Our Doctor Who: Once & Future range reviews continue from last month’s Past Lives. We delve into The Artist At The End Of Time. The second of Big Finish’s 60th-anniversary releases for Doctor Who has billed as quite the thing. Initially, Colin Baker was only promoted as portraying The Curator – that mysterious form-shifting future incarnation of the Doctor – within the story. (Something that only changed on the website listings on release day.) And the centrepiece seemed to be the reunion of Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor and Georgia Tennant’s Jenny yet again.
Once again, our team’s mysterious time-travelling reviewer for this range – Mr Popplewick – is ready to tell their thoughts on the story. WARNING: THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!
Plot – The Joys Of Art
The pre-titles sequence drops the main thought of The Artist At The End Of Time upon listeners rather profoundly and clearly. Decay and death are inevitable to all, so how will you approach your own? Quite the thought to raise for the Doctor, as a regenerative being currently being flung into past selves. But then it shifts it a little: how will others approach it?
Now appearing as their fifth incarnation, the Doctor has ended up in the Final Gallery for some regenerative sanctuary. As it turns out, Jenny also has her eyes on the Gallery. And discovers that a mysterious ‘Wanderer’ has been making art amidst the end of time. (It’s a story called The Artist At The End Of Time, after all.) Just as the Doctor leaves for the Showrooms, he misses Jenny coming through to see the Roboguide. Oh, drat, just missed them.
And so, they keep missing each other just a little bit as they each search for ‘final artworks’ to buy. Items that might get them closer to some answers. Jenny’s curious about the art, and the Doctor needs to figure out how one of the artworks is so familiar to him. The two both ultimately end up reunited at the Braxietel Collection… As you can expect, it’s quite a surprising reunion for the two.
Plot – Hunting Down The Artist At The End Of Time
What happens next is the questing of the pair as they search for the Artist At The End Of Time. Moving from planet to planet. (Even with a cheeky joke about whether or not the TARDIS can withstand lava…) And ultimately leads them both to one of the Fifth Doctor’s favourite places. The Eye of Orion. As it turns out, the mysterious artist is still there… and it’s the Curator.
It’s hard to be sure what to say of what follows, partly out of not wishing to spoil too much – but I would say it becomes quite a character-driven three-hander. The Curator and the Doctor search for a semblance of meaning amidst the thought of decay and death. Something that gets worse as certain things happen and more truths come to light.
In the (explosive but emotional) end, they both find their way… with a little help from Jenny. And end the Final Gallery profiting so graciously off the remaining artefacts of destroyed worlds. The Artist At The End Of Time then leaves the Curator and Jenny striding into a new mission of sorts, whilst the Doctor goes off to deal with the matter of the diamond painting. The problem is – they’re destabilising again… The Seventh Doctor pops up and is left in a rather predicament.
The Artist At The End Of Time: Thoughtful But Limited By Time
Again, like with Past Lives, it does sadly feel a little like the central thought gets lost in the time available. Near the end, the Curator does publicly condemn how the Final Gallery approaches art. Selling it off expensively, based on its status as the sole survivor of destroyed worlds. Rather than being for the people, it gets tucked away for the elites to see comfortably at the end of the universe. And to buy as well.
An interesting point is also highlighted here within The Artist At The End Of Time of the money put in by private parties towards art galleries versus the impact that the same amount of money could have on helping people struggling to survive. There’s also something to be said for a brief mention of how galleries ‘loot’ from places… But alas, all this only settles into view in that third act. For instance, there’s no time for a character illustrative of that elite. Or to dig into how the Curator’s next steps might put an end to all that.
That being said, the Curator’s drive to remember oft-forgotten or completely forgotten things… In a search for himself and for some greater meaning… It’s touching. And no doubt most will find some element of that deeply relatable. And how the Final Gallery has been exploiting that art after his creation it becomes a worthwhile thought. One can certainly hope that the future will bring a Curator audio that will be more freely able to use its time to unpack all of this further!
Sold… On The Artist At The End Of Time Performances!
The Artist At The End Of Time largely centres on the Fifth Doctor, Jenny and the Curator… And Peter Davison, Georgia Tennant and Colin Baker keep your attention wonderfully. Jenny’s as recognisably Jenny as ever – and it’s really fun to hear her interact with the Fifth Doctor again. Gently nudging him on a moment of loss he’s refusing to acknowledge; well, it should prove to people that the two characters work well together.
Colin Baker’s voice is always familiar… But extra credit should be given to him here. He clearly distinguishes his role as this form of the Curator in performance. In my opinion, The man never gets enough credit for his vocal talents. In The Artist At The End Of Time, you can hear the difference between the Sixth Doctor and this much older, wiser character. There’s some relaxation and humbleness to the Curator that shines right through. Indeed, until the end, little moments twinkle and make you wonder if he’s planned everything all along.
And I can’t neglect to mention the performance of Abi Harris (Roboguide). Pitched perfectly for the synthetic character, their voice goes together with the sound engineering to create a nice and immediately distinctive sense of the Roboguide. Especially as it becomes clear that it’s more than just a reciter of information. There’s something craftily dark comedy about a guide trying to sell you private artwork as a memento of how the Gallery is meant to depress you. There’s also a nice third-act moment I liked – though I do wish we could’ve had more time with the Roboguide.
Doctor Who: Once & Future‘s Continuation
One thing that is sure to be a more dividing aspect of The Artist At The End Of Time – and indeed, Once & Future as a whole – is the self-contained nature of the opening. Where Past Lives left us with Tom Baker (Fourth Doctor) rushing off into the TARDIS to regenerate… Here, we are straight into the action with Doctor number five. It lays down the set-up for this story rather well. That can’t be denied at all. The narrative then introduces the Gallery and its purpose. But it does seem odd for the story to go for such an approach when the stories are all billed as part of one continued story.
And the debate on whether leaving individual parts accessible to newcomers unaware of that becomes a little murky… As the theme music ends, we are thrown into the voices of Stephen Noonan (First Doctor), Michael Troughton (Second Doctor) and Tim Treloar (Third Doctor). The Doctor’s stability is still out of place. But then The Artist At The End Of Time has to brush past this thought for quite some time.
Signs Of Improvement
Come to the end of the story, it then must bring that back to the forefront rather rapidly. So, I do have to wonder if that would work for someone who hasn’t heard the first story. At the least, something can be more concretely said. It works out for those tracking the Once & Future story. The pairing off of the Curator and Jenny feels far more plausible based on the story’s events than Past Lives’ pairing off the Monk and Sarah Jane. And we get a regeneration scene this time, taking us from the Fifth Doctor… briefly to the Sixth… and then to the Seventh. What a treat.
Conclusion on The Artist At The End Of Time
Though somewhat hindered by its runtime like its predecessor, The Artist At The End Of Time feels like a much steadier story in the Once & Future series. The music usage is perhaps a little more sparing than other stories, but it serves it well – particularly when the Curator has his way in the third act. The sound design handles adeptly well. Everything from picking up a wind to trudging through the snow, to pouring a cup of tea… Clearly recognisable in the moment.
The self-contained to-fro of Once & Future may divide, but regardless, there is a nice reunion here for the Fifth Doctor and Jenny. And the Curator getting a bit more thorough examination is always a win.
A bit broad strokes on the topic it wants the listener to consider, but an interesting character piece… With a solid third-act moment. It’s a hearty recommendation from me.
Doctor Who: The Artist At The End Of Time – the second 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.