It seems as if only five minutes has passed since we had the last big anniversary shindig for Doctor Who in 2013, to mark the show’s 50th anniversary. However, a decade is merely a handful of heartbeats to a Time Lord, and here we are, nearly halfway through 2023, and staring right down the barrel of the Doctor’s very own Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Remember 2013, when we saw David Tennant’s return to our screens as the Doctor? Totally different from 2023, when we see Dav… Oh, right. Of course, last time round he popped up just as a flying visit from the character’s tenth incarnation, in a special which would also introduce the mysterious Curator, played by the living legend that is Tom Baker – it was hinted very strongly this was a future iteration of the Doctor, and in years to come they would revisit a few familiar faces (but just the old favourites).
Here, for the series’ sexagesimal birthday, we have precisely that happening on TV, with the Fourteenth Doctor wearing the visage of the Tenth, for reasons yet to be explained (but furiously speculated about by fans on the internet). Lest we forget, the show has also had a successful life on audio, all thanks to Big Finish’s officially-licenced range of dramas, which have themselves been running for almost a quarter of a century. And Big Finish is doing its bit to commemorate the landmark occasion for the programme.
Great minds evidently think alike, as although their own big event serial – entitled Doctor Who: Once And Future – has been in planning since 2019, the TV show has stolen a march by getting in first with a similar notion: the Doctor returning to a former likeness. However, in Big Finish’s case, they have a uniquely different explanation, as Once And Future has the Doctor falling victim to a degeneration weapon, which sees them slipping back into their old appearances, at the risk of regressing back to the point of non-existence.
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It seems virtually obligatory that Doctor Who anniversaries have a multi-Doctor story, and this is no exception, but with a special twist: we only see one Doctor, but with many faces, as they change and revert back into their former selves, one at a time. And who better to begin with than the guvnor, the archetypal Doctor of them all, Tom Baker? Now touching 90 years old, but giving performances on audio as strong and as vibrant as when he reigned on Saturday night TV for a grand total of seven radiant, jelly baby-filled years.
Having stabilised temporarily on the countenance of what was his fourth manifestation, the Doctor races to discover precisely what could have done this to him. Having a vague memory that one of his rival Time Lords – the Monk (Rufus Hound) – was somehow involved, the Doctor gives pursuit across space and time. The Monk, however, has problems of his own, having fallen foul of an alien force who have some leverage over him, and want to take advantage of his skills to procure a lost artefact of great power.
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The Monk’s scheme sees him snatching one of the Doctor’s former companions – Sarah Jane Smith (Sadie Miller) – just a few moments after she first left the Doctor, and taking her to the 21st Century, to help with procuring the artefact from the Black Archive of the Unified Intelligence Taskforce. The head of UNIT – Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) – and UNIT’s Scientific Advisor – Petronella Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) – have other ideas. However, all their paths converge with the new-old Doctor, as an invasion begins…
Robert Valentine’s tale – ‘Past Lives’ – kicks off this special event miniseries, and has the unenviable task of setting out the basic overall premise, as well as telling a coherent story, all in the space of just one hour. Adding into the mix a basic ‘shopping list’ of elements and characters, all in the service of the greater story arc, and you have quite the challenge for any writer. Even the late, great Terrance Dicks had to write to a formula for the show’s 20th anniversary, but had managed to pull it off with aplomb with ‘The Five Doctors’.
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Valentine does a creditable enough job here, weaving all of the required ingredients together in a satisfactory way for the most part. The ‘alien invasion’ part of the tale is nothing particularly remarkable, but this is only a piece of the overall story, which sets up the Doctor’s quest. It also establishes a solid formula for the rest of Once And Future, which will see a degenerating Doctor travelling in search of answers, whilst crossing paths along the way with a variety of old friends and foes alike, to help tick that feelgood ‘nostalgia’ box, which is permissible for instances such as this.
Perhaps the main strength of the story lies in its reuniting of the Doctor and Sarah. While the glorious Elisabeth Sladen is sadly no longer with us, Sarah lives on in audio, courtesy of Sladen’s daughter, Sadie Miller. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith were a formidable pairing, and ‘Past Lives’ takes the opportunity to remind us of that, while also taking on a wistful, melancholy note: for Sarah, she saw the Doctor for what she thought was the last time only a few minutes ago, yet she realises that for him, centuries and entire lifetimes have already passed.
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It gives the relationship a whole new dynamic, and provides both Miller and Baker the chance to explore somewhere new and different for these familiar characters. Both are also ably supported by Redgrave and Oliver, supplying bits of nu-Who to blend in with all of the classic series elements. Valentine’s script does hit all the right emotional notes, while also being nimble and witty, including a subtle reference to The KLF, the music act forever inextricably linked to Doctor Who through their 1988 chart-topping single as The Timelords, ‘Doctorin’ The TARDIS’.
In all, ‘Past Lives’ is a solid start to this multi-episode special anniversary event by Big Finish, and a firm foundation upon which to build the rest of this story. So far, Once And Future is nostalgia done right, and ‘Past Lives’ certainly kicks things off in style.
Doctor Who: Once And Future – ‘Past Lives’ is out now from Big Finish.