Tony gets teary-eyed at the death of a Doctor.
I’ve always loved the Sixth Doctor. Really speaking I became a fan when I heard Peter Davison was coming into the show, so he was technically ‘my’ Doctor, but Colin Baker’s portrayal was so inherently vibrant that he won me over instantly, and became my Doctor. I even – possibly uniquely in the world – love the Sixth Doctor’s outfit, and can make a solid argument for the sense for it.
So I approached this last adventure with a sense of trepidation. Joy, in that Colin would undoubtedly get the send-off he truly deserved, battling incredible odds and the – ahem – ultimate foe, rather than just banging his head on the console and turning into Sylvester McCoy in a wig. But still, trepidation, knowing there would be no escape this time.
Let’s say this before we go further – this set of four connected one-hour stories does him justice, which, since this is Colin Baker we’re talking about, and he deserves a lot of justice, means this is probably the best thing to be released by Big Finish in 2015.
There’s love here. There’s care.
There’s excitement and adventure and really wild things. There’s everything the rainbow-coated Sixth Doctor deserved. There is, above all, apotheosis and closure for the way he was treated by the BBC. This is Colin Baker and the Sixth Doctor finally having won. They’ve stood together, they’ve done great work with Big Finish, and they’ve shown the world that it was the BBC that was wrong, thirty years ago, not them. The Last Adventure is a triumph that says, finally, ‘I was right.’
But before this becomes too much like a eulogy, let’s remind ourselves that while, yes, this is the end to which the Sixth Doctor comes, it’s by no means the end of the Sixth Doctor’s adventures as we experience them.
It just might take a hell of a lot of beating, that’s all.
If you’re at all familiar with the Big Finish Box Set concept by now (and if you’re not, you really should be), you’ll understand the premise of this release - four episodes from throughout the Doctor’s life, thrown together not because the Doctor experiences them chronologically, but because the Valeyard does. To him, this is all one consistent, continuous plan, whereas to the Sixth Doctor, it happens upside down and backwards and side to side, and that is wonderful. We start with the Sixth Doctor and Constance Clarke, who of course we’ve yet to meet in her proper context. No pressure then on Miranda Raison to stamp her new companion on our imaginations as a person worthy of travelling with the Time Lord. That Raison makes it look and sound effortless is a testament both to the writing from Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, and to Raison’s own strength as a performer. She slips effortlessly into the Sixth Doctor’s impressive roster of companions and brings a no-nonsense clued-in Molly O’Sullivan vibe to ‘Mrs Clarke’ that more than whets the appetite for further adventures with her. In terms of her instalment, The End of the Line, let’s say this: recent Big Finish stories have seen me resort more than once to the ‘very Sapphire and Steel’ comparison, but this one is the most like Sapphire and Steel it could be without actually featuring the living elements. A dimensional nexus made out of a train station with ever-increasing platforms and people who appear twice, three or four times, depending on how many times they die horribly. A pervading fog, a creeping darkness, and the ultimate realisation that almost nobody is as simple and straightforward as you first think they are. There are gorgeous resonances of The Ultimate Foe here – there’s even a legal clerk – but really the impressions that remain once you’ve listened to it are of creepy, fog-swirling darkness, the brilliance of Constance Clarke, and both the willingness of the Sixth Doctor to die if the cause is good enough, and the wiliness of the Sixth Doctor, should such a death be avoidable at all. The sense also remains of something epic having begun, like the first few pebbles down a mountainside that will eventually become an avalanche.
On to The Red House, and rejoice once more at the combination of Old Sixie and Charlotte Pollard! Yes, they’ve brought India Fisher back as the Edwardian Adventuress and thrown her back at Sixie’s side for a story of Werewolves and Scientists. While Peri’s unable to appear in this four-story set, there’s a touch of the Mentors and Crozier in this scenario – an isolated island full of werewolves that may or may not turn out to be something entirely else, and a scientific establishment that aims to study and normalize them. The Valeyard’s here, playing a game of his own, the Doctor falls in with some hippy werewolves, which is a delight to hear, and India as Charley still has all the spitting fury and magnificent exuberance of her character as she was with the Eighth Doctor, grateful for another shot at time and space but guarded about having her past found out. Of them all, this instalment, by Alan Barnes, is the hardest listen, and the most likely to leave you wondering what really happened. But while as you listen to it, you might be a bit confused, it really is a vital cog in the whole four-episode arc, and Episode Three quickly shows you why.
Episode Three explodes out of the gate with the Valeyard in Victorian England – playground of Henry Gordon Jago, Professor George Litefoot and Ellie Higson, and it’s to that trio, with whom the Sixth Doctor rubbed shoulders a number of times, that he turns again to mount an epic battle in Stage Fright, by Matt Fitton. What’s especially noticeable about this episode though is how far Lisa Greenwood’s Philippa ‘Flip’ Jackson has come forward. While Flip always had the makings of a great companion – sarky but supportive, self-revolving but always keen to put herself between others and harm or to help with their suffering – she rarely clicked with the stories she was given enough to cement her a longer-term place in the hall of great companions. But in Stage Fright, she’s utterly brilliant, taking on ‘Darth Vader’ as she fabulously calls The Valeyard, and facing her fears to inspire the Doctor to face his own, rather than feeding them. While it’s a delight to hear Jago, Litefoot and Higson help the Sixth Doctor one last time, especially against a Michael Jayston’s Valeyard sounding like he’s having enormous diabolic fun, this is the story that finally clicks Flip into place as a really memorable time traveler.
The Brink of Death, Nick Briggs’ final episode, pulls no punches. There’s a grand diabolic scheme that makes sense of the previous two episodes. There’s a Sixth Doctor isolated in a cold ‘Hell’ of isolation, forgotten by the universe that carries on without him. There’s a plucky Time Lord with a Yorkshire accent (no really, lots of planets have a North) who’s eager to help, and the Doctor’s most colourful incarnation rages against the dying of his light, twisting, turning, trying everything he knows, including wild improvisation, crossing timestreams and attempting to persuade a previous Valeyard not to go through with his devilish plan. There’s a horrifying sense of doors closing on the Sixth Doctor in Briggs’ script, and when the Doctor says he’ll stop the Valeyard, ‘even if it’s the last thing I do’ you can hear a cloister bell in your mind.
Big Finish has recently gotten a lot of practice of interspersing whole adventures into stories we think we know – Return to Telos recently pushed a whole Fourth Doctor story into a missing scene from Tomb of the Cybermen – and it’s a skill that serves them well here. There’s no rewriting of what we know – the radiation beams coming from Lakertya, Mel falling unconscious, the Doctor falling down and regenerating – and yet at the same time the whole of episode finds itself shoved into a moment, a moment that shows the Sixth Doctor that the only way to win is to die. And die he does.
Big Finish has also proved itself good at explaining why McCoy’s ‘Dark Doctor’ was as dark as he was – later stories are him finishing all his unfinished business, afraid that his next incarnation won’t have the stomach to do what needs doing. Here, in just four words, we understand the vast contrast between the ebullient, loud, unquestionable moral crusader the Sixth Doctor was and his quieter, more circumspect, more terrifying game-playing Seventh persona.
If there’s any issue with this box set, it’s that there are perhaps just slightly too many ‘final words’ from the Sixth Doctor, as practically any of his last sentences would have made a fitting epitaph, and those four words spoken to the Valeyard (you won’t miss them when they come) would have been slightly sharper ones on which to end than his actual last words. But Big Finish invents a beautiful convention here, a moment where both incarnations are alive simultaneously, able to communicate as the one dies and the other is born. You’ll never watch a regeneration in quite the same way again.
Colin Baker was shabbily treated when he first stopped playing the Sixth Doctor. Thirty years on, after a long and loving rehabilitation through Big Finish, his Doctor has had the regeneration he deserved – epic, brilliant, complex, and allowing the Sixth Doctor the kind of sacrifice his Fifth incarnation had, the chance to bring his fundamental nature to bear on the universe, at the cost of his wonderful life.
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
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