Big Finish: Doctor Who - DARK UNIVERSE Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Doctor Who - DARK UNIVERSE Review

Matthew Kresal reviews the recent Seventh Doctor release from Big Finish.

Over two decades of producing Doctor Who audio dramas, Big Finish have at once plugged a few loose ends from the canon, such as the Sixth Doctor's regeneration, and created others along the way. From the latter category is the backstory of the Seventh Doctor and the rogue Time Lord known as the Eleven, featured briefly at the opening of the first Doom Coalition set back in 2015. Filling in that gap, and more besides, is Guy Adams' Dark Universe, the January 2020 release from Big Finish's monthly range.

It's certainly a story with a lot for Adams to do. In addition to featuring the Eleven and telling the story leading up to where the character was when we first met him in 2015, there's also the addition of Sophie Aldred's Ace to proceedings. As a Seventh Doctor adventure, that perhaps isn't too surprising since she's been his long-running companion on screen, page, and audio. What's different here is that this is the older Ace hinted at a while ago, who now runs the charity known as A Charitable Earth. One who might not even be on the Doctor's side. Add on the concept of the "dark universe" itself, and you have a release that's packed full of things to excite your longtime Who fan, especially of the Big Finish variety.

But how does it hold up as a story, you might ask?

For the first half, pretty well. It starts with something of a bang, catching the listener off their guard from practically scene one. The first two episodes are a tour de force of Doctor Who writing, introducing big ideas in a globe trotting narrative, bringing to mind Series 12's Spyfall to a certain extent when you consider the presence of a Time Lord baddie in the mix. Being a Seventh Doctor tale, nothing and no one is quite what seems, something that becomes all the clearer in episode two as it builds up to its cliffhanger.

And that brings us to the second half of the story. With episode two's cliffhanger, this reviewer couldn't help but think of the controversial finale to Series Three of Modern Who, The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords. If the first half introduces the threat, then the second half shows us the consequences of the cliffhanger and has to resolve it. Doing so can be a bit of a problem, as Russell T Davies discovered back in 2007. Does Adams' learn from Davies's mistakes?

Yes and no. Jumping the narrative ahead in episode three, there's a certain amount of wheel-spinning involved as Adams introduces another familiar player, in addition to showing us the consequences of the first-half. The problem is that those consequences can't stay that way, and the listener knows that, which means at least a couple of what should be big, dramatic moments in the episode turn out to be anything but. It's the same problem that affects a lot of alternate universe stories in long-running shows, and something that Adams doesn't escape here either.

On the other hand, once episode four rolls around, Adams does a far better job on the ending. True, things have to be reset a bit, but he manages to do so without turning the Doctor into a glowing angel. Instead, and showing how well he knows this Doctor, he finds a particularly Seventh Doctor way of wrapping things up that leaves an ambiguous note hanging in the air. It's a strong ending and one that goes a long way of making up for the problems episode three has.

It also helps that the cast is solid, as you might expect. Sylvester McCoy gets the full range of his Doctor here from the master planner to the mischievous clown to the melancholic older man at the end of his life, often all at the same time. It's everything one could ask for as a fan of his Doctor. Mark Bonnar, after seven boxsets playing the Eleven, gets the chance to fill in a bit of backstory and it's interesting to hear him playing this earlier version of the character, especially with a particular development that affects his characterization for a bit in the back half of the story. The real star of this release, though, might be Sophie Aldred as an older Ace whom the Doctor has come back to decades after she last saw him. With all of the developments of the character in different media, and even just at Big Finish, listening to Aldred playing this older, gruffer, less trusting version of Ace is at once a treat but also at times utterly heartbreaking to take in. This is a story that suits its main players well, taking full advantage of their times in their roles to tell what is, fundamentally, a major missing chapter for all three of them.

Though it has some issues regarding its back half and the third episode, in particular, Dark Universe is a strong entry into the Big Finish main range and the Seventh Doctor's canon. For long-time fans of both the audios and this incarnation of the Doctor, it's an important story that fills in a gap in the history of both the franchise and these characters' lives. In that respect, it's doing what Big Finish has often done in the last twenty years and opens up a new year of stories for the range in style.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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