Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions
Writer: Nicholas Briggs, Alan Barnes, Matt Fitton, Simon Barnard and Paul Morris
RRP: £40.00 (CD) / £20.00 (Download)
Release Date: August 2014
Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online
“A very special story which at last provides a heroic exit for Colin Baker's much-loved Time Lord. Four hour-long episodes, connected by the presence of the Valeyard, the entity that exists between the Doctor's twelth and final incarnations.”
If you’re looking for a success story with regards to Big Finish, then the Sixth Doctor is it. On TV, he was trapped at a time when there was chaos behind the scenes and whilst very few have anything bad to say about Colin Baker, who gave it his all regardless of what he was given (whatever people say about The Twin Dilemma, Baker himself is magnificent in it through and through), it’s arguable that poor Sixie, as he’s affectionately known, deserved better. The books which followed gave it a good shot, as did the comics, but it was the creation of Big Finish and getting Baker himself back into the driving seat that really worked wonders. Hearing him get his teeth into some fantastic scripts, and then being paired with Evelyn and Frobisher as well as Peri and Mel, thrust him back into the limelight and created a massive reappraisal for that most criticized of incarnations. It was long overdue and much deserved, so it seems fitting that it’s Big Finish who are telling the story of Sixie’s demise.
Well, telling one version of it, anyway. The novelisation of Time and the Rani threw some tumultuous buffeting our way (… no, me neither), Gary Russell had a go in Spiral Scratch and then we have Time’s Champion as well, bobbing around in the background. The good thing, then, is that if people aren’t too keen on this version of The End of Colin, we have others to dip into, even those with tumultuous buffeting. (Whatever happened to the seatbelts seen in Timelash? There’s a story for another day…)
Big Finish’s approach to Sixie’s end (stop laughing at the back) is to give us four, hour-long stories (give or take. The final play clocks in at under sixty minutes whilst the first is closer to seventy-minutes-long). They’re set in various places in The Doctor’s life and have one link beyond the Sixth Doctor himself: the Valeyard. Considering what he was set up to be, it’s amazing really that nothing more was ever done with him on screen, so it makes sense to explore that here instead and it’s fitting that it’s the Sixth Doctor once more doing battle with him.
Sadly though, whilst all this looks good on paper, it doesn’t entirely translate well when listened to. The main issue really is one of connectivity. This release is called ‘The Last Adventure’, so it’s not unfair to have an expectation that everything is going to slot together neatly, but no. Only the final play can in any terms be labeled a ‘last’ adventure, and it only really fits in with one other play in the release, leaving one wondering why they bothered listening to the other two. As one-offs, they’d be fine, but as a build-up to the final hour, they fall massively short as they don’t actually build much.
Let’s look at the plays themselves in their own rights though. We begin with The End of the Line by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, a ghostly tale of mysterious trains and even more mysterious deaths. The mixture of trains, abandoned stations and Colin Baker cannot help but bring to mind In Memory Alone, the third story in the Stranger series, Bill Baggs’s straight-to-video series which found its lead writer and plot visionary in… Nicholas Briggs! You do wonder if the inclusion of this tale here is a nod to the roots of Briggs’s working relationship with Baker, but I am probably reading too much into things.
The story itself is fine, but nothing new. We’ve had ghost stories in this manner in the past and the twists are, again, nothing Big Finish haven’t done before. It’s not to say that the play is bad per se, just a bit… underwhelming. We’ve been here before and will do again. Likewise, one of the big selling points for this tale is something the Sixth Doctor specifically, and arguably uniquely (sorry, Clara), has experience of: the introduction of a new companion some way into their friendship. wap Mel for Constance, and hey presto.
Again, I imagine that the parallels here between Constance and Mel both getting introduced in ‘final’ stories for the Sixth Doctor are intended, but whereas Mel came with a fully kitted-out character, Constance here is the ultimate definition of generic. Miranda Raison is a fine actor, but she is given nothing to go with here. Her character is blander than any of the support and you wonder just why they bothered. I imagine someone at Big Finish said “Hey! Now here’s a good idea!” and then went ahead and commissioned this without actually working out what her character is. I hope so at least, or her forthcoming trilogy is going to be painful.
Second up, we have Alan Barnes in the writing seat and The Red House. Reuniting the Doctor with Charley, it’s a tale of werewolves, scientists and afflicted villagers. It feels similar to The Doomwood Curse in that respect, with a clash of science fiction and folktale trappings, but whilst The End of the Line felt overly recognizable, Barnes’s script here feels fresh and fits in with Charley perfectly, maybe because of the familiarities. (If you’re the sort of fan who is kept awake at night by the thorny issue of continuity and placements, then fret not: we get a very clumsy introduction where Charley reels off a list of previous adventures and where this one falls. It’s painful, but is going to satisfy a certain type of fan, so it’s probably best to have it in here than not!)
This play actually ties in to what’s to come, and as such has more merit in this box set than others. It also uses Charley and her relationship with this particular incarnation of the Doctor intelligently, and at over an hour doesn’t outstay its welcome, telling a decent story in its own rights whilst also moving pieces forward in anticipation of the finale.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Stage Fright by Matt Fitton, which reunites the Sixth Doctor with Jago and Litefoot whilst Flip is in tow. It’s not a bad story in itself, but what Red House gets right, this gets wrong. It barely touches upon the final installment at all, and lovely though it is to have Jago and Litefoot present and correct, there is no reason for it whatsoever other than it being a selling point for the box set. Flip, meanwhile, seems to be here purely to give us contrasts between the time period and our own (“Oh! It’s just like The X Factor! Star Wars! Other-Franchise-That-Is-Popular!”) and little else. She’s also responsible for a dénouement which makes the oft-criticized schmaltz of Fear Her look subtle. Surely Peri, being an American in a time of colonialism and the Empire, would have been a better/more interesting fit, especially now we know that she carries on travelling with Sixie after the events of Trial? It feels like a wasted opportunity. Indeed, the exclusion of Peri from proceedings, given how integral she was to the Sixth Doctor’s era on screen and indeed Trial of a Time Lord, feels like a massive oversight, and makes this whole set seem more a celebration of Big Finish and its various creations than representative of the Sixth Doctor’s tenure, really.
This is very apparent in the final story of this set, Nicholas Briggs’s entry, The Brink of Death, in which Mel is mostly ignored in favour of this set’s Not-Lucie-Miller-Companion, Genesta the plucky Time Lord. Ever since Lucie was a hit, Big Finish have been trying to ape her success (again, see Flip), and this is but the latest effort. No spoilers here, but it doesn’t work and she has ‘Disposable’ written all over her from the word ‘go’, and I wish they’d stop doing it. It’s getting tedious now.
There is an attempt to use her fate to compare attitudes to death and life between the Doctor and Valeyard, but nothing really comes of it. For all the talk of the two Time Lords being Yin and Yang/one and the same, you never get the impression that they are actually the same person. You’d think there would be an attempt to show the Sixth Doctor being tempted down that path but it never materializes.
So, with Mel put to one side and a substitute companion in place, this play harkens back to The Red House and works its way towards the end. We know from the very off that the end is approaching, so much of this is painted as a race against time: or would be, if time wasn’t continually extended and frozen all over the place, ruining any sense of pace. No matter though, what about the plot itself?
Well, it’s reliant on two things: the Doctor having no real sense of curiosity (“Oh! So that explains that thing that happened ages ago that I probably should have looked into but didn’t because Reasons”) and the Valeyard being nigh-on omnipotent. A big point is made time and again of the Valeyard thwarting all of the Doctor’s plans because he knows exactly what he did before and what he’s thinking, which only makes the ending– the Doctor does something that all logic and story suggests the Valeyard should see coming but, erm, doesn’t because it’s the end of the story– all the sillier and frustrating. It’s lazy and, more importantly, at odds with everything we’ve been told so far, so what, I wonder, was the point of it all. It certainly makes little more sense than tumultuous buffeting: arguably, that makes a smidgeon more sense than what we get here.
The end is here though, and Time And The Rani approaches. The plot of this dovetails neatly into that story (sort of. It’s never explicitly stated that it’s the Rani firing beams at the TARDIS here, but it surely has to be, or else she’d die on Lykertya or at the very least not look like Kate O’Mara). Colin, of course, gets some final words. Well, several. He has a brilliant last line when talking with the Valeyard, but sadly then waffles on for a whole other scene and gets a line that is in no way as memorable or satisfying. It’s a shame that they sacrifice less for more, but that is perhaps indicative of this set overall. We could have got a series of episodes that builds up to the final end, but instead we get an advertisement for Big Finish Productions.
Final thoughts then? Tricky. It’s an ending for sure, and the final episode isn’t awful, just illogical. What’s most trying with this release is that you can easily see where things perhaps should have gone: a set leading to a finale, rather than a finale with almost no build-up. A set absent of Peri and largely ignoring Mel in favour of Big Finish’s own creations. An introduction to a new assistant, but one without any characteristics whatsoever. A set that doesn’t know when to stop or, really, start.
The Sixth Doctor is surely still Big Finish’s success story, and Colin Baker still a star, but for such a flagship release, we should have got something far better than this. This is in no way the best this incarnation has to offer or even close to the best Big Finish and Baker have given us. Call this a last adventure if you will, but I’m hoping for far better to come.