Guest contributor Kieran Brennan continues his journey through the Eighth Doctor’s early adventures at Big Finish with this review of Embrace the Darkness!
A planet whose sun has mysteriously gone out for no apparent reason… how can The Doctor resist? But his curiosity may have consequences he never could have imagined…
It’s not unusual for Doctor Who to incorporate elements of horror; it’s been a staple of the show since its inception almost 60 years ago. Now, I’m not saying your average Big Finish listener is gonna be shaking in their boots watching The Twin Dilemma (on second thoughts…) but when you’re a kid this show can be seriously terrifying. I do genuinely have a handful of childhood memories where I literally ran out of the room. This obviously doesn’t still happen, but the first part of Embrace the Darkness is the most spooked I’ve been from a Doctor Who story in a long, long time.
Of course, this isn’t terrifying by any means, but I was definitely a bit freaked and tense. There’s something quite primal in our natural fear of the dark, and to see Big Finish take advantage of their medium by having multiple scenes entirely in the dark is a great choice… combined with the fearful crying of side characters and… yeah it got to me! Embrace the Darkness peaks in its first part, and I’d argue steadily declines in quality as it progresses, but man, that first part really blew me away. Writer Nicholas Briggs really shines there, giving us an atmosphere and location that feel real and memorable.
As I say though, the fear factor does fall away as the story goes onwards, everything becoming a little more convoluted and the Doctor spurting out a fair amount of technobabble. It’s a shame to see the plot lose momentum- I was thinking we had another Chimes of Midnight for a moment- but, alas…
That’s not to say the rest is bad; not at all, I quite enjoyed this story. The Eighth Doctor’s second run in Big Finish has ,thus far, been a remarkable improvement over his first and Embrace the Darkness follows this pattern, especially in regards to the improved characterisation of both the Doctor and Charley. The last few stores have really made me grow fond of Charley, she’s so well played by India Fisher and incredibly likable. Her chemistry with the Doctor is undeniable, a clear mark of a great companion. In more recent series of Doctor Who we haven’t been given the best companions, or at least we haven’t been given enough time to truly learn about them so it becomes really refreshing to see Charley almost lead the first half of this story. It really feels as though she is the Doctor’s equal rather than someone who exists purely to ask questions.
And, of course, how can one praise a companions’ relationship with The Doctor without praising the Doctor himself? McGann continues to bring life to the character in an extraordinary way. Exploring this iteration of the character is a joy, listening to him roaming the TARDIS or debating with a robot is so fascinating, and his reactions to moral dilemmas really paints him as a sensitive soul. It’s an incredibly endearing take on the character, fast becoming one of my favourites and I’ve only been through a handful of his stories!
The side characters and villains aren’t so memorable, but relatively little emphasis is put on them as the plot moves along. It’s a wise choice to limit your cast to a handful of characters and an even wiser one to know when to step back and stop using them for a moment. Too much of McGann’s early run was dominated by characters who didn’t feel like they needed to be in a scene and only served to take away time from the Doctor and Charley. In many ways, this second run addresses and fixes the problems from the initial set of stories.
Embrace the Darkness offers a few scares and one or two really terrific cliffhangers. What it may lack in an exciting plot it makes up for in its portrayal of the Doctor and Charley, who absolutely shine through as usual. It seems any release where they are heavily interacting with each other is a surefire hit, and Embrace the Darkness is no exception.