❉ It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for, writes Bryn Mitchell.
“A fitting bookend to the monthly range, this combines elements old and new to make something that feels like a tribute to all the monthly range, rather than an over-indulgent reminiscence of the early days. The fresh influence of writer Rob Valentine and new producer Emily Cook stop this from ever feeling stuck in the past; alongside Doctors and companions who’ve been in Big Finish since the turn of the century…”
Last month, Big Finish’s Doctor Who monthly adventures range came to an end — almost 22 years after it began — with a multi-Doctor story that united elements from across the range’s history. The writing duties for this went to relative newcomer Robert Valentine (his first Big Finish credit was just under a year ago) and he adopts a structure familiar to anyone who’s heard Big Finish’s very first Doctor Who release The Sirens of Time. The story consists of three episodes featuring individual incarnations of the Doctor, leading into a finale where they all team up.
One of the most pleasing, but perhaps surprising, things about this story is that it’s self-consciously not a blockbuster. While the multi-Doctor finale certainly ups the stakes, this isn’t trying to be The Light at the End or The Legacy of Time and it’s all the better for that. We’ve had those big, blousy crossover stories before, but this instead chooses to deliver three simple and relatively self-contained episodes, before the team-up, all of which feel like they have enough interesting ideas and aesthetics to be the basis for full two hour stories in their own right.
We open with the pairing of the Fifth Doctor and Turlough who were the first ever Doctor and companion duo to feature in Big Finish Doctor Who way back in Phantasmagoria. The episodes in this story are given their own titles, nicely distinguishing them, and in Death and the Desert Turlough is in typical sarcastic form (in fact almost every other line of dialogue he has is a complaint) and bounces off the Doctor like it’s still 1983. We open the episode in media res with our heroes about to be executed. We might not feel the stakes highly with these known and central characters, but it does save us the faff of setup and introduces the guest characters in action. The episode is a nice slice of historical Doctor Who set in the deserts of Arabia, that lingers in a focus on the setting and historical characters, with the science fiction elements of the story being less prominent, and entirely absent for the first twelve minutes.
Sound design from Wilfred Acosta nicely invokes the environment, both in the howling winds of the sandstorm and the accompanying music. Guest star Youssef Kerkour gives a stellar performance as Ibrahim, a local who notably criticises the ‘archaeologists’ plundering of his home, calling out the cultural theft of middle-class first world scholars, a group he initially identifies the Doctor and Turlough with due to their dress as “cricketers and schoolboys” and their interest in ‘The City’. The sci-fi twist about the true nature of this city introduces us to the shared narrative that goes across these episodes and (via hologram) to an old Time Lord school teacher of the Doctor: Gostak. This establishes the central McGuffin of the four episodes, as the Doctor finds the first component of a three-part data key, but in typical Doctor fashion he isn’t particularly interested in pursuing the rest of it immediately.
The second episode, Flight of the Blackstar, offers up a future sci-fi story for the Sixth Doctor and Constance, who are off on their own while Flip recovers from a previous adventure in hospital. Placing historical characters in future stories is always fun, and it’s nice to see how Constance places things in a context she understands, comparing the setting to Borough Market and a warning alarm, signifying the arrival of the antagonistic ‘Freebooters’, to an air-raid siren. With Flip kept out of the story, it’s a nice opportunity for Rob Valentine to reintroduce bounty hunter Calypso Jonze and further explore their relationship with Constance (or Mrs C, as Calypso is fond of referring to her). Calypso featured in Valentine’s previous contribution to the monthly range: The Lovecraft Invasion. While that was a historical, here we get to see Calypso operating in their own context, a 51st century spaceport trading post on Titan. When the Doctor decides to take on the freebooters, he specifically seeks out Calypso for their skills, and this foregrounds the mutual respect defining their characters’ friendship.
Of more interest though is the development in the relationship between Calypso and Constance, with the former evidently having developed a bit of a crush on the latter since the last story. The story plays this as relatively one-sided, but mostly through centering Constance’s complete obliviousness to Calypso’s not-so-subtle hints. At the end of this story it feels like there is still more to explore with this pair, and with Calypso having returned once, it feels only natural that they should appear again. As with their previous appearance, Robyn Holdaway brings an authenticity to the role as a non-binary actor playing a non-binary character, and it’s lovely to hear them talk about and discuss transgender identities and pronouns in the extended extras for this story (available to subscribers to the range).
The actual narrative of the story is resolved relatively simply, with the Doctor effectively performing a system reset on the marauding robots’ leader, and another element of the data key central to the recurring narrative being found by the Doctor. It’s a shame the episode doesn’t have time for the moral questions raised by the Doctor effectively removing this robot’s sentience in order to stop his crimes, but ultimately its intended as a relatively light sci-fi romp, and given its short length it caters up plenty to enjoy.
In Night Gallery, we have the pleasure of a new story for the Eighth Doctor and Charlotte Pollard, eight years since The Light at the End and even longer since they parted company in the monthly range. This fan favourite team complete the trilogy of solo-Doctor episodes in this release with a near-contemporary story set in London, 1999 (and yes, a joke about avoiding San Francisco features). The Doctor’s in London in order to check up on an old friend of his, a reformed vampire who resides in Notting Hill, living off of sales of forged artwork. We learn that a protege of his has gone rogue, terrorising London, and his plans culminate in an art exhibition. These vampires can be added to the list of vampire-like creatures in Doctor Who, but are more traditional than many, and there’s no attempt to give an explanation for their origin, beyond that they are definitely humans who have been changed by others. Despite being relatively conventional vampires, they are immune to traditional relics of crucifixes and holy water, but sunlight still works.
The art exhibition in which the story’s climax occurs takes place on Jasper Street, and I can’t help but wonder if this is an intentional reference to Press Gang’s episode Going Back to Jasper Street, given Big Finish’s namesake also being an episode from the same series. The story has an emotional culmination, and although we only knew the ‘good vampire’ Highgate for a brief time, we feel for the character. Again Rob Valentine has done a good job in telling a pleasing story in quite a concise space. It really feels like these three episodes revel in their simplicity, highlighting the best of the monthly adventures range’s past.
As with the previous episodes, the cliffhanger features Vakrass, Last of the Death Lords catching up with the Doctor, just after he has found another part of the data key. The final episode (The Lost Moon) follows directly on from this cliffhanger, and we are introduced to Vakrass properly. There’s an interesting twist here, playing on expectations established by Vakrass’ monologues which open each previous episode, and it stops him from being a conventional antagonist as one might expect from a release like this.
Once the three Doctors are united, with companions in-tow, the story spends a pleasing amount of time allowing the characters to trade notes, featuring references to other multi-Doctor stories; Charley’s first time meeting the Sixth Doctor (from her perspective); and Constance continuing the long tradition of companions having an eye for the Eighth Doctor (“You become awfully… tasteful”). The story then focuses on elements established back in the first episode, the Doctor’s erstwhile tutor Gostak and the lost moon he went seeking.
Ultimately, the plot relies on tried and tested tropes, with the inevitable betrayal of an old Time Lord friend of the Doctor recalling Borusa, Padrac, and many others. But the pleasure of the Doctors together springs off the page and this is the joy at the heart of the story. The Seventh Doctor’s contribution is admittedly short, but in such a small place he gets a brilliant entrance and some of the best lines in the episode. Frankly, the whole episode is worth it just for the image of him playing Scrabble against a Norse deity.
Overall, The End of the Beginning is a really pleasant listen — perhaps quieter than what you might expect from a finale — but a fitting bookend to the monthly range. It’s at its best in the first three episodes, which serve as a sort of tasting menu for different eras of this expansive range. It successfully combines elements old and new to make something that feels like a tribute to all the monthly range, rather than an over-indulgent reminiscence of the early days. The fresh influence of writer Rob Valentine and new producer Emily Cook stop this from ever feeling stuck in the past; alongside Doctors and companions who’ve been in Big Finish since the turn of the century, there’s great guest performances from actors as distinguished as Kevin McNally and David Schofield. And through Calypso Jonze’s reappearance, we have the establishment of a new recurring Big Finish original character. It may be The End of the Beginning, but it feels like the start of a new era for Big Finish’s Doctor Who releases, and I can’t wait to see what the talents behind this and other releases bring us next.
❉ Doctor Who: The End of the Beginning is now available to buy as a collector’s edition CD (at £14.99) or digital download (at £12.99), exclusively from the Big Finish website until 30 April 2021, and on general sale after this date.