In terms of 50th anniversary celebrations, it’s fair to say the BBC went big for Doctor Who. The Day of the Doctor was multicast in movie theatres and in 3D, and had to sum up the essence of both Classic Who and New Who, while doing the impossible and rewriting a fair chunk of the history on which New Who had been based – the Doctor’s role in destroying Gallifrey and ending the Time War.
But in many ways, The Light At The End had a job at least equally hard. Big Finish has become over the last fifteen years, the true custodian of the spirit of Classic Who. After all, it’s Big Finish, rather than the BBC, which keeps Classic Doctors employed as the Doctor, extending the lifetime of their incarnations exponentially, frequently righting wrongs of the TV budget (Domain of the Voord – just saying), giving favourite monsters a second or third bite of the cherry (The Feast of Axos, Eldrad Must Die, Robophobia etc), and adding substantially to the mythos of the show, as it’s certainly done to the Ice Warriors and the Master. So how Big Finish celebrated the 50th anniversary would be interesting to hear, as it had to not only celebrate the 50 years of the TV show, but also stay true to what it had done with that history.
How it celebrated the 50th anniversary was with The Light At The End, a massively multi-Doctor affair, that united five living Classic Doctors (Fourth-Eighth), valiant impersonations of the first three (including Frazer Hines as the Second Doctor and William Russell as the First), a bumper variety pack of returning companions, the Time Lords (particularly the Celestial Intervention Agency, which had featured strongly in a number of BF stories), and Geoffrey Beevers reprising his role as the Master (Beevers is one of two concurrent Masters in the Big Finish range, and has certainly massively expanded his purview on the role since The Keeper of Traken) to delicious effect.
The story begins in a low-key way, much more in the Big Finish spirit than the TV show, with husband and father of two, Bob Dovie, of 59a, Barnfield Crescent, Totton, Hants witnessing the arrival of a blue police box on the top of his garden shed, on November 23rd, 1963. From such a gentle beginning though, the story ramps radically up – the Eighth Doctor and Charley discover a brand new red light on the Tardis console, and work out the ship was passing through 59a Barnfield Crescent at 5.03 pm on November 23rd, 1963 at the moment the light appeared. They decide to go and have a look, only to find themselves in a kind of live weapons-demonstration scope owned by the Vess – Merchants of Death par excellence. They (rather unbelievably) supply the Sontarans (Yes, possible), the Cybermen (Really? The Cybermen buy their weapons in?) and even the Daleks (No, surely not). What they’re doing at what should be 59a Barnsfield Crescent is a mystery, and continued to be one till Charley finds the Tardis and goes inside – to be confronted by the Fourth Doctor and Leela. The Fourth and Eighth Doctors are an intelligent combination, McGann letting Baker lead the verbal way. Meanwhile the Sixth Doctor and Peri are hurtling towards the Big Bang, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa are on top of Bob Dovie’s garden shed, and the Seventh and Ace find themselves in a pocket universe, confronted by a wall of moving mud, more than a little composed of the bodies of its previous victims (not for nothing – pocket universe, as used in Day of the Doctor to ensure that Gallifrey stands).
Drawing the story-threads together uncovers collusion between the Time Lords and the Vess, and then even more collusion between the Time Lords and the Master to keep quiet about the collusion with the Vess – they’re world-class colluders in this story, the Time Lords, albeit they choose their partners in collusion with the skill of toddlers in a haiku contest. The Master’s price for his silence is a single piece of weaponry from the Vess’s impressive arsenal, with which he – obsessive to the last – is setting about the jolly business of collapsing the Doctor’s timeline, meaning companions, and ultimately Doctors, will start to pop out of existence, as the timeline regresses to a point before the original Doctor left Gallifrey. Of course, if you’re going to delete a meddler like the Doctor from history, there are going to be consequences – as the TV show had recently shown, using the Great Intelligence to much the same effect – every planet the Doctor has saved will now be unsaved. Chaos will reign, and to misquote the show, the Master will be its emperor. So it takes the combined efforts of all eight Doctors, plus a little reparative chicanery from the Time Lords, to undo the Master’s timeline tomfoolery. Without giving away all the spoilers in the shop, it’s fair to say that most of the Doctors have a distinct role – the first three echoing The Three Doctors, the Fourth and Eighth working as combination distraction and reconnaissance team, the Sixth working out how to escape a deadly consequence and the Fifth, the softly-spoken, apologetic Fifth, being the one who undoes the effect of the Master’s weapon of timeline destruction, and undoes a terrible domestic wrong in the process. The ending, when it comes, is not so much a punch-the-air affair as hearing the thrilling words ‘No sir – all thirteen!’ was on screen, but a swelling chord of sense that ‘That’s it. That’s what Doctor Who is all about. That’s why I’m a fan, still, after however many years it’s been.’
The Day of the Doctor was a great tribute to 50 years of Doctor Who. But in several ways, and with the longer judgment of a year’s distance, it’s quite arguable that The Light At The End is actually better. The plot is tighter, the atmosphere more claustrophobic, the villainy more concentrated. It also has Doctors working closely together without the bickering of The Three Doctors, a pocket universe being crucial to the plot, and double-dealing Time Lords, but whereas The Day of the Doctor ended with the vaguely funereal note of heading to Trenzalore, The Light At The End shows the unique spirit that is common to the Doctor in all his (or indeed her) incarnations, and leaves the listener ready to head off to new adventures with all the Classic Doctors, in an audio universe unshackled by effects budgets, and as broad and as wide and as wonderful as imagination itself.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk