Bernice Summerfield is back in her own time period, in the year 3985, and is asked to join an archaeology on the planet Menaxus. When people start dying she summons the Doctor and Ace who help uncover a holographic projector containing the lost play ‘The Good Soldiers’.
In addition they find several stone statues resembling the Doctor, Ace and the leader of the expedition. The statues come to life, killing more of the expedition party and forcing everyone to flee to Heletia, the home of the expedition party.
Upon finding the cruel conditions on Heletia the Doctor realises that he has fallen into a trap and been manipulated by fellow Time Lord Irving Braxiatel, someone he has known for a very long time.
This is an exciting mystery story with some neat twists. It pretty much establishes the format of the later ‘Bernice Summerfield’ Big Finish range. Bernice is part of a expedition that uncovers something strange and takes it upon herself to work out what is going in, aided by her patron Braxiatel.
This book does a good job of illustrating why Bernice is a good character, managing to solve several mysteries before the Doctor. My favourite sequence is where she works out that the acoustics in the ruins of a theatre only work when it is a ruin, meaning it was built that way.
Braxiatel is an important addition to Doctor Who canon, building upon an off-hand remark from ‘The City of Death’. It is hinted at, and later confirmed, that the Doctor and Braxiatel are brothers.
Their relationship is akin to Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes in that they share equal brilliance but their methods are quite different. Here Braxiatel uses his brother as pawn to bring down the government on Heletia, in much the same way that the Doctor has used his companions in the past.
It is nice to read a story in which the Doctor isn’t one step ahead or in complete control. He still gets a lot to do but this isn’t really his story. It is interesting that his reaction to being used is so muted. I’m sure other incarnations would have had a much more fiery response.
Archaeology digs are a good starting point for any adventure, thematically linked to time travel in that it is an attempt to uncover the secrets of the past. In Doctor Who this often awakens ancient evil that the main character must defeat.
It puts the characters in a position to proactively uncover the exposition of the plot. Anticipation and dread builds as they discover more about what they have found, slowly putting the pieces together.
‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, ‘The Ice Warriors’, ‘The Daemons’, ‘Image of Fendahl’, ‘The Stones of Blood’ and ‘The Curse of Fenric’ all could be said to fall into this category. Not to . mention ‘Quatermass and the pit’ and the second of half of Russell T Davies’ ‘Dark Season.’
Pacing is important during the early sequences, since it could be too slow if you concentrate just on the archaeology process. Environment, hostile natives and interfering bureaucrats can provide challenges for the player characters to concentrate while the main plot is uncovered.
The player characters don’t necessarily have to be involved in the archaeology process themselves. They could arrive once all hell has been unleashed or have to put together what has happened once the archaeologists are killed or declared missing.
Time travellers could have the advantage here, having first hand experience with the evil being uncovered. They might even have been present during the time period that expedition is examining.
They could be the first ones to realise that the archaeologists are about to activate a cyber-conversion pod, awaken cryogenically frozen Zygons or break the bonds that prevent Fenric from re-entering out world. Can they raise the alarm before this happens?
This particular story has lot of focus on theatre, with a play being used as a weapon. This is a more literal version of ‘Hamlet’, where, rather than just exposing the ruler’s dark secret , ‘The Good Soldiers’ will carry out a real massacre.
This is an interesting twist on how a form of entertainment can turn deadly. This is similar to ‘West World’ where artificial actors bring their roles to grizzly reality. It becomes more horrific because the audience is unprepared for the assault.
Here the Doctor is manipulated and used by someone else. It is for a good cause and is not too far removed from the tactics he has used. How would the player characters feel if the same happened to them?
Would they accept that the ends justified the means or would they remain angry? How would it affect their relationship with the person who manipulated them? Could they ever trust them again? Would it change how they treat others?
This type of plot should be used sparingly, since the players could feel that they are being tricked and begin to mistrust everything that happens to them. In this example the stone statues were used as a way to get the time travellers to escape to Heletia with the holographic projector.
If this happened to player characters they could suspect that any subsequent threat is just designed to push them in a specific direction. They could decide to stand their ground out of spite, putting themselves in real danger.
There are those who might enjoy the chance to manipulate others, especially out of revenge. The television series ‘Leverage’ is an excellent source of material for such plots.
The key to a successful con is to make your marks think all their decisions are their own, when in fact they are being prompted every step of their way. In many ways this can be valuable guidance for designing adventures.
This works best when you know your players well. You need to know how they will behave in any given situation and plan accordingly. Of course your aim is not to trick your players but to lead them to a satisfying conclusion.