The main ground floor atrium of the Buffalo Wings Research and Development Centre in East Herefordshire was light, spacious, and currently empty. The rays of the afternoon sun flooded through a generous panel of windows spanning most of the length of the room, which was about half the size of a football pitch and a lot less muddy. Ornate columns of off-white marble stood near the glass staircase that led to the atrium’s upper balcony. It held the sort of acoustics most orchestral conductors only dream of, but besides the hum of an air conditioning unit, the chamber was utterly silent.
This was about to change.
All at once the silence was punctuated by a wheezing, groaning sound. It was a sound of intrigue; it was a sound of excitement and adventure; it was above all a sound of hope. It was emanating from an ageing caretaker whose job it was to make sure the room was empty, once an hour, every hour. He shambled out of his cupboard, limping on wobbly, rheumatic legs, gave a vaguely satisfied grunt, and then wheezed and groaned his way back to the armchair in the darkened corner he’d reserved for snoozing.
He did not see the arrival of the police box, which turned up out of nowhere just a couple of minutes later. The door swung open and a middle-aged grey-haired man stepped out, followed by a woman young enough to be his space daughter. The middle-aged man had taken on a variety of appearances over his uncountable lifespan, and had often been described as having a pleasant, open face, but the one he currently wore was neither pleasant nor open. He usually looked like the Demon Headmaster’s stunt double, unless he smiled, which had the effect of creating the sort of sinister, slightly deranged expression that people usually crossed the street to avoid.
He surveyed the room, and harrumphed.
“Bland. Lifeless.” He sniffed the air. “Thursday. I hate Thursdays.”
“Don’t tell me,” said Clara Oswald, who was gazing around with folded arms and a weary expression. “You never could get the hang of them.”
“Haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. In any case: Herefordshire!” He threw both arms up to the sky and opened his mouth wide in mock enthusiasm. “The Buffalo Wings R&D Centre, home to the latest scientific enhancements in multimedia.”
“And we’re here because…?”
The Doctor was running his screwdriver across the desk, scanning. “They’ve got some fancy new device that lets you walk around inside your favourite TV shows.”
Clara frowned. “Hang on, you don’t even like TV.”
“Correct! But,” said the Doctor, pocketing the screwdriver, “the tech is years out of date.”
“Ah.” The penny dropped. “This is a nostalgia fetish, isn’t it?”
“No, I mean years the other way. Way, way too advanced for this time period. Which means…” The Doctor was feeling under the desk for something. “There’s something up.”
His hand reached a button, and a door on the first floor landing swung open. “To be precise, it’s up there.”
The Doctor couldn’t be quite sure what happened next.
There was a curiously empty room in this even more curiously empty research centre – why, why, why hadn’t he stopped to wonder why it was so quiet? – and then the stand-mounted CRT television had risen out of the floor like the booby-trapped idol rising out of the ground in some terrible adventure flick, and then the Doctor had touched its edge and then the big red button in the middle and the glass partition that dropped from the ceiling had separated him from Clara. And then the black-and-white static on the TV seemed to bulge at the edges, gaining substance, leaking its way out of the glass and swelling like a balloon, and then getting taller and taller and then it was rising around him like a fog and enveloping him completely –
– and then he was falling and falling and flying through a whirlwind of stars and swirls and bits of circuitry, and the wind was howling like a gale, and he could
not feel his own body, and the colours were like that excessively lengthy sequence at the end of that Kubrick film that always bored him to tears, and somewhere in the distance he could hear the sound of crackling, only — no, it wasn’t crackling, it was applause, studio applause, and then he could hear a distorted voice crying “It’s Friday… It’s five to five… It’s CRACKERJACK!”
He blinked, and adjusted his eyes. Why couldn’t he see?
No. He could, but for some reason the world had faded to monochrome. The Doctor had no idea why. He also had no idea why he felt so old, all of a sudden, or why his neck felt suddenly both constricted and warm. He looked down at the cravat that dangled from his shirt collar, and examined the wrinkled fingers. Looked down at his feet; noticed the cane propped up against the wall nearby.
Ah. Of course. He was both older and younger, trapped in a previous body. His first. Possibly his first; it was difficult to tell. And apparently he still had his memories, although they were a little fuzzy – rather like the world around him, which seemed to have lost definition. Things looked grainy.
It was a testament to the Doctor’s resilience that he did not immediately freak out. Instead, he got his bearings. The studio was staged and curtained and a live audience of gaggling school children sat watching as a plain-suited gentleman explained how the next game worked. Before the Doctor knew it, he was being handed a variety of prizes, which he was expected to hold, all at once, in an ever-expanding pile. A wooden Dalek-themed jigsaw. A bumper box of sweet cigarettes. A vinyl copy of ‘I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek’. A TARDIS-themed bagatelle game. A doll that was presumably supposed to look like him, although it did not.
His ageing fingers fumbled at the last one and the doll dropped to the ground; there was a chorus of ‘ahhs’ and a bit of laughter, and one of the floor runners emerged from the wings carrying something large and, under normal circumstances, green. A cabbage. The presenter received it with a smirk, and then balanced it on top of the Doctor’s haphazard pile, where it rolled from left to right and back again while the Time Lord tried desperately to steady it.
“I don’t suppose you have any celery?” he asked hopefully.
There was a moment’s disorientation while the Doctor tried to work out why he was suddenly in the English countryside.
What had happened was this: he had been ripped out of one plane of existence and into another, as if someone had changed the channel. The world was no longer black and white, although the colour didn’t feel quite right to him. He scratched his head, and was alarmed at the sensation.
The Doctor felt the moptop he’d suddenly accumulated, and looked down at the checked trousers.
He gazed around him at the scene: the brightly-painted houses lining the edges of an idyllic village square. People milled about, going into and out of buildings, moving with a stiff-legged gait. Most of them were too far away for him to see them clearly, but there was something about them that seemed off.
“This is another fine mess ye’ve gotten us inteh, Doctor.”
He turned to identify the voice, and found himself face to face with Jamie McCrimmon.
“Hello, Jamie,” he said. “Are you really here?”
“I’m as here as you are, Doctor. Wherever here is.”
“Some sort of English pastoral scene, I shouldn’t wonder. But none of it looks quite real.”
It didn’t. The buildings and the shrubberies, while brightly hued, lacked a level of depth. The colours were too vivid, the designs too simple, the flowers all identical and stiff, as if they had been cut from fabric and then glued in place. The people, too, were moving in a slow and almost robotic manner, buying fish and walking dogs and waving at passers by, and doing so in complete silence.
“And look at the locals,” said Jamie, as if reading his thoughts. “They havenae any mouths!”
So that was it. The Doctor wondered why he hadn’t noticed already, but now that he had, it was obvious: aside from the occasional moustache, the beady-
eyed villagers were featureless from the nose down. The effect was uncanny, and not a little unsettling.
“My goodness,” said the Doctor. “It’s extraordinary.”
“It’s creepy, is what it is.” Jamie was tutting. “Are you no gonna tell me what’s goin’ on?”
“I seem to have been forced to relive classic television series from the point of view of my previous selves.”
“What — all of them?”
“Mmm, well, at this stage I simply don’t know. Perhaps just the old favourites. Anyway, I’m hopping through time at the whim of some unknown entity or person, dropping in and out of programmes seemingly at random, accompanied, it would appear, by various friends and companions from my past. There’s no apparent pattern established as yet, so the best I can do is to leap through from programme to programme until I can find a way to escape.”
“That’s a shedload of exposition, Doctor.”
“Yes, Jamie, it was a big one.”
It went dark. Not after-sunset-dark, but partial-eclipse-dark: the sun (which looked, now the Doctor came to regard it, rather like the bulb from an angle-poised lamp) all but disappeared as a colossal head swam into view.
Jamie balked. “Would ye look at the size o’ that thing!”
The head spoke: its voice was booming but also very polite. “Here is Camberwick Green, where everyone is going about their business.”
“What’s that he’s speaking into?” Jamie asked.
“It’s a microphone. I think he’s — ”
The giant head opened its mouth again. “Hello, Doctor!”
“Oh! Oh, I say! Are you — ”
But the head wasn’t addressing him. It was addressing the bearded gentleman in the top hat who was climbing out of a vintage car. The Doctor looked at the car and felt a pang of nostalgia, which was instantly undone as the bearded gentleman walked toward him, brandishing a scalpel.
“Are you busy on your rounds?”
The bearded gentleman stopped, looked up and gave an exaggerated nod.
“Are you going to deal with the outsiders?”
“And how are you going to do that?”
The bearded gentleman looked at the Doctor and Jamie with glowing red eyes. He brandished the scalpel.
“Oh,” said Jamie. “Oh, sh-”
And now he was in a strange, slightly drab suburban house, minimalist and monochromatic, like an unfinished drawing. Cupboards and doors appeared to have been sketched, the lines carelessly contoured. Most annoying of all there was nowhere to sit, and apart from two long tables at chest height the place was all but empty. Some of the paintwork was gay, and a window looked out on a serene garden bathed in artificial light, but it really was the most cheerless room, a wooden box full of toys and a small bookshelf the only concessions to fun.
The Doctor looked down at himself, and nearly fell over the thick scarf he was now wearing, stretching up and around his neck at least twice and trailing out behind him like a multicoloured knitted wedding gown. It had the air of a garment that had been assembled by some elderly lady who’d got too enthused with her task and hadn’t known when to stop. Still, it would be handy in a cold snap, like a summer’s afternoon in Frinton.
The crown of his head felt warm. The Doctor loosened the hat he found up there and a mass of curls sprang out, wiry and unruly. Instinctively, he licked just behind his lips. “Hmm. I know these teeth.”
A door at the end of the room was opened by a young lady wearing a green cashmere jumper, a pleated skirt, and saddle shoes. At least she looked young, and might not have objected to the adjective. The Doctor happened to know she was only a hundred and twenty-six.
“Hello, Romana,” he said, all curls and familiar teeth.
“God,” she said. “This place is like an interior designer’s nightmare!”
“It is rather dull round the edges, isn’t it?” said the Doctor, knocking on the tables for signs of secret compartments, or woodworm. “Have you encountered any other life forms?”
Romana sighed. “Well, actually — ”
Hot on her heels was an impudent teenager dressed in mustard yellow. The Doctor’s heart sank. Here was a complicated and wearisome history he’d hoped never to revisit, even in a possible hallucination.
The teenager was in the middle of a ferocious argument with someone who was apparently not Romana. “For pity’s sake, I only asked if I could borrow it! Just for a moment! I want to work out where we are.”
He looked around, confused, as if having lost something. “Wait — where’d he — ”
An ugly, rugby-ball shaped creature that seemed to be made of felt suddenly popped up behind the table. Its eyes were large and frog-like, and bizarrely it had a many-toothed zip for a mouth.
“Well, you can’t!” it said, in a voice like an unfiltered Dalek. “It’s mine!” And then, as a sort of half-formed postscript, “I don’t like sharing.”
Adric folded his arms and regarded the creature contemptuously. “Well, if you’re going to be selfish about it then no one’s going to want to be your friend.”
“I’ve got lots of friends!” The creature waved the compass in its hand in indignation. “More than you.”
“What on Gallifrey is it, Doctor?” asked Romana. “And how did it just appear like that?”
“Yes,” said Adric. “How did you do that? You were right behind me when we were arguing upstairs.”
“Some sort of teleportation device,” said the Doctor. “Or perhaps it floats. Look.” He peered behind the counter. “It doesn’t have any legs.”
“Or genitals,” remarked Romana.
“Hey!” the zip-like creature said. “Do you mind? That’s private.”
It was at this point that the bear wandered in. He was six foot tall, with black beady eyes behind a mass of shaggy brown fur.
“Zippy?” he began. “Have you seen my — ” and then stopped. “Ooh! Visitors!”
“How’d you do?” said the Doctor, with a congenial smile. “I’m the Doctor, and this is Romana. Oh, and that’s Adric, squabbling with your pet.”
The bear looked momentarily blank; it took no visible effort. “Eh? Oh, Zippy’s not a pet. He lives here. With me, and George, and Geoffrey. They’re out at the dentist. George needs a filling done.”
“Yeah,” said Zippy. “Too many sweets.”
The bear wagged an accusatory finger. “You can talk, greedy-guts!”
“I never eat sweets!” Zippy cried. “I don’t even like them!”
The Doctor knew a lady protesting too much when he saw one, and was already fishing the bag out of his pocket. “Ah,” he said. “I suppose you won’t want a jelly baby, then.”
You would think it impossible for a pair of fabric eyes to light up, but somehow the zip-shaped thing managed it. “Jelly babies? They’re my favourite!” And, grabbing the bag in a three-fingered paw, he stuffed its entire contents into his mouth.
The Doctor regarded him, amused. “Well now, Adric,” he said. “It would seem congratulations are in order. We’ve found someone even more obnoxious and annoying than you.”
Adric rolled his eyes in the manner of an over-acting waif straight out of stage school. “Oh, fuck off, Tom.”
“So it’s just the two of you?” said Romana, anxious to change the subject before things escalated into a full-on brawl. “Here in this house, on your own?”
“Only for a moment,” said Bungle. “We’ve got a babysitter.”
“Yes,” piped up Zippy. “Actually, we’ve got three of them!”
From just outside, there was a chorus of “Hello!” and “Coo-ee!” and at least one “Bollocks, what have I stepped in?” The trio who walked in were all human in appearance, although the woman’s skirt was far too short for daytime children’s
television and the dungarees were the sort of fashion disaster the Doctor hadn’t seen since 1976.
“Seems Eldrad lived after all,” he muttered to himself.
“Hello!” said the bearded man. “We didn’t know you had company.”
“Oh, we’re just passing through,” said Romana, to which the Doctor added “Though we’re glad we stayed. You look to be a cheery threesome.”
The short-skirted woman went red. “Threesome? No, none of that,” she said, far too quickly. “We’re just friends.”
“We’re time travellers,” explained Adric, in the sort of patronising know-it-all voice that always got on the Doctor’s unmentionables. “Only, we got lost.”
“Hey!” the curly-haired young man who looked like he was eyeing up Romana suddenly piped up. “We know a song about getting lost, don’t we?”
“Ooh, yes!” The three of them came round to the front of the table into the big space in the middle of the room. “Shall we sing it to you all?”
“Please don’t,” suggested the Doctor, but of course it was too late.
Mirth-driven, minor-keyed synthesised muzak filled the room like the smell from fish that had been left in the sun for a week, and then Jane’s troubled soprano took up the narrative –
“I was driving to Milton Keynes one day
Saw Tony Blackburn, then drove the other way
But before I knew what was happening to me
I took a wrong turn off the A33
I was lost! Lost! In the English countryside
Found a jolly farmer and he took me for a ride
But we crashed into a haystack, and down on me he went
Couldn’t get him off, and his tractor shaft was bent – ”
“Doctor!” whispered Romana urgently. “You don’t take the A33 to Milton Keynes!”
“Lost! Lost! Oh, what am I to do
I’ve got into an accident, and I can’t find the – ”
Later, the Doctor would wonder where the music was coming from; there had been no sign of any speakers.
The first thing to note was that he was completely naked. The Doctor scratched his head – which seemed much easier, given that it now had far less hair – and tried to work out whether this had happened before. There was that time in Madrid, of course, after Drax’s stag party, but —
He blinked and sat up. He was in the TARDIS. The console room gleamed like an army of fireflies sitting on the hem of a spangled evening gown in direct sunlight; the Doctor wondered whether he ought to turn down the brightness settings.
He felt his throat. Scottish, again. Shorter. His hand trailed along the floor and brushed against something soft and fluffy lying next to the console: a blonde wig.
From outside, he thought he could discern a jaunty melody; some sort of hornpipe. Then there was a knock on the door. “Five minutes, Mr McCoy!”
The Doctor panicked. There appeared to have been some terrible misunderstanding. Frantically, he looked around for his clothes. Didn’t he wear a v-neck? A v-neck with question marks?
Well, it wasn’t here. Scrambling together what he could, the Doctor headed for the exit just as the TARDIS door opened and a chirpy BBC voice said “the new Doctor Who, Sylvester McCoy!”
The Doctor blinked as he entered the blazing lights of the Blue Peter studio. That was the final straw; as far as the console room was concerned, he was going dark. Or had he already? It was a job to remember when you weren’t quite yourself.
For not the first time in this hallucination, the woman standing outside to greet him looked oddly familiar. She was going on about the Pied Piper.
“And what are you going to be wearing?” she asked him.
“I’m not quite sure yet,” said the Doctor. “It’s a secret.” He looked about, his eyes darting anxiously from left to right, for signs of an exit, or his actual clothes. At least the hat was right.
“And which planet are you going to be visiting first?”
Christ. What was this, Twenty Questions? The dog bounded over, wagging its tail. The Doctor hoped it was house trained.
“Do you want to come with me to my planet?” he asked, half-meaning it, half-wishing he could remember the name of the bloody place.
The interview over, the Doctor popped back inside his TARDIS in search of a stiff drink. There were footsteps — tap shoes on linoleum — from the corridor outside, and in walked a disgruntled redhead, wearing a leotard and a sour expression and picking what appeared to be blue ostrich feathers out of her bushy hair.
“Mel?” said the Doctor. “Where have you been?”
“The Pink Windmill,” was the reply. “Seriously. Don’t ask.”
The Doctor and Rose — he in a leather coat, she in a crop top — were striding down a hill somewhere on a remote Scottish island.
“All I’m saying is, PC Plum is clearly gay,” Rose was saying. “And so is Archie. And they’ve clearly got eyes for each other. So why doesn’t Miss Hoolie see it?”
“Haven’t a clue,” replied the Doctor, cheerily. “Tangled webs of unrequited love are way out of my comfort zone. I’m more concerned about that signal.”
“That, and Miss Hoolie’s wardrobe.”
“She wears the same clothes. Every day!” The Doctor shook his head and examined the readings on his screwdriver. “I can’t imagine ever doing that.”
Rose fingered the hem of his jacket. “I bet you can’t.”
“Still. Balamory’s a catchy name.” The Doctor put away the screwdriver. “Should commit it to memory. Might come in handy.”
“Oh, when will you ever need — ”
From the bottom of the hill, at what looked like Pocket and Sweet’s, there was a sudden, violent explosion, followed by cries of “EXTERMINATE!”
“Contractual obligation of the Daleks!” The Doctor grinned. “Fan-tas-tic!”
And now he was walking along the harbour of a fishing village on the Yorkshire coast and there was a man who looked like Wilf chatting to a woman who looked like Martha and a man who looked like the man who’d tried to sacrifice Donna to the queen of the spiders…
A blank, white space, bright and featureless. A noise that might have been a tuning fork.
“God,” said the Doctor. “This is The Mind Robber again, isn’t it?”
“Not quite,” said a familiar voice.
The Doctor rubbed at his eyes; he could hear the click of heels on a wooden floor. The voice continued as its owner swam into focus. “There’s an old joke. The BBC only has thirty actors and about a dozen sets, all recycled. I’m wondering how many you ran into.”
“Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” said the Doctor, getting unsteadily to his feet. “Hello, Missy.”
“Hello, dear.” The buttoned jacket was porpoise grey, the boots a dark yellow. “Have a pleasant journey?”
He was himself again; moreover, he was back where he had been, albeit on the other side of the room, away from the TV. “Where’d you get the tech? And where’s Clara?”
“She ate my last wine gum, so I killed her,” said Missy. “As to your first question, I built it myself.”
“You built an immersive television?” said the Doctor. “For what? Is this because they wouldn’t let you on Strictly?”
“Immersive!” Missy expelled a gush of air from the sides of her mouth. “You and your understatement. This is next level, sonny jim. We’re talking full engagement. People who believe they’re actually in the shows I assign them to!”
“Why would you want that?”
“Because it’s criminally expensive, which means the richest and most powerful people on the planet are going to be queuing up to have a go. What else do you buy the man who has everything?” Missy was wandering up and down the chamber, in that curious little dance she often performed. “Rock stars, premier league footballers… politicians.” She gave a wicked smile. “And once they’re in…”
“You’ve got them where you want them.”
“Bing! Gold star for the underperformer from Gallifrey. What you saw was the prototype; I just needed to run a few calibration tests to check the damned thing works. Tweak here, bit of wire twisting there… presto! I can have them say anything I want them to say.”
“So I’m your guinea pig?”
Missy pawed with her hands. “Squeak, squeak.”
The Doctor had been moving across the room, casually circling until he was next to the antique television, which stood in its mounted stand like a museum centrepiece. “The enduring appeal of television. God, talk about using their own weaknesses against them.”
The door at the end burst open; it was Clara with a fire axe. “Doctor! Doctor, I — oh.”
“I’m fine.” The Doctor greeted her with a raised eyebrow. “You look like Jack Nicholson.”
“Very funny.” Clara dropped the axe to the floor, where the blade embedded itself in the wood. “So what’s all this?”
“Never mind ‘what’s all this’; where’ve you been all this time?”
“I was gone for thirty seconds!”
“Ah.” The Doctor nodded. “It’s like Narnia, then. Felt rather longer.”
“I’ve just taken your boyfriend on a little trip,” said Missy, beaming nastily at Clara. “I think it did him good.”
“Bit inconsistent, though,” said the Doctor. “I mean it was — ”
“God!” Missy threw up her hands. “You’re such a fanboy. Always wanting stuff to make sense.”
“I just don’t understand why everything else was BBC, and then you had one, just one from ITV… ”
“Look. I like Rainbow, okay?” Missy leaned on the edge of the TV; she was glaring at him contemptuously. “You know me well enough to know my tastes are eclectic. Or are you losing your memory as well as your looks?”
“Ohh, no,” said the Doctor, taking a step back. “I have a long memory. In fact…”
He dropped a wink at Clara.
“It’s almost as long as yours.”
Hefting the axe, the Doctor threw it handle first at the big red button.
Missy was a foot the wrong side of the glass screen when it slammed to the floor. She hammered on it in a fury. “Let me out!”
“You’ve got a fire axe,” the Doctor pointed out reasonably as the static began to fill the room.
Too late, Missy remembered the axe. She picked it up and began to pound at the toughened glass, but even as the first crack appeared, the widening static enveloped her completely, and she was gone.
“Don’t worry,” said the Doctor to Clara. “We’ll get her out.”
“Yeah,” Clara replied. “In about… ooh, thirty seconds.”
The Master looked at the forest in which he’d landed. It was impossibly sculpted, like a Capability Brown. Bright paths led here and there, and an ornately coloured bridge stood over a cave big enough for a small bear. The Master looked at the trees, some of the grandest he’d ever seen, and the brightly coloured birds that sang a strange song that sounded almost human.
He checked himself over. Blast! He was old. No matter. Age was no barrier, merely a temporary impairment. He would deal with the Doctor in due time, once he found a way out of these woods.
The Master walked across to the cave, noting the presence of two tiny houses, a large bush with three holes, and what looked very much like a hospital bed. He would deal with the alpha predator first, and then assume command of whatever hellhole he’d been cast into.
“I am usually referred to as the Master,” he announced, at the cave entrance. “Universally.” He stopped to wonder whether this was actually true, realised it wasn’t, and decided it was a matter for another time. “I come in triumph and in conquest, and you will obey me.”
There was a pause, and then a small brown fluffy creature ambled out of the darkness, carrying a sponge.
“Makka Pakka?” it said, and then, with a gentle, loving touch, it began to wash the Master’s face.
The Master sighed. It was going to be a long night.