At its best, science fiction makes us ask questions about the world in which we live. The latest Doctor Who audio adventure from Big Finish, Memories of a Tyrant by Roland Moore, asks us to consider the time limit we place on vengeance and justice, by using an old man with dementia as the lynchpin in a moral maze, with occasional divergences into an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery…
Garius Moro (Joseph Mydell) may or may not be a tyrant from decades ago, who used an apocalyptic weapon and killed billions. He’s aged since then, whoever he is, and dementia has crept over his mind, so he has no hard memory of those days. And there’s only one surviving image of the tyrant – a blurry snap of a man on a balcony. Is it him? Who can tell? And, more to the point, if he can no longer remember it, does it matter? What would punishing a frail, decrepit old man, lost in the fog of his own forgetfulness, achieve?
But then, if he is the fabled tyrant and mass murderer, should age and feebleness let him escape a retribution that would bring closure to the descendants of his victims? Told you it was a moral maze.
This is all given a healthy coat of sci-fi imagination when the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant) are called in by an old friend of the Doctor’s to a space station colloquially called “The Memory Farm”, a place where even long dormant or forgotten memories can be resurrected in perfect clarity, and in Moro’s case, possibly used against him in a court of law. There are forces that want him convicted and killed, forces that want him exonerated and set free, and forces that just want to see justice done. And into this powder keg strides the man in the multicoloured coat and his American friend.
There are, it’s fair to say, plot holes here big enough to drive a TARDIS through – there seems little reason the Doctor couldn’t pop back with a camera, get them a better image of the tyrant and help clarify matters. Come to that, he could pop back and observe Moro as a younger man, to trace the truth of his story. Less forgivable than this, a well-liked character in this story gets killed more or less because the Doctor doesn’t feel like nipping back to the TARDIS for a piece of kit.
But the story endears itself to listeners on many levels – it’s got the moral maze at its heart, but it also has Peri wanting to use the facility to recapture fading memories of her dad from when she was a little girl, which makes you want to give the grown-up Peri a hug. And it also has a much more warm and friendly relationship between the Sixth Doctor and Peri than was frequently seen on screen – as Peri says here, ‘Oh, we had our ups and downs, but now… yes, we’re friends,’ which makes them a much more attractive listen than they were in the spiky years.
There’s also an appreciable amount of solid technological imagination in this story – the idea of memory as both the thing that defines our personality, and as a potential commercial resource, has resonances of Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which is as much of a recommendation as any modern writer could need. The plot of the second half of the story delivers some hefty consequences to the commoditisation of memory, which imperil the Doctor’s life, limb and reputation, and give Peri a really strong arc as an avatar of truth and justice, while also involving a couple of more common-or-garden murders to solve along the way. It’s really Peri who’s the Miss Marple of the piece, fighting against a reality that seems entirely changed, in order to get to the truth in which she believes – and any story that gives Nicola Bryant something strong to do with Peri gets our vote any day of the week.
Memories of a Tyrant does all the things you want good, exciting science fiction to do, and it does them with a TARDIS Team that’s been redeemed on audio from the skewiff destiny of its TV days. Have a listen, and let them play with your mind.
Doctor Who: Memories of a Tyrant is available now exclusively from the Big Finish website until August 31st, whereupon it will be available from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers.