Doctor Who: Past Lives – A Once & Future REVIEW

    It’s time – the 60th anniversary releases for Doctor Who kicks off with Big Finish’s first story in their Once & Future range. Doctor Who: Past Lives starts this large strand of stories centred around the Doctor being caught in a degenerative state. Trying to solve the mystery, the Doctor also gets caught up in other matters… And in this opener, it involves UNIT.

    Our team’s mysterious time-travelling reviewer for this range – known as Mr. Popplewick – is all too happy to kick off a run of reviews for them. With a bit of plot discussion, here, they dig right in… WARNING: THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!

    The Once & Future header bar. Off we go into Doctor Who: Past Lives! [Courtesy: Big Finish]

    Plot – Quite The Scene Setter

    Well, Doctor Who: Past Lives doesn’t waste time in its opening. As previously teased by the recent Doctor Who Magazine Issue 590 – it rather ambitiously includes seven Doctors in rapid succession. As the Doctor (unspecified incarnation in-story but most likely the Eighth, given TARDIS control SFX heard during this opening…) is dragged in for medical support during the Time War… They suddenly begin to degenerate through, well, past lives. Stumbling out and to the TARDIS, the Doctor sets off with a rush.

    It’s quite the round: Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker and Peter Davison begin the swift exit from the medical tent with the required energy. And that frantic vocal energy is continued by Stephen Noonan, Michael Troughton and Tim Treloar. There are questions to be raised by the sudden jump from the Fifth Doctor to the First Doctor… But the oddity doesn’t undermine the lovely mad stage-setting that this opening gives us.

    We’re given some nice hints at what has occurred (including that the TARDIS is also being impacted by the degeneration effect) and what the Doctor needs to do next when… The TARDIS has a sudden crash landing. With that – Tom Baker enters as the Fourth Doctor. Off we go, into the main story of this first Once & Future tale.

    A snippet of the online promotional trailer for Doctor Who: Past Lives. [Created by Chris Thompson for Big Finish]

    Plot – The Main Doctor Who: Past Lives Premise

    Finding himself in 20th century Scotland (the isle of Jura, to be specific) – it’s quite the refreshing surprise to see the Doctor’s search for the Monk rapidly solved. It rapidly transpires that the Monk has craftily stolen away a million pounds from nearby. From the K Foundation Burn A Million Quid stunt, which is quite the cheeky but fun historical touch-point to go for. (And places this little part of the story as occurring on August 23rd 1994. If you’re Scottish, you probably know this mad little occurrence. If you don’t, here’s Wikipedia to help!) This quickly turns into a chase, with the Monk soon escaping in his rock-disguised TARDIS.

    The Doctor is undeterred, following the Monk as he travels. Whilst the Doctor frets the fate of the Timelords and the Time War, the Monk is far more concerned with his own problems. He’s not just building a fortune – he’s dealing with a ‘Mr Mallory’. The not-so-charming gentleman is clear-cut in words… But far nastier in action. For one thing, he’s got the Monk stuffed full of nano-bombs.

    The Monk’s plan also requires the kidnap of one Sarah Jane Smith… The Doctor traces the Monk to 2010s London, just as the TARDIS picks up a mysterious energy field. At the same time, Kate & Osgood also take notice. The adventure really runs wild from there…

    The standard cover art for Doctor Who: Past Lives [Cover art by Lee Johnson]

    Review – The Performances of Doctor Who: Past Lives

    It’s a bit complicated to review Doctor Who: Past Lives, for reasons we’re going to get to… But let’s start with the obvious. Which makes for a hilarious bouncing-off between Baker and Rufus Hound‘s incarnation of the Monk. As always, you can feel Hound crackling with energy and determination. His exasperated responses to the Doctor’s attempts to pin him down are a reminder of how well his voice fits for an audio landscape. The same is very much true of Mr. Baker as always, too – as he flippantly makes note of his predicament.

    If one thing is undeniable about Doctor Who: Past Lives – it’s that the cast are bringing a solid all-round wave of performances. And with energy & fun at hand. Plenty of Ingrid Oliver‘s excitement as Osgood at meeting this past Doctor and getting to venture into the TARDIS… Is sure to be Oliver‘s own excitement, just as much a part of the character. Sadie Miller, as always, wonderfully brings her Sarah Jane in for another run – a nice blend of her own acting chops & the channeling of her mother’s original performance.

    Jemma Redgrave plays off everyone well as Kate Stewart, bringing the usual mix of analytic calm & playfulness that one would expect. (She’s always been a character built well for reacting to situations and people!) The cast is rounded off by Ewan Bailey‘s superb turn as leader of the warrior race, determined to make a comeback and obtain his vengeance upon Earth… And the ever-reliable Dan Starkey. Starkey has one of those voices that is, on audio, both instantly recognisable & impressively varied. (The vocal contrast between his roles in Doctor Who: Past Lives is a great reminder of his versatility.)

    Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart in The Power of the Doctor [Courtesy: BBC Studios]

    Poppy Humour

    What’s harder to nail down is how to assess the plot of Doctor Who: Past Lives. Especially as it treads a line between being both its own singular story… And the first of an seven-part story that will be released over the course of the rest of the year. (Or an eight-part story over the course of the next nineteen months, if you’re counting that ‘coda’ episode.)

    The clearest thing to say is that the humour of Doctor Who: Past Lives lands with perfect flourish. Writer Rob Valentine makes that seem effortlessly polished. The Monk’s frustrations as the Doctor makes pursuit… The cheeky in-jokes… (Kate’s “Have you not heard of downtime?” is a clever play on the original debut of Kate in Downtime. And a hilariously fitting one for an anniversary special appearance of such a long-running character.) The way in which Sarah Jane is, ahem, very much willing to deal with the Monk herself when at gunpoint…

    Again, that all crackles and pops as the story energetically moves forwards and forwards. The fun and silly side of Doctor Who: Past Lives is its greatest strength… But there’s more to this than that, though.

    Rufus Hound as the Monk. (Why do we always call him the Monk?) [Courtesy: Big Finish]

    Digging Into The Antagonists

    There’s a genuinely refreshing twist to this story – that the lack of action scuffles with & number of aliens… Is a result of the near-defeat of them in the past. Almost all of the Highdrev are locked in a frozen slumber. It’s a crafty little narrative way to make elements work in the confines of the 60-minute space available. As is the sudden death of one Highdrev due to old age. (Which tees up well for the climax of Doctor Who: Past Lives…) But even then, the limitations of time do trouble this story a bit.

    Sequel? Prequel? Limitations of Time?

    For all it’s snappy and forever moving… Doctor Who: Past Lives is caught in an odd situation where the Highdrev appear to have met the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane in the past. It’s not quite clear if this is meant to be a Terror of the Vervoids-esque Commodore Travers situation where we’re supposed to take this as an ‘offscreen’ escapade… Or if Doctor Who: Past Lives is acting as a prequel to a story we’ve yet to see – whether in this anniversary celebration or elsewhere.

    I’m inclined to suspect that it is the former rather than the latter. Which would be unfortunate, if so, as the 60-minute runtime just isn’t enough space… Among all the other elements… For the Highdrev and that past escapade to get expanded out. (It’s not in the UNIT records, either – so Kate and Osgood are also rather in the dark about matters too.) A real shame, as – by story’s end – you do feel somewhat for the tragedy that befalls them. But without more ‘defined strokes’ to them as a species… It’s hard to see them as a real highlight. Which is a odd thing for a desperate species of bipedal sword-welding crocodile-like aliens.

    The limited-edition cover art for Doctor Who: Past Lives. [Cover art by Lee Johnson]

    The Broader Strokes

    Credit as it is due: the ‘Once’ of the Fourth Doctor & Sarah Jane… faced with the ‘Future’ of Kate & Osgood is a nice juxtaposition. As is the inclusion of the Monk – as an obvious and wonderful connective tissue. And from the Extended Extras, it’s clear that this was a quartet always on the cards for this opener… But Doctor Who: Past Lives just doesn’t really have time to grapple much with this, either. Don’t get me wrong – it’s great to hear these four bouncing off each other… However, Sarah Jane Smith loses out on a lot in the compression of a 60-minute packed story.

    The Problem For Sarah Jane

    Plucked from just after The Hand of Fear – it’s a plot element that really should raise questions about why the Monk would nab her from that particular point. And bring up a lot of emotions and discussions once she comes to the realisation that the Fourth Doctor is in-fact a Doctor that has since lived hundreds of years since what’s been about ten minutes for her. Not enough time for that. For Sarah to process that, or even – by story’s end – to have a proper moment of letting go of him once it’s apparent that he is about to head off and regenerate once more. Not enough time.

    Again, it’s a real shame. And credit to Valentine – he gets as many little leans in that direction as he can… You can feel where Doctor Who: Past Lives is trying to reach for. But it feels flat. Added to that is the problem that Sarah Jane is left in the Monk’s hands by the end of the story. The loose-end of her now having met the Doctor again stands out. One expects that, as the story seems to be hinting the Monk will return later in Once & Future, this will get tackled down the line. For a story that, pre-titles aside, is rather self-contained though… It does feel odd.

    Tom Baker and his remote-recording set up. [Courtesy of Big Finish, with thanks to Sue Gerrard]

    Conclusion on Doctor Who: Past Lives

    In terms of production, Doctor Who: Past Lives is a solid round of performances from all involved with some great music and sound design work from Howard Carter. There’s a real pace and energy to the well-humoured plot… But ultimately, some fans will find lacking in finer points, particularly emotional ones & exploration of the primary theme of aging and letting go. Sarah Jane Smith and the villains are unable to get a fair innings due to the confines of time – but Valentine delivers a solid time for any Monk fans looking for a simple runaround. As it will do for anyone mostly wanting to hear Baker and Oliver have giddy fun.

    As a starter for Once & Future; it is much harder to evaluate at such an early stage… To its credit: the pretitles is perfectly pitched and works amazingly. Perhaps one of the best opens for a Big Finish audio ever! Beyond that, however, they do certainly seem to be trying to keep the stories as self-contained as possible. I’m not yet sure if that’s to my taste or not in this case. Time will tell where future stories take us.

    At any rate, as a story itself, it’s a fun inoffensive energetic romp with a bunch of classic characters. Your mileage will vary depending on how much that appeals to you. For some, I’m sure this will be an appreciated start. For me, personally, it’s a bit of a complicated mix.

    Doctor Who: Past Lives – the first story in the 60th anniversary Once & Future range – is available now from the Big Finish website HERE for £10.99 (CD & download) or £8.99 (download only). The special edition is now only available as a download bundle for £62.

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