The bizarre excursion through Big Finish’s Divergent Universe continues, as the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz search for the TARDIS among a myriad of disjointed worlds existing in a universe without time. As the setting of this arc has been firmly established at this point, the latter few Divergent audios aim to fill in the essential gaps that remain in the story that explain the nature of the Divergent Universe itself. Doctor Who thrives on imaginative, inventive and inspirational storytelling, and the Divergent Universe provides a great setting for new and creative story ideas.
#61 – Faith Stealer
This sentiment is illustrated perfectly in Faith Stealer, which deals with some thought-provoking concepts. A society in which dozens of separate religions exists in peaceful co-existence by regulating spirituality and congregational numbers in the same way that human economists monitor the stock market is a fascinating idea that Faith Stealer aims to explore – after being redirected to a hub of spirituality by the beings that guide the Doctor and his companions through the Divergent Universe, the trio begin to unravel the sinister machinations of the bizarre cults that inhabit the realm of Multihaven. Faith Stealer also delves further into the backstory of C’rizz, giving us more insight into his character and history that was only briefly alluded to in previous stories. The fact that C’rizz had to murder his lover to prevent her from becoming a Kromon breeding queen takes its toll on him as he begins to relive the memory of her death over and over again, and this among other things drives the mystery of what is amiss among this spiritual sanctuary that is Multihaven.
The intrigue and political developments between the various faiths in Multihaven is an interesting concept, the only unfortunate downside is that this idea isn’t given as much focus as it perhaps deserves, as there are a fair few story elements in this audio that are running concurrently, as the Doctor and Charley are trying to locate the TARDIS, discover what has happened to C’rizz and get to the bottom of events unfolding in the Multihaven all at once. In many ways this audio depicts a shockingly realistic depiction of a poly-religious society, as those who are responsible for administrating the Multihaven are reluctant to impose any restrictions or limitations on any faith, yet are powerless to prevent a particularly infectious doctrines from converting as many adherents as they wish.
Overall, this audio is definitely one of the strongest in the Divergent Universe arc. Like many stories from this era, revealing too much about the story would spoil the experience of listening, but needless to say that this one is worth a listen. Not only do we learn more about C’rizz and the Divergent Universe itself, but we finally get a sense that the aimless wanderings of the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz within this strange universe actually have some structure to them, and over the course of the next few stories it is revealed just how truly bizarre and unlikely their situation is. Even without the context of the wider Divergent Universe arc, Faith Stealer is a great standalone story that has some very interesting things to say about the nature of faith, spirituality and religious conversion that prove just how diverse and wide-ranging the scope of the Divergent Universe stories can be.
#62 – The Last
The previous audio dealt with intrigue on a religious and pseudo-political level, but The Last takes political machinations to a whole new level. Set on a dying world in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, this bleak story is perhaps one of the most impactful stories in the Divergent Universe saga. In some ways this is perhaps the best audio in the entire arc – it keeps you guessing throughout the whole story, and as the pieces gradually fall into place it becomes clear that this story is dealing with some incredibly serious concepts. The Doctor, Charley and C’rizz find themselves in a wasteland surrounded by the ruins of a devastated city, and are soon separated – the atmosphere that this audio generates is spectacular, and the sound design effectively conveys the horrendous conditions in this desolate land. Big Finish often deals with settings and story elements that would not be seen in the TV show, and The Last is a great example of this. A story populated with horrifically insane characters, twisted by war and lies, in a way that surpasses even the legendarily grim Genesis of the Daleks.
The Last gives a great opportunity to develop the relationship between Charley and C’rizz, as there are several scenes of the two spending time together that solidify the two as friends who care about each other – in fact, this audio solidifies the notion that C’rizz feels more for Charley than just friendship, and through this dynamic we learn more about his character. The desperation and horror of the setting provides an intense situation that forces the characters to make difficult decisions, and there are some shocking twists and turns in this story that make it an incredible listen from start to finish. Speaking of which, the sound design for this story is exceptional – the howling winds, the creaking of glass and girders, and the eerily creepy music make a fantastic combination.
Needless to say, this audio is quite a heavy listen, and is not to be taken lightly. The Last is easily one of the most mesmerising audios in the Divergent Arc, and it is a quintessential lynchpin in the wider narrative for many reasons – we learn more about C’rizz, the Divergence and the nature of the universe in which the Doctor and Charley are trapped in. Overall, this is a fantastic listen, and there are few audios in the Divergent Arc – indeed, the entire run of Eighth Doctor audios so far – that can compare to this one. In terms of tone, emotional weight, atmosphere and intrigue, The Last is one of the best Doctor Who audios out there, and it definitely ranks in my top 10 most unsettling Doctor Who stories of all time, across all mediums. From beginning to end there is a constant feeling of unease, tension and horror that makes it a great listen.
#63 – Caerdroia
As the penultimate story in a series based on mystery and the fear of the unknown, Caedroia is where we finally start getting some answers. The first part is dedicated to an interview between the Doctor and the Kro’ka, the being who has been shunting the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz from location to location throughout the arc. After a great intro we start to find out more about the universe that the Doctor and Charley are in, which is refreshing after being kept mostly in the dark about the lack of the concept of time that has been a recurring motif throughout the Divergent Universe series. The Doctor is able to locate the TARDIS, and the trio set off to recover it by manipulating the interzone portals to direct them to a place called Caedroia, or the ‘fortress of many turns’.
In the process, the Doctor is split into three people, his ‘usual’ self, a jovial Doctor that Charley names ‘Tigger’ and a brooding, depressed Doctor who Charley calls ‘Eeyore’, and the three Doctors split up with C’rizz following Tigger and Charley going with Eeyore, which makes for some comical scenes in part two as each companion interacts with their respective version of the Doctor. Credit has to be given to Paul McGann for his ability to pull off voicing three identical characters, distinguishing between them simply by the tonal shifts in his voice. An interesting and slightly meta detail that I decided on while listening to this audio was to picture the three separate Doctors as the three versions of the Eighth Doctor that we know – the more jovial and happy-go lucky version dons the classic Wild Bill Hickok look, the regular Doctor has his Divergent Universe attire (allegedly a variant of the Fifth Doctor’s costume according to the comics) and the brooding, darker Doctor dons the Dark Eyes attire, though that was just an indicator that I included in order to easily differentiate between the different Doctors.
As a rule the voice acting and sound design in the entire Divergent Arc is excellent, but there is a significant improvement in the creativity of the music in the final three stories, The Last, Caerdroia and the final story, The Next Life. This audio scales back the cast, with the main characters being the Doctor, his two companions and the Kro’ka, with very few other characters – this allows for a sharp focus on the story and interactions between the main trio, as well as the other Doctors. There is a small twist near the end of the story that is delivered excellently, and there is no shortage of dark moments in this one that make it a great listen from start to finish. Overall, the final act of the Divergent Arc has been a significant improvement in quality, this one delivers a satisfying ending that dovetails perfectly into the finale.
#64 – The Next Life
The Divergent Universe saga concludes somewhat abruptly with The Next Life, a six-part audio that is vaguely reminiscent of Zagreus, but only for the fact that it is somewhat abstract, it involves Rassilon, and that it goes on for far too long. The Next Life ironically feels like it is juggling several ideas that belong in separate audios, yet at the same time it manages to be very slow-paced at times with lots of padding. This is not entirely the fault of the writers, as it is clear listening to this audio that it was patched together as a means of providing a satisfying conclusion to the Divergent Universe arc when it became clear that plans for a third and final ‘season’ of audios set in the Divergent Universe were scrapped due to the announcement of the 2005 TV revival. Big Finish wanted to capitalise on new listeners who might give the audios a try having seen the new TV series, and as such they made the decision to return the Eighth Doctor to the ‘normal’ universe as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, The Next Life wears its behind-the-scenes issues plain for all to hear, and despite an appearance from Daphne Ashbrook as a character who is unfortunately not Dr. Grace Holloway from the 1996 TV Movie and a fantastic performance from Don Warrington as Rassilon, The Next Life failed to impress. As a finale to the entire Divergent Universe arc it does raise some interesting metaphysical questions but these are sadly not the primary focus of the story as one would expect, and the revelation that Rassilon was behind everything had already dawned on most listeners before this audio was even released due to his frequent appearances in previous audios. As such, the finale falls somewhat flat, which is a shame as the Divergent Universe certainly had a lot of promise that could have been explored with greater detail had there been another series produced.
One saving grace of The Next Life is its stellar cliff-hanger ending, listeners had to wait a full seven months for the conclusion to this one back in 2005 but thankfully we know from hindsight that the first adventure that the Eighth Doctor, Charley and C’rizz embark on when returning to the ‘normal’ universe involves Davros and the Daleks, bringing this TARDIS team quite literally crashing back to their home reality only to be immediately confronted by their worst enemy – the inclusion of Davros in particular is interesting, as for the Doctor the destruction of Skaro in Remembrance of the Daleks is still a recent memory…