Audio Drama Review – Doctor Who: Dark Universe

by Rachel Bellwoar

Dark Universe
Directed by Ken Bentley
Written by Guy Adams
Starring Sylvestor McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), and Mark Bonnar (The Eleven)

Cover Artist: Simon Holub

Whether by design or coincidence, Ace’s fate has been getting a lot of attention in Doctor Who recently, and it couldn’t be a better time for fans of the 7th Doctor’s companion. Apart from the trailer for the Season 26 Blu-Ray — which saw Ace leading her charity, A Charitable Earth — there’s never been much information about what happened to Ace after she parted ways with the Doctor (at least in live action). It was an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures that let us know about her charity, but she never got a proper companion’s sendoff on screen due to the show’s 1989 cancellation.
In February, Aldred is releasing a novel, At Childhood’s End, which will answer some of those questions and pair Ace with the Thirteenth Doctor. But you couldn’t ask for a better teaser for that book than the latest 7th Doctor audio drama, Dark Universe.
For reasons unknown, Ace is working with The Eleven, a Time Lord whose regenerations co-exist in his head. That means he has 11 personalities and most of them are up to no good. The Eleven needs to get to someplace called the Dark Gate in Brazil and Ace’s connection with the ministry for indigenous peoples is useful to him.
She also catches his eye because of her past with the Doctor. It’s been twenty years since they last crossed paths, and while you’re not going to find out why they separated or whether it was Ace’s choice, you do learn that Ace doesn’t remember those times fondly. If the Eleven’s to be believed, Ace hates the Doctor, which is where Adams’ writing is so clever.
Ace working with the Eleven doesn’t make sense, so immediately you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. If the first part’s a lie, why not the other, and maybe Ace is only pretending to be mad with the Doctor. That’s what you hope anyway, but while it may not be as bad as hate, the idea that it’s all an act gets harder and harder to sustain. After all, how long are they supposed to have been planning this deception? In a TV interview, Ace calls the Doctor emotionally abusive. Was that staged, too?
Adams’ script jumps around a lot, both in time and between storylines. It makes the narrative more of a puzzle to solve and, if poorly executed, could’ve easily been bungled. Benji Clifford’s music and sound design plays a vital role in making sure the plot stays comprehensible. It’s always clear when a transition’s about to happen, and there’s a lot of variety, too, in the different sound cues.
Another way this drama demonstrates great teamwork: in an interview at the end Adams talks about wanting to make the Eleven’s personalities singular enough, that they’re not always being identified by name, and you do learn to tell some of them apart, which speaks to both the writing and Bonnar’s vocal performance as all eleven regenerations (if you’ve seen Catastrophe, Bonnar played Rob’s vaping friend, Chris, and he also recently voiced Commander John Koenig for Big Finish’s Space: 1999).
The ending is a little disappointing, because it’s not a closed ending. You’re not really sure how the Doctor pulls everything off and while next month’s adventure, The Psychic Circus, isn’t an obvious continuation it looks like Adams is setting up a larger arc which, knowing how that goes, could call for a reevaluation of this story’s ending. The reason there’s such a strong desire for answers, though, is because of how much Aldred and McCoy make you care about their relationship.
With supporting roles voiced by Owen Aaronovitch and Carolyn Pickles, Dark Universe is available to purchase from Big Finish.

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