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26 August 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Eddie Robson

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: June 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Steven and Vicki to the Italian city of Ravenna in the year 540 – besieged by the army of the celebrated Byzantine general Belisarius. Caught up in the fighting, Steven ends up on a boat bound for Constantinople, the heart of the Roman Empire.

Rescuing Steven, however, is the least of the Doctor's problems – because he shouldn't be mixed up in this particular adventure at all. Someone has sabotaged his own personal timeline, putting him in the place of his First incarnation... but who, and why? The truth is about to be revealed – but at what cost to all of the Doctors, and to the whole future history of the planet Earth?”

It’s been a bumpy old ride, but finally here we are: The Secret History, the final story in Big Finish’s latest trilogy. We’ve had the more-Fourth-than-Third-Doctor story The Defectors and then, sadly for us all, Last of the Cybermen, which is about as awful a play as we’ve ever been given by Big Finish, even if it did try to explain away the photograph-roundel-walls in the TARDIS. (I begrudgingly give it a nod for that.)  This has been a pretty lackluster trilogy so far then, but thankfully they’ve gone and saved the best ‘til last.

For a start, this feels just like a First Doctor story. Put William Hartnell in the title role instead of Peter Davison and it would feel just right in the way the other two plays would not have done.  Eddie Robson has easily written the most successful play for this different-Doctors remit, no question about it.

It perhaps also helps that Steven and Vicki, the two companions in this tale, fit in perfectly with the story being told, too, and gel with the Fifth Doctor in a way that makes you long for this troop to have further adventures. Peter Davison, Peter Purves and Maureen O’Brien are all class acts and they milk Robson’s brilliant script for all it’s worth.

The story itself takes place in the year 540 CE: Ravenna is under the control of the general Belisarius, Steven has been whisked off to fight, and someone is in the shadows, manipulating the Doctor’s personal history and timeline… but who? And why?

The question of who is a thorny one, really. It should be a big secret, and indeed if you simply downloaded the story and seen the cast list as put on the Big Finish website, it would be. However, if you get the CD, then there is a whacking great spoiler on the cover, clearly showing you the name of the actor playing the antagonist, a character that actor is associated with. Added to that is the CD artwork which decides to place an image representing the antagonist in the centre of it all: why that and not, say, a generic roman soldier or even Belisarius? It seems odd that Big Finish have gone to great lengths to hide the identity of the Doctor’s foe and then place them smack-bang in the middle of the cover.  It’s a pity as it would have been a nice surprise otherwise.  Instead, having seen the cover and then received the CD, I met the revelation of the baddie with a shrug instead of the shock I should have felt.

Just in case you haven’t put two and two together though or been spoilt, I’ll refrain from naming them here. Suffice to say that they fit perfectly though, with both the story and the notion of incorrect Doctors across this trilogy. The actor in question works brilliantly with Davison, and again, you would gladly see more of them in the future if possible. It’s also a welcome return to their character; a nice continuation of their story which adds some genuine sadness to proceedings. Yes, they’re doing the wrong thing, but you can see why and it is heartbreaking in many ways, as is the implication that they’ve tried to carry out this plan time and time again, forever caught in a loop of revenge and upset and rage.

The use of this character proves a smart one for this, the 200th ‘main range’ release from Big Finish, as it ties in with one of their other most successful runs: a celebration, and rightly so, of some of the company’s most popular outputs.  It’s nice to see Big Finish approach this milestone with some subtly and restraint as it’s not something they’ve been doing as of late, and as such it makes for one of the most satisfying releases from the company for a long while.

Two hundred releases though: an impressive milestone.  Not every release is a gem, and there is a strong argument to be made that quality has suffered as of late due to the vast quantity of output, but the importance, and indeed at times genuine brilliance, of Big Finish is not something to be sniffed at. The world(s) of Doctor Who, and indeed my own world, would be far poorer without them.

Just think of three things they’ve given us off the top of your head: the Eighth Doctor’s adventures through time and space, the Sixth Doctor and Frobisher, the Companion Chronicles.  Impressive, and one can easily pluck out three more: Dalek Empire, Charlotte Pollard, the magnificent Jago and Litefoot series. And more still: Melanie Bush and the Sixth Doctor and Adric all being given stories arguably far better, and certainly far better received, than they had on screen. And then there is the array of brilliant writers: Eddie Robson and Joseph Lidster and Rob Shearman and Uma McCormack and Jacqueline Rayner and Andrew Smith and John Dorney and… and…

And one could go on.  This has not been an especially good run of stories, but The Secret History itself is a fantastic play that richly deserves the full marks it’s been afforded below.

The not-so-secret history of Doctor Who will sing highly of Big Finish in years to come, and rightly so.  Here’s to more adventures… 

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