Outside the Government: Fragments

(46 comments)

The week of my coauthor Alex Reed and I guest-editing 33 1/3's blog in promotion of our book on They Might Be Giants's Flood continues with Alex counting down the ten best TMBG non-album tracks. You can buy the book here.

It’s March 21st, 2008.

In Miracle Day there is a startlingly large continuity gaffe when Jack knows the “fixed point in time” explanation that he’s given in Utopia several decades too early. And yet this seems, in light of Fragments, to be just one of many gaffes in attempting to reconstruct Jack’s experience of the twentieth century. While employed by Torchwood, after all, he is seen to, for no apparent reason, enlist in the military to go to Pakistan, work for a travelling circus, and go romp around the US for a while. There is no coherent timeline to be had of Jack’s twentieth century.

This is strange given that the norm for Torchwood is rapidly shifting to being about various secrets from Jack’s long life that he’s been hiding. And yet these secrets exist in a fundamentally incoherent timeline. Jack’s twentieth century is so oversignified that it can contain anything. There are consciously no limitations to the secrets contained within it. He’s gone from having two years of his life that he knows nothing about to a hundred that the audience knows nothing about.

Which makes his life in Fragments odd, given that it is defined in essence by his being captured by Torchwood and steadily coming to accept their ways. The narrative is one of corruption - Jack goes from being appalled by Torchwood’s tendency to randomly murder aliens because it can’t think of anything to do with them to running the joint. Yes, he runs it in a more humane and less murderous way, but this is still the sense of progress that suggests that putting less evil people in charge of corrupt structures will fix them. Which is to say, New Labour.

In many ways this perfectly sets Jack up for the future of the show, in that it properly makes him a site of anxiety within the narrative. Jack is not a heo, but someone who has been corrupted by the system he sets out to work - a concrete demonstration of all that is wrong with the logic of changing the system from within. And yet on the other hand Jack is forever without - external to the world and to its systems. His status as a fixed point in time becomes all too symbolic; he becomes locked as a bridge between the world and its eccentric spaces. This liminal space is a source of danger. Jack becomes the eternal transgressor - always in between two spaces, but, unlike the character he derives from (who remains unspeakable within Torchwood) never moving as such. He is stuck on Earth, and festering there.

When, on New Year’s Day, he is finally given control of Torchwood Three, it is visibly a poisoned chalice. The site of too many crimes and murders. He will rebuild it in his own image. And it will be full of nothing but fragments of people - narrative roles stuck in the ever-hardening amber of the present moment.

----

The charts, unsurprisingly, have not changed in the two days that have passed since Adrift.

In some ways the prospect of explaining how Tosh came to work for Torchwood seems superfluous. She is, after all, the crack Asian computer genius. Of course she works for Torchwood. Every character on television like her works for an organization like Torchwood. To explain how that came to be is thus strange.

And so it’s particularly interesting that of the origins given, hers is by far the most viscerally traumatic. She spends an unknown period of time locked in a cell with no legal recourse whatsoever. We are told that the plan was originally that she would stay there for life. When she is released it is because of Captain Jack’s intercession, and even then only on a conditional basis, her release predicated on her working a fixed term of service with Torchwood and not having direct contact with her mother.

In all of this there is a distracting element, which is that it us UNIT who imprisons Tosh like this. In the past the division has appeared to be that UNIT is the cuddlier government organization dealing with aliens, while Torchwood is the darker one. And yet here we get UNIT being as unsympathetic as Torchwood ever has been. Indeed, moreso. It’s worth observing that the usual justification cited for indefinite detention are various forms of national security justifications. But even this comforting fig leaf is denied to Tosh. She is given indefinite detention without trial to make an example out of her, and yet the example is apparently too secret for anyone to know about. It casts UNIT in the role of reflexive totalitarianism, which is an odd fit with the organization as portrayed in the past, albeit not an odd fit at all with what such an organization would probably actually be like.

And yet underneath all of this there’s an essential truth that remains unexpectedly captured. Tosh, as noted, is the character least in need of any origin story. The question of why someone like her would work at Torchwood is utterly straightforward. But a closer look at Tosh’s origin story reveals that, in fact, she still doesn’t have one. She is an object, not a subject, at every stage. Her initial actions are because she has being extorted by criminals who have kidnapped her mother. She is locked away for life, and essentially purchased as an indentured servant by Jack. At no point anywhere in her story does she make anything that could be mistaken for a free choice. And even within her story the horror and degradation she suffers is outshone by the shock of seeing UNIT recast as Guantanamo Bay. There is no Tosh to be found anywhere in this origin. Indeed, there never was any Tosh. There was just an actress explaining the plot of twenty-five episodes of television while staring at a computer screen.

----

In the news, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hits China and Yves Leterme is sworn in as Prime Minister of Belgium.

What is perhaps most interesting about Ianto is that he is the only one who is never given any sort of characterization outside of Torchwood. The knowledge that one of his primary motivations in joining Torchwood is his half-converted girlfriend hangs over everything in this episode. It’s alluded to in passing in places - most notably when Ianto suggests that he salvaged things from Canary Warf. But the audience, or at least a savvy audience, is expected to read between the lines.

Still, it’s necessary for the character to make any sense. Absent that, Ianto has no visible reason to join Torchwood, nor indeed any visible character traits. He is simply a guy wanting to join Torchwood. Nor, tellingly, does the show ever really give a reason why Jack would change his mind. Ianto starts by helping Jack deal with a Weevil, and ends by helping him catch the team pterodactyl, He’s helpful in both cases, and there’s no real shift in his character that would explain why the previously reluctant Jack would reverse course.

The closest thing to an explanation is Jack’s attraction to Ianto - the fact that the pterodactyl chase doubles as a seduction. The implication is that Jack hires Ianto because he fancies him. But this is a change to Ianto’s origins. The Ianto/Jack romance was teased in an online short during the first season, but it mainly belongs to this season. By moving the seeds of the relationship to the very beginning of Ianto’s career at Torchwood Three the story fundamentally shifts. The result of this is that Lisa largely drops out of Ianto’s narrative. Ianto becomes defined purely by his attraction to Jack.

And yet underneath all of this Ianto remains the most straightforwardly human of the preexisting Torchwood staff. This is clear back in Adrift, where it’s Ianto who overrules Jack and reveals the existence of the facility to Gwen. Ianto is the character who is grounded in humanity and human experience, and yet, ironically, he’s the character who least exists outside the confines of Torchwood itself. It’s at once entirely clear why he’s allowed to survive the season and why he cannot make it out of the next one alive.

Ultimately, for all his humanity, Ianto was never designed as a character. He survived his death storyline in the first season and got a new love interest in the second. But he’s always been tied to someone else’s narrative, and kept from having his own. He exists purely for these purposes, lacking any identity of his own. He is anonymous, fit only for his own tragic end.

----

While on television, Fragments.

What are we to make of Owen? Earlier in the season, under the deformation of Adam, Owen became a shy, awkward man unable to express his attraction to Tosh, who gained the confidence Owen lacked. And yet now we see an origin for Owen in which, even absent Torchwood, he’s stubborn, angry, and not someone it is easy to see how would, under any circumstances, become the sort of person he does in Adam.

Of the four characters who are defined in this episode it is in many ways Owen who needs that definition the most. Everything about Owen seems to hinge on some tragic past that has jaded and broken him. And yet the nature of that past has been obscure. The explanation given here - a fiancee who is killed by an alien parasite - works well enough. But as with the other characters, this amounts to an origin story. Indeed, it follows the beats of a standard superhero origin story. Owen undergoes a great personal trauma and out of the trauma gains, if not superpowers, at least a new gig fighting aliens. Structurally, it’s act one of every generic superhero movie ever.

What’s puzzling comes at the end of the sequence, where Owen has a brief monologue about wanting to save a life to justify himself, and about never being able to save enough. Aside from its odd dissonance with the rest of the scene - surely after his failure to save his fiancee’s life the concern isn’t so much saving enough as saving “the one that matters” or some line like that - this is an interesting moment. For one thing, unlike the entire rest of the origin, it does harken back to Adam and it’s surprisingly good, if overcooked moment of Owen meekly asking who will save him.

But under all of this Owen as a character disappears, fizzing away into nothing more than Burn Gorman’s performance. There’s nothing underlying this character - merely a vague explanation that is ultimately disconnected from anything. His origin doesn’t explain anything - it’s merely a diffuse trope plugged into his narrative in order to say “there is something here.” In this regard it’s oddly fractal - the narrative equivalent of what Torchwood has been on television all season.

And yet there’s something unresolved here - some sense that Owen could have been so much more. Instead he is a character with an explanation that explains nothing, cast into a plot role in which he’s expected to do something that is never quite defined consistently. He is always meant to irritate the narrative - to exert some sort of conflicting pressure. But as the show flops around uncertainly so does is role within it. The inexhaustible hunger to save people expressed at the end is almost perfect, save for the subject matter. It is not that he can or cannot save enough lives. It is that he can never manage to have one of his own.

Comments

Sean Case 3 years, 4 months ago

I was fairly sure Jack and Ianto were involved as early as They Keep Killing Suzie. There's a remark about uses for a stopwatch that I always read as sexual.

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Assad K 3 years, 4 months ago

Just a moment.. shouldn't we be talking about Night of the Doctor....??
Just when did Jack go to Pakistan? Egad.
It's interesting that UNIT's actions here are considered nasty because.. well, Tosh is clearly guilty. To the extent that she actually improved on the supervision for the bad guys. Though of course, being held in a super secret prison is not the best way to be made an example of.
Davies approach to UNIT always seemed a little scattershot. There's a distinctly negative air to them in the Sontaran two parter. They're tremendously helpful in 'Turn Left'. They are allies in Planet of the Dead, but a scant two episodes later they're not good enough for Martha to belong to (warrior woman with a BFG being a better option). Happily, UNIT now seems to have returned to the Definitely Good category now.

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Assad K 3 years, 4 months ago

Supervision should be superweapon.. thanks for correcting, Mr Kindle!!

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elvwood 3 years, 4 months ago

I think Pakistan was that flashback in Small Worlds.

While I thought this was overall a strong episode, I strongly disliked the total demonising of UNIT here. It should be ambiguous, but not (as Philip puts it) Guantanamo Bay.

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Prole Hole 3 years, 4 months ago

Night Of The Doctor is both awesome and completely unexpected, and awesome, and also awesome. There we go, that's it covered!

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Simon Cooper 3 years, 4 months ago

Forget 'Torchwood' (the rest of the world already has), 'Night Of The Doctor' needs to be tackled before Day gets here.

It's pretty amazing that it less than seven minutes it makes McGann a legitimate Doctor for 21st Century Television, gives and takes away a new Companion in about thrity seconds, provides a convincing reason why we needed John Hurt's non-Doctor (officially making Capaldi the last incarnation in the process), tosses in the most fanwanky character return so far and canonises the Big Finish Audios.

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prandeamus 3 years, 4 months ago

Not sure it makes Capaldi the13th. The circumstances on Karn are exceptional (death, temporary resurrection, forced regeneration) so as to render the 13th-is-last business even murkier than usual. That's *my* canon, anyway. :)

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Ross 3 years, 4 months ago

Careful you don't read too much into it. We don't know yet if it follows that Capaldi is the last incarnation, given that this regeneration is explicitly different from his others in nature.

(It's a shame Eccleston wouldn't sign on, because based on the trailers, I think a great twist for the punchline to be that the Warlock couldn't end the Time War, and he had to turn himself back into The Doctor in order to finish it.)

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Assad K 3 years, 4 months ago

I'm pretty sure you understated the awesomeness.
Let's say it... Moffat, you sneaky, secretive, magnificent bastard.. how was this kept a secret? How can I hate you and love you at the same time???

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Simon Cooper 3 years, 4 months ago

Triggered differently but not a different end result. (Like Romana chosing her next body or what the Time Lords did in The War Games.)

And given Moffat's comment about wanting the "complete box set" of Regenerations I imagine we'll be get getting a CGI Eccleston (or something along those lines) either at the end of Day or in the second minisode to complete the process.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 4 months ago

Yeah, the stopwatch thing, which I interpreted as being in competition with Ace's "Fenric" speech for the title of most bafflingly obscure seduction lines ever committed to film (temporal metaphors category).

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Seeing_I 3 years, 4 months ago

You know, I never thought about it before this essay, but Ianto is the only character whom we never see at home. It's as if he hangs himself up in a closet at night along with his suit. It was almost a shock to find him talking to his sister in a kitchen in "Children of Earth" (in a scene that plays especially well to RTD's strengths). Gareth David-Lloyd plays the character with a drily ironic ingenuousness that's charming, and he's given some decently amusing one-liners and a Jeeves-like omnicompetence, but honestly, I never got the overwhelming fan-love for the character. Not to the point of mass hysteria on his death, and JACK+IANTO 4EVA macros, anyway.

As for Tosh...why on Earth did Torchwood utterly ignore her character having met the Doctor in "Aliens of London"? I know they make a throwaway reference to it at some point, but it's odd they never make more of it, not least because she's the only one who's met that mysterious Doctor Jack keeps hinting at.


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Adam Riggio 3 years, 4 months ago

I have a feeling we'll discuss "Night of the Doctor" formally in late 2014 when we get to the 50th Anniversary celebrations and media, the end of the Matt Smith era, and the end of TARDIS Eruditorum.

But Phil gets straight to the problems Torchwood was facing here at the end of its second season, and the problems I discussed in my comment to Wednesday's post on Adrift. Torchwood stops being a diverse adventure show where a variety of strange spaces and beings slip into or otherwise occupy some part of the everyday normal world. This original format has the legs to last a very long time; I'd say the best case scenario would be a run equal to that of the X-Files. Nine or ten years including a long decline after the substitution of cast members whose characters are critical to the premise.

Adrift was probably the best episode of the problematic second season, and a production that was straining latched onto it as a premise for the next epic season. But the problem is that it makes Jack into a villainous character. He's at the heart of an enormous and violent conspiracy because of the horrifying actions that he did himself, and ends up committing an equally horrifying action. Turning Torchwood into a mystery/conspiracy show about uncovering terrible secrets in Jack's past makes Jack a supervillain, having taken part in dozens of evil acts over the last century, and his current leadership of Torchwood the organization is an attempt to earn forgiveness.

This episode has the intriguing function, in light of future developments, of showing all that the cast could do in this new model. Jack becomes a figure constantly falling into corruption no matter how hard he tries to escape (I'm intrigued to see how Phil perceives the tension that exists between the corrupt Jack of Children of Earth and Miracle Day, and the heroic Jack of his Doctor Who appearances). Ianto becomes a foil to show Jack's limitations. Owen and Tosh literally have nowhere to go, which is where they go next week.

The only characters with any potential for positive improvement at this point are Gwen and Rhys. They're the only people left in the world of Torchwood who can escape the limitations these last few stories of season two establish and behave unexpectedly. They're the only characters on Torchwood at this point who escape becoming purely programmatic.

I'm especially sad to see this happening to Jack, because the character Steven Moffat introduced in The Empty Child had the potential to do so much. The Doctor Who universe never really had a character who was a loveable rogue before (The Doctor himself is more of a loveable elf). The popularity and potential of the character of Jack Harkness was rewarded by giving him a starring role in a spin-off show. I remember seeing hints about this development dropped in some of the Eccleston season dvd extras. John Barrowman was so happy that his character was getting this prestigious treatment. Yet as Torchwood developed, all that potential disappeared.

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prandeamus 3 years, 4 months ago

Right now, pointers to Hurt being canonical doctor #9 are ambigious. It is a biological regeneration (+) but it is triggered by the "more advanced" Sisters of Karn (-), far away from the TARDIS (-), and after a period in which the Sisterhood declares his body to be functionally dead (-). Moreover, he's sipped from "the elixir of life" so that could be used to change/abandon the 13 lives limit. Actually it's given Moffat and other future writers another hand to wave when he eventually goes to the 14th televised Doctor.

When Sheridan Smith expires as the 13th Doctor, while Romeo Beckham and Ramona Marquez look on helplessly as Russell Brand's Sh'Frozz leads the Martian Orange Pontificate to glorious victory over the last Frock Legion ... I for one do not want the show to die. I want a new Doctor to rise from the ashes.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 4 months ago

Actually, Night of the Doctor won't get a formal post. It's way too tempting as a book extra.

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Prole Hole 3 years, 4 months ago

This!

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Prole Hole 3 years, 4 months ago

Not that I disagree with anything you have said, but the Doctor was functionally dead at the end of Planet Of The Spiders right? Without K'ampo giving the process "a little push" that would have been the end of him, so there is a precedent for the Doctor being dead, then brought back to life by something Time Lord-y but not the normal regeneration process. Yet we still call Tom Baker's Doctor the 4th.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 4 months ago

Part of the way it was kept a secret was by someone posting increasingly bizarre things on Twitter until we all concluded he was just yanking our chain.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 4 months ago

But does she know that? She met a weirdo in a leather jacket, very briefly, while she was rather more concerned about the pig alien and pretending to be a doctor herself. She didn't see the TARDIS, or have an adventure as a pseudo-companion, or anything like that. She's probably never made the connection.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

It wasn't all that secret or unexpected. Rumors of a prequel/minisode in which McGann regenerates into Hurt have been flying online for weeks.

Awesome it certainly was, though. I predict (and advocate) a massive fan campaign to get more onscreen McGann Doctor, whether through a guest spot, a standalone adventure, or whatever.

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Aaron 3 years, 4 months ago

Booo. Why do you say that? You've covered Time Crash, Dimensions in Time, the Pudsey Cutaway, etc, and Night and the Doctor is just as, if not more, significant than those. While I'm usually fine with what you choose for book extras, this feels like you're purposely leaving out an episode on the blog just so we go get the book.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 4 months ago

I didn't actually do Pudsey Cutaway. But I've never done a story out of order for the Doctor's timeline. And thus Night of the Doctor goes between the TV Movie and Rose.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

It seems reasonable to bet that part of Moffat's reason for inserting Hurt is to bump Capaldi from 12th to 13th is so that Moffat can be the one to address the "final regeneration" issue (and possibly the Valeyard plotline too).

My prediction: Capaldi's Doctor will believe that this is his last incarnation, and his approaching end -- and how he ends up getting more regenerations after all -- will be a major plot arc.

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prandeamus 3 years, 4 months ago

Prole Hole - not disagreeing with you. It's very possible. Mind you, pretty much every regeneration we've seen has its own unique points into which plot points could be squished.

1st Regenerated his clothes with him clothes
2nd regeneration was forced by the Time Lords and possibly away from the Tardis
3rd as you say "needed a little push"
4th had the Watcher, never seen before or since
5th caused by poisoning
6th was a wig allergy (or whatever)
7th was shot - and also spent a lot of time "dead" as I recall - an interesting mirroring of McGann's initial appearance
8th as yet unseen
9th full of timey-wimey-vortexy-worty
10th exploding TARDIS

Now, explaining away additional lifetimes because of something happened in, say, 1974, isn't going to be satisfying. But the Doctor has lived a life different to most of the other Time Lords, and who's to say? Last time we saw him he was mired in his own timeline...

I'll stop posting pointless fan theories now; I can't imagine that anything new can be said until the 23rd, and then Christmas.

But to wrap this up, it is SO nice to have something so unexpectedly nice that goes a little way to redeeming the TVM. It was released on McGann's birthday, no less.

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prandeamus 3 years, 4 months ago

8th -> 8.5th above, mutatis mutandis

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

Heck, the next time they need to do a Doctor-lite episode they can just do a McGann story instead.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 4 months ago

Oh, yes you have; you did both "The Two Doctors" and "Time Crash" our of order in the Second Doctor's and Fifth Doctor's timeline's respectively.

Fess up, Phil. :-P

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 4 months ago

I did both exactly where they fit in those Doctors' timelines.

I mean, I don't think putting Night of the Doctor in amongst the Smith era would be the right call at all. It's not really about Smith. It's a Time Can Be Rewritten for the McGann era that came out too late to put in the McGann era. So into the book it goes.

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Russell Gillenwater 3 years, 4 months ago

He can't be a 8.5 because at the end it is a younger John Hurt that McGann regenerates into.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 4 months ago

I would be 100% in favor of that.

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Ross 3 years, 4 months ago

As I was saying recently, it's not all that far-fetched to hypothesize that they were in fact thinking about setting the Doctor up to be out-of-regenerations and lining up potential ways to give him extras as far back as 1974. Kinda seems unlikely that it's a pure coincidence that the Brain of Morbius tries to make Tom at-least-the 12th Doctor and a year later they tell us that Time Lords can regenerate 12 times. (if you want to go REAL crazy, maybe the original idea was for the Degado Master to be the 13th Doctor...)

My wishful thinking for the special is that it's gonna end with John Hurt crossing his own timeline to make McGann pick a different cup.

"What do you need? Fat, thin, fast, strong, wise, angry?"

"Northern."

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

OK, there's another clip from the 50th up:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zn9Ss9rZMcU

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 4 months ago

You put "Time Crash" after "Resurrection of the Daleks" when, by all rights, you should've put it before or during "Mawdryn Undead". And it makes no sense that you review "The Two Doctors" during the Troughton era and then neglect both "Pudsey Cutaway" AND "Time Crash" during the Tennant era.

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Bennett 3 years, 4 months ago

Referring to the War Doctor as '8.5' perplexes me. Surely we should call him 8b?

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

You should really do them all in objective chronological order, beginning with the last part of "Edge of Destruction" and ending with "Utopia." Any other choice is clearly depraved to the point of Nazism.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

Also the Hurt Doctor needs his own volume. You can fill it out with the ALIEN movies. Is it a coincidence that John Hurt is in ALIEN and Paul McGann is in ALIEN 3? Or that all the ALIEN movies are base-under-siege stories? I think not.

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encyclops 3 years, 4 months ago

I'm predicting the War Doctor is chronologically undone at the end of Day, such that whatever shenanigans he and/or his later selves pull turns Hurt into a never-was and McGann regenerates into Eccleston after all.

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encyclops 3 years, 4 months ago

I admit I haven't heard a lot of Alex's choices (except for "Boss of Me," unfortunately) but I could fill up a top ten from Miscellaneous T without breaking a sweat OR including "Manhattan" or "Detective." Chacun a son gout, obviously.

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encyclops 3 years, 4 months ago

Well, okay, maybe I'd break a sweat. But there are some songs on there I love SO much.

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Alan 3 years, 4 months ago

Returning to the episode at hand, while most of us grew up with the fairly wholesome interpretation of UNIT, we should not forget that these were the same people who casually attempted genocide against the Silurians, even if the Doctor himself did the next episode. And IIRC, the Brigadier was regularly threatening to arrest people for some nebulous violations of the Official Secrets Act.

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Alan 3 years, 4 months ago

True, but the Doctor's presence was practically broadcast by UNIT when they seconded him and Rose to participate in the meeting at Downing Street. Presumably, though, Jack suppressed info about it so the London branch of Torchwood wouldn't stick its nose into the Doctor's business.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 4 months ago

UNIT is like SHIELD. Heroic one minute, creepily totalitarian the next.

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Prandeamus 3 years, 4 months ago

Re 8.5 was intended to be represent something between 8 and 9, as part of a quick and scribbled brain dump. I wasn't striving to be canonical.

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Ross 3 years, 4 months ago

Personally, given the recent hubbub about the name of a certain US military person, I'm disinclined to call the Hurt incarnation the anything Doctor until he stops saying that he isn't The Doctor.

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encyclops 3 years, 4 months ago

I thought it was going to be "the Warrior" there for a bit. "War Doctor" sounds a bit like "King Hat." I'm looking forward to seeing how he self-labels, without oppressive credits rewriting his identity.

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Chris 3 years, 4 months ago

Regarding the Big Finish companions and stories becoming part of the official storyline... I hope that the return of the Zygons doesn't bring us a "haven't seen them since I was a wee lad of less than 500 years old" because it was Zygon city with McGann's audio adventures. If it does, then we have to assume the companions named in "Night Of The Doctor" are completely different companions with the same names.

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