As the Eighth Doctor’s relatively lighthearted adventures with Lucie Miller came to a devastating end in To the Death, a new era for the character begins that takes a much darker path than his previous outings. The first audio in Dark Eyes, The Great War, introduces new companion Molly O’Sullivan, an Irish Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing assistant played by Ruth Bradley who the Doctor meets after landing in World War 1 France. We also get an updated look for the Eighth Doctor, as Paul McGann took updated cast photos for use on the covers of newer audios that features a new outfit and shorter hairstyle. Overall, this is perhaps the biggest divergence for the Eighth Doctor since the Divergent Universe, and this new era wastes no time getting into the action.
1.1 – The Great War
This audio opens with the Doctor desperately launching the TARDIS towards the end of the universe, and also features a merciful return to the original theme for the Big Finish Eighth Doctor audios, composed by David Arnold. This theme is the definitive Eighth Doctor title theme for many, and it remains such to this day outside of the Time War audios. After the loss of Lucie, the Doctor is driven half-mad with grief, travelling to the end of the universe to try to gain some perspective on the suffering of the universe. Straxus arrives to dissuade him on behalf of the Time Lords, and sets him on a new mission: to find hope. This leads the Doctor to France during World War One, but unfortunately some old enemies are waiting for him. As the blurb states, the Doctor is searching for Molly O’Sullivan, the woman with the eponymous ‘dark eyes’, who is an experienced VAD tending to wounded soldiers on the front line. Her somewhat callous outlook on life is a result of the horrors she has witnessed during the war, and as such she is a wholly unique companion as the war has given her a very distinctive worldview. Although she comes across as standoffish and negative throughout, one cannot help but sympathise with her as by this point she has clearly seen some of the worst of the conflict already, whilst her younger peers have not. Through Molly’s letters home we hear her true thoughts and feelings, and we can begin to understand her as a character before she becomes a companion.
This audio is a fantastic example of the Daleks skulking around in the darkness, and spices up their appearance with some creepy scenes involving some fantastic sound design. It is nice to hear the Daleks being used to inspire fear, as it proves there are still ways they can be used that the New Series had not explored yet. Placing the Daleks in a historical setting is also a great opportunity for unique storytelling elements, and the idea of the Daleks skulking around the trenches of World War One invokes some very strong imagery, likely due to the similarity between the trenches of wartime France and the environment of Skaro during Genesis of the Daleks. Despite their appearance on the cover, the reveal of the Daleks is held back for quite a while, which makes their shadow that permeates throughout the story all the more intimidating.
As the mystery of this audio unravels, we begin to understand the story as the pieces fall into place, and like any good opening story of a series The Great War introduces the new companion and tells a concise, self-contained story all while making great use of its run-time to deliver a well-paced adventure that keeps the listener’s interest throughout. By this point Big Finish had definitely hit their stride when it came to setting up a story arc, particularly after the success of the EDAs, and this audio is a promising start to the Dark Eyes saga that poses several questions for later audios in the series to answer. Overall, The Great War is a great start to the series and sets up the story arc for the next era of Eighth Doctor audios excellently.
1.2 – Fugitives
A slightly more lighthearted audio than the previous story, Fugitives is Molly’s first run-around in the TARDIS and fills the role of bringing her up to speed with who the Doctor is, what he does and what to expect from being around him. Whilst this is crucial for kicking off the plot of the series, it does seem to be there for the purpose of taking Molly to different points in time and space, although fans of the William Hartnell TV story The Chase will appreciate the time-hopping nature of the story. Despite the somewhat contrived plot, this audio does give Molly a lot more room to grow as a character, as she is freed from the context of the First World War and given a chance to grow as a companion outside of her role as a VAD. In keeping with the idea of Dark Eyes as a space opera, we are treated to a plane chase involving flying Daleks going against a biplane, and the Daleks chasing the Doctor throughout time and space at the behest of the Dalek Time Controller.
It soon becomes clear that Molly is of some special significance to the story at large, as she is identified by the Doctor as the source of the hope he has been searching for. Although her introduction as a companion is somewhat sudden, her link with the Doctor is clear, as she recognises the TARDIS and seems to be able to operate the controls somehow, and the Time Lords believe that she is the result of an experiment by an as-yet unknown third party. As a result of his failed attempt to take them to Gallifrey, the Doctor accidentally takes Molly to World War Two, which results in some great scenes where Molly not only comprehends time travel but also sees some horrific visions of her future. Despite this she takes everything in her stride and proves herself a capable companion from the get-go.
This audio also introduces Doctor Sally Armstrong, a supporting character who works for the Ides Scientific Institute in the 1970s who receives a message from the Doctor with very specific instructions and funding of one billion pounds to create a time-space portal in the Doctor’s residence in Baker Street. Chaos ensues as a Dalek Time Squad invades London in pursuit of the Doctor, and the sound design for the Dalek attack is excellent, as it includes a medley of Dalek sound effects from across their history, from the 1960s to the 80s to the 2000s. Overall, Fugitives is a great first outing for Molly in the TARDIS and sets up some more interesting questions that add to the ongoing story arc, needless to say Dark Eyes gets off to an excellent start as the wider scope of this series is fully realised by the end of the second part.
1.3 – Tangled Web
After two stories of questions surrounding Molly, Tangled Web finally starts to give us some answers as to her origins. Laced throughout previous audios were eerie commands given to the Daleks by Toby Jones, who in this audio is revealed to be playing the rogue Time Lord Kotris. He is every bit as sinister and villainous in this series as he was as the Dream Lord in the Matt Smith TV story Amy’s Choice, so he was certainly a great choice for Kotris. This audio also progresses the relationship between the Doctor and Molly, as he is suspicious of her ability to pilot the TARDIS. Molly’s character setup is remarkably similar to the kind of story arcs for companions in the New Series for Rose, Donna and Clara, as Molly is introduced as the driving force behind the story who has been identified by both the Doctor and the Daleks as important, but the reason for this is as-yet unknown.
There is some remarkable imagery in this audio that draws on some bonkers concepts – the most striking is by far the idea of a Dalek city adorned with flowers, and Molly’s plea to the Doctor to attempt to see the good in the Daleks is definitely one of the standout moments for her character. The age-old question of the concept of a good Dalek is brought up again, and Molly’s personal experience with the horrors of war makes her just as anxious to believe that the Daleks can be good as the Doctor is. When presented with a bizarre reality in which the Daleks have dedicated themselves to humanitarian goals and discarded their evil ways, the Doctor is understandably sceptical, as is the listener, but it is a great setup and Tangled Web makes good use of its runtime to explore the idea of a Good Dalek City.
This audio begins the process of linking the Eighth Doctor’s timeline to that of the Time War, as although the ‘war’ mentioned throughout that threatens the Time Lords is not the Time War itself, it is a time war of sorts, and definitely serves as a prelude to the main conflict. Ultimately, the idea of the Daleks shedding their desire for conquest and retro-engineering themselves back into peaceful Kaleds does seem to be a promising conclusion for the Daleks, the ‘Final End’ envisioned back in the 1960s but one born out of peace, not destruction. Tangled Web presents one possible end for the Daleks, one that does present some hope for the universe, and that in itself makes the Doctor suspect that it is too good to be true. Overall, this audio is a great listen that answers a lot of questions posed by the previous audios and solidifies Molly’s status as the Eighth Doctor’s new companion.
1.4 – X and the Daleks
The Doctor and Molly find themselves on a planet in which Time Lord regeneration is impossible, and are soon embroiled in a conspiracy involving the mysterious ‘X’ and the Daleks, hence the title’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek riff on Doctor Who episodes that end in ‘the Daleks’. This story culminates many of the plot elements laced throughout this box set, and although the Dark Eyes saga is just getting started, it is safe to say that the first box set stands as its own self-contained story. Unfortunately, however, there are some issues with the conclusion, not least the significant amount of expositional dialogue and technobabble involved in explaining the plot. Exposition and technobabble are not necessarily bad in themselves, but when they are used in conjunction and in excess for too long it can make the story appear tedious and dense, especially in the audio format. Thankfully, the sound design is strong throughout, as with all Big Finish audios.
Ruth Bradley does an exceptional job as Molly, as she is not only a symapthetic character but also a great companion to fill the void left by Lucie Miller. Like Lucie, Molly has a spiky personality, but her native time gives her a temperament similar to that of Charley. In many ways, Molly reminds the Doctor of both of his previous companions, and it is for that reason that her friendship with him does not seem at all forced, despite the fact that the two were literally forced together by the plot. Toby Jones is also fantastic in this audio, as even though he is given a lot of ranting exposition his distinctive acting qualities make the character a treat to listen to.
The first box set in the Dark Eyes series comes to a satisfying conclusion with X and the Daleks, as Kotris’s plan makes sense and as it comes to fruition we see exactly why Molly was so important to him and the Daleks all along, and bizarrely Kotris becomes somewhat of a sympathetic character in the end. In hindsight the first part of Dark Eyes very much stands as its own entity, it is distinct from the previous era but is also separated from the other box sets in the Dark Eyes series as many of the saga’s wider story arcs hadn’t actually been written yet. This first box set completes its most important objectives, however, in that it introduces the new companion to great effect and lays the groundwork for the later Dark Eyes box sets to come.