The final – or perhaps penultimate – chapter of Big Finish’s Doctor Who 60th anniversary event brings Once and Future to an epic climax, with the Eighth (Paul McGann) and Fourth (Tom Baker) Doctors reuniting with their granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and future wife Professor River Song (Alex Kingston) against the Union (the titular character voiced by Maureen O’Brien). One Classic era companion, one New Series era companion: a magnificent combination!
(Before I resume, by disobeying River Song, I would like to warn you that there will be a number of spoilers ahead in this review.)
Directly continuing from Time Lord Immemorial, the Doctor listens to Susan’s distress call in the midst of his degeneration crisis, switching between the First (Stephen Noonan), Second (Michael Troughton), and Third (Tim Treloar) incarnations, before settling into his Eighth. He arrives at the Diamond Array, a multidimensional space station, and encounters a cybernetic Operator Zero (Michael Maloney) whom he somehow recognises behind the mask.
Meanwhile, River attempts to break Susan out of a prison cell, only to find the Union standing in her way. This allows her to escape and reunite with her grandfather, and both head into a portal, ending up in familiar prehistoric setting. Yes, we have a deliberate callback to the very first serial, An Unearthly Child (aka 100,000 BC), with Susan being one of the earliest companions alongside her teachers from Coal Hill School, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright. As River comes to the rescue, it becomes a family reunion of sorts before they head back to the Diamond Array.
What I love about Maureen’s brilliant portrayal of the titular villain is that it’s a sharp contrast to the First Doctor’s companion, Vicki Pallister. Although I won’t spoil the Union’s true identity or motives behind the degeneration weapon, the outcomes don’t disappoint.
Having the Fourth Doctor finally interact with his granddaughter is a dream come true, since he was the only incarnation up to that point that Susan didn’t encounter in The Five Doctors. I’m sure Tom and Carole had fun recording these lines, despite never meeting on-screen. Considering that this is his second appearance in the overarching narrative (with him in his Season 18 outfit), it very much bookends with Past Lives which could be a reference to Baker’s seven-year tenure; hence being the seventh chapter. And if you’re wondering how Susan and River already know each other, it’s worth checking out An Unearthly Woman (from The Diary of River Song Series 6); also written by Matt Fitton.
In addition to the Fifth (Peter Davison), Sixth (Colin Baker), and Seventh (Sylvester McCoy) Doctors, we are treated to some nostalgic cameos from not only the Tenth (David Tennant), but also the Eleventh and Twelfth (both voiced by Jacob Dudman) Doctors! To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure if the latter two incarnations would appear beforehand, but I wish they had been kept a surprise from the credits page. Nonetheless, it brings a lot of warmth to my heart, including their interactions with Susan and River.
Despite having a lead role in the previous chapter, it’s a shame that the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) wasn’t featured at all with the remaining incarnations. Considering that Once and Future was originally conceived as a six-part story arc, long before Time Lord Immemorial was written and recorded, I can only assume it was down to availability and scheduling. But in hindsight, an appearance from Eccleston would’ve been a fantastic addition, completing the set of Doctor cameos in one story; like with The Day of the Doctor.
Overall, The Union is a satisfying conclusion to the diamond arc. Matt Fitton brings together the best elements in the script, delivering 73 minutes of nostalgia and continuity to tie up various loose ends and unanswered questions — almost as strong as The Martian Invasion of Planetoid 50, with both entries having more time to flesh out the storytelling and character development. The longer the finale, the better.
With only one instalment left in the eight-part story arc, we’ll have to wait until November 2024 for Coda – The Final Act. Whatever Big Finish has planned for the epilogue, I’ve no doubt it’ll feature a certain incarnation from a very recent era. Guess it has something to do with the rights? But still, we should be grateful that The Union has been released exactly a month before The Star Beast, which will begin the run of the 60th anniversary specials. Exciting times ahead!
Once and Future: The Union is now available on CD and digital download. If you want extended extras and music suites for the entire series, you can purchase the Once and Future Special Edition bundle as a download only.