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Dark Eyes 2 Review (Spoiler-Free)

Gustaff Behr reviews the latest Paul McGann audio adventures from Big Finish.

dark-eyes-2-review

It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen the Eighth Doctor…or has it? Apart from Paul McGann making a very surprising appearance on our screens last year shortly before the 50th Anniversary Special aired in The Night of the Doctor and in Big Finish’s The Light at the End, the Eighth Doctor has been MIA ever since November 2012 when Dark Eyes I was released. Due to the tremendous popularity with the umbrella series, not to mention The Great War winning Big Finish the BBC Audio Drama Award, it came as no surprise that we’d be seeing a Dark Eyes II in the future somewhere.

However, for whatever reason, management or personal, the second installment didn’t arrive in 2013, but rather early 2014. To make up for the long wait, Dark Eyes III and IV are scheduled for release in late 2014 and early 2015, but for now, let’s just concentrate on the latest installment – Dark Eyes II! Don’t worry, no spoilers here, only things that you could’ve (or should’ve) worked out for yourself.

THE TRAITOR

dark-eyes-2-traitorThe first story, admittedly, looked as though it might be the weakest of the bunch when I first read the synopsis: The Doctor is going up against the Daleks. What? Again? Now bear in mind that Lucie Miller/To the Death featured Daleks as the main villains and Dark Eyes I featured 4 stories dedicated to the Daleks as well. Now you’re telling me the Doctor is fighting them again? Sounds sluggish, doesn’t it? Fortunately though, it isn’t. Even though I’m not a really big a Dalek fan, I was pleasantly captivated by the first story, despite it being the seventh Dalek story in a row for the Eighth Doctor. This time, the Daleks have set their sights on Nixyce 7, but the Doctor isn’t here to stop them…he’s here to ask them for their help.

A new element added to the Dark Eyes series is the use of a cold opening, usually in the style of a ‘How-We-Got-Here’ format, typically putting the Doctor in what sounds like a compromising position. In this first installment, the Doctor tries to convince himself that he made the right decision before we are shown the events leading up to it.

Another interesting component of The Traitor that I suspected might drag it down is the inclusion of Liv Chenka, who was last seen encountering the Seventh Doctor in Robophobia. The Doctor/Molly formula worked very well in the first series, so why crowd the TARDIS with another companion? Now working as a Med-Tech on Nixyce 7, Liv is reluctant to help the Doctor once she learns what he’s up to. This story is also very reminiscent of The Crimson Horror in that it starts out very Doctor-lite, instead focusing on another character (Liv Chenka) pivotal to the plot and then later switching back to the tradition.

The script writer for this piece, Nicholas Briggs, manages to prove yet again why he is the only man who should pen scripts with Daleks in them, be it audio or television. He seems to understand perfectly well what make Dalek stories work and what fans want to see in their tales: Lots of shouting, high body count, ambiguous morality and other goodies. All the ‘How-to-make-a-good-Dalek-story’ ingredients are present in The Traitor. Furthermore, the Daleks in this story combine Classic Series menace with New Series involvement – being part of the actual story from start to finish instead of hiding for half the narrative.

But probably the most exciting part of this story is the climax, which, without spoiling anything, results in nothing less than an ‘Oh! Come on!’ exclaim from listeners. Note: Tone and pitch may differ from person to person.

But I don’t just praise the positive though. This story does have a few bumps. The most recognizable one is that this story looks as though it’s suffering from a plot hole (yes, an actual one…maybe) in that the Doctor goes completely unrecognized by like a dozen Daleks despite having fought them numerous times and this story taking place after the Daleks have already encountered the Eighth Doctor at least once. It’s as if they’ve never seen this incarnation before and completely ignore him despite him wearing a very Clark Kent disguise in that he has a new outfit and has cut his hair.

Rating this first story: 8/10
A good start to the series. Only gets better and better.

THE WHITE ROOM

dark-eyes-2-white-roomThe Doctor travels to 107 Baker Street in 1918 only to find his house occupied by Molly O’ Sullivan. The strangeness escalates when the Huntsmen come a calling. Throw into the mix the welcomed return of the Viyrans, who were last seen in The Blue Planet and you’ve got a recipe for a brilliant tale.

Time as a disease? What a splendid notion for a Doctor Who story! While not quite as clever as the fictional Elephant-Mouse Syndrome, I must admit that taking a core element of a television program and turning it into something ill is nothing short of genius.

Usually, the setup for bringing back a companion is a long one, sometimes taking up 1/3-1/2 of the story, but in the case of The White Room, the action starts before the opening theme even hits the speakers. Not only does this save us time, but the way the cold opening ends in this story is reminiscent of ‘Oh! Come on!’ at the end of The Traitor, except this time it’s more along the lines of ‘Seriously? You’re doing it again?’.

I’ll be the first to say that Molly isn’t my favorite companion, but hearing her in this story bowled me over completely. I also believe that this move is permanent. The dialogue with the Doctor, where Molly is in her life now, her banter with the villains – it’s all there screaming at me, yelling ‘what took you so long to love this woman?’. So yeah, Molly in this story shines. Where Liv stole the show in The Traitor, Molly takes the prize here.

Speaking of Liv, as you might’ve suspected, she isn’t in this story and the events of The Traitor aren’t even touched upon. This was confusing at first, but like a true Whovian, I just went along with it and trusted the fact that it’ll come into play later on. What also works is that this story manages to make you forget about The Traitor in that this story feels like the first installment of Dark Eyes II, but at the same time, it feels nothing like a series opener. Confusing I know, but trust me – it works!

As mentioned, this story sees the welcome return of the Viyrans and let me just say that the concept behind the Viyrans is breathtaking and literally opens dozens of potential storylines that wouldn’t make the Viyrans feel like they’re intruding on Doctor Who, which is something the Daleks are very close to doing with their repetitive storylines and constant appearances. If you’ve never heard of the Viyrans, a little background is in order: They are a mysterious species of life form dressed in space-age hazmat suits who are known for their creation of biological and viral weapons. The bulk of their stories involve their creations somehow escaping containment and causing trouble for the universe. In this case, one of their viruses, which causes people to jump back in time, but at the cost of becoming…Sorry, but you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

Its stories like these that I wish the Doctor were more ruthless. Stories like these make me wish the Time Lord Victorious or the Doctor from the end of Human Nature/Family of Blood was here because the villains in The White Room are some of those people who you just wish it was legal to cut down like animals because the world would be such a friendlier place then. Villains in Doctor Who rarely make me feel like this, but The White Room shines through, another testament to how spectacular the script is: Interesting characters, good plot, nice pace and evil (want to rip their throats out) villains.

Speaking more about the title itself – The White Room – I won’t tell you what the room is or what it does, though as you’re reading this, even listeners who haven’t encountered the Viyrans yet should know what it is. If you have listened to Mission of the Viyrans, Patient Zero or The Blue Planet, then you should feel like an idiot for not working it out sooner.

Rating this first story: 9/10
Powerful, timey-timey and did I mention Molly O’ Sullivan?

TIME’S HORIZON

dark-eyes-2-times-horizonThe Doctor decides to take Molly to the End of the Universe where they come across Liv Chenka on board an explorer ship and an evil plot by the Eminence. Liv doesn’t trust the Doctor, not after what she witnessed him do on Nixyce 7. But the Doctor is innocent…because he hasn’t been to Nixyce 7 yet. It’s still in his future.

I knew it was going to be hard following on the success of The White Room, but alas it wasn’t meant to be. Time’s Horizon might have a very unusual title, but this story serves as the weak link in the series. Most of it can be attributed to the plot: Strong ideas – weak executions. Like a rollercoaster, the attention of the listener goes up and down, up and down, but does manage to land on a high note just before the credits roll with a surprise appearance by two old faces.

It’s not all bad though. This story poses the very old and very philosophical question of: If you knew someone was going to do something bad, should you stop them beforehand? A very interesting idea to explore, but ultimately takes a backseat because the Doctor and Liv hardly speak to one another during this story. Instead, Liv and Molly are saddled with each other while the Doctor has to deal with an old enemy from his past – the Eminence!

I personally love the Eminence. I also love how Big Finish is releasing their stories. The Seeds of War was their first story from the listeners’ point of view while Destroy the Eminence (which is yet to be released) serves as the Doctor’s first encounter with them from his point of view. Confusing eh? In-universe and out! I have absolutely no bones to pick with the Eminence in this story. They live up to the bar they set in The Seeds of War – or will set as this story is their first encounter the Doctor – from their point of view as he teaches them their own term for turning people into their foot-soldiers.

Now back to the flaws in this story. The supporting cast is a mix of annoying and uninteresting. So annoying and uninteresting that not even the Doctor, Molly and Liv can save them. They are stereotyped to the extreme here: A pious religionist, a captain who is uncertain of himself (base under siege must), a coward who will do anything just to be remembered by the rest of humanity and these three come across as the least uninteresting.

Time’s Horizon also contains certain plot twists that seems to come out of left field and then leave at the same blink-and-you’ll miss it speed. This feels like sloppy writing, even if it has been setup twenty minutes ago. The pace of this story is also much too slow and on a personal level, I dislike the whole I-Know-You’re-In-There speech that comes with possession or body surfing stories. It’s cheesy and corny and almost never looks/sounds believable.

Another miss that might just be me missing it is that the listener is never really sure where this story is meant to be set in. End of the Universe? Spatially or temporally? People make references to 300 years from now and a 1000 years later. It gets confusing.

Rating this first story: 5/10
Every series needs a dud.

EYES OF THE MASTER

dark-eyes-2-eyes-of-the-masterThe Doctor is in – only it’s the Master this time. Dark Eyes II wraps up the four story arc with a very unusual storyline in which the Doctor, Liv and Molly go up against the Master who is parading around as an optician?

But first, switching to a more personal level, this is the story I was anticipating the most, mainly because I have fallen in love with Alex MacQueen’s Master and have been suffering from withdrawal ever since the last time the Doctor encountered him. So it comes as little surprise that when I finally got around to this story, I just had to pause and re-listen to my favorite dialogue – most of it coming out of Alex MacQueen’s mouth. As with U.N.I.T. Dominion, MacQueen delivers his Master’s usual Sixth Doctor wit and Tenth Doctor charm, combining it with Fourth Doctor flippancy and adding his own personal touch of evil – a truly remarkable portrayal of a much loved renegade Time Lord.

That isn’t to say the rest of the cast aren’t on top form as well, but there is always some character that just steals the show. My head nearly exploded when the Eighth Doctor met the Master. This is the first time in over 17 years (yes I bolded that for emphasis) that the Eighth Doctor has faced the Master one-on-one, so I was expecting their dialogue to be of showstopper quality. Thankfully, it is and hearing Paul and Alex spar is nothing short of outstanding, very reminiscent of Pertwee and Delgado or Davison and Ainley.

Enough praising of the cast, let’s praise the story. It is chalk full of nods to past stories: 70s Doctor/Master references are thrown around, the Doctor’s house at 107 Baker Street is involved, the Master is expecting the short Doctor with the umbrella and the funny accent to have shown up instead and that’s not even a quarter of the mentions going on in Eyes of the Master. Also very unusual is that the Master has a companion of his own this time to even up the score.

What makes Big Finish very fun to listen to is that they’re not afraid to sneak in a little New Who into their stories. This has been going on for years now with ‘that Northern chap with the big ears’ helping Peri and Erimem in The Kingmaker, the Seventh Doctor scoffing at the idea that the Time Lords might one day not be around in U.N.I.T. Dominion and the Eighth Doctor even called the idea of a war wiping out both the Time Lords and the Daleks the most preposterous thing he’s ever heard of in the previous Dark Eyes. Likewise, Dark Eyes II features another New Who element involving the origin of MacQueen’s Master…something which has been stumping fans ever since he first appeared.

One of the things that have bothered me during this arc is the non-linear storytelling occurring sometimes. On television, it’s easier to follow. On audio, much harder as you only have voices to go on. This reminds me of Series Six, but it doesn’t get quite as complicated as that. The arc does get resolved with everything making sense in the end – mostly! If you end up with questions other than ‘when is Series 3 coming out’, then you’re overthinking things. As with Series Six, there is a heavy moral dilemma involved in telling the Doctor about his future, but the Doctor remains adamant that everything will be fine – which doubles as dramatic irony.

Rating this last story: 10/10
Should’ve deducted two points for that post-credit scene and having me wait until November to find out what happens! Oh come on!

Time placement for this series: For Liv Chenka, this series occurs a few years after Robophobia but for Molly, only a few months after Dark Eyes I. For the Eighth Doctor, it occurs shortly after Dark Eyes I. For the Viyrans, The White Room occurs sometime after Patient Zero. The placement for the Master is also easy. Eyes of the Master occurs somewhere after Mastermind, but before U.N.I.T. Dominion and given the origin of the Master that I will not reveal, the overall series setting/time period is set very, very close to the start of the Time War. In fact, it is probably the closest Big Finish can get without literally going all namedrop.

Step back in time...

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