“It was the end of everything, the final battle…”
Big Finish ends its Monthly Adventures range, which for a long time was known as the Main Range, with a four-Doctor release ominously titled The End of the Beginning. It would be fair to say the question on most fans’ lips has been ‘what comes after this?’ given this range is pretty much an institution of Doctor Who. And the answer to that may lie within the 275th monthly release.
To fit in multiple incarnations, the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Doctor each get an episode to themselves while the Seventh Doctor joins the combined action in the final episode. The first 50 releases of this range had these four leading the only performed Doctor Who in the world until the short-lived ‘Shalka’ Doctor came along, and they’ve kept on appearing since the revival of the television show and expansion into other mediums.
Death and the Desert kicks off The End of the Beginning, and features the Fifth Doctor and Turlough in 20th Century Syria in a style reminiscent of many a Hollywood movie set in the region. The soundtrack doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual Syria of 1911, but it’s evocative of its location in the same way that a film like Lawrence of Arabia was for a western audience.
The music score in this episode does more than just place the story; it also carries the plot and has to build the world it’s in when much of the runtime is spent wandering around a desert with a local man Ibrahim after the Doctor and Turlough are saved from being shot by an Edwardian adventurer John Quarrington with ideas above his station.
It immediately feels very active and engaging, despite being a fairly stripped back episode, and has a movie-like sense of scale that the end of the Fifth Doctor’s TV run went for in Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani. They even do their escaping by camel.
By the halfway point, we don’t really know why the Doctor and Turlough are in Syria, although finding a way back to the TARDIS is their motive going into the second half, but we know that Quarrington is looking for a lost city and its legendary jewel and they’re bound to follow.
Youssef Kerkour’s Ibrahim is the most enigmatic member of the cast, which is ironic as almost every 10 words of dialogue he is calling others enigmatic, while Mark Strickson excels as a comfortable Turlough. That comes as no surprise, given Strickson has real-world experience of life on the sands of the Middle East and can bring that on-location feel to his performance that is crucial to selling a story like this.
Being condensed into a single episode actually serves this segment of the story well, almost like a condensed version of the large-scale feel the main range releases in the early years of Big Finish inevitably had when Doctor Who on audio was still relatively scarce especially in comparison to the huge library we have access to today.
Rather than a city, in the desert they find an obelisk which sets up a Key to Time-style chase to find the Doctor’s old Time Lord tutor Gostak (David Schofield) while also being pursued by Vakras (Kevin McNally), who is the last of the Death Lords of Keffa and able to teleport himself into the action while also bookending each of the episodes as he desires to make war against the universe and observe the definitive and destructive ‘unravelling’ from his interstellar location.
When Gostak left Gallifrey, he called himself the Pilgrim, no doubt leaving a mark on the Doctor, and his travelling life has led him to a long lost moon where the Doctor, or Vakras, seems bound to follow.
So the stage has been set for Flight of the Blackstar, which jumps forward to the Sixth Doctor and his travels with Constance Clarke and Flip Jackson. We only hear from Constance in this episode, as Flip is in a comatose state in a spaceport hospital, and this means the Doctor has to stick around until trouble turns up. Which it does.
The arrival of aggressive robotic bandits works up the Doctor’s thirst for fairness, and he attempts to gain an audience with the leader of the bandits by finding an ally he thinks is nearby.
The person he reunites with is Calypso Jonze (Robyn Holdaway), and it’s great to have some non-binary representation in this landmark release that is a celebration of the range as well as a story in itself. Jonze is a very recent introduction to Doctor Who, having first appeared alongside Sixie in monthly range story The Lovecraft Invasion last July.
It’s not necessary to have listened to that story, penned by The End of the Beginning scribe Robert Valentine, and it is Calypso’s Blackstar spaceship that takes the Doctor and Constance away to meet the robots after a brief Vakrass-shaped interruption.
There’s already a good repertoire between the trio, but the funniest lines go to the Doctor when he conversates with the robot freebooters’ leader El Zeddo (serial number LZO). This is a robot that takes itself very seriously, thanks to a gift of sentience and foreknowledge that links to the overarching plot, but is also well organised and has assembled a rogues’ gallery of robot villains before the Doctor hits the reset button.
It’s in-character of the Sixth Doctor to be the one who would essentially take life away from a robotic form without a second thought, but the listener doesn’t have long to dwell on it either as the episode sprints to its conclusion and of course back to Flip – er, I mean Vakrass.
The story heads back to the 20th Century for the third episode, Night Gallery, to an incredibly significant date: 19th July 1999.
That specific date is unchartered territory for the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard, although not for the Doctor’s earlier incarnations, but 1999 is of course the year the Eighth Doctor came to existence in San Francisco.
Paul McGann does a great job of playing his younger self, while India Fisher’s voice hasn’t aged in at least a decade. The pair get dropped straight into it as they land in London and are handed tickets to see the show of a would-be Young British Artist. The Doctor describes the fear of the millennium possibly meaning the end of history, as well as football almost coming home and girl power. It’s like this episode belongs in a Doctor Who Magazine comic strip of the period in a kind of quasi-nostalgia way where it replicates what new Doctor Who felt like at the time when the Eighth Doctor’s beacon was purely in prose.
The Doctor reveals he’s come to London to meet an old frenemy in Notting Hill, a rehabilitated vampire by the name of Highgate who gets his blood from Harley Street (definitely a comment on socialites never aging). Very Richard Curtis.
A spate of murders with the hallmarks of a vampire’s work turn out not to be Highgate’s doing, rather the activities of a copycat artist that Highate wants stopped. And the artist, Dwayne Pherber, just happens to be opening an art show the Doctor and Charley are invited to.
Charley goes to the show while the Doctor catches up with Highgate, and one of the first pieces she gets to see is the brilliantly titled ‘Reflections in death in final moments of life’, where of course there are no reflections for any of the vampires alongside her.
Luckily the Doctor and the caped Highgate arrive in time to save Charley, but now they have a greater challenge in finding a way to save all the other art goers too. There is a brilliant moment where Highgate confronts the Doctor’s prejudice when he realises he was carrying anti-vampire defences on him already, and Dwayne questioning the dress sense of both with a reaction very much of its time.
It becomes even more reminiscent of the Eighth Doctor’s DWM era after that, as the Doctor and Highgate return to the art show equipped with tanning salon lights before a disco conclusion to proceedings.
The adventure ends with a beautiful send-off to Highgate, a character we’ve only known for 20 minutes but may well have done for decades, before Vakrass returns to teleport the TARDIS into the final episode.
The picture you’ve built up of Vakrass in his brief cameos gets flipped on its head entirely at the start of The Lost Moon, in a proper ‘I’m going to have to rewind that to double check’ moment that may not be to everyone’s tastes. However, it makes a change from the usual megalomania so it serves the story well through this episode and it’s clever how he has waged war on the universe but not in the way you would think.
Each of the Doctors have been teleported to Vakrass’ asteroid, and their relationship with themselves reflects the actors’ own after two whole decades of working together at Big Finish.
That means there’s little new ground to tread in their reactions to each other, but we do get Constance Clarke finding the Eighth Doctor’s appearance “tasteful”. Whether that is more than just a reference to the contrast with the Sixth Doctor’s outfit is up for interpretation, but the earlier incarnation’s response is funny.
The Doctors end up finding Gostak on his lost moon, but he is not the man he used to be and he wants to use the ‘unravelling’ to return the universe to a time before Gallifrey’s decline. He provides the megalomania that Vakrass shies from, and so we have the four Doctors (once the Seventh Doctor arrives) and their companions combining to stop him. There is an absolutely wonderful use of double bass when the companions elect to follow the Doctor, after being told to stay on the asteroid, and it’s like a victory lap for the range as all the eras collaborate to save the day.
While going for that huge multi-Doctor scale, The End of the Beginning is simultaneously a really easy listen. How the plot progresses is made clear, it’s fun throughout and it rolls like it’s peeking into eras of Big Finish and DWM’s output with these Doctors over the years in the atmosphere it conjures. And because of the different locations it goes to, the music suite is a entertaining journey in itself too.
Subscribers to the Monthly Adventures range will be treated to a special Big Finish Short Trip, Soul Music, which features the Tenth Doctor in Las Vegas.
It’s set some time in the late 1990s or early 21st Century, and takes a lot of inspiration from cult David Bowie film The Man Who Fell to Earth. And I really mean a lot.
A race called the Muhandisians were once saved by the Doctor, and he recommended they go to the arid landscape of Las Vegas. Due to a roughly human-like appearance, besides their eyes, they have been able to assimilate with the local population by establishing businesses, although mostly live underground. When a mystery sickness sweeps through their ranks, they call upon the Doctor once again.
Narrator John Banks may sound nothing like David Tennant, but he does a strong job of capturing the joie de vivre swagger of the Tenth Doctor as well as the alien aspects of the Muhandisians.
The Doctor almost immediately can hear a haunting melody present in the background, which hits him in the hearts with nostalgia for Gallifrey. The Muhandisians are missing their home planet too, and those left behind, and some of the ill are even describing their sorrow as they approach death. It’s fairly grim, but poetic and eery in a way that is very reminiscent of The Man Who Fell to Earth and also of the Tenth Doctor’s TV run.
An emotive melody is the only clue the Doctor has to go off for saving the Muhandisians, so he goes across Las Vegas in search of its source. The city is described very vividly, but also in a very quiet way until windows start to shatter at a frequency caused by the music.
Eventually the Doctor tracks it down, fighting his own sadness, to the city’s observation tower in an incredibly visual set of scenes. There, he finds a small man playing an electric violin, while back in the tunnels the death prayers are being read for the Muhandisians. The emotional layers are really piling up.
The melody being played is being broadcast further and further, but it’s having some unintended consequences and the Doctor has to stop it. It turns out the violinist is an alien too, and he’s playing his wife’s favourite song after having to leave his planet and getting stranded on Earth. He plays it in the hope that his family across the stars will hear it and know he’s still alive. Thomas Jerome Newton’s attempts at the same thing only ended in sadness.
But a solution is found by the Doctor, which also brings the Muhandisians back to full health, and rounds off a little gem of a story inspired in part by a classic piece of science-fiction.
The End of the Beginning is available now from Big Finish.