Less than seventy-four hours ago Graham O’Brien would’ve said that there was no such thing as aliens — least of all in Sheffield of all places. And yet now here he is, travelled all the way forward to the year 2100 with Ryan; Ryan’s old school friend, Yasmin Khan; and a time travelling alien who’s apparently over a thousand years old, says she’s from another planet, and calls herself ‘The Doctor’. Just ‘The Doctor’. Who doesn’t even have a proper name?
After the … incident involving the accidental teleportation of everyone to the middle of deep space (“Well — okay, it wasn’t entirely my fault. For starters I did say that Stenza technology was unpredictable. It has 139 layers! At least 7 of them not making sense and at least 29 of them being incredibly temperamental ... ”) the Doctor had promised them all one trip to a destination of their choosing as an apology of sorts before her proper send off, muttering something under her breath about ‘not getting attached’. Graham wondered if she’d had any friends (companions? … fam?) before them. Surely she must’ve if she’s been travelling around for so long. He doesn’t think he wants to know what might have happened to them.
When the Doctor had posed the question to everyone Graham had it in his right mind to just ask for a trip home, early enough to make himself a nice hot cuppa and not miss the Round 4 results of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. Unfortunately he didn’t quite get in quick enough before Ryan’s eyes had lit up and he was grinning excitedly, asking the Doctor if she’d ever been to America on the Fourth of July. Despite initially being quite put out that he wasn’t more interested in seeing something ‘more exciting’ like the end of the world (“The great golden sun expanding to Red Giant status, burning up the Earth!”) or something called ‘The Fifteenth Broken Moon of the Medusa Cascade’ (whatever that was) the Doctor did eventually admit with a shrug that she’d never even experienced an American holiday before at all. Graham couldn’t exactly fault her at that because the furthest he’s travelled was to Bristol for a cousin’s wedding and even that was much too exotic for his liking.
In the end, he supposes being dragged along for the trip is for the best anyway, because he doesn’t really trust this Doctor person yet with being able to get Ryan home safely without accidentally zapping him off somewhere in a malfunctioning spaceship. Which isn’t something that just randomly happens on the ‘TARDIS’ the Doctor had tried to reassure them (“Well, not all that often, anyway … ”) but at this point he still isn’t sure he entirely believes her. Even though he’s already had enough excitement to last a lifetime, probably more in the last few days than all of his previous years put together, he’s willing to go through with a couple more expeditions if it means keeping Ryan out of harm’s way.
Which is how he ended up here, sitting on a picnic blanket between Yaz and Ryan on a balmy midsummer evening in the middle of New York City. The breeze is warm and carries the light scent of barbecue in the distance and from a short way’s off there’s the muffled sound of chatter and music, clapping and laughing. Funnily enough, the change of scenery is actually nice and Graham takes a moment to savour the fact that he’s here, enjoying a spontaneous day trip to the States instead of being chased by some sort of terrifying extraterrestrial creature on a foreign planet. Considering the rest of his week today could’ve ended up going very differently.
Speaking of extraterrestrials —
“TA-DA!” Manoeuvring around two children sprinting past, chasing each other with spitting gold sparklers the Doctor emerges from the fray, absolutely beaming with four hot dogs balanced in the crook of her arm. At the last moment, though, she overcorrects herself and swerves, very narrowly missing covering everyone in cheese and tomato sauce before catching herself — as seems to be her typical M.O., Graham is rapidly gathering.
“I decided to get mustard with mine,” she begins babbling, thumping down between them, cross-legged. “I’ve never had mustard before! It always seemed so … yellow,” she frowns. Graham and Yaz share a look. He’s never before met someone who could talk quite as much and as fast as her. “But there’s a first time for everythin’, y’know!”
“Don’t knock it ‘til ya try it,” Ryan says as Graham tucks in. He’d be lying if he said that it wasn’t ten times better than anything he’d ever got from a street vendor back home.
“Exactly!” The Doctor takes a large bite and then her face contorts into an expression of disgust so comical that it makes Yaz choke. “That’s terrible! What’s mustard even made of?”
“Uh …” Ryan says through his mouthful, frowning at the bun in his hand. He shrugs. “‘Dunno? Some sort of seed … thing?”
The Doctor rakes at her tongue with a paper napkin. “You humans with not knowing what goes into your food! Just you wait till Soylent Green hits the shelves ...” She shoots Graham a wink and he isn’t quite sure whether she’s being serious or not. He raises a cautious eyebrow but she just goes back to nibbling at the untainted portion of her bun.
Half the time he’s not sure what she’s saying and the other half it feels a bit like there’s some sort of inside joke going on that he’s not privy to. Maybe it’ll get better with time, but to be honest he’s not sure if he’ll ever be able to get a proper read on her. It occurs to Graham then that he doesn’t really know that much about the Doctor or her past at all.
“Is it really true that you’ve never been to America, Doctor?” Yaz asks, interrupting his thoughts. “I thought you said you travelled around Earth all the time?”
"I suppose I've been there quite a bit, usually around Manhattan, Washington D.C. ... 'Haven't done the whole Fourth of July thing before though — that's a first. Oh! And Roswell."
Graham let's out a startled laugh and says "You're kidding!" at the same time as Ryan blurts "No way."
“How've you not experienced any American holidays?" Yaz frowns. "Didn’t you say you were over 1000 years old or somethin’?”
“Ah! Well — I …” The Doctor squints into the distance, rubbing the back of her neck. “I suppose I just never got round to it?”
“Let me get this straight. You’re a time traveller with the ability to go anywhere in the entire world and ninety-nine percent of the time you choose to only visit the UK?” Yaz laughs. “That’s a bit sad innit?”
“It’s not my fault aliens keep trying to invade London!” she huffs. “I’ve been busy!”
The evening goes on like that, the three of them joking, sharing light banter like old friends. At one point Graham is struck how normal and comfortable the whole thing seems — as if the three of them hadn’t just got off a spaceship a few hours ago after narrowly escaping near-death and the woman sitting across from them doesn’t have two hearts instead of one.
Yaz manages to find some sparklers for them to light and although there’s a small kerfuffle with Ryan getting frustrated when Graham tries to help him so he doesn’t burn his fingers the whole thing blows over quickly due to the Doctor’s childlike wonder and enthusiasm, which can’t help but be contagious. Out of everyone Graham really should’ve been worried about her, seeing as she’s the one who accidentally manages to singe a bit of her hair after holding the darn things so close to her face.
They’re in the middle of an impromptu football game, which the Doctor has recently discovered she is actually quite good at, when the music quiets down and people begin packing up, gravitating back to their picnic blankets to watch the fireworks show, the first crackles beginning to fill the air. As Graham makes his way over from the sidelines from where he’d been acting as referee he catches the tail end of Ryan and the Doctor’s conversation.
“This is gonna be ace.” Ryan rummages around in his hoodie pocket and pulls out his polaroid to snap a selfie with the Doctor.
She shrugs back on her coat and dusts the remaining grass off herself. “Nothing like some good ol’ explosions, hm?”
Yaz rolls her eyes, but seems amused.
Standing around the little spot where they’ve set up camp along with the other families dotted around them, Graham can’t help but notice that the Doctor seems distracted. She keeps glancing back over her shoulder back the way they came from, where they left the TARDIS. Considering how enamoured she is by a lot of simple things (sparklers, football, dogs, mustard …) it’s surprising that she’s not as excited as Ryan is right now. While everyone else’s gaze is fixed on the sky hers hovers on him.
“Why’d you want to travel here of all places, by the way? I’m curious.”
“I guess I’d just seen it a lot on TV shows and in movies? I’ve always wanted to move to America one day.”
“Mmm …” the Doctor hums.
The landscape is darkening now, shifting from deep orange with the last rays of sun to a muted blue. It makes the scarlet flashes of light filling up the sky even brighter and even more brilliant. The display is incredible — larger scale than anything Graham’s used to. Typically on Guy Fawkes and New Year’s he thinks of fireworks as a nuisance, keeping him up with the additional help of the neighbourhood dogs, but he has to admit these are pretty wonderful. After a particularly loud bang Graham laughs and turns to see everyone else’s reaction. Ryan is nudging Yaz, grinning from ear-to-ear, making fun of the way she jumped — the Doctor though, Graham belatedly realises, doesn’t seem to be reacting at all. If anything she looks somewhat despondent, mouth hanging slightly open as if in shock.
Suddenly, another bang sounds and the Doctor full-body flinches, snapped out of her trance. She drags shaky hands through her hair, leaving it in disarray.
Something isn’t right.
She doesn’t seem to hear him.
“Doctor, are you alright?”
“Hm? What?” She jerks around, too quickly. It takes a moment for her to process what he just asked. “Oh. Me? I’m … Good. I’m fine. Why’d you ask?”
He raises an eyebrow. “No reason. You just seem a bit … on edge?”
She takes a shuddering breath and shakes her head as if to clear it. “Ah. It’s nothing. Don’t worry about me.”
Were all of the Doctor’s regenerations such bad liars?
Graham tries his hardest to go back to enjoying the display but keeps noticing little things out of the corner of his eye. Alarming things. She’s flexing her fingers, rubbing them against the inside of her palms as if she’s lost feeling in them. Shaking them out she tucks her hands beneath her armpits, hunching in on herself. Even with her coat on she’s shivering like it's cold, despite the night being practically tropical compared to the somewhat stubborn weather back home.
“How long did you say you’d been travelling for?”
The Doctor blows a strand of hair out of her face. “Um, maybe two-thousand years? Three-thousand? After a while it gets kind of hard—” She flinches hard again at another bang. “—hard to keep track.”
“All that time? What about your home planet?”
This doesn’t seem to be the right question to ask because the Doctor winces before quickly attempting to mask this with a look of indifference. Before Graham can say anything else though, another cascade of explosions light up the sky and the Doctor lets out a faint groan, bringing a hand up to rub at her face. This appears to have caught Ryan’s attention as well who has now turned to give Graham a confused look. He shrugs helplessly.
“So, Doctor,” Yaz steps in. “I’ve been thinking. This Medusa Cascade trip? Maybe we should go there. Next.”
The Doctor doesn’t look up. However, while her gaze is fixed on the ground her shoulders seem to relax a little, which is encouraging. “Um …”
“The Medusa Cascade,” Yaz repeats patiently.
“I would - would love to, uh …”
Maybe he spoke to soon. She begins to list to one side and Graham can already see where this heading and shoots an arm out to steady her. She’s actually much heavier than she looks and this close he can feel how much she’s shuddering.
“Feel … kinda dizzy,” the Doctor holds a hand to her forehead. “I’m just … gonna sit down for a second.”
“Probably would be best,” Graham grunts as her knees buckle, easing them to the ground.
“Just give me a moment.” She waves her hand dismissively. A few more minutes pass, Graham, Yaz, and Ryan all hovering around awkwardly, unsure of what to do. She doesn’t look like she’s getting any better, though — in fact, if anything she seems to be having trouble getting enough air, breaths coming in short pants.
Now he knows something is seriously wrong. Seeing the usually bombastic and cheerful Doctor so quiet is so out of character it’s downright unnerving.
“Are you all sure you’re alright? Because I’m not really getting that impression. ‘Dunno about everyone else.” Ryan shifts from foot to foot restlessly.
“Is anyone else suddenly feeling really hot?” she gasps, ignoring Ryan’s question, tearing her coat off and tugging at her shirt collar. Goosebumps stand out against her pale skin.
Graham looks around at the others desperately, but Ryan looks just as lost as him. When he makes eye-contact with Yaz, though, she sets her jaw in determination.
With all her police training, she jumps into action, immediately all business. “Do we need to get back to your TARDIS? Should we get the paramedics?”
“NO!” The Doctor blurts, throwing an arm out. “No hospitals! I don’t - I can’t—”
“Okay, okay! No hospitals.”
Luckily it seems like the fireworks have stopped for now while people work on assembling the next set-up allowing them a brief reprieve from the lights and noise. The Doctor is still hyperventilating, though, gripping tightly onto one of her suspenders as if for dear life. Her pupils are blown wide and she’s staring into the middle distance, unseeing.
Ryan claps his hands together suddenly with realisation. “Why don’t you use your respi-whatsit? Bypass thing?”
“Can’t,” she forces out. “I’m too …” She doesn’t finish her sentence.
Graham is out of his depth. He’s seen a lot of weird stuff while taking the late shift as a bus driver, but he doesn’t feel exactly equipped to deal with a panicking alien with a fear of fireworks. Which, now that he thinks about it, also doesn’t really make sense considering the Doctor is the type of person that usually runs headfirst into danger without even a second thought.
Ryan tugs at his sleeve, pulling him aside. He speaks under his breath, “Did the Doctor ever tell you if she’s got specially enhanced alien senses or anything? Like, does she have better hearing or vision than us or somethin’?”
“I can’t say she has.”
Ryan looks pensive before returning to the Doctor’s side.
“Doctor … Doctor—“ he taps her on the shoulder and she recoils. He grimaces apologetically. “I think I might be able to help—“
Just then a volley of new shells explode above their heads and the Doctor ducks, looks around like she doesn’t know where she is, like she’s seeing something else. Everything is cast in bright red and white light as children scream and laugh and people cheer and hoot.
Ryan looks from Yaz to Graham. “Okay, we need to get her back to the TARDIS.”
He’s right. This isn’t going to work at all. “Agreed.”
Yaz crouches down. “Doctor? Can you stand?”
Yaz purses her lips and hooks her arms under the Doctor’s shoulders, beginning to hoist her up, but isn’t expecting to get a strangled yell in response. Yaz springs back in alarm, caught off guard, before taking a deep breath and having another go. Due to her training she’s the fittest person here, which means the Doctor isn’t too hard to lift at all, but it certainly doesn’t help that the she’s fighting against her.
“No, no-no no- Rassilon, no,” the Doctor gasps to no one in particular. “I’m so so sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologise. Everything’s going to be okay,” Yaz says calmly. “We just need to get back to the TARDIS. Where it’s quiet.”
Graham is paralysed, can only look on in horror. “Wait. Stop. I … don’t think she knows where she is.”
“Just—just give me a second.” Ryan manoeuvres himself so he’s within the Doctor’s field of vision, but not touching her. “Doctor? Can you hear me?”
Her gaze darts around, flickering over his.
“We’re in the middle of Central Park in New York City in the year 2100. You, me, Yaz, and Graham. We are completely safe. About two hours ago you tried mustard for the first time and absolutely hated it. Can I touch you, Doctor?”
He takes her trembling hands and squeezes them gently. “Can you tell me what colour my shirt is?”
“What else is blue here?”
She sucks in a breath between her teeth. “Socks, pants, ice-box, TARDIS …”
He then brings her hand to his chest and takes a deep breath in. “Can you feel that?”
The Doctor clears her throat and nods again.
“Just copy me. Breathe in for five, hold for seven, and then out for eight. And again.”
As the Doctor studiously copies Ryan, Graham is struck by the image. Where did he learn to do this? There’s something incredibly disarming about the fact that his grandson is able to talk the ‘Time Lord Victorious’ down from a panic attack. He feels an odd surge of pride and then feels a little bad for it.
After a couple more minutes the Doctor’s breathing has settled somewhat and she blinks, like she’s trying to clear the fog from her brain and rubs at her face again.
“Ryan. Can you give me a hand?” Yaz is trying to help the Doctor to her feet again.
At once Ryan’s hands begin fluttering around the Doctor but he’s not sure what to do. He tries hooking his arm under hers and fails, unable to get the grip right.
He growls in frustration. “Sorry. Sorry, I’m just- I’m an idiot.”
“Don’t worry about it. Seriously. Here.” Yaz guides his arm so he can get a proper hold on their friend and together they begin stumbling back to the TARDIS.
Graham, feeling more than a bit useless, scoops the Doctor’s coat off from where it lies discarded in the night-damp grass helps them clear a path.
“‘xcuse me. Pardon me. No, we’re all right thank you.”
By the time they make it back to the ship the four of them are absolutely exhausted, not least of all the Doctor who collapses to the floor, clinging to the centre console like a lifeline. Back within the safe confines of her ship, surrounded by its warm golden glow she’s looking a lot better - more present now, eyes less glazed over.
Just when it looks like they’re finally going to get some peace and quiet though, a harsh metallic scraping and the faint smell of ozone fills the air.
“Why’s it doing that?” Ryan asks a bit too loudly, clamping his hands down over his ears. “Isn’t it only supposed to make that sound when we’re travelling somewhere?”
“‘S the breaks,” the Doctor waves her hand around vaguely with a tired smile. “She’s trying to calm me down. Isn’t that right, Old Girl?”
The lights flicker and hum in response.
“Are you saying you actually like that sound?” Yaz blinks.
She shrugs. “It’s relaxing.”
“You really are from another planet.”
“And you’re only just figuring that out now?” the Doctor chuckles weakly and presses her forehead to her knees.
They stay like that for quite some time, all sitting around the control room listening to the discordant grating of the TARDIS’ breaks before eventually they die down, leaving only the ship’s ever-present quiet electrical hum. Then, the Doctor finally speaks. When she does it’s apologetic.
“I’m sorry you had to see that.”
Ryan is the first to respond. “You shouldn’t feel the need to apologise for something you can’t control, Doctor.”
“You’ve already done so much for me. I … I wanted to do something in return, but I ruined it.”
“You didn’t ruin anything. I can see fireworks whenever, Doctor. Really. I had an incredible afternoon.”
“You’re only nineteen and you ended up babysitting someone four-thousand years your senior. Some holiday that is.”
“Sorry,” Graham interjects. “But I thought you said you were only three-thousand?”
The Doctor shrugs. “Like I said, at this point it’s really hard to keep track.”
There’s a brief silence where it seems like everyone is thinking the same thing. Yaz finally addresses the elephant in the room. “Doctor … If you don’t mind me asking — What happened back there?”
She looks down, fiddles with the fabric of the coat in her lap, like she knew this question was going to come and to choose her words carefully.
“I was — a long time ago there was a war. On my home planet, Gallifrey. I had to make a decision that no one should ever have to make and I made the wrong call. It—” she swallows past the lump in her throat. “It cost a lot of lives. And I’ve paid for that — in some ways still am paying for that.”
“Oh, Doctor.” Yaz’ expression looks shattered.
That makes sense. Actually, that makes a lot of sense. Graham wouldn’t have pinned the Doctor as a war veteran before but then again sometimes she’s able to mask her true feelings incredibly well — and the way she deals with grief seems … practiced. Even then, he can’t quite wrap his mind around it. His mental image of someone who fought in a war seems so deeply incongruous with the type of person he knows the Doctor to be: someone who abhors violence, who seems so carefree and infatuated with the world around her …
“I’m a lot better now, though!” She gives a half-hearted smile. “It’s been … a process. But luckily I’ve been afforded a second chance. Not a murderer anymore! Sort of. It’s complicated. Timey-wimey … stuff.” She rubs the back of her neck, as if she’s afraid to make eye contact with them — like she’s scared of what she might see.
“I don’t … carry around that same guilt like I used to but sometimes …” She sighs. “I think it’s only natural to be anxious that that part of me hasn’t completely gone away. I wonder if I’d still make the same mistakes. I still worry about what I’m capable of, without other people around to ground me. Thank you by the way, Ryan.”
Ryan looks a little dumbstruck. “No problem. It was nothing really.”
“How’d you know what to do?” Graham frowns.
“I knew this girl, Jenny. Y’know from when I used to have occupational therapy? She got these panic attacks because of her Asperger’s. ‘Cause her senses were too overloaded sometimes. I figured the same sort of thing would work for a flashback.”
The Doctor nods at Graham, gesturing back at Ryan with her thumb. “‘Told you he was clever.”
Ryan smiles sheepishly.
“I’m really proud of you, you know that?” Graham tries to make it as sincere as possible.
He looks at his feet. “It’s what Nan would’ve done.”
“It’s what you did. And what I said is true — I am really proud of you. I know I’m not the best at showing it all the time, but I am.”
The TARDIS seems to hum as well in agreement, glad for her Doctor to have returned safe and sound.
“Well!” The Doctor pipes up after what she deems is an acceptable amount of time to have passed. She claps her hands together. “There’s that disaster out of the way. Medusa Cascade, right?” She spins around, grinning at Yaz.
“You know I only said that to make you feel better before, right?”
“Nope! No take backs.” The Doctor is already stomping around the console, flipping switches and turning dials. “We’re going. You made your choice.”
“There’s another personality trait you can add to your list. Stubborn.”
“Huh.” She raises her eyebrows. “A stubborn Doctor? I can work with that.”
And with that, and not a moment’s warning, the Doctor slams down the lever in the centre of the console and sends the TARDIS jolting into motion.