I can’t explain why, but I felt something magical when the season 23 Doctor Who theme tune opened the first story of The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure. I think that we so associate the wonderful Peter Howell theme with the early 80s and the punchy Keff McCullough theme with the late 80s that the single season Dominic Glynn version tends to get forgotten.
I recall watching season 23 when broadcast in the 80s and I probably wasn’t the only young viewer to not be enthralled by this version of the theme tune but, when that theme tune came up at the start of The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure, it really was a surprisingly evocative moment.
The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure by Big Finish was released in August 2015. It’s an ambitious four-story adventure that leads us into the regeneration from the 6th Doctor into the 7th, a “final” 6th Doctor story that we were denied in the TV series.
The End of the Line by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris.
A train breaks down at a station, thick with fog all around. The Doctor and Constance are there also.
Passengers who seek help invariably end up dead. Some of them end up dead two or three times.
When the Doctor and Constance investigate, the Doctor discovers an identical train but one that’s been wrecked with smashed windows and carnage.
A local train-spotter who’s familiar with the station helps to guide them around, but has a little trouble because the number of platforms keeps increasing.
The Doctor eventually concludes, from the additional stations, identical train, and people dying more than once, that they’re at a convergence of parallel universes. More and more such universes are colliding at this point, and the effect is increasing exponentially. It won’t be long before all realities will converge here, and that will prove devastating given that the number of parallel universes is endless.
It turns out to be a scheme by the Master – who uses an Avatar, because it’s too dangerous for a Timelord to be there. Well, except for a particular Timelord he needs to fulfil a specific purpose.
However, the Master is not the only person with a vested interest in the Doctor’s presence.
The Red House by Alan Barnes
Werewolves acting as police are hunting down rebel werewolves, but these werewolves are different. They don’t become werewolves under a full moon – they regress from their relatively peaceful wolf state into ferocious proto-humans if exposed to sunlight.
The Doctor and Charley discover the fear surrounding ‘The Red House’, within which is a scientist called Doctor Pain. She’s trying to extract the last vestiges of humanity from the werewolves and, when Charley, who only has a human state, is brought in she faces the same treatment.
Fortunately for Charley, there’s another Timelord present on Dr Pain’s staff. A Timelord that knows that the Doctor will interfere, trying to stop Pain’s work. If the Doctor succeeds, humans on the mainland will destroy the island inhabited by the werewolves and wipe everyone out.
However, the Timelord isn’t there to interfere. Timelords don’t do that. But he does have a need for something Dr Pain has invented.
Stage Fright by Matt Fitton
The Doctor takes Flip to Victorian London with plans to visit The New Regency Theatre. When they get there, there’s a sign up to say it’s closed.
At the Red Tavern, Henry Gordon Jago is in a particularly generous mood because he’s been paid handsomely by someone who requires sole use of his theatre. His compatriot in Infernal Investigations, Professor George Litefoot, is perplexed by a series of mummified corpses that have been turning up in his mortuary. Corpses of people that look to have been dead for centuries, but were alive and well just a few days earlier.
When the Doctor and Flip meet with Jago & Litefoot and hear of the separate events, the Doctor’s curiosity is piqued. The corpses are of young aspiring actors, which links them to Jago’s line of work.
Whilst Litefoot takes the Doctor to examine the corpses, Flip and Jago investigate the Regency. They’re invited by the production’s producer/director/actor, Mr Yardvale, to participate in a scene. With his bearing, Jago is to take the part of a military man and Flip as a reporter called Smith, whilst Yardvale himself takes on the role of a man dying after a run-in with some giant spiders.
The Doctor gets there just in time to stop his friends from becoming the same as Litefoot’s mortuary residents. Yardvale makes his escape, but not before leaving behind many discarded manuscripts, scripts entitled ‘Death of a Prydonian’. The Doctor reads them and recognises them each as scripts of his own past deaths – his regenerations. The aspiring actors take on the part of his companions, swamped in loss and suffering at the death of the Doctor, whilst Yardvale absorbs the negative energy produced.
Of course, Yardvale isn’t his real name and the device he’s using is one that disappeared from the Red House. This is a trap set by the Valeyard so that he can absorb the Doctor’s own energy and lifeforce. It takes Flip conquering her own fears to save the Doctor.
The Brink of Death by Nicholas Briggs
In the TARDIS with Mel, the Doctor discovers a problem with its reluctance to land where he wants it to land. Smoke from the console indicates the source of the problem but, after a moment’s repair, the Doctor’s face has changed.
Mel doesn’t notice the change but, somehow, the Valeyard is now the Doctor.
The Doctor is trapped in the Matrix, in a disused part of it on an old Celestial Intervention Agency spaceship that’s due for demolition. A diagnostic sees the Doctor as a glitch, one that needs to be removed.
The Doctor has six minutes to live when he’s discovered by a demolition technician, Genesta. He convinces her that he isn’t a glitch, even when he can’t identify himself because his face doesn’t match that of the Doctor’s 6th incarnation on the Matrix’s identity check.
With Genesta’s help, the Doctor tries to work out what the Valeyard is doing but, each time he gets close, he finds himself back in the Matrix with less time to live than before.
The Valeyard’s final plan is to integrate himself into every Timelord ever to have existed, through the Matrix, including Rassilon himself.
The only way to stop the Valeyard is to use the deadly radiation of Lakertya – a radiation that doesn’t affect humans, but that the Doctor knows will kill him. If he sacrifices himself, there’s no way the Valeyard will exist to carry out his plan.
But … he might regenerate.
If there’s anything wrong with this epic adventure, it’s with the set-up of having the Doctor accompanied by different companions throughout, of which only one is a TV companion.
None of the companions in the first three adventures are familiar to me at all and the fact that they all sound and behave the same make them come across as identikit companions that just have different names.
The fourth adventure does have a TV companion (Mel) but she hardly makes an impact, instead her place is taken by another new companion character who is also from the same identikit as the three previous ones.
Having different unknown, but near-identical, companions like this really doesn’t serve the adventure. Unless you’ve listened to previous Big Finish adventures, you spend too much of you time wondering where they come from, what their background and character is, and, hence, where the story fits in the continuity of the 6th Doctor. I’ve still no idea where the stories fall, something that left me in a constant state of confusion.
Apparently the first companion (Miranda Raison’s Constance) is brand new to this adventure and, with no introduction, absolutely no one will know where she comes from or where the story fits in the 6th Doctor’s time.
Putting the bizarre choice of companions to one side, we can look at the stories.
According to the behind-the-scenes interviews, the idea of the four stories was to have them in Valeyard continuity and not the Doctor’s. Very commendable I’m sure, but I’m not sure I would have known this if they hadn’t said so – primarily because of not knowing anything about the companions.
The End of the Line uses the familiar mainstay of creepy scifi – the railway station. It’s a familiar mainstay because it works so well, as it does here. Familiar and yet not so familiar. There’s quite a bit of technobabble about parallel dimensions converging, but its primary purpose seems to be to settle the issue of the Master and the Valeyard. The Valeyard only appears at the end of the adventure, and the Master appears by way of an avatar (allowing another actor to stand in for the sorely missed late Anthony Ainley). It works very well.
The Red House brings werewolves into the world of Doctor Who by way of a genetic manipulation plot. Its purpose in The Last Adventure is to give the Valeyard a macguffin to pick up to use in a later plot.
Stage Fright is probably my favourite of the four adventures because it includes Jago & Litefoot and, I think, of the four previously-unknown companions, Flip was the one I liked the best. The story itself features the Valeyard in a much more malevolent way, one that allows the adventure to recreate many of the Doctor’s previous regeneration moments. It’s the one I found the most captivating.
The Brink of Death brings the story to a conclusion and, of course, it needs to end with a resolution as to why it was that, in the TV adventure, having the Rani firing lasers at the TARDIS was enough for the Doctor to regenerate. This point, at the very least, is very well done. Experiencing the 6th Doctor “dying” after all these years really got the hairs on my neck prickling.
What didn’t work so well was the Doctor not really able to take an active part in the final act of The Last Adventure and, instead, the more active role was taken by yet another companion character – Liz White’s Genesta (Mel not really playing a huge “6th Doctor companion” part here).
On the whole, there’s massively more that’s great about this adventure than that isn’t great. In the standalone adventures you often get the sense that they’re standalone stories that have forgotten this is supposed to be the 6th Doctor’s epic finale but, as the adventures move on and the Valeyard takes a more active role, it all kind of gels together. The reward for listening to it all is far greater than listening to them as individual adventures.