Following the abrupt cancellation of the Divergent Universe storyline when the New Series was announced in 2004, Big Finish shifted the next wave of the Eighth Doctor audios into a completely different gear. However, it seems in hindsight that they did this without giving the writers of each individual story enough time to compensate, because a big criticism of a lot of the audios in this initial wave of post-Divergent Universe audios is that they were clearly written for that setting, and although some measures were taken to retroactively slot them into the pre-existing Doctor Who universe by including the TARDIS and some other familiar concepts, these audios are so bizarre and dreamlike that they clearly beyond in a pocket dimension. Still, they represent some of the most unorthodox of Big Finish’s story ideas to date, and are an important chapter in the Eighth Doctor’s life…
#72 – Terror Firma
The post-Divergent Universe era kicks off to an incredible start with Terror Firma, easily one of the best outings of the Eighth Doctor against the Daleks that you are likely to find on audio. The previous Eighth Doctor Dalek story, The Time of the Daleks, was an entertaining romp in its own right but it did not live up to the expectations set by previous Dalek audios such as The Mutant Phase and The Apocalypse Element. However, between The Time of the Daleks and Terror Firma Big Finish released several excellent Dalek audios – including Jubilee and The Juggernauts – as well as the classic fan-favourite Davros, and Terror Firma continues the run of great Dalek and Davros stories by picking up Davros’ story where it left off from Remembrance of the Daleks. Terry Molloy is fantastic as Davros as always, and here we see him combating the personality of the Dalek Emperor that is beginning to assert itself over Davros, playing off the idea that Davros had set himself up as Emperor of the Imperial Dalek faction in the final Classic Who Dalek story.
This audio is full of references to past stories, particularly past Dalek stories – Genesis of the Daleks gets a nice call-back in this, there are references to Storm Warning, Zagreus and Creed of the Kromon, and there are some great plot developments that re-contextualise the entire Eighth Doctor era, this one is definitely the kind of audio that needs to be experienced first-hand. The direction, editing and pacing is excellent – and there are some exceptional performances from Paul McGann, India Fisher and Conrad Westmaas. There are really some exceptional scenes in this, especially between the Eighth Doctor and Davros, which showcase how truly evil and twisted Davros is – spending hundreds of years alone in an escape pod has not helped Davros’s sanity.
This is also a great showcase of the Daleks themselves, as these are a race of brand new Daleks that Davros has created post-Remembrance of the Daleks, removing the distinction between Imperial and Renegade Daleks and creating his own faction. This means that both the Daleks and Davros are quite mad, making for some great scenes that make this audio distinct from any other Dalek story. In a lot of ways this audio is mad, it makes no attempt to fit into the continuity of either the wider Doctor Who universe or the Dalek timeline, and trying to locate when and where this audio was set either in Earth’s history or in the timeline of the Daleks is unknown, as the plot threads of Earth being conquered by Daleks, the majority of humanity being transformed into Daleks, and Davros physically transforming into the Dalek Emperor have never been revisited. Some fans have pointed out that the plot point of using humans to create Daleks parallels The Parting of the Ways, leading to Big Finish officially confirming that Davros does not become the Dalek Emperor seen in that two-part story. In many ways, Terror Firma could easily have been set in the Divergent Universe, something that is apparent about the next three post-Divergent Universe stories.
#75 – Scaredy Cat
A huge shift in tone and setting from the previous story, Scaredy Cat presents an interesting premise – two planets, one populated, one empty, with the population of the inhabited planet pledged to prevent anyone from ever setting foot on their untainted sister-world. As the Doctor, Charley and C’rizz soon discover, however, not all is as it seems on the pristine world of Endarra, as there are scientists from Caludaar performing experiments on the native life forms. The story deals with the morality of good and evil, and explores why criminals are motivated to commit horrendous crimes.
Scaredy Cat utilises the same fragmented story structure as Terror Firma, though the end result is not as effective as in the previous story as we are not familiar with the characters – juxtaposing the Doctor and his companions with scenes involving Davros works because we already know who Davros is, but in this case Scaredy Cat uses original characters which are not known to the audience, so establishing the context for the cutaway scenes is difficult. Scaredy Cat also suffers from a lack of general background context, and relies on throwaway terms like ‘political activist’ without any real establishment of the basis on which we can judge characters based on their political motivations alone.
Unfortunately, this audio has some serious issues, and its bizarre pseudo-scientific explanation for the strange happenings going on throughout the story mean that this audio could have been better utilised as part of the Divergent Universe saga – likely because it was originally written as an audio set in the Divergent Universe, and was hastily re-written to accommodate the fact that the Divergent arc was brought to a premature close. Overall, it is definitely an interesting listen, and it gets points for its creativity – but it can’t hold a candle to some of the next few stories that share the same ethereal post-Divergent Universe atmosphere.
#77 – Other Lives
This is an interesting audio as it is a pure historical – the only one of its kind that Paul McGann has recorded as the Eighth Doctor to date – and as pure historicals go, this one is strong but ultimate quite predictable. Pure historicals usually range from being either focused on a particular figure from history, or take extra care to set the scene for where and when it is set. Other Lives does both, whilst also taking full advantage of the setting of the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of all Nations in 1851. The Crystal Palace makes for a dynamic setting, and there are some great characters that are brought to life by a host of talented voice actors.
The main premise of the story involves the trio being separated by a series of increasingly bizarre circumstances (including the TARDIS being stolen by a pair of rich French couple) and the Doctor is soon accused of murder and kidnapping. Unfortunately, C’rizz and Charley are not given much interesting to do, and several of the characters some off as somewhat cliched, if it were not for the Doctor’s plotline being slightly more interesting, there would be little much to say about the first two parts plot-development wise. Charley and C’rizz both spend a lot of time interacting with characters that amounts to very little, and overall their escapades contribute little to the overall story.
Despite its status as a pure historical, Other Lives still retains the ethereal nature of the Divergent Universe arc – it is telling that these first few stories were originally destined for the Divergent Universe. There are some interesting elements, such as the focus on the horrors of Victorian freakshows, but there is a severe issue with pacing and overall the plot is very low-stakes compared to others in the series. Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting listen for fans of the Eighth Doctor, Charley and C’rizz, as they are each separated and faced with unique situations and India Fisher, Conrad Westmaas and Paul McGann deliver exceptional performances as always.
#80 – Time Works
Although its becoming a tired criticism at this point, Time Works feels like the breaking point of the post-Divergent Universe arc – it is obvious that these plays were supposed to be set in the Divergent Universe, so the writers had to jump through hoops to make them somewhat grounded in reality in order to set them in the prime universe – it is a shame to see really creative ideas stymied in this way. Nonetheless, Time Works is an immersive experience that presents a very interesting setting for the listener – there is a lot of clock and clockwork imagery involved, making the setting familiar enough that visualising the setting is easy as it leans on concepts that we are very familiar with – clockwork and castles spring immediately to mind – although its attempts to be overly enigmatic do occasionally fall a bit flat.
It is worth noting that this audio has a fantastic soundtrack, as the score contains several haunting melodies that help to illustrate the otherworldly setting. Speaking of which, the setting depicts a society that runs with a strict adherence to timekeeping, and it also features Clockwork Robots that are similar to, but not the same as, the ones seen in The Girl in the Fireplace and Deep Breath, and are also not in any way related to the Clockwork Men from the Ninth Doctor novel The Clockwise Man. Nonetheless they make for effective villains as the concept is particularly creepy, especially when paired with the incredible sound design.
Overall, Time Works deals with some interesting concepts coupled with exceptional direction and sound design that make it one of the strongest audios in the post-Divergent Universe series. Whilst there are a lot of elements that were clearly intended for the Divergent Universe, this story stands in its own right as an exceptional audio, and listened to in isolation it offers a fully-realised world with exceptional execution. Unfortunately, it is brought down somewhat by the others in the series, as they are sadly bundled together as the ‘what could have been for the Divergent Universe’ collection, with Time Works being the series finale. For good old-fashioned Doctor Who escapism, however, Time Works delivers on every front.