The Dark Flame was the 42nd entry in Big Finish’s “Main Range” or “Monthly Range” of Doctor Who audios (released back in 2003), featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, Sophie Aldred as Ace and Lisa Bowerman as Bernice Summerfield.
(Daily Doctor Who #246)
The Dark Flame is one of the few Big Finish offerings to brand itself a “Side Step” into the continuity of the Virgin New Adventures novels. This is where Bernice (or Benny, to her friends) was first introduced, and where Ace’s story involved her having left the Doctor for a period and trained to be a cynical Dalek-fighting soldier. This particular labeling was a curious necessity born out of including Bernice in the story, one supposes–it seems that at the time Big Finish saw its stories as existing in a separate “timeline” from other Doctor Who spin-off media. Nowadays, the more common prevailing view is that it all just fits together somehow–audios, comics, novels, etc–and whatever doesn’t you just don’t worry about.
The Dark Flame is about the Doctor and Ace rejoining Benny on a research station above a inhospitable planet which happens to be the place where the remnants of the evil and ancient Cult of the Dark Flame is waiting for someone to come along and revive it. Some of the researchers turns out to be evil servants of the cult who are intent on bringing its leader back to life. A friend of the Doctor is murdered and becomes a host for Vilus Krull, the cult’s ancient leader.
The story is full of the sort of horrific adventure that often characterizes Doctor Who, but also has a routine feeling to it. A dangerous experiment, an energy-infused skull, a mind-dominating menace, a group of researchers who include a secret servant to an ancient evil…all the pieces are there, but they are all familiar pieces. The story needs to take our heroes into new emotional territory to be genuinely interesting, and The Dark Flame just never does that. There’s nothing terribly or stupid, but it feels like it’s going through the motions of a Doctor Who story, while lacking the charm. There are no elements to bring out of our characters, no surprises to the mystery, and nothing to genuinely engage us. Even the cliffhangers seemed hesitantly paced are pretty clearly telegraphed in advance.
The script, especially the early part of the story, is jam-packed with exposition, with lots of dialogue awkwardly introducing us to the characters, the planet, the experiment, an android that shows up, and everything. Every story must wrestle with how to handle exposition of course, and telling a story in audio has its own particular set of challenges, but The Dark Flame does not rise to them; rather it gets weighed down beneath them.
There is also something unnatural about our lead performances, which is quite rare. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor seems more affected than usual, with lots of vocal posturing that brings to mind the worst part of his Doctor (which I normally like). And Sophie Aldred’s Ace seems oddly cheery, especially given that this is supposed to be the jaded, battle-hardened Ace from the New Adventures novels. When you combine that with her clumsily written exposition (not quite, “Now I’m going to hit you with this stick!” but almost), it’s like she’s running around playing the audio equivalent of dress-up rather then being in the thick of a drama. Only Lisa Bowerman seems natural in her role here.
Michael Praed, best known as the original star of TV’s Robin of Sherwood, is also in the story as Professor Slyde. He was also in the audio version of the 1960’s stage play Curse of the Daleks, which means that I’ve now heard his entire Big Finish output. That’s too bad, because he’s got a great voice, although here he plays the “secretly” evil Professor Slyde with a non-stop sinister drone that would have given away the surprise if the script hadn’t made it so obvious.
On the whole I enjoy Big Finish, and when I don’t it’s usually because of the script. In this case, the directing, performances and editing all join in to deliver uninspiring results.