Doctor Who: The Last Days Before Dawn
Written by Craig Robert McDowall and Kimberley May White
Starring Christopher Thomson and Lauren Wilson
Produced by VocaLAB Productions
As long as Doctor Who remains about constant change as it moves forward, there will always be fans obsessed with picking up the pieces left behind. Craig Robert McDowall is clearly one of these fans. Inspired by Big Finish Productions, McDowall’s VocaLAB brings fanfiction to the soundscape by producing unofficial Doctor Who stories for free-release audio. In The Last Days Before Dawn, the Twelfth Doctor reunites out-of-sync with Ashildr in 1693, sometime after the events of Hell Bent from his perspective. For the start of a supposed Twelfth Doctor trilogy of what-if stories, it doesn’t sound bad at all.
The first thing that must be made clear is that VocaLAB is not Big Finish Productions. Big Finish is the only company with a legal right to produce audio stories set within the universe of Doctor Who and The Last Days Before Dawn is playing with toys it doesn’t own. It’s not the first of its kind, but I wouldn’t want anyone getting it confused for an official product, nor do I believe the creators would want that either. This is the product of passionate fans who feel compelled to create because of their love for the series and desire to participate in that community. To counteract potential legal issues, this story has been released for free on YouTube and Soundcloud and its creators are not making money from it in any way. I only hope Big Finish feel flattered by the inspiration and that VocaLAB puts their talent behind either original or properly licensed stories in the future so that they can be properly financially rewarded for their work.
The Last Days Before Dawn has the benefit of keeping its cast small and using an established character like Ashildr to drive the story forward. Set in 1693, the Salem Witch Trials are a fertile ground for Doctor Who to explore with the story diving headfirst into the potential conflict of the Doctor interfering with Ashildr’s fixed timeline. Notably, Ashildr is played by Lauren Wilson (Family of Blood) in The Last Days Before Dawn. While obviously not Maisie Williams herself, the presence of a former Doctor Who alum adds an air of credibility to the production and Wilson does a tremendous job of bringing the spirit of Ashildr into the role. There’s heart here in a version of the character before Me, when her humanity is still in tact. This is an Ashildr who wants to do good, finds a way to do it, and is punished for her trouble.
There are interesting choices made all over the story that show a fresh take on the material while still remaining loyal to the Twelfth Doctor’s run onscreen. Using the electric guitar to announce the Doctor’s presence right at the beginning of the story is such a sure bet that Moffatt used it in the series ten opener, but there are other moments, like the Doctor talking to his TARDIS, which feel new. While we’ve often seen the lonely Doctor talking to his console, this is one of the rare moments when the TARDIS seems to talk back in an intimate sequence that riffs on strong aspects of Heaven Sent without being a total copy.
I also felt pretty satisfied with the conflict The Last Days Before Dawn gave to the character of the Pastor. While a figure like this could have been made corrupt and villainous by design, McDowell and White’s script humanises him in a short scene that emphasises his relationship with faith. Even before the supernatural elements are made clear, he is a man doing his duty as burden. The Doctor literally has to shake the faith out of a man who knew what they were doing was wrong, but felt powerless to stop it. While it becomes a more atheistic take than I think the series would ever take on, a fan production has full licence, considering it has no licence at all. It’s a story about the negative power of belief.
Thomson’s performance as the Twelfth Doctor isn’t as refined as his Patrick Troughton impression, but nevertheless captures enough of Peter Capaldi’s mannerisms and vocal style to create a reasonable facsimile. You get a sense of the Doctor wandering aimlessly in between series in this story, the vagabond without a cause, and you can definitely imagine the hoodie and sunglasses as he strolls down Salem’s main roads. Stressed syllables and languid, poetic takes on core phrases of lecturing monologues define this take echoing some of the eighth series’ portrayal and perhaps that’s why Thomson doesn’t stress the joyful quality of his voice quite enough. It mostly sounds like Capaldi with a cold, but the heart of the performance, the true nature of the good man with the sarcastic wit, is more than present in the performance.
Looking at The Last Days Before Dawn from a production standpoint, the sound design is comparatively exquisite. There’s texture to the scenes that many fan productions miss. The original score behind The Last Days Before Dawn is also impressive, featuring four original compositions by Anthony Tremaine as well as a take on Murray Gold’s Am I A Good Man. Lines have clearly been professionally recorded and mastered. A few moments, like the choir of monks in Salem’s church, seem out of place diegetically, but at no point is anything ever at odds with telling the story The Last Days Before Dawn sets out to tell.
It’s the small story details referencing little moments of continuity that make it clear this is a fan production, referencing earlier series just slightly more often than the main series would ever do. However, making The Last Days Before Dawn a soft sequel to a Ninth Doctor story is definitely interesting. There’s an affection for where the core of this story comes from that’s obvious even to a casual listener. It feels legitimately earned. When you get to Thomson’s Twelfth Doctor saying “fantastic”, you can’t help but smile. Likewise, when Ashildr describes the pain of undergoing death without dying, the Doctor responds with an empathy that can only come out of Heaven Sent. His remorse and pain at this memory made it my favourite moment of the story.
Check It Out! This is one of the best fan productions I’ve encountered in a medium that takes a tremendous amount of craft to actually pull off well. While any Doctor Who fan story with Christopher Thompson in the lead is sure to impress vocally, McDowall and White provide a BBC-worthy plot that already feels right at home in the heart of the series. While expectations should be managed for a free, fan-made project when compared to an official source of audio entertainment like Big Finish, The Last Days Before Dawn is still well worth checking out. With more original work on the horizon, my ears are definitely perked for the future output of this team.