The Light at the End (Big Finish)
This guest blog post is by @Arbutus
A Tale of Two Celebrations: Thoughts about the BG and AG 50th Anniversary Specials
(Note for those who haven’t heard The Light at the End: I am trying to avoid any more spoilers than absolutely necessary, but for the purpose of commentary, I couldn’t help revealing the identity of the villain and the nature of the plot against the Doctor. Be warned!)
There came a day when all of Whodom rejoiced; for it was November 23rd, and time to watch the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who. We had many questions about this episode, which we knew to be essentially an AG experience; we knew that it would deal with the Doctor’s past and his future, but looming large amongst our questions was this one: how far into the past would the story delve? How much homage would be given to the first 40-plus years of the show’s run?
In the end, we saw a fair number of nods to the show’s history, but also an episode that was firmly rooted in the mythology of the past eight years. But there was another celebratory event, one that was that was much more of an old school Who anniversary story. Big Finish’s The Light at the End featured all five BG doctors still living, and used other actors to fill in the voices of the first three doctors (more on that later). As Big Finish has no rights to AG characters, this story is set during the Eighth Doctor’s time, and so is essentially a BG anniversary special, set in the Doctor’s past.
There are some obvious differences in approach between the two stories, but also a number of things in common (more than I had realized before I started writing this!).
The Day of the Doctor had set itself a number of tasks. It had to celebrate 50 years of DW, while creating a pivotal story that would move the Doctor’s narrative forward. As most of us have agreed, it performed both of those jobs masterfully. By including the Night of the Doctor prequel in the run-up to the anniversary , it also successfully linked the AG narrative to BG history, thereby creating a true 50-year sequence of stories. With the creation of the War Doctor, it moved the story forward to the end of the Doctor’s 12-regeneration cycle, thus starting up a new cycle in the 50th anniversary year. Knowing that this issue would have to be resolved soon in any case, bringing it forward into this special year was nicely symbolic.
The Light at the End had a much simpler job to do. In a sense, Big Finish is your go-to place for BG action. Its doctors are BG characters, and its stories tend to be told at more of the pace and flow of BG stories. So then, LatE had to celebrate the BG show, and Big Finish’s own output, but it didn’t have any of the “moving forward” job that DotD had to accomplish. It celebrated the show’s history in a traditional BG manner, with lots of doctors, a classic villain, and a Gallifrey-related plot. An overly chaotic narrative was easily avoided by keeping the different doctors working together in smaller groupings, and only coming together on a couple of relatively brief occasions. Each doctor was accompanied by a companion, and these were mixed and matched a bit before become separated from the doctors due to the evil plot of the Master.
Despite different approaches to story, there are a number of common threads. Both stories come with an overall celebratory feel. I enjoyed both with a big happy smile and lots of glee throughout. In DotD, the numerous callouts to the past were like fan catnip, just filling me with little bursts of joy as the plot continued: Hearing Osgood frantically whispering, “The Doctor will save me!” Kate’s response to the appearance of three doctors, “There’s precedent for that.” Of course, that absolutely perfect opening shot of the policeman outside Coal Hill School.
In LatE, the appearance of the various doctors was the catnip. It was great fun listening to them working out the puzzle, getting little glimpses of one another, and hearing the companions bemused at seeing other versions of the Doctor! We got to hear Four being cheerfully arrogant and imposing, Five being kind and sympathetic, Six in a brilliant anti-Time Lord rant, Seven rolling his “R”s at the Master, and Eight bonding with his beloved TARDIS. The first three doctors were wisely kept somewhat apart, so that their portrayal by different actors was a little less obvious. (Fun fact: Frazer Hines played the part of the Second Doctor, and recreated him brilliantly!) In trying to come to terms with the concept of regeneration, Ace ran off a string of nicknames for each doctor that brought a smile to my face.
In both stories, there was some lovely rapport between doctors. It was apparent even from the trailer how much fun Doctors Ten and Eleven were having with one another, and when the War Doctor (or, as I am beginning to prefer, Captain Grumpy) began to join in, it was irresistible. In LatE, there was a lot of mutual admiration between the doctors, and a minimum of inter-doctor snarking. Doctors Four and Eight seemed to get along particularly well, showing each other great courtesy and tending to finish one another’s sentences. (Four had a brilliant comment to make about the Eighth Doctor’s gothic console room, however!).
DotD and LatE each presented a story whose scope was both personal and wide-ranging. Events in both stories were potential game-changers, for the universe at large and for the Doctor in particular. The return of Gallifrey in DotD would have huge consequences to the universe, as well as altering the Doctor’s “lonely god” persona. In LatE, the Master’s intent was to create a past in which the Doctor had never left Gallifrey, essentially by removing the TARDIS from existence. I love the notion that the TARDIS herself created the Doctor that we know; without her, he would have remained unexceptional on Gallifrey (a lowly bookworm, as the Master put it!).
Both of the anniversary stories did more than celebrate fifty years of Doctor Who; they celebrated the Doctor himself. LatE did this by threatening to remove from history the impact that he had on the universe. Had he simply remained quietly on Gallifrey, imagine all the companions who never would have met him and had their lives changed. Imagine all the times the bad guys would have won. DotD addressed the question of who the Doctor is, of what it means to be “The Doctor”: the good man, who is never cruel, who never gives in. When the Doctor took his name for himself, I wonder if he truly understood what it meant? LatE suggests that he might have originally meant it more in the academic sense of “scholar”; by DotD, he has clearly come to understand it as “healer”. Thus its ending was triumphant and joyful as it acknowledged the past and opened up the future. In keeping with its lighter tone, the ending of LatE was more humorous, but similarly concluded with a brief nod to the passing of time and doctors.
So each story in its own way celebrates the fifty years of fun we have had with this wonderful show. They also celebrate the centuries-long journey of the Doctor, from his Time-Lord origins on Gallifrey, through all the many people whom he helped and who helped him, to the person he has become: heroic and flawed; bigger than life and as ordinary as any of us; brilliant, mad, and sometimes hopelessly dense. No wonder we love him!
The Light at the End is available on CD and Download from Big Finish.