Note: This review is spoiler-free.
How far into the darkness is the Doctor willing to go?
Few Doctor Who stories actually answer this question, though many have tried. Throughout the history of the franchise, some of the (multiple!) moments telegraphed in advance as being “the Doctor's darkest hour” really weren't. We've been told that the War Doctor was the darkest of all the Doctor's selves, yet most of his violence was kept off-screen. More than half of the Doctor's incarnations have, at one time or another, been accused of being monsters. However, they haven't actually done much on the TV show itself to justify this criticism.
Except for the Seventh Doctor, that is. As I said, we've been told that the War Doctor is the Doctor at his darkest…but the Seventh Doctor actually earns that distinction, both on and off-screen. This incarnation, played brilliantly by Sylvester McCoy on the TV show and in many audio dramas, is a chessmaster willing to make terrible sacrifices in order to achieve what he sees as the greater good of the universe. His jovial, often goofy demeanor hides a ruthless, Machiavellian strategist. He's a master of manipulation who lies repeatedly to the people closest to him and uses them as pawns in order to accomplish his goals.
Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989 before the Seventh Doctor's arc could play out in full. He was next seen in a brief appearance in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, a failed attempt to kick off a US revival of the TV show. The movie showed the Seventh Doctor regenerating into the Eighth (played by Paul McGann), but revealed nothing about where the Doctor had been in the intervening years, or what had happened to his companion, Ace (played by Sophie Aldred).
That's where Big Finish Productions comes in. They've continued the story which broke off abruptly in the final classic Doctor Who TV serial, “Survival”, further developing the Doctor's increasingly gray morality and his evolving relationship with Ace. Think the Twelfth Doctor and Bill Potts, but dysfunctional.
While “Dark Universe”, the most recent Seventh Doctor audio drama from Big Finish, represents a landmark moment in that ongoing character arc, it also serves as an excellent jumping-on point for those new to Doctor Who on audio. It skillfully recaps everything you need to know about this version of the Doctor and about the rest of the cast of characters. The story features an older, 21st-century Ace, now CEO of the organization A Charitable Earth (mentioned in The Sarah Jane Adventures). However, Ace is drawn back into the Doctor's world when a different renegade Time Lord asks for her help–the Eleven (played by Mark Bonnar), who suffers from a disorder that causes all of his previous incarnations to live on in his head as separate personalities. The Eleven is a popular character in Doctor Who audios who has carved out his own niche amongst the Doctor's Time Lord adversaries by basically acting as the Joker to the Doctor's Batman.
But who is truly the most dangerous Time Lord at work here…the Eleven, or the Doctor?
“Dark Universe” doesn't pull any punches in terms of plot twists and startling developments. The title “Dark Universe” is accurate in more ways than one. The monsters of this story are truly horrifying, brought to life by superb voice work, sound design, and imagery imparted through dialogue. The clash between the Seventh Doctor and the Eleven is as intense and satisfying as fans of both characters would hope for it to be. Ace serves as the linchpin holding the whole story together, putting everything she's learned from her years with (and without) the Doctor to use as she fights to complete her mission. Time Lord side characters Ollistra (Carolyn Pickles) and Rasmus (Damian Lynch) are excellent as well, with distinctive personalities and lots of great lines.
As I've said, this release is perfect for new listeners, but if you are familiar with the Doctor Who audios from Big Finish, there are plenty of Easter eggs in store for you to enjoy here. This story is a prequel to the Eighth Doctor “Doom Coalition” series, but there are connections and subtle nods to a number of other Big Finish series as well–including “Ravenous”, “Gallifrey”, “The War Master”, “The Companion Chronicles”, and “Class”. There are also hints to a new arc for the Seventh Doctor which I assume will play out in future audio stories.
If you like Doctor Who stories that aren't afraid to challenge the Doctor's heroic archetype and add further layers to his character, you should definitely pick up “Dark Universe”. It's one of the best Doctor Who audio dramas I've heard…and considering all the brilliant releases that Big Finish puts out, that's saying a lot.