When we last saw our intrepid band of heroes in Lucie Miller, Lucie Miller, Susan Campbell, and Alex Campbell were all aghast at the notion that they may have been responsible for the death of the Doctor, in an enormously nail-biting cliffhanger.
Or not. Unfortunately, it takes To the Death a bit too long to get to the point where it’s clear that the Doctor is not dead, which means there’s absolutely no tension to drive the early bits of the story, and then it’s way too easy to revive him, given how much the writer seems to want to wring out of this. Then, joined by the Meddling Monk and Tamsin Drew, everyone stands around and talks. A lot.
Okay, that’s a bit unfair, but the first half of To the Death is light on action and heavy on exposition. Everyone explains what’s going on to everyone else, and what turns out to be going on is actually a call back to 2009’s Patient Zero, a Sixth Doctor and Charley adventure also written by Nicholas Briggs. This choice feels… odd to me. Briggs wants to create a universe-scale cataclysm (setting up a parallel to Journey’s End to further the ones with The Stolen Earth I noted last time out), but in suggesting that this cataclysm will rise from an entirely off-stage threat from an entirely different part of Big Finish’s Doctor Who range mutes the threat somewhat. Given that the stated intention of using the Daleks in the last New Eighth Doctor Adventure was to echo their appearance in the first one, Blood of the Daleks, a call back to that story would have been more appropriate instead. It doesn’t help that the Dalek plan is (as usual, admittedly) complete nonsense.
Once the Daleks catch up to our heroes and things begin happening, though, To the Death livens up a bit. It’s almost impossible to discuss this story without spoilers, so I’ll keep it vague: I was surprised. Seriously surprised. Big Finish has a track record of never quite going through with things like this, so for it to happen here is quite astounding, and overall it works. I do have one big quibble: as in many Nicholas Briggs stories (Patient Zero, Blue Forgotten Planet, Wirrn Dawn, The Vengeance of Morbius), the Doctor feels weirdly ineffective here. Sometimes that can work (it does very well in both Sword of Orion and Embrace the Darkness, for example), but for that to happen to the Eighth Doctor in the last story of his range is quite unfortunate.
The performances of all the regulars rise to the occasion very much here. Niky Wardley gets some good material as Tamsin realises what a terrible person the Monk really is, though it makes her seem incredibly dim for not having figured this out a long time ago. That said, the resolution to Tamsin’s storyline here drives home what a pointless waste of a companion her character always was. On the other hand, Graeme Garden shines as the Monk in these scenes, giving us some unexpected material. I hope Big Finish keeps on using this incarnation; there’s a lot of potential they haven’t quite mined yet, as he was in disguise for most of The Book of Kells, his character didn’t ring true in The Resurrection of Mars, and the Daleks dominated this finale.
Carole Ann Ford and Jake McGann continue to do their thing as the Campbells. As in Lucie Miller, the young McGann shows massive improvement as Alex, and Ford always effortlessly returns to her role of years ago. Having been standing on the sidelines a lot during Lucie Miller, she really gets to act to her maximum here; she has a couple great scenes with the elder McGann at the end, and you instantly believe their relationship, despite the fact that Paul McGann is not William Hartnell! Though there’s some (more writing-based) oddities with Susan and Alex at the end of the story which mutes all this somewhat.
Sheridan Smith is great as always. Almost two years of reviewing the NEDAs has left me bereft of superlatives to describe her performances, but she pulls out all the stops here, and gets me all over again.
And finally, Paul McGann. Largely absent during Lucie Miller, the Doctor returns here with full force… eventually. As I said earlier, the Doctor doesn’t get to contribute a lot to the resolution of the story, but despite that, McGann has some good material and even gets to do that shouty thing with his voice that I love so much. As I said before, the scenes between the Doctor and Susan are good, and there are scenes between the Doctor and the Monk that are even better.
As far as my usual comment about sound design goes, I just want to say that there are a couple scenes near the end where Andy Hardwick’s work is amazingly good. And even heartbreaking.
The NEDAs have been around for four years now, and though I’ve often had mixed reactions to them, I’m still kinda disappointed to see this showcase for my favorite Doctor going. That said, they became stale towards the end, and I’m glad that Big Finish is moving on to a new setup for the Eighth Doctor before the whole thing is run into the ground. Appropriately enough, then, To the Death provides a mixed-yet-enjoyable conclusion to the range.
To the Death (by Nicholas Briggs; starring Paul McGann, Carole Ann Ford, Sheridan Smith, Niky Wardley) was released by Big Finish Productions in March 2011.