Big BIG FINISH Week: Doctor Who - THE DARKENING EYE Review

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Tony’s dead. Doesn’t think much of the d├ęcor.


The Darkening Eye was Sarah Sutton’s first Companion Chronicle as Nyssa, and heard some eight years on, it’s a little difficult to reconcile with her later work. It’s also a kind of retrospective prequel to the Seventh Doctor story The Death Collectors, bringing the Fifth Doctor and his friends into contact with the Dar Traders, an odd bunch who have something of a death obsession – but not in the same way as the Daleks, say, have an extermination obsession. The Dar Traders ‘trade’ death and flesh, taking both into themselves in a quest to experience death, and yet come back to the world of the living.

I mentioned they were an odd bunch, right?

Before we get swept away though, The Darkening Eye is also a kind of follow-on from Terminus, Nyssa’s last TV story. As you may recall, she stayed behind on Terminus to work on Lazar Fever, a terminal disease which she contracted but somehow miraculously survived. The story is told as she’s telling it to someone else on Terminus, as an explanation for her survival, and – interestingly – giving some context as to why she felt particularly determined to stay and help find its cure.

According to the events of The Darkening Eye, Nyssa has died once already before she gets to Terminus – it’s why she thinks she can help with the Lazar fever, and that determination drives her to strike out on her own without her Gallifreyan mentor, to do some good.

The story of the Dar Traders with their creepy aspect but somewhat Trakenite approach to the universe is a distracting listen, because it’s important to keep in mind the hows of the story – it’s supposed to be Nyssa telling the story to someone else, so there’s no attempt from Sutton to ‘do’ her castmates, except for a couple of lines late in the day, where a Tegan twang creeps in. More though, it’s telling how tastes change in writing as in much else – there’s a lot of what would these days feel like extraneous dialogue furniture and adverbiage in The Darkening Eye – a lot of “he challenged, truculently” and the like which these days we’d expect to be conveyed through the performance.

The script, by Stewart Sheargold is a little exhausting to listen to, not because of any weakness on Sutton’s part, though she clearly expresses the difference in storytelling styles between the Companion Chronicles and the full-cast audios, but because if you’re new to the Dar Traders, getting your head around what they do and how they do it is a struggle unless you’re dedicatedly just listening to the story – and even, to some extent, if you are.

The Tardis is pretty much forced to land in the junkfield left after a great space battle, and despite landing on a dead ship, the travelers can still breathe – something is allowing them to breathe, prodding the Doctor’s curiosity to find out what that something is.

When they’re found by the Dar Traders, interesting things begin to happen and the Doctor is separated from his friends in what at least seems like a fairly permanent way, allowing the story to focus on the companions, and most specifically on Nyssa – there are occasionally self-satirising moments in Sheargold’s script, where Tegan pipes up “just to feel part of events,” which raise a smile but even though Adric gets stabbed to death here, it’s very much Nyssa’s story, as she reaches a kind of understanding with the Traders, and faces off against a mad man with a box – Damasin Hyde, whose cabinet is rather more special than it is decorative, and around which events later in the story turn. (A lovely allusion of course, Mr Hyde being neither one thing nor the other, as it turns out).

There’s some interesting insight into Nyssa’s psychology here, both in terms of her Trakenite heritage and abilities – ever wondered about that whole ‘turning the evil Melkur into stone’ thing? You sort of get to hear something similar in this story, as well as delving a little into the complexities of Nyssa’s mind – the sole survivor of a planet snuffed out of existence in half a heartbeat, by a man who swans about the universe doing the most evil of deeds while wearing her father’s face, staring back at her through her father’s eyes. And, as is raised in many a later story – perhaps none more so than XXX – the closeness between the Doctor and Nyssa not only as mentor and pupil, but in the sharing of a similar moral and ethical code, and an equal determination to put themselves between the universe and evil comes through here, with Nyssa stepping forward to avert a tragedy.

The Darkening Eye feels like a story of the time of its creation – 2007 – rather more than it feels either like something that would necessarily be made today, or than it feels like an early-80s story. It has more depth than the 80s allowed characters like Nyssa, which makes sure it gets its curiosity-hooks into you, but it also lacks some of the polish and shine of stories of which Big Finish is capable today. Nevertheless, it’s one to take a punt on if you’re a Nyssa fan (rather than if you’re a Fifth Doctor fan), because it does give her some solid emotional and intellectual underpinning (something she often lacked on screen due to time and the companion’s remit in those days). We’d suggest it’s not one for listening to while doing the dishes or driving, or operating heavy machinery though, because you’ll want to keep your concentration focused on the progression of events, so they make sense as they happen.

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

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