There’s a definite case for Dark Eyes being the Eighth Doctor’s Revenge Of The Sith – not because there’s an unconvincing romance and a spot of light genocide, but because there’s a vivid end of innocence, and a closing of the gap – in the imagination of the listener, at least – between the end of the Eighth and the dawn of the Ninth, and all the darkness, loss, war and heartache that this mysterious period suggests.
Even the Eighth Doctor’s new look – a leather naval peacoat and short hair – echoes the attire of Christopher Eccleston when he entered Doctor Who canon in 2005, so too does his new companion echo the dynamic if Rose Tyler and the Ninth – like Billie Piper’s council estate companion, Molly O’Sullivan is forthright, down-to-earth and anything but easily impressed, and like Rose, over the course of her incredible adventure she becomes more than human and the key to the whole arc.
There’s more to Dark Eyes – the first Paul McGann-starred full-cast audio since early 2011’s To The Death – than allusions to other eras, although there’s no shortage of nods to Who history and future – with the Doctor dismissing the idea of a war in which the Daleks and Time Lords were wiped out as unimaginable, a structure to the first half that recalls harmless Sixties caper ‘The Chase’, a bit of voice work from the statesmanlike Ian Cullen, who wrestled with staff room action hero Ian Chesterton in 1964’s ‘The Aztecs’ and, of course, Toby Jones, whose credits include Harry Potter and Captain America: The First Avenger, but also taunted Amy Pond with illusions of another life in ‘Amy’s Choice’. A despairing, suicidal Doctor – still wounded by the events of To The Death – is pulled back from the edge of eternity by the Time Lords, who offer him hope and a mission in the mud of First World War France, one that takes him across time and space with the Daleks at his heels across the four stories – ‘The Great War’, ‘The Fugitives’, ‘Tangled Web’ and ‘X And The Daleks’ – that make up this audio ‘season’.
Paul McGann is clearly energised by the changes and the setting – the new look was instigated by him and the Great War is one of his specialist interests, according to the extensive and insightful behind the scenes documentary, and his performance – there’s a hint of the fey, romantic Eighth of old, and moments of his Grace-kissing exuberance but blanketed in weariness and aching, sharper too – almost as if Richard E Grant’s Shalka Doctor was the 9th that this adventure averted, a possible future Doctor rendered obsolete not by the coming of Eccleston, but by the arrival of Molly O’Sullivan.
Primeval, Stardust and Grabbers star Ruth Bradley has some pretty big shoes to fill as companion Molly – coming after Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller – but here’s is a very different, more challenging half to the partnership and her relevance to the unfolding conspiracy keeps her as a more equal partner in the dynamic than is often the case. A First World War volunteer nurse, her frank practicality in the face of the maudlin Time Lord let’s her into the driving seat of the narrative, and there’s whip-fast pace to their wordplay from the off – clear chemistry that enriches the whole experience, makes the mystery all the more urgent to solve, and the tension all the more intense.
It’s abundantly clear to even the Big Finish novice that the McGann era of Who has a definite dramatic arc, as emotional and rewarding as anything on the box. And to think people used to argue about whether or not the Eighth Doctor was canon…