The Light at The End
Produced by Big Finish
Written and Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Released: November 2013
It’s a scene that has played out before our eyes a thousand times- a wearied, eternal time traveller verbally caresses his ship, readying it for a new adventure in the fourth dimension, his gentle care for its complex machinery as unyielding as his faith in the human race. Even after fifty years, however, depending on the talented British thespian cast in the role, this subtle, familiar sequence can still feel fresh, each incarnation of the Doctor developing a unique relationship with his TARDIS and yet at the same time rarely deviating significantly from the established status quo. The Light at the End, Big Finish’s spectacularly ambitious 50th Anniversary Special, similarly lays its foundations in the familiar, what fans have come to expect of the ‘classic’ era, then rapidly subverts those preconceptions in order to tell one of the studio’s most captivating narratives yet.
That the Special’s scribe, Nicholas Briggs, can find the time to craft a cohesive and engaging storyline at all is in itself a notable accomplishment. The prospect of integrating each of the first Eight Doctors, their companions and the ever-villainous Master into one delicately structured drama must have been daunting enough, even before the need arose for the plot to neither ignore nor become too dependent on the programme’s legacy. Briggs is careful in the latter regard, not shying away from throwbacks to 1963, The Three Doctors, Logopolis, The Eleventh Hour and other landmark moments in the show’s history, but simultaneously ensuring that the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth incarnations of our titular hero each have their moment to shine, to remind the listener why this iconic science-fiction drama continued to survive and thrive with them at the helm.
Inevitably, this balance of nostalgia and narrative cohesion which Briggs has struck won’t please everyone. Anniversary tales can often be something of a double-edged sword, in that many fans (perhaps rightly) want as many elements of days gone by to be referenced or have a physical presence within the episode, whereas others desire a storyline which pushes the boundaries of the show’s storytelling. While Briggs fulfils both of these desires to an extent, at the same time he arguably fails to completely excel in either regard. The Daleks, the Cybermen and plenty of companions are barely name-checked here, a stark departure from the nostalgia-fuelled ‘glory days’ of The Five Doctors, and equally the justified blockbuster-esque storyline brings little in the way of heartfelt emotion or dramatically challenging content, falling short of the heights attained in recent televised episodes such as Human Nature and The Doctor’s Wife by some distance.
All’s not lost by any stretch of the imagination, though, for where The Light at the End falters at times in the execution of its audacious Anniversary narrative, it more than compensates the listener with its stellar cast ensemble. Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann each capture the essence of their respective Doctors perfectly, the sheer brilliance of each of their incarnations demonstrated masterfully without the need for CGI or extensive make-up to cover up the age which these five men have gained since their last televised appearances in their role. Try as some fans might to contest against the notion, it is impossible to overlook the unmistakable fact that were these five Doctors to have appeared on-screen in The Day of the Doctor through new rather than archived footage (the latter eventuality all but inevitable), their bare resemblance to their appearance in the 1970s and 1980s would become all too apparent within moments of the viewer catching sight of them. Here, in an audio medium, fans new and old can remember the first eight Doctors in a guise purely rendicative of their original selves and thus worthy of the esteemed thespians who maintain their loyalty to the show decades on from their departure. To paraphrase a much-cited lyric, you can’t always get what you want, but instead, sometimes, you get what you need.
Of course, such as fans would also expect from a Special of this prestigious, rare ilk, the Doctors aren’t alone in their battle with an old foe. Louise Jameson’s Leela, Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa, Nicola Bryant’s Peri, Sophie Aldred’s Ace and India Fisher’s Charley all join their respective incarnations of the Time Lord, and for the most part they all provide substantial contributions to the wider narrative, even if at times that boils down to a nostalgic rendezvous between old friends and adversaries. Fisher is arguably the most short-changed supporting actress of the piece, relegated to a brief appearance alongside McGann in the opening scenes and a diminished return in the drama’s final moments. Other than that odd case, though, the ‘gals’ find plenty to do here, and not one of them finds themselves reduced to pantomime- screaming while tumbling down a relatively harmless incline, for example- which is always a positive omen in this reviewer’s book.
If only Geoffrey Beevers were so lucky. Returning to the role of the Master in his pre-Logopolis decrepit guise, Beevers’ portrayal is overexaggerated, shallow and dictated by superfluous dialogue which does nothing whatsoever to broaden our perspective on this iconic antagonist. Whereas Steven Moffat no doubt aims to challenge the viewer’s assumptive preconceptions of the character of the Doctor in The Day of the Doctor, it appears in this case that Nick Briggs has simply aimed to cast the Doctor’s arch-nemesis in a purely nostalgic light, neglecting to add any layers of depth in his construction such that Beevers is forced to rival Eric Roberts’ TV Movie portrayal for unreservedly outrageous expressions of evil.
What does prove to be an additional distinctive trait is Briggs’ direction of his own piece. Over the course of Light’s two-hour running time, listeners will ‘visit’ 1960s British homes, pocket universes, various TARDIS control rooms and plenty of other diverse settings, and whether through the eclectic soundtrack or the manner in which Briggs structures the dialogue and exposition, there’s rarely a chance to become lost in terms of where events are taking place in spite of the whistle-stop tour on which the narrative takes us. If this particular special release is anything to go by, then Briggs should definitely consider taking up joint scripting and directorial duties on a more frequent basis.
Like any Doctor Who Anniversary Special before it (indeed, Dimensions in Time knows this better than most), The Light at the End has its share of shortcomings. Like the majority of celebratory episodes that have preceded it, though, this is a drama which is worth the time of any fan, regardless of whether they were present at the time of An Unearthly Child’s broadcast or only just began to tune in with The Name of the Doctor this Spring. This isn’t the most original, stirring or effective instalment of Doctor Who by any means, yet it revels in its familiarity, in taking the scenes we’ve witnessed playing out a thousand times over and putting a glorious new spin on them.
For too long, uncompromising ‘fans’ of the show have lamented the impending absence of the first eight Doctors in next month’s celebratory movie- their focus should always have been on Big Finish, the only studio possessing the ability to bring these timeless characters back to life with no visual blemishes of age or otherwise. Steven Moffat surely knew that he would never even need to resurrect the classic Doctors for his Special- they’ve received their own, spectacular 50th Anniversary epic in The Light at the End, an adventure which does greater justice to the pre-2005 legacy of Doctor Who than a nostalgia-burdened televised outing ever could. It inspires wonder, awe and mystery, just as the show always has, and encourages us to remember how those same feelings came from a mere trip into a near-abandoned junkyard housing a strange blue box half a century ago- after all, that’s how it all started.