Dreamtime is the Australian Aboriginal equivalent of Kinda, and like that story it requires a generous suspension of disbelief. There’s some remarkable ideas embedded in it.
Have a trailer.
Hex’s first adventure with the Doctor and Ace is a brush with the paranormal set in the far future. They land in a city floating in deep space, eerily deserted, strewn with strange stones that are even creepier on close inspection. Monsters stalk in the shadows. Guerilla fighters called Dream Commandos are waging a losing battle to keep the nightmares at bay. Into the middle of all this arrives a spaceship of Galyari merchants (the avian warrior-race in The Sandman, Main Range #37), who just want to trade with the city’s inhabitants. The delightful irony is that eight-foot-tall lizard people are too normal to fit into this alien environment.
Ace: I’d like to know what we’re all on. And I’m not talking about the asteroid.
The Doctor is soon lost, leaving his young friends to make allies and survive as best they can. Hex falls in with a Dream Commando who may be able to help him find the Doctor, while Ace teams up with a squad of heavily-armed Galyari.
The Galyari have all the emotional range of Sontarans, although they’re a lot friendlier. The Dream Commandos are a curious pair: despite their descent from down-to-earth Australians, they speak in a formal, ritualised manner, as if to evoke a mystic atmosphere like Panna and Karuna in Kinda. The result is a little stilted. In fact, apart from the well-intentioned Whitten, the setting is the most three-dimensional guest character in this story. The land itself is alive, expressing itself in various guises.
Mythology is what we call someone else’s religion. — Joseph Campbell
Dreamtime’s deep dive into mythology has put off some reviewers. Westerners don’t bat an eyelash when science fiction riffs on Greek and Roman, Egyptian, or even Norse or Arthurian myths (Battlefield, Pyramids of Mars, Seasons of Fear, etc). Kinda was a harder sell, but one could watch it without the slightest clue about its Buddhist underpinnings. Dreamtime is more in-your-face about mixing SF with mythology, and it feels more alien because most listeners don’t know a thing about Australian Aboriginal traditions.
Ace: Stranger than fiction? Oh, truth, you mean.
Doctor: A version of it, at least. We’re standing on it. Our feet are on terra firma. Ergo, it must be the truth, just because it doesn’t happen to fit in with our own version.
Personally, I love the premise, “What if we mix Australian Aboriginal mythology with SF?” It raises a question that came up often in my studies as a myth major: what gives us the right to dismiss everybody else’s interpretation of the world but our own? This story plays with the notion that Aboriginal myths do express certain truths, asks us to reserve judgment, and then takes flight.
It also poses an interesting reversal of modern-day Australia in which the descendants of white invaders have become an ethnic minority within a larger indigenous community. And it beats the drum of environmental awareness, telling a parable about people’s intimate connection to the land, which they ignore at their peril.
The biggest problem with Dreamtime is that it has no more relation to the laws of physics than a giant rubber snake destroyed by mirrors. Doctor Who usually (but not always) tries to explain magic away with science, but this time, apart from a few snatches of dialogue that remind me of midichlorians, it doesn’t bother. Nevertheless, I find the world-building fascinating, so I’m willing to cut it some slack. Had it been on TV, it would have been a powerful, unusual serial that lingered in fans’ minds as something special. There’s some arresting visual imagery in it that I wish I could see onscreen.
My only concern is the same caveat I have when Big Finish mucks around with Native American beliefs: it’s a subtle form of cultural appropriation when westerners play with the very traditions that an oppressed minority was forced to give up or conceal to escape persecution. I don’t know the right answer to that conundrum, but I note it.
Caveats aside, I had a lot of fun with this story and listened to it several times.
For listeners who found the mythology confusing, check out the spoiler section below. I’ve donned my myth scholar hat to walk you through the symbolism and explain what was going on.
[Note: The finished version of this script includes a few compromises: lack of available Aboriginal actors required a kludge to explain their absence, and Ace and Hex’s story arcs were swapped after author Simon Forward learned what the new companion was going to be like.]
Okay, let’s do this! Mythology explained, symbolism unpacked, archetypes revealed!
(Disclaimer: I have an MA in mythological studies, but I am no expert on Aboriginal traditions. I had to supplement very cursory knowledge with hasty research.)
The audio begins with a scene whose meaning doesn’t become clear until later. Australian police are trying to evacuate a shantytown around Uluru before imminent solar flares make the Earth uninhabitable (an idea borrowed from Ark in Space). We later learn that Whitten and his squad are descendants of European settlers, while the people gathered around Uluru are Aboriginal. So they’re about to repeat the forced removal of native Australians from their ancestral lands.
A thousand years later, the TARDIS lands in Uluru City. The sight of a thorny devil reminds the Doctor of Paradise Lost, a fallen Eden. Then the Doctor spots Uluru, and realises this place belongs to an older religion than the Bible.
Myth: Most world creation myths tell how order arose out of chaos, and how the things we see today emerged from simpler, undifferentiated raw material. Aboriginal creation myths describe the Dreaming, a primeval era when ancestral spirits like Rainbow Serpent traced “songlines,” pathways across Australia, creating landmarks and living things. They shaped canyons, mountains, rocks and rivers with songs the way potters shape clay. Uluru is one of the most sacred landmarks in these stories, the symbolic heart of the continent.
Now Uluru City is reverting back to the primordial stuff of creation, the Dawn of the world when spirit and matter were one, and when humans and other living beings slept in stones, embryonic forms waiting to be born.
Myth: Aboriginal cultures continue to adapt in the modern world, so the Dreaming now includes cars.
The Doctor goes searching for rock art on Uluru, seeking a pictorial record to explain what’s happened. The Dream Commandos interrupt his search. They are named named after ancestral spirits, Eaglehawk (Mulyan) and Crow (Wahn):
In many parts of Australia, the Aboriginal communities are divided into two halves which are often equated with birds symbolizing the opposites, the Ying and Yang into which the universe is divided. Thus Eagle, in South Australia, or Eaglehawk, in eastern Australia, represents Day or Light and Crow represents Night or Shade, as in the Ying and Yang circle, although as in Ying and Yang, the two halves are complementary, for example marriage must take place across the moiety line and certain ceremonies cannot be performed unless both moieties are represented.
The Dream Commandos defend the Doctor and his friends against a pack of maurauding Bunyip (man-eating monsters said to lurk near water holes), but the Doctor succumbs to the Bunyip and turns to stone, becoming inapatua.
“In the Dreamtime,” tells an Aranda story, “the Australian desert was silent and unpeopled. One day the Numbaulla brothers, who lived in the western sky, looked out and saw Inapatua, an embryonic people who could not see, hear or move, crouched under some boulders. The Numbakulla brothers took their knives and fashioned the Inapatua into people.” — Camm and McQuilton quoted in Australia’s Many Voices
Galyari warriors come to the aid of Hex, Ace, and the Dream Commandos. There’s a lot of discussion but little action, until the Galyari decide to search for salvage (under the guise of searching for survivors) down in the mines with Ace and Mulyan. Hex and Wahn go to try and revive the Doctor.
The Doctor has fallen into the Dreaming. As a Time Lord, he’s able to hold onto his individuality in the “primordial soup” and use the Dreaming to cross the abyss of time. He journeys back to Uluru a thousand years ago, just before it left Earth. There he meets Whitten and learns of the Phoenix Ships’ mission to rescue at least some of Australian’s Aboriginal inhabitants.Then the Doctor confronts Baiame atop Uluru and learns of his plan to carry “his people,” native Australians, to the stars.
Myth: Baiame is a powerful folk hero, the Allfather of southeastern Australian Aboriginal peoples.
The cliffhanger of Part Two is the opening scene of Part One: Uluru and the land around it rises up into the sky, carrying away the entire shantytown and all the Aboriginal peoples who have gathered there. Whitten and his people are caught in the crumbling chasm at the crater’s edge.
The Doctor pleads with Baiame to save Whitten’s people from being swallowed up as the earth rips open. Baiame has little compassion for them. He recalls how he was awakened when “blood seeped down” to where he was sleeping, the blood of Aboriginal peoples being wiped out by European settlers. He doesn’t wish to contaminate his people’s fresh start with the very people who hurt them. The Doctor argues that every culture has “mistakes” (rather an understatement) in its past, but that if Uluru City begins with the blood of innocent bystanders on its conscience, that guilt will corrupt the Dreaming. He thinks that’s what made it go wrong.
Baiame relents and expands the borders of his natural ark (or, perhaps, draws Whitten & co onto the lip of the land mass).
Having completed their tasks, Baiame and the Doctor re-enter the Dreaming and move forward in time. Baiame explains that the full powers of the Dreaming should have been unleashed only when Uluru reached another planet, where ancestral spirits would spread out to terraform the new world and sow it with plants and animals just as, according to Aboriginal traditions, they originally shaped the Earth. Baiame mentions his ally the Rainbow Serpent, a widely-revered ancestral spirit that plays a major role in many Aboriginal creation stories.
The rainbow snake is perhaps the most important deity in Aboriginal Australia, being connected with not only all snake ancestors, but also such important All-Father deities as Biame and the Wandjina ancestors of the tribes of the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The rainbow serpent is also the giver as well as the guardian of the mystic healing rites of the shamans. — Australian Aboriginal Mythology
However, their terraforming has started too soon, while the colony is still in transit. The land is angry at non-Aboriginal people corrupting native beliefs with western ideas. To defend itself, the Dreaming is reabsorbing everyone, reducing the whole place back to its primordial elements. It’s trying to reboot.
Meanwhile, Hex and Wahn want to awaken the Doctor, but first they have to fight off a pack of dingos.
Myth: Dingo Dreaming laid down songlines that shaped the centre of Australia. Dingos’ unique interdependence with humans, living among them, made them unique among the animal spirits: they bridged the gap between the human and animal world.
Afterwards, Wahn uses the bull-roarer to help Hex seek for the Doctor’s spirit in the Dreaming.
The bull-roarer among the Kooris of south-eastern Australia was first made by Biame and when it is swung it is said to be his voice. —Australian Aboriginal Mythology
Fishing for the Doctor, they stir up “darker waters,” and the buildings begin to wither and wrinkle up like they’ve aged. I’m not sure whether having a Time Lord mixed in with the Dreaming is affecting time strangely, or whether time is just running out. Hex and Wahn have to flee when something else starts chasing them, a Yowie (the Australian equivalent of Bigfoot) or possibly Marmoo:
To the Koori people, Marmoo was the evil spirit, in opposition to Biame. He was jealous of Biame’s and Ybi’s creation and countered this with the creation of insects. Biame came together with Nungeena, the spirit of the waterfalls, to stop Marmoo’s plague of insects by creating birds. — Australian Aboriginal Mythology
Meanwhile, Ace, Mulyan and the Galyari descend to the mines. Their discussion reveals that the Dream Commandos must be descendants of Whitten and his people. Ace observes that they’ve “embraced the Aboriginal traditions.” Mulyan explains that the Aboriginal inhabitants “were among first to be absorbed by the Dreaming. We keep the faith and the fight alive, but the Dreaming was in their blood in a way that it could never be in ours.”
They reach a shallow reservoir under the city, but their path is barred by an ancestral spirit disguised as the Doctor, bent on driving away invaders. “You Galyari and your interference are not wanted here.” It identifies itself as the Rainbow Serpent, rattling off four of its many names: Jarapiri, Galeru/Galaru which sounds like “Galyari,” Kunukban and Anjuwat.
It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way.
Rainbow Serpent could be mischievous, swallowing and sometimes drowning certain people yet strengthening and endowing the knowledgeable with rainmaking and healing powers. It would blight others with sores, weakness, illness, and death. — Origins of the Rainbow Serpent Myth
Baiame tells the Doctor that a death spirit has assumed his face. He means the destructive side of the Rainbow Serpent (creation and destruction are often aspects of the same trickster figure, much like the Seventh Doctor himself).
The Doctor returns to Hex and Wahn and tells them what he’s learned. Wahn admits that Uluru City has become multicultural, discarding or altering Aboriginal traditions to suit modern sensibilities. That has weakened people’s belief, which in turned has weakened the Dreaming which Baiame manipulates to provide air, water, and food for his people, not to mention propulsion for his ark. Now the Dreaming is fighting back.
Unfortunately, Korshal the leader of the Galyari swears vengeance against Baiame, after his troops and mate (?) Vresha turn to stone. When Korshal attacks him, Baiame summons a bird spirit, Kookaburra, to shield him, since Galyari revere birds. Unfortunately, after encountering the fake Doctor, Korshal no longer trusts or believes anything he sees, even one of his people’s ancestral spirits.
The Doctor’s desperate plan is to record and play back the sound of Wahn’s bull-roarer, amplified and projected by the Galyari ship. The bull-roarer works not only by its raw sound, but by the mind and spirit of its wielder. It pacifies angry spirits and, if a strong enough mind is behind it, controls the Dreaming like the voice of Baiame himself. The Doctor can even use it to command time. Therefore he commands things to revert back to how they were before. The people awaken from stone, and the Dreaming goes back to sleep.
Now that they’re awake, Baiame says, the people can gather and sing the ancestral songs to placate the Dreaming. Presumably that will hold it at bay until they reach their destination, where it can safely be unleashed. There it can shape an uninhabited planet into a new home for Baiame’s people.
Thanks to Simon A. Forward for answering my questions about spelling so I could look up a few names.