Released October 2010
Following the rather unfortunate misstep with ‘Project: Destiny’ the revitalization of Big Finish’s Seventh Doctor stories resumes with ‘A Death in the Family,’ picking up from the intriguing cliffhanger and bringing back the fascinating Word Lord first introduced in the 2008 ‘Forty-Five’ anthology collection.
In terms of hyping this release, Big Finish did a masterful job. Highlighting Ian Reddington’s Word Lord in place of the presumably dead Hex on the cover art, Big Finish then teased on the day of release that Philip Olivier was involved, only to then say that one of the leads would die. With Hex rightfully traumatized by the duplicity of the Doctor and the dreadful events concerning his mother, the Doctor and Ace return to the ruins of the Forge to reclaim a Time Lord sarcophagus, shockingly finding an older version of the Doctor inside and unintentionally releasing the captive World Lord upon a very word-filled world that continues to amplify his power.
The increasingly powerful Nobody No-one reintroduces himself and explains the rules by which he exists and plays quite quickly, defaming the Doctor by stating that someone else always makes the ultimate sacrifice for his plans to succeed. Although the Doctor does manages to trap the World Lord inside a sort of pan-galactic universe, this story is presented with such a commanding sense of seriousness that the ending to the first episode in which Hex pronounces the Doctor dead resonates profoundly. As he continues to fade out of existence, causality will simply shift around him to account for his dying at this earlier stage in his timeline.
Surprisingly but completely fittingly giving the character’s involvement with Hex’s past, Maggie Stables reprises her role as the Sixth Doctor’s companion Evelyn Smythe. Though her story had already reached a triumphant ending, ‘A Death in the Family’ serves as the perfect coda to wrap up the one lingering loose end from her perspective. She still harbours a resentment for the Doctor for not saving Cassie, and her choice to team up with Ace and Hex as the Doctor takes them to Pelachan is a natural one, reflecting on her own travels with the Doctor while trying to sooth and offer perspective to Hex. Ten years after the death of Rossiter, she is still fighting the fight for truth with her trademark resourcefulness and kindness; the ultimate fruition her impending death she has been aware of for so long is incredibly powerful and poignant, but her actions of taking the Word Lord with her as she remembers the glorious days with the Sixth Doctor is played to perfection.
Yet the main companions are treated very well in ‘A Death in the Family’ as well, arguably offering Ace one of her strongest stories in any medium. With the Doctor dedicated to the sarcophagus, it is up to Ace to try to mend fences with Hex, but her anguish is almost palpable as the Doctor seems to willingly accept his death. The conversations between Ace and the older Seventh Doctor are handled exceedingly well, the Doctor warning her not to lose touch with reality as he has. When Ace proclaims that traveling with him and righting wrongs is the one life she wants, he counters that is simply the one life she has known and that he held onto her as a companion for too long because of his deep caring for her. Knowing that Ace will disobey him and try to change history, he pre-programmes the TARDIS to take her somewhere peaceful, a very effective moment that even the modern television series has used to good effect.
Although Ace meets her soulmate, Henry, she remains so focused on returning to the Doctor that she never truly allows herself to commit to commit to him, holding the Doctor in such lofty esteem. She continues to explore countless possibilities, and her ultimate acceptance that the Doctor is gone is heartbreaking as she breaks down in Henry’s arms. Though her wedding is teased quite early on, it’s not until a very powerful moment that the truth behind Henry’s importance is fully revealed, making Ace’s journey perhaps the strongest and most meaningful.
‘A Death in the Family’ thankfully rights everything that was handled so poorly in the previous release regarding Hex’s tale as well. It allows him to quietly contemplate what he has witnessed, trying to come to terms with the extraordinary circumstances in which he finds himself. While he does eventually come to accept that the Doctor is still a friend, it’s his scenes in his six months with Evelyn as they both try understand what happened to Cassie and uncover the truth about the colony that really form the emotional backbone that ‘Project: Destiny’ was sadly lacking. Even his calm and compassionate bedside manner as Evelyn passes away is a true testament to this brilliant character.
With all of the leads offering staggeringly powerfully performances, two guest characters manage to stand out as well. Although the very concept and conceit of the World Lord is tremendous, Ian Reddington brings the nefarious character to life flawlessly. The villain is overwhelmingly powerful and seemingly unstoppable, and Reddington imbues a psychotic glee that only further enhances the dangerous malevolence as he moves from simply mocking the Forge and Hex’s actions to powerfully turning off the Sun and more. Conversely, John Dorney excels as the charismatic but exceedingly calm and compassionate Henry Noone who is able to care for Ace in a way that nobody has ever done before.
Slowly it becomes apparent that absolutely everything that is playing out is once more an increasingly complex scheme of the Doctor’s. Henry plays perhaps the most important role, however, as he writes a detailed account of his future with Ace. Knowing of Pelachan’s past and the existence of the Handovale, a living story in which a person could be recreated to live indefinitely as long as the story was spoken, the Doctor took the Handovale with him on his last visit and used it to trap the Word Lord in its complexity, then trapping himself in the sarcophagus so that he would not be disturbed. With Hex a hundred years in Pelachan’s past before the Doctor took the Handovale and receiving a time stamp of Henry’s description of Ace, now known as Dorothy Noone, Hex brings about the creation of Dorothy Noone herself as he reads the story aloud in the Church of Handovale, allowing the character to lie in wait. When she figures out how to manifest a physical form when the time is right, Dorothy Noone is afforded all of the same powers as the Word Lord, both being able to gain the powers afforded ‘n-o-o-n-e’ by the speaking people. As the Handovale finally lands in Evelyn’s hands after Dorothy traps the Word Lord in a data loop, she takes the Word Lord with her as she succumbs peacefully to death.
It’s rare that a story comes along that absolutely mesmerizes and entrances from beginning to end, but the subtlety and complexity of ‘A Death in the Family’ deftly does so. With everyone involved offering a knockout performance and the direction and sound excelling in every facet, this is the conclusion to the Cassie/Hex/Forge storyline that was needed after the last release’s misstep. A strong coda to Evelyn’s story is the icing on the cake, and hopefully Big Finish can find a way to tell more stories with the Word Lord race in the future as Nobody No-One is unquestionably one of the highlights of the main range.