And so, the tale of Molly O’Sullivan and her dark eyes comes to a dramatic, explosive conclusion in this final boxed set. I can’t have been alone in feeling that the story got a little complicated and messy along the way, with shifting time lines and Big Finish’s very own big bad; The Eminence being thrown into the mix in Dark Eyes 2 & 3. The original boxed set was a simple tale of how the Doctor, traumatised by recent events, has his life saved and his optimism restored through meeting WW1 nurse Molly O’Sullivan, part of a nefarious plot by the Dalek Time Controller.
Through Dark Eyes 2 & 3, we’ve seen Big Finish expand the tale to allude to the oncoming time war. Night of the Doctor gave the 8th Doctor an end point; we know the time war is going to kick off, and we know the Doctor will scout about on the fringes, helping where he can. What this allows Big Finish to do is to explore the lead up as the Timelords attempt to rid the universe of the Daleks, entering into ill advised alliances with intelligent gaseous entity The Eminence and even hiring the Master to do their dirty work. It’s not hard to see how all of this will soon blow up in their faces. The Doctor being the Doctor, he can’t help but get involved, he’s not interested in helping the Timelords with their schemes, his only interest is in protecting his friends, and ensuring the universe is still standing at the end of it all, and it’s these interests that drive much of the action of Dark Eyes 4. There will be some mild spoilers for each play so feel free to skip forward to the summing up at the end.
We open in 1920’s London in Life in the Day; during their search for Molly, the Doctor and Liv run into Kitty Donaldson whose brother piques the Doctor and, more importantly, Liv’s interest. This is arguably the first proper standalone adventure we’ve had for the 8th Doctor in quite some time; a character piece for new(ish) companion Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker). It’s in her interactions with Martin Donaldson that the play really comes alive, the sort of small, quiet, time travel tinged love story it’s surprising Doctor Who has never really tried before. By being a bit freer from the constraints of the arc, Life is one of the strongest pieces in the whole Dark Eyes saga purely because it gives us, and the Doctor some breathing space before we launch headlong back into the universe threatening events brewing in Paris.
Molly no longer being their primary concern, the Doctor and Liv are in Paris looking for a stolen item. Could the answers lie in the Red Pagoda (formerly the Moulin Rouge)? Monster of Montmartre is an absolute joy to listen to, zipping along at lightning pace towards a well signposted but no less rewarding cliffhanger. It’s no secret that the Daleks are back in this boxed set, and what we get here is a more successful retooling of Daleks in Manhattan with biological experiments, showgirls and Dalek imagination. The sound design and dialogue here are wonderfully evocative, the imagery of the Red Pagoda’s terrifying interior brought thrillingly to life, the sort of setting that can only be satisfyingly realised in one’s imagination, which, let’s face it is exactly what audio Doctor Who should be attempting. Nicholas Briggs is in his element as the Dalek Time Controller and adds a couple of other new Dalek characters to his repertoire.
From Paris to Moscow for the penultimate play; Master of the Daleks. The time lines have been altered once again, and the Russian gulags have had a bit of a Daleky makeover. Everything about this story has you incredibly nervous; an amnesiac Doctor, a Dalek/Master team up, the Sontarans, and yet another alternate timeline in an episode that runs to just under an hour. It’s not a lot of time to wrap everything up in a neat little bow, and, actually, it doesn’t need to. The way it ends is one of the most bonkers, loud, messy and thrilling climaxes to a Doctor Who story ever, and it’s something I think even Russell T Davies would baulk at. But it works, brilliantly. The star of the show here is really Alex McQueen’s campy, serpentine Master. He’s excellent, becoming unstuck, flappable and decidedly irritated as everything comes crashing down around him. I hope it’s not the last we hear from him.
Much like Monster, this zips along at breakneck pace and it is sometimes difficult to keep a grasp of what’s going on as it reaches a crescendo of blaster fire and explosions, but once again, the imagery it invokes in your mind’s eye is incredible. There really seems to be no limit for Big Finish’s imagination.
And so to Eye of Darkness a title that both plays on the over-arching storyline and the location of the adventure as the Doctor, Liv, elderly nurse Mary and the Dalek Time Controller take a little trip to the Eye of Orion. Peace and quiet is very much at the bottom of the list in this final adventure that ties up a lot of the loose ends. Although Ruth Bradley is absent for this boxed set, Molly O’Sullivan’s presence has been felt throughout and it comes to a dramatic and incredibly moving conclusion. Although the pay-off for the Eminence’s story no doubt rewards long term Big Finish listeners, it feels slightly out of place here. All in all, the final few scenes between Nicola Walker, Paul McGann and Sorcha Cusack are as well written and emotionally rewarding as anything in post-2005 Doctor Who.
Overall, the Dark Eyes series has been an interesting experiment, at times, guilty of trying tie it into existing Big Finish continuity at the expense of a coherent story. But for the most part it’s been an exploration into the sacrifices we make, the hard decisions and choices made in times of war. Or, in the case here, to avoid war. It’s perhaps as close as Doctor Who will come to replicating Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Battlestar Galactica without sacrificing it’s core ideals. It’s also given us Nicola Walker as Liv Chenka, one of the Doctor’s most assured, grown up and independent companions ever. And it’s rejuvenated Paul McGann, giving him meatier material to wrestle with as the Doctor. He’s becoming more battle hardened, more frustrated with the actions of his own people. That said, his final speech about hope sums up the original intention of Dark Eyes; a means to give the Doctor back some purpose. He’s certainly been changed by events, but he’s no longer the angry, hopeless figure we heard so many years ago at the end of To the Death. He has hope, and optimism, and his friends. I cannot wait to see where he goes next. Karn is a long way off yet.