Ah, another day, another Big Finish review. I would change the title of this blog to Owen Reviews Big Finish if I didn’t have all those Eccleston Hardbacks sitting on my shelf that I keep promising myself I’ll get to. For now, however, the title stays even if we are talking about one of Big Finish’s most iconic tales.
What can I say about Jubilee?
I suppose the most significant and well known fact about Jubilee these days is that it was rewritten by its author, Rob Shearman, for the Series 1 episode Dalek back in 2005. People familiar with that story will find a lot of the same story beats here, and quite a few surprises along the way, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
This is also one of those revered Big Finish stories from the early years of The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn. (Easily the most beloved pair up in the Big Finish library.) And quite possibly the story that sold us on Colin Baker’s Doctor forever. Evelyn would go on to define Big Finish’s Sixth Doctor for years, culminating in perhaps my favourite Doctor Who story, Arrangements for War.
So let’s dig in…
When the Doctor and Evelyn attempt to land in London 1903, the TARDIS detects something dangerous in the region, and jumps ahead a century to avoid it. They exit the TARDIS to find themselves in an abandoned room in the Tower of London. The TARDIS, still unhappy about the situation, leaves without them. Meanwhile, something isn’t quite right in the city. England is ruled by a shallow and despotic Emperor, while America is once again part of the English Empire. History has gone wrong, and it all seems to have something to do with a Dalek invasion 100 years earlier. An invasion in which The Doctor and Evelyn are famous for saving the day.
The entire society is obsessed with their invaders, Daleks are mocked and merchandised everywhere. As they near the day of Jubilee, the Emperor reveals a surprise. Imprisoned and tortured in the Tower of London is the last Dalek alive and when Jubilee arrives, they plan on publicly executing it. However, not everyone has the same thing in mind for the creature. To make matters worse, the Doctor is having flashbacks of a war he didn’t fight in, and there are rumours that the Emperor has another prisoner, secret to everyone, hidden away in the tower.
This is an incredible story. Like many, I went into this after watching Dalek, and it’s remarkable how the same core premise can be executed in two radically different ways.
This is still the story of a Dalek, held prisoner by people who don’t know well enough to fear it, and yet the two adventures couldn’t be more different. Shearman uses the script to explore more than just hubris, but the dangers of winning a war too well. Jubilee’s England is a country, and a people, that came so close to extinction, before obliterating their enemy so completely, that the war has come to dominate their lives. Their victory, and their hatred for their enemy, has come to define their entire culture. Within this, the Doctor’s pleas for growth, for rebuilding, fall on deaf ears. The people he meets just don’t understand a life that isn’t defined by war, conquest, and self-superiority. By defeating the Daleks, they have become the Daleks.
This isn’t just about the setting though, the story that plays out within it is remarkable. This isn’t an action story, and the Doctor’s part in bringing about the downfall of this tyranny is almost hands off. He tries so hard to reason this society out of their pit. Most of the action goes to Evelyn, who continues to prove why she’s the perfect companion for the Sixth Doctor. She’s a calmer, older character and from the first lines of the script, she won’t be bullied. Unlike Peri she holds his blustering to account. When she suddenly finds herself in an aggressively patriarchal society, she never considers laying low, choosing instead to talk to the Dalek. Much of the story finds the two of them separate, with Evelyn investigating the Tower while The Doctor is sent into the city. Here Evelyn finds some unpleasant truths about their involvement in the Invasion a century earlier, and it’s the final piece that ties the story together so nicely. Maggie Stables, always wonderful as Evelyn, brings the moment home beautifully.
Special mention goes to the character Rochester though. Initially, portrayed a fairly run of the mill despot, the extent of his madness is gradually, painfully revealed. When he takes the Doctor aside and explains to him that his tyranny is all for show, that he wants to be a good leader to his people, we suspect a ruse. The truth, that he genuinely believes he’s only playing the tyrant, while he willingly and cruelly terrorises those around him, comes as a nasty surprise.
Jubilee is so well remembered by Big Finish fans for good reason. This is that perfect combination of elements. Colin Baker is on fine form and continues to be the best Doctor on audio, Evelyn continues to be his strongest companion, we have a story that explores Time Travel, British culture, the complexities of war, and the politics of success, we have a Dalek, in what might be the first original Dalek idea since Genesis, we have a little humour, a little darkness, and a plot that trots along nicely. It comes to a slightly muddy finish, but after all that good, it’s hard to care. Doctor Who stories just don’t come much better.