Big Finish Review: Doctor Who – Dark Universe
Sylvester McCoy kicks off 2020's Doctor Who main range in a Seventh Doctor tale with a difference. Joining him is Sophie Aldred as regular companion Ace, twenty years on from her original travels with the Doctor and Mark Bonnar as regular Big Finish villain The Eleven.
Dark Universe has been written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here and goes on general release on the 29th February 2020. Here's the synopsis...
The Eleven has a plan. A grand plan. An appalling plan. A plan that endangers all life in the cosmos.
With Ace working for the enemy, the Doctor must rely on scheming Time Lord Cardinal Ollistra for help. The stage is set for an epic confrontation.
Because the Doctor has a plan to stop the Eleven. A grand plan. An appalling plan. A plan that endangers all life in the cosmos.
Whichever one of them wins, the Dark Universe won’t want to lose...
Dark Universe, the latest adventure from Big Finish’s monthly range of Doctor Who stories, promises high stakes and it certainly delivers. It also promises a welcome reunion between the Seventh Doctor and erstwhile companion Ace. However, as the story begins, the two are separated: and, it seems, working at cross purposes.
We join Ace, The Eleven and their guide Gabriel on a journey into Brazil’s Vale do Javari - one of the most isolated places on Earth. Eleven, a rogue Time Lord with as many separate personalities as he’s had regenerations, promises Ace that their destination is a prize which will allow her to get revenge on The Doctor. Along the way, there’s some fairly enjoyable cheeky banter between The Eleven and his companions, but it wears thin as the pace lags during the earlier episodes (if you’re a sucker for evil aliens cracking jokes about how primitive and stupid humans are, that always-hilarious old trope, you’re in for a treat). Their start is inauspicious. The first portal through which they travel takes the form of an ancient and extinct tree, which is watched closely by the local inhabitants of the jungle, prepared to give up their lives to guard it.
But as the journey goes on, and The Eleven alludes to their final objective being a gateway to hell itself, things get drastically worse, quickly. Needless to say, what they find beyond the gate turns out to be very spooky indeed - flipping the entire universe on its head. But I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.
The synopsis for Dark Universe hints that Ace is “working for the enemy” in this adventure. Again, without spoilers, that’s not entirely accurate. But the relationship between Ace and The Doctor is typically fraught, as we’ve seen in many other extended universe stories. There’s a touching chat between Ace and Seven about what they’ve been up to since they parted, but also friction. The severity of what she is called upon to do for the Doctor here really makes this her story, rather than Sylvester McCoy's.
There are some great moments along the way: in one memorable scene, the hapless Gabriel is flung into a forcefield which is experiencing a temporal lag, giving him a grim vision of his future (and Ace a glimpse of her recent past, a clever storytelling sleight of hand). Later, we're joined by Cardinal Ollistra, as well as a smile-raising cameo from one of The Eleven’s more rarely-seen predecessors. The structure of the adventure, which carefully reveals information piece by piece - and separates our heroes for most of the journey - adds intrigue to what could have been a fairly rote story.
“Stories are like people - they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes”The Doctor
All of this leads to a slightly rushed conclusion, in which things are quickly wrapped up. There’s never a sense that, despite having control of all creation, that The Eleven and the inhabitants of the Dark Universe are a real threat. But the high points outweigh the low: the cast are uniformly terrific, including Carolyn Pickles as Cardinal Ollistra, and Mark Bonnar’s leering, sneering performance as The Eleven livens up the story when the pace dips. It’s easy to see why Big Finish continue to bring him back as a reliable stock villain: his varied personalities (some suave, some creepy) are an asset to Guy Adams’ script. Meanwhile, expert sound design and music (from Big Finish mainstay Benji Clifford) adds a wonderfully spine-chilling ambience. Dark Universe is far from being an essential addition to the Big Finish canon, but it’s worth the price of admission. And you won't want to miss the final scene, which ominously hints at a day of reckoning for the Seventh Doctor looming ahead.
Benji Clifford’s music suite for Dark Universe is delightfully creepy, and appropriately bombastic for the apocalyptic scale of this adventure.
The trailer for the next monthly Big Finish release, The Psychic Circus, teases another outing for Sylvester McCoy; plus the reappearance of James Dreyfus’ Master and a return to Segonax, last visited in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Those suffering coulrophobia should steer well clear. There’s a deliciously authentic retro soundtrack too: for all we know, this could be a lost episode from 1989.
The overwhelming majority of the cast return after the conclusion of the story for a compilation of interviews. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred have nothing but compliments for the story: McCoy remarks that the plotlines are “perplexing but fun”, while Aldred claims to enjoy the opportunity to play an older Ace (indeed, one who is “pretty narked” with The Doctor).
Writer Guy Adams reveals that Dark Universe was inspired by comic-book crossover events: those semi-regular events which shake up the status quo entirely. It's an interesting but short interview which sheds a slightly different light on this story.
The supporting cast include Mark Bonnar, who was keen to reprise his character, and we hear again from Sophie Aldred who observes Bonnar’s very physical performances while recording lines. Owen Aaronovitch and Glen McReady, both actors with Big Finish experience, show off their talent for accents and multiple voices. Carolyn Pickles and Damian Lynch represent the Time Lords, while newcomer Lin Sagovksy (reassuringly normal) discusses her very ghoulish debut.