Doctor Who – “The Next Life”

“All things must die.”

Washed up on the sandy shores of a paradise island, a wild-eyed shipwreck survivor is rescued by the wife of Daqar Keep, the richest man in the galaxy.

Her name’s Perfection. He’s the Doctor. Together, they face a journey into the dark heart of this mysterious island, to discover the deepest secrets of this timeless cosmos. That’s if the giant crabs, killer crocodiles and murderous natives don’t get them first.

Meanwhile, fellow travellers Charley and C’rizz have their own ordeal to endure, in the grip of the Doctor’s most dangerous rival. And in a universe that’s facing extinction, even the best of friends may soon become enemies…

This life is almost over. And not everyone will make it to the next…

Paul McGann is the Doctor in The Next Life.

Cast

Paul McGann (The Doctor)
India Fisher (Charley Pollard)
Conrad Westmaas (C’Rizz)
Daphne Ashbrook (Perfection)
Stephane Cornicard (Keep)
Paul Darrow (Guidance)
Jane Hills (L’Da); Stephen Perring (The Kro’Ka)
Don Warrington (Rassilon)
Anneke Wills (Lady Louisa Pollard)
Stephen Mansfield (Simon Murchford)
Jane Goddard (Mother of Jembere-Bud)

Written By: Alan Barnes and Gary Russell
Directed By: Gary Russell

Trailer – http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-next-life-230

X X X X X

It all comes down to this.

The body horror of Scherzo and The Creed of the Kromon.  The dystopia of The Natural History of Fear.  The split personalities of The Twilight Kingdom and Caerdroia.  The religious folly of Faith Stealer.  The haunting The Last.    All of the Doctor’s experiences travelling through the Divergent Universe, with his best friend Charlotte Pollard and the alien C’rizz at his side, have lead up to this moment.  With the TARDIS once again under his control (as much as it ever could be), the Doctor is prepared and ready to confront the person he came to this universe to find; his former idol and now possible enemy, the father of Time Lord society himself, Rassilon.

Is this story, the big payoff to two seasons and eight audio plays where narratives are woven together, questions are answered, and the mettle of a Time Lord, a human, and a Eutermesan are tested under temporal fire,  a worthy finale to the Divergent Universe arc?

Well, it’s MUCH better than Zagreus, I’ll give you that!

The Next Life is where it all ends.  Big Finish presents the grand climax of a story two years running, where the Doctor, Charley, and C’rizz find themselves at the very heart of the Divergent Universe, finally understanding all its secrets and grand designs.  They also find themselves in the middle of a power play between Rassilon and another shadowy figure as the wall between the universes become thin, with a chance to return home is within the Doctor’s grasp.  It’s grand, it’s has its moments of humor and tension, the cast is stellar, and as I mentioned, it’s leaps and bounds about Zagreus, Big Finish’s last attempt at a long, epic serial.  But it suffers from its own set of problems; while it’s less bloated than Zagreus, there’s still a lot of padding, some confusion as to what exactly is going on, and just a general sense of missed opportunities, all leading to one simple statement summing up the Divergent Universe story arc; “thank God it’s over.”

Just because the Doctor is one again behind the center console of the TARDIS doesn’t mean he’s fully in control.  Pulled into the gravity well of a blue planet, the crash-landing of the TARDIS finds the Doctor washed up on a sandy beach.  Charley, meanwhile, finds herself in the presence of her own mother, moments before the adventuress snatches the clothes of a young porter in order to stow away in the ill-fated R101, where should would have died if not for the interference of the Doctor.  And C’rizz awakens in the presence of his wife L’Da on the morning of their wedding…just hours before the invasion of their homeland by the Kromon.  The three companions make their way back to each other; C’rizz in the presence of Guidance, member of the Church of the Foundation; Charley at the side of Keep, the richest man in the universe; and the Doctor with Perfection, a strange woman who happens to be Keep’s wife.  And watching it all, with his servant the Kro’ka, is none other than Rassilon himself…

Alan Barnes.  On one hand, he gave us Zagreus.  On the other hand, he gave us Storm Warning and Neverland.  Barnes, with Gary Russell sharing the co-writing duties, seems to have learned a good lesson from Zagreus and  its incredibly bloated run time of four hours.  Clocking in at about three-and-a-half hours, The Next Life moves at a much better pace than its predecessor.  There’s still moment of padding that could have been cut out, but they are fewer and far between.  Barnes and Russell keep the action moving.  Even when the scene is mostly conversation, it is at least somewhat related to the unfolding plotline, such as the scene where the Doctor and Perfection casually discuss Keep’s importance as they pull leeches off of each other’s back.

This writing choice on one level, but it creates a sort of paradox.  On one hand, there’s a lot of information being thrown at the listener, while on the other hand this serial did not need to be over 220 minutes long!   This being the final story set in the Divergent Universe, Barnes and Russell obviously wanted to wrap everything up.  This leads to a strange mix of the main players slowly figuring out the little clues and leading to the small “aha” moments that all add up to several revelations about the supporting cast and just how they tie into the final fate of the Doctor’s time in their reality.  They’re very well done by virtue of being very easy to miss on the part of the listener the first time through.   However, the shortened story arc also leads to several infodumps, including a 15-20 minute sequence where six people have three different conversations about why linear time doesn’t exist in the Divergent Universe and just what the important of the blue planet is to the proverbial grand scheme of things.  The overall concept is interesting, but it’s just laid right out there, plain as day, in an interesting but still dull manner.   And it doesn’t help that the concepts aren’t given anytime to gestate in the imagination of the listeners before the dialogue has moved onto the next concept.   It’s not the fault of the actor or the writers, but another story or two might have really been helpful in giving more weight to the concepts, leading to more of a “oh, that’s REALLY interesting” reaction from listeners instead of a “huh…ok, and we’re moving on apparently” response.  Adding on to this problem is the fact that The Next Life absolutely jams in every single continuity reference it can get away with.  Suddenly, events from Zagreus, Scherzo,, and Caerdroia are casually bounced about after barely being mentioned  in the previous audios.  Charley even drops moments from Storm Warning and NeverlandZagreus suffered from being one big continuity wank, and The Next Life avoids the worst of its excesses, but it’s still a bit jarring after months of mostly self-contained audios.  It’s as if Barnes and Russell realized that they needed to actually tie the Divergent Universe stories, themes, and concepts together into an actual narrative, instead of just providing lip service to the concepts!

With all that said, The Next Life managed to feel incredibly long and sort of pointless.  Six episodes of information, chases, captures, conversations, confrontations, and it all still felt very lackadaisical and meandering.  The threats don’t feel threatening and the plot manages to jump all over the place.  With all the information being delivered to the listener, for most of The Next Life runtime, very little feels important or noteworthy!  And at no point does this hit home than, after seven audios of the Kro’ka talking about the Divergents, his mysterious masters, the ones running all these experiments, the beings so deadly and so dangerous that they were locked up in another universe, Keep off-handedly mentions that he killed them and absorbed their energies and abilities.

In the final book of The Dark Tower series, in order to make newly introduced bad guy Mordred , who turns out to be the ultimate Big Bad of the series, look like a major threat, Stephen King had him kill Randall Flagg.  Flagg, who had been the villain in several King novels including The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon and was one of the big overarching villains of King’s entire mythos, was casually jobbed out to Mordred to make Mordred look better.   Flagg, who survived standing at Ground Zero of a nuclear explosion.  It didn’t work there, and not even introducing the Divergents before there were killed by Keep sure as hell doesn’t work here.  It’s the ultimate case of everything and the kitchen sink being jammed into The Next Life and it only serves to weaken the overall story.

One thing I can say for Alan Barnes is, for the most part, he gets the Eighth Doctor “right,” almost as well as Lloyd Rose does.  Maybe it took getting the TARDIS back for the Doctor to really FEEL like the Doctor again, as McGann comes off very well in this story.  This is Paul McGann at his loosest, his most casual, and maybe his most enjoyable performance since Invaders from Mars or the first half of Seasons of Fear.  Maybe McGann also realizes that The Next Life is the end of the tunnel and decides to just have a little fun.  The back-and-forth dialogue between himself and Perfection is a bit reminiscent of himself and Charley during their first adventures together, and his casual dismissal of Keep’s threats goes right along with it.  When things do get serious, so does the Doctor, but it’s not the bored delivery we saw in The Last.  It’s the Doctor making the same tough choices and quick decisions he had to make in Neverland, before the Doctor was infected with “anti-time.”  Now that he’s been cleared of that infection (another casual dismissal thanks to the rushed writing), important things such as, oh, the Doctor’s portrayal are moving back to the way they were.  I really think McGann might have felt that spark to play the Doctor once again after the way this “season” was a vast improvement over the previous one, and as such he sparkles in this story.

Charley, as well…back to normal!  She’s the feisty, glib tongued, quick to react adventuress listeners fell in love with back in Storm Warning.   Seeing her being flat out bitchy towards Perfection, maybe even jealous of her, also came off very well.  It wasn’t case of “I want the Doctor, you can’t have him,” it was “who the hell are you and why are you messing with my friend?”  Finally, there’s no question about the “love” between the Doctor and Charley; it’s as strong and as platonic as love can get.  It just took a LOT longer for that question to get settled than necessary!  But we also see Charley channel Evelyn Smythe a bit in this story.  She admits to her “mother” that she’s becoming sensitized to death thanks to her travels with the Doctor, which makes a good bit of sense if you consider that Charley has been, from a technical standpoint, in more serials than several television companions!  The sheer amount of amazing and terrible things she has seen should have affected her, and it all comes out when she wonders if Rassilon is right; if the Doctor was willing to abandon her to sacrifice himself to save reality from anti-time, would he be willing to abandon her again if it meant he could return home?  We all know the answer to that question, but India Fisher sells that moment of doubt well, considering how different the Doctor has acted during his time in the Divergent Universe.  It’s a case of McGann playing the Doctor as “back to normal” and Fisher going for “has the Doctor changed for the worse?”

And then there’s C’rizz.  Finally, after six audios of character development by inches, the truth behind C’rizz being a bit bland is revealed.  C’rizz is a sort of mental chameleon.  He adapts himself and his personality to his situation and those around him.  On one hand, it explains why he so easily adapted to the soldiers in The Twilight Kingdom, going so far as to picking up a gun and using it quite well after his anguish over using a gun in The Creed of the Kromon.   It also explains his “sudden” interest in religion in Faith Stealer.   On one hand, Conrad Westmaas does as good as job in this story as McGann and Fisher, when looking solely as how he works with the material he’s given.   He shares the same suspicion of the Doctor as Charley does when Rassilon attempts to sway him, and when Rassilon uses that suspicion to offer him his heart’s desire, his wife back, C’rizz jumps at the chance, Westmaas making the whole thing believable with his emoting.  On the other hand, though…C’rizz’s other big secret comes out in The Next Life…that he was once a member of the Church of the Foundation and committed scores of murders in the name of that religion.  In one scene, we find out that C’rizz is hearing the voices of his victims.  In another scene, we find out that Conscience, a holy man, is actually C’rizz’s father and has been waiting for him to crash on this planet, and that he will drown C’rizz to purge the Doctor’s influence from him.  The very next scene, C’rizz is chanting the Foundation’s equivalent of Hail Mary’s, and a few scenes later, he’s betraying the Doctor to Rassilon.   Westmass does what he can, but the way the material is presented doesn’t do him any favors.

To quote another reviewer who sums it up much better than I could…C’rizz is Adric 2.0!

By this point, I was wondering if there was a “lost” Divergent Universe episode somewhere that had been accidentally wiped by Big Finish which explains more about C’rizz, the Divergent Universe, and all the things that are being rushed through by this point…

The supporting cast is very solid.  We’ll start with Keep, the physical embodiment of the Divergent’s stolen powers, played by Stephane Cornicard in his only Big Finish appearance.  A Frenchman in the Divergent Universe?  It makes sense in the end, as Cornicard’s performance reminded me of Louis Jourdan’s turn in the 1982 movie Swamp Thing.  Both are evil men obsessed with immortality, and Cornicard takes it a little further.   His shift from French big game hunter to walking manifestation of an entire alien race is very well done, as he walks the fine line between “melodrama” and “overacting” very well, taunting the Doctor and showing Rassilon a trick or two along the way as well.   Don Warrington concludes his Big Finish turn as Rassilon with this story.  Even though the listeners could easily see through the lies he tells Charley and C’rizz, Warrington really sells it with smooth conviction, planting just that small seed of doubt with a lie that contains a hint of the truth.  His rising anger and frustration as his plans fall apart around him completely fits the idea of a frustrated Time Lord who’s not as all-powerful as he believes himself to be as he rants and rails against the Doctor even though he thinks he’s already “won.”  His final fate caused me to shudder, as the “rebooting” of the Divergent Universe sees him in the very same round test chamber that the Doctor and Charley inhabited in Scherzo…but this time, it’s the Kro’ka he’s sharing the experience with!  And as the slimy, out for himself, will sell out his masters at the drop of a hat Kro’ka, Stephen Perring is once again in fine form, more smug and superior than he was in Caerdroia now that he’s at the side of Rassilon.

Paul Darrow is a name well-known to British science fiction fans, as the greedy and reluctant rebel Kerr Avon in Terry Nation’s 1970’s sci-fi series Blake’s 7.  Currently reprising the role for Big Finish’s Blake’s 7 range, Darrow turns in a stellar supporting performance, going 180 degrees from Avon to play the devout Guidance, member of the Church of the Foundation.  It’s not camp, it’s deadly serious devotion as he’s determined to save C’rizz from himself and the Doctor’s influence, all the while seeking for the crucible of the Foundation’s faith, located on the blue planet.  I couldn’t believe it was Paul Darrow I was listening to after seeing him in a few episodes of Blake’s 7, that’s how convincing I found his turn as Guidance.

And…Perfection.  If there’s one thing you can say that’s positive about the 1996 Fox Doctor Who movie, aside from just how dashingly handsome Paul McGann looked, it was that the Doctor and Grace Holloway, his companion for the movie, had great chemistry together.  Daphne Ashbrook reunited with McGann, playing Perfection, wife of Keep and someone with a vested interest in the fate of the universe…and the Doctor as well.  Because of Fox holding the rights to the movie and the characters within (this bums me out, because I’d love to see a The Two Masters episode or audio with Alex Macqueen and Eric Roberts attempting to out-act each other), Ashbrook can’t reprise her role as Grace, but in The Next Life she doesn’t attempt to portray her either.   Perfection is charming, smooth, sauve, and one hell of a gold digger, but she hates her husband with a passion and even the money doesn’t temper the anger.  Ashbrook and McGann hit right off, as if nearly a decade hadn’t passed since they lasted acted opposite one another, bantering and flirting (from her end) as the Doctor tries to figure her out.  The verbal catfights between Charley and Perfection must have been a ball to record because it sounds like Ashbrook and Fisher are having the time of their lives.  Ashbrook deserves all the  praise for coming back to Doctor Who in such grand fashion.  When Perfection reveals HER part in the proceedings, and it’s one hell of a reveal that made he sit up (even if it goes back to the “continuity cramming” I mentioned earlier), the final episode suddenly becomes a three-way dance as Keep, Perfection, and Rassilon all trying to take advantage of the Doctor’s situation even as the Doctor tries to walk the tightrope between them.

As I said to open this review, it’s all come down to this.  Eight audios, three characters, three villains, a whole bunch of plot, continuity references aplenty, secrets reveals, twists, turns, betrayals, reveals, horrible fates, the Divergent Universe resetting itself and changing, maybe for the better but possibly for the worse, thanks to the Doctor’s presence…and the whole big huge story arc ends with the Doctor telling Charley and C’rizz that they better become friends or else he’ll keep them trapped in the Divergent Universe for all time.  So, unless his companions kiss and make up, he’ll throw all their lives away.

That pretty much sums up the Divergent Universe arc as a whole.  All these great ideas, the possibility of really changing up the game, exploring a place with time as we know it doesn’t exist, and it all ends with a parent telling his children they won’t get any pie.  There’s no sense of “wow, that was a fun ride!”  Instead, it’s a feeling of relief that, thankfully, the Doctor is back among what he knows and what he’s familiar with.  The Divergent Universe arc should be best remembered as a handful of good plays and a wealth of great ideas all wasted because of a rushed ending and not taking advantage of all its myriad opportunities.

However, the final line that ends The Next Life is one hell of a “welcome home…”

Synopsis – Rushed metaplot points and “tell don’t show” mean that the big finale of the Divergent Universe arc falls flat, overshadowing a great and diverse cast of main and supporting players. 3/5

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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