I have to admit that I hadn't checked out many of the Short Trips releases from Big Finish. The idea of half-hour or so audiobook readings of what are effectively short stories hasn't had as much appeal to me as so many of the full-cast audio dramas have, especially in light of the ever increasing number of the latter being put out by the company. Yet occasionally a release leaps out at me and says “give this one a listen” and Damascus is just such a story.
That's in part because of the premise. I'll quote here from Big Finish's own site:
As the decade in English history which attracts the greatest quantity of alien invasions per annum, the 1970s are not the easiest time in which to steer the great British ship of state. The Prime Minister, nonetheless, is doing the very best job he can. Still, at least he has UNIT to rely on – their eccentric, bouffant-haired scientific adviser in particular. Or does he?It's an intriguing premise and Jonathan Barnes' tale is an interesting one. Damascus is told in the first person, in the form of an audio recording made by British Prime Minister Jeremy (apparently the one we get a brief glimpse of in The Green Death which apparently takes places sometime before this). We get to see the Pertwee Doctor taking on an alien threat to Britain with the Prime Minister as acting companion. It allows a different perspective, one that is made especially clear in the final moments of the tale.
Reading the story is the man who has brought the Third Doctor back to life for Big Finish: Tim Trealor. Treloar does a solid job with the reading, capturing the fish out of water nature of the first person narration and being utterly believable as the Prime Minister. Ironically enough, where Treloar is perhaps a bit off is the part he normally plays. With his Pertwee being so close to his normal reading voice it's hard to distinguish at times. Perhaps that was a deliberate choice since it's Jeremy who is meant to be telling us the tale but as someone very used to Treloar's Third Doctor, it came as a surprise. On the whole though, Treloar's reading is solid and he brings all the other voices (including the aliens who briefly appear) to life nicely.
Yet Damascus suffers from one issue, one that only becomes evident at the end of the story when the reasoning behind the title becomes clear and the twist left this listener feeling a little dumbfounded. Without spoiling it too much, one is left with the feeling that this is meant to be a sequel story to something else but, like Timelash back during Colin Baker's TV era, it's a sequel to an unseen story. The result is that the end twist feels hollow and it lets the story down a bit.
Yet for most of it's thirty-four minute run-time, Damascus makes for an interesting listen. It's a very different perspective on the familiar formula of the Third Doctor era, told from a unique perspective. If not for it being a sequel to a non-existant story, I might even give it full marks as a piece of Doctor Who short fiction. Instead, I can sing only more muted praises for it and recommend it for its uniqueness if not entirely for its storytelling.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.