The Final Phase (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 11 August 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The Dalek Contract
The Final Phase
Big Finish Productions
Written and Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released July 2013
The Final Phase draws a season of Tom Baker audios to a close. Fittingly – and perhaps in tribute to the late Mary Tamm – it ends with Tamm’s character having the last word, reflecting beautifully on the Doctor-Romana relationship and its development. It is truly a great loss that this TARDIS team has now been parted, but Mary’s involvement across these recent adventures has amply demonstrated both her affection for the role and her unquestionable brilliance as a Time Lady.

Continuing on from The Dalek Contract, this story exploits a series of expectations: (when) will the Daleks turn on Cuthbert? Will Cuthbert’s staff remain loyal to him? And just what is Cuthbert’s mysterious plan? The answers are well spaced out and although there are fewer surprises overall than might be hoped for, this remains an extremely satisfying finale. As realized by David Warner, Cuthbert is really too good a character to simply exterminate and I found myself hoping that he might live to bother the Doctor another day. The script strives to generate moral ambiguity around Cuthbert by implying that his business practices may have helped or even saved countless lives. A stronger focus on this dilemma would’ve been more dramatically compelling, and it ends up fairly low down in the mix, overwhelmed by the Daleks' plans for conquest. Cuthbert is also slightly diluted by Briggs’ decision to give him a running gag of sorts, namely that he can’t get Romana’s name right (or is perhaps sufficiently self-obsessed that he doesn’t care enough to make the effort).

Cuthbert isn’t the only intriguing guest character on show here, however. Toby Hadoke invests Mr. Dorrick, who could easily be a cipher of a supporting character, with a deadpan comedic edge and a lively line in anxiety. Unfortunately, the Proximan rebels remain largely one-dimensional, despite some effort to humanize their relationships. And the Daleks revert to type fairly promptly after their time as an outsourced security outfit, allowing the story to play out as a conventional battle between the Doctor and his enemies. There are some lovely moments along the way, though, including another strong Part One cliffhanger from writer Nick Briggs as well as a highly unusual bit of Dalek voice work that’s such a wonderful conceit it almost becomes the highlight of this epic tale.

Interview chat in the CD extras addresses Briggs’ idea that the Doctor is trying to persuade monomaniacal Daleks to rethink their raison d’etre, and this is another fascinating possibility that whizzes by almost too quickly in the execution. The Final Phase whips along at near-breakneck pace, meaning that its ideas don’t always get as much of an airing as they really deserve. Another victim of this storytelling speed is the Doctor’s accusation that the Daleks are trying to challenge God; a notion of hubris that they promptly dismiss. The ‘becoming God’ card is one that SF often plays, of course, and it’s notably been used in relation to Davros in Doctor Who’s illustrious past. Here, it turns up during a shuffling of the Dalek deck, only to be apparently discarded. By hitting so many familiar philosophical narrative beats, Briggs sometimes gives the impression of wanting to play ‘Dalek Conquest Bingo’ rather than winnowing his material down to one or two coherent themes.

Amongst all the fizzing, quickfire drama, there can be no doubt that the Doctor, Romana and K9 are typically well served. Romana’s realization that she’s unwittingly become a genuine friend of the Doctor’s is particularly nicely played and well motivated in story terms. Gallifrey suddenly seems less appealing than TARDIS life, and this takes Romana herself rather by surprise, with her “ice maiden” persona thoroughly melting away.

With so much going on in this adventure, Cuthbert’s top-secret scheme defaults to standard SF domination, taking in the idea of parallel or infinite universes in order to indicate the scope of his fantasies of omnipotence. Mind you, given the story’s own final phase, an alternative interpretation becomes possible – perhaps Cuthbert’s God-like fantasies have taken on a reality all of their own, and he’s been getting by all along because he already knows these events inside-out and back-to-front. Cuthbert ends up as a fascinating figure: corporate man trapped between infinitude and the here-and-now. But The Final Phase could have explored (allegedly) predestined capitalist powers far more directly and effectively, had it wanted to.

In the end, this release feels like a collision between fast-paced action-adventure and ideas-driven, philosophical SF where adventure finally wins out. It also sounds very much to me as though Mary Tamm, John Leeson, Tom Baker, David Warner and Toby Hadoke are enjoying every minute of it, relishing the chance to interact with Nick Briggs’ energetic Daleks. The Final Phase is an ending of sorts, but it’s one that allows for time-travelling loops, returns and remembrances, just as fans will continue to remember and return to the character of Romana – the Doctor’s good friend – thanks to her wonderful portrayal by Mary Tamm.