Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Light at the End written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: November 23rd 1963 proves to be a significant day in the lives of all eight Doctors… It's the day that Bob Dovie's life is ripped apart… It's also a day that sets in motion a catastrophic chain of events which forces the first eight incarnations of the Doctor to fight for their very existence. As a mysterious, insidious chaos unfolds within the TARDIS, the barriers of time break apart… From suburban England through war-torn alien landscapes and into a deadly, artificial dimension, all these Doctors and their companions must struggle against the power of an unfathomable, alien technology. From the very beginning, it is clear that the Master is somehow involved. By the end, for the Doctors, there may only be darkness.

Teeth and Curls: The fourth Doctor and Charley Pollard? What an unusual mix. He considers her rather bright and says so but manages to make it sound far less patronising than it should. He’s more reluctant than most of his other incarnations to contact the Time Lords given that he has (in relative terms) only recently been given his freedom of travel through space and time back from them. However he recognises how grave the situation is and that their assistance is required. He states categorically how dreary it is to see the Master again and finds the McGann version of the control room a trifle ostentatious. Upon seeing the sixth Doctor he wonders how he could ever end up with such a terrible sense of fashion. Technically Baker hasn’t met JNT yet and then all will be revealed.

An English Gentleman: I’m pleased it was the fifth Doctor who was given the task of meeting Bob Dovie because he was always the most personable of the classic Doctor’s and he handles the situation with his trademark sensitivity. Especially when it comes to a man having lost his family. I dread to think of the fireworks if it had been Sixie who was given this task.

Softer Sixth: Whilst he is the third Doctor to be introduced in The Light at the End I don’t think that is any kind of statement as to the importance of the participants and indeed the whole story gets a massive lift once the most celebrated of audio Doctor’s makes his appearance. Or that could just be my imagination because he’s my favourite. The TARDIS does not bump into planets, says he. He’s not above giving himself a compliment (in this case, the seventh Doctor) when it is due. The sixth Doctor considers the CIA the ‘dirty tricks brigade.’ Nobody can spit blood like Sixie and when Peri is taken from him and the Master’s name is involved he sounds like he is going to thump Straxus within an inch of his life. I like it when he gets nasty. The CIA sickens him.

The Real McCoy: The seventh Doctor has a rather melancholic reaction to meeting Peri again, and not because it is something that he isn’t enjoying. It’s a reminder of the old friends that he has lost over the years and how lovely it would be to see them all again.

Breathless Romantic: It makes sense to have the fourth and eighth Doctors pair up so the latter can explain to the former all about his predecessors and get him up to speed.

Noble Savage: Leela has a gift for understatement that borders on genius.

Alien Orphan: I rather like the idea of Sergeant Nyssa and the Doctor turning up to investigate crimes. Perhaps there’s a spin off show in that?

Busty Babe: I couldn’t help but chuckle when Peri continued her use of innuendo that started in Revelation of the Daleks (‘I know how fond of it you were!’) and after a bout of turbulence rather disappointingly tells the Doctor ‘that wasn’t the big bang…’

Oh Wicked: This is a reasonably young version of Ace who has never heard of regeneration before and needs the concept explained to her. This is the Ace that carries Nitro Nine with her (despite telling the Doctor she isn’t) and calls monsters naff things like ‘Mud brain.’ It certainly reminds you of a more innocent time for the character. Ace is smart enough to figure out the patterns that are emerging and to start putting together the pieces of the puzzle. Weird to have her ganging up with Peri though. As if the ‘BOOM!’ scene in Battlefield wasn’t enough, there’s an unhealthy reminder of it here.

Edwardian Adventuress: The critical reaction to Enemy Aliens revealed recently how much Charley Pollard is still missed, despite a prolific amount of adventures with both the eighth and sixth Doctors. India Fisher was a vital component in putting Big Finish on the map and remains fashionable to this day (a poll I recently run put her at the third most popular Big Finish companion out a list of fifteen). Charley is exactly the sort you want to travel with the eighth Doctor; fun, trendy, adventurous and challenging. Somebody to bring out all sides of character but stand up as a strong character in her own right. She doesn’t mind if they don’t always end up in the right place, it makes life more exciting.

A Normal Bloke: What a gorgeous simple idea to have a ordinary bloke caught up in the anniversary machinations of the Doctor. After all, that is precisely how it all began.

You Will Obey Me: Geoffrey Beevers presence in The Light at the End is vital to the story’s success and he once again gets to prove that his one shot wonder in the TV series was an unfortunate oversight on JNT’s part. He would have made a chilling adversary for Davison, Baker and McCoy had he been handed the part instead of Anthony Ainley, far less pantomime and far more menace. Given the recent heartbreak that Beevers has suffered at the loss of his wife Caroline John, his involvement in Doctor Who at the 50th anniversary seems especially important, rather poignant and a lovely tribute to her memory and her unmistakable contribution to the show. Nothing he ever does is pointless and he wouldn’t murder a mans family out of sheer cruelty. He wants to make the Doctor feel as pointless as possible by stopping him from ever making an impression on the universe. Such a petty scheme, so juvenile and right up his street.

Standout Performance: At the risk of being lost amongst the sea of Doctors and companions, John Dorney has the hardest job of all to make an impact as Bob Dovie. For me he was the most impressive performer in the story; playing the part for real and imbuing it with real heart. Bravo. He’s the glue that holds this mammoth undertaking together. I wish we had seen more of him and he had ultimately been more important than a mere plot device than a character. Dorney injects far more effort into the character then he probably deserves as written.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Unless one of our future selves bothers to fix the chameleon circuit’ ‘Could we really become that vulgar?’
‘Catch me if you can…’
‘Is this some kind of Doctors afterlife?’

Great Ideas: A flashing light in the TARDIS that has never been there before and something interfering with the telepathic circuits. Time is folding in on itself. Somebody is breaking the first Law of Time. The TARDIS heading for the explosion of matter at the beginning of the universe…again. I take it this is pre-Slipback then. If you release a sufficient amount of temporal energy then you can force your way into any TARDIS, even the Master’s. The weapons factory is in a pocket dimension that you can only enter by heading for three minutes past five on the 23rd of November 1963. The TARDIS folding in on herself, destroying herself inch by inch. Briggs cleverly exploits the terrifying notion of the tissue compression eliminator by introducing us to Bob Dovie having lost his family. His loss is emotionally handled so that when we realise they have been murdered and miniaturised and playfully placed inside the dolls house it is quite a horrific moment. Whatever is happening to the TARDIS is happening in no particular order, which means a former Doctor can die and it might not catch up with one of the latter ones straight away (no, I’m not sure it made any sense either…but it does sound rather cool coming from Sixie). The Master threatened to expose the CIA’s covert mission into the pocket universe (courting the favour of genocidal maniacs) to the High Council of the Time Lords and they had to do a deal with him to maintain his silence. He was allowed to take one Gallifreyan weapon of his choice – one that is folding the Doctor’s life in on itself and eliminating him from the timelines. The Doctor’s choice to leave Gallifrey was the decision of a lowly bookworm who dreamed of a life beyond the cloisters of his own world. The Master is planning on taking his TARDIS from him, the instrument of his escape, his one constant friend throughout all of his lives, the machine responsible for everything that he has done. If the TARDIS had never been there waiting for him (for Clara to point out, I might add) then none of this would have taken place. The master has a device that can turn a single thought into a reality, a conceptual bomb. Bob Dovie was the hapless victim that caused the conceptual bomb to explode. An eight way time ram, kicking the Master out of town. How can that be anything other than mighty cool?  

Audio Landscape: If I am honest, Jamie Robertson deserved this assignment. That isn’t to belittle the excellent work of the other sound designers/musicians that have worked with Big Finish over the years (Russell Stone, David Darlington, Howard Carter, ERS, etc) who have all been at the top of their game but the work of Jamie Robertson has been so good, so professional and polished that he deserved this mammoth gift of a story to bring to life. Screaming, laughter, kicking a football, dog barking, the TARDIS, rubble falling, the TARDIS set to self destruct, sonic screwdriver, hydraulics, fizzing, crackling energy, alarm, the TARDIS dashing through space from one speaker to another, bubbling mud, footsteps, crowds of different species, floating platforms, drones in pursuit.

Musical Cues: Robertson appropriately kick-starts this anniversary story with a mournful and yet uplifting trumpet blast, almost a full minutes worth of music before the action starts. It says that this is going to be something a bit special. How lovely to have a nod to Carter’s work from Fanfare of the Common Men in the first scene, clearly Robertson is generous too. He was responsible for a version of the theme tune that accompanied the 8th Doctor and Mary Shelley adventures that was met with a mixed critical response and this is a chance at another crack of the whip. I liked his 8th Doctor theme (especially the bombast) but even I have to admit that this is the superior version, looking back to the Hartnell era and forward to the new series for inspiration and mixing the two styles to incredible effect. Listen to that stirring score as the 8th Doctor and Charley rush into action – it’s like all that nonsense in the Divergent Universe never took place. Robertson was also responsible for adding a touch of nostalgia to the 4DAs by so perfectly recreating Dudley Simpson’s style of music from the seventies and we get some potent snatches of that in the mix too. As all of the Doctors work together to defeat the Master I don’t think the music has ever been more punch the air triumphant in any Big Finish story.

Isn’t it Odd: As I imagined it would be the plotting of this huge undertaking takes something of a backseat to the extraordinary festivities taking place within the story. The first half an hour can’t be called a sufficient opening to the narrative because it has to successfully bring together four Doctors, four companions, the Master and all manner of nasties. It’s the delight of having Charley back and the cross pollination of Doctors and companions that provides the entertainment, listening to the actors in new combinations. The story is advertised in the blurb as being about Bob Dovie but he only appears in the first scene and then vanishes for over a quarter of the running time. In fact for a large amount of time Dovie seems quite irrelevant. Under other circumstances the general aimlessness of the first third of the story would come under stronger fire, the celebratory nature of this piece, the kisses to the past, the musical winks and the mix of regulars all conspire to make this ridiculously entertaining regardless. Are we supposed to take lines about this really being the end of the TARDIS seriously? I wonder if somebody like Briggs should bother with false threats of this nature when we know that the Big Finish licence has been extended and that they wont be telling stories without the TARDIS. Or is it the sort of huge threat to the core of the series that you expect in an anniversary tale? I would have gone for something less obvious and more original. A threat that I can believe in or one that hasn’t been done before. The cliffhanger is very oddly placed and pretty unnecessary if I’m honest. I’m sure it is pure co-incidence but the idea of the Doctor’s past being erased and his friends being stolen from his life is very similar to the central threat in The Name of the Doctor (‘All that you’ve ever done is being undone…’). I rather think Briggs missed a trick to get the hair really standing on end when it comes to the Doctor’s life being undone. He could have featured a montage of clips from old stories playing out and being distorted and torn apart – something akin to that glorious moment in Legend of the Cybermen when Jamie recognises all manner of sound effects from Quarks to Cybermats to Yeti activation spheres – except using actual clips from old (and even some missing) stories. Ultimately the threat isn’t as big is it has been made to appear and the whole thing can be saved by a quirk of technobabble. I know I’ve been saying that a lot lately but an awful lot of writers are using quick fix technical solutions that are no compensation for well thought through solutions to narrative complexities. Strangely there are parallels with Zagreus with the whole idea of taking the TARDIS from the Doctor but I much prefer this version because it doesn’t turn the ship into a bitchy backstabber. To avoid any plot holes (the 6th Doctor not remembering Charley – the 8th Doctor not remembering Leela, etc, etc) everybody’s memories have to be erased at the climax. It’s a shame that nobody will remember the triumphant moment when they all gave the Master a good kicking but it would get the fanboys who obsess about minute detail in such a tizzy that I can understand the rationale.

Standout Scene: What to do about the remaining Doctors that are no longer with us? How do are they included in the anniversary tale in a way that holds the memory of the original actors interpretations faithful? The Light at the End does the unthinkable and gets away with it too. It’s fleeting, it’s authentic and it’s rather lovely. Also Briggs holds back from bringing the Doctors together until the last possible moment and thus making it all the more satisfying when they do. Rather wonderfully it is old Sixie, the least popular televised Doctor but the most popular audio Doctor, who takes command.

Result: Extremely entertaining, occasionally touching and almost entirely useless as a story in it’s own right, The Light at the End is a apt anniversary story which celebrates first and engages as a narrative second. Nick Briggs has learnt a great deal from the Zagreus debacle (which, whilst it does have it’s scant admirers, is still pretty much the biggest Big Finish flop to date) and ensures that this piece has plenty of nostalgic sentiment whilst doing some innovate things with it’s participants who all happen to be the characters they played on TV. That’s such a massive step up from what was promised in the previous multi-Doctor epic they aren’t really worth comparing. That doesn’t mean that this is any less event rather than a plot, though. I will make no secret to the fact that I was looking forward to the ‘sixties’ trilogy of adventures far more than this story purely for the reason that bringing together a mass of Doctors and companions has been done before and it was highly unlikely that The Five Doctors was going to be topped as a successful anniversary tale in that respect. However I also accept that if you are ever going to tell this kind of story then the 50th anniversary is just about the perfect time to do it. And whilst my preference is to something more innovative, it was a rather special effort regardless. And given the talent that has been poured into making The Light at the End it was inevitable that something rather wonderful was going to emerge, even if it was just for scenes or moments. Briggs manages to give each of the Doctor’s their own share of the action before bringing them all together so it feels like nobody has been favoured or left out. That’s quite a feat given the humungous cast. It’s not a particularly sophisticated story and I’m not sure that the ideas or the narrative excited much at all throughout but at the risk of sounding like a broken record that isn’t what we are here for. Had the reverse been true and this had been a distinguished slice of Doctor Who without any of the party elements it would have been more wanting on this occasion. Jamie Robertson adds a great deal of polish to the protracted story and keeps things hugely entertaining, especially with his marvellous score. The Light at the End isn’t the greatest Doctor Who story ever told, it is a gift (albeit a rather expensive one) from Big Finish to it’s listeners for remaining loyal to the company and the series right up to the 50th anniversary and beyond. The fact that it mostly manages to live up to it’s hype is a huge achievement. The extras are every bit as important as the main release this time round and are truly spectacular: 7/10 (for the story) 8/10 (with the extras)


Peakius Baragonius said...

Just how important are the extras to this one, exactly? I like to get the CDs but don't have enough to spare for the Limited Edition (I might get it separately as a download though).

Anonymous said...

The extras are pretty bog standard. 'This is Big Finish' is just like an additional extra for TLATE. Unless you specifically want the Companion Chronicles I'd stick with the standard version. Wish I had to be honest.

Peakius Baragonius said...

Thanks for the info.

Joe Ford said...

I wouldn't call them bog standard. A little self congratulatory, maybe, but the behind the scenes featurettes are revealing and rather heartwarming.

McK said...

I would heartily recommend the Limited Edition not only because the packaging is gorgeous but because you get an extra Companion Chronicle with Ian Chesterton in it. It's a good story in of itself and well worth the extra price tagged on.

Saying that... I don't think LatE is my favourite multi Doctor story, but they got in every of the first eight in some way, and that alone is amazing.

I take my hat off to Big Finish - how they pulled this one off, I have no idea, and it does feel extra special.

Dan Lee said...

Zagreus actually has a pretty firm admirer fanbase in Tumblr, would you know.