Tuesday, 18 February 2014

WHO REVIEW: Dark Eyes 2





The first Dark Eyes box set was a resounding success for Big Finish, capitalising on the popularity of their New Eighth Doctor Adventures and pushing forward the signature character's story. While the sixth Doctor might be the most celebrated by Big Finish, the eighth is the one which has led the way forward, being as he was for many years, the current incarnation. With this no longer the case, the open-ended nature of his tenure still allowed BF to take him in interesting directions, with only the nebulous future of the Time War to cap them. Dark Eyes was one of several 'event' releases of the last couple of years, but probably the most successful, even going on to win a BBC Audio Drama Award. A sequel was a sure thing, even before they announced they be making three more box sets.

Since then, the eighth Doctor's story has been closed off somewhat, finally given a definitive ending by The Night of the Doctor. Nonetheless, the storytelling possibilities for the eighth Doctor remain open. We know his last moments, but not how he got to them. With both Dark Eyes and Gallifrey VI creeping ever closer to the taboo subject of the Time War, Dark Eyes 2 takes the plunge, referencing certain revelations of the pre-War days that were let slip in the new TV series. While they still can't quite come out and have the Time Lords say “And now we enter the Last Great Time War,” they can they the groundwork both for the conflict and the devastating events that will damage the Doctor's moral character before he comes to die on Karn.

Dark Eyes 2 is, of course, a sequel to the first box set, which left with the timelines rearranging themselves following the Doctor's defeat of the Daleks' plans. It is no surprise that the Doctor is reunited with Molly O'Sullivan, his companion from the first Dark Eyes, but the other additions to the cast and story were harder to predict. Big Finish have trawled their back catalogue for things to include here. There's both the Dalek Time Controller and Sally Armstrong from the first Dark Eyes, Liv Chenka from Robophobia, the Eminence from The Seeds of War, the Viyrans from various previous releases, most recently Blue Forgotten Planet, and the new version of the Master from UNIT: Dominion. These aren't all things I've listened to, myself, although I'm reasonably well-versed in the lore. Nonetheless, the story brings new listeners up to date with the nature of the various factions involved in this sprawling storyline.

The main cast excel here. The best thing about Dark Eyes was the interplay between Paul McGann and Ruth Bradley. As well as having the most wonderful pair of voices you could ever hope to hear, they share such fabulous chemistry that they really do sound like they belong together. It's just a shame they're confined to audio – they'd be the most gorgeous TARDIS team in history if we could actually see as well as hear them. It's always a treat to hear stories where the eighth Doctor is put through the ringer, be it emotionally or physically. McGann brings such pain to his performance when it calls for it. Yet he can still deliver the witty, childish, excitable eighth Doctor of old when needed. There's a definite sense that this Doctor wants to remain the fun-loving character we used to know, but that the universe keeps knocking him down and making it harder and harder to do so.

The story is a little contrived in its need to get Molly back in the game and justify its title. It turns out that there are still traces of the “retro-genitor” particles that she was laced with in the first serial, and the Doctor's dropping in on her – living in his old house – reactivates them. This is the catalyst for a whole sequence of events, linking the various factions across time. Still, who cares how many hoops the script has to jump through to get Molly back with “(her) man, the Doctor” and his “Tardy-box” when they are so good together?

The inclusion of Liv Chenka is a little more unexpected, and is tied together in a sort of predestination paradox that becomes clear as events unfold. Nicola Walker is a wonderful actor, and I'm not surprised that BF wanted to get her back to play Liv once more. Then there's the Master, played by the wonderful Alex McQueen. Going by the marvellous alias Dr. Harcourt De'Ath, rather than pretending to be the Doctor this time, the Master is a little more subdued this time round, but nonetheless recognisable as the camp, cocky character we met in Dominion. It's astonishing that, after about thirteen years of audioplays with McGann's Doctor, we haven't heard him play up against his foe from the TV Movie. While I understand that the Eric Roberts version of the Master cannot appear due to rights constraints, having the eighth Doctor meet with another incarnation of his archnemesis is irresistible. And as nemeses go, this Master is certainly arch. The meeting between the Doctor and his old friend may be unexpectedly subdued to begin with, but McGann and MacQueen sparkle together, trading banter and criticising each other's morals, as if picking up from an argument they left years ago.

While Nicholas Briggs directs all four instalments of the serial, only the first is written by him. “The Traitor” is very like his Dalek Empire series – indeed, for all I know, it's set during it – and sees us meet Liv Chenka on a planet occupied by the Daleks. It takes quite some time for the Doctor to make his presence known, but this isn't a major problem in a lengthy story like this. Walker is more than capable of carrying the episode on her shoulders. Nonetheless, the first episode doesn't really seem to get going until the final few scenes, when we learn the Doctor's plan is to ally himself with the Daleks, in order to set them against an even bigger threat.

Alan Barnes gives us the second part, “The White Room,” which returns the Doctor to 1918 on the eve of the armistice, reuniting him with Molly and drawing them both into a Viyran plot. The time-twisting nature of the narrative is hinted at here, with events from the future affecting the past and present. Using the Viyrans is something of a mastertroke. Not only are they one of BF's more successful original villains, but they tie into Molly's “retro-genitor” storyline nicely. Plus, we get time-active ghosts, and a sinister turn by BF stalwart Ian Brooker as both the villainous Dr. Goring, and the Viyran using his voice.

Matt Fitton pens both the third and final parts of the set. “Time's Horizon” is the strongest of the four episodes, a strong, self-contained story with both a good sci-fi concept and a nice, creepy horro vibe. It brings three of the leads together, with the Doctor and Molly arriving on the Orpheus spaceship, upon which Liv and her crew are travelling to the very edge of space. Walker plays Liv even better here than in “The Traitor,” running from her past as far as she can, torn up by her actions as a Dalek collaborator. There's a nice parallel between the Doctor's seemingly unthinkable actions and Liv's own, both doing what they think is right to save lives. A further element is thrown in when we learn that, for the Doctor, episode one hasn't happened yet.

The Eminence is perhaps the strongest villain BF have yet created, and I intend to order its debut piece, The Seeds of War. Where once the Time Lords feared the Daleks may become the final, solitary form of life in the universe, now that place is set to be filled by the Eminence: a single, unassailable will. Given terrifying voice by David Sibley, we can believe it when the Doctor suggests that this force, capable of bending all others to its will, is the greatest threat in the universe. However, it seems the Time Lords are not necessarily on the same side of the debate.

“Eyes of the Master” brings events full circle, dropping the Doctor, Liv and Molly in 1970s London, where the Master is knee-deep in a particularly nefarious scheme, with full Time Lord approval. Hearing the Master rolling out the pleasantries as a mild-mannered optician while we know of his monstrous experiments is wonderfully macabre. Scarier than the Daleks and more unnerving than the Eminence is the little whizz and squelch as he plucks out his victims' eyes... masterful sound design, Big Finish, but I can't deal with eyes! The final episode gets a bit swallowed up in its need to get all the threads tied up – the Eminence, the Master, the Time Lords, the retrogenitor particles, the Daleks, the Doctor's about-face – but it manages it. It leaves each of our heroes and villains in uncertain circumstances, and me dying for the third box set. Oh, and Frank Skinner's in it, just because.

While it gets off to a slow start, Dark Eyes 2 is a strong follow-up to the first box set, building on the events of that while setting up more for the future. It does suffer a little from being just one step in a series, but each chapter and the box set as a whole work well enough as self-contained stories. Still, I am looking forward to hearing what the Master will be up to next, and learning how the Doctor will be justifying his increasingly questionable actions.

Look into my eyes: The Master's life has always been a bit hard to piece together. He's had almost as many incarnations as the Doctor now, and at least we generally know what order the Doctors come in. Where the MacQueen incarnation comes in the Master-roster is something of a mystery, but his mission statement in "Eyes of the Master" may have settled the matter. He's working for the Time Lords here, having been “extricated from (his) predicament,” and considers them to be warming him up for something bigger. Allowing for the fact that Big Finish have followed up the Master's fate at the end of the TV Movie with a spot of body-hopping, this would seem to bridge the gap between that ignoble defeat and his return in Utopia. This could be the resurrection the Jacobi Master referred to, and preparation for his fighting in the Time War. It's also possible, given his statement that he fancied meeting the “umbrella man,” that for the Master this is actually before the events of Dominion.

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