Audio About half way through listening to this portion of Big Finish Eighth Doctor audio stories, I asked the social media what the general consensus of opinion of it and the social media answered that it's general thought of as a misstep, but Scherzo and The Natural History of Death are classics. Having listened the whole thing again, that assessment seems fair. As you'll see from the ensuing paragraphs written at the end of each adventure, the whole process became a bit of a trial. I'll list a few of the flaws which I didn't fit in below in a moment, but it's worth noting that despite those, there isn't really that much difference between the strike rate in this run of episodes and the average season of most Who. With a few notable exceptions, most average seasons of Who since the 60s have had a couple of classics, a few good but flawed stories and some total misfires. It's even true of the imperious first couple of Eighth Doctor Big Finish seasons and certainly true of every series since the show returned.
As with pretty much every era of Doctor Who, if they're not careful writers can find themselves banging up against a premise which has some fatal flaws. In this case, it's that in order to justify the new universe the writers must have been asked to tell the kinds of stories they simply couldn't or wouldn't attempt under other circumstances, be experimental and in some cases this means pulling a Scherzo, The Natural History of Death or Caerdroia, which are so ludicrously different they tip over into brilliance, but in everything else there is a sense of trying to force weirdness into an otherwise trad bit of Who. But mainly it's just that in some cases they're unpleasant to listen to with ugly sound design, some really quite boring or cliched characters talking and talking and talking in scenes which go on forever, unfunny satire and a sense of trying to follow a premise or structure which is not unlike The Keys of Marinus across too many episodes.
The social media also signalled a dislike of C'rzz who as is so often the case when the franchise shifts out of the Doctor and his single companion structure creates a distancing effect between Eighth and Charley because they have to find something for him to do and also means there's less of a requirement for depthful secondary characters. He's also not an especially appealing figure, oscillating between providing a Data like misunderstanding of humanity and moping around like a tragic Adric. Plus, having been given the ability to change his colour to match his surroundings, at least in this run of stories, they don't do much with it other than helping the other characters to describe their surroundings, "C'rzz, you're as blue as these walls..." that sort of thing. None of which should be seen as a criticism of Conrad Westmaas, whose performance is the only way the character is even half appealing.
But mainly it's a lack of form. During what must have been the planning stages for the season, the new television series was announced which meant that the Eighth Doctor audio, like the novels and comics went from being the ongoing adventures of the incumbent incarnation to filling in a gap but unlike the novels and comics, the audios could and had to continue and so Big Finish were somewhat forced by commercial requirements to drag Eighth back into the normal universe before the whole notion of the Divergent Universe itself had enough time to settle in. Apparently, I've just read now, some of the odder post-Divergent stories are light rewrites of another set of stories which should have appeared within here which explains a lot. Either way like the Doctor and his companions I'm happy to be out of this now and pleased that unlike back then I haven't got to wait eight months to discover what happens next.
Eighteen months on from the Neverland cliffhanger and we were given this. With its massive cast, extended running time across three cds and massive cast it seemed like it was going to the best Doctor Who story ever. Then we heard it. Despite being quite the fan of both Gary Russell and Alan Barnes, I still find parts of it almost unlistenable. It's one of those glorious messes which sometimes crop up in Who, where the writers have the best of intentions, in this case attempting to do something a bit different with the anniversary story by having everyone back but playing different characters and creating a direct continuation of an ongoing narrative arc. Except the show only really snaps back into place when the past Doctors are effectively playing themselves, we return to Gallifrey for the back door pilot for that spin-off series but in no way is it a satisfactory conclusion to that cliffhanger (perhaps because Scherzo is next).
When I originally reviewed Rob Shearman's script it was through the prism of knowing that the series was about to return to television and agog at what a potential new audience might make something which has all of the elements of Doctor Who without actually being anything like Doctor Who. Now it seems even more alien even though to an extent you can see the DNA of the Capaldi model in the Zagreus infected Eighth. Having one of the franchise's legendary scenes ("I love you") twisted back in on itself with this Doctor and Charley turned inside out as characters is almost as scary as the actual body horror that runs through the piece. There's no denying the bravery here. After returning McGann to the fold, creating an utterly adorable incarnation, Big Finish now turn around and just as happened in the novels and a lesser extent the comics take him away from us.
The Creed of the Kromon
Hello C'rzz. Hello Kro'ka. Sharing plenty of ideas and themes with writer Philip Martin's earlier Vengeance on Varos and Mindwipe, we're already seeing signs of how although the Divergent Universe arc is supposed to be an exploration of potentially experiment, alien territory, the traditional elements of Doctor Who will always assert themselves. The spark of the narrative is the Doctor trying to get the TARDIS back. They stumble into a very bad political situation and ultimately end up toppling a regime after empowering the natives, a by-product of a need to rescue a companion who's been damseled and in this case in the most horrific of ways which I have serious issues with even if its resolved at the end and could easily have been somewhat smoothed over if the writer had considered a way of keep Charley's senses intact and have her taking advantage of her situation. Horrible to listen to as a piece of audio too due to the abundance of ring modulator like vocal treatment.
The Natural History of Death
A cocktail of Orwell, The Macra Terror and UKIP's election manifesto which actually works as well even once you've been apprised of the twist. Like the Doctorless stories of the new era, it's very much describing the viral effect the Doctor's ethos and morality can have on a society or even just a single person. If I've a criticism, its the repetition and duration. As with a lot of the stories in this era, the episodes are of uneven length so as to fill the whole of the cd which in this case does lead to a lot of scenes which say much the same thing in different ways. But that's the price you pay for experimentation and Jim Mortimore is pushing the format to breaking point in a similar way to Shearman in Scherzo. As I said in the introduction, there's a real effort not to simply try and tell the same kinds of stories which might as well have occurred in the Whoniverse and that's certainly the case here.
The Twilight Kingdom
This is the moment the Divergent Universe arc began to confuse me on first listen. The impression we have from the first couple of stories is that Zagreus still sits inside the Doctor's head and he's manically trying to suppress it. Yet for all the material about mind control and what not in Will Schindler's script, Eighth is pretty much back to normal and he and Charley are reaffirming their friendship (for all that he's not telling her the real reason for his mission). Perhaps that's as a result of the original schedule, which saw this stories folded into the monthly releases and mixed in with the other Doctors rather than as a straight run through season so there was a drive towards making them even more internally consistent rather than necessarily with each other. The story itself is generally an inferior redo of The Chimes at Midnight with a less rigid structure.
Faith Stealer is the single Big Finish author credit of Graham Duff, prolific actor and the writer of Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible, Ideal and Hebburn (he also played the waiter in Doctor Who's Deep Breath). He's a real fan too, wrote this assessment of The Horns of Nimon for a DWM special concurrently with this release in 2004. But as with all these stories, this script is a matter of taste. The idea is sound, a kind of buyers market for religion and spirituality, but for me at least it never quite seems to get going. There are some good Pythonesque lines, not least in how the Doctor, Charley and C'rzz become part of the world but I can't help feeling that it would have worked better in the "real" world with "real" religions, though of course that would have run the risk of offending someone but it might have added some bite. Plus the whole Kro'ka business is really starting to chaff.
If only. Gary Hopkins, whose I, Davros was a classic example of just how to do epic audio prequels for important and popular characters (seriously, it's amazing and is available for just £20 on audio at Big Finish) misfires here. Whilst there's nothing necessarily wrong with a slice of Bergmanesque nihilistic melancholia, I'm not entirely convinced that this is the right Doctor or companions or season of stories that it should be containing. Opening in the after effect of a holocaust in what seems to be intended as a satirical discussion paper on what might have happened if that Thatcher had gone nuclear, all the likeable characters die, the regulars mostly argue with each other and the Doctor loses all of his hope before the whole thing ends by breaking one of the great rules that Doctor Who really shouldn't have anything to do with. I think this is becoming my least favourite run of stories that don't star Colin Baker or Peter Capaldi.
Good old Lloyd Rose. Rose wrote the astonishingly good two EDAs, The City of the Dead and Camera Obscura and here she is wading into the difficult penultimate story slot in the Divergent arc, The Long Game of The Pandorica Opens of this series, and sets about explaining what the interzone is, what happened to the TARDIS, who the Divergence are and exactly what the Kro'ka's supposed to have been up to. Bloody marvellous in every respect in the end and a highlight of the series, largely due to the second half where the Doctor's randomly split in three and McGann's forced to play his various versions as they search for the TARDIS and a way home, from grumpy through to tiggerish against one another, a difficult task in audio and keep them distinct. but she does and he does. Is the title a nod to Doctor Who's new home? This was released in November 2004, when the new series was well into production.
The Next Life
Releasing this in 2004, it was quite brave of writers Alan Barnes and Gary Russell to have a joke about the Doctor having memorised of all the Liverpool F.C. strikers and goals from 1964-1965 to 2013-2014, describing the latter as "a terrible season." Apparently, it wasn't that bad. They just missed out on the Premiere League coming second and positioned 3rd and 5th in the league and FA Cups. Though I suppose the Doctor might argue that actually failing to win anything is "terrible". The Next Life isn't terrible in large part because it's two of the Eighth Doctor's best writers giving everyone some witty dialogue, has the return of Daphne Ashbrook and Paul Darrow to the franchise on suitably bonkers form and manages to wrap up most of the loose ends from the Divergent Universe arc in a pretty logical way, dragging our heroes back into the Whoniverse with a cliffhanger which is both inevitable and necessary. Good show.