❉ Rob Valentine’s entertaining script fizzes with sharply-written characters and sparkling interactions, writes Kevin Burnard.
“This is a story very clearly being made with the knowledge that it’s an anniversary and it feels like an episode designed to work on two levels… There’s the celebratory froth on the surface, but there’s something more cutting and complicated bubbling underneath…”
Doctor Who turns sixty this year. If you’re the sort of person who reads reviews of Big Finish audio plays that tie in to the series, of course, you know this already. And you also probably know that, as with the 40th and 50th anniversaries, Big Finish is on hand to roll out their own celebration, the flagship of which is the new audio series Once and Future.
There’s been a tremendous amount of secrecy around this series, and details about later episodes still remain quite hush hush, but now we can, at least, listen to the first episode, Robert Valentine’s Past Lives. The main hook here, as it turns out, is the Doctor falling victim to a weapon on the battlefields of the Time War that throws him back through various past incarnations, in this first episode the legendarily Tom Baker himself. Beyond that concept, secrets remain kept, but this first episode has plenty of its own things to chew on.
The occasion gets off to a fairly light and frothy start, it must be said. The new Fourth Doctor seeks out Rufus Hound’s Meddling Monk for answers, and gets drawn into an alien crisis alongside UNIT’s Kate Stewart and Osgood as a result, while a young Sarah Jane Smith, fresh off her classic departure in The Hand of Fear, finds herself dragged further from Croydon than she already was. And to be honest, there’s not much about the plot more to give away than that broad premise. This is an episode content largely to coast on the warmth of character interactions and which delivers exactly what you see on the cover, a bunch of unrelated characters thrown into a breezy Doctor Who adventure together. It’s fortunate, then, that writer Valentine is as good as he is at making those interactions crackle. If there’s one thing more than any other to take home about this episode, it’s that the dialogue fizzes, full of little jokes and asides that are genuinely delightful.
Is that enough? Past Lives arrives to the scene with something of an uphill battle for long-time listeners. The challenge this many years into not only Doctor Who but also Big Finish is finding new ways to celebrate these events. Not only has Big Finish put out stories like Zagreus and The Light at the End which similarly mash together massive casts for anniversary fan-service, it’s only been four years since the massive Legacy of Time to celebrate their own 20th anniversary, and multi-Doctor stories and multi-era character crossovers have become the norm for selling box sets. What makes Tom Baker’s Doctor meeting Osgood, Kate Stewart, Sarah Jane Smith, and the Meddling Monk different from other releases? It’s only been a few months since the Sixth and Eighth Doctors teamed up to fight some Capaldi era monsters!
Well, it seems simple to say, but the biggest thing that distinguishes Past Lives from most releases is a sense of the occasion. This is a story very clearly being made with the knowledge that it’s an anniversary. In the opening sequence, it sets the tone by saying, “Don’t worry, right now our safest course of action is a tactical retreat to the good old days before all this madness started”, and the story follows suit by at every opportunity it can having conversations about nostalgia. Kate Stewart, for example, perpetually unable to escape the shadow of her beloved father Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart on the TV show, finds herself unable to meet a single character here without having her father brought up!
The plot, when it comes, follows aliens from the Doctor’s past looking to go back to their own good old days, and what happens makes for some interesting themes to mull over. Without knowing the author’s intent, it feels like an episode designed to work on two levels. There’s the froth on the surface, another Big Finish crossover, but there’s something more cutting and complicated bubbling underneath. I don’t know what to make of it, but it made me sit up and take notice more than so many similar event serials have.
As for the surface pleasures, well, they’re familiar and pleasurable. Kate and Osgood have had a massive Big Finish tenure now, coming up on 32 episodes of their own series, not to mention numerous other outings! They’re sharply written here to capture the dynamic we already know well. Rufus Hound’s Monk is also a very known quantity at this point and has pretty conclusively fallen into a specific kind of mould as well, and doesn’t deviate much from it, though given his comedy chops, that is also its own pleasure.
The real surprise, in true ‘old is new’ fashion, is in how Tom Baker and Sadie Miller handle the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane. The degeneration angle really energizes both the lines Baker is given to play with and the delivery he provides, putting in what’s probably one of my favourite audio performances the Fourth Doctor has yet had. And it’s a surprisingly emotional thing to hear him back in action with Sarah Jane in a new story after so many years (discounting the Big Finish lost story of a different version of an existing TV story). Miller sounds more like her mother, original Sarah Jane actor Lis Sladen, than ever, and her scenes with her Doctor make for the strongest moments of the story. They also are the most divisive, from what I’ve seen, with the ending… well. I won’t give it away, but I’ve seen strong feelings.
Which isn’t to say this is a big, disruptive, controversial story. Past Lives is, at the end of the day, another Big Finish celebration, and we know what to expect from them. It’s counter-programming to a more New Series-focused 60th anniversary on TV, much as Big Finish’s output in 2013 offset the relative lack of classic Doctors in The Day of the Doctor. If that is itself a justification for a story for you, you’re the target audience for this and will probably have a good time. It’s a slender thing, but the characters genuinely do crackle authentically and get mashed together in entertaining fashion. It remains to be seen if Once and Future’s ambitions exceed those of other recent Big Finish anniversaries, but so far, for all the secrecy, this is a cozy rendition of the familiar, once more with feeling.
DOCTOR WHO – ONCE AND FUTURE: PAST LIVES
Writer: Robert Valentine
Director: Helen Goldwyn
Script Editor: Matt Fitton
Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Duration: 60 minutes approx.
Released: May 2023, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – Once and Future: Past Lives’ is now available to pre-order as a standard 1-disc collector’s edition CD (+ download for just £10.99) or digital download only, (for just £8.99), exclusively from www.bigfinish.com. All eight stories can be pre-ordered as separate single releases on standard collector’s edition CD (and download for £10.99 each) or digital (download only for £8.99 each), exclusively from the Big Finish website.
❉ Kevin Burnard is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He can usually be found watching TV and tie-in media, tweeting about TV and tie-in media at @scribblesscript, or frequently, both simultaneously. Backflips are sometimes involved.
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