Is this death, asks Tony Fyler. Feels different this time…
Death, in Classic Doctor Who, was everywhere. It was often random and frequently vicious and very often, it was the backdrop against which the Doctor felt himself forced to take action. But the death of a companion was a very different prospect, a thing rarely done or gambled with, for fear of losing ‘the point’ of the Doctor as the man who saved people, for fear of making it too clear that if you stood next to him, you ran a very big risk of some of the worst things in all of time and space wanting to kill you.
Death, in Classic Doctor Who, almost always meant death as we understood it – that was one of the things that made the Doctor so special; he was less breakable than the rest of us, freer to take the insane kind of risks he needed to take to keep the rest of us safe.
Afterlife is a story which does death in a way that’s pretty much unique to Classic Who.
First of all, it deals with the death of a companion.
Thomas Hector Schofield, or Hex to his friends, the nurse who tagged along with the Seventh Doctor and Ace after Cybermen destroyed his workplace, had become a real, fleshed-out person, at first a potential romantic interest for Ace, and later, just a bezzie mate, his Liverpudlian charm and his practically Hippocratic dedication to helping people making him both likeable and the kind of character that we the audience could admire.
And then he died, caught in the middle between the Doctor and one of the infernal Elder Gods he made it his business to fight. And whereas in previous on-screen Who, when companions died, they generally had no family left but the Tardis crew, and there was a general, mourning consensus that the Doctor had done all he could to prevent their deaths. This time – notsomuch. Hex had been talking about his nan since he first wandered into the lives of Ace and the Doctor, and we’d learned even more of his family history since then. But the Doctor has rarely seemed more alien than in Afterlife, almost shrugging Hex’s death away and trying to make Ace feel better about it in a range of absurd and vaguely appalling ways – offering to take her back to a time when Hex was alive, and more dramatically, to wipe her memory of Hex altogether if it would make her feel better. She demands more of him – that he go and explain Hex’s death to the nan who raised him after his mother disappeared. This is the Doctor entirely wrong-footed, entirely vulnerable, and more to the point entirely culpable for the consequences of the life he leads, unable to simply pull an enigmatic frown and say time will tell.
It's potent, powerful stuff from writer Matt Fitton, and the cast is sublime – Jean Boht, famous in the UK as Liverpool matriarch Nelly Boswell from Eighties sit-com Bread, brings a perfect combination of world-weariness and roaring fire to the role of Hex’s nan, and while for the most part she lets the Doctor explain, when he tries to evade a question or when his answers don’t convince, she lets him have the full force of her grief.
There’s much more to the story of Afterlife though – not only is erstwhile Private Sally Morgan, one-time companion of the Seventh Doctor and once quite sweet on Hex, already in Liverpool, helping Hilda Schofield come to terms with life alone, the area is caught in the middle of a gang fight between the Finnegan family, who seem to have some massively unusual abilities, and a new name on the block, one Mr Hector Thomas, who sounds very very familiar, but has none of the memories Ace expects him to have.
Needless to say, in this study of life and death and afterlife, there’s more than meets the eye in the case of quite a few characters, and the Doctor’s battle against the Elder Gods continues. After all the angst and remonstrations of Ace and Hilda Schofield, we hear the Seventh Doctor give a speech to the Big Bad that’s better than anything ever written for Matt Smith, and on at least a par with the Twelfth Doctor’s Zygon Inversion speech. Suffice it to say it will send shivers of wonder down your spine, and if you listen to it in public, you’ll have to watch out that you don’t punch the air and shout “Yeah!” by the end of it. Even without the rest of the story, that speech alone makes Afterlife something pretty special.
But then Afterlife is special for all kinds of reasons – Ace’s fury, unleashed on the Doctor for both Hex’s death and the fact that he seems not to care about it, making her almost scream at him about how he’ll behave when she dies. The Doctor’s desperate attempts to make things better, to make it all go away for her, and how profoundly wrong they sound. Hilda’s scalding grief, and Sally’s gentle, constant, practical help. It’s here that the real heart and soul of the story are, and when it was released, there’d never been a Big Finish story quite so brimful of heart and soul (the Eighth Doctor has subsequently got there with Absent Friends, an episode of Doom Coalition 3, by John Dorney). But as ever in the Doctor’s life, the concerns of the universe and its myriad power-crazed psychopaths intrude on the simple business of being alive or dead, and force him to the powerful confrontation that gives the story its standout speech from McCoy. And what, then, of Hector Thomas, who looks and sounds exactly like a man who should be dead, but knows nothing of him? That mystery is unravelled here, and the Doctor determines to leave it be without further examination, to let life and death be simple and digital, the way most life and death in Classic Who always was. It’s Ace who can’t or won’t accept that, Ace who demands that Hector, the would-be gangland boss, has more to him than she is willing to let lie.
Matt Fitton is always more than a safe pair of hands – he’s been responsible for some of the more complex, emotional and rewarding stories across not just a range of Doctors but the Counter-Measures series too. Here he allows emotion to leak or pour or positively flume out of the characters as feels natural in the wake of a death, allowing the ‘weird alien threat’ story strand to catch up in its own time, and make a kind of sense of everything, then lead on to a whole new range of questions, to be answered in future adventures. Afterlife is a great way to spend a couple of hours, especially if you’ve listened to any of the Hex adventures along the way – I’d particularly recommend The Harvest, Protect And Survive, Black And White, The Angel of Scutari and Gods And Monsters. Get Afterlife for all the power of its genuine emotions, plus a way to make death not exactly mean death that even Steven Moffat would be proud of.