Review by Jacob Licklider
Since 1989’s Survival there has always been a question of what exactly happened to Ace? She obviously didn’t appear in the TV Movie, and the expanded universe has had several explanations for what fate she underwent, ranging from death, to becoming Time’s Vigilante in Paris, and even entering the Academy on Gallifrey. Now in my personal opinion there is a way to reconcile all of these, the Time War does allow for separate fates, and now Big Finish has released Dark Universe. This is the first story to deal with an Ace living as an adult, running ‘A Charitable Earth’, and being brought back for one final adventure; this time working with the Eleven. Guy Adam’s script chronicles the prelude to The Eleven from Doom Coalition 1, allowing us to see just what the Eleven did to be captured by the Time Lords. As this is the latest release in the Main Range, the first portion of this review shall remain spoiler free, so hopefully if you haven’t already I can persuade you to purchase this release. Adams’ script is one full of twists and turns, shaking the heart of Gallifrey to its very core and adding some interesting prologues to the Time War series.
Damian Lynch and Carolyn Pickles appear as Rasmus and Cardinal Ollistra, respectively; acting very much as supporting characters helping to hold up the backbone of the story. They are essentially the representatives of Time Lord society as Dark Universe shakes Gallifrey to its very core. Carolyn Pickles perhaps gives the most interesting portrayal of Ollistra here, being much less the ruthless Cardinal she will become and the character we will see. She’s by no means soft in this appearance, but she is most definitely younger and put in a situation out of her depth. The Eleven poses a great threat to Gallifrey and the Cardinal has to rely on others to stop his evil machinations. Rasmus is an interesting character to include, as he is one who was built up before appearing in the Ravenous arc. Once again, this is a younger version of the character and Dark Universe implies that this is the Doctor’s first meeting with the captain. Lynch gives an excellent performance and there are definitely prologues to the Time War present in his portrayal.
It is at this point where I will be wrapping up the spoiler free section of the review by saying the script is excellent but can only be discussed at this point with spoilers, so please if you haven’t, go and listen to this story before coming back to finish reading this review.
Dark Universe harkens back to the Virgin New Adventures books in several ways: it is narrated by the Doctor; who only really appears in the second part, Ace is once again keeping secrets, and there is a universe ending threat originating from Gallifrey itself. It doesn’t go as explicitly dark as the Virgin New Adventures, but the Eleven does make for a fantastic villain. The plan here is to release an alternate universe into our universe, which puts him in the seat of power. The first two episodes is devoted to how he and Ace, betraying the Doctor, search Earth with a spare human tour guide to find this dark universe. The first two episodes, like a novel, start out slow, but that only allows the intrigue and tension to build. Is Ace really betraying the Doctor? Has she been taken in by the Eleven? Is the tour guide more than he seems? These are plenty of questions which the listener asks themselves while going through the episode, and while it is of course revealed that Ace is working for the Doctor in one final master plan. Mark Bonnar gives an exquisite performance as the Eleven, at a point where he really doesn’t have control, and Adams script gives plenty of time devoted to exploring several of his incarnations. Once the character gets into power his multiple personalities really begin to clash and there is a sense of duty to really explore what the story is doing. It’s basically the Master’s plan in The End of Time played seriously with different incarnations appearing as several clones, including several versions of the Eight who remains the good person he is.
Of course, the real highlight of this release are Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred. Dark Universe really feels like a reflection of the many different variations of the Doctor and Ace’s relationship. The more familiar you are with Ace and the Doctor, perhaps, the more you will get out of it as there are reflections of Ground Zero, Gallifrey: Time War, and Set Piece all here in this simple audio. It’s a time for the characters to acknowledge how much damage has been done and just how they have to heal, and ahead of Sophie Aldred’s own contribution to Ace, At Childhood’s End, hearing them one time saying goodbye is excellent. The Doctor is manipulative and Ace is old enough to realise that she really doesn’t have to take it from him any longer. She demands to not be kept in the dark and they build from there. Overall, Dark Universe is a tour de force, starting the 2020 Main Range releases with a bang and is highly recommended to be in everyone’s collection. If you haven’t gotten this already, don’t wait, and fall in love. 9/10.