THIS STORY TAKES
"PROJECT: DESTINY" AND
"LURKERS AT SUNLIGHT'S
BIG FINISH CD#140
RELEASED IN OCTOBER
21st century London:
Nobody No-One, the
Word Lord, is again
Only this time, he's
unbeatable – and a
terrible tragedy is
about to unfold.
It is written.
A Death in the Family
A Death in the Family stands as a testament to two things: first and foremost, it
ably demonstrates that even after producing well over two hundred Doctor Who audios, Big Finish can still tell stories that feel fresh and exhilarating and that push our heroes in exciting new directions. Secondly, it shows that Big Finish are now (at least) on a level pegging with King of Sensation Russell T Davies in how they market and present their releases. Not only does the Big Finish website host a misleading version of this CD’s cover artwork, featuring Ian Reddington’s “Nobody No-One” Word Lord in the place of Philip Olivier’s presumably-departed Hex, but on the day of its release Big Finish announced Olivier’s involvement only to then, almost in the same breath, proclaim that “one of the TARDIS crew will die… but who will it be?” In terms of hype, that’s got to be up there with The Next Doctor.
Penned by novelist Steven Hall, who in 2008 stole Big Finish’s
Forty-Five audio anthology with his exceedingly clever episode
The Word Lord, A Death in the Family picks up right from where
Project: Destiny left off. Reeling at both the Doctor’s deceit and
the horrific events concerning his mother that have just unfolded
before him, Hex has done a runner. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Ace have gone back into what’s left of the Forge to recover a
Time Lord sarcophagus. You can imagine their surprise when
they find an older version of the seventh Doctor residing inside
it. This future Doctor isn’t dead, however – he’s serving as the
Word Lord’s warder. And in waking him, the Doctor and Ace
have inadvertently unleashed the Word Lord on the world.
Above: Where’s Hex?
This adventure is unusual in that the story I expected it to be is effectively concluded within twenty-five minutes. Hall introduces us to Nobody No-One in his playful new ‘matter avatar’, skilfully and succinctly outlining the ‘rules’ concerning his character for the benefit of those unfamiliar with him (and thus, it would seem, bereft of 99 disposable pence). He then invests his Word Lord with all the reality-bending power that comes from finding himself in the midst of word-spouting humans – every time someone says “nobody can stop the sun shining” or “nobody can stop the Doctor regenerating”, then Nobody No-One can do just that. And he does.
Ultimately the Doctor defeats Nobody, of course, trapping him inside a sort of pan-galactic internet, but he does so at the cost of his own lives. The story’s first episode ends with Hex pronouncing the Doctor dead, but in defiance of every Doctor Who convention there is no cop-out to follow at the start of Part 2. As the future Doctor begins to fade out of existence,
in a final act of kindness he delivers Hex to Evelyn on the planet Peligin, where he can finally put paid to the ghost of his mother, before returning Ace to the White Rabbit public house in 2027, where she’s just about to bump into the man of her dreams.
“The future folds into the past. The homeless hero has fallen...”
To discuss the plot in any more detail would simply amount to me ruining every tantalising twist whilst lavishing applause on the same, and believe me, this story’s innumerable twists and turns are best not spoiled. Instead, I will discuss Hall’s untouchable characterisation of the late Doctor’s companions who, in the absence of our fallen hero, find themselves having to carry the adventure from the second episode forth in their own respective stories: The Tale of the Herald, The Tale of the Hidden Woman and The Tale of the Final Speaker…
To look at Hex firstly, A Death in the Family is probably the most fascinating story that he’s ever had. Project: Destiny was the fireworks; the raging climax to his journey, and A Death in the Family is the thoughtful coda to it. Accordingly it’s a much more intimate and delicate a tale; one that Philip Olivier uses to show off what he can really do. For Hex, the events of this story take place over several months, and despite only being made privy to snapshots
of his exploits along the way, the listener is able to get a real feel for his development. When he first arrives at Evelyn’s new home, Hex is grieving for a man who kept the truth from him “for his own good”; a man who died in front of him, made his peace with him, and then faded from existence before his very eyes. However, as he spends more time under the care of his ‘Auntie Evelyn’, Hex’s wounds begin to heal; he even falls in love. But deep inside, he knows that his travels have changed him forever. Adventure’s laid its claim on him, and he’s begun to exhibit signs of behaviour reminiscent of his late mentor. He can see them in himself, but he still can’t curb them.
In Part 3, Ace finds herself
marooned on Earth, decades after her own time. True to
form though, she won’t give
up on the Doctor, and so she
embarks upon a series of ill-
advised missions to try and
re-animate his corpse, which
has been hidden away in York
Minister by Earth’s various
paramilitary organisations for fear that alien forces will get wind of his death and exploit the planet’s lack of defence. All the while, Ace is aided and abetted by Henry Noon; an affable chap played by Solitaire and Echoes of Grey scribe John Dorney, who just happens to have fallen head over heels for the Doctor’s erstwhile protégé, and her for him. The real tragedy
of this story is not the promised death, but the consequences of the choice that Ace – that Dorothy – must make as Hall’s plot reaches its crescendo. In many ways, Ace’s choice is a complete no-brainer, but then no-brainers don’t always account for the heart, as betrayed by Sophie Aldred’s atypically tender performance here.
However, the silent star of A Death in the Family is Maggie Stables’ Evelyn Rossiter, a lady whom we haven’t heard from in far too long. In the subjective decades since the Doctor last visited Evelyn on Világ, her husband Justice has passed away, and she’s travelled back in time billions of years to investigate the biggest historical mystery of them all – how a group
of English-speaking humans just happen to exist on a planet at the very dawn of time, eons before humanity has evolved. Whilst Evelyn’s role is even smaller than the Doctor’s in terms of her minute-by-minute contribution, it is Evelyn that leaves the lingering impression here. Hall’s story sees her save the day in every way: not only does she save the whole multiverse from oblivion, but she saves a rapidly-fracturing TARDIS crew, and perhaps even an ancient, wayward soul too.
And so A Death in the Family is not so much a four-part story but an epic; a series of linked adventures bound together by love, grief, and - crucially - words. By turns deeply moving and exceedingly ingenious, Hall’s script folds each of its four main heroes into a narrative so very compelling and so very clever that it sets itself apart from just about any other audio drama that I can think of. It’s the best of Hex, the best of Ace, and the best of Evelyn; each of their flaws and their virtues laid bare. A few years ago, when I listened to The World Lord for the first time, I had the feeling that Hall was going to be one to watch, but I never anticipated that he’d take Nobody No-One and use him as a device to drive a story with the level of scope, splendour and sophistication that this one boasts. Happily though, I was wrong, but the Big Finish soundbite wasn’t: one of the companions dies. I’ll leave you to find out whom.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.