Once and Future: The Union

Posted in Audio by - October 25, 2023
Once and Future: The Union

Released October 2023


Arriving on the Diamond Array after answering a distress call from Susan to open Matt Fitton’s ‘The Union,’ the Doctor’s degenerative instability increases, flitting between his Fourth and Eighth incarnations as he looks to uncover this multidimensional space station’s true purpose while River Song tries to traverse a deadly alliance to save her husband.

Once and Future as a whole has been an uneven affair at best, often sacrificing any sort of sensical storytelling and drama to bring together disparate segments of Doctor Who history in the name of celebration. However, ‘The Union’ manages to fully capitalize both on the premise of the Doctor’s degeneration and on the intermingling of characters to finally showcase the true potential that this special series can possess. Having multiple iterations of the Doctor tackle the plot through uncontrolled degeneration is how Once and Future should have unfolded from the start regardless of the logistical impracticalities that recording such a massive undertaking may have entailed, and although the Diamond Array itself is used as a convenient means of explaining the Doctor’s increasingly frequent degenerations, it’s impossible to deny just how much more dangerous and unpredictable his plight becomes when persona changes are not limited to simple cameos of early incarnations at the beginning and end of tales. Of course, pairing Tom Baker as unquestionably the most enduring and popular Doctor of the classic television run with Paul McGann as arguably the most influential Doctor in Big Finish’s ever-expanding catalogue is a natural decision, and though they obviously never share a scene together, the nuanced power and raw emotion that each brings to his performance as the Doctor tries to understand what is happening to him while so many star systems throughout the universe perish is incredible and a true testament to the heroic character.

In a saga that has so deftly brought in several renegade Time Lords along the way, the actual incarnations chosen to feature have been somewhat suspect. Rufus Hound, of course, has been the definitive version of the Monk for Big Finish, and ‘The Union’ does well to explain his previous appearance while also explaining how he has so desperately tried to avoid the Time War in any capacity. Likewise, while Michelle Gomez was superb as Missy who played such a monumental role in the Twelfth Doctor era on screen and who has staked out her own place in Big Finish’s history, it did seem like a missed opportunity for Geoffrey Beevers or Alex Macqueen to join the celebration as an incarnation that has developed so dynamically within the audio medium. The decision to then include the Lumiat as something of an inverse Valeyard incarnation for the Master who has so sparsely featured before was all the stranger given the higher drama that could have resulted from another incarnation no matter the important role she was thrust into alongside two Doctors in ‘Time Lord Immemorial.’ Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that after featuring the unknown Two rather than the Eleven or another better-known incarnation of the Time Lord suffering from regenerative dissonance in “Two’s Company,” Once and Future introduces another unknown incarnation of this foe to present the ultimate threat to the Doctor here. Even as this story somewhat clumsily tries to explain what the Doctor can and cannot remember as past and future collide with different accoutrements intact, the decision to bring in a new version of a known threat duly pays homage to the renegade Time Lord as a whole but also takes away some of the inherent drama that a known foe who has combatted the Doctor before could bring. Regardless, Maureen O’Brien is absolutely magnificent in the role of the self-proclaimed Union and presents a genuine sense of authority and malice as she looks to add the most unique diamonds to her collection while harnessing the degenerative energy of other Time Lords to stabilize her own condition. Truly, showcasing the Union’s shrewd intelligence and remorselessness as she experiments on others for her own race instantly sets her up as an incredibly effective threat even as the Doctor is trying to figure her out, and her plan to force a form of her own ailment on the Time Lord population at large is a terrifying plan with far-reaching consequences that truly speaks to the ever-present need to find inner peace with oneself.

Unfortunately, any promise the Union shows is rather quickly undermined by how easily she accepted River’s word about her past and made her an integral part of her plan to initially capture renegade Time Lords. Even disregarding warnings about River from others around her to then allow the Doctor to point out the flaws in both her scheme and setup, the Union proves to be a fatally flawed character who fails because of her own shortsightedness as much as by grand actions from the Doctor and his companions, a fact that ultimately detracts from the overall effectiveness and resonance of the character. Nonetheless, her true intentions with the Doctor and forcing him to confront the incarnation who gave up his chosen name is a cruelly ingenious one as the Doctor boldly proclaims that he resolutely remains the Doctor no matter his persona while the Union in any of her incarnations has always been at war with those who have come before, a fact that here has led to a physical excision of the past to compensate. Although this again traverses the somewhat murky territory of what the Doctor can remember from his past and future, that he can even come to accept and defend what the War Doctor had to do given the circumstances before him is a foundational moment for the character that builds on a decade of development since his surprising introduction. This allows for a brilliant appearance from Jonathon Carley who has kept this incarnation burning so brightly for Big Finish, and he’s easily the emotional highlight here amidst a flurry of cameos from nearly all of the the First to Twelfth Doctors, the Eleventh and Twelfth being voiced by Jacob Dudman with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi yet to reprise their respective roles for Big Finish.

While River and Susan have met before in ‘An Unearthly Woman’ which allows for a certain shorthand as the two are reunited, these two particular characters who are each so vital to the history of Doctor Who work brilliantly to serve as emotional anchors for the Doctor amidst his degenerations. It’s always a pleasure to hear Carole Ann Ford reprise her famed role, and the emotion she conveys with Susan who comes face to face with her grandfather once more in the most extreme of circumstances is palpable. Likewise, while River is seemingly almost always in control of the narrative no matter how unpredictable it may seem, Alex Kingston gives an incredibly energetic performance that again proves River’s dedication to the Doctor in all of his incarnations while she also comes to experience certain memories of events yet to come with the man who is, was, and will be her husband. Any rights issues aside, while ‘The Union’ and Once and Future as a whole do perhaps miss a chance to at least superficially delve into the controversial plotline of the Timeless Child since there is no logical reason that the degenerative crises would limit themselves to being between the First and Twelfth incarnations even as the Eighth Doctor rather humorously remarks that the numbering systems seems to lose meaning after him, there is an incredible amount of genuine emotion and love packed into these final scenes and this story as a whole that brings this particular plot to an end on a true high while serving as a fitting love letter to the Doctor and to the incredible legacy of characters and emotions that Doctor Who has brought for sixty years. Despite the flaws of the Union as a character, ‘The Union’ as a story manages to successfully do everything this saga has been trying to do from the start with a remarkably engaging and heartfelt tale that satisfyingly explains and- even more importantly- utilizes the degenerative premise at its core.

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