“We should understand our actions have effects far beyond the immediate.”
More than a full year after Gods and Monsters, we pick up with the Sylvester McCoy Doctor and Ace immediately after the somewhat pointless sacrifice and loss of Thomas Hector Schofeld.
Ace is taking things hardest, as one might expect from a girl who’d borne such a coyly flirtatious relationship with the man. And the fact that a battle hardened Doctor isn’t so obviously breaking down proves a persistent burr in her saddle, at the very time they need each other most…
Sophie Aldred, who like Nicola Bryant has consistently proved quite amazingly able to recreate the tonality and demeanor of her youthful televised persona, delivers a bravura performance that transcends the cheesiness of the Strasberg Method to tap into the quite recognizably raw emotion of pain, loss and confusion that inevitably occurs in the wake of the loss of a loved one, particulary if said loss is untimely or sudden.
Running on all cylinders at once, her acting proves believably difficult to endure at such an intense level, with nary a hint of surcease throughout just about the entire running time of Afterlife – and yet, never tips over the edge into unwarranted stridency.
The listener is quite directly forced to believe this is a woman in severe emotional and existential pain, raging against the injustice of the situation and what she feels to be the failure of her “Professor” to adequately protect his charges and prevent its occurrence. And thanks to the collective scripting skills of any number of Big Finish authors and directors over the years, a proper and sufficient basis exists to justify this level of raw emotion.
That basis? Plain and simple – the way Ace and Hex grew together during their travels, however arms length they may have pretended to be.
“I might have met a girl. Now, I don’t want you thinking it’s wedding bells and going off and buying a hat. It’s just…she’s cool. And pretty. And I think…there could be something there…”
While their relationship fell along the line of unconsummated high school flirtation, complete with a plethora of putdowns and snarky digs to mask their obvious heartfelt affections towards one another, only the densest of listeners could have missed what was really going on beneath the surface.
And it is this that provides the bedrock Aldred’s floorboard storming dramatic turn herein rests and relies upon for sufficient dramatic weight, and what the current televised Who revival, like all modern television or Hollywood cinema, with its cipher characters defined by one repeated catchphrase in lieu of proper exploration of persona and the essential humanity of its protagonists, decidedly lacks by comparison.
Further, it is this very concern which drives the current story. A script based on and driven by some very personal, existential, human concerns. Well, imagine that…
“I’m not without mercy. I give everyone a chance to prove themselves, to be better than they are. Not everyone takes it…so hardcore is all that’s left to them.”
Ace’s major concern here is not just the personal loss of a friend…perhaps more than a friend. While that sudden absence is certainly a major driver in the proceedings, the real issue, the one that pulls the prickliness and raw, bleeding heart on the sleeve emotion to the surface…is a sense of betrayal.
To get into the whole relationship, dynamic and history of the Seventh Doctor and Ace would be far too lengthy and intrusive to delve into in relation to the story under present review.
Suffice to say their pairing relates very much to Dorothy McShane’s sublimated need for a replacement father figure, with McCoy’s Doctor less the oft-attributed master manipulator he tends to come off as (and which there is more than enough solid evidence to bolster support for) than a Pertwee/Jo style affectionate taking under the wing and encouragment of the personal development, self-analysis and existential growth of the companion by a more seasoned and experienced instructor/father figure and dare I say it, friend.
While McCoy’s Doctor had a far more pronounced tendency than the more protective Pertwee’s ever would have to push Ace out into the frontlines, effectively employing the immersion method of throwing her in at the deep end to force her to learn to swim, the parallels are glaringly obvious; the mutual affection between the two nigh-unchanged.
And yet…there is an important difference.
The Pertwee Doctor’s strongest and most overriding trait was his strong sense of moral outrage. Boiled down to brass tacks, his defining persona was of a man who cared – far more openly and directly than any of the Doctors that surrounded him.
The disgust and rage he often displayed towards his military minded associates was less a generic ivory tower ideological protest than a shocked disbelief that people he had come to respect and care for could possibly be so dense…so inhuman, as to callously commit genocide of different races and look for the simplest (and thus stupidest, least effective and most damaging to all parties concerned in the long run) solution to any problem, that of military force and violence.
Now make no mistake, he was no sissy – in fact, he was hands down the manliest of all Doctors, with his era tapping more into the cracking action-adventure and intrigue of the spy thriller and most particularly the Brian Clemens Avengers series in its earlier and best iterations (i.e. the Cathy Gale and Emma Peel eras). Fencing, sportsmanlike use of various vehicular chases, leaping over tables and Venusian Aikido – even the Eccleston Doctor was a cerebral layabout by comparison.
Yet and still, what drove his Doctor was a true and abiding love for justice – not only for humanity per se but for all the races and species he encountered. In short, he was a multiculturalist and humanist long before those movements came to any level of populist prominence.
He was also the first Doctor to, if not cry, then clearly evince emotional devastation at the departure and effective loss of his closest and most beloved companion…and it was directly this that led to his demise and regeneration a short time thereafter. The most human of Doctors, in sum.
McCoy’s Doctor, on the other hand, was one of the coldest of Doctors. Beyond perhaps the giddy, manic obliviousness and apparent total selfishness of the Tom Baker iteration, literally none of the others – even the militarily decisive take of the Eccleston run – came off as disinterested, scheming and manipulative. His “Dark Doctor” of the Ace era was the only truly believable version thereof, even with and despite his more comic, mixed metaphor and jumbled aphorism spouting, slapstick pratfall inclined take of the Mel days.
In fact, viewed in a certain light, the sheer surface level of that version hammers the reality of his later, darker take home. After all, what better distraction and obfuscation of one’s true intentions and feelings than to bury them under a surface patina of ostensibly lighthearted comedy? Pay no attention to what the hands are doing, and nevermind the man behind the curtain…
And so we come full circle with a still deeper justification for Ace’s rage at the Doctor. For what other Doctor/companion relationship bore such a believable basis for an honest sense of betrayal? More to the point, which other Doctor, bar perhaps Eccleston’s, could so truly stand accused of cold and callous maneuvering of his charges like chess pieces, well and truly without a single heartfelt emotion?
So when the events of Gods and Monsters come down, Ace’s first move in dealing with her deep and abiding pain…is to turn the tables on the Doctor, to throw him in at the deep end for a change, and effectively force him to understand the gravity of his action or inaction. To show him the human aftermath of his decisions. To make him understand what it truly means to grieve what his choices have wrought.
Yes, things get a bit weird about halfway through the proceedings. There’s some odd bit of business about the aftermath of Hex’s dive into the vortex and an ongoing “game” with an elemental that leads to an extra year of pseudo-life for a Hex without a memory, who turns out to be a very different person than the one we’d come to know. But like all deals with the devil, it’s decidedly rigged against him, and his supposed benefactor is welching on the deal at the outset.
But forget all that nonsense. Because that’s not what this story is about.
Anyone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one will know, understand and moreover feel this episode intimately. Anyone who’s been through hard times in life, only to find themselves emerging on the other side a stronger, if more scarred and ultimately more enlightened individual will recognize what’s going on here as well.
Because this is all about exactly what it means to be human.