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A Classic Who Celebration: Big Finish’s “The Light at the End”

Did you catch the Doctor Who anniversary special? The one with all the classic Doctors in? No, I don’t mean Peter Davison’s delightful “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot”—I mean Big Finish’s “The Light at the End”, an excellent two-hour audio drama featuring all of the first eight Doctors. Yes, all eight. It turns out that William Russell, Frazier Hines, and Tim Treloar do very convincing versions of One, Two, and Three respectively—and of course Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann are all there, along with some of their most beloved companions.

Big Finish has been quietly chugging along with their excellent Doctor Who audio dramas for years now, but in the build-up to the anniversary, they’ve been getting more much-deserved attention from the fandom at large. “The Night of the Doctor” in particular gave them a boost—in addition to introducing a new generation of Who fans to the beauty that is Paul McGann, the mini-episode names Big Finish companions Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, and Molly and, in the eyes of many, thus inducts them in to the “official” Doctor Who canon. As well, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy have frequently made a point in recent interviews of mentioning that they’re still playing the Doctor on audio—and as Colin Baker noted in the BBC Three “Day of the Doctor” After-Party, the beauty of audio is that in your mind’s eye, everyone still looks the same after all these years.

In a fandom that always seems to be looking for ways to divide on itself, there’s a temptation to treat “The Day of the Doctor” as “one for the new fans,” with David Tennant and Matt Smith bouncing off the walls—anchored to earth by the greatness that is John Hurt—and a closure of the loop on the trauma of the Time War, introduced by Russell T. Davies when he resurrected the series in 2005. This despite the tributes to old stalwarts like Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, that loopy and touching unexpected guest star appearance at the end, and the opener with the original “howlround” titles and Delia Derbyshire’s arrangement, fading into a shot that’s a direct echo of the very first scene of “An Unearthly Child.” By this token, it’s very easy to say that if you’re a Classic fan (which in some people’s parlance can be all too readily read as “real fan”), then “The Light At the End” is the story for you; never mind the newfangled Davies-Moffat stuff.

It’s too easy a demarcation to make. Yes, Classic series fans will almost certainly get the fix they need from “The Light at the End,” but even a new series fan could easily pick it right up if they’ve never heard another Big Finish drama or even seen an original series episode, so long as they were armed with a few choice Wikipedia entries to fill in the gaps. Taken all together, “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Light at the End” give you a perfect fiftieth anniversary tribute to the ridiculous, impossible thing that is Doctor Who.

In “The Light at the End,” the first eight Doctors are drawn toward a temporal trap, the locus of which is on the 23rd of November, 1963, at the house of an ordinary English family man named Bob Dovie. Bob, much to his misfortune, turns out to be the key to a weapon that will destroy the Doctor and remove him from Time—he will have never left Gallifrey, never met his companions, and, in a twist not unlike that of the episode “Turn Left,” never performed thousands of universe-saving heroics. Who could be behind such a dastardly plan? Who else but the Doctor’s old enemy, the Master—who, despite having come out the worse in every one of their encounters before, still believes that this will be the time he finally wipes out his opposite number.

Multi-Doctor stories for big anniversary events like this are irresistible, inevitable—and inevitably fairly untidy around the edges. It’s like going to a concert by a band that’s been around for decades and has accumulated an enormous backlog of hits: you simply can’t bet on all your favorites getting in there because there’s simply not enough time. Writer Nicholas Briggs does his very best to herd all these cats, though; even companions who don’t participate much in the story get a ghostly appearance as time and the TARDIS twist in on themselves. Four and Eight spent the most time together out of any pair of Doctors and are positively delightful together, and it’s hard not to love Ace’s roundup of the eight Doctors: “So are you seriously telling me all those blokes, old man white hair, Beatles haircut, frilly shirt, long scarf big eyes, cricket boy, Joseph and his amazing technicolor dreamcoat, and Lord Byron, all of them—they were you?”

The Day of the Doctor” is all about the Doctor saving worlds—saving Earth from both Zygons and the nuclear warhead that Kate Stewart is ready to detonate, saving Gallifrey from the Time War. Though the implications of the Doctor’s absence are alluded to “The Light at the End,” his story here is as much about saving the lives of the hapless Bob Dovie and his family as it is about saving the Doctor’s own life from the Master’s machinations. Despite the big cast, there’s something intimate and deeply personal about “The Light at the End,” at the other end of the spectrum from the grand trans-temporal gestures of “The Day of the Doctor”—but note: it’s a spectrum. The Doctor’s heroic and humane nature puts him on the side of the billions of children of Gallifrey and of the two children of one middle-class British human.

And this is what I mean about seeing “The Light at the End” and “The Day of the Doctor” as companion pieces, rather than rivals for a fan’s affections. In both you have the undeniable thrill of watching different versions of the Doctor bicker and snark at one another before bending the whole of their—his?—multivalent intellect on the problem at hand. You get the pleasure of seeing Doctors interact with companions they haven’t met yet, and “The Light at the End” lets you hear companions from different eras together. (Leela’s meeting Charley Pollard is especially charming.) Both hinge not only on the Doctor’s big brain, but his big hearts as well. And both are fitting celebrations of this weird little show and all the reasons it’s so beloved.

Karin Kross still can’t believe that weird British SF show that aired on PBS in the 1980s has become an international phenomenon. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.


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