When browsing the online catalogue of Big Finish audios, either via their site or through some other means like the Wiki, eventually the eyes of the curious will be drawn to the wide variety of Eighth Doctor Box Sets, starring Paul McGann among various other stars. Recent releases like Ravenous and the Eighth Doctor: Time War series are heavily promoted by Big Finish, and with good reason – the Eighth Doctor Box Sets were the pioneers of their kind, and the first four Dark Eyes box sets comprised Big Finish’s first complete four-set story line. So in many ways the Dark Eyes series, the set that started it all, is considered the progenitor for all other box sets. So how does this first box set hold up? Is Dark Eyes worth a listen?
Time and Space
Being the first box set of what would become the first series in what would become a huge range of Eighth Doctor box sets, Dark Eyes has a lot on its shoulders. Interestingly, the premise of the opening story is somewhat humble. Brooding and depressed due to a series of recent Dalek victories, the Doctor decides to take the TARDIS to the end of the universe, to see how things play out. Either the Daleks are stopped, in which case life can prevail, or they are not, in which case the universe would be overrun with nothing but Daleks. During this trip, however, the Doctor’s TARDIS is intercepted by another Time Lord, Straxus, who warns the Doctor not to go to the end of the universe and instead offers him what he wants most – a source of hope, in the form of Molly O’ Sullivan, a Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing assistant from World War One who has the eponymous ‘Dark Eyes’, and also seems to be the key to a Dalek plot to eradicate the universe.
In many ways, Molly’s introduction mirrors that of previous Eighth Doctor companion Lucie Miller, except rather than the Eighth Doctor reluctantly taking Lucie as his companion, in this case the companion is reluctantly recruited by the Doctor. Molly does take some getting used to as a companion – she calls the TARDIS a ‘Tardy-Box’ and is hesitant to believe anything the Doctor says, but throughout their first adventure they get to know each other and inevitably as the scale and stakes of the conflict they are sucked up into get higher, their friendship begins to blossom. Speaking of stakes, the Daleks have teamed up with a rogue Time Lord known as ‘X’, whom the Daleks call Kotris, and are attempting to use retro-genitor particles to wipe out the Time Lords completely. Kotris, having grown tired of the Time Lord’s hypocrisy and meddling in affairs, had made a deal with the nefarious Dalek Time Controller, a truly wonderful character played brilliantly by Nicholas Briggs. The best way to describe his Time Controller voice is as a sane and composed version of his insane Dalek Caan voice.
World War One and the Daleks
The World War One setting of the first story is a brilliant choice for a Dalek story, and the Daleks spend a lot of time creeping around and being uncharacteristically patient, not revealing themselves until very late in the story. The Doctor lands in France and is caught in a gas attack, which incapacitates him while his Gallifreyan physiology heals him. In the meantime, he is picked up by soldiers and taken for medical assistance, meeting Molly in the process. The first story in the box set is a great introduction to Molly as a character, as it first shows her in her time period dealing with the war before catapulting her into the much more threatening Dalek incursion that follows.
Overall, the Daleks are effective not just in the first story but across the entire box set. the Dalek Time Controller, as previously mentioned, is excellent, and the second audio in the set in particular depicts the Daleks at their most ruthless. Unfortunately, the series doesn’t dwell on the idea of Daleks in World War One, as the pacing begins to increase as soon as they appear. It is perhaps telling at this point that Dark Eyes may have originally been set to be eight episodes long instead of four, perhaps even as another series of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, and several ideas had to be crammed together into one story in order to condense the series into a four-part box set. Whilst this does allow for some fast-paced action and varied set pieces in the second audio, it also means that none of these ideas are particularly fleshed out.
The Arc and the Eyes
The best way to describe the story arc for the first Dark Eyes box set is as a tentative first step in what would become a long journey. And as first steps go, it makes some great progress. Throughout these first four audios the groundwork for the majority of the Dark Eyes series is laid, although the fact that the series was almost planned as it was being made means that not all of the vital elements of the Dark Eyes series are present here. One of the most iconic things about the Dark Eyes series, Alex MacQueen’s incarnation of the Master, does not appear until midway through Dark Eyes 2, although Kotris is a great antagonist and Toby Jones plays a great villain.
Molly O’ Sullivan gets a great introduction in this box set that not only sets up her character arc perfectly but also gives us a great idea of the kind of person she is, and how she reacts to situations bearing in mind the fact that she is from a time period that is now over one hundred years ago. Like the first series of the Eighth Doctor Adventures did for Lucie Miller, the first Dark Eyes box set presents Molly with a diverse array of challenges and testing situations to overcome, and as such the listeners glean a lot about her character early on. Although her demeanour takes some getting used to, Molly is an empathetic and charismatic character who pairs well with the Eighth Doctor.
So, is Dark Eyes worth a listen?
Absolutely, there is no doubt about that. The first Dark Eyes box set not only serves as an excellent introduction to the incredible Dark Eyes series, but each story is exciting and interesting in their own right, and not one of the four hour-long episodes in this box set feel like they are not pulling their weight. Big Finish does an excellent job of translating the Eighth Doctor into different release formats, from his debut in the Main Range to the New Who style EDAs and now the Eighth Doctor Box Sets. Paul McGann does a fantastic job with every story he is given, and he always gives it his all. Molly O’ Sullivan is a fantastic companion who has an excellent introduction here and the Daleks are as great as ever.