THE TRUTH SNAKE: The Brink of Brilliance?

[The following essay includes spoilers for The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure.]

The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure is basically the indispensable Big Finish release. The one last great missing regeneration, after The Tenth Planet animation and The Night of the Doctor. It even comes in an unusual physical presentation, Big Finish’s special edition book sets the perfect size to slot on one’s shelf between their copies of The Ultimate Foe and Time and the Rani. It is the completionist dream. There’s been attempts at this regeneration before, of course. Time and the Rani obviously exists, and multiple books have tried to be the definitive take on that gap. But none starred Colin Baker. None were such a modern professional production as Big Finish. And none, none were in limited edition sets, only 10,000 ever to be made, perfect for your ultimate Doctor Who bookshelf (mine’s copy #1252, hello!). And that’s why I personally wound up with it being the first Big Finish set I ever pre-ordered. It’s the ultimate trivial fanservice product.

As a result, the release remains a very vivid experience in my mind. Working out how the hell to copy over the zip files to my phone in a hurry so I could listen on the go. Starting The End of the Line at around 3AM as I biked through a deserted campus to work on a student documentary. Bingeing the rest the next day in excitement. And my thoughts are recorded from comments I made at the time, cynicism and joy side by side. My take on the regeneration story itself at the time: “And for his final story, that’s a pity. It should have made a case for what makes him matter despite things like The Twin Dilemma, not pretended he was a flawless hero and given him a blaze of glory to go out in. It’s not a uniquely bad piece, just tremendously uninteresting despite the iconic space it tries to fill. It may be better than Time and the Rani, but at least that story has so-bad-it’s-good entertainment value. This one merely passes the time.”

I was at once totally fair and totally unfair, I think. The Last Adventure is a set brimming with bizarre creative choices alongside inspired ones, and it’s an innately frustrating experience. But it’s one worth listening and worth engaging with. Because though I don’t disagree with my past self about it being flawed, I do strongly disagree with labelling it utterly uninteresting. On thematic and narrative levels, The Last Adventure and in particular The Brink of Death is a fascinating work. Not one that necissarily works, but one that’s very worth unpacking.

The first thing to note, I think, is the structure. It’s an interesting one. Four stories, one with each companion, showcasing different relationships with different companions and the aspects of his character they bring forth. In this, the middle chapters, The Red House and Stage Fright, are the most successful, hanging as they do quite crucially on what Charley and Flip bring to Six. The former gets an unfair bad rap, I believe. The complications specific to Charley that it creates are exquisite, building in particular on Charley’s character work and relationship with the web of time. She gets to be complex and flawed and fuel a fascinating high-stakes drama that works as a story while also serving as a commentary on that era of Big Finish. Stage Fright, meanwhile, is a big story for Flip, using her quippy, modern, meta approach and buoyant relationship with the Sixth Doctor to explore both her character and the broader mythos of regeneration in a delightful way. These are two stories utterly suited to their companion teams and responding to distinct portrayals of the Sixth Doctor.

But, like with much of this set, it gets complicated. The basic choice of the plot is to fill the space post-Trial of a Time Lord that Big Finish has constructed. This as a result means, for one thing, that it’s a set with only the loosest connections with the actual televised era it’s seeking to resolve. It means that the flaws of the televised Colin Baker era and sins like The Twin Dilemma are ignored rather than healed, an oversight I find glaring for the attempted closing chapter. And most baffling of all, it means Peri is not used whatsoever, despite being the main companion to the Sixth Doctor. What’s more, even Mel is only very lightly used, practically a glorified cameo present for continuity reasons only in The Brink of Death. Odder still is the inclusion of Constance, predating her introduction story! It’s a bizarre choice given the total lack of knowledge of how her reception would pan out and looks even stranger in retrospect, given Big Finish had already explored post-Trial Six/Peri and has now teamed Constance with Flip. In practice, it winds up feeling like a conscious choice to avoid engaging with the televised of the Sixth Doctor, and that creates an oddly hollow sense to the set as a whole.

This is heightened by the way the set carries with it the spectre of the new series. The box set format, for one thing, is deeply indebted to modern Doctor Who in its approach. It is the current evolution of the one-hour story format of Big Finish, linking them with mini-story arcs as microcosms of the modern format. But the new series is also felt in the beats of the story. Flip, for one thing, is a very modern companion, a quippy postmodern observation machine grounded in a working class, present day life. And many beats feel very inspired by the new series, such as a fortune teller challenging Mel to wonder how well she really knows the Doctor that could squeeze into basically any run of modern Doctor Who ever (and I mean that as a compliment, it’s a good scene). But it means the lack of engagement with the character of the Doctor is glaring. In the extras, the producer notes his belief that the regeneration story should show the Doctor at their bravest for that incarnation and making a heroic sacrifice, reminding us how much we love the incarnation and how we will miss them. But the modern regeneration story tends to deconstruct and reconstruct the Doctor at both their rawest and their most heroic. The End of Time is a bombastic tribute to the Tenth Doctor, revelling in some of Ten’s most complex and flawed beats, particularly in his selfish reluctance to die and having to put that aside. And The Time of the Doctor explores Eleven in his archetypal state, a fairytale hero for children, and kills it with time, a morose winter tale about change and growing old, exploring concepts and plot beats established throughout the era. They are very grounded in making the final statement on the Doctors, not just through heroic sacrifice but through celebrating what makes that particular Doctor special. Whereas the most damning thing that can be said about The Brink of Death is, it’s difficult to imagine it playing out differently with any other Doctor. It lacks the specificity or character work to really shine. And yet…

matrix

And yet under the surface, so much leaps out to be engaged with. The premise of the plot is inspired, the Valeyard as literally hijacking the narrative of Doctor Who, corrupting it and inserting himself in the Doctor’s place through use of the Matrix. As other critics like Phil Sandifer have noted, the Matrix is “edited like a television program” and indeed “just a collection of stories.” The Matrix is, basically, television, and in particular Doctor Who. The plot of The Brink of Death is that the Valeyard takes over as the star of Doctor Who. If we are to approach that as a meta commentary of the Sixth Doctor era, the possibilities are fascinating. All the evil one could imagine for the heart of the show unleashed and replacing the Doctor, well, that’s certainly what it feels like to see the Doctor suddenly snap and strangle Peri. It’s a very sly and cutting comment to examine, suggesting that the evils of The Twin Dilemma and the like are a hijacking of the Doctor Who narrative by a malign force, culminating in a heroic sacrifice by the Doctor to regain narrative control. The final line of the audio, “our future is in safe hands,” spoken simultaneously by McCoy and Baker, becomes very heavy with subtext in such an approach.

But that isn’t the furthest that reading can extend. The Brink of Death retcons a new origin story for the Valeyard, as a weapon created by the Celestial Intervention Agency out of the Doctor’s darkest side, rather than merely a natural character development. This is, of course, frustrating in some significant ways. The Valeyard is a somewhat inexplicable odd spot in Doctor Who history, the sort that greatly lends itself to headcanon and theory. Frequently, the fascination lies in the character work that would drive the Doctor to such a parasitic and dark place, but making him an abstract and distanced creation by a totally different force puts all that darkness and potential at a remove. The Brink of Death mows down such possibilities. But on the other hand, it opens up new ones. Big Finish has suggested before in Omega that Time Lords edit the narrative of Doctor Who to curate a heroic image for the Doctor, paving over his flaws in their revisionist approach. Reading The Brink of Death as a similar case makes it a counterpoint, a case of Doctor Who being edited by an outside force to slander it and tear it down. And this becomes the force that Six must vanquish in ending his era. Nothing about the flaws of the Colin Baker era was innate to the show or character, of course. Nothing intrinsic to the Doctor necessitates the violent, uncaring, and even sadistic characterization the writing imposed on him. Using the Valeyard as a manifestation not of the darkness of the Doctor as a character overall but rather as an era-specific exorcism of the imposed darkness of that run of televised Doctor Who, offset against the joyful Big Finish reformation represented through original companions Flip, Constance, and Charley, makes for a rich and on-point commentary. Furthermore, the triumph comes from an embracing of the more complex darkness of the Doctor, the morality games and complex schemes of the Seventh Doctor foreshadowed by the Doctor sacrificing a species to save the Doctor Who narrative, declaring his precious moral scruples died with him. It becomes something of a healing process for the show, tracing its rehabilitating its broken features and how they became strengths. Of course, this requires a lot of digging, and it’s difficult to suggest that such readings were ever intended by Nicholas Briggs’ script. But equally, Briggs clearly does strive for ambiguity and thematic nuance in the story, and picking at it reveals fascinating possibilities.

The most fascinating and frustrating aspect of the Valeyard of all, however, is in Genesta, the one-off companion for the bulk of The Brink of Death. It is ultimately revealed she is the Valeyard, suggesting that at one point he took over her narrative role just as he did the Doctor’s and was since toying with her, from whatever that point is. Briggs preserves ambiguity in the process, with the Doctor even asking how long she was the Valeyard, and choosing to believe that he wasn’t her all along. But, examining the narrative, the weightiest possibilities come if she is. Because Genesta is a foil for the Doctor from the beginning. Despite filling the companion role, and even being asked to become a companion, the point of her is in how similar they are. She’s a Time Lord student dreaming of more, with a gleeful rejection of authority and a longing to see everything as a renegade. Even her accent is a commentary, a Yorkshire one she picked up when sneaking off to stay on Earth as long as possible and enjoy our world before being dragged back to Gallifrey. She is, of course, as the Valeyard evil and out for domination and, if we take the last few paragraphs as given, an embodiment of everything the show did wrong at the time (and given my feelings on Exile, I feel a little iffy about a Briggs script using a woman Doctor as showcasing everything wrong with portrayals of the character…). But, contrary to my initial impression where I felt it steamrollered over everything interesting about her for a cheap twist, I now feel it makes the Valeyard significantly more interesting and creates a poignant sense of tragedy to them. The Valeyard may be a twisted and incoherent narrative construct that seeks to subjugate and destroy the Doctor Who universe, but in the end, perhaps they just long for the simple, heroic pleasures of being the Doctor. That may be the most interesting suggestion of all.

Equally, however, that’s the problem with The Brink of Death. Its finest concepts are mere suggestions that require extensive critical discourse and may very likely not be intended at all. And for every scene built around nuance, ambiguity, and fascinating implications, there’s another naff bit of microscopic moon creatures, radiation, and symbiotic nuclei, hard walls of cringe-worthy technobabble that drag the narrative down. But through it all, there is a quiet and fascinating undercurrent, a sense that Nicholas Briggs is trying to say something fascinating and new about the Colin Baker era, and maybe even succeeds. Perhaps not. But perhaps.

If nothing else, it looks very nice on my shelf. And that is the main thing, really.

the last bookshelf

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