Doctor Who Fiction: “The Pathfinders”
by Michael E.P. Stevens
It must have been Spring, or even early Summer, when the TARDIS materialised in an English-type forest not long before the Doctor regenerated for a fourth time. The trees, which could easily have been oak, birch, and hawthorn, were rife with greenery, and the pale lime evening sky was obscured only by a few wisps of white cloud.
Romana stepped from the TARDIS onto dry earth, which crumbled beneath her tread. She took a deep breath of fresh air. The Doctor appeared behind her. “Well that was a bit of luck.”
Romana surveyed the view ahead of them. The TARDIS had landed on a pathway, which now wound on ahead. Some distance along, it suddenly branched into a number of diverging trails. “What was?” she enquired.
The Doctor placed his hat atop his head and shrugged. “Well, finding another planet like that.”
Romana turned to him. “You’ve found another one?”
The Doctor coughed awkwardly. Obviously one of them was confused. “No, I mean this one.”
“This one?” repeated Romana. She looked around her. “But I thought this was the same planet as last time.”
“Last time?” He grinned at her broadly. “You did?”
Romana immediately sprang to her own defence. “Well when I saw the trees, the forest, I naturally thought you’d made a mistake and landed back where we’d just taken off from!”
The Doctor closed the TARDIS door and pushed past her. “K9 says that this is a fair-sized habitable planet in an otherwise uninhabited galaxy.”
Romana nodded. “Just like the last place.”
“Oh don’t be so… stubborn!” snapped the Doctor. “No, no, no, this isn’t the last planet. In fact – it could almost be …” He was smiling again. “You know, that description that K9 keeps giving could almost be a description of…”
His voice tailed off as he reached the splintering-off of pathways. Romana sighed impatiently. “Description of what, Doctor?”
Ahead of her, the Doctor crouched down at the pathways. Whilst on the subject of Earth, his mind had conjured up for him the memory of some old Earth poetry.
“‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;'”
Romana sharply called the Doctor’s name. She was tired of his somewhat theatrical madness, that irritating vague characteristic. It was what she called his ‘false eccentricity’.
The Doctor heard his name being shouted in reprimand. He too was tired – of Romana’s foolish superior air, of E-Space, of runaway boys… His name shot over to him and he stood up and turned on Romana. She looked surprised at his angry face, scared even. He ordered, “Stay here!” and then ran off along one of the pathways. As he went, he wondered what it would be like to have his freedom back again.
Adric poked his head around the TARDIS door. “Can I come out?” he asked sheepishly of Romana, who had just sat down on a nearby felled tree-stump.
“I suppose so,” she said, but when he was out and walking around with wide eyes she felt jumpy and ill at ease, as if she had to be watching him all of the time. Everything Adric had done so far during their short period of acquaintance had demonstrated only his headstrong, unforseeing, self-satisfying nature. Romana realised that he could suddenly decide to run off through the trees and never come back, leaving her and the Doctor waiting and worrying till Eternity’s end.
“K9 has been plotting the TARDIS’s intended flight path – or, at least, one of them.” He was excited.
“Really?” muttered Romana uninterestedly. She knew very well that any future move was in the hands of the Doctor, amongst whose traits predictability was not numbered. But Adric continued.
“Yes. He says he can force our course clearly for a certain way, but then things begin to look confused.”
Romana looked up. “Confused?”
“Like a curve in Space, K9 says.”
Romana sniffed. “K9 should know better than to use such meaningless and antiquated metaphors.”
Adric thought about this for a moment. He cursed his own over-hurrying, which never failed to lead to him saying what he didn’t mean. “No, wait, he didn’t say Space. He said: ‘Like a curve in Destiny’.”
Romana huffed. “Well that’s even worse.” But despite her off-hand tone, something about K9’s prediction made her shiver and pull her jacket tighter around her.
* * *
The Doctor’s journey along a flower-lined, wildly verdant pathway came to a momentary standstill as he paused to get his breath. He’d come a long way in a short space of time, as he realised upon looking back and being unable to see the TARDIS.
And, like a tangible voice inside his ever-aching head, more poetry came back to him.
“‘Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.'”
The Doctor said the words out loud and looked to his origins. A trail of trampled buttercups bore witness to his coming.
* * *
Adric stared at Romana. “Don’t you ever feel guilty?” he asked her quite suddenly.
Romana shifted uneasily on her seat. “Of what?”
“Well about doing what you do – you and the Doctor. Travelling through other people’s lives.”
“Adric, please, I’ve never liked metaphysics. Can we change the subject please?”
Adric knew that he had touched a nerve, but he refused to be shut up. “Through their galaxies then. Through their planets, their property – their business.”
Romana stared at him. “Are you trying to get back at us for changing things on Alzarius?”
Adric sighed, almost sadly. “It’s not just Alzarius. On that last planet as well. Things would have changed anyway, without your help.”
“Yes – only differently.”
There was a long period of silence. Romana didn’t want to carry on the discussion – not just because Adric was such a naive and angry youth, but because her continued life with the Doctor was already under question by a far greater force than Adric. And maybe she herself was beginning to question it. She didn’t really know – and she wasn’t ready to talk about it.
Adric, on the other hand, had disturbed himself by beginning to show disrespect towards the Time Lady, but his puppy-like instinct was unable to let go of his bone-like argument.
“You see, Romana, you and the Doctor make huge footprints through people’s lives. He does it callously, and you, you do it because you think it’s right and because you’ve got to follow him. But if it was me, I’d just be a little uncertain. After a time I’d become wary of taking hold of situations which ought to be in others hands. And eventually I’d stop.” There. He’d said his piece. He felt accomplished.
Romana stood up and placed her eyes levelly in front of his. “But Adric,” she said softly, “it is. It is you now.”
* * *
The Doctor was crying. He’d tried to look through the undergrowth at the other paths, to see where they led and whether he could move onto them. He couldn’t see through. He was stuck on his own path. And looking back, at the crushed buttercups and grass and the air of emptiness which seemed to hang over them, a tear had run down his face. He knew he couldn’t go back now. His whole life ethic was to go forward, onto new pastures. Nothing lay for him back the way he’d come. And so he began to cry. Inbetween helpless sobs his lips painfully squeezed out another verse of poetry.
“‘And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads onto way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.'”
* * *
Romana entered the TARDIS. In the console room, K9 was plugged into the data bank. She disconnected him. “K9, do you know where Adric is?”
“The boy, Mistress?”
“Yes, the boy.”
“Well, did he come in here?”
“I did not see.”
Romana plugged him back in. “Thankyou,” she told him tartly, though by then, of course, he was back in the world of his sums.
Adric dashed inside. Romana heaved with relief. “Oh, thank goodness. I thought you might have run off somewhere.”
“I did,” he said brightly. “Have you seen all the trails out there?”
“Yes. That’s where the Doctor’s gone.”
“Is it? Funny, I didn’t see him.”
“You didn’t go down one, did you?”
Adric grinned. “Romana, whenever you speak to me you always sound as if you fear for my life.”
Wearily she said, “I wonder why.”
Adric continued. “I only got halfway before I gave it up as a bad job. I wonder why I didn’t see the Doctor though…”
“Well out of ten or so pathways, it’s unlikely that you picked his one.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” But he seemed uncertain. “I ought to have done though really, Romana. After all, I am following the Doctor now. Just like you.”
Yes, thought Romana, Just like me.
Suddenly K9 span round to face them both. “I am taking control of the TARDIS, Mistress.”
Romana was alarmed. They couldn’t leave without the Doctor! “Why, K9?”
Adric grinned ruefully at the metal computer. “Destiny again, K9?”
The dematerialisation sequence began and the TARDIS entered the Vortex.
* * *
The Doctor had stopped crying. He’d moved on a bit since his last brief respite, but now had halted yet again. He had reconciled himself to the fact that he had left his past behind, but something was bothering him.
He couldn’t remember the last verse of the poem.
Try as hard as it could, his mind found it impossible to locate those final, concluding five lines. The Doctor felt lost without them.
And then out of the summer night’s air, above which the sky had turned to deep, deep green and through which the leaves of the forest rustled, the TARDIS materialised. Adric stepped out and stood looking at the Doctor. “K9 said we’d find you here.”
The Doctor lost the blank, empty expression which he’d gained since walking his pathway, and he began to smile. “Hello Adric,” he said. “I’m so glad you’ve come for me.”
Slowly, he walked to join his young saviour at the TARDIS door. “You know, it wasn’t my favourite planet after all.”
Adric laughed at the old man. “No, Doctor. Not in E-Space!” Together they went inside.
In the console room, Romana watched him with vaguely narrowed eyes as he entered with Adric. He caught her glance momentarily, guiltily, and then he went over to K9 and bent beside him. “Good boy, K9, old friend. But how did you know?”
K9 lifted his head. “To quote Master – ‘knowing’s easy. Everyone does that ad nauseum. I just sort of hope.'”
The Doctor laughed appreciatively. “Very good, K9. And right too!” He stood up and went to the inner door.
“Where are you going?” called Romana exasperatedly.
The Doctor seemed not to notice her tone. “To the library,” he said, “There’s something I’ve just got to look up. You can take off if you like.”
“Well, where are we heading for?”
His eyes widened. “I don’t know. You chose!” He dashed off.
* * *
Afterwards, the Doctor called in on Adric’s room.
“Hello. I’m just on my way to see K9. I thought you might like to read this.” He held out a book.
Adric took it. “What is it?” The title said ‘Robert Frost – Selected Poems’.
“It’s a book!” said the Doctor. “The place is marked.” With that he disappeared.
Adric opened the book at the page reserved by a strange metallic bookmark. He began to read.
* * *
Much later, Adric appeared in the console room, book in hand. Romana and the Doctor were trying to plot a course.
“Did you like it?” asked the Doctor.
Adric threw the book disregardingly onto the console. “N-Space poetry. What’s that got to do with me?”
Nothing more was said of it between them both. The Doctor snatched up the book and gave it to his Time Lady companion. “Here Romana. Page seventy-seven.”
Romana pocketed it. She would read it later.
* * *
It must have been Autumn, or even early Winter… but then, there are no seasons where the Time Winds blow. A chill ran through Romana’s heart as she dipped once more into the future. More problems were waiting to be dealt with there.
Lazlo stood a little way apart from her – she had grown distant from him and the rest of his race. Their burning ambition to ride the Time Winds together had waned, yet they carried on, and Romana did not know why. She looked in upon herself. Her intentions had always been good, but her spirit often failed them. It was all the result of a successful Capitol training, as opposed to the Doctor’s unsuccessful one. Or was it the other way around? Whatever, Romana didn’t have his wanderlust. She thought she had, but she hadn’t.
K9 stood at her feet. He kept her going – moods of despair never took hold of his mind. And as long as he was with her, then the Doctor was too.
“K9?” she asked.
“My poem. Read it again.”
And so it began, the Earthman’s tale of the Doctor, of Adric, of the TARDIS, of everyone. And then it ended, with the final verse, which was hers.
“‘I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.'”
Romana looked out at a darkening night sky, and her wanderlust returned.
“The Road Not Taken” is by Robert Frost
First published: March 1990