Tuesday 29 October 2013

WHO REVIEW: The Light at the End

Let's admit it, chaps and chapettes – it's getting exciting now! The fiftieth anniversary is almost upon us, and Big Finish has released its own celebratory get together a month early, the devils. While the TV series is focusing, quite sensibly, on the 21st century Doctors, fans who want to see the elder Doctors represented can rest assured that Big Finish has done us all proud with The Light at the End.

BF supremo Nicholas Briggs has spoken of his reluctance to go for a multi-Doctor team-up. This is understandable, of course; balancing the needs of multiple leads and all their companions with a coherent, diverting storyline isn't easy. Big Finish has quite some history with multi-Doctor stories. Briggs himself kicked off the range with The Sirens of Time, which took the fifth, sixth and seventh Doctors, then BF's entire roster, and built a fun but flawed story around them. Each Doctor had an episode, with a finale that teamed them all up to save Gallifrey. For the fortieth anniversary, BF took a different tactic, with Zagreus using the unusual idea of bringing Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sly McCoy in to support Paul McGann's eighth Doctor, but as new characters. The subscriber special The Four Doctors was more straightforward, with Doctors five to eight all taking part in a time-crossing adventure, before a brief fan-pleasing get-together at the end, while Project: Lazarus gave us a rather peculiar Six/Seven team-up.

The Light at the End is a little more traditional in its set-up. It's essentially a new Five Doctors, bringing together the five extant 20th century Doctors together. There's plenty of interaction between the various Doctors, and while the story understandably focuses on the surviving Doctors, the first three incarnations are featured. Though separated from their successors, the first three Doctors do take part in proceedings, mostly appearing as phantoms to the rest of the characters. Big Finish's solution to the lack of the original actors is one that will divide fans, to be sure, but it is, on the whole, successful, and it wouldn't seem right to not have the characters included. The degree to which these Doctor stand-ins will convince listeners is variable, but they ultimately pull it off, and bump this five Doctor team-up to include all eight of the old gents.

The story for Light is, understandably, straightforward, despite the transtemporal shenanigans. The Master, in his pre-Traken form, purchases the services of the Vess, a rather Dalek-like race of intergalactic arms dealers. Using their ultimate weapon, the nature of which is rather ingenious, the Master causes the TARDIS to collapse in on itself, causing the Doctor's timeline to collapse inwards with it. When the various Doctor are first made aware of the threat when a mysterious red light appears in their TARDISes, as they pass through a particular point in space and time. They each track it back to Totton, Hants, on the 23rd of November, 1963. Yet only the fifth Doctor manages to reach Totton, with the others being diverted into a peculiar pocket universe. How these supposedly disparate locations fit together is rather clever, and the crux of the Master's plan.

To begin with, the Doctors are kept separate, gradually pairing off before all eight of them come together for the grand finale. The fifth Doctor and Nyssa are able to reach the house at Totton, the location that is mysteriously linked to the unfolding events. Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are perfect as usual as an older, more mature version of their televisual team, quietly investigating the mystery that has affected Bob Dovie. John Dorney is excellent as Bob, a perfectly ordinary man whose life is torn apart by the sudden intrusion of the Doctor and Master into his life. There's even an appearance by young Benedict Briggs, son of Nicholas, as Bob's offspring Kevin. It's rather cute, but events become unsettling very quickly in this spooky section of the story.

The fourth and eighth Doctors, and their respective companions, get to team up against the Master, and the result is joyous. The two Doctor who we never thought we'd get back, and here they are, bouncing along together, two gorgeous voices in conversation. Their Doctors get on marvellously, with the exception of a little fashion critique, and the actors have some real chemistry. If there's ever the chance of a further team-up with these particular Doctors, I'd buy it in a heartsbeat. The companions are just as good, with India Fisher's Charley and Louise Jameson's Leela sharing some fun scenes. It's just lovely stuff.

The other pair-up, between Doctors number six and seven, is also very successful. There's something extra appealing about having a Doctor dealing with his immediate successor, especially when it's the exuberant sixth Doctor meeting the more subdued seventh. Nicola Bryant doesn't get too much to do as Peri, but she has some good chemistry with Ace, and gives McCoy a gently moving moment as he comments on the strange feeling of meeting long lost friends. Sophie Aldred gets a treat of a scene as Ace. Not only does she give us the funniest moment of the play with her rundown of the various Doctors (“Old Man White Hair, Beetles Haircut...”), she's fantastic partnered with Colin Baker. It's strange to hear Ace with another Doctor – for some reason, it's hard to imagine her with anyone but McCoy – but she's well matched by Colin Baker. The temporal ghosting as the TARDIS collapses lets us hear some other companions too, with almost everyone that Big Finish still has at their disposal making at least a brief contribution.

Geoffrey Beevers is wonderful as the Master, but that's no surprise. His silkily sinister tones are perfect for the audio version of the Doctor's oldest enemy. While his successor once opined that “a universe without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about,” this severely damaged version of the Master is fuelled by nothing more than desperation and cold, agonising hatred. He's a particularly nasty piece of work, and using the instantly recognisable villain as the threat for this story save time. It's a strong, streamlined story, well structured, cleverly revisiting the same events from alternative viewpoints. Plus, we get to hear the eighth Doctor face the Master again, which has been a long time coming.

Finally, all eight Doctors come together to solve the Master's plot, but naturally, it's the original who finally cracks it. The eventual solution is a little pat, and might irritate some listeners as it undoes much of what we've just heard. However, it works, and leads to a very funny epilogue. This is a corking adventure, balancing all the Doctors better than ever expected. A well made, well written story that celebrates all eras of the series prior to the great relaunch, The Light at the End is an absolute treat.

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