Released March 2003
‘The Dark Flame’ is Big Finish’s second plunge into the universe of The New Adventures, the range of novels meant to continue the adventures of the Seventh Doctor following the programme’s cancellation in 1989. While the first, ‘The Shadow of the Scourge’ was generally well-received, it was perhaps a bit jarring for those listeners unfamiliar with the novels to suddenly see a colder Doctor more willing to sacrifice whoever and whatever he needed to achieve his aims alongside a more battle-hardened Ace. ‘The Dark Flame’ softens these traits, creating a more accessible and friendly entry point for strict Big Finish fans; while any exposure to Lisa Bowerman’s Professor Bernice (Benny) Summerfield is a definite treat, the story itself unfortunately lives up to the potential that all of its strong component pieces hold.
While traveling to pick up Bernice from the Orbos research facility, the TARDIS is bombarded by a cry from help from the Doctor’s old scientist colleague on the facility, Remnex. Remnex has been experimenting with the incredibly dangerous black light that relates to fluctuations in the space-time continuum, and it appears as though he has met his death Only he hasn’t, and the experiments he has been working are about to have one final test.
Meanwhile, Bernice is concerned that her archaeological colleague Victor has missed their scheduled meeting on Orbos. As it turns out, Victor is on the nearby planet Marran Alpha being forced by someone called Broke to dig up the skull of Vilus Krull, a one-time leader of the Cult of the Dark Flame whose members long ago worshipped a transdimensional energy entity. Broke’s intent is to resurrect the Cult and to cleanse the galaxy, a simple but effective setup for the story at hand.
The script serves the main characters very well here. Wisely, the Seventh Doctor is still portrayed as a shrewd and conniving figure, but his willingness to sacrifice is toned down immensely. McCoy is afforded the opportunity to express emotion and concern over the plight Orbos faces due to the black light, and this certainly serves to keep the Doctor on the more sympathetic end of the characterization spectrum. Sophie Aldred as Ace is, likewise, able to imbue her character with a combination of the teenage angst and excitement from her televised adventures as well as the more cynical emotional toughness from her written adventures. Here she’s not afraid to stand up to her foes, but she’s also not an all-out action hero as she was written in ‘The Shadow of the Scourge.’ Bowerman also offers a very strong performance as Bernice, but while the script does manage to instill some sympathy into the character, it seems to be more focused on showing how witty and sarcastic she can be rather than how truly useful she can be.
Even the supporting cast is quite strong and each member clearly enjoys his or her role. Michael Praed as Slyde, Toby Longworth as Broke, Andrew Westfield as Remnex, Hannah Smith as Lomar, and Steven Wickham as Joseph are all stellar. As such, when the strong guest and main cast performances are paired with a decent plot, it’s a strange finding that they don’t add up to a more substantial experience overall. The biggest fault lies in the dialogue itself, which is simply subpar and on many occasion detracts from the proceedings. The repetition of expository dialogue and the very predictable sequence of events and outcome that provides no challenge for the listener are also strikes against this release.
Still, ‘The Dark Flame’ is a definite step up in quality from the previous ‘Nekromanteia’ even if the predictability and dialogue are disappointing. This story does not shy away from the darker tone and violence that The New Adventures became known for, and fortunately its implementation here is crucial to the plot. It’s one of the lengthier releases from Big Finish, and though some of that length is a bit unnecessarily padded, it’s still an overall enjoyable foray back into Virgin territory and a welcome return of Bernice Summerfield to the main range.