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1 April 2021

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Written By: Robert Valentine

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: March 2021

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

"The Universe is in a state of crisis, facing destruction from the results of a strange spatio-temporal event. And the Doctor is involved in three different incarnations - each caught up in a deadly adventure, scattered across time and space.

The whole of creation is threatened - and someone is hunting the Doctor. The three incarnations of the Doctor must join together to confront their implacable pursuer - but in doing so will they unleash a still greater threat?"

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned!

I remember the launch of Big Finish Production’s Doctor Who plays vividly, listening to Talking ‘Bout My Regeneration while playing Super Mario 64 and being pretty intrigued as I died yet again in the bloody sinking sand. I was treated to The Sirens of Time on CD by my dad and copied it to an audio cassette to listen to in the car while being driven up to Coventry for Battlefield 3, a Doctor Who convention I attended with an old school friend. I couldn’t resist sneaking a quick listen the night before though, just a couple of scenes with Peter Davison. It all felt so exciting: new Who, at last!

It was years later that I had money of my own to spend and I eagerly jumped into the Big Finish fray. Paul McGann became one of my very favourite actors to play the role; writers such as Jacqueline Rayner and Robert Shearman blew me away; Dalek Empire was incredible; and companions like Evelyn and Charley intrigued me. Of course, for every high there were lows that hit rock bottom hard, as anyone who’s endured Dreamtime can attest to. Broadly speaking though, it all felt very fresh and exciting, bursting full of energy and new ideas and monsters and concepts.

Let’s be fair, Big Finish was never going to keep that momentum up, especially not 275 releases into its monthly range, but even so, it’s curious to see how Big Finish has changed with time. Gone is the newness that once was, replaced by releases crammed with old enemies or planets or characters. Gone is the sense of special brevity, replaced by spin-off series all over the place. Gone is the wide pool of writers, increasingly narrowed down to the same people time and again. Frankly, gone is a lot of the magic that made Big Finish so brilliant.

Here we are then with The End of the Beginning, the final play in the monthly range; a play which tries to claw back some of the range’s past glories and does, in part, succeed in doing so.

Robert Valentine has written a play here consciously structured in part like Sirens was all those years ago: a sole Doctor in parts One to Three and then all of them united at the end. Valentine previously wrote The Lovecraft Invasion for the monthly range (very good until they added in some ‘damage control’ scenes, which rank up there with the worst thing Big Finish have ever done to kill a release dead) and so he undoubtedly feels like a slightly odd shout for the man to handle the final outing, though at the same time it’s rather nice that a less familiar voice is handling it. It makes it that bit more unexpected, and of course outside of the inner reaches of fandom Nicholas Briggs wasn’t a huge name when he launched the range with the first play all those years ago. No, Valentine is a fine choice to be ending things with.

We begin with the Fifth Doctor and Turlough in the desert, with what was probably my favourite episode of the bunch. Peter Davison and Mark Strickson give it their all and the guest characters are sketched out well.  Next up it’s time for the Sixth Doctor and Constance Clarke. I wonder if Flip was originally meant to be along for the ride but then they couldn’t secure her for one reason or another? Either way, she is rendered out for the count in a coma and instead our heroes are joined by Calypso Jonze from Valentine’s aforementioned The Lovecraft Invasion. I’m mixed on this. When reviewing that play, I said that I wouldn’t mind seeing Calypso back but I fear I was wrong with that assertion. Here, Calypso felt tired and done; the joke and character beats worn thin. Also, for a release winding up a range of 275 plays, chucking in a character that’s only been in one play and expecting everyone to keep up feels a bit strange and maybe a bit self-indulgent on Valentine’s part. Perhaps it was always the intention to have her in and Flip out but it sticks out for me, and not in an especially good way.

After this, we’re onto the Eighth Doctor and Charley in an adventure set in 1999 (see what they did there?) Do you remember the days when the Eighth Doctor was in the monthly range of plays and not relegated to box sets only? It’s been a while. Big Finish + Vampires mostly makes me think of the Seventh Doctor and the Forge, though I suppose Vampire Science worked well for the Eighth Doctor and this episode is certainly enjoyable enough, largely as India Fisher is, as always, brilliant. Paul McGann meanwhile sounds a bit like he’s stuck in a submarine, his microphone quality feeling decidedly sub-par compared to everybody else’s.  There’s a rather touching scene at the end though between him and Tim Faulkner’s character Highgate, which works really well. Two small performances in a big world that winds up being utterly touching. Ah McGann, there’s a reason you and Fisher were two of my favourites.

Throughout these episodes, we’ve had mysterious artefacts slowly being collected, a teacher from the Doctor’s past, Gostak, popping in, and a sinister character, Vakrass, last of the Death Lords of Keffa, making appearances. Things are all tied up in the final episode and, oh lordy lou, if the twist with Vakrass isn’t one of the best things Big Finish have given us in bloody ages then I don’t know what is. Genuinely, I laughed and felt utterly surprised and there, just for a moment, I was flung back to the very early days.

Gostak of course turns out to not be the wise teacher the Doctors remember but his evil plan (something to do with time), its unravelling (something to do with trickery) and its eventual disposal (something to do with… something) are pretty forgettable.  It’s been 72 hours and I’m genuinely drawing a blank, despite remembering other plot points really clearly.  I’m not sure it needs to be otherwise though, as the highlight here is meant to be the Doctors all joining forces. Valentine handles this well enough, though the companions feel like spare parts. Sylvester McCoy jumps into the fray here briefly, too, and I mean briefly. The play would have been far better served to neither mention his name in the cast list or feature his image on the CD cover, as it simultaneously raises your expectations for him to be in it in a substantial role (he isn’t) and ruins what would have been a rather nice surprise cameo.

We end things with some nod-nod-wink dialogue that has bypassed subtlety completely, being less about the Doctor going off on more adventures and more about Big Finish’s ranges continuing. Colin Baker gets the final word, which is amusingly apt, and that’s that.

How does it fare as a play? It’s okay. Not the best, far from the worst. It gets by though, and everyone seems game. How does it fare as an end to the range? Less well. It’s in a weird halfway house between being a celebration and nothing out of the ordinary. That’s entirely Big Finish’s own fault though. They’ve played around increasingly with multi-Doctor outings to the point where it’s just not special anymore. There is nothing about the various Doctors uniting here that feels celebratory or special. It just feels like more of the same from Big Finish... and that’s a crying shame. It shouldn’t be the case; it should feel special. But it doesn’t, at all.

Maybe that’s in The End of the Beginning’s favour? Maybe by robbing it of an air of being special, it means there’s less pressure to feel the weight of importance and more time to just take it for what it is. Maybe. The jury remains out.

What The End of the Beginning is, is an enjoyable enough way to kill a couple of hours with a couple of nice moments, one brilliantly unexpected character beat, and some questionable elements which totally fail to land. I’ll take it.

While a good title, The End of the Beginning does not really sum up Big Finish: that beginning died a long time ago; things are very different now. In many ways the monthly range is unrecognisable to what it once was, and so it’s set to shift again. What will the future hold? We’ll know before too long.  It won’t be me reviewing it; I’m hanging my hat up here and letting someone else get on with the business of listening to all things Big Finish from now on. I wish them luck though, and hope beyond hope that, a teensy bit of that past magic rears its head once again. Now that would be something worth celebrating.

+ The End Of The Beginning is OUT NOW, priced £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download).

+ ORDER this title on Amazon!

** This was Nick's final review for us at Doctor Who Online and we'd like to take this opportunity to thank him for all his many years of content for us. Nick joined DWO on 23rd September 2013 for his first review for 'Fanfare For The Commen Men', and has provided reviews every month without fail.

He will be sorely missed by us all at DWO, and we would like to wish him well in his future projects. Please do take a minute to check out Nick's blog here!

- Seb 

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