Unfinished Business, Doctor Who, Dr. Who, Chris Eccleston, Christopher Eccleston, Doctor who Fiction

Sarah Jane Smith walked along the pebble beach at the bottom of an impressively sheer cliff face. Whatever else about this assignment from U.N.I.T., the scenery around this Dorset coast was lovely.

She spotted another lone figure walking towards her and made sure that their meeting appeared casual.

“Mr Yates,” she said. “Out for a late afternoon walk?”

“Tide’s coming in. Good chance to observe the sea birds,” he answered, indicating the pair of binoculars hung around his neck. As he did so he surreptitiously pressed a button on another device. “We’re secure now. In the unlikely event of anyone trying to overhear us, they’ll just get the sound of the waves on the shore and a murmur of voices too quiet to make out.”

“A wonderful gadget from The Doctor,” Sarah Jane enthused. “The Brigadier thinks it might have long term use as a covert operations tool. The Doctor thinks otherwise. He says he’s not a quartermaster for the army.”

Mike smiled thinly. He was still on the outside of U.N.I.T. even though Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart had brought him in on this operation. It was hard for him to think about the life he had lost when he committed what amounted to treason in his involvement with the Golden Age project. This ‘freelance’ work came with the promise that his dishonourable discharge might be changed to discharge due to ill health, restoring his honour if not his military career.

“The Doctor isn’t happy about this whole thing, of course,” Mike noted.

“In his own words ‘if some fool military scientist chooses to get lost on holiday it’s his own business’,” Sarah Jane replied with a grin as she recalled the argument between The Doctor and The Brigadier. “Of course, the Brig managed to persuade him to come and investigate, but he’s being as grumpy as possible about it.”

“Sometimes you forget he isn’t Human,” Mike commented. “He makes a good job of being a miserable old man.”

“Perhaps that’s normal on his planet. But, getting back to the reason we’re here… have we found out anything about what happened to Professor Ransome?”

“Not much. It’s difficult to find out anything just from listening to gossip. It really would have been better if the Brigadier had swooped down here with the mobile command centre and interrogated everyone.”

“Spoken like a soldier, Mike,” Sarah Jane laughed. “The Doctor, in his current mood, would be well out of favour with you.”

“I know. But I’m right. That would have been a more effective way of dealing with the situation. Ransome is an important chap. His work with quantum physics is vital.”

“Vital to who?” Sarah Jane sighed. “To Britain, to NATO, to maintaining one-upmanship with the Russians? I’ve been to other worlds. I’ve seen Earth from the outside. I don’t see the Cold War in quite the same way as you and the Brig. And The Doctor certainly doesn’t. He thinks it is insane that the same species should fight each other.”

“All the same, if Ransome was kidnapped by somebody who wants to use his knowledge for malicious ends….”

“I know, I know. We have to investigate. But there really is nothing to go on.” Sarah Jane looked up at the steep chalk cliff towering over their heads. “I wonder if he just fell down one of these precipices and his body was washed out to sea. Or he might have been cut off by the tide down here on the beach and drowned. That would be sad, tragic, but a perfectly normal sort of explanation that doesn’t involve enemy agents and intrigue.”

“You sound as if you’d like it to be an ordinary explanation. Are you tired of U.N.I.T. mysteries? Speaking of being cut off by the tide, incidentally, we really ought to be heading off the beach, now.”

Sarah Jane looked around and saw that the pebble beach was being rapidly eaten up by the incoming waves. She and Mike moved onto the bigger rocks that lined the high water mark and from there to a set of man-made steps cut into the cliff to allow walkers and bird-watchers an easy escape to higher ground.

“No,” she said as they continued their walk along the cliff top. “No, I’m not tired of U.N.I.T. intrigue. But I really can’t believe anything sinister could have happened in a lovely, remote place like this. It’s so cut off from all of those sorts of things – military secrets and everything.”

“It’s not, you know,” Mike told her. “This place was once smack in the middle of one of the British military’s biggest secrets.” He waved towards a piece of post-modernist sculpture sat in a field nearby. It looked pretty much like a metal basket on top of a shaped piece of rock. It was, as Sarah Jane remembered, a memorial to the fact that radar experiments were carried out on that very spot during the war. The temporary buildings used by the men of the Air Ministry were long gone, and their work would have been forgotten but for the sculpture.

Sarah Jane looked the other way, out to sea, and wondered what it was like back then with the ever present likelihood of enemy planes roaring in from behind the clouds on their way to bomb London or other important cities. Mike was right. This obscure bit of Dorset, five miles from the nearest pub, twenty from the nearest town with things like cinemas and nightclubs, the sort of things young people like the two of them took for granted, was as much a part of the sometimes frightening world that The Brigadier and U.N.I.T. tried to keep safe.

It just didn’t look it. Beyond the radar memorial, another building caught the afternoon sunshine on a late September day. It was almost a thousand years older than anything else around. The tiny Norman chapel dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon Saint Aldhelm was surprisingly well-preserved for something so exposed to the elements. It was a square stone building with four sides of its roof sloping towards a central capital with a cross on top. She had looked inside it and found it rather charming, with a small altar decorated with a cross and fresh flowers. Should anyone have come that way wanting to pray it would be a delightfully private place to do just that.

A short walk beyond those two monuments to very different historical times, were the only occupied homes on St. Alban’s Head – a corruption of Saint Aldhelm. A row of cottages belonged to the men who kept the coastguard watch on what could be a dangerous seafront. Their lookout post made another man-made landmark that Sarah Jane and Mike noted as they walked on.

“Well, fancy seeing HIM, here!” Mike exclaimed as they approached a stone carved seat where a weary walker along the cliffs might take a rest. For a moment Sarah Jane didn’t recognise the man sitting there. She had never seen him in civilian clothes and it hardly seemed to be him at all.”

“Good afternoon, sir,” Mike said as they drew closer. He almost raised his hand to salute, but as neither of them were in uniform and they WERE supposed to be undercover it would not have done.

“Brigadier!” Sarah Jane laughed in delight to see him.

“Mr Stewart to anyone at the hotel,” he reminded her. “Checked in this afternoon. I thought you might need another body down here poking about.”

“Does The Doctor know, yet?” Mike asked.

“That’s why I decided to take a bracing walk,” The Brigadier answered with a wry smile that turned his moustache up at the edges. “No smirking, man. And keep those hands in your pockets. Absolutely no saluting while I’m undercover.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You still walk like an officer, Yates. I was watching you coming up the road. You stand like one, too. Try to look a bit more casual if you can. Not that there is anything odd about an ex-soldier coming for a holiday, but all the same, best not to be so obvious.”

“Yes, sir,” Mike said again, desperately trying not to smirk. When The Brigadier stood to walk back to the country hotel where everyone was pretending not to know each other, he walked like an officer, too. There was no getting away from it. They were both born soldiers. Their only hope was that nobody was paying THAT much attention to them.

The small private hotel a half mile further east along the clifftop was something of a mystery in itself. The mystery being why anyone thought a hotel would be needed in such a remote corner. Certainly it must have been hard to turn a profit. Even with four undercover U.N.I.T. people now occupying rooms it was barely a quarter full. Granted, it was very late in the season, but one of Sarah Jane’s first actions as an undercover agent was to sneak a look at the register. Less than half of the rooms had been occupied in mid-August when Professor James Ransome had come for a holiday on the Jurassic Coast. Two of those were permanent residents who had been the focus of most of the ineffectual eavesdropping that had been going on in the three days since Sarah Jane and The Doctor arrived, joined later by Mike.

They found The Doctor in the warm, bright conservatory built onto the side of the stone built late nineteenth century Aldhelm View House. Two young boys had their heads bent over with him. As Sarah Jane, Mike and The Brigadier entered they moved away clutching cheap plastic transistor radios which The Doctor had turned into short-range transmitter-receivers. The boys went outside happily playing James Bond.

“That was very clever,” said the mother of the two boys, Mrs Freer, co-proprietor of the hotel with her husband.

“Clever?” The Doctor scoffed. “Very basic physics.”

“Won’t they interfere with the radio communications for the Coastguards?” Mike Yates asked.

“Yes, I was wondering about that, too,” The Brigadier added.

“Not at all,” The Doctor replied. “I limited the frequency to a very narrow part of the VHF band, and shielded the transmission and reception from any other equipment. They can talk to each other within a range of about two hundred yards and bother no-one.”

“Call that basic physics!” Mike whistled.

“If they get more than two hundred yards away from each other, I’ll skin them,” Mrs Freer commented. “All the same it is very good of you to indulge them, Doctor Smith. There are no other children of their age around here and they do get bored. I must say I didn’t realise you were a doctor of science. Are you one of poor Professor Ransome’s old colleagues from the war?”

“I’m sorry, who is that?” The Doctor replied without batting an eyelid.

“I thought perhaps you were,” Mrs Freer went on with an apologetic tone. “I remember him telling me that he was one of the radar people that were here back in the forties. This hotel was requisitioned for accommodation. He said it hadn’t changed a bit. My husband was a bit put out by that. The whole place was rewired and new bathrooms put in five years ago, and we have colour television, too. But the Professor was a nice man, for all that. Of course, a lot of the work done in the war is still restricted. He told me he wasn’t even allowed to publish his memoirs until the year 1995. He joked about hanging on until he was eight-six in order to get the book out. After he went missing, presumed drowned, I felt sad for him. He’ll never get his memoirs published, now.”

Sarah Jane, Mike, The Brigadier and The Doctor exchanged imperceptible glances. In a short bit of gossip Mrs Freer had just added volumes to the sum of information about Professor Ransome. If he was, indeed, one of the radar boffins who had worked in this area even The Brigadier would not have been told. The fifty-year rule would be absolute. Ransome would have been assigned to U.N.I.T.’s technical research department on the basis of work he had done since the war.

It explained why he chose to holiday here – a place he had memories of from when he was a young, up and coming scientist working in a brand new branch of physics with important and immediate applications.

It didn’t explain why he disappeared, unless it WAS that plain, simple explanation most people had accepted – accidental drowning or a cliff fall.

“Anyway,” Mrs Freer added. “I mustn’t stand here all day. I’ll have the evening collation set out in the dining room in twenty minutes or so. Colonel Dornaway said he’d be in by six and Mrs Atkinson hasn’t been out today, but Mr and Mrs Daniels and the Andersons are dining out, and the Farrells have gone one an overnight fishing trip, so there’ll only be the six of you for supper.”

She turned and went back into the house. Sarah Jane watched the two boys enjoying their game outside while The Doctor and The Brigadier sat close together and talked about the fact that Ransome had been here before.

“Doesn’t that make a fall or a drowning unlikely?” Mike asked as he made a pretence of reading some of the magazines left for the guests to peruse. “Wouldn’t he know the tides, and be aware of the dangerous parts of the cliffs?”

“I’m afraid not,” The Doctor replied. “This is one of those coastlines that changes every year. The erosion since the nineteen forties would make it entirely new. It’s even possible that tides have altered due to the same forces changing the shape of the coastline.”

“Besides, it IS more than thirty years,” Sarah Jane pointed out. “Surely even a man as clever as Ransome apparently was couldn’t have THAT good a memory.”

“It doesn’t rule out accidental death,” The Brigadier concluded. “But I’m convinced it was nothing of the sort. All those arguments aside, Ransome was not the sort of man to fall off a cliff. I DO believe something malignant happened here. I know… I’ve no proof… nothing but a gut feeling… intuition. That’s one reason, at least, why I haven’t brought the whole shooting match down here. Geneva would have me knocked back down to Colonel for wasting resources.”

That told Sarah Jane something she hadn’t realised before. The Brigadier was doing this pretty much off his own bat, without official permission.

“Was Professor Ransome working on something VERY important before he went on holiday?” she asked. She wondered why she hadn’t asked the question before.

“VERY important, but I can’t tell you, Miss Smith. Nor you, Mike, as a civilian. And The Doctor dismissed it as irrelevant when I told him.”

The Doctor scowled and said nothing. The Brigadier returned the sentiment in kind.

“Well, anyway, you both have to trust me when I say that I firmly believe he was taken against his will.”

“Isn’t it far more likely that Ransome has defected to an enemy government?” The Doctor suggested. “Brigadier you don’t seem to be dealing with this matter objectively.”

“Ransome is a personal friend as well as a U.N.I.T. scientist,” The Brigadier admitted. “And as such, I can assure you he would NEVER defect. I have never known a man so loyal to Queen and Country. Every ounce of patriotism that you disdain, Doctor, he has in abundance.”

“I am, as you well know, NOT a British citizen,” The Doctor reminded The Brigadier patiently. “Her Majesty is a dignified lady as well as a creditable monarch and Britain is a passably fair-minded society, but I have no more duty to either than a Martian, and no particular sentiment resembling loyalty to the same.”

“And as I said, Ransome was the polar opposite to you, Doctor. He has NOT defected. There has been foul play and we WILL find out who is responsible.”

The Doctor and The Brigadier looked about to break into an argument. Mike and Sarah Jane decided to go to lunch. In the comfortable dining room, they found Mrs Freer’s solution to providing an evening meal to a varied number of people - a cold collation of sliced meats, cheese board, pickles and home-made bread. They filled their plates and found table space. Sarah Jane sat next to the elderly Mrs Atkinson who liked to talk about her years as a primary school teacher whether anyone listened or not. Mike chose to keep a couple of chairs between him and such a conversation, but Colonel Dornaway, a caricature of a retired Indian army man complete with the handlebar moustache and habit of calling women ‘memsahibs’, made a bee-line for him.

“The chap who checked in today,” he said to Mike. “I’m right, aren’t I? He must be your father. The resemblance is unmistakeable.”

Mike wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or not. He was perfectly sure he didn’t physically resemble The Brigadier at all. But the bombastic colonel had probably recognised that same detail noted earlier – the way both of them stood and walked, the bearing honed on the parade ground.

“No… he’s… my uncle,” Mike managed to say. Father was just TOO intimate. “A fellow bird watcher, up for the weekend.”

“Knew I was right, though,” the Colonel beamed, even though he was completely wrong. “Got a keen eye, you know. Comes from my army days. Attention to detail, knowing when something wasn’t quite right… chaps behaving in an unEnglish manner, restless natives, that sort of thing.”

Mike nodded as if he was agreeing and tried his luck steering the conversation towards the missing man.

“Did your keen eye spot anything about that chap who disappeared a while back, then?” he asked, trying to make his inquiry sound casual. “Was he behaving in an unEnglish manner or showing signs of mental instability for instance?”

“Mental instability IS unEnglish,” the Colonel pointed out. “Stiff upper lip, all that. Wouldn’t get an officer going off the rails like some of these foreigners, and I wouldn’t expect it of an English gentleman of quality, either. The chap appeared to be just that. Stood up for the National Anthem after watching television in the lounge. Seemed the right sort altogether. Not a suicide. One or two people suggested that. The cliffs have a certain notoriety for that sort of thing. But I’d stake my commission he wasn’t one of those.”

“Indeed,” Mike agreed absently. Suicide was a theory he hadn’t come across before, but despite knowing from bitter personal experience that British officers and gentlemen, with upper lips as stiff as they could get, certainly could have mental breakdowns he was inclined to dismiss that probability.

Sarah Jane was employing the sort of patience she had learnt as a journalist, allowing Miss Atkinson to chatter on, listening to the reams of unimportant nonsense for the odd word or phrase that might be a clue. It wasn’t easy. Miss Atkinson was a veritable fountain of trivia.

But when Sarah Jane gently brought up the matter of Professor Ransome’s disappearance she responded with a quite unexpected clue.

“I remember because that was the day after I had so much trouble with the radio,” she said.”I’ve never been much for watching television, but I do like my radio. There was a very good play on Radio Four that afternoon, but it was disrupted constantly by horrendous interference – noises like heavy machinery in the street completely spoiling the transmission. I told Mrs Freer, but of course there is nothing she could do about it. We both wondered if it would cause the coastguards any trouble, but Professor Ransome – yes, it was the Professor – told us that their equipment would be on a different frequency to Radio Four and ought to be safe. I think… yes, that must have been the last time I talked to the poor man, and it was just about radio interference. Such a shame. He was a very pleasant man.”

“What would do that all the way down here?” Sarah Jane wondered. “I’ve had problems in my flat in London, sometimes. But out here there are no taxis, no air traffic control, no lorries with illegal Citizen Band radios. This should be the quietest place in Britain to sit and listen to a nice play.”

It might be nothing, she told herself. Perhaps there was a ship out at sea or something else perfectly legitimate and quite unconnected with the disappearance of the Professor. But Miss Atkinson, radio drama’s biggest fan, confirmed that the problem had not occurred before or since and it was JUST possible that there was a connection.

The Doctor agreed when she told him. But even he was perplexed about what to do with this clue. By the end of the evening, when The Brigadier and Mike Yates proved themselves unimpeachable Englishmen by the Colonel’s definition by standing for the national anthem before the television shut down, it was the ONLY clue they had.

“Tomorrow is another day,” The Doctor said philosophically. “We’ll step up our efforts. Goodnight, Sarah Jane.”