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Doctor Who Review: Big Finish’s ‘Once and Future: Past Lives’

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We’re over halfway through 2023 and the 60th anniversary celebration for Doctor Who is just beginning. The promotional material for the anniversary specials has started to roll out, but the Doctor Who party has been in full swing all year over here at The Cosmic Circus. November is still pretty far away, but don’t worry, Big Finish has you covered for those looking for something special to celebrate the monumental occasion. Spanning eight episodes, Doctor Who: Once and Future tells an epic story that sees the Doctor facing a challenge he has never faced before. The first chapter, Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives, begins our journey with a bang!

Written by Robert Valentine, and directed by Helen Goldwyn, both of which have been involved in quite a few Big Finish productions, Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives sees the return of quite a few fan favorites. With a story focusing on the Fourth Doctor, voiced by Tom Baker, Past Lives also features the return of Sarah Jane (Sadie Miller), Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), and the Osgood (Ingrid Oliver). Can the Doctor figure out why he’s visiting some old faces? And what exactly does the Monk have to do with it? Let’s find out.

[Warning: Spoilers from Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives are below!]

A Doctor in Flux

Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives begins its story in a familiar location from the 50th anniversary special, The Time War. The War Doctor is injured, exhibiting extreme levels of regeneration energy. But that can’t be right, we saw The War Doctor (John Hurt) regenerate in the 50th anniversary special. So what the hell is going on? With an explosion of energy, The Doctor begins regenerating, however, instead of moving forward through new faces, the Doctor begins cycling to his past regenerations.

In the first moments of Past Lives, listeners are thrown into a situation that we haven’t quite seen before, with the exception of the final moments of The Power of the Doctor. Why is the Doctor regenerating into faces that we’ve already seen? What’s causing this degeneration and what happens when he runs out of past faces to visit? So many questions and as the tension rises, the Doctor stabilizes as Tom Baker’s face, thanks to the calming effect of the TARDIS.

Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives- Tom Baker

In the aftermath of the chaos and unsure when the next degeneration might occur, the Doctor attempts to remember what caused this destabilization. He recalls the Meddling Monk (Rufus Hound) being involved in some form so he decides to track him down. 

Spiraling through time in Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives

The Monk is eventually found in 22nd Century Hong Kong, where surprise, he’s up to no good. Procuring a black omnivariable decryptor, the Monk manages to evade the Doctor and bounces off through time once again. He’s a slippery fellow, with a touch of a devious side. Eventually, he kidnaps Sarah Jane for reasons not yet revealed.

The Doctor arrives in 2010 London, where something besides the Meddling Monk is occurring. There’s a cloaking device detected above Glastonbury, one that UNIT is already aware of. In walks Kate Stewart, the head of UNIT, and her right-hand woman Osgood. These two, along with The Doctor, work together to get to the bottom of what the Monk is up to and how they can stop him before he causes too much chaos.

At the center of this mystery, and the reason the Monk needs Sarah Jane, is a monster from the Doctor’s past, the Hyreth. The Monk is being blackmailed, and controlled through fear of some nanobombs in his blood. Can the Doctor stop the Hyreth before they can take over the world? Can the Doctor save The Monk from certain death? And why does the Doctor head off to visit his daughter Jenny for answers about his degeneration? All those answers and more are waiting for you in Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives.

The good and the bad of Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives

There’s a lot to love about this first chapter in Big Finish’s 60th-anniversary specials for Doctor Who. Right off the bat, as the Doctor begins cycling quickly through previous incarnations, it feels different, exciting. This is a problem that The Doctor and listeners have never encountered before. It was exciting to hear other voices from past Doctors, such as Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker, and Michael Troughton as the second Doctor. The quick pace scene setting, in the beginning, ramps up the excitement, informing listeners that they are in for a treat.

Doctor Who Once and Future- Past Lives

It was also fantastic (no Doctor Who pun intended) to hear other individuals from Doctor Who’s past. Kate Steward and Osgood have always been two of my favorite characters, both of which have been underutilized in Doctor Who Proper. But with the help of Big Finish, their adventures continue. Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver easily slip back into their roles, which felt like welcoming back an old friend after a long break. 

This same sentiment is felt by Tom Baker, who seemed to be having the time of his life back in the Doctor’s shoes. Baker has always had such excitement and joy surrounding his time on Doctor Who, even appearing in the 50th-anniversary special as The Curator. I haven’t watched as much of the original series as I would like, but this story with Baker makes me want to jump into his series as soon as possible.

The inclusion of Sarah Jane was a fantastic touch, seeing that she served as a companion to Baker’s Doctor. There is a bittersweet moment hearing Sarah in the adventure, having lost Elisabeth Sladen years ago to cancer. However, her real-life daughter, Sadie Miller fills her shoes magnificently. She doesn’t miss a beat slipping into the role of Sarah Jane, bringing the same energy I’ve come to expect from Sladen. It’s a nice tribute to bring her daughter in on the roles and I could think of no one else who could properly do the role justice.

While Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives is a strong story from start to finish, there are some issues. You can tell that this is the first part of a much longer story. The chapters of Once and Future are being released over multiple months, in chunks like episodes of a weekly series. Many of the offerings I’ve had from Big Finish have been multiple chapters collected in one set, providing an entire story. Once and future is like getting small snippets to wet my palette, but the length of time between each part feels way too long.

Once and Future also attempts to balance the individual story while connecting to the larger story, which is totally typical for many series and stories. However, with the tight run time of just under an hour, and will no visuals to help facilitate the story, it felt difficult to fully appreciate both the microsphere of the individual story and the microsphere of the larger picture of Once and Future. I think the series will be even more enjoyable after all parts are out and I can binge-listen to them.

Overall I enjoyed Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives, a story that began this new series of adventures with a bang. While it felt short and moved quickly, it was a superb first chapter in what is sure to be an exciting series of audio dramas. Fans of Tom Baker will definitely want to check this out, however Once and Future is sure to be an epic event that no Doctor Who fan will want to miss. 

My Rating: 7/10

Doctor Who: Once and Future: Past Lives is available now from Big Finish. Will you be checking this one out? Let us know on Twitter or in the Cosmic Circus Discord.

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

Brian Kitson has 358 posts and counting. See all posts by Brian Kitson