Once upon a time, there was a boy named Tony.
Time Lord Fairy Tales is a peculiar prospect – if Steven Moffat intended the first series of Matt Smith stories to re-introduce a ‘fairy tale element’ to Doctor Who, Justin Richards takes his mission on board and delivers it in a purer form, in fifteen short stories that blend traditional fairy tale settings or storytelling with some of the best (and indeed some of the worst, where they’re appropriate) monsters and villains from Doctor Who history, both recent and more venerable.
Whether or not you should buy this one largely depends on whether the underpinning concept appeals to you. Do you want your Who blended with fairy tales? If not, possibly you should pass this one by. But for anyone to whom the idea appeals, there’s no doubt this book will deliver what you’re looking for, and probably a good deal more besides.
There’s an issue of which version you get though, and that depends again on what you’re looking to get out of it. If you have some trainee Time Lords or Ladies who want their bedtime stories tinged with Who, pick up the hardbacked version, which glitters with the sense of anticipation and magic of all the best fairy tale books, and which includes illustrations in a beautiful synthesis of traditional fairy tale woodcuts and Who art.
If on the other hand you’re the Who-fan in the family, get the audiobook version, which gives you more grown-up value for money through the choice of some high-class narrators, and some that rank among the superstars of the show.
For the most part here, Richards delivers intriguing new takes on traditional fairy tales, with the Doctor appearing in person in a few of the stories, and some deliciously surprising additions from the monster archive in others. Some are obvious from their titles – The Three Little Sontarans, Andiba and the Four Slitheen etc. You probably don’t need to stretch your mind too far to work out what’s at the core of The Garden of Statues or Sirgwain and the Green Knight either, but there are plenty more stories here where you have to feel your way in to understand which particular alien menace is at the heart of events – Frozen Beauty gives a great jolt of surprise when the baddies are revealed, as does Little Rose Riding Hood and The Gingerbread Trap. There’s a cheeky, almost blatant re-run of a televised story in here too, which makes you chuckle, and there’s a couple that resonate with genuine fairy tale grimness, like Cinderella and the Magic Box and most particularly The Grief Collector (which is allllmost a Torchwood story in its darkness).
What we have then, in any version, is a set of short stories that use the traditional media of fairy tales – from ‘Once upon a time’ to kind-hearted but not terribly bright heroes and heroines who win through with their courage and their purity of intention intact – with an underlayer of Who story, with the science stripped out for fairy tale delivery.
Does it work? Almost unreservedly, yes – Richards balances his sources and his own inventive imagination well so for the most part, the stories satisfy on both levels. There are a couple of misfires – The Twins In The Wood does rather go on, without especially finding its point – but generally, it’s a fantastic collection that any Who-fan should be able to enjoy, if they can hang up their adult on the way in.
In terms of narrators for the stories, some are absolutely superb, others perfectly adequate, and just one or two leave a little to be desired. The Garden of Statues, which leads us into the collection, is narrated by Joanna (Queen Elizabeth I) Page with a kind of slightly exaggerated, children’s TV delivery which feels a little too much, but does set the tone of the blending. Adjoa (Francine Jones) Andoh feels rather more grown-up, as is her story, Frozen Beauty. It’s with a note of fanboy sadness that we have to report that Ingrid (Osgood) Oliver makes something of an unpalatable meal of Cinderella and the Magic Box at first, thought as the tale rolls along, she relaxes into the storytelling, so that by the climax, she’s more than rediscovered her naturalism. Anne (Plasmavore) Reid is well known as an actress outside Who, and her delivery of The Twins In The Wood is as good as the slightly unfocused story allows it to be.
But after that, the initial shakiness seems to evaporate – stand forward, Sontaran of the age, Dan Starkey, to deliver the moral of The Three Little Sontarans. Stride majestically in, Tom Baker to tell us all about Jak and the Wormhole – Baker’s tone is magical in the best sense, pitched most assuredly at children, but done with that twinkle of bafflement and oddness in his voice that so resonated with children worldwide during his on-screen stint as the Doctor. Welcome Sophie Aldred, herself absolutely no stranger to children’s TV storytelling, for Snow White and the Seven Keys To Doomsday. Although in some ways the polar opposite of Tom Baker, Aldred manages to pitch her narration right on the borderline of children’s storytelling and more generalised excitement, to pull you through the story in what feels like a faster read than it actually is.
If you can’t remember where you’ve heard Rachael Stirling’s voice before, she played Ada Gillyflower in The Crimson Horror. A little perversely then, she’s given another ruby-tinged tale to tell, and she delivers Little Rose Riding Hood with a lack of telegraphing that allows the monster, when it’s revealed, to come as a great but logical surprise. Samuel (Danny Pink) Anderson, bless him, is another like Ingrid Oliver who starts off his story of The Gingerbread Trap feeling stilted, but who gets more and more into the storytelling swing of things as the tale rolls along. The Gingerbread Trap’s an interesting one, incidentally, giving an almost-re-run of the central idea of a particular species of baddie, while divorcing them from the strictures of their original story, allowing them to creep up on our consciousness and pounce.
It should come as no surprise that Nicholas Briggs is an accomplished narrator, and he takes us further back in Who history than we’ve so far been with The Scruffy Piper – an idea so fundamentally obvious it’s a miracle it was never played out on screen. A miracle and a lost opportunity, as Briggs demonstrates with aplomb. Pippa Bennett-Warner, who played Saibra in Time Heist, has a better day here, delivering the story of Helana and the Beast with an occasional nod to Disney but a sense of the genuine heartbreak and salvation inherent in the Beauty and the Beast idea. Yasmin (Maria Jackson) Paige delivers the perhaps fitting story of Andiba and the Four Slitheen, and again, Richards pulls the trick of giving us a familiar villain with a familiar weakness, divorced from the contexts in which we normally find them. As a story, it takes very little in the way of working out, and that’s down to the word “Slitheen” being in the title – more suspense could have been wrung from it were this not the case – but Paige still delivers the beats of the story with the innocence and instinct of the heroine, making for a satisfying finale.
As far as narrators go, you have to have a pretty big personality to rival Tom Baker.
Step forward then Michelle Gomez, narrator for probably the most genuinely disturbing story in the collection, The Grief Collector. But it’s important to note that this is not Missy, this is Michelle Gomez. What’s more, it’s Michelle Gomez being about as “normal” (for want of a less condemnatory word) as you will ever hear her, selling the drama and the heartbreak and the horror of the story with perfect pitch.
The Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, steps in to relate The Three Brothers Gruff, and it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you it’s not a story that features his Doctor. It is the cheeky one though, that will have you harking back to the early seventies in no time.
And to round out the collection, Andrew Brooke (The Gunslinger from A Town Called Mercy) is unrecognisable as himself but delivers Sirgwain and the Green Knight with a due sense of mysticism and chivalry, and a highly effective imitation of the alien in question. It’s a significant story-placement, bringing the Time Lord Fairy Tales to an end with a more grown-up, chivalric myth of doing the right thing, even when the odds are impossible.
Overall, Richards’ venture into genuine fairy tale Who is entrancing, and particularly in an audio format, allows some of the programme’s best readers to deliver the breadth and scope of not only traditional fairy tales, but the merging of those tropes and memes with something altogether more Time Lord for a genuinely original take on our favourite show.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk