There was a big change at my job the week I started to listen to this in July of 2021. On the Monday in question, my “right hand” or “partner in crime”, as they say, was starting in another department; it would be a drastically different working environment for me now. When I was getting ready for work, I had been thinking about this new chapter with low expectations but high hopes. Before leaving, I ran downstairs and grabbed the next CD and laughed when I saw the title. Of course it was this one… The Next Life was starting in more ways than one. Was this an ominous sign, or a good one? Well…
The Next Life opens with a monologue about “real magic” and a young girl who never speaks. Her name is awesome: Jembere-Bud. She’s killed fairly early and a lot of the story hinges on her death which leads to a chase which leads to a door… but here’s my complaint: it’s Star Trek Voyager all over again. This has been a major issue for me with the whole Divergent universe storyline. Yes, we’ve had some really amazing stories, but the overall product suffers. We were promised something totally different, and got a lot of the same. In fact, when the Doctor speaks in French, I rolled my eyes, because it was understood by the beings of this universe. (I should have a problem with English too, but supposedly the TARDIS translates, so even if you speak another language, it should all sound the same!) Yes, I know, they do address it, but the fact that the main villain spoke with a French accent just felt boring. References to hide-and-seek also feel like silly carryovers from a universe that should have nothing in common here. Dare I even mention the elephants and crocodiles? Same problem, guys!
To add to my troubles, it’s a 6 part story and so much of it is contrived to get the Doctor to find the door to go back to our universe. The whole Divergent story arc feels like a sham. What was so different? Part 3 is too heavy on exposition on top of it all. One of the complaints I had with George R. R. Martin’s first Game of Thrones book was that, if you need 100 pages of Appendix, did you really do such a good job telling the story? Well a full 6th of the story is given over to description. And it’s one of those ironic descriptions too. You know the ones where three different people are telling the story to three different parties in three different places and the listener gets the chained together. Yeah you know what I mean: Person one says “first there was the big bang”, then person two says “and dust formed into particles” and person three continues “then William Hartnell did a monologue…” As if part three isn’t tedious enough, the big cliffhanger of part four is Perfection, played by Daphne Ashbrook, threatening the Doctor with sex! “It won’t be Keep I’ll be doing it with!” (I’m not even kidding!)
I can say that finally understanding the crucible world… if you really can call it understanding… is a boon. I mean, this has been a strange world from the outset, but not a lot of it made sense. We discover that the entire timeless universe resets and all the lives are lived over and over, the same way. But that takes a lot away from the strongest story of the season: The Natural History of Fear, which could have been a condensed version of the universe going through a reset, if not for the fact that people were constantly rewritten and not going through the same events over and over.
The annoyances don’t end there. In fact, I’m all over the map, but this is a timeless universe, so hey, I can complain in any order I want. The dreamland sequence with Charley and C’rizz alternating with hanging out with Rassilon and Kro’Ka is tedious; I hate that Big Finish uses dream sequences to give people parts so they can advertise without actually giving us who we want. For instance, Polly (Anneke Wills) is in this story too. I love Anneke; I met her several years ago and she is genuinely wonderful. But I wanted to see Polly somehow meet the Doctor and instead got her playing Charley’s mom in a dream. Then there’s the relationship between the Doctor, Charley and C’Rizz; it’s abusive! There’s no other word for it and the story starts with it (“Unlikely. It is one of Charley’s stories!” – That’s the Doctor replying to C’rizz when asked if Charley’s story has a point!) and the adventure ends with it too. On top of that, there’s a bit of casual racism (albeit to a fictional race) as the Doctor and Charley force C’rizz to change color to match their whims; he’s a chameleon creature and they force him to go through a color change over and over for their own delight! It was repulsive! And speaking of Charley and C’rizz: the flip-flop emotions are ridiculous. C’rizz doubts the Doctor and Charley defends him… until, in the same dialogue, mind you, Charley starts to buy into C’rizz’s ideas and then C’rizz has to defend the Doctor. Don’t people usually try to convince one another of things to gain a consensus? Not these two! They just take the others ideas until they are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The best things about the episode are Perfection (Daphne) and Rassilon (Don Warrington). Daphne is another member of the Doctor Who family I’ve met and she is magnificently nice, but her character is brutal and is revealed to actually be Zagreus! Before she becomes Zagreus, the relationship she develops with the Doctor is a fun one. The banter is enjoyable even if it makes a cliffhanger out of a pleasant situation. Rassilon, while no Timothy Dalton, is a competent villain and manipulator. When the episode ends with Rassilon and Kro’ka in the Scherzo story, repeating the very steps the Doctor and Charley went through some episodes ago, that was a chilling moment. (Less chilling was the defeat of the French Amoeba, who stops Perfection getting the TARDIS and sending Rassilon back to the beginning while the Doctor and friends escape! Maybe the idea of this universe was that it didn’t have to make sense!)
“There’s no Grace here.” The Doctor delivers that line over dinner with Perfection; Daphne played Grace in the Doctor Who TV Movie. I’d say that’s the best line of the entire 3 hour production. I wanted to love this story. I want the Doctor to actually be up against a real adversary with Rassilon. Instead, I’m not sure what I got. But it’s over. The Doctor, Charley and C’rizz are in our universe again. I have loved revisiting the older Big Finish productions but realize they can’t all be winners. But maybe it can lead to something better, and that’s ultimately the hope of “the next life”, both in fiction, and in my reality. ML