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Having missed out thus far on any Eighth Doctor Adventures since his highly entertaining travels with Tamsin Drew and Mary Shelley, I rejoin Paul McGann’s loveable if somewhat sardonic Romantic at a slight remove.

Apparently (and entirely within the confines of last year’s Dark Eyes box set) he’s gotten entangled with the first stirrings of that whole Great Dalek/Timelord War thing they keep focusing on in televised New Who, and picked up another delightful companion in the feisty no-nonsense Irish nurse Molly O’Sullivan.

“Welcome to the revolution.”

We join (or rejoin, as the case may be) the festivities in what appears to be mid-story, with “The Traitor”, a Dalek warfare piece with a Florence Nightingale cum Quisling whom Big Finish regulars have encountered before (in the McCoy solo adventure Robophobia).

Essentially, this one’s very straightforward.  There’s a somewhat inept (or at least ill-starred) batch of ragtag revolutionaries fronted by one Carna “the Hawk” who kick off the proceedings, sending Liv, the Doctor and the small circle of insurgents off into some partially destroyed mines.  Their aim?  Recovering (and setting off) preset explosives to derail the Dalek’s intended “planetary weapon”.  People die, there’s a whole lot of fireworks and a cliffhanger ending that never gets resolved, leaving everyone in doubt as to the Doctor’s true intentions…

Nicola Walker’s Liv Chenka, intended as a sort of haunted Days of Future Past Rachel Summers type, comes off a bit too maudlin and self-loathing for listener sympathy.  While the whole dilemma of wartime compassion in action vs. being utilized as a symbol of false hope to encourage continued serfdom bears the ring of authenticity, her alternately abrasive and terrified, determined and despairing demeanor proves something less than winning, and one can only hope future stories bring forth a more sympathetic character than the one on display herein.

Both written and directed by televised voice of the Daleks Nicholas Briggs, this is something of a love fest for the fascistic alien pepperpots, not in the sense of “isn’t evil wonderful”, but rather infused with a childlike sensation of wonder which comes across all too apparently in the script he crafted.

Like a child set loose in their favorite toybox, he crafts The Traitor as a series of nonstop explosions, shrieking Daleks and a believable (if grating) sense of wartime subsistence.  While certainly too young to have been through the Blitz, Briggs brings that feeling of set-jawed resoluteness in the face of utter devastation to the fore, creating what is at best a very uncomfortable listen.

“You mean he’s a blood relation?”
“The blood of Ireland binds us.”
“I’ll take that as a no, then.”

Thankfully, things improve considerably with the next two stories in the set.  First up, Alan Barnes’ The White Room, an all too brief if entertaining historical that brings back Patient Zero’s Viryans and the aforementioned Molly O’Sullivan.

Like many Who historicals, alien intervention brings the threat of upsetting the annals of recorded happenstance, with anachronistically futuristic science and time travel paradox creating the very events the “Surgeon General” ostensibly seeks to prevent.

Anyone with a terror of the medical profession, hospitals and human experimentation may want to sit this one out, but rest assured that both Ruth Bradley’s earthy effusiveness and the earnest Andrew Knott (“James” from 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men) as fugitive deserter Sean Casey render the affair quite palatable.

With the latter party’s unusual time shifting abilities and penchant for raising the vengeful dead to take recompense on their tormentors, this is a fascinating little piece straddling historical happenstance, science fiction and horror, while retaining a notable degree of good humor and hope to seal the bargain.

Wirrn Dawn and Embrace the Darkness veteran Ian Brooker flexes his patented dotty professor cum baddie chops, and Brian Shelley comes fresh from his role as the titular sentient satellite (and smothering mother) from the Colin Baker Brood of Erys to portray both the murderous Tommy and the second of the two Viryans.  Adrian MacKinder of Spaceport Fear returns as the sinister trigger happy orderly “Master Zachrey”, and things are kept moving along at a typically breakneck pace by director Nick Briggs.

“I’m a scientist.  I came here because I thought I could achieve something momentous.  Something that would get me remembered.”
“You may well be remembered, but for all the wrong reasons.”

The other standout of the collection comes in the form of Matt Fitton’s Time’s Horizon, a cracking sci fi mystery about space pioneers exploring the unknown edges of the universe which turns out to be a fairly blatant warning against fracking in disguise.

Fitton, also of The Wrong Doctors, Companion Chronicles’ Luna Romana and The Dark Planet as well as Destiny of the Doctor’s The Time Machine, works a subtle politicosocial message into a far flung hard SF adventure, complete with revivified mummies, inexplicable anomalies and creatures from the end of time.

With a satisfying sense of plumbing the unknown dark and even a sort of venture through a space fog, Time’s Horizon ties the mythic elements of horror and exploration of the unconscious to the old dark house motif of a small number of souls isolated and facing forces well beyond their comprehension or ability to control.  The end result is awash in a strongly oneiric atmosphere which serves to make this the most appealing of the four part Dark Eyes 2 set by a long shot.

Further, while on a certain level serving to tie together several plot threads of the prior episodes herein (and presumably the earlier Dark Eyes set as well), Fitton offers a pointedly contemporary caveat wherein the travelers’ purpose is revealed to be fracking from the temporal anomaly to tap into an unlimited source of power in the interest of alleviating a global energy crisis back home.  As with the real world analogue, already resulting in devastating townwide explosions, earthquakes, cave-ins and toxification of both groundwater and soil, this proves a foolhardy and dangerous measure, with far reaching consequences for all mankind…

Beyond the wonderful Ruth Bradley’s Molly O’ Sullivan and Nicola Walker’s bristly Liv Chenka, Jo Castleton as Science Tech Vi Kruger and Ian Hallard’s Com-tech Bron Kell deliver notable and praiseworthy performances, the latter believably breaking down under the strain of extreme conditions into a basket case riddled by religious mania.  And it practically goes without saying that once again, director Nick Briggs is on hand to keep things as tightly paced and exciting as possible.

“And now for one of the greatest challenges we’ll ever face…finding a parking space in central London.”

Finally, we wrap things up…more or less, anyway…with a 70’s set Master story complete with a sort of zombie apocalypse and all (well, most…) things explained.

Spoiler alert: both the Doctor and the Master turn out to be pawns of the Timelords in their escalating war against the Daleks.  The “retrogenitor particles” which result in the titular “dark eyes” turn out to have been created to fight the Daleks (which may be old news for those who’ve been through last year’s box set, but was a welcome if partial revelation for me).  Despite all the double dealings and multiple explanations put forth in Time’s Horizon, we’re informed that the Eminence was deliberately brought back in time by the Master, to defeat the Daleks.  And there’s further business about the Master developing his own white eyed “finite warriors” by misuse of an opthamology front, with the whole thing turning into a power struggle between the Eminence and the Master, with the Doctor forced to play both sides against the middle.  Whew.

While I certainly appreciated the little jaunt McGann, Molly and Liv take in Bessie (a welcome nod to what I tend to consider the greatest and most significant period of Who outside the Philip Hinchcliffe era), the problem here is twofold.  First, it’s explanation time.  Mainly through a lengthy dialogue between McGann and Macqueen towards the finish, author Matt Fitton (for his second bow this season) weaves together most or all threads relating to the Timelords, Daleks, Eminence and the titular “dark eyes”, as noted earlier.

But the main problem is, while at least it’s not another Dalek story…it is another Master story.  And while I’m sure there are more than enough diehards eager for yet another chapter in the continually expanding library of Dalek and/or post-Roger Delgado Master tales, to be quite frank, the prospect of either leaves me even colder than the Doctor, when he winds up locked in the Master’s storage freezer herein.

Let’s be honest, here – while this is all about nostalgia and keeping the flame alive for classic Who and its many participants, there’s a point at which certain recurrent aspects thereof have to be questioned every now and again.  In other words, how many more times can we tap the exact same well?

Regular readers of Third Eye know that for me, whatever the respective merits of the Geoffrey Beevers, Peter Pratt and Anthony Ainley iterations,* there’s honestly never been more than one Master, and he was lost to us in an unfortunate auto accident back in the early to mid 70’s.

* and I certainly do acknowledge that there are significant merits thereto – see my recent take on Beevers’ Master in The Light at the End.  Further, dare we forget his performance in the classic McCoy/Ace adventure Dust Breeding?

Everything since the passing of Delgado tends to feel something of a cheat, with each actor essaying the role (which further include the likes of Eric Roberts and John Simm) putting forth a very different persona – 11 regenerations of the Doctor proved far more consistent than less than half as many takes on the Master.

What it points to in sum is that really, there’s precious little thread tying the later regenerations to the first (if we’re to consider Delgado as the actual ‘first’ rather than ‘the first to which we’ve been exposed’).  Where Delgado was both suavely sinister and something of a man of action (cf the Pertwee/Delgado fencing match in The Sea Devils, for one!) Pratt and Beevers played him as a more traditionally laconic schemer, a cultured if not Decadent variant thereof.

The late Anthony Ainley played him as more of a mustachio-twirling Tod Slaughter type, with a penchant for fey behavior and a tendency towards cowardice.  Roberts and Simm opted for a rather over the top mania, with the latter interjecting some oddly homoerotic overtones to the Doctor-Master relationship.  Macqueen seems to be drawing from the more manic, somewhat unbalanced Roberts/Simm template.

Regardless as to personal preference, the plain fact is that not one of them displayed the influence or tonality of their progenitor in Delgado to any noticeable or appreciable degree – they all seemed to be essaying different shades of another, very different Timelord than the one he was going for.  And while each certainly brings something new and arguably valuable to the table, it seldom if ever feels “right” to these ears, the Pratt and Beevers takes excepted.

So in sum, what are we to make of Dark Eyes 2?  Without recourse to compare and contrast with the original boxed season of the new Eighth Doctor line last year, I can only speak in terms of the present offering, which leaves me with mixed feelings.  So let’s tick off the boxes as we go.

First, I certainly appreciate another round of Paul McGann.

To go by his sole televised appearance, McGann’s delightfully warm and human take on the Doctor was unlike any prior, though the softer, more paternal elements of earlier incarnations were certainly present and accounted for and in fact amplified therein. It is this, combined with his Byronic Edwardian look and sensibilities, lightly snarky muttered asides and all too brief onscreen career which left him an excellent template, particularly predisposed towards subsequent fanfic interpretation.

That said, some aspects of the American coproduction left the character per se open to what’s become something of an unfortunate trend in developing the Doctor from a more traditionally paternal, companionable role into a more directly and openly romantic figure, resulting in what seems to have become one love affair after another in the hands of Davies and Moffatt’s New Who reinterpretations of classic era material.

While much of Big Finish’s take on the McGann Doctor has skewed towards the aforementioned strengths the man brings to the role, the earlier Charley Pollard material did retain strong echoes of the latter element, leaving things a bit off kilter in the eyes of many longtime Whovians.  Personally speaking, I only began to latch onto the Eighth Doctor (and Charley herself) with their final adventure together The Girl Who Never Was, with the separate Eighth Doctor Adventures line and Fisher’s time with Colin Baker sealing the respective deals.  The sort of uncomfortable closeness of something like 2003’s Scherzo just did not say Doctor Who to my ears, falling more into a sort of queasy sci-fi inflected Harlequin romance territory – fine if you’re talking Fabio, but the Doctor?!?

But with that somewhat misguided bit of business seemingly long abandoned in favor of a more traditional and dynamic approach, the McGann Doctor has developed into one of my very favorites, which becomes a bit redundant to say when Big Finish has managed to ‘rehabilitate’ and develop all five of the surviving classic era Doctors.  Nonetheless, the sentiment is a true one, and I for one am certainly glad to hear him back in action once again.

Second, Molly O’Sullivan.  Having grown up in a town that skewed nearly half Irish in population, with at least one close friend’s father first generation straight out of County Clare and my first girlfriend many years agone bearing the stamp of the Emerald Isle in her background, you know I’m going to have a longstanding appreciation for Ruth Bradley’s traditional brand of Irish lassie humor and forthrightness.  With an audibly knowing wink of the eye and lilt to the step, Bradley’s O’Sullivan ranks among the very best McGann companions to date.

Finally, we have Alan Barnes’ the White Room and Matt Fitton’s Time’s Horizon, whose respective merits have earlier been explored, each proving to be particularly strong adventures in the Eighth Doctor timeline.

On the other hand, we have to deal with Daleks.  And the Master, who is neither Delgado or Beevers this time around.  There’s warfare and explosions and a whole lot of noise and at least two mad doctors performing involuntary surgery on unwilling victims herein.  Shudder.

We also get an inordinate amount of the moribund Liv Chenka, whose character and experiences render her rather unpleasant to have around, to be quite honest.  One hopes for further development to lighten and humanize the character a bit, but it’s hard to find positives about an ersatz companion who carries such a pronounced cloud over her metaphorical head.

And really, when it comes down to it…who wants to invite the sad sack to the party?