With Doctor Who off the air (I promise the review for the last two episodes of this season will be up soon!), it’s time to explore some of the audio offerings from Big Finish! After finally finishing the Eighth Doctor Adventures, I was finally ready to start Eight’s first series of box sets, Dark Eyes and oh boy am I happy with it. Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs, Dark Eyes follows the Doctor directly after the events of the series 4 finale of The Eighth Doctor Adventures, To The Death. The Doctor (Paul McGann) is looking for hope. But instead, he finds himself on a mission. The Time Lords have uncovered terrifying fragments of an insane plot to destroy the universe. And somehow, at the center of that plot is one, random female in Earth’s history, Molly O’Sullivan. Soon, the Doctor and Molly find themselves thrown headlong into a series of dangerous and terrifying adventures, with the dreaded Daleks never far behind them. (Spoilers ahead!)
Part 1: The Great War
The way these reviews of Big Finish boxsets are gonna be structured is that I’m gonna review each part of the box set in one or two paragraphs and then offer a few final words at the end. So, let’s start with the first part of Dark Eyes, The Great War. In this episode, we meet Molly o’Sullivan (Ruth Bradley). From the Big Finish website: “Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing assistant Molly O’Sullivan spends her days facing the horrors of the Great War. Little does she know that a man from another world has arrived, looking for her. But what are the strange sounds coming from the battlefield at night? Where is the glowing gas coming from? And is everyone who they claim to be?” It basically picks up exactly where To the Death left off, which is both this episode’s greatest strength and biggest weakness.
It’s fantastic that it continues Eight’s character arc from the fourth series of The Eighth Doctor Adventures. The first five(ish) minutes of the episode give Paul McGann some of the best work to sink his teeth into that he’s had in his entirety as the Eighth Doctor. But on the flip side, you’d think that with the change of format from single-episode releases to box sets of four episodes, that Dark Eyes would be a really good jumping-on point for new listeners. It’s a really really bad jumping on point. Yes, Eight gets a new companion in Molly o’Sullivan and an entirely new plotline is started, but so much of Eight’s characterization relies on knowledge of things that happened in the last series of the EDAs. So, as someone who listened to the EDAs, I appreciate the necessity of listening to them, but also as someone who’d originally picked up Dark Eyes thinking it was a great place to get started with listening to the Eighth Doctor, I’m immensely disappointed that I had to go back and listen to a bunch of other things before I could really start listening to Dark Eyes and understand what was going on.
As for the episode itself, all expectations aside, it’s pretty good. Not great, though. A lot of time is spent setting up things, possibly too much time given that the next episode feels a lot like filler (we’ll get to that). It may have been smarter to combine this episode with the next episode, but I’m not the one making the decisions. Ruth Bradley is rather good as Molly o’Sullivan. She’s different enough from Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller that it doesn’t just feel like a rehash of that character but she’s similar enough for the comparisons between Molly and Lucie that the episode tries to make to work and satisfy the listener. (3.5/5 wands)
Part 2: Fugitives
Fugitives is probably the worst story of the bunch. It’s not bad, but so much of it feels like filler, especially after the meandering pace of the previous episode, that it’s hard to really offer many praises for this one. From the Big Finish website: “With the first objective of his mission reached, almost nothing is going to plan for the Doctor. He finds he cannot contact or return to the Time Lord’s home planet, Gallifrey. And just when Molly O’Sullivan thinks she’s escaped one conflict, she finds herself in the thick of another one. What is it that connects the Doctor, the Daleks, and the mysterious Ides Scientific Institute?” The summary for the episode makes it sound a lot more exciting than it really is.
Essentially, half of this episode is just Molly and the Doctor running from the Daleks. They go somewhere, shortly thereafter, the Daleks appear. Lather, rinse, repeat. The whole thing about the Ides Scientific Institute never really amounts to anything (though, I hear it becomes relevant again in the next box set), so it’s hard not to be disappointed by that aspect. I mean, that’s really the gist of the episode. It’s a lot of running from Daleks and the Doctor being super suspicious of Molly. If some of the fluff from The Great War had been removed, then this episode and that one could’ve been mashed together into one much stronger opening episode. Instead, we get two somewhat mediocre episodes to start us off. There’s plenty of mystery and intrigue, but they just meander their way through it all at such a frustratingly slow pace. (3 out of 5 wands)
Part 3: Tangled Web
Here’s where things start to get interesting. In this episode, we’re introduced to a sort of “what if?” concept: What if the Daleks managed to turn good? From the Big Finish website: “Something happened when Molly O’Sullivan was just two years old, and the Doctor thinks it’s high time they found out exactly what it was. Meanwhile, the Daleks are fully activating their Temporal Chamber. And while the Doctor and Molly get closer and closer to the terrible truth, the nature of reality itself seems to be in question.” This summary, too, is a bit misleading, but this time in a good way. The summary neglects to mention anything about the “what if?” scenario that is at the center of the episode, and that’s a really smart move. Without the summary mentioning it, the audience is left completely in the dark about it, so when they’re confronted with it in the context of the episode, it’s a complete and utter surprise and it takes us all off guard.
It’s a nice detour that serves a great purpose in deepening the Doctor and Molly’s character development and interactions with one another while also offering a fun and new side of the Daleks. The real shining bits of the episode are the beginning and ending which directly tie in with the ongoing story. The episode opens with the Doctor trying to get Molly to remember an event that happened to her when she was two where someone briefly kidnapped her and took her into a TARDIS (this is further explored and explained in the final episode of the set) and the episode ends with Straxus (Peter Egan), the Coordinator of the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency, a Gallifreyan secret agency that interferes in various events throughout time), saving the Doctor and Molly from the predicament they’ve found themselves in and directly setting up the finale of the set. I love this episode primarily because it tries to be something unique and uses its uniqueness to explore the psyche of the characters while also furthering the ongoing arc of the set and setting up the finale. It’s a pretty good example of the things that can be done when a writer is willing to be creative and risky with the format of Doctor Who. (4.5 out of 5 wands)
Part Four: X and the Daleks
Here we are at the end of the set, and all our answers are revealed in a suitably timey-wimey conclusion to what ended up being a pretty enjoyable set of adventures for the Eighth Doctor and Molly. From the Big Finish website: “With Straxus and his TARDIS destroyed, the Doctor and Molly have tracked the mysterious ‘X’ to the planet Srangor. It is here that the truth of the threat to the universe will finally be revealed. What is the Dalek Time Controller’s ultimate plan? What exactly is the space-time projector? Who will survive this epic battle for survival?” Well, now we know who Kotris/X (Toby Jones) is and what his motivation for helping the Daleks destroy the Time Lords is. The strength of this episode is that the motivations for the villains actually make sense. It does rely on previous knowledge of the character in question (I’m refraining from identifying Kotris’ background because that’s a major spoiler and it’s more fun finding it out in the context of the story than having some pretentious reviewer spoil it for you ahead of time), but ultimately even without the background knowledge, it still makes sense and it’s an interesting element that’s never really been explored before.
There’s not a whole lot I can say about the episode without spoiling a reveal or two, so let’s just say that I felt very satisfied with it. I felt it stayed true to the tone and the story that the boxset set out to tell and that it answered my questions fairly well and brought everything to a nice, satisfying end. They did do a bit of the “magic reset button” that Doctor Who is known for using, but it works in the context of the episode, so I’m inclined to forgive it. (4 out of 5 wands)
All in all, Dark Eyes is a strong box set of adventures with the Eighth Doctor. With a bit of background knowledge about the Eighth Doctor’s previous adventures, it’s a good place to get into the Big Finish line of Doctor Who audios. (I mean, all you really need to know is what happens at the end of the last series of the EDAs, and that can easily be found out via Wikipedia or another site). It’s a magnificent example of the things that can be accomplished via an audio-only story, helped immensely by the impeccable sound design and score by Andy Hardwick. It’s a well-written and a (mostly) well-paced set of stories with strong performances from its core cast, especially Paul McGann and Ruth Bradley. The ending is open-ended enough that it leaves room for plenty more adventures with the Doctor and Molly (which, obviously, it had to do considering there are a further three box sets in the Dark Eyes series) and the set as a whole steers the Eighth Doctor in a much darker direction than he’d previously been in, helping to bridge the gap between the more light-hearted Classic Doctor Who run and the more traumatized Doctor we find in the 2005 reboot of the show. It’s a strong box set and I recommend it to anyone interested in hearing/experiencing more adventures from Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor.
I give the box set, as a whole, four out of five wands.