This review contains mild spoilers.
Doctor Who might only be 49 years and 11 months old, but its 50th anniversary celebrations have now kicked off with the early release of Big Finish’s classic Doctor audio special The Light at the End.
The special sees the day of each of the Doctors’ first eight incarnations interrupted by a TARDIS warning light. Not an uncommon occurrence for the Doctor you might think, but this particular warning light doesn’t seem to have existed before. The TARDIS indicates that the light is associated with the time/space co-ordinates for 59A Barnsfield Crescent, Totton, Hampshire, England, Earth on the 23rd November 1963. However, the occupants of this address have somehow been incorporated, along with an alien apocalyptic environment, into the latest scheme by the Master to rid himself of his arch-enemy.
As you might expect of a multi-Doctor story – especially one with no fewer than eight of them – there is an awful lot for the special to manage, and writer Nicholas Briggs kicks the story into gear very early on. The first half cannot get out of the need to introduce quite a number of people, and as a result, some parts of the set-up feel repeated. (Indeed the full address for Barnsfield Crescent seems to get particularly over-used). However, once all the Doctors have arrived in the story, its pace means that the adventure has a sense of giddying fun, heightened by the nostalgia rush of the occasion.
The nostalgia itself is used with a nicely restrained sense of balance, never becoming cloying or clunky. There are plenty of fun jokes and references hidden amongst the dialogue, a favourite being the description of the 8th Doctor’s costume by the 4th.
Obviously, the tempo of the adventure combined with the focus of the anniversary means that not every story element can be given the time to be fleshed out. Perhaps the best example of this is where it appears Briggs is attempting to add an ethical undertone to the story. This dig at weapons manufacturing comes rather out of the blue from Ace, yet completely falls flat when you remember that only a few minutes prior she was lobbing explosives at sentient creatures (at the Doctor’s behest no less).
On the whole, the plot generally holds up, and the Master’s scheme has one or two interesting concepts. Whilst the core of his plan works, there are peripheral parts that seem to be lacking in explanation. That said, it’s almost beside the point that this M/master plan is not perfect (though it certainly isn’t bad), as the focus of the story is more to do with the characters than it is plot or setting. This is a celebration of fifty years of the Doctor, and that means the real joy comes from seeing a collection of the characters we love – especially from characters that would not ordinarily interact. There are plenty of lovely moments between characters with the 4th & 8th Doctor’s being a highlight, as well as some great exchanges between Ace & the 6th Doctor.
Although there are nice moments for the companions, as a whole they do slightly less well in this story. To be fair to Briggs it would have been nigh-on impossible to give them more to do given the sheer volume that was already on his plate. As such, it is inevitable that they effectively get side-lined in favour of the Doctor. As unfortunate as this is, it is still only a minor gripe and it is difficult to fault the story for reserving the focus for the Doctor himself.
Whilst this is nominally an 8th Doctor adventure by virtue of his Doctor opening and closing the story, each of the Doctors is equally utilised and well used both individually and together. Again, there probably isn’t the space in the story to develop the interactions between the Doctors too far (and there is certainly less bickering than one might expect). Yet the scenes of more than one Doctor together are always engaging and fun, especially with the 4th and 8th Doctors. Indeed, it is just a joy to behold McGann involved more tangibly with the history of the show by appearing alongside his predecessors. It is also nice to see 5th, 6th and 7th Doctors together too, echoing their meeting in the first Big Finish audio Sirens of Time. The assured way the Doctors interact with each other is a good measure of how Big Finish themselves have developed since starting their audio adventures.
It should also be noted that the 1st, 2nd & 3rd Doctors also all appear in the story, though as you might guess, in more of a supporting role. Frazer Hines does the best of the impersonations with his 2nd Doctor, something he has been receiving plaudits for in the Companion Chronicles for years now. However, the impersonations of the 1st and 3rd Doctors are certainly passable, marking a major improvement on the fuzzy and barely comprehensible use of Jon Pertwee’s voice ten years ago in Zagreus. This is a further testament to the technical development of Big Finish over the years. The Light at the End compares very well with Zagreus, Big Finish’s special for the 40th anniversary. By focusing on a more stand-alone story, a faster tempo and a more substantial and satisfactory interactions between the Doctors themselves it seems that Big Finish have learnt the lessons of ten years ago. On an odd aside, by having the 8th Doctor clearly come from a time before the events of Zagreus it might mean that Big Finish collectors might have to file the 50th anniversary audio before the 40th.
In conclusion, The Light at the End is not an award-winning story, but to be honest, it was not designed to be and nor should it be. Such anniversary stories are more of a ‘Greatest Hits’ album, intended to bring iconic elements together as a way of paying respect to a history as well as a showcase for those new to the material. In both of those respects The Light at the End succeeds admirably, and furthermore comes together as a good story in and of itself too.
It might not be the best Doctor Who story from Big Finish, but in the context of being an anniversary story it is truly great. The Light at the End is a fantastic way to get the 50th anniversary party started and it was a great idea for Big Finish to bring it out now, ahead of its scheduled November release date. Ten years ago, any Whovian would have been happy with such a lovingly crafted audio as their anniversary special. Today we are lucky enough to be able to get sick with excitement at the prospect of a TV special (as part of an on-going and successful series no less). Yet nothing could complement the impending Day of the Doctor better than this audio story for setting expectations and whetting the appetite. The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary season is open and it’s already great.
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