soldier battles alien insects. (Whilst Haldeman admits that Starship Troopers influenced him, the two books are really about his time fighting in Vietnam.)
More futuristic fights of which Heinlein’s novel is a forerunner include the anime, Mobile Suit Gundam, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game stories and the popular Halo video games.
Importantly, the 1986 film, Aliens, takes some inspiration from Heinlein’s story – some actors were even instructed to read the book before filming – and many fans see The Ark in Space as ‘Doctor Who does Alien before Alien.’
The insectoid aliens of Starship Troopers, Pseudo-Arachnids (or Bugs), do share traits with the Wirrn: they have a caste system, ruled over by Queens and have hive minds. Heinlein describes his alien life as “a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider”; the Wirrn could be described similarly. And both fictional species pose credible threats to humanity.
The Wirrn next appear in last year’s Wirrn Isle, opposite the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Big Finish-created companion, Flip Jackson (Lisa Greenwood). Considering that both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat hold The Ark in Space in high esteem, it’s a surprise they haven’t returned to our TV screens…
“But that was the way it used to be.”
1983’s Season 20 celebrated the show’s 20th anniversary by bringing back classic elements, like the Brigadier, the Mara, Omega and the Master. The Black Guardian also stalked the Doctor and tried to convince new companion, Vislor Turlough, to kill the Time Lord. The season concluded with The Five Doctors.
And in this 50th anniversary year, we asked you how you’d feel about a 13-episode series of returning elements. Over 500 of you voted, but, whilst there is a clear winner, the topic is a controversial one!
With 229 votes (44.47%), it seems most of you would love to see old friends and foes return. Frazer Hines’ Jamie McCrimmon seems a popular choice, with ‘Bradondo’ noting:
“The intervening years were historically terrible for the great clans, so it would be fascinating to see a harder and somewhat dispirited Jamie holding his people together as best he can when the Doctor arrives. I think quite a lot could be done with this regarding how Jamie’s suppressed memories of his time with the Doctor – eventually revealed to him in the course of the episode – gave him the strength and resourcefulness to lead his clan.”
‘HC’ agrees, but would also like to see Katy Manning as Jo Grant (a possibility considering she reappeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures: Death of the Doctor), and ‘TimeChaser’ wants Janet Fielding to return… alongside the Mara and the Wirrn!
A considerable 131 people (25.44%) concur that it doesn’t actually matter – as long as the stories are good. A healthy 97 readers (18.83%) like the series just as it is: a pick-and-mix of old and new. ‘Geoff’ elaborates:
“When I look back over the last 7 or 8 years of Doctor Who I find the stories I have enjoyed most each series were the ones featuring new enemies, or no distinct enemies, or barely even the Doctor sometimes. So I’m veering towards saying I’d like a few nods to the past but generally keep moving forwards. Just the odd clip like in The Eleventh Hour and The Next Doctor will do me. And frankly I like Matt Smith so much I could watch him reading a bus timetable and enjoy it.”
A surprising 9.32% (48 votes) question whether the returning elements should just be contained to one series; conversely, 10 people (1.94%) would like to see a whole series with no Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Silurians, Wirrn or UNIT – in fact, they don’t want to see any returning characters at all! ‘Orcrest’ notes:
“The problem with being too self-reverential is that you can dilute the story. Yes, Doctor Who has a rich and [varied] history, but do we need to see old companions galore?”
“Survival First; Questions Later.”
It seems that most of you love to indulge in Doctor Who’s past… as long as the story solicits it. A similar attitude is shared by Steven Moffat! Maybe the return of the Wirrn isn’t completely off the cards; they’re just waiting for the right tale.
Of course, the Wirrn aren’t the only familiar thing about Wirrn Dawn. The Sarah Jane Adventures’ Daniel Anthony (Clyde Langer) plays the ‘filthy indig,’ Delong, and Dr. Moon actor, Colin Salmon (who appeared in 2008’s Silence in the Library/ Forest of the Dead) is the prejudice Trooper Salway. Nick Briggs also crops up briefly, and Beth Chalmers stars as the Wirrn Queen a few years before Big Finish picked her as the Seventh Doctor’s companion, Raine Creevy in The Lost Stories.
But aside from these stellar cast members, Wirrn Dawn is all about one of the best Doctor-companion teams: Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith at the height of their powers.
But then, when wasn’t that the case…?