Dark Universe

Posted in Audio by - January 22, 2020
Dark Universe

Released January 2020

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

The Eleven as a nefarious Time Lord who retains each of the distinct personas of his previous ten incarnations made an instant impact in Big Finish’s Doom Coalition saga featuring the Eighth Doctor, rightfully earning Mark Bonnar tremendous praise and ushering in a warranted telling of stories featuring various predecessors and even the successor of his charismatic foe. With ‘Dark Universe’ to begin 2020’s slate of monthly audio adventures, Guy Adams looks to address the tease that opened that epic saga by revealing the sequence of events that would bring the Seventh Doctor to pursue and capture this rogue.

Because of all of the returning characters that span so much of Big Finish’s audio continuity, ‘Dark Universe’ in many ways feels like a grand finale which is an odd sensation for a prequel featuring two leads that would not be involved in the main narrative of the Eleven and Gallifrey. Nonetheless, the threat that the Eleven poses is perfectly written and portrayed, and Bonnar imbues a genuine menace and gleeful malevolence that only accentuates his character’s shrewd intelligence and opportunistic nature. And while the titular Dark Universe and its denizens who represent one of the Time Lords’ greatest secrets are naturally integral to his latest plan for universal conquest, far more is revealed about this foe after he has achieved his goal with the Doctor trapped as little more than his personal entertainer. This is a villain who understands villains and who will not be outmanoeuvred even by those with the power to eliminate an entire race with little more than a thought, but the moment he realizes that even all-encompassing power cannot satisfy him and stave off boredom is a revealing bit of introspection that expertly delves into the true mindset and motivations of this foe who at times has been written as the Master in all but name. With the previous ten incarnations also used more sparingly overall than in many releases, this truly is the Eleven’s time to shine as he rises to and falls from power in equally spectacular fashion, and Bonnar perfectly encapsulates everything that has made this character so popular while hinting at just how much more the Eleven can yet offer.

Of course, the Seventh Doctor- and especially in prose that would keep the character and franchise in the public consciousness between 1989 and 1996- would become unquestionably the Doctor’s darkest and most manipulative incarnation, often willing to risk the lives of countless others without their knowledge as he placed cosmic gambles and so dangerously operated from behind the scenes. ‘Dark Universe’ very much follows in this vein, and rarely have the stakes been so high as a seeming miscalculation gives the Eleven utter dominance over everything. Purposefully told in a disjointed and non-linear fashion in order to maximise the intrigue and pervasive sense of helplessness as the Doctor appears wholly fallible, Adams is easily able to weave several acts of deception from the Doctor into a scheme that is far more layered than even the most ardent supporters of this incarnation’s methodology might expect. Along with the audience, the returning Cardinal Ollistra implicitly understands that history shows that the Doctor always emerges victorious and so should be allied with (which is itself an intriguing plot point when considering how at odds she will come to be with the Eighth and War Doctors), but it’s none other than a mature Ace whom the Doctor has once more recruited who declares that he is lying about his desire to prove how dangerous the Eleven is to his fellow Gallifreyans and that he has instead sacrificed countless lives in the process to simply get in the good graces of a powerful presence the likes of which is rarely seen.

The return of Ace to the Doctor’s side after some twenty years from her perspective is naturally a significant selling point for this release, and Sophie Aldred gives a suitably strong performance as her character who has since become a professor and the CEO of A Charitable Earth once more finds herself entwined in intergalactic affairs. While again a plot point that The New Adventures would delve into more deeply, the relationship between the Seventh Doctor and Ace has often been one fraught with tension, and the darker actions of this incarnation often pushed Ace to and beyond her breaking point. Accordingly, it seems like something of a missed opportunity both to not really address these previous rough patches and to have this reunion progress so quickly down a familiar path even if the acting from Aldred and McCoy is stellar throughout and laden with the needed emotions. Perhaps it’s precisely because ‘Dark Universe’ tries to reintroduce the Eleven, Ollistra, and a more mature Ace to its narrative, but it does seem like Ace had much more to offer as a character here than to once more put her trust in the Doctor and to eventually find that she was at least partially misguided given the unintended ramifications that his undeniably good result regarding the Eleven wrought.

Still, for a look at the Seventh Doctor which is rarely so bluntly portrayed on audio, ‘Dark Universe’ is an unabashed success and shows just how much the Doctor at this time is willing to sacrifice to achieve is own means, in many ways providing a perfect parallel to the villains he so often pursues. This is a story that may have chosen to incorporate just a little too much material regarding returning characters, but the acting, direction, and sound design are all pitch perfect, and this is an unquestionable high with which to begin 2020.

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