The Next Life holds a special place in Big Finish history. Not only was it the 'end' for the Eighth Doctor, it was a conclusion to Big Finish's first large story line, The Divergent Arc. And with the television show proper just around the corner at the time of this release, would the Eighth Doctor survive?
It's strange to look at this story now, I wasn't a listener when it was first released by surely fans must have been wondering what the significance of the title was. What did The Next Life mean? Was this going to be the story that saw McGann regenerate into Eccleston? Would Charley or C'Rizz die? Or is it referring to something else entirely?
But something interesting consider, now listening to it nearly fifteen years after its initial release is are there any developments here that have become more interesting since the new series returned to television?
But before we get to that, The Next Life deserves to be looked at as a whole story as it was a finale to an arc that had run through two-series of audio drama. There had been a lot of threads that had gone through the past two series and they all needed to be resolved before the Doctor could return to the real universe. It is lucky then that this story runs for six-episodes, two more than the usual for the Big Finish output, so with the extra time given to it, did it manage to utilise those episodes well?
Well, it does and it doesn't. Every plot thread is wrapped up neatly enough, but even with its three hour-runtime, there's a lot to take in. Going all the way back to Zagreus, there is a lot of nods and hints at what is going to happen here and it is nice to see that people were paying attention when they were writing all the stories in-between. And there are some moments which deal with various plot threads that you'll really appreciate being wrapped up!
But there a few moments that you might not be so keen on, and in some ways, many elements of this story feel last minute, in particular the inclusion of the villain, with it coming out of nowhere, yet we are supposed to believe that he had a lot to do with the Divergent arc from the very beginning?! The biggest problem here is that the villain really does come out of left field with no hints or references to him being behind the scenes in other stories and as a result, it feels very made up here. Alright, that's what all writers do, make things up, but they do it in a way that you believe it is all real. When they are really good, they make it all up, check that it makes sense and then have less sense of what is going on than the reader!
And I wasn't too keen on the story either, despite there being some high stakes, it doesn't really feel like there is. While it isn't bad, and it is never boring, the story does manage to flow through its three-hour runtime, but it doesn't match up to the incredible drama we got in the months before or after when the show came back on television. This story feels like a finale in terms of how it wraps things up, but not with how high or low the stakes might be.
But The Next Life shines in its quieter moments, especially in the opening episode where the characters are forced to look back on their lives and see how much they have changed. Its the same kind of thing that made Neverland such a great listen and it is nice to see it returning here.
What is also nice is the return of Rassilon, after his manipulation of the Doctor in stories like Neverland and Zagreus, it is nice to hear him facing off against the Doctor again, especially as they wrap up the story in a way so that Rassilon stops being a problem for the Eighth Doctor at every turn. When the story ends, it promises a enmity between the pair but we haven't heard them squaring off against one-another again yet, so it'll be nice to hear that at some-point in the future.
At the time of its release, The Next Life made for an interesting end of era story for the Eighth Doctor. While no companions died and the Doctor didn't regenerate, there are themes of life and death running throughout all of this Divergent arc. With Doctor Who returning to screens in 2005, it was clear that this had an impact on the script, and there are hints of that in terms of the story's themes. After such a long time off screen, the Doctor was finally returning home and it makes the final line of The Next Life all the more poignant: "Yes Charley... we're home..."