Doctor Who – Once and Future blows the roof off as it swaggers onto the dance floor to start the 60th Anniversary party early

It’s Doctor Who’s diamond anniversary year! With it comes Big Finish’s project to commemorate the occasion, Once and Future. It’s long been standard practice for the Whoniverse to mark these milestones by letting its hair down and having a bit of a celebratory boogie. Though as time has gone by, the pressure’s increased to try and find something some new vehicle for the fun. Uniting all the Doctors for some bickery banter in an adventure where the stakes are the fate of Gallifrey itself? Been done no less than three times now. Mixing it up a little by having the show’s other former leads show up, but not as the Doctor? That was how Big Finish themselves marked the 40th.

Even when it hasn’t been a big date for Who, perhaps recent showrunners have been a little quick to jump on what would have been great hooks for an anniversary story. Like Bilbo Baggins with the One Ring, asking himself “Well why not? It’s my idea! Why shouldn’t I use it!” they’ve already given us the current Doctor meeting the First for a reflective ponder about where they started and where they’re going, and cameos from companions all the way back to Ian, suggesting that the real power of the Doctor is literally the friends they made along the way.

 

Big Finish have spent four years planning, writing, and recording Once and Future with the result that they’ve polished first episode Past Lives to shine brightly like.. well, a diamond

But here comes Once and Future. The Doctor has regenerated back into one of their most beloved former incarnations. They try to figure out what it all means while reuniting with old friends and facing dangers that riff on the extended Whoniverse beyond the show. You can’t get more original that that!

Ah.

Still, for the record, the mammoth beast that is the eight part Once and Future has been in the works since 2019; the web of cameos and guest stars in just the first episode taking four years, and seven recording sessions, to complete. So there’s no inference of anyone copying anyone else’s homework. But it does pile the pressure on the Big Finish celebrations to deliver something truly exciting.

Well, diamonds are forever, they say. Maybe never more so than in Once and Future’s barnstorming premiere, Past Lives. Robert Valentine’s fun plot builds itself around the Monk’s latest time-travel caper. This one involves a suitcase full of anniversary-appropriate diamonds, a bit of black market future tech kit, and another case containing a cool million pounds in hard cash. The origin of that second case dances merrily through the very edges of Doctor Who pub quiz trivia. It’s a touch which provides an early sign of just how wittily we’re about to play with the show’s history.

 

It's all gone wrong! Blogtor's impression of the Doctor's new look in Past Lives
It’s all gone wrong! Blogtor’s impression of the Doctor’s new look in Past Lives

Robert Valentine’s playful and energetic script dances in some of Who’s most obscure margins while providing quality fan service

In truth, though, at this early stage in the game the specifics of the Earth threatening alien plot du jour, is really secondary. The first order of business here is establishing the arc’s themes. It’s all done while delivering some genuinely blissful scenes between characters that really have no business being in the same room. We open during the Time War, with some sort of experimental ‘degeneration’ weapon striking the Doctor down. Falling backwards through his previous incarnations at random, he fears it’s only a matter of time before his condition forces him back to a point before he existed. And all he has to cling to in his quest for a cure is a vague memory. A half formed thought that events somehow involved the Monk…

Beyond that, there’s no need to recount the various cunning plot machinations that bring all the pieces together. Suffice to say, it swiftly results in us getting classic Sarah Jane, Andy Pandy stripes and all, UNIT’s Kate Stewart and Osgood (wearing her celery today), the Monk, and Tom Baker’s Doctor all standing in the Black Archive under the Tower of London. Foremost in their minds a giant invisible spaceship and its crew of giant alien crocodile men, the Hyreth. The Hyreth themselves, and the description of the Doctor and Sarah’s previous encounter with them even feel like quite familiar. Almost as if they’re a homage to the original Doctor Who audio baddies, the Pescatons. It so, an exquisitely deep cut in a story brimming with energy as it plays with its toys.

 

The entire cast have rarely if ever been better than this, with everyone’s love of Tom Baker, and Tom Baker’s love of everyone, making every scene glow

If truth be told, ‘energy’ is the key word that defines Past Lives. The entire cast seem somehow to up their game to an entirely new level for this release. Jemma Redgrave has rarely been better as Kate Stewart. There are clear parallels between Kate’s delight at meeting one of her father’s Doctors and Redgrave’s own clear adoration of Tom Baker the actor. The result is that acting seems scarcely required. Indeed, when in the extras she describes watching his Doctor on television, and Baker as creating the imprint of the type of adult every child wanted to grow up to be, it may be finest ever word sketch of the spell the great man wove over a generation.

Alongside her, Ingrid Oliver’s Osgood is always at her purest when fangirling over the Doctor. So when faced with ‘this old favourite’ she’s almost ready to combust. Meanwhile Rufus Hound’s Monk and Baker’s Doctor are such a natural fit, it’s a pity it hasn’t happened before. It shouldn’t be a surprise the two genuine great British eccentrics bounce off each other so wonderfully. After all, both essentially play heightened versions of their public personas with all the Bonkers dials whacked up to 11.

Whether as a natural response to all this unfiltered love being sent his way, or to Valentine’s constant supply of witticisms for him, Tom Baker himself is on sparkling form. Science would tell us you can’t hear that grin, except listening to this you absolutely can. He attacks every line reading with gusto, until he’s battered his script into submission with new ways to say it. That alone makes this the most exciting new entry into the Fourth Doctor’s canon since the resurrection of Shada.

Even Big Finish’s resident maestro Howard Carter seems particularly inspired here, weaving a hint of Dudley Simpson, more modern action fare, and the UNIT: The New Series theme together into a tapestry worthy of the biggest Avengers outing.

 

Doctor Who: Out of Time 1 - Tom Baker (c) Big Finish
Once and Future: Past Lives features Tom Baker on absolutely top form (c) Big Finish

With seven episodes to go, it’s impossible to yet judge Once and Future’s success. But Past Lives gives it the best possible start to being the highlight of the Diamond Anniversary

The only shame is that all this unbridled brio leaves Sadie Miller’s lovingly observed recreation of her mother’s Sarah Jane Smith a little lost in the mix. Especially in a storyline that, on paper, should really be all about her and the Doctor’s relationship. Though between the Doctor and the Monk’s version of Wacky Races through time, the Doctor sighing about modern UNIT’s “imaginative stupidity” in its choice of HQ, a visit to Osgood’s bedroom, and much more fun besides, it’s difficult to pick anything to jettison from Past Lives’ hour long running time to make room.

Blogtor Who can’t help suspect that Once and Future may follow the trend of many a sprawling epic before it. It wouldn’t be the first to stumble later on when it comes time to offer up actual explanations. Certainly, Past Lives casually undermines pretty key elements of important television episodes like School Reunion and The Day of the Doctor. So there’s already a suggestion we’re heading for some sort of reset. Or at the very least a busy day at the factory turning out the by now standard issue Big Finish branded mindwipe drugs.

But those are issues for another day. For now, Past Lives has given Big Finish’s 60th Anniversary celebrations the best possible start. It confidently struts on to the dancefloor, turns the music up, and starts throwing shapes like it’s determined to kick off the biggest, and best, party in town this year. And given what’s unfolding on BBC One this November, that’s as exciting as it ambitious.

 

Doctor Who: Once and Future - Past Lives. Cover by Lee Johnson (c) Big Finish Productions 60th Anniversary Tom Baker Jemma Redgrave Fourth Doctor
Doctor Who: Once and Future – Past Lives. Cover by Lee Johnson (c) Big Finish Productions

Doctor Who – Once and Future: Past Lives

Doctor Who – Once and Future: Past Lives, by Robert Valentine, is now available as a single-disc collector’s edition CD (+download for just £10.99), or digital download only (for just £8.99), exclusively here.

This full-cast audio adventure is the first of an epic eight-part series. Doctor Who fans worldwide can pre-order all eight Once and Future stories for just £72 (on collector’s edition CD and download) or £60 (download only).

A special edition bundle, which contains extended behind-the-scenes extras and music suites for each story, is also available. It’s priced at just £62 (as a digital download only). (Blogtor’s note: the Special Edition contains both the standard BTS and extended BTS tracks, but the extended includes all the material from the standard so no need to listen to both!)

2 COMMENTS

  1. It’s a mish mash of familiar things popping up to not particular rational. Lots of pearls on a not particular interesting string. No knots to hold it together.

  2. The covers and trailers are showing the Doctor’s in their property costumes, so I think this is meant to be another clothes changing regeneration thing like Power of the Daleks and Power of the Doctor.

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