Doctor Who: The Sixth Doctor - The Last Adventure
Written by Simon Barnard, Paul Morris, Alan Barnes, Matt Fitton and Nicholas Briggs
Directed by Nicholas Briggs
Starring: Colin Baker (The Doctor), Trevor Baxter (Litefoot), Christopher Benjamin (Jago), India Fisher (Charley), Lisa Greenwood (Flip), Michael Jayston (The Valeyard), Bonnie Langford (Mel) and Miranda Raison (Constance)
Released by Big Finish Productions - September 2015
“It’s the end…but the moment has been prepared for.”
Regardless of its origin as the ominous yet somehow inertly reassuring final words uttered by Tom Baker prior to his Doctor’s regeneration in “Logopolis”, that fateful line of dialogue has rarely rung truer than with the wholly timely demise of the Sixth Doctor. Not only was Colin Baker’s divisive incarnation robbed of his own on-screen transformation thanks to behind-the-scenes disputes leading to Sylvester McCoy donning an unwieldy blonde wig in “Time and the Rani”, but as was revealed in last month’s edition of DWM (Issue 489, to be precise), Baker himself had until quite recently declined Big Finish’s various offers to send his most famed construct off in proper style. With all of that contextual background taken into account, the mere existence of The Sixth Doctor – The Last Adventure, a near unprecedented audio saga intended to rewrite continuity somewhat so as to give old ‘Sixie’ the denouement he deserves, represents a staggering development in the programme’s history worthy of applause in and of itself.
Of course, although the same could have been stated of the Eighth Doctor’s one and only televised serial, that the TV Movie managed to premiere both in the States and here in Britannia didn’t prevent the one-off, bumper-length special from receiving a far from congratulatory critical reception soon after its debut. Will the so-called Last Adventure (a title which admittedly seems more tenuous by the day given Big Finish’s ongoing plans for Baker’s most iconic persona) go down as another such tragic misfire, then, or as a near-unprecedented triumph on the scale of Russell T. Davies’ much-adored reboot-turned-faithful continuation “Rose”? To discover precisely this truth, let us plunge back into an age of technicoloured jackets, politically corrupt Gallifreyan trials and – most importantly – morally warped future Doctors, evaluating each of the four one-hour tales intended to chronicle the darkest – and by all accounts finest, though we’ll be the judge of that claim – hour of perhaps Theta Sigma’s most controversial regeneration to date.
The End of the Line:
Perhaps it’s this reviewer picking nits for the pure sake of doing so, but if any of the episodes featured on what is undoubtedly one of Big Finish’s more audacious compilations in their eventful history could have been released separately so as to reduce the hefty 420-minute running time awaiting listeners here, it’s this one. Try as they might to connect their largely gripping yarn – which sees ‘Sixie’ and his soon-to-be incumbent assistant Constance Clarke (Miranda Raison) investigate an increasingly mysterious railway train packed to the brim with temporal surprises (think “Mummy on the Orient Express”, albeit with far greater exploration of what lies beyond its primary setting) – to The Last Adventure’s central arc surrounding the Doctor’s inevitably self-destructive series of final confrontations with the ever-sinister, ever-vainglorious Valeyard, writers Simon Barnard and Paul Morris ultimately offer the sense that like 2014’s Trial of the Valeyard (a once-apparently pivotal storyline which receives scarcely even a passing reference here, we might add), The End of the Line could easily have been released as a standalone title, or even in the form of a Short Trips-esque prequel several weeks prior to this box-set’s launch. Indeed, save for a few choice moments which the scribes strategically reserve for End’s denouement as well as a well-guarded cameo from one of the 1980s Doctors’ most persistent adversaries, this largely self-contained opening instalment could easily have come off as unnecessary filler in light of its acting as a Greatest Hits showcase for ‘Sixie’ as opposed to a fitting opener for what had always been pitched as a tightly-woven quartet focusing exclusively on the manner in which the Seventh Doctor truly came to be.
Enter Baker and Raison, both of whom excel at establishing a fresh dynamic of intellectual equality, genuine faith in the titular Time Lord’s ever-risky machinations, and most of all earned respect between Constance and her extra-terrestrial TARDIS crewmate in spite of Big Finish not yet having released the story in which these two great minds meet for the first time (though that’s due next month in the form of the Matt Fitton-penned Second World War thriller Criss-Cross). Without the promisingly assured performances of this enviably talented pair, we’d probably have been left with a primarily lacklustre audio drama, especially given that the turns provided by the likes of Anthony Howell and Maggie Service as the aforementioned track-bound vehicle’s band of waylaid passengers don’t exactly rank among the most memorable additions to Who’s ever-expanding audio ensemble (since, suffice to say, anyone expecting emotional depth from these secondary players on a par with those introduced in “Midnight” will come away severely underwhelmed), barring the moments where Barnard and Morris afford them significant chunks of dialogue so as to haphazardly further the compelling but easily condensable plot powering this intrigue-laden – albeit at times frustratingly inconsequential – initial outing.
The Red House:
Ironically enough, though, whereas it’s the leading pair of voice actors at The End of the Line’s helm who prove to be its handy saving grace rather than its supporting cast members, the opposite is in fact true of Alan Barnes’ The Red House, wherein Michael Jayston’s deliciously exaggerated take on his returning “The Trial of a Time Lord” antagonist the Valeyard – or the Doctor, as he claims he’ll one day become known by the wider cosmos – elevates an otherwise forgettable play centring on a frankly dull dystopian world of part-werewolf, part-humanoid beings; clichéd outsider communities who’ve been shunned by their former colonist allies and, worst of all, hopelessly predictable conflicts entailing reckless rebellions against a false empire. The latter’s presence in proceedings remains so minimal that the audience can’t help but struggle to give anything close to a damn about the war which Baker’s semi-iconic adversary appears absolutely intent on sparking (for reasons that mercifully become far clearer once the bell begins to toll on both versions of the Doctor’s respective character arcs), hence why the focus of all but the most avid fans of Hunger Games-inspired (or Brave New World-inspired; by all means take your pick) worlds without hope or compassion will soon inevitably shift to the aforementioned sub-plot in which Charley Pollard (brought to life with magnificent aplomb once more by India Fisher) faces off against the dark side of the man who she’s seen fit to travel with through time and space on not one but two occasions.
As anyone who persevered with “The Trial of a Time Lord” through to its high-octane denouement will surely attest, there was scarcely ever any reason to fear for the strength of Jayston’s third performance in perhaps his most infamous role, and indeed, despite being forced to dip into the realms of melodrama on occasion here just as he did in the original 1986 adventure, he doesn’t hold back when delivering the manipulative, psychologically assaulting and yet at times somehow subtly charismatic (proof if ever any was needed that the Valeyard hasn’t sacrificed everything in the name of peace and sanity at this point as was the case with John Hurt’s Time War-bound incarnation) dialogue afforded to him both over the course of House’s second half by Barnes as well as in The Last Adventure’s two remaining instalments. Nevertheless, with ‘Sixie’ curiously relegated from the bulk of proceedings despite the moments preceding his demise supposedly being intended to form the crux of this long-awaited set, it would seem that Barnes didn’t quite heed to the collection’s overarching criteria in this regard, something which would be that much more forgivable were it not for the disheartening lack of innovation present in his uninspired setting, a near-fatal flaw which only just fails to cripple The Red House entirely, with its redemption coming only fleetingly in the form of Jayston’s various prolonged (and oh-so-welcome) cameos.
For those beginning to question the need for their investment in this hefty £20 or £40 title having reached the halfway point of this review and having read of the considerable shortcomings sported by Red House – as well as to a far lesser extent End of the Line – now’s the time to breathe a hearty sigh of relief. Whilst this reviewer’s overall familiarity with Victorian quasi-detectives Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Gordon Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) didn’t extend far beyond his initial viewing of “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (an entertainingly fast-paced, if at times disbelief-testing, introductory tale first broadcast as part of the Fourth Doctor era in 1977, though this won’t exactly come as news to the characters’ ever-expanding fan-base) when the time came to consume “Stage Fright” in its delightful 60-minute entirety, this lack of knowledge regarding in particular the history of Big Finish’s aptly-named Who spin-off Jago & Litefoot didn’t prevent Last Adventure’s penultimate instalment from easily ranking as the most satisfying entry of the bunch by an immeasurable distance.
There’s a chance this sweeping evaluation might come as a shock to any readers expecting the Sixth Doctor’s swansong to peak in its concluding moments: surely “The Brink of Death” should take the crown as this incarnation’s finest set-piece given its valiant efforts to rewrite the character’s botched demise? Surprisingly, no. That’s not to say the aforementioned serial disappoints – by and large, it’s another winner, as we’ll discuss later, but even so, it’s not dripping with the same level of periodic atmosphere as “Fright” by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps director Nicholas Briggs (who has in fact seen fit not only to helm all four tales but also to try his hand at penning their finale in the form of “Brink”) and the cruelly underappreciated team behind this masterpiece’s soundtrack deserve the most credit, especially since it’s all too easy for us to forget the incredible work that goes on beyond the confines of the recording studio in order to elevate the studio’s projects higher than most. Even so, however, to deny the influence Benjamin and Baxter have as they reprise their hilarious roles, bringing with them all of the energetic gusto, occasional (but vital) pathos and undying comedic interplay which made both constructs such hits with ‘70s viewers and modern listeners alike, thereby owning both the metaphorical and literal stage in the process.
As if all of that weren’t enough, they’re presented with the chance to converse with Lisa Greenwood’s Flip as she confronts the inherently personal fear which lends this episode its name – a wholly welcome emotional development for a previously shallow character who’s rarely caught this reviewer’s attention until now – and Jayston’s Valeyard as the latter manipulator takes control of the two wannabe investigators’ New Regency Theatre in a bid to gain power through theatrical plays intended to mimic his arch-nemesis’ past lives (or rather deaths) prior to their coming battle. Admittedly the glorious return of these Not-So-Great Detectives can’t quite compensate fully for the predictable manner in which proceedings come to a close, with the necessity of the Valeyard’s survival to fight another day inevitably necessitating his fortunate escape from the City of London’s confines, yet in stark contrast to its immediate predecessor, “Stage Fright” effortlessly negates its minor weaknesses by offering up an atmospheric, perfectly paced hour of entertainment which’ll endure in its listeners’ minds for just as long as “Talons” has, if not longer still.
The Brink of Death:
Whether the same can be said of Briggs’ undeniably bold quest to rewrite what’s easily one of the most loathed moments in Doctor Who’s hardly clear-cut canon will naturally remain a matter of fierce discussion for some time to come, not least since Steven Moffat’s namechecking of Charley et al in “The Night of the Doctor” only further muddied the waters in terms of discussions surrounding whether Big Finish’s audio releases can be considered official chronicles of their inspiration’s (supposedly) previously untold escapades. As disheartening a realisation as this must have been for Briggs at the time of drafting his script for “The Brink of Death”, only one fact is absolutely certain – there could have been no pleasing everyone with this latest endeavour, although in all honesty, given this reviewer’s unashamed disdain for the mere sight of “Time and the Rani”, the chances of the esteemed Dalek voice actor coming anywhere close to producing an inferior effort were always all but second to none.
If the latter admission like a prelude to a largely cynical evaluation, however, then fret not; it’s by no means perfect (few Who serials are, if we’re being brutally truthful here), but “Brink” comes about as close to conceiving the triumphant denouement Baker and Big Finish’s execs must have been hoping for as any budding audio production could. Is the Valeyard’s prolonged arc of darkness and mystery brought to a comprehensive conclusion? Not quite – most will still likely find themselves somewhat bemused as to the character’s precise origins (or rather the true reasoning for them) come the credits, a disappointing turn of events given that we had been promised a transparent resolution in this regard during recent Last Adventure press releases. Does the fate with which ‘Sixie’ meets echo the selfless, stirring demises originally presented to all but Baker’s seemingly doomed-from-the-outset incarnation? Absolutely. In fact, as those fortunate enough to have placed a pre-order for this collection will have already learned, the completely poignant sequence in question still finds a way of keeping “Rani”’s ludicrous but nevertheless (somewhat tragically) canon opening scene intact, albeit while ensuring that the moments preceding the Doctor’s fall from an exercise bike and subsequent collision with the TARDIS’ apparently rock-solid floorboards can be seen as fitting in terms of both his tenure at the ship’s helm and indeed in terms of his oft-overlooked concern for his future selves’ uncertain moral compass, a trait which manifests itself beautifully with both his final line of dialogue and with the first uttered by McCoy here in a similarly touching cameo.
As easy as it would be to elaborate in greater detail about the convoluted nature of the Valeyard’s grandiose final machinations (which takes into account his actions in all of the first three plays, only to then surely leave the vast majority of listeners boggled as to why the scheme took quite so long to plan and thus why this plot required quite such an elaborate set-up), Briggs’ misuse (however intentional) of Bonnie Langford’s almost non-existent Mel or the aforementioned ambiguity continually engulfing the true nature of the Doctor’s alleged future malevolent persona, it’s simpler still to instead end with our much-needed confirmation that, these minor faults in its metaphorical stars aside, “Brink” flourishes where its justifiably despised 1987 TV counterpart fails, bestowing the downfall of Baker’s incarnation with a timely aura of victory over moral corruption, not to mention over the naysayers who constantly seek to ridicule this particular version of the Earth’s longstanding alien protector. It’s little wonder that Baker expressed his disillusionment last month with the fans who ranked him as their least favourite Doctor in the pages of DWM, but on the basis of the mostly haunting “The End of the Line”, the dramatically charged (if oft-convoluted) “The Brink of Death” and especially the marvellously authentic – not to mention downright hilarious – “Stage Fright” (if not the surprisingly dissatisfying “The Red House”, The Last Adventure’s weakest link by far), neither ‘Sixie’ nor the still remarkable thespian portraying him have much left to fear, barring perhaps an overdose of particularly zesty carrot juice.
Believe it or not, after decades of painstaking waiting, this time around Baker's revised exit truly has been prepared for and executed with a commendable degree of success - and based on this legendary actor's recent contemplation of his own incarnation's worth, it would seem this much-needed change has arrived not a moment too soon.