It’s going to be quite the month if you’re a Seventh Doctor and Ace fan – We have the long-awaited Season 26 Blu-Ray boxed set arriving on Monday 27th, Sophie Aldred’s hotly-anticipated elder Ace novel At Childhood’s End on February 6th and this week Big Finish have released Dark Universe by Guy Adams.
Set after Ace departs the TARDIS, it finds her running A Charitable Earth, angry and bitter about her time with the Doctor. This anger and her charity’s links with the Brazilian government make her an ideal companion for villainous Timelord The Eleven and a scheme involving a Gallifreyan weapon which is hidden deep inside a tree in the Amazon. In true Doctor Who style, what begins as a contemporary globetrotting fetch quest becomes a complex, slightly confusing, cosmos shattering battle for survival. Or, as Sylvester McCoy describes it “potty, and all over the place…but it’s not.”
Much was made of the tensions between Ace and the Doctor in the promotion of Dark Universe, is she the Doctor’s friend or is she his foe? What could have possibly gone wrong between the two of them? Whilst that appears to match up with the synopsis for Aldred’s upcoming novel, it doesn’t fit with Pete McTighe’s emotive Season 26 trailer. Nor does it ring true in Dark Universe itself. Without giving too much away, Guy Adams’ script spends little to no time in committing to the idea that Ace would ever betray the Doctor by siding with a Timelord as chaotic and evil as the Eleven – played once more by the excellent Mark Bonnar.
Thankfully, Sophie Aldred is clearly relishing the chance to play an older, wiser Ace. Gone are the juvenile insults, instead favouring acidic snark when dealing with each of the Time Lords she comes into contact. The twenty-year gap does add a different dimension to the Doctor and Ace’s relationship and she’s weary with his constant plotting and need for control. As Aldred observes in the behind the scenes interviews, there is an element of looking back over a previous relationship and identifying the problems with it. There’s interesting material in here for both characters but with a bombastic end of the universe style story wrapped around it, there’s a missed opportunity not to explore it further.
It doesn’t help that the Doctor doesn’t get much to do for three out of the four episodes, other than narrate the action and hint that he has a plan to reverse the seemingly hopeless situation. Much like Ace, I found myself wearying of this aspect of his character. It’s an issue that plagued many of the New Adventures novels back in the 90’s and here, his plan seems incredibly risky to the point of outright villainy, regardless of his good intentions.
It’s this that leads to the story’s standout scene – the big moral confrontation between the Doctor and the Eleven. It’s played beautifully by Mark Bonnar and Sylvester McCoy, equal parts righteous fury and empathy and contains the fabulous line “No-one cares if you’re caught punching a Dalek.” We’ve been here before many times, “we’re not so different, you and I”, but Bonnar and McCoy lend Guy Adams’ rich dialogue some real gravitas that momentarily distracts you from the well-worn cliches at the core.
This is the main strength of Dark Universe, our central trio of Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred and Mark Bonnar. They anchor a story that is quite convoluted and requires your attention, not one to listen to whilst doing the dishes, perhaps. Once the Doctor begins to reveal his intentions and set the wheels spinning in Part 4, McCoy really delivers in his emotionally charged confrontations with his nemesis and former companion. Similarly, Sophie Aldred is brilliant at drawing all the threads of Ace’s multiple Big Finish incarnations into a well-rounded individual that is no longer in thrall to her Professor.
Frustratingly, much of Dark Universe reminded me of Last of the Timelords but these character moments allow the play to step out from that story’s shadow, providing us with what Big Finish can often do so well – casting fresh perspectives and adding depth to characters that we think we know so well.