Riddle me this: is a Lost Story actually lost if it was simply never accepted for production or has been through so many rewrites for so many Doctors that no one can truly say what was actually lost?
Pat Mills – a former Doctor Who Monthly comic strip writer best known now as the co-creator of Judge Dredd – came up with an idea for a comic strip. His then-wife said it was too good to be a comic and he should submit it to the TV show’s production team. So first he approached Christopher H Bidmead, script editor for Tom Baker’s last season. By the time Mills was ready to meet the producer, John Nathan Turner, Peter Davison had taken over as the Doctor and Eric Saward was the new script editor.
Somehow, time flew by, with changes requested here and there, and before you knew it, Colin Baker was the Doctor, the show became sillier again, and yet more rewrites were wanted. Except The Song of Megaptera never went into production, probably because it was set inside a mile-long space whale.
While working on an Eighth Doctor and Lucie story for Big Finish, Mills asked if BF would be interested in making the script at long last as part of its Lost Stories range, and BF said yes. Deciding – presumably for the sake of convenience – to make it a Sixth Doctor and Peri story like the rest of the range, Big Finish have let Mills rewrite it the way he wants for audio.
The result is a slightly Douglas Adams-ish bit of whimsy in which interstellar whalers are chasing after a space-whale – which the Doctor and Peri eventually end up inside. It isn’t bad, but is it Doctor Who?
Deep space in the distant future, and Captain Greeg and his crew are hunting mile-long Space Whales on a vast harvesting ship. By pure accident, they also capture the TARDIS.
The Doctor and Peri must use all their wits to survive. But what is the creature running loose in the ship’s bowels? And can the Doctor save Megaptera before its song is extinguished forever?
Is it any good?
There are certainly far worse stories out there. It’s reasonably well done, with the usual perspicacity you’d expect from MIlls. It leaps around the place a bit, with the Doctor and Peri on the whaling ship for the first two episodes, inside the whale for the next episode where they meet some castaways, and then back on the whaling ship later on.
Mills draws on all kinds of Earth traditions for both the whalers and the castaways, giving the castaways their own religion and belief system. We also get the time-honoured “blunderbuss-subtle science-fiction allusion”: it’s a space-whale that can call to other whales with radio waves that sound like songs, that goes beneath the ‘surface’ of an event horizon, the whalers using space-harpoons and neuro-torpedos. Blimey, if only those “Star Guardian” liberals could leave them alone.
Space-whaling’s bad kids. Do you know what else is very similar and might be bad, too? That’s right. Whaling. On Earth. Now.
It would actually be a much better story to read. You can imagine most of the dialogue coming across better in a comic strip or a novel than in this play. There are also some fun moments, with Peri hallucinating on a number of occasions to great effect and the Doctor giving the whaling ship’s computer a new personality to irritate the whalers.
But as a Doctor Who audio play, it suffers from a problem. It just about works as Doctor Who, in the same way that The Sunmakers or The Pirate Planet seem in a genre of their own but still fit into the overall Doctor Who universe. But the characters don’t feel entirely like the Doctor and Peri. In Peri’s case, that’s not entirely a bad thing. She actually comes across as a 19-year-old American teenager for a change. Unfortunately, at this stage in Big Finish continuity, she must be about 22 or 23, and I doubt a Baltimore rich kid called Perpugilliam would be going to a Slayer concert and liking heavy metal, but hey ho.
The Doctor is pretty much the Doctor in essence, although mainly due to Colin Baker’s performance – he’s now managing to recreate his 1983 self very well. It’s just that he doesn’t get especially “Sixth Doctor”-esque dialogue, no matter how many times Peri berates him for something.
So our heroes don’t feel like our heroes, really. It’s not bad as a play, more so if you like the Adams/Mills school of sci-fi, but unless you’re 12, the lack of subtlety is probably going to start to irk rather than amuse within about 20 minutes, and the out-of-character Doctor and Peri are just going distance you from the play. I’m not recommending it, but I could understand why you would buy it.
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Nicola Bryant (Peri)
John Benfield (Captain Greeg)
Neville Watchurst (Stennar/Manus)
John Banks (The Caller/Ship’s Computer)
Susan Brown (Chief Engineer/Chanel)
Toby Longworth (Stafel/1st Security Guard)
Alex Lowe (Axel/2nd Security Guard)
Writer: Pat Mills
Director: John Ainsworth