There’s a lot to do in Dark Universe, and most of it has to do with timelines.
You may need a deep breath, a calming beverage, a slide rule and possibly a lie down in a dark room at several points as you listen to this story. We practically needed all that and a pickled egg just to write the review.
It would be too much hyperbole to call this ‘peak Seventh Doctor.’ He after all has a history of fighting battles that the whole rest of the universe doesn’t see are even there till episode 3, and this story is much clearer than any of that. Still and all, we’re into some tangled territory.
Okay. Anyone here not come across the Eleven before?
If you’re reading this, it’s not likely but it’s by no means impossible. The Eleven was a villain brought into the Eighth Doctor box sets for Doom Coalition, so if you’ve not listened to those yet, you might still be living in ignorance about the Time Lord with eleven incarnations, all of which live concurrently in one body, making him something of a schizoid puppet-show of a character, but nevertheless able to call on the particular skills of all his previous selves at once, because they’re a lot less previous than is usually the case for Time Lords.
If you recall the on-screen adventures of the John Simm Master, you’ll remember that the endless drumming in his head sent him at least some way round the twist. Imagine the effect of having eleven personalities randomly chipping in to any conversation.
Exxxxactly. The Eleven’s totally tonto, a character both hampered and superpowered by his multiple personality, and quite how Mark Bonnar keeps the personalities straight in his head is frankly anyone’s guess. But the point is this: while Doom Coalition was a sequence of Eighth Doctor box sets, they began with this new character being imprisoned for his crimes, on Gallifrey, by the Seventh Doctor.
It’s just possible we’re listening to this wrongly, but it sounds as though the events of Dark Universe are the crimes for which he’s caught and imprisoned. So it’s a kind of immediate prequel to those events – at least from the point of view of the Eleven. From the point of view of the Seventh Doctor, we’ve as yet no way of telling how much adventuring he did between sealing up the Eleven and meeting the hail of gunfire on Millennium Eve on Earth and Frankensteining his way into his next body, who would then go on to encounter the Eleven as a more regular and devastating presence.
Clear so far?
This release also brings into play grown-up Ace, or Dorothy McShane rather, who runs A Charitable Earth. So for once in her life, Sophie Aldred gets to play Ace at the age she is, rather than dialling it back to her teens or twenties.
This is an Ace, or a McShane, who hasn’t seen the Seventh Doctor in decades, and who, at least at first, it seems has more than a handful of scores to settle, meaning she’s working with the Eleven, more or less because it will break the Seventh Doctor’s hearts.
The plot? Oh blimey, now you’re asking.
There’s an expedition to South America, including the Eleven and Dorothy, to find a very special tree that isn’t a tree. There are portals and beings of enormous, terrifying power, beings from the dark universe of the title. This lot? Bad news. Bad, bad news. Finger-snapping, timeline-changing, species-history-eradicating bad news. Also hungry. Hungry for galaxies.
Because, sure, all that timeline-changing’s gonna take it out of you.
The Eleven’s idea of course is to team up with the bad hombres from the dark universe, and somehow keep their colossal power from wiping him out, while using them to dominate, subjugate and ultimately destroy everyone else who stands in his way, species by species if necessary. Standard evil Time Lord stuff but – oh, stop whinging, you knew it was coming – turned up to eleven.
More than anything, the character dynamics between the Seventh Doctor and Ace are what will get you invested here, though Bonnar as usual is never less than screamingly good value for money. But that pairing, advanced now in age, to the point where they know each other’s moves and motives, and where they can talk as more seasoned travellers, rather than the daft and brilliant little man with his brolly and the girl with the timestorm in her background and the rucksack full of explosives, is pretty spellbinding. And of course, Guy Adams is a writer in whose hands a complicated plot can be delivered without quite making you want to beat your own brains out with a pair of spoons, and who knows how to fill the foregrounded emotional story with lots of good and juicy stuff, so you feel glad to have heard it, for all it might be an exhausting ride.
There’s a sense of time closing in on the Doctor in this story too – not only does the older Ace and the surfacing of the Eleven make it feel like we’re late in the Seventh Doctor’s lifetime, but there’s also Carolyn Pickles as Cardinal Ollistra, another stalwart from the adventures of the Eighth Doctor and more particularly the War Doctor. She may have at least one more regeneration to go before she becomes the ruthless commander of Time Lord forces in the Time War, but the mere fact of having her here in the Main Range of stories drives Dark Universe towards the later end of the Seventh Doctor’s lifespan, and adds a thrill of anticipation to the whole thing.
Bottom line, Dark Universe probably isn’t for everyone – if you like your Who lighter or more linear, it’s never going to appeal to your core buying instincts. But there’s absolutely shedloads here that make it worth the listen, from Bonnar and Pickles to the impending darkness of a timeline that carries on in the Eighth Doctor and Time War box sets, to the legitimizing within Big Finish of A Charitable Earth and a catch-up with grown-up Ace, even to some story-beat call-backs to Remembrance of the Daleks, where the Seventh Doctor plays a dangerous game and realises a little too late that he may have overplayed his hand.
It might take you a couple of sittings to get through Dark Universe. Do it though – it pays you dividends as you go through, and if you have listened to Doom Coalition and subsequent sets, or if you’re going to, it’s a stylish, grandiose, operatic introduction to all that they bring with them. Tony Fyler