Eighth Doctor Big Finish Audios Review – Divergent Universe Arc Part 2

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…

Next – Eighth Doctor Big Finish Audios Review – Late Charley Era Part 1

Eighth Doctor Big Finish Audios Review – Divergent Universe Arc Part 1

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.

Next – Eighth Doctor Big Finish Audios Review – Divergent Universe Arc Part 2

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