Who @ 50: The Light at the End

Posted on November 22, 2013

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November 23rd 1963 proves to be a significant day in the lives of the Doctor. All his incarnations will have to fight for their very existence as the barriers of time itself break apart. It’s also the day Bob Dovie’s life is ripped apart. From the beginning, it’s clear that the Master is somehow involved. And by the end, for the Doctors, there may only be darkness..

Doctor Who’s anniversary stories have always been a contentious topic amongst die-hard fans. 1973’s ‘The Three Doctors’ hit a stumbling block with William Hartnell’s illness precluded him taking part, then Tom Baker declined to participate in 1983’s ‘The Five Doctors’. We’d best not mention 1993’s Dimensions in Time/Eastenders crossover whilst 2003’s ruby anniversary story ‘Zagreus’, despite its ambition, confused many and disappointed even more.

Flash forward to 2013, and the anniversary stories are piling up to mark the Time Lord’s golden year. Doctor Who Magazine brought back Ian and Barbara in ‘Hunters of the Burning Stone’, there’s an 11 part audio series chronicling the ‘Destiny of the Doctor’, and we’ve got ‘The Day of the Doctor’ to look forward to on t’telly. But suddenly November 23rd has come with an early release of Big Finish’s multi-Doctor mash up, ‘The Light at the End’.

Anniversary stories carry a certain weight of expectation that inevitably will disappoint somebody somewhere. The Light at the End is no exception to this. It doesn’t feel like a celebration of Doctor Who, in fact, its more akin to one of the intimate Moffat finales than anything else. It’s a relief that writer Nick Briggs has resisted the opportunity to pile in every single enemy the Doctor has ever faced. Instead its the Doctor’s ultimate nemesis, the Master, who is the main villain of the piece.

Geoffrey Beevers has proved his worth in other appearances as The Master for Big Finish, and here he is no less impressive. Beevers’ performance is able to elevate him beyond the generic villain he’s depicted as and it’s thanks to Beevers’ silky tones that you enjoy the Master’s presence as his plan and dialogue are pretty run of the mill. When he starts cackling and spouting banal nonsense, you half hope that its some sort of trick of the writing before you realise that, nope, this is how the character is supposed to sound. Poor Geoffrey Beevers.

Elsewhere, dialogue between Doctors and companions is shockingly dreadful. Those expecting the witticisms (“So you’re my replacements eh? A dandy and a clown!” – still one of the best lines in Who) from other anniversary stories needn’t look here. It feels forced whenever one of the characters tries to act in a contemporary manner through to awkwardly stilted when the respective companions are sizing themselves up against each other. Thankfully the bickering between Doctors evident in previous multi-Doctor affairs has been reduced to the bare minimum here.

Strange to think that technically Peter Davison is the elder statesman when it comes to anniversary stories. So it is great to Tom Baker’s Doctor in his first proper anniversary story, in the thick of the action. He positively sparks off Paul McGann’s Doctor. Tom Baker’s irascible ability to command a situation is still evident whilst McGann sounds as if he is having an utter ball. However, The Light at the End manages to waste so many of the talents of the other cast. Colin Baker in particular gets precious little to do for the majority of the story, left to bluster at Time Lords as if it’s 1986 all over again.

It might sound as if I utterly hated The Light at the End at this point, but it does pull off some surprises. Writer Nick Briggs has come up with a few innovative ways to feature as many companions as possible, even if some only appear very briefly. All eight classic Doctors are featured (and it’s not sound clips this time) much to my surprise.

I really wanted to come out the other side of The Light of the End singing it’s praises from the rooftops. But compared to recent releases Fanfare of the Common Men and The Space Race,The Light at the End is severly lacking in originality. It might tick all the nostalgia boxes but there are some strange directorial decisions – some sequences go nowhere with sound effects leaving you confused as to what was happening. Aside from one very sinister sequence with a dolls house, the story is lacking in shock or scare value. The repetition of whole chunks of exposition regarding a certain light appearing on the TARDIS console is also unnecessary.

It’s a pleasant enough way to spend two hours, but it should have been so much more. Big Finish have set themselves a problem in trying to celebrate with an exercise in nostalgia when the majority of their output is an exercise in nostalgia. That might sound like a harsh comment, but when many of the actors featured her regularly reprise their roles for the company on a regular basis, it becomes difficult to think of some sort of combination on fan’s wishlists they haven’t already fulfilled.

It’s not even as if the casual purchaser picking this up will learn anything about Doctor Who in the process. It is assumed that in the Master undoing all the Doctor’s work by erasing him from time that the Doctor has done entirely good things within the universe. If Nick Briggs is going to insist on an audience identification figure with Bob Dovie, why not have the Doctor accidentally devastate his life, thereby the Doctor’s removal from the timeline would undo the Doctor’s interference and introduce some shades of grey to a very black and white plot. Why not use Dovie as a tool to explore the good the Doctor brings to the universe? No, instead Dovie is merely a cipher used to tell us how bad the Master is. Shame.

When Big Finish has produced some challenging and wonderfully experimental material, its such a disappointment to see something so vanilla produced for the anniversary. Perhaps this is the fault of the writer, perhaps another writer you’d expect to produce something outstanding for the anniversary might have baked a bigger and sourer cake with the ingredients. Part of the problem is trying to please everyone without upsetting the status quo – a untenable situation when crafting a multi-Doctor story. I’ve spent much of this review criticising what The Light at the End isn’t rather than what it is – possibly a flaw of this review. But I think that’s the key problem: The Light at the End ought to have been an entirely different story, as traditional multi-Doctor stories cannot work effectively with any more than say five Doctors, let alone eight, or even twelve.

But then, lets face it, with Big Finish’s very canny (and attractive) purchasing options, you’ve probably cracked already haven’t you?

The Light at the End is available from Big Finish in download, standard, deluxe and vinyl editions.

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Posted in: Audiobooks