Big Finish Review: Doctor Who - The End of the Beginning
Despite a short blip in scheduling last year, the monthly Doctor Who release has been a staple of Big Finish since The Sirens of Time in July 1999. Now that comes to an end with The End of the Beginning, the final monthly release before future Doctor Who stories are revamped with new ranges for each Doctor in 2022.
The End of the Beginning - as with the original The Sirens of Time - is a multi-Doctor Story, this time featuring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor with Mark Strickson as Turlough, Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor with Miranda Raison as Constance, Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor with India Fisher as Charlie and Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.
This final monthly release has been written by Robert Valentine and directed by Ken Bentley. It is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release in April 2021. Here's the synopsis...
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?
Part One: Death and the Desert
Part Two: Flight of the Blackstar
Part Three: Night Gallery
Part Four: The Lost Moon
As usual, I'll be joined by the world's biggest Doctor Who fan and regular co-contributor to my Big Finish reviews at The Digital Fix, my 15 year old son Ben.
Everything comes full circle with the very final monthly Doctor Who release from Big Finish. Like 1999 story The Sirens of Time, The End of the Beginning is a fun multi-Doctor story, even if it isn't going to top the list of multi-Doctor polls. With a set of three stories connected by a loose thread concerning old Gallfreyan mentor Gostak, Robert Valentine's script saves the fan service that is the big Doctor meet up to the final part. One imagines that this might have been even better had each story had more time to be fleshed out. But then, this isn't another The Legacy of Time, but a far more intimate affair.
The first part, Death and the Desert, sees the Fifth Doctor and Turlough in 1911, embroiled on a quest to uncover ancient treasure in the Sahara Desert. It has vibes of 2018's The Ghost Monument, with an array of interesting characters joining the Doctor on his journey. John Quarrington is an arrogant, aristocratic treasure hunter, brought to live with gusto by Richard Goulding, while Youssef Kerkour delves a gentle performance as guide Ibrahim that leads them on their quest. Kevin McNally is instantly memorable as villainous Vakrass, the last of the Death Lords - I hope we see them appear again in the future.
Despite the epic setting, Death and the Desert is the least exciting instalment in The End of the Beginning, serving more as a mysterious scene setter, than a distinctly engaging story in its own right. Certainly more could have been made of Vakrass and the search for lost treasure. However, by the time the credits begin and the Doctor and Turlough have been captured (a recurring cliff-hanger across all three parts), it never feels as if the narrative is incomplete.
The second part, Flight of the Blackstar, is a lot of fun, featuring the return of one of Valentine's most memorable characters Calypso. First seen in last year's The Lovecraft Invasion, Robyn Holdaway's mixed race, pansexual, trans, non-binary 51st-century bounty hunter scores an immediate reconnection with the Sixth Doctor and Constance, with the seed of unrequited attraction offering a new facet to her character. Miranda Raison installs Constance with plenty of confidence and wisdom, making her one of Big Finish's best companion creations and playing well of Holdaway and Baker as they become involved in high-stakes drama with villanous robots, all brought to life wonderfully by Glen McCready.
Flight of the Blackstar has plenty of action and drama and could have been well served by an extended running time, but Valentine's script - and Ken Bentley's direction - are incredibly tight, meaning not a moment is wasted. The fact that the Doctor and Constance both manage their own narratives, there are several twists and turns and an engaging malevolence from McCready's El Zeddo are given sufficient time to tell a full story in the space of just twenty eight minutes is a big achievement. It leaves you wanting more and you are never bored.
The real highlight of The End of the Beginning is Valentine's third story Night Gallery, a gothic horror in London at the term of the Millennium (complete with a passing reference to the 1996 TV movie) as the Eighth Doctor and Charley uncover the malevolent scheme of ruthless vampire artist Dwayne Pherber (Kieran Bew). It's a great little tale that is perfectly suited to the short running time.
Pherber's plan is perfectly nefarious, with Bew giving him the while level of ham and insidiousness to make him entertaining but not cheesy. Equally as impressive is Tim Faulkner's Highgate, the vampire that sired Pherber and has called the Doctor to London to stop him. In just a few brief scenes, there is a sense of a rich history between the Doctor and Highgate that I truly hope is explored in future adventures. There is a real sense of danger and love for vampire lore in this story - it's Interview with the Vampire meets Inside No.9 and one of my favourite Doctor Who stories to feature the Eighth Doctor and Charley.
When it comes to the meeting of the Doctors and companions in The Lost Moon, Valentine resists the urge to have them squabble and bicker, though that may be because of the tight running time. It is refreshing when we see the Doctors accept what is happening and just get on with it. There are some nice references to past multi-Doctor adventures and a great rapport between Davison, Baker and McGann. Sylvester McCoy is a wonderful late addition - a more blink and you'll miss it moment - and his arrival would have worked better if the Seventh Doctor's appearance been hidden on the release.
David Schofield's Gostak is an interesting Time Lord creation, one with a intriguing connection to the Doctors, His villainous turn is obvious, but necessary to give the final part the momentum it needs. There's some great work with the returning Vakrass too. Is the conclusion satisfying? Just about. But then, like all the stories in The End of the Beginning, it could have done with more fleshing out. I imagine a box set of two-parters might have given the story the attention it needs. Still, as a monthly release, it certainly makes its mark, delivering a fun conclusion and altogether dramatic end to 275 months of Doctor Who adventures...
To Paraphrase the Ninth Doctor, everything has it's time and everything ends. And thus that statement can now be applied to the Doctor Who Monthly Range, reaching the conclusion of its 22 year run since The Sirens of Time back in 1999. But while it may be the end, the moment has been prepared for with a multi Doctor story featuring all four of the stars of the range in one big story to celebrate and to help it go out in style.
The parallels to Sirens are paramount throughout and wrap a nice bow on the release going back to the start in a multitude of ways. The format of each Doctor in one episode before meeting up in the final instalment, having a character speaking about the events at the start of the first three parts and above all the use of the Tom Baker theme for part four as was used for the first few years of releases for the range. It all helps to add the celebratory feel the story deserves and pull on the nostalgia of those who were there right at the beginning in July 1999 (not that I was born then of course!)
Part one is the weakest, but that is probably down to the fact that I have never been the biggest fans of historicals, especially not ones with no alien villain as we have here. The plot is sufficient, mainly set up for how the rest of the story will unfold, while containing enjoyable moments which get you intrigued for the rest of the story. The performances are fine and Turlough is as sarcastic and moody as he was on TV. It is starting to become evident that Davison is getting older, his voice feeling more gravelly and losing some of the youth he had during his TV run. The cliff-hanger helps to remind you of the scale the story is going to take and makes you wait for bated breath for the next part.
Part two is a big step up, and as ever it's a joy to hear Colin Baker return as the Sixth Doctor. The fun thing about this story is how there are different mini plotlines running for each Doctor with hints of the bigger stuff to come, most notably with Vakrass popping up at times looking for the Doctor. Hearing Calypso Jonze return is a delight, and their rapport with Constance and the Doctor is just as good as it was in their previous appearance last year. The evil robots serve their purpose as the big villains but ultimately it's the calm before the storm for the Doctor (as is all of the first three episodes) as he enters the larger narrative. While it would have been nice to see Six with his original companion from the range, Evelyn, there are understandable reasons it couldn't come to pass and this team works just as well.
Part three is the strongest of the mini narratives. The Eighth Doctor returning to the range for the first time since 2011 is great and to hear him with Charley once more is another nostalgia pull for those who were there during their adventures together as they have one last hurrah. The plot of vampires owning an art gallery is admittedly a bit silly, but this is Doctor Who and that's the joy of it, being able to get away with even the most bonkers of ideas. At the heart of it, it's a short but sweet new adventure for one of Big Finish's strongest TARDIS teams. The ending where the Doctor and Highgate watch the sun rise is an interesting one, as we've never seen the character before and as such didn't hold as strong an emotional connection as the story wants. Yet the beauty of the script means we still feel sad at his loss and that is highly commendable.
The final part is the celebration, with all the Doctors together with the companions tasked with stopping the great Unravelling. Words must be said for the character of Vakrass, who is probably one of the most clever villain ideas seen in Big Finish in recent times. The twist that pulls the rug from under you in terms of his character takes the story in a new direction and allows more depth to him and opens up many opportunities to take him in if we see him return in future, which I would hope for. While we're denied seeing the meeting of Five and Six, the Doctors all share the banter you've come to expect and enjoy from the multi Doctor adventures and to see them say the names of and talk to other incarnations companions is amazing. The references thrown around may be subtle but if you pick up on them they just make the proceedings even more fun, including the mention of Charley's travels with the Sixth Doctor. The true villain, Gostac, is less of an inventive creation then Vakrass; and an old friend/teacher of the Doctors' going insane isn't a new idea unfortunately. Despite that, his intentions lead to some interesting ideas and character work to be built on.
While this is all very well and enjoyable, I can't help but feel cheated out of the Seventh Doctor. When he does appear it's a delight to add another avenue to the Doctor banter, and his reasons for his late appearance are clearly explained. Considering his shadowy prominence on the cover, the fact he's been in the range since the start and was the first Doctor ever heard in The Sirens of Time, it just feels like a waste. That being said, McCoy is just as amazing as ever in his performance and it does make for a fun entrance. The last scene where all of the Doctors discuss what's next for them is totally a meta commentary on the end of the range and is a satisfying final moment for their last appearance in this monthly format; it is a shame that Six has the last line and not Seven, denying us a true bookend in that aspect.
Considering what the monthly range range has achieved, opening up the whole world of Doctor Who to Big Finish and it's many achievements - most notably the redemption of the Sixth Doctor - it's sad to see it end. But the story itself never ends and this feels a suitable conclusion as we await the continued adventures of the Doctor in other formats. As the Fifth Doctor once said, to days to come...
A sixteen and a half minute music suite from composer Wilfredo Acosta accompanies the release. The first section has a rich, Middle-Eastern vibe as percussions and wind instruments transport the listener into the Arabian Nights setting of Death and the Desert. The second section employs heavy synth and electronica to capture the futuristic setting of Flight of the Blackstar, with tension and atmosphere aplenty captured in the score.
Acosta leans into the gothic horror vibe with the score to Night Gallery, with a great use strained strings, creepy percussion that play on the very best horror clichés, while the music for The Lost Moon is altogether more emotional. With gentle, string movements, epic, thundering brass and haunting electronica, it captures the prevailing mood of the dramatic final conclusion to the story. It's the most distinct score of the release, with a sense that Acosta is drawing on his inner Howard Shore for a sweeping finish.
Fifteen and a half minutes of behind the scenes interviews with the cast and crew finish off the release. Peter Davison reflects on the fun of multi-Doctor stories, while Mark Strickson draws on his own memories of filming in the Sahara desert as he recorded Death and the Desert. Kevin McNally describes Vakrass as dripping with evil and the joy of having the script going in an unexpected direction, while Richard Goulding talks his character John Quarrington, a vicious Edwardian treasure hunter, and Youssef Kerkour delves into the innocence and wide-eyed wonder of Ibrahim.
Miranda Raison is amused how Colin Baker gets more 'end of the scene' lines than the other Doctors, and Baker finds excitement in exploring new territory in this latest Doctor Who story. Robyn Holdaway finds excitement in bringing Calypso Jonze back and has a huge appreciation for Robert Valentine as a writer. Glen McCready recounts the many roles he plays in Flight of the Blackstar, finding the character of El Zeddo the most fun to play, while playing his fellow gangster robot cohorts at the same time!
India Fisher and Paul McGann reflect of recording their first adventures twenty years ago and the ease of working together. Kieran Bew Dwayne Pherber reels off the many, many characters he has played for Big Finish and his eagerness to play more, while David Schofield delves into the mentality of Gostak and his flawed ideas.
As with many extras lately, there is a discussion about the joys of remote recording, with Davison chatting about the evolution of his recording under the stairs to round off the release. It's a shame that we don't get anything from writer Robert Valentine or the producers on this being the very final monthly release, but it is always fun to hear snippets from those involved and the joys of working for Big Finish.