At the conclusion of the myriad labyrinth of lore and lengthy monologues that was Zagreus, we left the Doctor and Charley as they embraced their fate as outcasts of N-Space and entered the Divergent Universe. This arc of stories is one of Big Finish’s most interesting experiments, as it involves separating the Doctor from the TARDIS in a way that was never truly attempted during the TV series, in order to allow the writers complete freedom to create creative settings outside of the regular Doctor Who universe.
In some ways this audio is the polar opposite to the Third Doctor’s first arc of TV stories in which he was stranded on Earth, as while those stories saw the Doctor grounded on one planet with the TARDIS present but inoperable, the Divergent Universe arc depicts the Doctor cast adrift outside of the universe, exploring a diverse array of bizarre locations in the Divergent Universe in which Time itself does not exist, so the TARDIS is completely absent.
#52 – Scherzo
The first audio in this arc is easily one of the most heartbreaking audios Big Finish have ever produced. Convinced that his sacrifice at the conclusion of Zagreus had saved Charley, the Doctor is devastated that Charley decided to follow him into the Divergent Universe, particularly since they are aware of their mutual romantic feelings for each other. This fact makes him very depressed and surly throughout this story, which foreshadows the dark stories to come later on in the Eighth Doctor’s life. Paul McGann puts in an excellent performance that demonstrates the versatility and range of his acting, as he definitely expands the scope of the character of the Eighth Doctor to show us aspects of his personality that we have never seen before.
India Fisher is also fantastic in this story as Charley, she has been given a truly incredible character journey throughout her previous audios and this is the culmination of that journey. This audio is not for the faint-hearted, and there are many scenes that fans who are against the idea of the Doctor having romantic feelings for his companion may find uncomfortable, as this audio focuses on the Doctor and Charley interacting and dealing with the fallout of not only the Doctor’s decision to rescue Charley in the first place but every decision made since that led the two characters to this situation. Written by Robert Shearman, this audio is famous among the fanbase for being one of the most creatively designed audios in Big Finish’s range, and the story would not work in any medium other than audio because it is dependant on the lack of visuals for the story to work.
#53 – Creed of the Kromon
The first real ‘adventure’ in the Divergent Universe, Creed of the Kromon introduces us to the new companion of the Doctor, C’rizz, a chameleon-like Eutermesan who is the first friendly individual that the Doctor and Charley encounter. The eponymous Kromon are giant termite-like creatures who reproduce by hybridising individuals from other races into queens to breed new Kromon, and have enslaved C’rizz’s species in their search for water and new slaves. In many ways this audio adheres to the standard tenets of a Doctor Who story, though there are many references that help to contextualise the nature of this new universe – the inhabitants have no concept of time, and the Doctor is as much in the dark about the nature of what is going on as Charley (and the listener), so his abilities as a Time Lord that were taken for granted in earlier audios are not present here.
Creed of the Kromon explores some interesting ideas, as the Kromon themselves represent the idea of a natural force that has been corrupted by corporate motives – after a company destroyed their homeworld, the Kromon assimilated the corporation’s mantras and abilities in direction to expand their colony from a simple hive to a huge facility with factory-level efficiency. This concept might seem bizarre, but it is reflective of the nature of the stories set in the Divergent Universe, as often there are concepts that are very much grounded in the reality of our universe but twisted or turned on its head.
A suprising highlight of this story is the Oroog, a large furry digging animal voiced by Brian Cobby, the voice of the speaking clock from 1985-2007. One of the many bizarre creatures that the Doctor and Charley encounter in this story, Oroog is perhaps the most memorable for his charming personality that gives the Oroog an almost Cheshire Cat-like personality. Unfortunately, this audio does have a significant setback in terms of its general popularity among the fanbase, as it contains some of the most disturbing scenes in the series as Charley is physically mutated in a strange body-horror sequence that is somehow able to out-do Peri’s transformation at the hands of the cell mutator in Vengeance on Varos.
#54 – The Natural History of Fear
The Natural History of Fear is another audio story that requires the format of audio in order to work – this story simply wouldn’t work if it was adapted for TV, but explaining the reason why would be a huge spoiler. This audio is truly incredible, but unfortunately it is difficult to explain why without ruining the whole point of the story. The Doctor, Charley and C’rizz arrive in a place called Light City in which the residents are subject to continuous memory revision. The parallels to George Orwell’s 1984 are clear, though the narrative of The Natural History of Fear takes a very different direction. This audio exemplifies how the combination of the audio medium and the creative minds behind Big Finish can create some truly incredible stories that transcend their source material to become timeless classics in their own right. Although the Divergent Universe arc has a somewhat mixed reception among the fanbase overall, nobody can deny that The Natural History of Fear makes the entire arc worthwhile.
As always, Paul McGann and India Fisher are excellent – in this audio they are given the opportunity to showcase their range, and they share some incredible scenes together in this audio that keeps the listener questioning what is real and what isn’t for the entire runtime – this audio keeps its cards close to its chest until the very end and there are dozens of tiny details laced throughout that only become obvious once the ‘twist’ has been revealed. Spoiling the end of this audio would be similar to spoiling the twist ending of films like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, so this review won’t divulge any more about the plot – but needless to say this one is definitely worth a listen.
It is also worth mentioning that Conrad Westmaas gives an excellent performance as C’rizz – this companion seems to have fallen by the wayside as there have been few references to him and absolutely no audios featuring him since the Divergent Universe arc concluded, which is a shame since he is perhaps one of the most intriguing characters Big Finish has ever created – in a way his character is reminiscent of the early appearances of Vislor Turlough in the Fifth Doctor TV stories, as the audience is never quite sure if they can trust this new addition to the team based on their previous actions.
#55 – The Twilight Kingdom
This audio kicks off a mystery straight out of the gate, with the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz finding a decomposed dead body in the jungle that initiates a series of events involving terrorists, mind control and a sinister cave with a dark secret. This is a fairly standard Doctor Who story in its basic story structure but unfortunately this story does suffer from having a bit too much padding, particularly in the first two parts. This does allow for a lot of time with Paul McGann, India Fisher and Conrad Westmaas which is always welcome, but the supporting cast are not as memorable as other stories in the Divergent Universe arc.
Arguably the most interesting thing about this audio is that the motivations of the characters cannot be taken at face value, because almost all of the characters are under some degree of influence from external psychic forces. Throughout the Divergent Universe arc there is a fair degree of uncertainty about the TARDIS, as it is never certain whether the Doctor and Charley will ever be reunited with her again given the seemingly hopeless situation that they are in – this audio reaffirms the Doctor’s desperate search for the TARDIS among the myriad of bizarre locations and settings within the Divergent Universe, the driving force behind this series of audios.
However, there is another aspect to this audio that makes it memorable – it is a rare example of the companions and the Doctor having a serious difference of opinion in relation to the events of the story, as both Charley and C’rizz believe that the Doctor is wrong to assume that the terrorists are necessarily in the wrong, and Charley in particular flirts with outright betraying the Doctor because she believes her interpretation of events is right, and we gain an insight into Charley’s frustration at the change that has come over the Doctor since entering the Divergent Universe. Overall, although this story has a somewhat negative reputation that is somewhat deserved due to the slow pacing of the first two parts, the second half definitely picks up with some great moments from the Eighth Doctor – definitely worth a listen.